5 Common English Errors That Can Totally Change What You’re Trying to Say
“Hunters please use caution when hunting pedestrians using walk trails.”
Show this sentence to native English speakers, and they’ll laugh.
Why? What’s wrong with it?
It’s missing punctuation marks!
Marks like the period and the comma make language clear and easy to understand.
Leaving them out, or misusing them, can lead to some silly and confusing sentences.
Without any punctuation marks, the sentence above looks like it’s saying that hunters should be careful while they’re hunting pedestrians (people who are walking).
Now look at the same words from above, but with appropriate punctuation:
“Hunters, please use caution when hunting. Pedestrians using walk trails.”
Makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it?
Punctuation marks add meaning to sentences, and meaning is pretty important.
In fact, punctuation mistakes lead to some of the most common errors in English.
That’s right: Some of the most common English mistakes can be fixed just by fixing the punctuation.
Read on to learn more!
And if you’re a hunter, please use caution when hunting. Don’t hunt pedestrians.
The Most Common Punctuation Marks
There are not too many punctuation marks in the English language, but they each serve a very important role. Here are some of the most commonly-used punctuation marks:
Period ( . ) — The period’s job is to end a sentence and a thought. It shows readers that it’s time to stop for a moment and take a breath before moving on to the next thought.
Comma ( , ) — The comma’s job is to pause in the middle of a sentence. Commas are used to make lists, split two clauses (separate parts of a sentence) and give the reader a small break before the end of a sentence.
Question mark ( ? ) — The question mark lets readers know that a question was just asked.
Exclamation point ( ! ) — The exclamation point emphasizes (or stresses) the sentence, and shows extreme emotions like anger and excitement.
Colon ( : ) — The colon’s job is to prepare the reader for something that’s coming up. Colons are usually used to introduce a list or emphasize something important.
Semicolon ( ; ) — The semicolon is a longer break than a comma, but a shorter break than a period. Many people, including native English speakers, don’t know how to properly use a semicolon! We’ll share some resources on the usage of the semicolon below, but remember this: If you’re not sure, just don’t use it. You can always rephrase the sentence, or break it apart into two sentences.
Apostrophe ( ‘ ) — The apostrophe helps mark the possessive. In other words, it’s used to show when one thing belongs to something else. It’s also used to form contractions, which are shortenings of common phrases, like “it is” (it’s), and “they are” (they’re).
Quotation marks ( ” ) — These marks show that someone is speaking, or that you’re quoting someone.
Parentheses ( ( ) ) — Parentheses are used to add details or mention things that are not essential (important) to the sentence.
Hyphen ( – ) — The hyphen is used to connect words to form adjective phrases, like in “my 3-year-old cousin.” It also connects commonly-used two-part words, like “well-being.”
Dash ( — ) — The dash has two main forms, the em-dash and the en-dash. The em-dash is a double dash ( — ) that’s used to interrupt sentences to include a list or an aside. For example: “I told her to take a pen—a green one, not a red one—back to her desk.” An en-dash ( – ) is longer than a hyphen, and is used to connect values, like “pages 3–15.”
Don’t worry if the list seems long—you probably already know most of these punctuation marks. And if you don’t, well…
Learn More About Punctuation Marks
There are tons of online resources for learning about punctuation marks. Some of them are straightforward, while others are a bit more… fun. Here are a few of our favorite resources for learning about punctuation:
- The Oatmeal’s guides to semicolons and apostrophes are very fun and sometimes odd ways to learn about these two often confusing punctuation marks.
- There’s an entire website, The Punctuation Guide, dedicated to punctuation marks and their many uses.
- If you’re looking for something a bit more ordinary, you can find a good guide to the basics of punctuation at Skills You Need.
- Want to know more about the different kinds of dashes and hyphens? Check out this short guide.
- Ready to test yourself? Purdue OWL has some punctuation exercises to test how much you learned.
All of the punctuation marks in the above list and resources are an extremely important part of English. They’re so important that some of the most common writing errors in English can be fixed just by correcting the punctuation.
Below, we’ll look at five of the most common errors, so you don’t have to make them anymore!
5 Common English Writing Errors You Don’t Have to Make!
1. Using quotation marks for emphasis.
Quotation marks are used to show something that someone has already said or written, to set titles apart and to refer to specific words and letters (if you look carefully, you’ll find examples of that in this article).
