As a former English professor who has done a lot of quality assurance for peers and catching mistakes in my own work, I think it’s always a good idea for a refresher on common writing and grammar mistakes – especially the ones I’ve seen occur in learning materials the most. Here are some of the mistakes I’ve seen and made over the years and quick reminders on how to correct these in your writing.
There are a couple of very common myths when it comes to comma use:
- You put a comma wherever you take a breath.
- You need a comma before every instance of “and” or “but.”
Neither of these are true: different people take breaths at different places when reading something out loud - and it’s even harder to identify where a breath would occur when you’re reading silently to yourself. Using a comma with “and” or “but” is only required when what’s on either side is a complete sentence. Let’s break down the most common comma rules so you have a better idea of when to use them.
Using commas to separate independent clauses
An independent clause is a complete sentence with a subject, verb, and object. If you have two complete sentences on either side of a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so are the most popular ones), you put a comma before the conjunction.
Lucy took the new leadership training, but Tom took the one for individual contributors.
Example where a comma is NOT needed:
Lucy took the new leadership training and the one for individual contributors.
Pro tip: For words such as “however” and “therefore,” you would use a semicolon before the word and a comma after – when they separate two independent clauses only. This is because these are not normal conjunctions – they’re conjunctive adverbs. The word “because,” by definition, connects a subordinate clause with an independent clause – not two independent clauses, so it generally doesn’t require a comma before it.
Lucy took the new leadership training; however, Tom took the one for individual contributors.
Lucy took the training for individual contributors because the leadership training was full.
Using commas after introductory words or clauses
If you’re starting a sentence with an introductory dependent clause (like I am here), you need a comma after it. A dependent clause is one that doesn’t make a complete sentence by itself – requiring the rest of the sentence to make sense.
Because Tanya was fixing her computer, she did not attend the meeting.
Also, using transition words at the beginning of sentences requires a comma after the transition word.
Meanwhile, Leon shared LMS completions with the team.
If you want even more about how you also need a comma after introductory prepositional, appositive, participial, infinitive, and absolute phrases, check out this detailed list from OWL at Purdue.
Using commas around parenthetical phrases and appositives
An appositive is a word or phrase that follows a noun – explaining or defining it. Appositives require commas before and after.
Omar, the Chief Learning Officer at XYZ Corp., is interviewing new candidates on Tuesday.
Parenthetical expressions add detail or explanation to a sentence, but the sentence’s meaning is not dependent on the phrase. Words like “however” and “therefore” can also be considered parenthetical expressions – when they aren’t separated by two independent clauses. Like appositives, parenthetical expressions require commas before and after.
The obsession with trends in L&D is, in my opinion, taking focus away from the important things.
I realize, however, that I might be spending too much time on this project.
For more information and examples of parenthetical phrases, check out this blog on Grammarist.com.
Using commas with quotations
A comma is used before quotation marks to introduce a direct quote.
They said, “I don’t know how to do this one.”
If the quotation is explained after the quote, a comma is placed inside the quotation marks.
“I think I need to check on the progress of the project tomorrow morning,” he said.
Using commas with dates
For dates, a comma belongs only between the day of the week and the month, between the day of the month and the year, and between the year and the rest of the sentence. If any of those parts are missing, a comma is not needed.
On Friday, December 15, 2023, we will have our first in-person training for new hires.
On May 11, 2022, we met some new team members.
There was a new course added to the LMS on February 16.
Using commas with two concurrent adjectives
Use a comma between two adjectives that aren’t separated by the word “and.”
He was a helpful, honest team member.
Oh, and one last thing - I’m all for the Oxford or serial comma. You know, when you have a comma between all the items in a list. However, this is a style choice. If you want to read more about Oxford comma drama, check out this article.
Dangling or Misplacing Modifiers
A dangling modifier happens when you have a word or phrase that modifies a subject that isn’t clearly mentioned in the sentence.
Excited about her new role, the office environment was friendly and welcoming.
In the example, we’re missing the subject who is excited about the new role. We have this dependent phrase that has nothing to depend on. If we were to correct the dangling modifier, it would look something like this.
Excited about her new role, she thought the office environment was friendly and welcoming.
Misplaced modifiers are my favorite as a former English professor because they’re the funniest. A misplaced modifier occurs when a word, phrase, or clause is separated from the word or phrase it is modifying or describing.
The kind mother handed out homemade cookies to the children in treat bags.
