4 common writing mistakes to avoid if you don't want to sound like an amateur

(October 14, 2019)

I was in an English Department completing a high-school teaching placement when I came across the following word: gerund.

I knew the word related to grammar but not the specific definition. Thankfully, though, the Department had eight English teachers all of whom had at least six years of experience in a classroom.

But to my dismay, no teacher knew what the word meant.

Not one.

A gerund, I later found out after a quick Google search, is basically a verb with an ‘ing’ at the end.

Obviously, I couldn’t judge them. I didn't know the word, either. But I was still surprised.

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been. These teachers weren’t outstanding exemplars by any means. They usually spent their free-periods complaining about the students, the school’s management, or their husbands. And then, after talking for an entire hour, complain about not having enough hours in the day to get anything done.

There was only one male staff member in the Department (save for me) and to escape the incessant quarrelling, he made the Primary School library his office, which meant working on a desk as high as his knees.

“I would stay,” he'd say before leaving for the library. “But I don’t want to.”

While I didn’t know what a gerund was at the time, I did have a knack for the structures of language after this happened. So, to test the Department’s competence, I then asked a very basic English question, “What is the structure of a simple sentence?”

And guess what? No one could answer it. Ya bloody kidding me, I thought. How could an entire English Department not answer a basic English question?

I’ll assume you already know the answer and move on. But if you need clarification, click here.

Grammatical mistakes are too common

This is not a rant about the failure of the education system but, rather, an example of how even professionals who teach language and write every day don’t understand the simple mechanics of the English language.

Now that I’m writing for brands at Brew Copy, I meet a lot of business owners, directors and communication experts. I also study different brands’ websites and other communication touchpoints every damn day. And I’m constantly surprised at how even the most erudite and celebrated professionals and brands can make the most basic writing mistakes.

Look, I’m not getting on my high-horse too much here, because even as a professional writer, I sometimes make the odd mistake, too. F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century was famously careless at spelling. I’m sure you make the odd mistake too. But there’s a difference between a mistake and plain ignorance. Unfortunately, there are too many websites, bios and emails which are written by people who commit the latter. Good copywriting communicates the value of an individual, product or service. Bad writing, however, does the opposite.

Understanding grammar is understanding how to logically sequence words to make abstract symbols into a piece of comprehensible information. When you botch that sequence up, you run the risk of not getting across your message. And, for a brand (or any person, really), that can mean anything from a customer choosing to go with another brand or an employer choosing another candidate to something more sinister, like going out of business.

After strolling through thousands of websites, I’ve noticed 4 common mistakes which are frustratingly common and stink of an amateur. So, if you pride yourself on being a professional, then for the love of pecan pie, please make sure you don’t commit the following.

Caveat: Also, if you spot an unintentional and stupid grammatical mistake in this article, let me know and I’ll give you $5.

1. Incorrect use of the semicolon

I’d be a millionaire if I got a dollar for every time someone incorrectly used a semicolon on their website or LinkedIn profiles. The semicolon is the one with a period and the comma (;), while the colon is the one with two periods (:). Too often, people mix the two up.

A colon is used to introduce a list, of course. But you can also use a colon to say, “this is what I mean”. For example, I took to words like Oliver Twist took to pickpocketing: by misfortune.

On the other hand, a semicolon is used to break up two independent clauses, usually when the sentences are short and have a similar rhythm.

I’ll explain this way. Imagine the two sentences are train carriages. The semicolon’s function, then, is similar to that of the mechanism which holds the two carriages together.

For example:

The semicolon breaks up two sentences; the two sentences usually follow a similar rhythm.

The semicolon then can often be replaced with a period or a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction: and, for, or, so, nor, but, yet.  

Often, though, you’ll find the casual ink slinger sandwiching a semicolon in between an independent clause and a dependent clause, like this:

Using a semicolon makes you look incompetent; if used incorrectly.

Here’s another thing to remember: Semicolons are a stylistic choice, mostly, not a functional one.

