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English 11-12

The 21 Most Common Student Grammar Mistakes

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!

 

Common grammatical errors and issues of style

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:

  1. Using articles
  2. Count vs mass nouns
  3. Commonly confused words
  4. Singular and plural ‘They’
  5. Sentence fragments
  6. Pronoun clarity: subject/object confusion
  7. Active vs passive voice
  8. Dangling modifiers
  9. Misplaced modifiers
  10. Run-on sentences
  11. To use contraction or not
  12. Plurals, possessive nouns or plural possessives
  13. Plural agreement (subject-verb agreement)
  14. ‘That’ / ‘which’ rule
  15. Improper use of subordinate (or parenthetical) clause
  16. Overusing prepositional phrases
  17. The Oxford or serial comma
  18. Comma placement
  19. Improper use of semicolon and colon
  20. Dialogue tagging 
  21. Punctuating dialogue

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.

 

 

1. Using articles

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:

  1. Can you please pass me the apple?
  2. Can you please pass me an apple and the banana?
  3. Can you please pass me an apple and a banana?

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: ‘A’ and ‘An’

Indefinite articles refer to a thing, but not a specific item. They are also only used to describe singular objects.

  • Should we buy Shelley a Christmas card?
    • Refers to the general idea of Christmas cards

Therefore, it is crucial that you are not using ‘a’ and ‘an’ interchangeably.

  • ‘A’ is used before words that begin with a consonant (or begins with a consonant sound)
    • Eg. ‘A cow’, ‘A pie’, ‘A United Nations worker
  • An’ is used before words that begin with a vowel (or begins with a vowel sound)
    • eg. ‘An apple’, ‘An earring’, ‘An interesting igloo, ‘An hour

 

Definite article: ‘The’

Definite articles are used to refer to a specific item from a group, or one item.

  • Should we buy Shelley the Christmas card?”
    • Refers to a specific Christmas card

 

Omitted articles / Zero article

Some nouns don’t require an article before it. This occurs when we’re talking about general things.

  • I really like eating spaghetti.
  • Do you like smoothies?
  • I love skateboarding.

 

We also go through how to use articles and other grammar rules in our Grammar Toolkit Guide.

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2. Count vs mass nouns

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)
  • Suitcases
  • Cups of juice
  • Metal sheets
  • Poems
  • Photos
  • Homework exercises
  • Air molecules
  • Water bottles
  • Luggage
  • Juice
  • Metal
  • Poetry
  • Photography
  • Homework
  • Air
  • Water

It is okay to say:

  • I have 3 homework exercises to complete tonight.”

But you can’t say:

  • I have 3 homework to complete tonight” *

This is because the term ‘homework exercise’ refers to the single exercise, whereas the term ‘homework’ refers to the whole group!

 

 

Many vs much

‘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’.

For example:

  • There were so many suitcases lined up against the wall.
  • We have to read so many poems this week.

When you are using mass nouns, you use ‘much’:

  • There was so much luggage lined up against the wall.”
  • We have to read so much poetry this week.

 

A/An vs the

‘A/An’ and ‘the’ can be used for count nouns:

  • I want to eat an apple.
  • Can you pass me the apples please?

 

However, you can only use ‘the’ for mass nouns:

  • INCORRECT: “A homework is so hard.
  • CORRECT: “The homework is so hard.

 

We also go through other parts of speech, like pronouns, verbs, adjectives and prepositions in our Grammar Toolkit Guide.

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3. Commonly confused words

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:

 

1. Affect / effect

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

  • Last week’s loss will affect our future games.
  • Yasmin was affected by the car accident.
  • The lost of Sean’s dog really affected his life.

 

Effect [noun]: The consequence or results of an action or event

  • The climate change protestors had no effect on the government’s new policy.
  • Jim’s sprained ankle had a big effect on his soccer team.
  • The effects of smoking includes difficulty breathing, yellowed teeth and nails and even lung cancer.

 

 

2. There / Their / They’re

There [adverb]: Used to refer to a particular place (in or at the place)

  • You left your homework there.
  • Harry is already there.”

 

Their [possessive plural]: Belonging to a specific group

  • That’s their cat!
  • Their house is beautiful.