The children aren’t in treat bags, but the prepositional phrase “in treat bags” is closer to the noun “children” than it is “homemade cookies,” making it look like there are a bunch of little tiny kids in treat bags waiting for their cookies. A corrected version would look like this.
The kind mother handed out homemade cookies in treat bags to the children.
Making Common Word Mistakes
There are some common mistakes we all make with using the wrong word for the situation, using the wrong phrase for something, or consistently misspelling certain words (thank you Spell Check!).
Here are some words that are commonly incorrectly replaced for one another:
Affect/Effect - Affect is a verb that means to impact or change, and effect is a noun that means the result of the change.
Example: …to examine how the market affects pay… versus …the training had the desired effect…
There/They’re/Their – There denotes a place, they’re is a contraction meaning “they are,” and their denotes possession.
Example: …he went there after work… versus …they’re going to a new office building Monday… versus …it was their hard work that earned the team the award…
Your/You’re – Your denotes possession, whereas you’re is a contraction meaning “you are.”
Example: …fill out your form by Friday… versus …if you’re attending the meeting..
Then/Than – Then is a point in time, whereas than denotes comparison.
Example: … then she gave the book to her friend… versus …their performance was better than their colleagues…
Which/That – That is used for defining clauses, whereas which is used for non-defining clauses, but what does that mean? If the phrase can be removed from the sentence and still make sense, you can use which, but if the phrase can’t be removed without confusing the meaning, you should use that – it depends heavily on the context of the writing and the sentence, so we won’t confuse things with an out-of-context example.
i.e./e.g. – i.e. means “that is” or “that is to say” whereas e.g. means “for example.” i.e. refers to the thing, whereas e.g. refers to a thing, so they are not interchangeable.
Example: …the deadline is Friday, i.e., we need to get our project out for SME review by Thursday morning… versus …She had a list of skills, e.g., leadership, empathy, and project management…
Capitalizing Improper Nouns
When capitalizing nouns, it’s important to remember the rules for the organization or client you’re working for. That is, are there certain words that represent products, programs, or processes that your company requires to always be capitalized?
With that in mind, I’m going to share some of the words that don’t need to be capitalized but are sometimes incorrectly capitalized in use.
Job titles – you don’t need to capitalize job titles unless they occur right before a name.
Example: the marketing director position is open versus Marketing Director Bret Torrison.
Industries or departments – you don’t need to capitalize the names of industries or departments unless they are used with a business or organization name.
Example: the sales department versus the Big Business Company Sales Department.
Non-Specific Occasions – You don’t capitalize the words for non-specific holidays or occasions.
Example: birthday, anniversary, or party versus Christmas, Hanukkah, or Ramadan.
Seasons and Directions – seasons and directions are only capitalized when they are part of a title.
Example: the company is on Fall Holiday versus she started last fall.
Example: West Coast versus headed west.
Here are some of the types of nouns that should be capitalized:
- Titles of books
- Government departments
- Religions and their deities
- Cities and states
- Political parties
- Academic degrees
Here, we’re talking about hyphenated words, not to be confused with using dashes. Hyphens are used together as an adjective before a noun.
It was a long-term performance plan for the team.
If the words are being used as adjectives but aren’t directly before the noun, you don’t need to hyphenate them.
The performance plan for the team was long term.
You also don’t need a hyphen if one of the words being used to describe the noun is an adverb.
The poorly executed plan didn’t survive the leadership meeting.
Lacking Varied Sentence Length
If sentences are consistently too short, it can sound like an early reading book you might have found in elementary school, making the tone awkward.
There is a new policy. Find it on the intranet. Fill it out by May 1. Ask your manager any questions.
On the other hand, if all of your sentences are too long, it will read too academic, boring, and like a dissertation. No, I’m not giving an example. You know what I’m talking about.
It’s best to vary the sentence length for things you’re writing – courses, videos, and more. This way you can avoid run-on sentences and make the flow of your writing more readable.
Not Changing the Tone for the Medium
The way you talk to your friends is probably not the same tone as you use with a stranger – or with an older family member. It’s important to change your writing tone depending on the type of learning experience you’re creating. If you’re writing something for video that will be read by a narrator, you’re probably going to use a warmer, more casual tone (depending on the subject matter). If you’re writing for a really technical course or document, you’ll want to be very concise but detailed and probably take a more serious tone. It’s important to remember the audience and the delivery method when you start writing.