So when you use a semicolon, you are showing stylistic flare. If you don’t use the darn thing correctly, then, you come across as that kid who tried to impress a girl at your school by dropping in on a vertical skate ramp and ended up falling flat on his face. Or the girl who tried to impress the boy by wearing too much mascara and spent the entire Human Biology class sitting next to him without realising the mascara had smudged around the eye, making her look like a Halloween character.

Even if you do know how to use a semicolon, use them sparingly, if not at all, is what I’m saying.

2. The Comma Splice

A comma splice can be found in almost 90% of writing on the internet. The grammatical offence is where you use a comma when you should be using a period, like this:

People make the mistake because they don’t actually know what a sentence is, they merely use intuition to break up sentences with commas.

Those two sentences are big, strong independents, so they really need to be separated with a period. You only need a comma (in this case anyway) when you’re attaching a standalone sentence to a small, dependent clause. Hear me out.

An independent clause is a trunk; dependent clauses are the branches. Unless you use a coordinating conjunction or a semicolon, you can’t have two trunks in the same sentence.

Now you know what a comma splice is, I’ll tell you why it is a problem, when you don’t use periods when a sentence demands it, you end up with a long confusing sentence, you don’t know where the sentence starts, you don’t know where the sentence finishes, the brain has to work very hard at figuring out what the main points are, especially if you are using highfalutin, verbose language and unnecessary acadamese or flowery prose with too many obsolete adjectives, eventually the brain just switches off, that is not what you want, RIGHT?

3. Dangling modifier

Just as you wouldn’t design a t-shirt with a third arm sleeve, you don’t tack on a dependent clause which is unnecessary to your independent clause. This is highly common on About pages where an amateur has tried to describe an entire brand in 100 words and ends up doing this:

As a team with a track record in aligning stakeholder interests and producing community endorsed outcomes to deliver timely approvals, we believe that everyone has the right to live happy, prosperous lives.

Notice the modifier (As a team with a track record in aligning stakeholder interests and producing community endorsed outcomes to deliver timely approvals) has got nothing to do with the actual sentence (we believe that everyone has the right to live happy, prosperous lives.)

Bloody confusing right?

Make sure your modifying statements beautifully add to the actual sentence. Otherwise, the reader has to stop and go back to try and decipher what the sentence means before inevitably giving up altogether and looking on your competitor's site or bio instead.

Don’t be a dangler.

4. Grammar Nazi

You may be thinking I’m a grammar nazi, a person who scans every textbook and article, looking to condemn every person who’s a dangler and bursting a blood vessel every time someone incorrectly uses a comma.  But that’s not the case. I don’t actually like rules or regulations. I’m only a stickler for clarity. And learning the basics of grammar will help you communicate with greater clarity.

So don’t be a dangler OR a stickler.

And once you learn the basics, you can then break the rules. Yes. You can do whatever you want. Okay, maybe not anything.

But you can use language and punctuation to play with rhythm and style, so you can write long, involved, more literary sentences which flow like the runnels in Memuru in Norway.

Or you can make quick, short, sharp lines. The type that have a beat.

But before you choose a style or voice for your brand, learn to write with clarity.

A last note

Now, there are plenty of Apps that can help you clean up your writing. If you’ve been on youtube, then you’ll know of Grammarly. Surely you’ve seen their countless ads—good ads, I also may add ;). Grammarly’s pretty sophisticated and it keeps getting better. It’s ideal if you or your employees write a lot.

There’s also the Hemingway App. Many writers have already profiled this app, so I won’t go into it extensively. I’ll only say this. If you have the inkling to make writing too complicated, this app helps you make your prose more readable and approachable. I use it extensively when writing website copy.

And, as you know, Brew Copy is also here to help you if you need emails, articles like this, or words for your website that are not only professional but also pops like rock candy.

Hey! If you liked that then you’ll love my newsletter. I give you tips, tricks, latest research and examples of how to use words to build your brand. It’s the next best thing to a copywriter giving you hand-written scrolls delivered via owl. Hoot. Sign up HERE.

Brew Copy, a storytelling studio that helps you build your brand—with words. Contact me at jayden@brewcopy.com. Stay in touch on Instagram. Or on Linkedin.