Proofreading Guide

Proofreading has always been one of my favorite hobbies. I like helping people improve their writing, but I have found that when I make corrections, I often need a quick way to explain a grammar or style rule. So I started this list. If I ever proofread for you, I’ll probably refer you to a few entries here.

Adverbial Clause As Subject

An adverbial clause cannot function as the subject of a sentence.

Incorrect

Wherever they gathered seemed to brew trouble.

The adverbial clause here is “wherever they gathered,” and it is not a proper subject for this sentence.

Correct

Wherever they gathered, trouble seemed to brew.

Now “trouble” is the subject.

Archaism

Archaisms are old, unfamiliar language used where new, familiar language would suffice.

Sometimes a writer may find an archaism appealing on the grounds that it seems intellectual, historic, or poetic. And, of course, choosing language because of the way it sounds is perfectly legitimate. The problem with archaisms, however, is that they sacrifice clarity for the sake of sound, which is always a bad idea.

A simple way to test for archaisms: when you use old language, ask, “Does this language denote or connote anything that newer language couldn’t?” If the answer is no, you’ve got an archaism.

Awkward

They left the country anon.

Better

They left the country immediately.

Authorial Voice

Related to tone, but broader, authorial voice is the whole character of someone’s writing style—a result of all distinctive elements, including tone, word choice, punctuation, and cadence. Good authorial voice is consistent.

Capitalization

Most capitalization errors occur when writers are confuse improper nouns for proper nouns. The best way to be certain is to check the dictionary. In general, remember that just because a noun is important does not make it proper. Proper nouns are names of one form or another. A few rules for common mistakes:

  • Personal titles are capitalized only when attached to a name (so: “Pastor Jones,” but “Jones is a pastor”).
  • Cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) are capitalized when serving as a nickname for a certain region (e.g., “I love Japan, but I’m less familiar with other countries in the East.”).
  • “Biblical” is not a proper noun.
  • “Gospel” is not a proper noun unless it refers to one or more of the four written Gospels.

Case

The “case” of a word is the form it takes to show its relation to other parts of the sentence. In English, case problems occur primarily with the subjective and objective forms of pronouns.

Incorrect

David and him are going to be late.

To test a sentence, try speaking it with the other subjects or objects removed. “Him is going to be late” is clearly wrong.

Correct

David and he are going to be late.

Incorrect

Drop it off for my wife and I to sign.

You would never say, “Drop it off for I to sign.”

Correct

Drop it off for my wife and me to sign.

Colloquialism

A colloquialism is an informal word or phrase that appears out of place in formal writing.

Awkward

Many Americans had it easy until the Great Depression.

Better

Many Americans lived comfortably until the Great Depression.

Comma Splice

A comma splice is the joining of two independent clauses in a single sentence with only a comma. To join two independent clauses in a single sentence, you must use either (1) a comma and a coordinating conjunction together or (2) a semicolon.

Incorrect

I drove to the park, Sarah stayed at home.

Correct—with Comma and Conjunction

I drove to the park, but Sarah stayed at home.

Correct—with Semicolon

I drove to the park; Sarah stayed at home.

Contraction

Typically contractions are inappropriate in formal writing.

Incorrect

Some investors haven’t made any money this year.

Correct

Some investors have not made any money this year.

Cumulative Sentence

A cumulative sentence, the alternative to a periodic sentence, is a sentence in which the essential information is delivered up front. Though grammatically correct, cumulative sentences are not as striking as periodic sentences (though they tend to be clearer). Periodic sentences are better when you need to be emphatic.

Dull cumulative sentence

He would die if he went another month without proper nutrition.

The words “He would die” would arrive like a bombshell at the end of this sentence. At its beginning, however, they are unsurprising and flat.

Striking periodic sentence

If he went another month without proper nutrition, he would die.

When this sentence is rearranged to be periodic, the words “he would die” are much more striking.

