Having proofread over 400 books, I’ve encountered many a common grammar error. The same mistakes pop up time and time again. In fact, they’re so common that I see them in published books, on billboards, and even in huge national advertising campaigns! So today, we’ll look at the top 5 common grammar errors that writers make. I’ll also explain them, so you can improve your writing and hopefully rely less on hiring proofreaders in the future.
1. If vs. whether
This is such a common error that more people seem to get it wrong than right. In fact, while perusing my national lottery ticket the other day (proofreading doesn’t pay well!), I noticed even they’d got it wrong. The horror!
“If” is conditional, meaning a condition must be met. For example, “If you go to the party, wear a hat.” This means if the condition is met that you go to the party, then wear a hat. Otherwise don’t. It implies “if and only if” i.e. “if and only if you go to the party, then wear a hat.”
“Whether” introduces alternatives. For example, “I don’t know whether to wear my trilby or bowler hat to the party”. It also sometimes implies or not, “I don’t know whether (or not) I’ll go to the party.” In both cases, there is more than one option: trilby or bowler, go or don’t go.
2. Like vs. such as
Another case of word confusion, “like” should only be used for comparison, meaning “similar to”. “Such as” should be used to introduce examples.
If you say “I want a cat like a Persian”, you mean you don’t actually want a Persian but something similar. Maybe you just want a fluffy cat.
If you say “I want a cat such as a Persian, Burmese, or a fluffy moggy”, then you’re specifying the type of cat you’d like.
3. If vs. in case
Another “if” error is when it’s confused with “in case”. Remember that “if” is conditional? You only do something if the condition is met. For example, “If it’s cold, I’ll wear a hat.”
“In case” is precautionary, means you’ll do something on the chance that something might happen. For example, “I’ll take my hat in case it’s cold.”
4. Allow vs. allow for
I hear this all the time, and most of the time, people get it wrong.
“Allow” simply means permit. If you’re “allowed”, then you can do something.
“Allow for” specifically means “take into account” or “to account for” meaning consider for the future. For example, “I left early to allow for traffic.”
5. That vs. which
There’s a lot of arguments in the grammar world about whether this is a “real rule” or not. Some people suggest that it has no foundation, but in my experience of working at a book publisher, it certainly removes a lot of ambiguity in sentences. In my book, anything that makes things clearer is a good thing.
“That” introduces defining information about something, i.e. information that defines what the thing is. For example, “I like cats that are fluffy” means the type of cats I like are fluffy ones, not necessarily that I like all cats (which incidentally, I do!).
“Which” introduces non-defining information. In other words, information that doesn’t define the thing and so could be deleted from the sentence—and importantly the sentence would still make sense and convey the correct meaning. For example, “I like cats, which makes me an ailurophile [cat lover]”.
I could delete the “which” information and it would still make sense and convey the main idea. “Which” information is additional—it’s not the main idea. (As such, a comma should come before “which” in the sentence.)
Did these grammar tips help you? What common grammar errors bug you?