 

They’re: They are / they were

  • They’re going to the beach on Sunday.
  • They’re the cutest bunnies!

 

 

3. To / too

To [preposition]: Approaching towards something (a location or condition)

  • We are going to Melbourne next Sunday
  • They are definitely going to win at this rate!

 

Too [adverb]:

1. An addition to something

  • Felicity wanted a red dress too.”
  • Are you bringing the sandwiches too?

2. More than desirable

  • The food was too cold, so they heated it up in the microwave.
  • Joel thought that the room was too green.

 

 

4. Who / Whom

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’.

  • Who is going with us?
    • She is going with us.
  • Who was response for the accident?
    • He was responsible for the accident.

 

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’.

  • This pen belongs to whom?
    • This pen belongs to him.
  • Whom should I call to help me with my form?
    • I should call her to help me with my form.

 

 

5. Whose / Who’s

Whose [adjective]: Belonging or associated to a particular person or thing

  • Whose bottle is dripping water?
  • Whose shoes are those?

 

Who’s [pronoun]: Who is / Who has

  • Who’s going to school tomorrow?
  • Who’s that lady in the pink shoes?

 

 

5. A lot / Allot / Alot

A lot [adverb]: A great amount

  • There was a lot of food at the party.
  • She read a lot of books in her lifetime.”

 

Allot [verb]: To portion, distribute or share

  • The government planned to allot a piece of land to each of the farmers.
  • The students planned to allot an hour of fitness every day.”

 

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!

 

 

6. Lose / loose

Lose [verb]: To not have something anymore

  • She’ll lose her grumpy attitude once we reach the carnival.
  • The Tigers are predicted to lose their basketball game.”
  • You’re going to lose your keys if you keep throwing them everywhere

 

Loose [adjective]: Not firm or tight

  • The shorts were too loose.
  • Amy had a loose tooth.

 

 

7. Into / in to

Into [preposition]: Moving inside another thing or being surrounded by it.

  • She placed the dishes into the sink.
  • The rocket shot into space.

 

In to [‘in‘ = adverb, ‘to‘ = preposition]: The words ‘in’ and ‘to’ aren’t related to each other!

They are just neighbouring words.

  • The postman came in to give us the parcel.
  • You need to log in to the dashboard to access your assessment marks.
  • Tune in to our morning podcasts to learn more about political news

 

 

8. Practice / Practise

Practice [noun]: The actual procedure/action

  • Alan was happy that his group agreed that his proposal can be put in practice.
  • You need more practice to improve your marks!
  • Shelly couldn’t bear to continue her medical practice after that accident.

 

Practise [verb]: To regularly perform an exercise in order to improve

  • You need to practise solving Maths problems to improve your marks.
  • Shelley began to practise Medicine a few years ago.
  • I need to practise piano.

 

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4. Singular and plural ‘They’

‘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 [plural]:

‘They’ can be used to refer to a group of people or animals.

  • They are going to the Christmas party, too!
  • They went on a date together.

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 [singular]:

‘They’ can also be used to refer to a generic third person.

  • People may enter this garden only if they are wearing closed shoes.
  • You know what they say, you snooze you lose.”
  • People can visit the beach if they want.

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:

  • The plumber came through the back door because they didn’t want to wake the dog.”
  • The victim sat down before they started recounting the events to the police.

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.

  • They shared their thoughts about climate change on that podcast.
  • They offered to pick up some bags of ice for the barbecue.

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.

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5.  Sentence Fragments

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:

  • Subject + verb + object
    • For example, “The sentence lacked a verb.”
  • Subject + verb
    • For example, “Sentence fragments are ungrammatical”

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.

 

Example 1:

Consider the following sentences:

  • “Julia always practises her grammar. Worrying that she will fail her exams because of a sentence fragment.

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:

  • “Because she worries about failing her exams due to a sentence fragment, Julia always practises her grammar.”

Alternatively, the second sentence could be made complete:

  • “Julia always practises her grammar. She worries that she will fail her exams because of a sentence fragment.”

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6. Pronoun clarity: Subject/object confusion

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:

 

Subject:

A subject refers to the person or thing who is doing an action.

