Is There an Easy Way to Overcome My Own Grammar and Usage Problems?

by Tina Blue
January 9, 2001

The articles on this website are targeted. I am not trying to teach you all about grammar. In fact, if English is your native language, you probably already know almost all the grammar you need to know. (Ironically, if English is not your native language, you may well understand English grammar, at least in a technical sense, better than most native speakers do.)

But some matters of grammar and usage give almost everyone trouble, even if they are otherwise well-educated and effective writers. My favorite example is the issue of whether to say "I feel bad" or "I feel badly." (If you want to read my article about that issue, click here.) Another is the question of whether one is permitted to end a sentence with a preposition. (One most certainly is. If you want to read my two articles on this subject, click here and here.)

Many of you have found out from reading "Ten Common but Easily Corrected Errors"  and "Son of Ten Errors" that for a long time you have been committing errors that you did not realize were errors. Actually, almost all of my grammar and usage articles serve this purpose--i.e., to target those problems that a lot of writers have, to offer a simple explanation of the grammar underlying the problem, and, most important, to provide a quick, easy fix for the problem.

Often you don't even need to understand the grammar to be able to recognize the error and to apply the fix. For example, in the article on whether to choose "bad" or "badly," I provide examples of analogous sentences to show why "I feel badly" is wrong, so that the logic behind "I feel bad" is evident, even if you can't make sense out of the explanation about linking verbs and subject complements.

So here is a way to clean up many of your errors without having to learn a lot of grammar or technical terminology. Go through the index of articles on this website to see if any of the errors I deal with are ones that you commonly make. Make a list of the errors (plus the examples and the corrections). Then go through your own writings looking for these errors and correcting them where you find them. (This process also will serve as an exercise to fix the correct usage in your mind and to make you alert to the error when you do make it.)

For each new essay or article that you write, do a separate proofreading for each of the characteristic errors that you have identified in your own writing. For example, if you have discovered that you sometimes (or always) write "could of" or "must of" when you mean "could have" or "must have," then you should be proofreading specifically for that error. If you sometimes write "alot" or "alright," then proofread separately for those errors as well. And each time I post a grammar and usage article, if you find that I am addressing an error that you make, then add that error to your list and start proofreading for it, too.

This may seem like a lot of extra work, but it is not hard, and the time and energy you invest up front will pay off in the long run, because after a  while you will simply stop making most of those errors. It only takes a few conscious proofreadings for "could of" and "alot" to make you stop committing those errors altogether. Once you don't make those errors any more, then you can just cross them off your list. If you follow this procedure, you will find that most of your characteristic errors will quickly disappear.

The fact is, no one makes all that many errors. Each person will make a few errors (often only one or two, very seldom more than ten)--but he will make those errors repeatedly, so that an essay may seem to have thirty errors, when in fact it really has only a half dozen errors, but they are frequently repeated throughout the piece. If you learn to classify and systematically attack each of your errors, you will soon be able to get rid of them.

The same approach will also clean up quite a few spelling errors. If you always misspell, for example, "independence," then always check the word each time you write it, until you have formed the habit of spelling it correctly.

     Most people do misspell the same words all the time.  Find out what your problem words are, and then watch for them. It also wouldn't hurt to borrow an old trick from your elementary-school spelling class and write a troublesome word out correctly ten or twenty times, until its correct spelling becomes second nature to you.

These steps won't make your writing error-free. Heck, even my writing isn't error-free, and I'm supposed to be the expert. No, we can't be perfect. But we can be pretty darned good--and I believe that most of you are serious about your writing and really do want to hone your craft.

Now, let me reiterate an offer I have made before and that some of my readers have already taken me up on. If you have a question on some matter of grammar and usage, e-mail me. I will gladly answer your questions, and if they seem to be of general concern, I will deal with them in an article for this column.

NOTE:  This is the second article of a set of two. In the first article, "Correcting Mechanical Errors in Your Writing", I deal with how to correct those errors that occur from carelessness, not because you don't really know the rules involved.
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