Definition Without Example

A definition (or new concept) without an example can be confusing to readers. Generally examples should follow all but the simplest and clearest definitions.

Unclear

Some frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum are invisible to the human eye.

Most readers will have to stop for a moment and try to remember what the electromagnetic spectrum is.

Better

Some frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum, like radio waves and x-rays, are invisible to the human eye.

This eliminates guesswork for the reader.

Delayed Point

When details, explanation, or argumentation appear before the point they support, they delay it. Delayed points prompt readers to wonder, where is he going with this? As a general rule, writers should state their points first and then explain and defend them.

Occasionally, however, you may need to delay your point on purpose (for instance, if you’re structuring your argument or narrative inductively). In this case, simply hint at your point early on (see example below). Then, although your readers won’t know your point right away, they will be able to follow your reasoning and won’t get lost.

Unclear

The stoplights in town often malfunctioned during electrical storms. Knowing this, Officer Jones didn’t pull anyone over for traffic violations all afternoon.

Until they get to the second sentence, readers will wonder why it matters that the stoplights malfunctioned. This kind of wait-and-figure-it-out game makes reading tiring.

Better (point moved to beginning)

Officer Jones didn’t pull anyone over for traffic violations all afternoon. He knew the stoplights in town often malfunctioned during electrical storms.

Here the point appears at the beginning. Now, as soon as they read the fact about the stoplights, readers will know immediately why the writer has supplied it.

Better (inductive structure with early hint)

Officer Jones had an unexpected respite during the electrical storm. He knew the stoplights in town often malfunctioned, so he didn’t pull anyone over for traffic violations all afternoon.

In the above solution, the main point (that Jones pulled no one over) is still withheld until the end, yet the reader anticipates it enough not to get lost during the prior sentence.

Faulty Parallelism

Faulty parallelism occurs when similar items are constructed differently. It make sentences choppy.

Incorrect

I like reading, swimming, and bicycles.

“Reading” and “swimming” are participles, but “bicycles” is not.

Correct

I like reading, swimming, and bicycling.

All the items are now participles.

Faulty Predication

A faulty predication occurs when a subject isn’t logically connected its verb—when the subject can’t do or be what the verb says it does or is.

Incorrect

The objective of the charity auction aims to raise money.

An “objective” (the subject) cannot “aim” (the verb). An objective is an aim.

Correct

The objective of the charity auction is to raise money.

Correct

Through the charity auction, we aim to make money.

Incorrect

A civil war is when a country’s citizens fight each other.

A war is not a when. A war is a what.

Correct

A civil war occurs when a country’s citizens fight each other.

Correct

A civil war is a war in which a country’s citizens fight each other.

First Person

Some people frown upon the use of the first person in formal writing. First person singular (I, me, my, mine) appears to transform the thesis from an objective position into a personal opinion.

Awkward

I think that Beethoven’s most compelling symphony was his ninth.

Writers often pad statements of fact with the first person out of a desire to be gentle and to leave room for differences of opinion. They usually end up sounding timid.

Better

Beethoven’s most compelling symphony was his ninth.

Often the best way to strike first person from a sentence is to remove the first few words. Here, of course, this will be a naked assertion unless the writer follows it with support.

Better (less emphatic)

Perhaps Beethoven’s most compelling symphony was his ninth.

If the first solution sounds too strong, you can limit your statement with a note of uncertainty. Instead of sounding timid, this merely sounds open.

An exception to the rule above: sometimes first person plural (we, us, our, ours) is acceptable in metadiscourse.

Acceptable

As we have seen, the idea of the “self-made man” is more myth than history.

This is much more fluid than saying something like, “As discussed above….”

Grammatical Expletive

A grammatical expletive is a use of the phrase it is/was or there is/was/are/were when the words it or there have no referent. These phrases tend to make sentences feel diluted and devoid of a subject. Eliminate them when you can. (Occasionally they can actually make a sentence less awkward. When that happens, keep them.)

Bland

There are ten players on the team.