They are not used to emphasize (stress) a word.
In fact, one final use for quotation marks turns this usage of quotation marks into a pretty funny mistake.
To understand this, let’s first learn about the wonderful “air quotes.” (The quotes around “air quotes” are being used to refer to a specific phrase. Slang, expressions and other commonly-spoken language sometimes appear in quotes when written.) Here’s Joey from “Friends” adorably misusing them.
“Air quotes” are quote-like gestures that you make in the air with your fingers when speaking. They’re a way of putting quotation marks around words without writing them down. Air quotes are often used to show that you don’t actually mean what you’re saying, or to indicate sarcasm. This is a use of quotation marks that can appear in written language, too.
For example, if you say or write that someone “accidentally” took something, you’re saying they really took it on purpose.
That’s why, if you write to beware of the “dog,” it’s similar to including a wink. The “dog” might really be 20 years old and can barely stand up, or it might actually be a cat! Likewise, “cheese” burgers definitely don’t have cheese (and we don’t want to know what they really contain).
To emphasize a word, you can italicize it, or put it in bold lettering. You can also underline it, or even write it in ALL CAPS. (Just be aware that ALL CAPS is not acceptable in formal writing, and is often considered annoying, so be careful!) But please, don’t use quotation marks for emphasis.
While we’re on the topic of quotation marks, here are three quick things to remember:
- Commas and periods go inside the closing quotation mark.
“I don’t really know what that means,” Joey said.
- Question marks and exclamation points go inside the closing quotation mark if they’re part of the quote.
He exclaimed, “I hate pastrami!”
When they’re not a part of the quote, they go outside the quotes.
Have you ever seen the movie “Gone with the Wind”?
- Colons, semicolons and dashes always go outside the closing quotation mark.
I had two goals for my “me day”: sleeping, and sleeping some more.
“Me day” is another example of a common spoken phrase referring to something specific (in this case, a day someone has set aside for themselves).
Breaking even these small rules can cause confusion. Is the title of the movie a question (“Gone with the Wind?”), or a statement (“Gone with the Wind”)? Watch out for those quotation marks!
2. Confusing plurals with possessives.
It’s easy to understand why many people have trouble with apostrophes. They can be confusing!
Instead, let’s start with plurals. Making something plural means turning it into more than one single thing. A cat becomes “many cats.” A single class turns into “a few classes.” Most nouns simply require you to add “-s” or “-es” to the word, with a few special rules for nouns that end in certain letters (you can see more information about that here). But there’s one fact that always remains true: you never need an apostrophe to turn a word into a plural.
So why do you need apostrophes? To show that something belongs to something else—in other words, to show possession. A toy mouse belonging to a cat is “the cat’s toy mouse.” A house that belongs to your friend is “your friend’s house.”
Many people start to get confused when it comes to plural possessives. The basic rules are less complicated than you probably think:
- For plural nouns ending in “-s,” only add an apostrophe after the “s.”
- For every other kind of noun, add an apostrophe and “s.”
That’s it! Still confused? Let’s say your friends are going out to fly some kites. The kites belong to your friends, so they’re “your friends’ kites.” Your friend Chris doesn’t have a kite because his is broken. Chris is not a plural noun, so even though his name ends in an “s,” you would say “Chris’s broken kite.”
It only gets a little more complicated: Sometimes, you may see only an apostrophe after a singular name ending in “s.” This rule can vary depending on pronunciation, different styles of writing and how certain names are commonly said. For example, you may see “James’s kite,” but also “James’ kite.” However, if you just follow the two rules above in your own writing, you can be confident that it will generally be considered correct.
Two other points to remember about apostrophes:
- They’re also used for contractions like “it’s” and “that’s.” These words are not possessive, because they stand for “it is” and “that is.” If you’re ever unsure, just split up the contraction into the two words that make it up and see if it makes sense:
It’s raining outside. / It is raining outside.
- There’s no apostrophe in possessive pronouns. That means words like “his,” “hers” and “its” don’t need an apostrophe.
Even if you don’t remember these rules, just remember one thing: Plural nouns never take an apostrophe before the “s.” So when you’re turning a singular noun into a plural one, do not add an apostrophe!