Let’s take a look at this simple example:

  • Kiara jumped over the rock.”
    • Here, ‘Kiara’ is the subject because she is doing the action (of jumping over a rock).

Now, let’s examine a different example:

  • Joseph owns the blue bag.
    • ‘Joseph’ is the subject because he is doing the action (of owning the bag).

However, does the subject change if we change the structure of the sentence?

  • The bag belongs to Joseph.
    • ‘Joseph’ is still the subject because he is doing the action (of owning the bag)

Now, let’s take a look at a complex sentence:

  • After the sun set, the boys came across Jimmy’s sister’s boyfriend at the restaurant
    • ‘The boys’ is the subject because they are ‘coming across’ the boyfriend.

 

Object:

An object refers to a person or thing who is receiving the action.

Let’s refer to the previous examples:

  • Kiara jumped over the rock.”
    • The ‘rock‘ is the object because it is receiving the action (of Kiara jumping over it).
  • Joseph owns the blue bag.
    • The ‘blue bag‘ is the object because it is receiving an action (of being owned by Joseph)
  • The blue bag belongs to Joseph.
    • The ‘blue bag’ is still the object because it is receiving the action.

Remember, not all part of the sentence has to be an object, verb or subject:

  • After the sun set, the boys came across Jimmy’s sister’s boyfriend at the restaurant.
    • Jimmy’s sister’s boyfriend‘ is the object
    • After the sun set‘ and ‘at the restaurant‘ are neither a subject or an object. They are prepositional phrases!

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!

 

Not all sentences have objects!

As we already went through, some sentences can simply consist of a subject, and a verb.

English is a confusing language, we know!

For example:

  • I am hungry.
    • Subject: ‘I
    • Verb: ‘Am
    • Adjective: ‘Hungry
  • The crowd is so loud.
    • Subject: ‘The crowd
    • Verb: ‘Is
    • Adjective: ‘So loud
  • They are painting.
    • Subject: ‘They
    • Verb: ‘Are
    • Adjective: ‘Painting

 

Learn more about subjects and predicates in our English Grammar Toolkit Guide.

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7. Active vs passive voice

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

Active voice usually begins with the subject doing an action.

Subject –> Verb –> Object

For example:

  • I ate a hamburger for lunch
    • Subject: ‘I’
    • Verb: ‘Ate’
    • Object: ‘A hamburger’

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!

 

Passive voice

On the other hand, passive voice occurs when the action follows the object.

Object –> Verb –> Subject

For example:

  • “A hamburger was what I ate for lunch.
    • Object: “Hamburger”
    • Verb: “Was”
    • Subject: “I”

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.

 

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8. Dangling modifiers

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.

 

Example 1

Here is an obvious example of a dangling modifier:

  • INCORRECT: “After Rory finished, he went to the beach.

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.

  • CORRECT: “After Rory finished eating, he went to the beach.

 

Example 2

Here is another example:

  • Strolling down the gallery corridor, the artworks were beautiful.

Who or what is strolling down the gallery corridor? We need to add in a subject to fix this:

  •  “Strolling down the gallery corridor, Fred thought that the artworks were beautiful.

 

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9. Misplaced modifiers

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!

 

Example 1

Consider this example:

  • INCORRECT: “Being worn out, the dancer had to buy new shoes.

Here, it sounds like the dancer is worn out, not the shoes! So, you need to move the modifier closer to the object.

  • CORRECT: “The dancer had to buy new shoes because they were worn out.

 

Example 2

Here is an example of a misplaced modifier:

  • INCORRECT: “Kai was ecstatic that Jenora gifted him a puppy with a little dance.

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:

  • CORRECT: “Kai was ecstatic that Jenora did a little dance when she gifted him a puppy”

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10. Run-on Sentences

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:

  • INCORRECT: “The assignment is nearly due I will not finish it in time.”

This is a run-on sentence. There are two complete main clauses in it. We can simplify this sentence into two sentences:

  • CORRECT: “The assignment is nearly due. I will not finish it in time.”

 

Or we can mark the separate clauses with punctuation with colons, semi-colons, dashes, or commas and conjunctions:

  • “The assignment is nearly due: I will not finish it in time.”
  • “The assignment is nearly due – I will not finish it in time.”
  • “The assignment is nearly due, and I will not finish it in time.”

