Whenever you write anything online, there’s a high probability of someone going through it with a fine-toothed comb. Sometimes that’s to glean more out of it, to learn more from your research, or — unfortunately — to find something wrong about what you wrote. Or maybe more often: the way you wrote. You can steel yourself against these grammar police, though, by understanding a few of the most common examples of bad grammar, what makes them bad, and how to fix them.
Grammar vs Mechanics
Very briefly, we want to point out a sticking point that a lot of people get stuck on. People think of the term bad grammar, and very likely assume it includes everything from misused homonyms/homophones, misspellings, improperly placed commas, run-on sentences, fragments, dangling modifiers, and so on. It does not. This misconception is because many folks don’t know the difference between grammar and mechanics.
Grammar is the structure of the language. It’s how you put the words together. You form coherent and understandable thoughts based on this structure.
Mechanics is the set of rules that govern the structure. These rules may tell you how and where to put punctuation, what words to capitalize, or how to spell those words.
These are two distinctly different sets of skills to master. They can be broken up into high-order and low-order concerns. Grammar tends to be high-order in that you can’t simply look in a book to always be correct. These are structures you have to internalize and learn to use because the context and word choice and goal of the writing might shift how the grammar needs to be. Mechanics, on the other hand, is made up of mostly low-order concerns because you can learn how to spell the words, what words to capitalize, where to put commas, and so on…and you will be objectively right
all most of the time.
In a nutshell, grammar is what you have to think about on a case-by-case basis, whereas mechanics are mostly one-size-fits-all solutions.
With that in mind, we are mostly going to talk about bad grammar, and not misused mechanics in this post. Not because mechanics aren’t important, but because getting a handle on bad grammar can have more of a learning curve. There will be some examples that cross the streams, though, which is just something that happens with language.
1. Subject/Verb Agreement (Number)
Probably the biggest and most glaring example of bad grammar is when the subject of a sentence and the verb don’t agree in number. What this means is that you need to have a plural noun and a plural verb. Or a singular noun and a singular verb.
Example: The boy runs, and the girls jump. There’s one boy. So he runs. There are multiple girls, so they jump.
The simple way to make sure that you have these in agreement is this:
- Singular nouns generally do not end in S. Singular verbs generally do. (ex: boy/runs)
- Plural nouns generally do end in S. Plural verbs generally do not. (ex: girls/jump)
While there are irregularities in this formula (because language is not logical), the majority of the time, this can help you keep things in agreement.
2. Tense Shift
There are three (basic) tenses in English. Past, Present, and Future. Tense indicates when things occur. They either occur in the past, are occurring presently, or will occur in the future.
What comes into play with bad grammar in this case is not keeping the same tense within the same paragraph or the same document. Sometimes within the same sentence.
Example: We ate chocolate on the couch last night. We will be sick when we eat too much chocolate. The chocolate is not good for us, but we will eat it anyway.
My question to you is this: when are those people eating that chocolate?
The first sentence is past tense, the second has future tense verbs, and the third has both present and future. None of these are wrong. Even the third one. They are, however, bad grammar.
What grammar does is clearly communicate your idea. This idea is obfuscated by the tense shift across the sentences. You can have a document with all three tenses, but each tense needs to be explained and used purposefully so that your readers aren’t confused about what you’re trying to say.
A fix for this could read like this, by shifting the sentences into past tense and rewording the middle one for clarity: We ate chocolate on the couch last night. We were sick this morning because we ate too much chocolate. The chocolate wasn’t good for us, but we ate it anyway.
3. Dangling Modifiers
One of the most common examples of bad grammar is the dangling modifier. This error happens when you have a modifying phrase that is not attached to the subject of the sentence (or really, any noun in the sentence).
It is so common because it is so incredibly easy to do without realizing it. When we write, we understand what we’re trying to say. That gives us bias in our word choice. Because of that bias, we take for granted that other people don’t have that same understanding out of the gate. Which causes us to omit words or write sentences that literally don’t make sense because they seem logical based on our bias.
Example: After looking at the wedding venue, the choice was still not clear.
The modifying phrase is after looking at the wedding venue. But who is the subject of the sentence? If you answered the choice, you’d be correct. Unfortunately, the choice is not who looked at the wedding venue. Who did? Based on this sentence, the readers have no idea. Because the modifier is dangling with nothing to modify.
The fix for a dangling modifier is simple: After looking at the wedding venue, the couple remained undecided about their choice.
Now, we have the couple looking at the wedding venue as the subject of the sentence, and they remain undecided. They are the subject because the sentence is about them. They perform the action here. Not the choice as in the first example. Voila, no more bad grammar.
4. Active vs Passive Voice
One of the Yoast SEO plugin ‘s favorite red flags is active vs passive voice. We all make this mistake in every single post or article we write. And that’s okay. It’s not always bad grammar. But when it obfuscates the message of the writing, it moves into that territory. Using too much passive voice tends to create a much harder reading experience, which is why Yoast points it out so often and asks you to limit your usage.
Active voice is when the subject of the sentence is performing the action of the verb.
Example: The couple sends wedding invitations.
Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence has an action performed on it (not by it).
Example: The wedding invitation was sent by the couple.
The couple is still the noun performing the action, but in the second sentence, they are not the subject. (They’re the object of the preposition by, and the object of a preposition can never be the subject of a sentence). The wedding invitation is the subject and passively receives the action from the verb.
Parallelism is the idea that anything in a series (clauses, adjectives, verbs, etc.) is consistent in style and tense (or grammatically) with the rest of the series.
Example of an unparallel sentence: The children love eating, coloring, and to play with their toys.
The verbs eating and coloring are parallel because they are both in the -ing (present participle) form. To play, however, is in its infinitive form. Even if you don’t recognize those verb forms and their technical meanings, you probably see that the sentence is kind of awkward to read. Even though you understand what it means.
Example of a parallel sentence: The children love eating, coloring, and playing with their toys. Or The children love to eat, color, and play with their toys. Or The children love to eat, to color, and to play with their toys.
Pretty simple, right? Just make sure that when you line things up, that you line them up straight. One of the best ways to notice issues with parallelism is to read your work aloud. In general, we don’t speak out of parallel, so the difference is striking when spoken.
These are some of the most common examples of bad grammar out there. Whether it’s academic writing for a freshman comp class, a PhD dissertation, or a travel blog about your vacation to Italy, these issues will invariably arise. You don’t have to be an English teacher to recognize bad grammar and to fix it. You just have to be aware of it and your purpose in writing. To make things even easier, we love using the Grammarly browser extension. Even the free version can catch many of the above issues. (Be warned, though, that any automated grammar checker will be wrong sometimes. Grammar is simply too subjective to be caught by software 100% of the time).
What examples of bad grammar do you catch yourself making the most? How do you fix them in your own writing?
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