Most student grammar mistakes are quite common. To help you avoid them, we've compiled the 21 most common!
Many students find English grammar very difficult to grasp… and this fair enough, there are so many rules and exceptions in the English language. However, it’s not impossible to get on top of these and ace your grammar. In this article, we’ve identified the 21 most common grammar mistakes students make so you can stop making them!
We’ve polled our English team and poured over thousands of student responses and identified the common issues students have with grammar and that cost them marks. They are:
Now you know what the issues are, let’s dive in and see what exactly students do wrong, and how you can avoid making the same mistakes!
Note: If you want to see an ultimate list of grammar rules, take a look at our English Grammar Toolkit Guide.
Articles are words that describe nouns by making it specific or unspecific. Students often get these muddled, creating confusion for their readers!
The articles are ‘a’, ‘an’, and ‘the’.
Take a look at this example:
In Example 1, the speaker is referring to a specific apple.
In Example 2, the speaker doesn’t specify an apple, but they referred to a specific banana.
In Example 3, the speaker doesn’t specify an apple or a banana.
Notice how different articles help you identify which apple the speaker is referring? Now, let’s figure out how to use them properly!
Indefinite articles refer to a thing, but not a specific item. They are also only used to describe singular objects.
Therefore, it is crucial that you are not using ‘a’ and ‘an’ interchangeably.
Definite articles are used to refer to a specific item from a group, or one item.
Some nouns don’t require an article before it. This occurs when we’re talking about general things.
We also go through how to use articles and other grammar rules in our Grammar Toolkit Guide.
Some nouns can be counted and others can’t! When students mix mass and count nouns, confusion occurs because readers can’t properly quantify the nouns the student is referencing.
Count nouns are nouns that refer to a single thing, whereas, mass nouns refer to the whole group, mass or quantity.
Consider these examples:
|Count nouns (Can be counted)||Mass nouns (Cannot be counted)|
It is okay to say:
But you can’t say:
This is because the term ‘homework exercise’ refers to the single exercise, whereas the term ‘homework’ refers to the whole group!
‘Many‘ refers to things you can count, whereas, ‘much‘ refers to things you can’t count.
So, when you are using count nouns, you use ‘many’.
When you are using mass nouns, you use ‘much’:
‘A/An’ and ‘the’ can be used for count nouns:
However, you can only use ‘the’ for mass nouns:
We also go through other parts of speech, like pronouns, verbs, adjectives and prepositions in our Grammar Toolkit Guide.
We know, the English language can be super confusing! There are so many words that sound the same, but are spelt differently and mean different things (often very different!)! When students mix their words, readers get lost in what has been written.
Below, we’ve compiled the words students most commonly confuse:
Here is an easy way to remember the difference between affect and effect:
Affect = Action, Effect = End
Affect [verb]: To influence or impact something or someone
Effect [noun]: The consequence or results of an action or event
There [adverb]: Used to refer to a particular place (in or at the place)
Their [possessive plural]: Belonging to a specific group
They’re: They are / they were
To [preposition]: Approaching towards something (a location or condition)
1. An addition to something
2. More than desirable
We know. Many students simply use ‘who’ and ignore ‘whom’. However, this is not grammatically correct.
There is an easy method that will help you distinguish between who and whom.
Who [pronoun]: It is the subject of the sentence; someone or something that is doing the action.
You can substitute ‘who’ with ‘she’ or ‘he’ to test if you should use ‘who’.
Whom [pronoun]: It is the object of the sentence; someone or something that receives an action.
You can substitute ‘whom’ with ‘her’ or ‘him’ to figure out if you should use ‘whom’.
Whose [adjective]: Belonging or associated to a particular person or thing
Who’s [pronoun]: Who is / Who has
A lot [adverb]: A great amount
Allot [verb]: To portion, distribute or share
Alot: is a MISPELLING!
The word ‘alot’ doesn’t exist… unless you’re talking about a town in India. In that case, it needs a capital letter: ‘Alot, India’.
So, don’t make this mistake!
Lose [verb]: To not have something anymore
Loose [adjective]: Not firm or tight
Into [preposition]: Moving inside another thing or being surrounded by it.
In to [‘in‘ = adverb, ‘to‘ = preposition]: The words ‘in’ and ‘to’ aren’t related to each other!
They are just neighbouring words.
Practice [noun]: The actual procedure/action
Practise [verb]: To regularly perform an exercise in order to improve
We know that writing English can get very confusing! However, you can change that! Our HSC expert teachers will help you target all of your English grammar mistakes and provide you with feedback to improve your writing. Learn more now.
