Editing Grammatical Errors

Learning Objectives

  • Edit for common grammatical errors
A dictionary entry for the word "grammar".

Figure 1. Analyze your own writing to identify in which areas your grammar mistakes most commonly occur.

Writers tend to make their most obvious errors in the areas below. When we edit for grammatical errors, we need to be able to find these mistakes as readers. You might also see these errors when somebody else reads your papers. What do they mean?

Subject/Verb Agreement

This is a common mistake that a peer responder or a teacher may write in the margins. This can usually be addressed by identifying each subject and verb in a sentence. You can ignore the other words in the sentence and your goal is to make certain subjects and verbs match in number and sound.

  • The word “and” linking two subjects makes them plural so you need to use the plural verb. For example, “Grammar and mechanics are related.”
  • When subjects are connected by “or,” the subject closer to the verb determines the verb’s number, as in, “Either the punctuation marks or the usage is flawed.”

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Pronoun Reference

Pronoun reference errors also make the list because pronouns seem to give a lot of beginning writers some trouble. A pronoun reference error occurs when you use a pronoun like he or she, and it’s not clear what that pronoun refers to. Here is an example:

  • When Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker were battling with their light sabers, he became angry.

Who does he refer to? It isn’t clear. A pronoun should clearly refer to its antecedent (the word it replaces), so if the antecedent is not clear, you need to revise. Here’s an example of how you might correct the pronoun reference error:

  • When Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker were battling with their light sabers, Luke became angry.

Verb Tense

You want to be sure that you are always consistent with your verb tense. When you shift verb tenses for no reason, and this is an easy mistake to make, you can really confuse your readers.

If you’re writing in the present tense, be sure you stay in the present tense. If you’re writing in the past tense, be sure you stay in the past tense. The exception would be if you need to shift tenses to tell a story, but that would be purposeful shifting. It’s the random, accidental shifting that causes the problems, as illustrated in this example:

  • She grabs my hand then flipped me like I weighed nothing. This showed what a good self-defense course has done.

Here is what a corrected version of the sentence looks like:

  • She grabbed my hand then flipped me like I weighed nothing. This showed what a good self-defense course has done.

It’s important to check verbs both for consistency and context.

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Sentence Structure

Have you ever had a teacher say, “That sentence starts one way and ends another”? If you have, don’t feel badly. Others make this same mistake all the time. Sometimes, we simply lose our train of thought when we write, and we literally start a sentence one way and end it another, as illustrated in the following example:

  • I occasionally get the urge to study late at night for instance my exams are going to take me longer than usual to study for because this works.

It’s tough to make sense of this sentence, right?

Of course, this is not the only faulty sentence structure error you might make. It’s important to pay close attention to your sentence structure to make sure you have both a subject and a verb. And, if you are listing items or phrases in a sentence, make sure you keep the items in your list in the same form. Doing so keeps your sentences “parallel,” which is a good thing.

Here is an example of a sentence without parallel structure:

  • I start my day with breakfast, exercising, and checking out the latest blogs.

In the sentence above, breakfast is a noun, and exercising and checking begin verb phrases. The items in the list are not in the same form. Here is a correction where the items listed are in the same form:

  • I start my day by eating breakfast, exercising, and checking out the latest blogs.

Run-ons and Fragments

You can address run-ons and fragments by identifying subjects and verbs. Sentence length can sometimes be a clue in helping you identify sentences that are too long.

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Apostrophe Errors

Apostrophes give many writers a lot of trouble. Sometimes, you might be tempted to put an apostrophe where it does not belong, such as when you are simply making a word plural. Other times, you need to make a word possessive, but you might forget to use the apostrophe.

Then, of course, there is that whole its / it’s thing that confuses most everyone. Remember, the rule is to use an apostrophe when you need to show possession or ownership. The exception is with its.

Its shows ownership because it’s means it is. So, it’s like it’s is already taken, so its gets to be an ownership exception. To make sure you are using It’s correctly, just say it is when you read it. If it makes sense, you’re fine. However, if you’re trying to show ownership, and it is would not work in the sentence, you need to make the change to its. Otherwise, you might end up with a sentence like this:

  • Its abundantly clear, to me, that creature’s of the night are just misunderstood and misguided beings who sometimes err in judgment and eat their neighbors’ as well as their neighbors families.

And, you would want a sentence like this:

  • It’s abundantly clear, to me, that creatures of the night are just misunderstood and misguided beings who sometimes err in judgment and eat their neighbors as well as their neighbors’ families.

Commonly Confused Terms

Writers often also have trouble with some commonly confused terms.  The chart below briefly describes a few.

affect vs. effect “Affect” is usually a verb meaning “to influence,” while “effect” is usually a noun meaning “outcome” or “result.”
it’s vs. its “It’s” always means “it is,” while “its” always shows possession.
e.g. vs. i.e. The abbreviation “e.g.” is Latin for exempli gratia and means “for example,” while “i.e.” is Latin for id est and means “that is.”
imply vs. infer The word “imply” means “to suggest” or “to indicate,” while “infer” involves a person actively applying deduction.
that vs. which The word “that” is used to define and limit a noun’s meaning, while “which” is used to provide descriptive information not central to the noun’s definition.

Active and Passive Voice

Readers prefer sentences constructed with the active voice because they are more concise and direct. Consider the following revisions:

Passive: Listeners are encouraged by the lyrics to cast aside their fear and be themselves.
Active: The lyrics encourage listeners to cast aside their fears and be themselves.

Passive: Alana’s toes were crushed by the garage door.
Active: The garage door crushed Alana’s toes.

In both cases, the writer was able to eliminate the “be” verb (is, are, was, were), and the active sentences are less wordy.

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