“There are” ten players? They exist? Is that all? To announce that something merely exists is a bad reason for writing a sentence.

Better

The team has ten players on it.

This is more much active. This sentence serves to announce a key fact about the team.

Bland

It was four months after their anniversary.

Think about the logic of this syntax. It was four months? What was four months? The subject of this sentence is buried.

Better

Four months had passed since their anniversary.

This is a much more direct way to deliver the same information.

One exception: to write about the weather without grammatical expletives is difficult. “It is raining” is perfectly fine.

Hyphen/Dash

A hyphen (-) joins two words, as in great-uncle or president-elect. The slightly longer en dash (–) indicates a range, as in Monday–Friday or 1954–present. An em dash (—), the longest of all, indicates a break in thought in a sentence, as in, Margaret was no professional—in fact, she was a fraud. However, some people will also use an en dash with spaces on either side in this third case.

Name Character Mac Shortcut PC Shortcut
Hyphen hyphen option-hyphen
En Dash option-hyphen ctrl-hyphen
Em Dash shift-option-hyphen hold Alt and type 0150
on the number pad

Hyphen after Adverb

When one adjective modifies another adjective (as in high-waisted pants), they take a hyphen, since the adjective is not performing its usual duty (modifying a noun). However, when an adverb modifies an adjective, no hyphen is necessary.

Incorrect

Heroin is one of the most highly-addictive substances on the planet.

Correct

Heroin is one of the most highly addictive substances on the planet.

Modifiers formed with well are a tricky exception. Although well is an adverb, compound words like well-adjusted, well-intentioned, and well-balanced have become commonplace. When in doubt, check a dictionary.

It’s/Its

It’s is a contraction of it is. Its is the possessive form of it.

Jargon

Jargon is specialized or technical language that may be confusing to laymen. In the context of writing, jargon usually refers to unnecessary technical language that the writer should replace with a simpler equivalent.

Off-Putting

Every verso had a star at the bottom.

Better

Every left-hand page had a star at the bottom.

Misplaced Modifier

A misplaced modifier (like a participial or prepositional phrase) is one next to a noun it is not intended to modify.

Incorrect

Rounding the corner, the store came into view.

The store was moving?!

Correct

As I rounded the corner, the store came into view.

Missing Comma

Two set-in-stone rules for comma usage are:

Incorrect

She spoke French German Greek and Latin.

Correct

She spoke French, German, Greek, and Latin.

The comma after “Greek” is an Oxford comma.

In general, commas belong where readers expect pauses. Three good guidelines for comma usage are:

  • Commas should follow introductory phrases unless those phrases are very short.

Awkard

Whether or not it had been deliberate his speech set the wheels of revolt in motion.

Better

Whether or not it had been deliberate, his speech set the wheels of revolt in motion.

  • A participial phrase needs commas on any end that does not begin or end the sentence, unless it immediately follows the word it modifies, in which case it needs no preceding comma (more here.)

Incorrect

After the sale was final, the tenants immediately started renovating increasing their property value.

The sentence ends with the participial phrase “increasing their property value,” but that phrase modifies “tenants,” not “renovating.”

Correct

After the sale was final, the tenants immediately started renovating, increasing their property value.

Correct

Are these the tenants increasing their property value?

Here the participial phrase immediately follows the word it modifies and requires no comma.

  • Nonessential relative clauses should have commas (or some punctuation) on any end that does not start or finish the sentence. See this page for a description of relative clauses and tips on distinguishing nonessential from essential ones.

Awkward

The cedar bookshelf which my younger self had so often surveyed in awe now looked strangely small.

Better

The cedar bookshelf, which my younger self had so often surveyed in awe, now looked strangely small.

Missing Word

A good proofreading trick for catching missing words is to read the sentences of a composition aloud, one at a time, in reverse order. (Note that I am using the term omission to refer to the grammatical error of removing a word on purpose. A “missing word,” by contrast, is merely a typographical error.)