‘They’ can be used as a singular or a plural term. This means it is really easy to misuse or use in a way that causes confusion about what ‘they’ is referring to.
‘They’ can be used to refer to a group of people or animals.
This usage implies that who ‘they’ refer to has already been stated in a preceding sentence or will be explained in a following sentence.
‘They’ can also be used to refer to a generic third person.
This usage implies that the reader will already know to whom ‘they’ refers – ie. people, or the generic ‘they’ that we ascribe with the creation of aphorisms.
Or, ‘they’ can be used to refer to a previously mentioned person:
This usage ensures clarity for the reader by presenting a clear antecedant that readers will understand is related to ‘they’.
‘They’ can also be used to refer to a person, instead of using gendered pronouns. This is a more inclusive way of writing and speaking as it doesn’t make assumptions about an individual’s gender.
However, if it is not clear that this is the context of the usage, it can lead to some confusion. it always helps if you present a proper noun, first, before using this usage of ‘they’.
Our English Grammar Toolkit goes through different types of pronouns including demonstrative pronouns, indefinite pronouns, reflexive pronouns and intensive pronouns.
Many students write sentences that aren’t really sentences, they are sentence fragments. A complete sentence requires at least a subject and a verb.
The common structures for sentences are:
You must ensure that your sentences include a subject and a verb.
A sentence fragment is a sentence that lacks either a subject or a verb.
Consider the following sentences:
The second sentence is INCORRECT. It is a fragment and cannot stand on its own. It needs to be combined with the first sentence to make sense because it lacks a subject.
This can be corrected to be one sentence:
Alternatively, the second sentence could be made complete:
An English sentence can consist of a subject, an object, and a verb. Often not having clear pronoun usage makes it unclear whether the object or subject is being referenced. It’s hard to understand what’s happening if we don’t know who is doing what to who!
Understanding the differences between a subject and an object will make writing (with correct grammar) much easier.
Now, let’s break this down:
A subject refers to the person or thing who is doing an action.
Let’s take a look at this simple example:
Now, let’s examine a different example:
However, does the subject change if we change the structure of the sentence?
Now, let’s take a look at a complex sentence:
An object refers to a person or thing who is receiving the action.
Let’s refer to the previous examples:
Remember, not all part of the sentence has to be an object, verb or subject:
As you can see from these examples, it’s important that you are not automatically assuming that the human is the subject. The subject and object can be anything depending on how the sentence is structured!
As we already went through, some sentences can simply consist of a subject, and a verb.
English is a confusing language, we know!
Learn more about subjects and predicates in our English Grammar Toolkit Guide.
It is always better to write in active voice than passive voice because it is clearer. Unfortunately, some students think writing passively makes their work sound more academic (many don’t even realise the mistake they’re making!). What about you? Do you understand the difference between active and passive voice?
In simple terms, active voice emphasises the person/thing (subject), whereas, passive voice emphasises the action (verb).
Writing actively makes it immediately clear who is doing the action, aiding clarity.
Still confused? Don’t worry! Now, we’ll break this down further:
Active voice usually begins with the subject doing an action.
Subject –> Verb –> Object
In this example, ‘I’ is doing the action of eating the hamburger. As you can see, it is much clearer to read and understand.
This is why your teachers will constantly hammer you to write in active voice!
On the other hand, passive voice occurs when the action follows the object.
Object –> Verb –> Subject
Here, the order of the sentence is restructured so that the object is first.
Passive voice is used when you want to emphasise the object or action.
A modifier is an added word, clause or phrase that ‘modifies’ (changes) the meaning of a sentence.
You can remove modifiers from a sentence and it will still make grammatical sense!
They are simply added to further describe, quantify, emphasise, or explain things.
Dangling modifiers are words, clauses or phrases that provide additional information about things that are not stated in the sentence.
A dangling modifier sounds awkward and is grammatically incorrect.
Here is an obvious example of a dangling modifier:
What did Rory finish? The only person who knows what Rory finished is the writer! It might be obvious for them, but it isn’t for us.
So, to fix this, you should finish the first clause by adding the object.
Here is another example:
Who or what is strolling down the gallery corridor? We need to add in a subject to fix this:
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A misplaced modifier is a modifier that is placed too far away from the subject/object it is modifying! Students think it is clear what they are describing, but it isn’t for their readers!
Consider this example:
Here, it sounds like the dancer is worn out, not the shoes! So, you need to move the modifier closer to the object.
Here is an example of a misplaced modifier:
Who did the little dance? Kai? Jenora? The puppy? In this sentence, it sounds like the puppy did the little dance!
