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Writing for the Web—Common Grammatical and Stylistic Errors

In Content Writing Tips by Chris MeyerLeave a Comment

Learning grammar and the rules of style is boring. But it’s a necessary evil if you want to sound and look professional when you’re writing for the web, or anywhere else for that matter.

Style guides, English professors and pretentious grammar connoisseurs (like myself) might give you conflicting information. So keep in mind that writing that appears on the web should have one goal in mind—readability.

Don’t be afraid to break the rules, but only if you know the rules well. To help you with that, I’ve written the first part of a two-part series on writing for the web and the most common stylistic and grammatical errors.

Comma Splices

A comma splice is when independent clauses are joined only by a comma. For example:

[I enjoyed my vacation], [it cost a lot].

Note that the phrases within the brackets are independent clauses. There are a few ways to correct comma splices:

Create two sentences: I enjoyed my vacation. It cost a lot.
Add a conjunction: I enjoyed my vacation, but it cost a lot.
Add a semicolon, or a dash: I enjoyed my vacation; it cost a lot. OR: I enjoyed my vacation—it cost a lot.

The Chicago Style Guide says you can use dashes in place of commas, parentheses or colons. Similarly, the AP style guide suggests using semicolons to “link two independent clauses with no connecting words.” No mention of the dash instead of a semicolon in either. But we’re writing for the web; semicolons are stuffy.

That’s why I prefer dashes—they increase readability. Just don’t use too many—they’ll lose their efficacy.

Active and Passive Voice

The Purdue Online Writing Lab says that passive voice is when the action is performed on the subject of the sentence. For example:

The ground was struck by him when he fell off his skateboard.

In this sentence, the ground [subject] is being struck [action]. So the action is happening to the subject. To correct the sentence, we would change it to:

He struck the ground when he fell off his skateboard.

Now the subject [he] is performing the action [struck].

Using passive voice is not technically wrong. But it leads to unclear writing. In every form of writing besides scientific journals, active voice is preferred.

Singular and Plural Possessives

In the famous style guide, The Elements of Style, William Strunk outlines the rules governing singular possessives. He says to form the possessive singular of nouns with an apostrophe (‘) and an “s,” regardless of the final consonants. For example:

Chris’s article
The dog’s treat
The bus’s wheel

For plural possessives, The Chicago Manual of Style says to simply add an apostrophe at the end of the word.

The cats’ tails
The employees’ vacation days
The computers’ keyboards

There are exceptions for irregular plural nouns like ‘people’ or ‘feet.’ In these cases, you use the rule for singular possessives. Similarly, some nouns look plural but are singular such as ‘shingles’ or ‘mathematics.’ These only require an apostrophe at the end, whether they’re being written as singular or plural.

People’s
Feet’s
Shingles’
Mathematics’

Subject-Verb Agreement

The Gregg Reference Manual states, “A verb must agree with its subject in number and person.” This is an intuitive rule, for example:

We are happy to help. (Plural subject, “we” requires plural verb “are.”)
I  am happy to help. (Singular subject, “I” requires singular verb “am.”)

Most of the confusion in subject-verb agreement happens when things get more complicated.

The subject may be made up of multiple words joined by ‘and’:
>Sharon and Jane are happy to help. (Plural subject, “Sharon and Jane,” requires plural verb, “are.”)

The subject may be joined with an ‘or’:
>Sharon or Jane is happy to help. (Singular subject, “Sharon or Jane,” requires singular verb, “is.”)

If there are plural subjects joined with an ‘or,’ the verb should be plural. For example:
>Keys or fingerprints are needed to enter the building.

When a plural and singular subject are joined with an ‘or,’ use the verb tense of the closest noun.
>Eye scans or a [fingerprint is] needed to enter the building.
>A fingerprint or [keys are] needed to enter the building.

The last situation is what the Gregg Reference Manual calls an ‘intervening clause.’ This is when a phrase is placed between the subject and the verb. When deciding on subject-verb agreement, you disregard the intervening clause.
>[Dogs and cats], while not known for swimming, [are] able to float. (Plural subject agrees with verb)
>The [order] for pens, notebooks and other office supplies [is] late. (Singular subject agrees with verb)

This post is almost 800 words long, and no one should take more than two pages of grammar in at once. Keep an eye out for part 2 of Writing for the Web–Common Grammatical and Stylistic Mistakes. I’ll tackle dangling modifiers, noun and pronoun agreement, run-on sentences and mixing verb tenses.

I know, it’s a cliffhanger. But you’re just going to have to wait.

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