Misused Word

A misused word (or phrase) is a one used as if it has a different meaning than it actually does. Similar-sounding words are ripe for this kind of confusion (this is called malapropism). So are common expressions with plausible misinterpretations.

Incorrect

Once we have reviewed last week’s minutes, Mrs. Graham will head off the meeting.

To “head something off” is to prohibit or prevent it. This writer probably means something else.

Correct

Once we have reviewed last week’s minutes, Mrs. Graham will head the meeting.

To “head” something is to direct it.

Some words and phrases manage to confuse lots of writers:

  • The abbreviation “i.e.” means “that is” (Latin id est.)
  • The abbreviation “e.g.” means “for example” (Latin exempli gratia.)

Note that you should never pair the abbreviations “e.g.” (for example) and “etc.” (and the rest), since by definition an example is only a subset.

Mixed Construction

“Mixed construction” is a broad term for any type of error in which the grammar or syntax of sentence simply doesn’t work, although the specific problem may be hard to name. To call it a “mixed construction” is to suggest that the error is the result of two different constructions having been mistakenly used in the same sentence.

No simple rule exists for correcting a mixed construction. The sentence simply has to be rewritten until it makes sense.

Incorrect

Not all collectibles gain value over time, whether certain books are in good condition.

This sentence is clearly wrong somehow, though both halves are fine on their own.

Correct

Not all collectibles gain value over time—not even certain books, though they may be in good condition.

Mixed Metaphor

A mixed metaphor is one metaphor used in close conjunction with another. Mixed metaphors create unintentionally bizarre pictures.

Awkward

During publishing season, the interns walked on eggshells around the explosive department supervisors.

The two images together suggest explosive eggs.

Better

During publishing season, the interns were very careful around the explosive department supervisors.

Better

During publishing season, the interns walked on eggshells around the short-tempered department supervisors.

Naked Assertion

A naked assertion is a claim with no factual or rhetorical support.

Problematic

Law-abiding citizens still have reason to fear authority.

This may be true, but it isn’t self-evident. Without any support, it may lose the reader.

Better

As George Orwell showed in his classic novel, 1984, law-abiding citizens still have reason to fear authority.

Better

As anyone who has been the victim of police brutality will know, law-abidings citizen still have reason to fear authority.

Naked Demonstrative Pronoun

Demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, those) are “naked” when they do not appear next to identifier nouns. Naked demonstrative pronouns are not formal errors, but they tend to make writing less clear.

Less clear

Both armies suffered heavy casualties in the islands. Historians agree that these were the impetus for the treaty that would follow.

More clear

Both armies suffered heavy casualties in the islands. Historians agree that these losses were the impetus for the treaty that would follow.

Nominalization

To nominalize is to convert a word into a noun. Unnecessary nominalizations lengthen sentences.

Awkward

The team performed an analysis on the new engine.

“Analysis” is a nominalization of “analyze” and requires the introduction of more words to make the sentence work.

Better

The team analyzed the new engine.

Boring verbs, like linking verbs and forms of become, can, would, should, make, and have often reveal a nominalization.

Colorless

Mr. Wellington was a teacher at the local high school.

Here “teacher” is a nominalization, and requires the boring verb “was” to work.

Better

Mr. Wellington taught at the local high school.

Noun-Pronoun Disagreement

The gender and number of a pronoun must match the gender and number of the noun to which it refers.

Incorrect

On the rare occasion that my grandparents cooked dinner, he spared no expense.

“Grandparents” is plural, but “he” is singular. The writer probably wrote “he” thinking of his grandfather, but grammatically, the sentence doesn’t work.

Correct

On the rare occasion that my grandparents cooked dinner, they spared no expense.

Correct

On the rare occasion that my grandparents cooked dinner, my grandfather spared no expense.

If the writer needs to refer specifically to his grandfather, he should nix the pronoun entirely.