In this case, the modifier is too far away from the subject (Jenora). So to fix this sentence, you should move the modifier closer to the subject:
Run-on sentences are sentences that include multiple complete (or main) clauses that could function independently in their own sentences. Many students get carried away when writing and cram multiple ideas into one sentence, this makes it easy for a marker to get lost in it and be unsure what is the main focus of the sentence.
Consider this sentence:
This is a run-on sentence. There are two complete main clauses in it. We can simplify this sentence into two sentences:
Or we can mark the separate clauses with punctuation with colons, semi-colons, dashes, or commas and conjunctions:
Run-on sentences make it difficult for readers to follow your argument. The more clauses in a sentence, the harder it is to follow the subject of it.
A good rule to follow to avoid run-on sentences is “one breath per sentence.”
If you can’t say your sentence in one breath, break it into two or three sentences.
Remember, your writing needs to demonstrate complexity of thought and ideas, not complexity of syntax or grammar.
Contraction is the shortening of words by omitting letters and replacing it with an apostrophe!
One of the most common student problems is that students misplace their apostrophes.
It is crucial that you are always placing your apostrophe exactly where you omitted the letters. This will ensure that you aren’t misspelling these contractions!
Additionally, you must remember that contractions are very informal!
So, you shouldn’t be using them in formal writing, such as essays or resumes.
However, it is acceptable in creative writing if you are using it to evoke emotions or represent a character.
Well, now that we know where we can and can’t use contractions, let’s break down the different types of contractions:
You can shorten 2 words into 1, by replacing the omitted letters with an apostrophe.
You can use contractions to represent a vernacular too! This is usually done by omitting letters or the sounds off of words and replacing it with an apostrophe.
This is usually used in creative writing only to represent a character or evoke emotions.
Here are some examples:
It is key that students pluralise things correctly. Equally, it is essential that they use possessive apostrophes. But what about when you have a plural that takes a possessive apostrophe? Well, if applied wrong, confusion reigns!
It’s very easy to get confused between a plural and a possessive noun!
And, it’s very easy to misplace the apostrophe for plural possessives
Are you confused? Well, let’s break it down!
A plural noun is a word that refers to more than one of the thing.
For most words, you simply add the letter ‘s‘ to the end of the word
However, there are some words that don’t follow this rule.
Some may add an ‘es‘:
Words ending with ‘y‘ will change into ‘ies‘:
Words ending with an ‘f‘ will change into ‘ves‘:
Then, some words don’t change at all:
And, there are some irregular nouns, which don’t follow any rules:
A possessive noun is used to show ownership.
We show ownership by adding an apostrophe and s (‘s) to the end of the word.
This is applied for all singular nouns that don’t end with ‘s’.
But what about singular nouns that end with ‘s’?
Well, for these nouns, you can add an apostrophe-s (‘s) at the end, or simply add an apostrophe (‘)!
Both works! However, remember to always stay consistent with your choice. Don’t alternate between the two options because it gets confusing.
Also, remember, some possessive nouns can be less obvious:
Many students add more apostrophes than necessary when they’re using plural possessives.
For plurals that end with an ‘s’, you simply add an apostrophe (‘) at the end of the word!
For plurals that don’t end with an ‘s’, you add an apostrophe-s (‘s) at the end of the word:
In simple terms, the subject-verb agreement states that if you use a singular subject in a sentence, you need to also use the singular verb. When students mix these up, the number of the noun isn’t clear.
So, if you’re using the plural verb, then you also need to use the plural subject.
Here is an obvious example:
The subject and the verb are bolded.
In the first example, ‘dog’ is a singular noun. So, ‘is’ is used because it’s a singular verb.
In the second example, ‘dogs’ is a plural noun. So, ‘are’ is used because it’s a plural verb.
Many students fall into the trap of ‘of’ phrases because they assume that the subject is the final noun.
However, the subject is actually the noun before ‘of’!
Take a look at these examples:
So, to help you figure out which noun you should look at, remove the noun after ‘of’.
Having a phrase or a clause between the subject and the verb can get confusing!
However, like ‘of’ phrases, you should focus on the noun before the clause.
To help you figure out which verb or noun to use, remove the clause in between them!
Sentences with subjects joined with ‘and’ are always plural.
The verb will agree with the closest subject.
‘That’ and ‘which’ are relative pronouns. In traditional grammar, these aren’t interchangeable:
Let’s break it down further:
‘That’ is used for defining clauses. This means that the object/subject is specified.
Let’s take a look at the above example:
In this sentence, we understand that Paul specifically bought the plant with pink leaves.
