Common Grammar and Usage Mistakes
Below is a list of grammar and usage mistakes that are common on the Internet and elsewhere. Please remember that in English, as in just about every language, the distinction between what's actually incorrect and what's a matter of style is often very subtle. You can justify bending or breaking almost any language "mistake" if doing so makes your writing more comprehensible or (especially in poetry) more beautiful.
Redundancies | "And etc."
| ATM Machine | Comma Splice | Dangling Participles | Ending sentence
with preposition | Hopefully | "I" vs.
"Me" | PIN Number | Pronoun
Agreement | Split Infinitives
Redundancy means repetition. Hee hee! But seriously folks... beware of saying the same thing more than once. In some cases, it can be useful: for example, to emphasize your point ("That chocolate was good. I mean really, really good.") or for dramatic rhetorical effect. However, there are some instances where redundancy is just plain wrong.
- And etc.
- Etc. is short for the Latin et cetera which means literally "and so forth." Therefore, when you say "and etc." you're really saying "and and so forth." This is clearly redundant. Just say "etc" (or preferably "et cetera"). (It may help you to remember that "etc" was once abbreviated &c.)
- ATM Machine
- The letters ATM stand for "Automated Teller Machine." Therefore, when you say "ATM Machine" you're really saying "Automated Teller Machine Machine." This is obviously redundant. Just say "I'm going to the ATM."
- PIN Number
- PIN stands for Personal Identification Number. Therefore you're saying "Personal Identification Number Number." Again, redundant. Just say "I need my PIN."
- HIV Virus
- Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Are you sensing a trend?
- SAT Test
- Scholastic Achievement Test. You get the picture.
A comma splice is the incorrect use of a comma to connect two independent
clauses. (Recall that an independent clause is a phrase that is grammatically and conceptually
complete: that is, it can stand on its own as a sentence.) To correct the
comma splice, you can:
- replace the comma with a period, forming two sentences
- replace the comma with a semicolon
- join the two clauses with a conjunction such as "and," "because,"
I like Xena, she is very sexy.
I like Xena. She is very sexy.
I like Xena; she is very sexy.
I like Xena, because she is very sexy.
A participle is a verb-form that ends in -ing. It is called "dangling"
when it doesn't agree with its subject.
While walking down the road, a tree caught Xena's attention.
The subject of the sentence is "a tree," but it is not the tree that is
doing the walking, therefore the participle "walking" is dangling. To
correct the sentence, write:
While walking down the road, Xena noticed a tree
A tree caught Xena's attention as she walked down the road.
Remember that not all words that end in -ing are participles (e.g. thing)
and some participles are gerunds depending on context. (A gerund is a
participle that is functioning as a noun, e.g. "My favorite activity is
Contrary to popular belief, there is no agreement on this one among
English professionals. In general, especially if your audience is strict
about rules, don't end a sentence with a preposition. Prepositions are
little words that indicate position and such: with, at, by, from, etc. In
general a preposition should come before ("pre"-position) the noun it
modifies. So you should change
That's the warrior I must talk to
That's the warrior to whom I must talk.
However, if too many "to whom"s and "of which"s are making your writing
unnecessarily clumsy, go ahead and end with the preposition, especially in
informal writing. Remember the famous example (credited to Winston
Churchill) that goes: "This is the kind of thing up with which I will not
Technically, this word is an adverb meaning
"in a hopeful way." Therefore, "Gabrielle looked hopefully at Xena" is
correct while "Hopefully we'll make it to Athens before nightfall" is
incorrect. However, like so many other words, this one has evolved to take
on a different meaning than its original.
One of my (and my Evil Twin Katherine's) pet peeves.
"I" is a pronoun that must be the subject, never the object, of a verb.
"Me" is a pronoun that must be the object, never the subject. (The same is
true for he/him, she/her, we/us, etc.)
Xena and me are going to Athens.
This horse belongs to Xena and I.
As a simple test, try removing Xena from the sentence. You wouldn't say
"Me is going to Athens." You'd say "I am going," so say "Xena and I are
going." You wouldn't say "This horse belongs to I," you'd say "This horse
belongs to me," so say "This horse belongs to Xena and me."
Contrary to the belief of Katherine's friend John, "Xena and I" is not
When using indefinite pronouns (e.g. someone, anyone, nobody etc.), the
antecedent verb should be singular.
Does everyone know where their hat is?
Does everyone know where his hat is?
|Correct, but sexist
Does everyone know where her hat is?
|Technically correct only if "everyone" is a group of women
This one is problematic for many people today because the correct version
is considered sexist. As you probably know, in the English language the
masculine is usually used for general cases: for example, "The reader will
notice as he proceeds through the book that..." or "When I pass someone on
the street, I try to smile at him." In much of modern English scholarly
literature, attempts are made to bypass this problem, for example by
alternating the masculine and feminine. (Ex: there's a weekly column about
baby care in my local paper. The author uses "he" and "she" in alternating
paragraphs. So one paragraph might say "If your baby cries, he might be
hungry" and the next will say "When teaching your baby to talk, make sure
she listens carefully" or whatever.) This is sometimes clumsy and awkward.
For myself, I usually try to avoid the indefinite pronoun. In the example
above, I'd probably try to substitute "Everyone, make sure you know where
your hat is."
An infinitive is the form of a verb that begins with "to." (This problem
does not exist in any other language of which I'm aware, since infinitives
are single words in every language but English.) Splitting an infinitive
means placing another word or words between the "to" and the infinitive.
This is considered bad by purists, but, like the sentence-ending preposition, it's mostly a matter of
Some semi-purists say it is okay if only one adverb separates the "to"
from the infinitive:
Xena seems to always win a fight.
Xena always seems to win a fight.
To boldly go where no one has gone before.
As with the sentence-ending preposition, though, don't worry too much
about this. Especially if the split infinitive makes your sentence clearer
or more graceful, go ahead and use it.
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Joan the English Chick
Last updated 22 April 1998