Grammar Tips for Common Mistakes

1. Unclear pronouns

When there are two or more nouns in a sentence, make sure your reader knows which noun is linked to your pronoun. It’ll get tricky for readers if pronouns are unclear!  

Unclear: My car hit a plant, but thankfully it wasn’t damaged.  

Here, it is unclear whether “it” is referring to the plant, or the car. 

Clear: Thankfully, the plant wasn’t damaged even though I hit it with my car. 

By re-arranging the sentence, readers now understand that “it” is referring to the plant. 

For more assistance, check out the WCC's pronoun resource.

2. Misplaced and dangling modifiers

Modifiers give a reader more information about nouns or verbs. They are not grammatically necessary in a sentence, but they can add meaning.  

A misplaced modifier occurs when the modifier is placed far away from what it is modifying. This makes it confusing to know what word the modifier is affecting. To avoid this, place your modifier as close as possible to what it is modifying.  

Example: Please join us for a discussion of human trafficking at Conestoga College.  

It is unclear whether Conestoga College is hosting a discussion about human trafficking, or if the discussion is about cases of human trafficking at Conestoga College. Here is a sentence that has been re-arranged to clarify the matter: 

Better: Please join us at Conestoga College for a discussion of human trafficking. 

A dangling modifier occurs when a group of words attempts to modify someone or something that’s not actually stated in the sentence. To avoid this, double check to make sure you’ve included the person or thing the modifier is affecting. 

Example: My parents were expecting their third child at the age of eight.   

The sentence above awkwardly implies your parents were expecting a child when they were eight years old. The sentence is missing the subject of the modifier – who in this case, is the speaker. Here is a sentence that clarifies the matter:

Better: I was eight when my parents were expecting their third child.

For more about modifiers, check out the WCC's managing modifiers resource.

3. Incorrect subject-verb agreement

It can get confusing for readers when your verb ending does not match or “agree” with your sentence’s subject. Subject-verb agreement mistakes are common when: 

Two singular subjects are joined by and (A and B) to form a plural subject. 

  • Incorrect: The high cost and low revenue of the project was said to be the reason for its cancellation. 
  • Correct: The high cost and low revenue of the project were said to be the reason for its cancellation.  

There are other nouns between the sentence’s subject and verb. 

  • Incorrect: The need for standardized tests in education have been challenged the past few years. 
  • Correct: The need for standardized tests in education has been challenged the past few years.  

The subject is a collective noun (a noun that refers to a group of people or things) 

  • When members of the group are functioning as a single entity, use a singular verb. 
    • Incorrect: The department are on their way here. 
    • Correct: The department is on its way here. 
  • When members of the group are functioning as individuals, use a plural verb. 
    • Incorrect: After work, the group goes their own ways. 
    • Correct: After work, the group go their own ways. 

Not clear yet? Check out the WCC's subject-verb agreement resource.

4. Run-on sentences

A run-on sentence occurs when multiple independent clauses* are put in a single sentence, without any punctuation or connection.  Run-on sentences are both overwhelming and confusing for readers because they contain multiple independent ideas. Two of the easiest ways to fix run-on sentences are to: (1) separate the clauses into two sentences with a period, or (2) add a comma and a coordinating conjunction**. 

Incorrect: People think social media has more cons than pros I think it really depends on the usage. 

Correct: People think social media has more cons than pros. I think it really depends on the usage. 

Correct: People think social media has more cons than pros, but I think it really depends on the usage. 

* an independent clause is a group of words containing a subject and verb that could stand on its own as a sentence.  

** coordinating conjunctions are parts of speech that connect words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. For example: “and”, “but”, and “or”.

To learn more about run-on sentences, check out the WCC's run-on sentences resource.

5. Incorrect ordering of quotes, punctuation and citations

Sometimes there’s a lot going on at the end of a sentence and the correct order for quotations, punctuation, and citations can get confusing. While this error doesn’t have so much to do with clarity in your writing, this is something your academic readers may get critical about! 

An in-text citation falls after the quotation marks and before the period. 

Example: To integrate references, there are “three stages: signaling, situating, and synthesizing” (The University of Waterloo, 2020). 

If there is no in-text citation and you are ending your sentence with a quote, the period falls within the quotation marks. 

Example: My favourite learning resource to recommend people on how to use research in writing is “Integrating Evidence Effectively.” 

Wrapping up

The five issues above are only a few common errors that you may find in your writing! Grammar is a complex topic with many different areas to explore. If you are looking for answers to other grammar questions, or you’d simply like to learn more, you can check out the mechanics section of the Writing Center’s online resources or enroll in the Grammar Studio workshops available on LEARN. To enroll, click the Self Registration tab and scroll down to WCC Workshops. Click the course offering name to register. Once you’ve registered, WCC Workshops will appear as an enrolled course and you can participate in any workshops offered!