Tips From an English Teacher: How to Fix 7 Common Grammar Mistakes

A student once asked me in reference to an editing exercise on her paper, “Why does it matter where I place my comma? You know what I’m trying to say.”

And, she was right.

I understood what she was trying to say. Still, what was written on the page wasn’t what she meant. In her story, the main character was having an argument about finishing a class project, when she asks, “So, when can I cook Mom?” While the tensions were certainly running hot in the kitchen, I’m sure the protagonist did not intend to put her mother in the oven.

There’s power in language and in communicating oneself in a way that is clear and concise.

The following are the seven most common grammar mistakes I see in my classroom and tips on how to fix them.

1. Incorrect comma usage

Oh, the comma. So small, and yet so powerful. This seemingly innocuous mark in the middle of our sentences has the power to create, change, and convey meaning. Still, I find it used and abused in poems, essays, and stories.

While the comma has many uses (too many for the scope of this article), here are common scenarios to use one:

  • Compound sentences — two complete thoughts combined by a conjunction, i.e. I got to the station late, but luckily, the train hadn’t arrived yet.
  • A series or list, i.e. The band was loud, angry, and abrasive. Or, My grandmother is good at making brownies, telling dirty jokes, and playing Scrabble.
  • Introductory clauses — material that introduces a complete thought, i.e. Before going to the gym, I enjoy napping in my car.

Not sure if you need a comma? Play it safe. Don’t use one.

2. Run-on sentences and comma splices

Cousins to the misplaced (or missing) comma, run-ons and comma splices abound in student papers. These grammatical gaffes can be defined as compound sentences that are not punctuated correctly. For example, a run-on might look like this: They were not football players they played soccer. A comma splice places a comma between the two thoughts: They were not football players, they played soccer. Either way, they are wrong.

Avoiding these mistakes is as simple as reading your own work slowly and identifying when a full thought is communicated. When it is, place your end punctuation (periods, question marks, etc.) or your conjunction.

3. Giant paragraphs

GPS, giant paragraph syndrome as one of my colleagues calls it, are when your paragraphs include more than one idea. These are easily identified due to their size. If your paragraph spans more than a page, you may have GPS on your hands.

To fix this, reread your paragraph and make sure you’re focusing on only one main idea. Separate paragraphs when introducing a new idea or elaborating on the previous one.

4. Non-specific word choice

Words such as “thing,” “really,” “good,” “bad,” “nice,” “mostly,” “some,” and “a lot” are vague, colorless, and leave the reader with only a cursory understanding of what it is you’re trying to say. Be precise with your word choice. Choose words with purpose, words with depth and import.

5. Random capitalization

I’m not sure why this happens; perhaps it’s a product of text-speak. Still, I see writing assignments that look like this: He came over to my house and ate Pizza. When he burned his Mouth, I gave him a glass of Milk. Unless the word is a proper noun or appears at the beginning of a sentence, leave it lowercase.

6. Affect vs. effect

If you struggle with the next two grammar rules, don’t feel bad. More than a few of my coworkers have asked me for reminders on their proper usage. First, affect and effect. One letter makes all the difference.

Generally speaking, “affect” is a verb. For instance: I promised myself I wouldn’t cry, but the speech affected me far too much. “Effect,” on the other hand, is typically a noun, as in: The effects of the music were felt throughout the stadium.

7. It’s vs. its

The English language is littered with paradoxes and contradictions, and grammar rules are no exception. Typically, an apostrophe is used to indicate possession, i.e. The party is at Steve’s house. Or, The dog’s toy was ripped to shreds. When it comes to “it’s” and “its,” however, this is not the case.

The apostrophe in “it’s” is used to signify the contraction for “it is” or “it has” — just like the apostrophe works in can’t and won’t. If you want to denote an object’s ownership, use “its.” For example, The football team is really proud of its reputation. Or, The car lost all of its windows in the fire.

The Grammar Failsafe: I tell this to all my students, and when they meet with me for extra help, I make them do it. Read your paper out loud. That’s right. Use your voice. Make sure what you’re saying is really what appears on the paper. This way, you’ll catch many of your own mistakes and avoid the teacher’s red pen.