If we remove ‘that has pink leaves‘, then the sentence loses its original meaning.
‘Which’ is used for non-defining clauses. It is used to add more meaning to a sentence.
In this sentence, it seems like Paul bought a plant which happened to have pink leaves. Notice how it is different from the previous example (“Paul recently bought the plant that has pink leaves”)
The main purpose of the sentence is to highlight the plant’s pink leaves. As such, when we remove ‘which Paul recently bought’, the sentence still retains its original message.
This rule follows from our earlier discussion of sentence fragments. Some students think they’ve written a complete sentence when they haven’t. These are confusing because the thought presented is incomplete, a key piece of information like what is being done or who is doing it is omitted.
A subordinate clause is a dependent clause.
They don’t change the original meaning of the sentence. They simply add more information!
Remember, subordinate clauses cannot stand on their own. They always need to connect to an independent clause!
Why? Well, subordinate clauses usually have conjunctions connected to it. So, the clause will always sound incomplete!
|Examples of subordinate conjunctions|
Here are some example of subordinate clauses:
To fix these, you need to attach it to an independent clause.
An independent clause is a complete sentence that has a verb and a subject.
Now, to properly use subordinate clauses, you need to link it to the independent clause!
A parenthetical clause is a group of words that is encased between brackets!
They add more information to the sentence.
Here are some examples:
Remember, like subordinate clauses, parenthetical clauses need to connect to an independent clause:
A prepositional phrase is a phrase that contains a preposition.
They never contain the subject of the sentence!
Here are some examples of prepositional phrases:
A very common problem that students come across is that they overuse prepositional phrases!
Sometimes, they write 4-6 consecutive prepositional phrases in 1 sentence to convey more information.
However, this ineffective. Overusing prepositional phrases makes your writing difficult to read and follow.
Here is an example of a sentence that overuses prepositional phrases:
Was that confusing to read? This sentence used 7 prepositional phrases.
So, how do we fix this?
To ensure that you don’t overuse prepositional phrases, you can:
Now, let’s fix the previous example:
See how that was much easier to read and understand?
This example breaks the long sentence into 2 smaller sentences and changes the structure of the original sentence.
“Gordan baked a cake, roasted potatoes and fried chicken”
Did Gordan just roast fried chicken? That’s so weird!
This is what happens when you don’t use your oxford (serial) comma.
The Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) is used to separate different elements in a list. It is the comma that is placed before the final ‘and’.
Let’s rewrite the previous example with the oxford comma:
That makes more sense! Gordan only roasted the potatoes, because he fried the chicken.
In this example, the 3 elements are:
Now, if the ‘and’ doesn’t seperate 2 elements, you must not place a comma before it!
In this example, the elements are:
We just discussed how to use the oxford comma. Now, let’s explore other types of comma usage!
If you are using adjectives in a series, you need to use a comma to separate the different adjectives.
An introductory statement is a dependent clause that introduces some background information. They are placed at the beginning of a sentence!
You need to place a comma after your introductory statements to indicate the natural pause!
Let’s take a look at these introductory clauses:
Now, let’s combine them with an independent clause:
An introductory adverb is a word that is used at the beginning of a sentence to contextualise the sentence.
Here are some examples:
You need to use a comma after introductory adverbs.
Interrupters are clauses or connectors that are placed in the middle of a sentence. It adds an additional thought or comment in the middle of the sentence.
In this case, you need to use 2 commas: 1 before the interrupter and 1 after.
“Andrew wants to eat grandma!“
Someone should protect grandma and get Andrew psychological help if he wants to eat his grandma.
“Andrew wants to eat, grandma!“
Oh. That makes more sense! He doesn’t want to eat grandma. Instead, the speaker is addressing grandma!
This is why it’s important to use a comma when you are directly addressing a character or a person.
Here are some examples:
Question tags are phrases/words that are added to the end of the sentence to make it a question.
You need to place a comma before a question tag!
Many students fall into the habit of using colons and semicolons interchangeably.
However, this is a grave mistake!
A semicolon and a colon are used for different purposes.
Let’s break it down.
Colons are used to add more information that relates to the independent clause.
Here are some ways you can use a colon.
1. Introduce a list after an independent clause:
2. Introduce a clause that directly relates to the independent clause
Semicolons are used to introduce a secondary idea to the initial independent clause.
