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The Most Common Grammar Gaffes Writers Make and How To Avoid Them)

Here are the ten gaffes I’ve come across most often and how to avoid them.

Omitting the serial comma

A serial comma (or Oxford comma, as they say across the pond) prevents confusion when you are listing several items. For example, “…highlights of his [Peter Ustinov’s] global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” (There must be more than one Nelson Mandela!) The addition of a serial comma makes the meaning of the phrase clear: Peter Ustinov met with three people in the episode of his television show.

Improper hyphenation

Hyphenation and compounding words is constantly changing, but violating some rules marks you as a self-publisher. Here are the three main ones: hyphenate two or more words used as an adjective—”social-media sites”; hyphenate compound numbers—”forty-seven”; and hyphenate only between syllables as specified in the dictionary for end-of-line breaks—”enchant-ment.”

Using two spaces between sentences

In the old days of typewriters, characters were the same width, so two spaces were necessary to separate sentences for visual effect. With computers, characters are proportional, so they fit closer to each other, and one space is sufficient. Before you submit your manuscript, search for all double spaces and replace them with single spaces.

Passive voice

The passive voice is weak, vague, and wordy. “New York publishers are being attacked by self-publishers” is not as powerful as “Self-publishers are attacking New York publishers.” I search for every instance of “be” and “being” to eliminate as many instances of the passive voice as I can. Word’s grammar check can also help you spot passive sentences.

Improperly capitalizing the title and subtitle

Use headline-style capitalization for titles and subtitles. This means capitalizing the first word, last word, and every noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, and adverb. Start articles, prepositions shorter than five letters, and conjunctions with lowercase letters. Contrary to popular belief, headline style does not mean lowercasing all “small” words. Some small words are verbs (“Is,” “Are,” and “Be” are prime examples) or other parts of speech aside from prepositions.

Dumb apostrophes and quotation marks

There’s a world of difference between dumb apostrophes and quotation marks and their “smart” versions. There are two ways to ensure the correct usage of smart quotes and apostrophes: turn on a preference in Word to add them automatically, or type them in.


There’s bold text and there’s italic text, but there’s never underline, except as a hyperlink. If you format text with an underline that’s not a hyperlink, readers will think your book has a dead link.


Ensure that the voice and design elements of your book are consistent. For example, bulleted lists should maintain a parallel structure. If one starts with a noun, they should all start with a noun. If one starts with a verb, they should all start with a verb. Consistency also applies to design. For example, when a new section starts, the section title is always on the next right-hand page, even if this creates a blank page to the left.

Excessive adjectives and adverbs

These forms of speech are often overrated, overused, and vague. How dark was the night? So dark that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face? How slowly did he walk? Perhaps a toddler could move faster? How much did you really miss your mother? Maybe enough to make you cry at night? Find more concrete ways to describe things.

Lack of guideposts

Specifically for nonfiction authors—use subheads to help your readers navigate sections of a chapter. The name of the chapter is not enough in nonfiction books because so much material is in each chapter. Real authors use subheads.

Long passages of text

A bulleted list (like this one) is a sign of an organized mind. Rather than making your reader dig through long passages of text, use bulleted lists to highlight what is most important. Lists also make great back cover copy for your printed versions.


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