 

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.

 

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11. To use contraction or not

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:

 

Combining 2 words into 1

You can shorten 2 words into 1, by replacing the omitted letters with an apostrophe.

For example:

  • We’re = We are
  • I’m = I am
  • Can’t = Cannot
  • Didn’t = Did not
  • Aren’t = Are not
  • Hayley’s = Hayley is (this type risks being confused with a possessive apostrophe)
  • Ken’ll = Ken will

 

Representing a speaking style

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:

  • Ol’ = Old
  • Anythin’ = Anything
  • E’er = Ever
  • Ma’am = Madam
  • O’clock = Of the clock

 

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12. Plural or plural possessives

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!

  • INCORRECT: “The baker’s made a delicious cake.
  • CORRECT: “The bakers made a delicious cake.

 

And, it’s very easy to misplace the apostrophe for plural possessives

  • INCORRECT: “The bakers cake was delicious.
  • CORRECT: “The baker’s cake was delicious.” (If there is 1 baker)
  • INCORRECT: “The bakers’s cake was delicious.
  • CORRECT: “The bakers’ cake was delicious.” (If there are 2 bakers)

Are you confused? Well, let’s break it down!

 

Plural

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

For example:

  • 1 cat – 2 cats
  • 1 book – 2 books
  • 1 song – 2 songs

 

However, there are some words that don’t follow this rule.

Some may add an ‘es‘:

  • 1 bus – 1 buses
  • 1 torch – 2 torches

 

Words ending with ‘y‘ will change into ‘ies‘:

  • 1 nappy – 2 nappies
  • 1 puppy – 2 puppies

 

Words ending with an ‘f‘ will change into ‘ves‘:

  • 1 wolf – 2 wolves
  • 1 hoof – 2 hooves

 

Then, some words don’t change at all:

  • Lamb
  • Fish
  • Species

 

And, there are some irregular nouns, which don’t follow any rules:

  • 1 mouse – 2 mice
  • 1 man – 2 men
  • 1 goose – 2 geese
  • 1 cactus – 1 cacti

 

 

Possessive noun

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’.

For example:

  • Ralph’s ice cream was melting.
  • The child’s toy fell down the drain.
  • My mother’s necklace is red.

 

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.

  • The bus’ wheel is pink!
  • The bus’s wheel is pink!
  • Ross’ drink is getting cold.”
  • Ross’s drink is getting cold.”

 

Also, remember, some possessive nouns can be less obvious:

  • It is time for a good night’s rest.
  • For pity’s sake, stop complaining.

 

 

Plural possessives

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!

  • Both dogs’ collars broke!
  • The girls’ shoes are all worn out.
  • The letters’ stamps have all peeled away.

 

For plurals that don’t end with an ‘s’, you add an apostrophe-s (‘s) at the end of the word:

  • The children’s toys are very dirty.
  • The cacti’s flowers are blooming early this year.
  • The women’s book club is held every Wednesday.

 

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13. Plural agreement (Subject-verb agreement)

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.

 

Example 1:

Here is an obvious example:

  • The dog is carrying the bone.
  • The dogs are carrying the bone.

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.

 

 

Example 2: ‘Of’

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:

  • The pack of wolves is hunting in the woods.
  • Now, the team of dancers faces their opponent.”
  • The colours of the painting remind Rachel of her favourite movie.

So, to help you figure out which noun you should look at, remove the noun after ‘of’.

 

 

Example 3: Phrase or clause between the subject and verb

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.

For example:

  • The students who visited the principal’s office were misbehaving in class.
  • Kayla, the girl with the braids, is driving us home.
  • The teacher, as well as his students, was unsure about the upcoming exam.

To help you figure out which verb or noun to use, remove the clause in between them!

 

 

Example 4: ‘And’

Sentences with subjects joined with ‘and’ are always plural.

For example:

  • The hat and the earrings really add to the outfit.”
  • A hammer and nail should do the job.”
  • The teacher and students are unsure about the upcoming exam.”

 

 

Example 5: ‘Nor’ / ‘Or’

The verb will agree with the closest subject.