For instance, you can use a semicolon to:
1. Connect 2 independent clauses (without using a connective)
2. Separate lists where the elements have internal commas
3. Connect 2 independent clauses where the 1st clause has a comma(s)
4. Link 2 independent clauses where the 2nd clause uses a connective (instead of using a full stop)
Want to learn about other punctuation marks like em-dashes, hyphens, and parentheses? Take a read of our English Grammar Toolkit.
Many students struggle with adding appropriate dialogue tags – they used too few or too many! This means the dialogue feels either confusing or stilted.
What is a dialogue tag? A dialogue tag is a phrase that indicates the speaker and how they said something:
So, how do we effectively use dialogue tags?
You want to use a verb that describes how the character says their dialogue. However, don’t fall into the habit of using overly fancy tags, or many adverbs.
The rule of thumb is, favour simple tags over fancier ones.
Simple tags allows you to quickly indicate the speaker without slowing down your reader’s pace.
It keeps the story going naturally!
‘Said‘ is best used when you want to indicate the speaker.
However, sometimes, ‘said’ doesn’t properly convey the speech.
So, in these cases, you use other simple tags like
Adverbs are a big no-no when it comes to dialogue. Why? Well…
They repeat the verb:
And, they tell the events, instead of showing:
The adverbs from the above examples can be removed, and you will still receive the same message!
“Can you please get me a bottle of water?” Jason asked Amy.
“Get it yourself!” Amy yelled.
“Why?” Jason complained, “you’re right next to it,”
Amy retorted angrily, “But I’m not the thirsty one!”
This is a prime example of overusing dialogue tags.
It breaks the flow of the dialogue and is quite repetitive.
If you already introduced the characters speaking in a piece of dialogue, then you don’t need to mention them again if it is clear who is speaking.
The reader should be able to infer who is speaking!
So, the rule of thumb is to add in a dialogue tag for every couple of lines of dialogue in a series.
“Can you please get me a bottle of water?” Jason asked Amy.
“Get it yourself!”
“Why? You’re right next to it.”
“But I’m not the thirsty one, Jason.”
“Fine.” Jason stood up and stormed to the bottle.
1. In this example, both characters are introduced in the 1st dialogue tag: “Jason asked Amy“.
This means that we don’t need to add a dialogue tag for Amy’s response because it is inferred from the first tag.
2. We also added Jason’s name in Amy’s dialogue: “But I’m not the thirsty one, Jason”.
This helps the reader identify the speaker without having to add a dialogue tag.
3. You can also make a character do an action, instead of using a dialogue tag: “Fine.” Jason stood up and stormed to the bottle.
However, you need to ensure that the speaker matches the character who is doing the action.
If you are writing dialogue from Character 1, and writing action for Character 2, you need to put Character 2’s action in the next line.
Punctuating dialogue can get pretty confusing! However, it is not the end of the world.
Here is an easy rule that will help you remember how to punctuate dialogue:
The dialogue is the burger. The speech marks are the bun, whilst everything else (including the words and punctuation) is the patty!
That’s right. Punctuation (almost) always goes inside the speech marks!
However, there are some exceptions.
Let’s go through different types of dialogue and see how to punctuate them:
This is the most basic dialogue you will come across. Here are some example:
So, how do you write this?
You can also put the dialogue tag before the dialogue!
So, how do you write dialogue with the tag before the speech?
This is a more advanced way of writing speech. Many students find it confusing to properly punctuate dialogue with the tag in the middle, and it is often misused.
You can only use a dialogue tag to interrupt a sentence, not 2 sentences!
Here are the variations that we will be examining:
Different punctuation is used for the 2 variations.
You can spice up you dialogue writing by adding actions to the end of your dialogue!
To do this, you need to:
The most common mistake students come across is using words like ‘laughed’, ‘chuckled’, ‘grinned’,’ beamed’, and ‘sighed’ as a dialogue tag, not an action!
These are all actions because they don’t tell you how the dialogue is spoken. Instead, they indicate the speaker’s actions.
So, you need to end the dialogue with a full stop (.) and begin the action sentence with a capital letter.
If you are writing dialogue back-to-back, then you don’t need to use a dialogue tag for every line!
This will help you stop being repetitive.
All you need to do is to end the dialogue with a full stop (.), exclamation mark (!) or a question mark (?) to indicate the end of the sentence.
Do not use a comma (,)!
Pressica said, “If only Dad let us go to the beach with May.”
“Don’t worry. We can go by ourselves next Friday.” Linda reassured her sister.
“But we’ll miss out on the barbeque.”
“Are you sure it’s just the barbeque, and not Andy?”
“Stop that.” Pressica blushed.
“So it is Andy!”
“I didn’t say anything.”
Remember, all dialogue writing conventions still apply!