Grammar Matters

There are many numerous grammar errors that you can make when writing that make sentences like this difficult to read and harder for reader to understand. Unfortunately, you can’t always rely on the trusty spelling and grammar tool in Microsoft Word to do the work for you. No green squiggly lines indicating grammar issues appeared under words in the opening sentence of this paragraph – and it’s an awful sentence.

Many of you just wrapped up a busy spring semester. Others recently started summer courses. And some of you may simply find grammar topics, such as comma splices, dangling modifiers, and faulty parallelism, to be mind-numbing, so you may be thinking, “Yawn. Boring. Who wants to read about grammar?” That’s a good question. Why should you care?

When it comes to writing in an academic or business environment, you need to sound intelligent, professional, and credible. If your writing makes people want to get out a red pen and mark up your document, you diminish these important qualities, reflecting poorly on you as a student, employee, or potential new hire. You need to have a firm grasp on grammar – or a good editor as a friend – if you want to craft a well-written paper, business document, resume, or cover letter.

Errors Across Disciplines

As a graduate teaching assistant at Colorado State University, I grade papers from students across majors, from engineering, to agriculture, to computer science. The need to write well exists in all career fields. I’ve found that aspiring civil engineers, veterinarians, and software developers can be great writers, and that’s encouraging. Across fields however, students tend to make the same mistakes. Here are the top three grammar errors I catch over and over again:

  1. Poor comma use. As you proofread your writing, check for long, run-on sentences and use commas where appropriate. Don’t be afraid to break up a run-on sentence into several short sentences either, even if the run-on is grammatically correct. You can write a grammatically correct sentence that lacks readability. Also, avoid the overuse of commas. Remember that commas create pauses for your readers, so don’t abuse them either.
  2. Noun-pronoun agreement. Make sure each pronoun matches its corresponding noun. It sounds easy – singular nouns take singular pronouns, and plural nouns take plural pronouns. But the incorrect noun-pronoun agreement is a common mistake, especially with institutions and people. For example, refer to a university as its or to a single reader as he or she, not them.
  3. That vs. which. That is used to introduce a restrictive clause, and which is used to introduce a non-restrictive clause. A restrictive clause is essential to the meaning of a sentence, and a non-restrictive clause is not. In other words, you can take out a non-restrictive clause introduced by which, and the sentence should still make sense. This distinction may be confusing and subtle at times, I know. When in doubt, use that, and if you do go with which, use commas to set off the clause. For more on that vs. which, check out Daily Writing Tips.

No One’s Perfect

The list of grammar rules for you to remember and follow is extensive. If you consider your grammar to be poor, the task of learning every rule may seem daunting. Have no fear. Start with these three common errors and try to get them right. Then, move on to others. For a review of common grammar errors, check out the websites below (you may be surprised by how many rules you’re following without even knowing it):

As you improve your writing, strive for perfection, but realize your grammar may never be perfect. I make mistakes. We all do. A nit-picky English teacher may even find a few errors in this blog post (gasp!). What’s important is that you minimize your grammar errors so you sound intelligent, professional, and credible, and poor writing doesn’t detract from your work. Besides, you want your readers to think you paid attention in grammar school, right?

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