For example:

  • “Neither my mother nor my father enjoys seafood.”
  • Would the students or the teacher like to go on an excursion?”
  • Will the teacher or the students like to go on an excursion?

 

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14. That/ which rule

‘That’ and ‘which’ are relative pronouns. In traditional grammar, these aren’t interchangeable:

  • That‘ should be used where a comma is not necessary (for defining clauses)
  • Which‘ should be used after a comma (for non-defining clauses)

For example:

  • Paul recently bought the plant that has pink leaves
  • The plant, which Paul recently bought, has pink leaves.

Let’s break it down further:

 

That:

‘That’ is used for defining clauses. This means that the object/subject is specified.

Let’s take a look at the above example:

  • Paul recently bought the plant that has pink leaves

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:

‘Which’ is used for non-defining clauses. It is used to add more meaning to a sentence.

For example:

  • The plant, which Paul recently bought, has pink leaves.

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.

 

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 15.Improper use of subordinate (or parenthetical) clause

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.

Subordinate clause

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
  • After
  • Despite
  • As if
  • If
  • Rather than
  • Though
  • Although
  • Unless
  • Once
  • Provided that
  • When
  • Until
  • Even if
  • Before
  • How

 

Here are some example of subordinate clauses:

  • DEPENDENT CLAUSE: “After Jasper bought the bike.
    • What did Jasper do after he bought the bike? This sentence is incomplete!
  • DEPENDENT CLAUSE: “Despite promising Rosie.”
    • Who promised Rosie? How did they break their promise to Rosie?

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.

  • INDEPENDENT CLAUSE: “Jasper rode around the park.”
  • INDEPENDENT CLAUSE: “Helen went to the fair without Rosie.

 

Now, to properly use subordinate clauses, you need to link it to the independent clause!

  • After Jasper bought the bike, Jasper rode around the park.”
  • “Helen went to the fair without Rosie, despite promising her.” 

 

 

Parenthetical 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:

  • (a pitbull)
  • (a 10-year professional soccer player)

 

Remember, like subordinate clauses, parenthetical clauses need to connect to an independent clause:

  • Her dog (a pitbull) is a real sweetheart.
  • Johnny (a 10-year professional soccer player) just broke his leg.

 

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16. Overusing Prepositional phrases

A prepositional phrase is a phrase that contains a preposition.

They never contain the subject of the sentence!

  • Phrase: A group of words that doesn’t contain a verb or a subject.
    • Eg. “with the red cover“, “playing fair“, or “the orange cat
  • Preposition: A word that shows a relationship between different nouns. It can indicate location, time, space, direction or other more abstract relationships.
    • Eg.  “to“, “after“, “over“, “between“, “at“, “of“, “up”

 

Here are some examples of prepositional phrases:

  • at the swimming pool
  • before the party
  • on the grass
  • through the woods
  • of my notes

 

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:

  • The close up shots of Edward Murrow and the chiaroscuro lighting on his face, on the TV screen, in the film, ‘Good Night and Good Luck’, highlights society’s search for truth during the Cold War, when the government censored real events.”

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:

  • Break up your long sentence into shorter and more concise sentences
  • Change the structure of your sentence by moving the prepositional phrases

 

Now, let’s fix the previous example:

  • In the film, ‘Good Night and Good Luck’, Clooney uses close up shots and chiaroscuro lighting that emphasises Edward Murrow’s face. This highlights society’s search for truth during the Cold war; a time where the government censored real events.

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.

 

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17. The Oxford (or serial) Comma

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:

  • Gordan baked a cake, roasted potatoes, and fried chicken.”

That makes more sense! Gordan only roasted the potatoes, because he fried the chicken.

In this example, the 3 elements are:

  • baked a cake
  • roasted potatoes
  • fried chicken

 

Now, if the ‘and’ doesn’t seperate 2 elements, you must not place a comma before it!

 

For instance:

  • Gordan baked cookies and a cake, roasted potatoes and carrots, and fried chicken and onion rings.”

In this example, the elements are:

  • baked cookies and a cake
  • roasted potatoes and carrots”
  • fried chicken and onion rings”

 

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18. Comma placement

We just discussed how to use the oxford comma. Now, let’s explore other types of comma usage!