Noun-pronoun disagreement often occurs when writers treat the pronouns somebody, someone, everybody, everyone, each, no one, and nobody as plural. These words are always singular.

Incorrect

Everyone has their own favorite dessert.

Correct

Everyone has his own favorite dessert.

Similarly, if the gender of the noun is uncertain but the number is singular, use the male pronoun.

Incorrect

What if a user forgets their password?

Correct

What if a user forgets his password?

If you need to be politically correct, you can also use “his or her.”

Noun-pronoun disagreement also often occurs with Latin-root words like data, curricula, media, and syllabi. These words are plural. The singular forms are datum, curriculum, medium, and syllabus.

Incorrect

Some journalists have asked if the media has a liberal bias.

Correct

Some journalists have asked if the media have a liberal bias.

Overwriting

Overwriting is a broad term for any kind of writing that is elaborate, stuffy, or overly formal. Redundancy, archaisms, unnecessary specification, unnecessary negation, and pretentious language are common in overwriting. Overwriting can also be (more broadly) a problem of tone. Overwriting obscures meaning and alienates readers.

Overwriting can only be corrected one sentence at a time. If your entire composition is overwritten, you may have made one of these common mistakes:

  1. Focusing too much on achieving a certain tone during your first draft. (During your first draft, you should focus only on being clear. Don’t worry about tone until you revise.)
  2. Relying too much on cadence (and not enough on vocabulary, argument, and imagery) to communicate passion. This sacrifices sense for the sake of sound.

Omission

Necessary words are absent. (Note that I am using the term “missing word” to refer to the typographical error of simply neglecting to type a word. An omission, by contrast, is a grammatical error.)

Writers usually omit words when they are attempting linguistic ellipsis, the deliberate removal of duplicate words in a sentence.

Confusing

Jones insisted that he could care for his wife just as adequately as bankers and lawyers.

Jones appears to be considering how bankers and lawyers would care for his wife.

Better

Jones insisted that he could care for his wife just as adequately as bankers and lawyers could care for theirs.

Incorrect

The senator campaigns in Texas this week and will on the West Coast in the coming months.

This kind of structure only works if the verb form is the same both times. But here, the verb is different, and the sentence sounds funny. The implied construction is, “The senator campaigns in Texas this week and will [campaigns] on the West Coast in the coming months.”

Correct

The senator campaigns in Texas this week and will campaign on the West Coast in the coming months.

In both instances, the verb form is unique. Literary ellipsis is not possible here.

Incorrect

She promised to write the last chapter, regardless of how many months or how expensive it would be.

The implied construction is, “She promised to write the last chapter, regardless of how many months [it would be] or how expensive it would be.” That doesn’t work.

Correct

She promised to write the last chapter, regardless of how many months it would take or how expensive it would be.

Opening Conjunction

Some people believe beginning a sentence with a coordinating conjunction is improper. These people are crazy. There is absolutely no rule of grammar to such an effect; in fact, beginning sentences with coordinating conjunctions is a great way to make your writing crisp. Unfortunately the misconception is so common that if you are writing for a grade, you may wish to limit or eliminate opening conjunctions in your work.

Perfectly good English some cretins will nonetheless oppose

Where would his energies go if he were to lose his job? And how would he feed his family?

A sometimes-necessary evil to appease the uninformed

Where would his energies go if he were to lose his job? In addition, how would he feed his family?

Overused Word

Words are like meals: when you have the same ones several times in a row, they get gross. Therefore, if you find yourself repeating a nonessential word over and over within the span of just a few sentences, consider replacing some instances with synonyms, pronouns, or even metaphors.

Awkward

As we examine his other symphonies, we will notice some striking similarities. All of his symphonies were written quickly, and after momentous life events he always composed symphonies in a minor key. However, enthusiasts of his symphonies now claim to see a progression from complexity to simplicity.

The frequent repetition of the word “symphony” quickly becomes awkward.

