Top Five Grammar and Punctuation Mistakes I See in Submissions

Grammar is something writers mess up. There's no shame in it. Even the most experienced writers can throw in a mistake or two when the story takes over and their typing fingers can't keep up with their thoughts. So here are the top five mistakes I see in submissions. Spot any that you make?

Your v.s. You're

I love your story. In this case, your is the possessive. The story belongs to you.

You're telling a story. In this case, you're is the contraction of you are

See the difference? Try reading your sentence out loud. If you can read the sentence substituting you are, then you need to use the contraction form. If it makes no sense when you substitute you are, then try the possessive form.

Then v.s. Than

Than is a conjunction used to make comparisons. I like chocolate chip cookies better than brownies.

Then is mainly used as an adverb to create a time reference for an action. I baked the cookies, and then we ate them.

Then can also act as an adjective if placed in front of a noun e.g. “she received the gift from her then boyfriend.”

Punctuating Dialogue

Cormac McCarthy (The Road, No Country for Old Men) is known for NOT using dialogue tags or quotation marks. It's a stylistic choice and it works for him. But most authors do use quotation marks. I often see incorrect usage in submissions.

Incorrect: "I'm going to the store." He said.

Incorrect: "I'm going to the store", he said.

Correct: "I'm going to the store," he said.

Incorrect: "I'm sorry you're feeling sad," she put her hand on my shoulder.

Correct: "I'm sorry you're feeling sad." She put her hand on my shoulder.

A few things to remember:

Keep punctuation inside the quotation marks.

Start a new paragraph for each new speaker to help the reader differentiate (this is not a hard and fast rule and can be broken in some circumstances). 

If you have more than one consecutive paragraph of dialogue from the same speaker, open the quotation for the first paragraph, do NOT close the quotation at the end of the paragraph, open quotation for the second paragraph, then close the quotation, like this:

   "So I was telling you that story about the kid in my class, the one who played rugby...remember? He's a beast, totally brutal. An animal. Works out every day. Maybe twice a day. He's huge. I think he benches like...350?

    "Well, anyway, last week I saw him at the food bank. Working there, yeah? He was sorting tins and boxes and stuff, putting everything on shelves. Never expected someone like him to volunteer." 

Its v.s. It's

The dog wagged its tail. In this case, its is the possessive. The tail belongs to it (the dog).  

It's a long way to the store. In this case, it's is a contraction of it is

Again, you can try the trick of reading your sentence out loud and seeing if the sentence still makes sense when you substitute it is.

They're, There, Their

They're is a contraction for they are.

There refers to a place.

Their is the possessive (refers to something that belongs to a group).

They're (they are) going over there (a place) to retrieve their backpacks (the backpacks belong to the group).


Places to find more info:

Check out this great post on Passive Voice by Grammar Girl.

The Chicago Manual of Style is a commonly used style guide that can help answer your grammar and punctuation questions. The Associated Press Stylebook is another great option, as is Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.

What about you? Do you have any grammar/punctuation mistakes that haunt you?