 

Separate adjectives

If you are using adjectives in a series, you need to use a comma to separate the different adjectives.

For example:

  • Can you please buy me a small, mustard, velvet bag?
  • There was a big, fluffy, white samoyed!

 

After an introductory (dependent) statement

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:

  • During the storm
  • Since it was cold
  • When the time is right

 

Now, let’s combine them with an independent clause:

  • During the storm, Rocky hid inside his kennel.
  • Since it was cold, the girls took out their mermaid blankets and made hot chocolate.
  • When the time is right, Kenny will ask Yasmin to marry him.

 

After an introductory adverb

An introductory adverb is a word that is used at the beginning of a sentence to contextualise the sentence.

Here are some examples:

  • Finally
  • Especially
  • Happily
  • Interestingly

 

You need to use a comma after introductory adverbs.

For example:

  • Finally, it is time to eat!
  • Interestingly, Lina has sensitive teeth but loves ice cream.

 

 

Interrupters: Clauses or connectors in the middle of a sentence

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.

For example:

  • Andy, the best swimmer in the team, came first in the Nationals Swimming Competition.
  • The Wilsons, even though it was still November, hung up their Christmas lights.

 

Direct address

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:

  • Felicity, look at that cute dog!
  • Do you want to go to the park, Mum?

 

Question tags

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!

For example:

  • That painting is so beautiful, isn’t it?
  • Hawaii was such a great place, wasn’t it?
  • You’re going on the ski trip, aren’t you?

 

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19. Improper use of colon and semicolon

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.

 

Colon

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:

For example:

  • The cinemas are playing so many animated movies: ‘Rise of the Guardians’, ‘Coraline’, ‘Lion King’, ‘Finding Nemo’, and ‘Toy Story’.
  • Germaine achieved an A for all of her subjects: English, Maths, Science, Geography, History, Visual Arts, and Drama.

 

2. Introduce a clause that directly relates to the independent clause

For example;

  • I only have 1 rule for my people who borrow my pen: don’t lose the lid.
  • Emily says the same thing everyday: ‘Don’t worry. I’ll do it tomorrow.’

 

 

Semicolon

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)

For example:

  • I painted a new painting; studying Picasso inspired me.
  • Kimberley hates swimming; she nearly drowned when she was 3 years old.

 

2. Separate lists where the elements have internal commas 

For example:

  • Catherine will be travelling the world next year: Seoul, South Korea; Stockholm, Sweden; Madrid, Spain; Hanoi, Vietnam; Tokyo, Japan, and Cairo, Egypt.
  • Fred enjoyed the dishes at the restaurant: sweet, juicy, tender ribs; soft, buttery mash potatoes; crunchy, golden, spicy fried chicken.”

 

3. Connect 2 independent clauses where the 1st clause has a comma(s) 

For example:

  • Mrs Gholkair has daisies, sunflowers, and lilies in her garden; however, she will never plant roses because she doesn’t like thorns.
  • The stray cat had fleas, tapeworms, and a broken leg; Tony and Mary were still determined to keep it.

 

4. Link 2 independent clauses where the 2nd clause uses a connective (instead of using a full stop)

For example:

  • The teacher went through the safety procedure for using skis; however, no one was paying attention.
  • Lainy wasn’t a fan of cats; moreover, she was allergic to them.

 

Want to learn about other punctuation marks like em-dashes, hyphens, and parentheses? Take a read of our English Grammar Toolkit.

 

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20. Dialogue tagging

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:

  • He said
  • She screamed.
  • Sally whispered.”
  • Ronald cried.”

So, how do we effectively use dialogue tags?

 

1. Favour simple 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.

For example:

  • What’s for lunch?” Hermione said.
  • Get back here!” the teacher said.

 

So, in these cases, you use other simple tags like

  • Yelled
  • Whispered
  • Cried
  • Mumbled, or, simply,
  • Asked

 

 

2. Don’t use too many adverbs (show, don’t tell)

Adverbs are a big no-no when it comes to dialogue. Why? Well…

They repeat the verb:

  • “Hurry,” Kevin whispered quietly. 