Better

As we examine his other symphonies, we will notice some striking similarities. All of them were written quickly, and after momentous life events he always composed in a minor key. However, enthusiasts of his oeuvre now claim to see a progression from complexity to simplicity.

But be careful not to get trigger-happy with your thesaurus. It will be painfully obvious to your readers.

Clumsy

Scholars today disagree about which of his works is most significant. Some favor the subdued tone of his early compositions, while others find these pieces derivative. These opponents typically champion the unrefined passion of his most popular creations. Yet a third group defends the experimental output of his later years. Hamburg et al. have even gone so far as to call these opuses “decades ahead of their time.”

The synonyms begin plausible enough (“works,” “compositions,” “pieces”) but then degenerate into absurdity as the writer runs out of options (“creations,” “output,” “opuses”). The problem is intensified by the fact that it appears pretentious—like the writer is trying and failing to show off his vocabulary.

Smooth

Scholars today disagree about which of his works is most significant. Some favor the subdued tone of his early compositions, while others find them derivative. These opponents typically champion the unrefined passion of his later work. Yet a third group defends the experimental pieces of his later years. Hamburg et al. have even gone so far as to call these “decades ahead of their time.”

Rewriting reduces the need for so many synonyms, and the synonymns that are used are chosen for their unobtrusiveness.

An exception: when you are defining a special term for your reader, be careful not to confuse him by replacing it with synonyms too quickly.

Confusing

As we consider his tenth symphony, we will notice recurring musical phrases, or themes, that lend character to the piece. Each motif plays an active role in shaping the music from measure to measure. In the third movement, the patterns notably lack any percussion whatsoever.

Are “themes,” “motifs,” and “patterns” the same thing? The reader can’t be sure.

Better

As we consider his tenth symphony, we will notice recurring musical phrases, or themes, that lend character to the piece. Each theme plays an active role in shaping the music from measure to measure. In the third movement, most of them notably lack any percussion whatsoever.

Go ahead and repeat the key term when it preserves clarity—or, as in the third sentence, use a pronoun with an unambiguous referent.

Passive Voice

The passive voice is a verbal form in which the subject of the sentence undergoes the action rather than performing it (e.g., The car was driven by Louis is a passive-voice reconstruction of Louis drove the car ). Passive voice is grammatically correct and has legitimate uses. Usually, however, the active voice sounds better. Don’t use the passive unless you must.

Dull

Most scripts were found on tablets dating as late as the fourth and fifth centuries.

“Were found” is passive voice. This sentence is lifeless.

Better

Researchers have found most scripts on tablets dating as late as the fourth and fifth centuries.

This correction functions by supplying an actor, “researchers.”

Better

Most scripts have appeared on tablets dating as late as the fourth and fifth centuries.

This correction functions by switching to “have appeared,” an active verb, making “scripts” the actor.

Periodic Sentence

A periodic sentence, the alternative to a cumulative sentence, is a sentence in which the essential information is withheld until the very end. Though grammatically correct, periodic sentences are not as clear as cumulative sentences (though they tend to be more striking). Cumulative sentences are better when you need to be more comprehensible.

Syntactically complex periodic sentence

The kinds of economic shifts that took place during the next two decades, especially in the manufacturing and shipping sectors, were unpredictable.

The reader must wait until the very end of the sentence to learn what the sentence is about.

Simple cumulative sentence

No one could have predicted the kinds of economic shifts that took place during the next two decades, especially in the manufacturing and shipping sectors.

The reader now knows what the sentence is about after reading only the first 10 words of it.

Pretentious Language

Pretentious language is the unnecessary use of fancy words.

Pretentious

I exited the vehicle.

Better

I got out of the car.

Pretentious

We will interface with the clients on your behalf.

Better

We will speak with the clients on your behalf.

Redundancy

Similar to unnecessary specification, two words are redundant when the meaning of one is inherent in the meaning of the other.

Redundant

The faculty designed the course for unexperienced beginners.

All beginners are unexperienced by definition.

Better

The faculty designed the course for beginners.

