I’m an editor, and recently I couldn’t resist calling out an error in a library book. When I posted about it on Facebook, I was overwhelmed by comments with people’s grammar peccadilloes. People who read often get annoyed about errors in published material. Their ire made me retire my own. However, it also brought up—not annoyance, because I get paid to fix mistakes—a screaming head full of chronic errors.
Here, I will list the most common 21 grammatical errors that drive readers nuts. Maybe, you’ll recognize a few and nod your head in agreement. Maybe, if you’re a writer, you even make a few yourself…
1. LIE VS. LAY
Wrong: Using “lay” as a present-tense non-transitive verb: “I lay on the bed right this minute.”
I lie on the bed right this minute. (present tense)
I lay on the bed yesterday. (past tense)
I lay/laid the sheets on the bed. (transitive verb—“sheets” is the object of a verb; present/past forms)
2. LOAN/LEND VS. LENT
Wrong: Using loan as a verb is incorrect. He “loaned” me the book.
Correct: It’s “lend,” or in this sentence, past tense, “lent.” “He lent me the book.”
TIP: Loan is a noun (as in what the bank gives you).
3. WAIST VS. WASTE
Wrong: It’s just a waist of time getting upset.
Correct: I don’t want to waste any more time being annoyed at the expansion of my aging waist.
4. ANYMORE VS. ANY MORE
Wrong: Anymore cake, and my stomach’s gonna explode.
Correct: Don’t ask me to pay your way! I don’t have any more money; can we agree not to argue anymore?
TIP: “Anymore” is an adverb meaning “any longer” in time. “Any more” connotes an amount.
5. BAD VS. BADLY
Wrong: “I feel badly that he misunderstood what I said about needing glasses. Particularly because I was offering him a well-paying job if only he’d check his eyes and get some readers.”
Correct: “He and I both badly need to wear glasses for reading, because we’re bad at seeing the fine print and therefore following directions.”
TIP: “Badly” is an adverb describing the verb—how you do the verb.
6. BETWEEN VS. AMONG
Wrong: Between everybody reading this list, there’s got to be a bunch who are annoyed.
Correct: Among all the readers of Writing Bad, some are probably making rude noises about now.
TIP: “Between” refers to two people; “among” is about more than two.
7. WAIVER VS. WAVER
Wrong: He couldn’t decide and kept waivering between yes and no. He didn’t want to sign the waver and lose his rights.
Correct: He couldn’t decide and kept wavering between yes and no. He didn’t want to sign the waiver and lose his rights.
8. NO OXFORD COMMA
Wrong: The recipe calls for eggs, herbs, soft cheese and vegetables.
Correct: The recipe calls for eggs, herbs, soft cheese, and vegetables.
TIP: An Oxford comma, commonly called a “serial comma” because it is used to list a series of items, is sometimes essential to correct understanding. Without it, the meaning of your sentence might be misunderstood.
Chicago Manual of Style specifies Oxford commas should be used at all times.
9. UNNECESSARY COMMAS
Wrong: I wanted to go to the laundry, and wash my bedding. However, I got there too late, and the place was closed.
Correct: I wanted to go to the laundry and wash my bedding. However, I got there too late, and the place was closed.
TIP: Some editors have mislearned the rules and think you need a comma before every conjunction (and, or, etc.—words connecting other words).
10. SEMI-COLON PHOBIA
Wrong: She was so hungry she wolfed down the sandwich, choking resulted.
Correct: She was so hungry she wolfed down the sandwich; choking resulted.
TIP: It is confusing when two discrete sentences are joined with either no punctuation or the wrong punctuation.
11. DISCREET VS. DISCRETE
Wrong: She was so discrete in what she relayed to the CEO that he misunderstood and thought she was talking about discreet departments of the company.
Correct: She was so discreet in what she relayed to the CEO that he misunderstood and thought she was talking about discrete departments of the company.
TIP: Discreet means prudent or careful. Discrete means separate and single parts.
12. LOSE VS. LOOSE
Wrong: I would loose my head if it weren’t attached.
Correct: I would lose my head if it weren’t attached.
Wrong: I literally lost my head.
Correct: I was so upset it felt as if I’d lost my mind.
14. DRUG AS A VERB
Wrong: I drug the suitcase across the airport.
Correct: I dragged the suitcase across the airport.
15. NO REFERENCES
Wrong: He asked me to help him get her some new clothes, but couldn’t find the right size.
Correct: Albert asked me to help his daughter, Louise, get some new clothes because he could not pick out the right size dresses.
16. ME VS. I
Wrong: Give it to Simon and I.
Correct: Give it to Simon and me.
TIP: An easy way to figure out the correct structure is to knock out the first object of the preposition (in this case, Simon).
For example: Give it to
Simon and I/me. Which sounds most correct after you remove Simon? I or me?
17. REDUNDANCY & BLAND VERBS
It’s not wrong, but saying the same thing multiple times with less-than-evocative verbs dilutes the energy of the point.
Not so great: I put my hands on the top of his chest and gave a hard shove until I heard his ribs break. Sadly, he died anyway.
Better: I pushed my hands into his chest so hard a rib cracked. Still, he died.
18. NO PUNCTUATION
This problem appears to be a matter of whatever style is considered hip. But no quotation marks around dialogue is hard work for readers.
However nowadays it is acceptable to leave quotation marks out entirely, start new paragraphs to denote speech, start speech with an em-dash (—), and some current novels don’t care about any of that so you have no idea who is speaking when.
New trends aren’t always better than tradition. Readers concur: the old way is the most straightforward; use punctuation marks as guides for the reader.
“What are you going to do?” she said. “A lot of the time, I can’t even understand who is talking in some popular new books.”
“I know,” he commiserated. “The English language has really gone to pot.”
19. IT’S VS. ITS
A short lesson on apostrophes: They either represent a conjunction or possession. The only exception to this rule is when the owner in possession of something is referred to as it, in which case no apostrophe is needed to indicate possession.
Wrong: Its Tuesday, and already the car she loaned me has blown it’s plugs. Maybe I’ll take two headache pills cause Im getting a migraine.
Correct: It’s Tuesday, and already the car she lent me has blown its plugs. Maybe I’ll take two headache pills ’cause I’m getting a migraine.
20. MEANINGLESS APOSTROPHES
Correct: It’s the 1980s.
TIP: If you want to leave out the 19, then it’s the ’80s because the apostrophe stands for the missing numbers.
21. THAT VS. WHO
Wrong: People that, doctors that, readers that, anybody that . . .
Correct: People who . . . ; doctors who . . . ; readers who . . . anybody who is now swearing at this annoying list.
TIP: Anyone who is a person is a who.
Betsy Robinson is a book editor, journalist, and novelist. Her most recent novel is The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg (Black Lawrence Press’s Big Moose Prize-winner, 2014).