Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

4 common grammar errors and how to fix them

Can you spot the errors in the intro to this story?

How you write says as much about you as what you write.

Lets say that your reaching out to someone you’ve never met, you want to write a great cover letter for a job application. If its riddled with errors; it’s like showing up to an interview with clothes full of holes, says Laura Monerris Oliveras, writing and learning specialist with NAIT’s Learning Services, which provides workshops to improve students skills in everything from math to time management to grammar.

They simply have no place in high-quality prose. “You’re [writing] is your presentation card for your reader,” says Monerris Oliveras. “Writing is a process and it takes time and care to get it right. The first draft you write is never going to be the draft you submit. Even expert writer’s need revision.”

Now that the errors above have convinced you that I’m completely unqualified to write this article, let’s sort them out. Check out the corrections below, which highlight some of the most common errors Monerris Oliveras sees in her grammar workshops for students, as well as in the world each day.

Sentence fragments

sentence fragment puzzleIf its riddled with errors;

“A complete, or full, sentence ends with a period and must have a subject, verb and a complete thought,” says Monerris Oliveras. “When one of these three components is missing, we end up with a sentence fragment, or dependent clause.”

Ignore the apostrophe errors in the clause above to focus on its construction. It contains a subject – it. It contains a verb – riddled. But it lacks the complete thought implied by if, which begs the question, “Then what?” Once that thought – it’s like showing up to an interview with clothes full of holes – is added, it becomes a complete sentence.

Comma splices and run-on sentences

run on sentencesLets say that your reaching out to someone you’ve never met, you want to write a great cover letter for a job application.

In contrast to a fragment, a complete sentence – that is, an independent clause – can stand alone. The sentence above, then, is actually two sentences. Separating those sentences with a comma, which is meant to separate fragments, results in a comma splice.

Monerris Oliveras tells her classes, “A comma is tiny. It cannot bear the weight of these two complete structures.” Try a period instead, to cut that weight in half, or strengthen the comma with a coordinating conjunction:

Lets say that your reaching out to someone you’ve never met, or you want to write a great cover letter for a job application.

Alternatively, if the two independent clauses are closely related, as in the sentence below, a semicolon will bear their weight just fine, says Monerris Oliveras.

Writing is a process, and it takes time and care to get it right; the first draft you write is never going to be the draft you submit.

Apostrophe misuse and abuse

apostrophe correctionMonerris Oliveras sympathizes with those who get fooled by possessive apostrophes and contractions. In fact, they tend to be so tough to sort out that she has yet to come up with tricks to help students remember what to use when. “You [just] need to explain that they’re two different things,” she says.

●      “An apostrophe is used to shorten or contract a group of words by replacing the missing letters”:

Lets say that your reaching out ... → Let’s [let us] say

If its riddled with errors ... → If it’s [it is] riddled

●      Never use an apostrophe to indicate plural:

“Even expert writer’s need revision.” → “Even expert writers need revision.”

●      Use an apostrophe to indicate possession (in the following case, after the s to indicate the skills of more than one student)

… improve students skill’s … → … improve students’ skills

●      Do not confuse a contraction with a possessive adjective:

“You’re text is your presentation card” → “Your text is your …”

This also applies to the other possessive adjectives, their and its. They’re – a tricky one for students, says Monerris Oliveras – is a contraction of they are.

Confusing pronouns


A pronoun replaces a specific noun: for example, she can stand in for Monerris Oliveras. Used improperly, or separated by too many words or clauses, they can cause confusion. “When the pronoun does not have an immediate antecedent, then the reference needs to be explicit,” says Monerris Oliveras.

In They have no place in high-quality prose, what they refers to is unclear. Is it the errors or the ratty clothes? Readers will guess, of course, but they shouldn’t have to.

Get a little help from your friends

well dressed manIf you’re not sure your prose is clean and clear – and even when you feel sure that it is – ask someone with a fresh perspective to read it.

“You want to show your reader that you care about what you have to say, the same way you would show your interviewer you care about the job by wearing clothes with no tears in them.” says Monerris Oliveras.

That means not just spending the time on writing, but on revising based on trusted feedback. “So, ask a friend for a new pair of eyes.”


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