Run-On Sentence

A sentence is a run-on if it anywhere contains two independent clauses separated by only a conjunction. Two independent clauses must be joined either by (1) a comma and a conjunction or (2) a semicolon.

Incorrect

We were studying all night and Kendra never took a break.

Correct

We were studying all night, and Kendra never took a break.

Correct

We were studying all night; Kendra never took a break.

Restated Subject

You never need to repeat the subject of a sentence, even when a phrase distances it from the verb.

Incorrect

The coalition’s treasurer, despite his ailing health, chronic lateness, and bad attitude, he was loved by all.

The “he” is unnecessary.

Correct

The coalition’s treasurer, despite his ailing health, chronic lateness, and bad attitude, was loved by all.

Style

In writing, the word style refers to a set of writing rules maintained by a certain organization or institution, such as the Associated Press (AP Style), the Modern Language Association (MLA), or the University of Chicago (Chicago style or “Turabian”). A stylistic error is a failure to conform to one of the custom rules of the style in use. For example, AP Style does not use the Oxford comma.

Shift

A shift is an unwarranted change from one grammatical form to another. Both forms may be acceptable by themselves, but in a shift, the writer has joined them incorrectly.

Incorrect

Dr. Ronaldo responded that the measly grant was insufficient. In fact, it was a slap in the face.

Note that we have trouble distinguishing whether the grant’s being a slap in the face is something that Dr. Ronaldo believed or something that the writer is now arguing himself. The writer has apparently shifted from describing Dr. Ronaldo’s response to indirectly quoting it. This is confusing.

Better

Dr. Ronaldo responded that the measly grant was insufficient. In fact, he declared, it was a slap in the face.

This works to show that both assertions come from Dr. Ronaldo himself.

Better

Dr. Ronaldo responded that the measly grant was insufficient. He was correct; in fact, the grant was a slap in the face.

Here, alternatively, is the correction if the writer means for the second sentence to be his own opinion on the matter.

Don’t shift between tenses unless the description warrants it.

Incorrect

Every Tuesday the florist parks in the same spot and will walk inside to buy his sandwich.

“Parks” is present tense, but “will walk” is future.

Correct

Every Tuesday the florist parks in the same spot and walks inside to buy his sandwich.

Split Infinitive

Infinitives are uninflected verbs without a subject or tense. In English, we precede them with “to” (e.g., my father knows how to sail contains the infinite “to sail”). When possible—unless it creates an awkward sentence—place modifiers before or after the entire infinitive rather than after the “to.”

Awkward

I need to quickly pack and catch my plane.

The infinitive “to pack” has been split by “quickly.”

Better

I need to pack quickly and catch my plane.

Squinting Modifier

A squinting modifier is one that could apply to two different parts of the sentence.

Incorrect

No one studies modern poetry in Europe.

Does this mean that no Europeans study modern poetry or that no one studies modern European poetry?

Correct

No one in Europe studies modern poetry.

Subject-Verb Disagreement

If the subject and verb of a sentence do not have the same number, they “disagree.” Most subject-verb disagreement occurs when a sentence is so long and complex that the subject is hard to find. To make it easier, temporarily erase all prepositional phrases and dependent clauses.

Incorrect

Most residents of the county, like my landlord, goes upstate once a week.

If “landlord” were the subject of the sentence, then “goes” would be the correct verb. But “landlord” is a part of a prepositional phrase. The real subject is “most residents.”

Correct

Most residents of the county, like my landlord, go upstate once a week.

If you have a compound subject, you may have to count carefully.

Incorrect

As her former instructor always said, flexibility, and the vital increase in balance that it permitted, is be essential to fine ballet.

“Flexibility” and “increase” form a compound subject.

Correct

As her former instructor always said, flexibility, and the vital increase in balance it permitted, are essential to fine ballet.

Syntactical Ambiguity

A sentence is syntactically ambiguous if, though grammatically correct, its words can mean two different things.