3. Using too many commas.
Have you ever gotten so excited about something that your words all ran into each other?
“Oh my gosh, I can’t believe he (or she) asked me out, this is the best day ever, I’ve been dreaming about this, I have no idea what to wear!”
Wow, slow down there! Commas are not enough to slow down this sentence. Without a real break between all those thoughts, the sentence becomes a run-on sentence. It’s a little like watching a bicycle racing out of control—you don’t know how to stop, and you come crashing into the end!
If you find yourself using too many commas in your writing, you might be trying to fit too many thoughts into one sentence. You might also be creating run-on sentences. Take a look at this example:
I’ve been dreaming about this, I have nothing to wear.
The comma here is splitting up two things that have nothing to do with each other. This is called a comma splice, and it’s a mistake that can lead to some major misunderstandings.
Luckily, there are two very simple ways to fix this common mistake:
- Replace the comma with a period.
I’ve been dreaming about this. I have nothing to wear.
- Add a connecting word after the comma. Words like “and,” “but” and “or” show the relationship between the two parts of the sentence. They can also add to the meaning:
I’ve been dreaming about this, but I have nothing to wear.
There are other ways you might be overusing the comma, but the comma splice is one of the most common (and confusing).
Including commas in the wrong spot can also completely change what you’re trying to say. For example, there’s a terrible practice of clubbing baby seals for their fur (that is, beating them with a stick until they die). It’s a serious topic—one that is completely changed if you add a comma in the wrong place, like in this example.
Instead of saying “stop clubbing baby seals,” that image says “stop clubbing, baby seals.” Here, the comma turns the “stop clubbing” into an introduction, and makes it sound like the poster is asking baby seals to stop clubbing (partying in clubs)!
For more about the often misused comma, check this page.
4. Not using enough commas.
First we say you’re using too many commas, then we say you’re not using enough? That’s right! Using commas where they don’t belong can lead to problems, but so can leaving commas out. Don’t forget to include a comma in these cases:
- When listing items.
I need to buy broccoli, kale, and ice cream.
- When using a conjunction (words like “and,” “but,” “or”) if both sides of the comma can be read as complete sentences.
I want to go to sleep, but I still have work to do.
- When using an introductory phrase.
Even though the music was quiet, it still gave me a headache.
- When listing dates and locations.
I’ve lived in Brooklyn, New York, since June 20, 1997.
- When stating additional, non-essential (not absolutely necessary) information.
Michael Bay, a film director, loves explosions.
A quick note on listing items: The first example sentence above can also sometimes be written as:
I need to buy broccoli, kale and ice cream.
That last comma is called an “Oxford comma.” Sometimes it’s used, sometimes it’s not. It depends on your style! If you’re writing for someone or someplace (like a school or a publication), just ask what they prefer.
Leaving out any of these can turn a sentence into one long, breathless statement. That’s why stating that a toilet is only for “disabled elderly pregnant children” is so silly! How many children do you know who are pregnant, elderly and disabled?
For even more comma rules, revisit the Punctuation Guide page (you already have that bookmarked, right?).
5. Forgetting hyphens.
We’re back to these guys again! You might not think hyphens are such a big deal, but just wait until you’re faced with a “dog-eating cat!” Hyphens connect ideas. They’re the glue that holds descriptions together. They’re a pretty big deal!
Take, for example, our dog-eating cat. By placing that little line between the words “dog” and “eating,” you’re marking them as a single description. This means that, with the hyphen, you have a cat who eats dogs.
Without the hyphen, the words “dog” and “eating” are not connected, changing the way the phrase is read. You now have a “dog eating cat,” or a dog that’s actually eating cat as we speak (yuck, someone get that thing out of here!).
Okay, so you may not ever need to warn someone about a dog-eating cat or a dog that’s eating a cat (we hope). Hyphens show up in real-world examples, too, though.
Are you scheduled to work “twenty four-hour shifts,” or “twenty-four-hour shifts?” Are you a “small business owner,” or a “small-business owner?”
Leaving out the hyphens can lead to confusion, or at the very least, a silly image (like a short businessman who works four-hour shifts).
For the full details about hyphens and how to use them, GrammarBook.com and Penn Foster have clear guides.
With these simple punctuation fixes, you should now be writing clearer, less confusing sentences!