When it comes to writing, whether you’re penning a blog post, an essay, a poem, or a novel, having sound grammar is a must. No matter how golden your plot or message may be, if your work is littered with grammatical errors, then you run the very real risk of losing your readers before they even get to the good parts.
Now, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about writing is that there’s no skipping the fundamentals. You’ll need a fairly good grasp of grammar to secure a writing gig. And if you’re thinking of getting your novel published, then it’s safe to say that you’ll need more than just a good grasp. Think rock-solid, strongman-level clench.
Another (hard) lesson I’ve learned is that no matter how good of a writer you think you are, there’s always going to be room for improvement. Grammar, for all its rigidity, is actually quite the slippery sucker. It definitely helps to brush up on your grammar once in a while. That’s exactly what I was up to when I came across the following words/phrases. Think of this little list as a cheat sheet of sorts—that’s certainly how I’m treating it.
So, without further ado, here are ten of the most common grammatical mistakes even seasoned writers make.
1. Using i.e. and e.g. interchangeably.
When I was in school, i.e. and e.g. were exclusively used for formal papers. Nowadays, however, more and more people are using i.e. and e.g. casually and interchangeably, usually when introducing further examples of what they were referring to. Now, like their ever-trusty cousin etc. (et cetera), i.e. and e.g. are Latin abbreviations. They actually mean very different things. The key to using them properly lies in knowing their respective definitions.
Let’s start with e.g., which is short for exempli gratia. Bit of a mouthful, but the first word gives you an idea of what it stands for. Exempli is pretty close to example, isn’t it? That’s because the phrase exempli gratia means “for example.” So, if you’ve been using e.g. when citing examples, then good job! You’ve hit the nail on its head.
As for i.e., it means id est, which translates to “that is.” So, if you’re referring to something specific to clarify or solidify your statement, i.e. is the way to go. Now, some people use the formula “i.e. = in essence,” which is a pretty neat trick too. Just don’t forget the Latin phrase in case the internet police come after you.
I’m thinking of binge-watching some shows this week, (e.g. Mad Men, Mindhunter, The Good Place, Brooklyn 99, Grace and Frankie), and then tweeting nonstop about how much work I still have to do. That’s the plan.
I’m busy doing creative research (i.e. binge-watching Mad Men).
2. Free reign vs. free rein
Homophones are very tricky, especially when we’re talking idioms and common phrases. This one is particularly thorny, I think, because in a way both statements seem to make sense. Free reign vs. free rein. The first one conjures images of being a ruling monarch given absolute power to do as one chooses. The latter brings to mind how one can gently loosen the reins when horseback riding to allow the horse more freedom of movement.
These days, both phrases are used in magazine articles and news websites. But according to Merriam-Webster, the correct phrase is free rein. It means to be given “unrestricted liberty of action or decision.” The phrase was originally a term used in horseback-riding to refer to a way of holding the horse’s reins/straps. Sometime in the 17th century, however, free rein founds its figurative footing and has since been used to refer to “freedom of expression or action.”
As for free reign, it is but an eggcorn—it sounds right and feels right but is ultimately wrong.
Some days it feels as if the people have given a monster free rein to run the country into ruin. –dystopian novels and dissatisfied constituents
3. With baited breath vs. with bated breath
Another homophone, but an easier fix this time. If you read the first phrase again, you’ll see that it doesn’t make much sense. To bait someone is to deliberately try to annoy someone or make him/her angry. You use bait to catch fish or whatever else you want to trap or hunt—I’m hoping not humans. A clickbait is when you get lured to a website or webpage—oftentimes through misrepresentation of content. So, essentially, it doesn’t make sense to use the phrase, with baited breath.
As for bated, it refers to a diminishment or a restraint of “force or intensity.” So, saying with bated breath is perfectly acceptable. The phrase means the act of holding your breath in anticipation, anxiety, fear, nervousness, or suspense.
He waited for her answer with bated breath, but she said nothing. Her face remained impassive as ever, even as she made a move to take the ring from his hand.
4. Of vs. Have (as in should of/have, would of/have, could of/have)
Now, you may think this one’s pretty basic, but it’s a mistake that a lot of people make. Though not exactly homophones, of and have, (specifically the contraction of the latter), are close enough in sound to confuse a number of people.
Of, of course, is a preposition used to refer to the relationship or connection of two items, things, or groups. That is to say that you use of when referring to something or someone that belongs to or hails from something, someone, or somewhere else. For example, you say that “This painting is truly the work of a genius.” Or you can say, “Hermione Granger is the brightest witch of her generation.”
Based on that definition, you can see that it doesn’t really make sense to pair of with should, would, or could, especially if your intent is to convey regret or the possibility of something. As you’ll see in the following examples, the right expressions are: should have, would have, and could have.
Incorrect: She should of known better.
Correct: She should have known better.
