Part 2: Writing for The Web—Common Grammatical and Stylistic Errors

In Writing by Chris Meyer

Common Writing Mistakes Graphic
This is the second part of a two-part series on grammatical and stylistic writing errors.

Read the first post to learn about other common writing mistakes like comma splices; active vs. passive voice; singular and plural possessives; and subject-verb agreement.

Dangling Modifiers

The concept of dangling modifiers is easy enough, but this common writing mistake can be tricky to catch. Here’s a simple example:

Having run 26.2 miles, the race was over.

The question this sentence leaves us with is, “who or what ran the 26.2 miles?” As it stands, the sentence reads as though ‘the race’ ran 26.2 miles. But that doesn’t make any sense. To fix the sentence, you’d rewrite it as:

Having run 26.2 miles, Natalie finished the race.

So a dangling modifier happens when the subject is not specified and the reader is left wondering who or what is doing the action. Thus, the action phrase (aka ‘participle’) is left hanging—or dangling. A few more examples:

Incorrect: After reading the textbook, the test was easy.
Correct: After reading the textbook, I found the test quite easy.

Incorrect: Speaking only broken Spanish, the dinner conversation was limited.
Correct: Because he didn’t speak much Spanish, the dinner conversation was limited.

Noun and Pronoun Agreement

Whether you know it or not, you use pronouns all the time. A pronoun replaces a noun so you don’t have to write an awkward sentence like this:

Billy went back to Billy’s house so Billy could eat Billy’s dinner.

Instead, you write: Billy went back to his house so he could eat his dinner.

‘His’ and ‘he’ are pronouns. So are this, that, anybody, everybody, their and several more you can read more about.

Pronouns must agree in number and gender:

Incorrect: Billy and Christina don’t like [his and her] packed lunches.
Correct: Billy and Christina don’t like [their] packed lunches.

If you read my previous post on common writing mistakes, you’d know that a subject (like the one above) joined by and is always plural.

The same rules apply from my post for a subject joined by or. That is, the word closest to the pronoun is the one the noun should agree with, for example:

Billy or [his siblings] need to get [their] homework done.
His siblings or [Billy] needs to get [his] homework done.

Some pronouns like everybody, everyone, and nobody cause confusion because it’s hard to tell whether they’re singular or plural. The Utah Valley University Writing Center has a list of these pronouns in their publication on pronoun-noun agreement.

Run-on Sentences

Run-on sentences are probably the most common writing mistake. This is when two independent clauses—ideas that could stand alone—are joined together without the proper punctuation or conjunction.

For example:

I went to the store it was closed.

There are several ways to correct a run-on.

1. Add a conjunction and a comma:
– I went to the store, but it was closed.

2. Add a dash or semicolon:
– I went to the store; it was closed.
– I went to the store—it was closed.

3. Make one of the clauses dependent (so it relies on the other clause to complete it):
– When I went to the store it was closed.

Mixed Verb Tenses

Mixing verb tenses is another common mistake. The Purdue Online Writing Lab says there are over thirty English tenses. I won’t be tackling all of them here, but if you want to take a deep dive, the Purdue site is a great resource.

To fix verb tense problems, you’ve really just got to know your tenses. The six most basic (and common) tenses, from the Purdue Online Writing Lab are:

  • Simple Present: I write.
  • Present Perfect: I have written.
  • Simple Past: I wrote.
  • Past Perfect: I had written.
  • Future: I will write.
  • Future Perfect: I will have written.

Here’s an example of a mixed verb tense:
I wrote for ten years and have written for many different types of clients.

The first tense (simple past), wrote, communicates the action is over and done in the past. The second (present perfect), have written, says that the action of writing occurred in the past and is still occurring today.

It should be rewritten one of two ways (depending on your intended meaning):

I wrote for ten years for many different types of clients.
I have written for ten years for many different types of client.

It’s a subtle difference, but you can see why it’s important. Mixing verb tenses can easily lead to confusion, because your reader probably won’t realize your mistake.

That’s it for grammatical and stylistic tips for me. If you haven’t already, read the first part of this series on comma splices, active vs. passive voice, and more.

If you can’t get enough grammar and style, get The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It’s awesome.