And, they tell the events, instead of showing:

  • “Did you really lose my favourite hat?” Shelley asked sadly. 

 

The adverbs from the above examples can be removed, and you will still receive the same message!

  • “Hurry,” Kevin whispered.
  • “Did you really lose my favourite hat?” Shelley asked. 

 

 

3. Don’t overuse dialogue tags

“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.

 

For example:

“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.

 

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21. Punctuating dialogue

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:

 

 

Dialogue tag after the speech

This is the most basic dialogue you will come across. Here are some example:

  • “Miss Holly asked us to bring our pets next week,” said Octavia
  • “It’s getting so hot!” Jane complained
  • “I don’t like cucumbers,” Yana said.
  • “She fell over yesterday,” whispered Frederick.

 

So, how do you write this?

  1. The beginning of the speech is capitalised
  2. Speech always ends with a comma (,), question mark (?) or exclamation mark (!)
  3. The speech never ends with a full stop (.)
  4. The beginning of the tag is not capitalised (unless it begins with a proper noun)
  5. The end of the whole sentence always has a full stop.

 

 

Dialogue tag before the speech

You can also put the dialogue tag before the dialogue!

For instance:

  • Megan yelled, “That hurts!” 
  • Sam mumbled, “I didn’t even like it.” 
  • Dean said, “They definitely didn’t pay for that.”
  • Romi asked, “Do you even like theme parks?”

So, how do you write dialogue with the tag before the speech?

  1. There is always a comma (,) after the tag
  2. The beginning of the speech is capitalised
  3. The speech always ends with full stop (.), exclamation mark (!) or question mark (?)
  4. However, it will never end with a comma (,).
  5. There is no additional full stop after the last speech mark (“) at the end of the sentence.

 

 

Dialogue tag in the middle of 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:

  • 1 SENTENCE: “Jamie, can you open the bottle?”
  • 2 SENTENCES: “Jamie! Can you open the bottle?”

 

Different punctuation is used for the 2 variations.

  • For 1 Sentence interrupters:
    • End the 1st part of the dialogue with a comma
    • End the dialogue tag with a comma
    • Begin the 2nd part of the dialogue with lowercase
  • For 2 sentence interrupters:
    • End the 1st dialogue with a full stop (.), exclamation mark (!) or question mark (?)
    • End the dialogue tag with a full stop (.)
    • Begin the 2nd dialogue with a capital letter

 

For example:

  • INCORRECT: “Jamie!” Katie called, “Can you open the bottle?”
    • Ending the 1st speech with an exclamation mark (!) makes it a sentence.
    • So, you cannot use a comma after the dialogue tag.

 

  • CORRECT: “Jamie!” Katie called. “Can you open the bottle?”
    • There are 2 different sentences here.
    • So, you need to end the dialogue tag with a full stop, and begin the next dialogue with a capital letter.
    • It’s like writing an action in between the dialogue!

 

  • CORRECT: “Jamie,” Katie called, “can you open the bottle?”
    • If you end the first part of the dialogue with a comma (,), then you are indicating that the sentence is incomplete. So, you can use a comma after the tag.
    • Note, that the 2nd part of the speech begins with a lowercase. This is because it is the same sentence as the first part of the dialogue

 

 

Action after dialogue

You can spice up you dialogue writing by adding actions to the end of your dialogue!

To do this, you need to:

  • End your dialogue with a full stop (.), question mark (?), or exclamation mark (!)
  • Begin action sentence with a capital letter

For example:

  • “You did what?” Elizabeth dropped everything and stared at Alice.
  • “I need a break.” Sitting down, Ricky sighed.
  • “Here it is!” He held the baton in the air and waved it around.

 

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.

For example:

  • “I can’t believe you fell over like that.” Julie laughed.
  • “I got an A for my English exam!” Bill beamed.
  • “I’m so disappointed in you.” She sighed.

 

 

Dialogue without a tag

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 (,)!

For example:

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!

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Written by Matrix English Team

The Matrix English Team are tutors and teachers with a passion for English and a dedication to seeing Matrix Students achieving their academic goals.

 

© Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matrix Education and www.matrix.edu.au with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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