Incorrect: Had I known about this sooner, I would of acted differently.
Correct: Had I known about this sooner, I would have acted differently.
Incorrect: I could of sworn that was you!
Correct: I could have sworn that was you!
5. Emigrated vs. Immigrated/Emigrate vs. Immigrate
Ah, emigrated and immigrated—another set of words similar enough in pronunciation to cause serious confusion. Again, the key to using the right word here is through learning each word’s definition. See, emigrate means leaving your country to live somewhere else. While immigrate means come to another country to live there. Essentially, you’re emigrating from your homeland, and immigrating to or into another country.
Due to the rampant property- and business-grabbing of President X’s government, people were forced to emigrate from X-land in search of better opportunities.
They immigrated to the United States in the 1980s.
6. Peak vs. Pique vs. Peek
Sneak peek or sneak peak? Piqued my interest or peaked my interest? These are some of the questions I’ve seen online regarding these three words. Here’s what each word means:
Peak means the highest point of something. As in, to summit the peak of Mount Everest.
Pique, when used as a verb, can mean two things: to excite or to stimulate, (ex. piqued my curiosity), and to feel annoyance or irritation (His glib remark left me feeling piqued).
As for Peek, well, that’s when you use your peepers to look at something, (ex. She took a furtive peek at the exam’s answer sheet.)
Now, as you can see from those definitions, if you’re talking about the opportunity to see something before its official release, (ex. movie trailers, book snippets), then you’re getting a sneak peek. If you’re after the word that describes either the metaphorical or physical pinnacle of something, then the word is peak. For example, Based on last night’s game, Dejounte Murray is back in peak condition. And lastly, if you’re referring to excitement, resentment, or curiosity being stirred, then piqued is the way to go. For example, Malcolm Gladwell’s recent round of interviews has piqued my interest in his new book, “Talking to Strangers.”
7. Compliment vs. Complement
Some time ago, I stayed in a hotel that offered an array of very nice freebies. While the items were very much appreciated, the misprint on the card that read “complementary,” threw me for a moment. I was pretty sure the proper word was complimentary, but I’m not ashamed to say that I did double-check with a dictionary app just to be sure.
Turns out, the right word is complimentary. See, while both of these words may be rooted in the Latin word, complere, which means “to complete,” time has allowed both words to develop their own meanings and usages. Let’s start with the one that comes closest to its Latin ancestor.
According to Merriam Webster, complement is “something that completes something else or makes it better.” While the adjective complementary means “goes together well.”
A compliment, on the other hand, refers to the expression of praise, admiration, or approval. As for complimentary, the adjective can mean either “expressing admiration” or “something that’s given for free.”
Here are some examples of how these words are used:
The gravelly quality of Johnny Cash’s voice, coupled with his emotional delivery of the lyrics, complemented the dark and painful message of the song Hurt.
The fact that Johnny Cash chose to cover the Nine Inch Nails song is a massive compliment to Trent Reznor’s writing and composing abilities.
While planning my wedding, I spent a lot of time looking for complementary colors that would fit our spring-literary theme.
The hotel offered the newlyweds a complimentary basket of fruits and a bottle of wine.
8. Between vs. Among
Though often used interchangeably, the difference between the two words is pretty straightforward. You use between when referring to specific or distinct items. And contrary to popular belief, these items need not be limited to two choices. While the word among is used when you’re pertaining to things or people in a collective and not distinct manner. (Or is it non-distinct?)
When given a choice between coffee, orange juice, and tea, I always choose the first as my preferred breakfast drink.
Contrary to popular belief, there can be honor among thieves. (Though that honor is tenuous at best, if you ask me.)
9. Shoe-in vs. Shoo-in
Perhaps it’s the foot-in-the-door association that’s done it, but there seems to be a large number of people who use shoe-in when referring to a sure winner. The right expression when you’re talking about someone or something that’s certain to succeed is shoo-in. You know, as in when you urge something or someone forward, as in you shoo them forward.
With her aunt as one of the judges, she’s a shoo-in to win the pageant.
10. I could care less vs. I couldn’t care less
Now, unlike the previous entries where there’s a clear-cut right and wrong answer, this one has to do with what you want to say. Of course, the common expression is I couldn’t care less, as in I don’t care at all. Hence the contraction in couldn’t. But technically you can say I could care less, if that’s exactly what you mean. It all boils down to context.
I couldn’t care less about who wins the next race. My team’s already out of the running, so it doesn’t matter who wins first place. (I don’t care.)
I could care less about the results of the upcoming elections, that’s true. But it’s not in my nature to be apathetic about something that affects my family’s day-to-day existence. (I care.)
These are just some of the trickier grammar problems I’ve personally encountered while writing, or seen online while doing research. I’m sure there are many more words and phrases that we can learn together. What about you? Any other words or idioms you’ve struggled with?