Common Syntax Mistakes

Spelling errors aren’t too difficult to correct with spell check and dictionary access, but knowing a few basic rules can help you resolve embarrassing structural errors.

Small mistakes can alter people’s opinions about your intelligence, work ethic or attention to detail, whether or not it’s actually a fair assessment of your skills. Here’s a quick refresher on some of the more common mistakes made by so many writers:

Punctuation Within Quotation Marks

Ninety-nine percent of the time, the punctuation (commas, periods, question marks) should go on the inside of the quotation marks.

  • “I can’t stand her,” John said.
  • “What do you want for dinner?” Mary asked.
  • “No!” Jess said. “It can’t be true.”

There are a few instances where the punctuation belongs outside of the quotation marks, the most frequent being if the sentence is a question or exclamation and the quoted material is not.

  • What did you think of the poem “Places”?

Apostrophe Usage

Remember that apostrophes should be used when a word possesses something or is missed one or more letters.

  • I can’t go to to my best friend’s wedding.

Never use an apostrophe to indicate a plural form of a word.

  • I like cat’s more than dog’s.

What are these cats and dogs possessing? Nothing. At least we hope they don’t possess fleas…

Also keep in mind that certain possessives (possessive pronouns) do not use apostrophes:

  • his
  • hers
  • yours
  • ours
  • its

And remember that when the word is already plural, the apostrophe belongs after the “s.”

  • My parents’ house was sold yesterday.
  • The kids’ faces transformed from anguish to excitement in a matter of seconds.

But don’t mistake a word that has a plural form other than “s.” The apostrophe should remain before the “s” for these words.

  • The children’s faces transformed from anguish to excitement in a matter of seconds.

Keep Everything Parallel

When writing a list or comparison between two or more things, be sure to keep it parallel. What does this mean exactly? Here are correct sentences:

  • I like to walk, swim and dance.
  • I like to walk, to swim, and to dance.
  • I like walking, swimming, and dancing.
  • I like to swim more than to dance.
  • I like swimming more than dancing.

Okay, this all seems easy enough, but what makes a sentence not parallel, anyway? When the list combines any verb form (infinitive [to swim] with gerund [swimming]) or place the “to” in front of some infinitives and not others (unless it is only placed prior to the list [to walk, dance, and swim]), it is not parallel. These are incorrect examples:

  • I like to walk, swim, and dancing.
  • I like to walk, swim, and to dance.
  • I like walking, swimming, and to dance at the gym.
  • I like to swim more than dancing.

Although these are only a few syntax errors, they can cause others to judge you positively or negatively in the professional and even casual writing world. Always check over your work before labeling it as finished — even a quick email to your coworker.

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