That/Which

Typically, the word that precedes a conditionally true description, while the word which precedes a universally true description. Some writers view this less as a rule than as a convention. However, readers generally expect it.

Problematic

Horses which require expensive care can nonethless be fun to own.

Does the writer means (a) that all horses require expensive care but are nonetheless fun to own, or (b) that even the kinds of horses that require expensive care can nonetheless be fun to own?

Additionally, if we decide that we think the writer did mean option a, we would expect commas around the relative clause, in which case his sentence looks like it contains two punctuation errors—another good reason to prefer the solution below.

Better

Horses that require expensive care can nontheless be fun to own.

Tone

Closely related to authorial voice, tone is the overall personality of a composition. The tone of formal prose is improper if it is either too strong (highly emotional, alienating, or self-confident) or too weak (cold or lifeless).

A highly self-conscious tone (self-referential, apologetic, or full of meta-discourse) can also be off-putting.

Unclear Antecedent

A pronoun has an unclear antecedent if its referent is not certain.

Incorrect

My grandpa and his next-door neighbor would often fish in his pond.

Whose pond? “His” could refer either to “grandpa” or “neighbor.”

Correct

My grandpa and his next-door neighbor would often fish in my grandpa’s pond.

Unclear Point

To clarify a point, state it in a very short sentence. If you can’t do this, chances are that you yourself don’t know what you want to say. This is the right time to revisit your outline. (See my Workflow section in my Writing Tips for more on integrating an outline into your writing process.

Unnecessary Comma

Like a missing comma, an unnecessary comma can create problems for an editor, since the rules governing comma usage are sometimes fuzzy (or at least very complex). One often-violated guideline:

Incorrect

Anyone with chronic health problems should see a doctor, and maintain a healthy diet.

Correct

Anyone with chronic health problems should see a doctor and maintain a healthy diet.

Unnecessary Negation

Unnecessary negations complicate and water down sentences. Positive statements are punchier and clearer.

Indirect

Covering the terrain in under a month would not be impossible.

Phrases like “not impossible” take a brief moment for the reader to untangle, draining his mental energy.

Better

Covering the terrain in under a month would be possible.

The reader understands “impossible” instantanteously.

Indirect

Venemous tree frogs are less friendly in this part of the jungle.

Again, the reader can’t sail through “less friendly.” He has to stop and flip it inside out before he can keep going.

Better

Venemous tree frogs are more hostile in this part of the jungle.

Unnecessary Relative Clause

A relative clause adds complexity. If a sentence seems long and confusing, look for a relative clause to extract.

Complex

The old flower shop, which the map had led her to believe would be on the corner of Fifth and Main, was actually several streets south.

Better

The map had led her to believe that the old flower shop would be on the corner of Fifth and Main, but it was actually several streets south.

Unnecessary Specification

Similar to redundancy, an unnecessary specification occurs when a piece of description adds nothing, usually by ruling out something nonsensical or something that never would have occurred to the reader anyway.

Bloated

One of the most overlooked perks of living in a big city is the museums to which citizens have access.

The phrase “to which citizens have access” is unnecessary. The reader would infer that only accessible museums are in mind.

Better

One of the most overlooked perks of living in a big city is the museums.

Word Choice

Word choice is a broad term for any error in which language is confusing or awkward, especially by being used unconventionally.

Incorrect

They were engaged for marriage fifty years ago.

The phrase “engaged for marriage” is strange.

Correct

They were engaged to be married fifty years ago.

Incorrect

The members of the jury were bursting with rage.

No one ever says “bursting with rage.”

Correct

The members of the jury were filled with rage.

Wordiness

Wordiness is unnecessary length.

Wordy

These are the methods that our company uses to deliver mail.

Better

These are our company’s methods for delivering mail.

Indicating possession with “of” is usually wordy.

Wordy

One of the responsibilities of the government is minimizing national debt.

Better

One of the government’s responsibilities is minimizing national debt.