Whether you’re updating your resume for a new job search or preparing an article for publication in a prestigious journal, good grammar will help you reach for the stars. Recently, I’ve noticed five common errors while editing a variety of works from resumes and cover letters to technical reports. They may not be the most galactic errors in writing, but avoiding them will help you on the journey to stellar writing.
Error #1: Missing Commas Can Cause Confusion
Commas are used to separate three or more items in a series. The serial comma is the last comma in the series. Although The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using the serial comma, the Associated Press Stylebook suggests omitting the serial comma unless doing so would make a sentence confusing. Omission of this comma can cause some trouble (and humor).
Confusing: During Han Solo’s carbon-freezing process, Princess Leia and Chewbacca are surrounded by Imperial stormtroopers, Darth Vader and Boba Fett.
Since neither Darth Vader nor Boba Fett are lowly stormtroopers, we include the serial comma.
Clear: During Han Solo’s carbon-freezing process, Princess Leia and Chewbacca are surrounded by Imperial stormtroopers, Darth Vader, and Boba Fett.
Error #2: Misplaced Modifiers
Modifiers should be as close as possible to the words, phrases, or clauses they describe.
Incorrect: Luke Skywalker traveled to the swampy planet of Dagobah in search of a Jedi Grand Master with his droid named Yoda.
We all know that the droid was named R2-D2, and the Jedi Grand Master was named Yoda.
Correct: Luke Skywalker traveled with his droid to the swampy planet of Dagobah in search of a Jedi Grand Master named Yoda.
Error #3: Using Commas When Semicolons Are Needed
Semicolons provide a stronger break than a comma but a weaker break than a period; however, they are one of the most commonly misused forms of punctuation. Each of the following examples needs a semicolon in place of a comma.
Incorrect: “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”
This sentence uses a comma where a semicolon should be used to join the two closely related independent clauses.
Correct: “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you’re my only hope.”
Semicolons are also handy when you need to list items that contain at least one comma.
Incorrect: George Lucas filmed some of the scenes of Tatooine, Luke’s home planet, in Matmata, Tunisia, Death Valley, California, and the Yuma Desert.
Correct: George Lucas filmed some of the scenes of Tatooine, Luke’s home planet, in Matmata, Tunisia; Death Valley, California; and the Yuma Desert.
Error #4: Pronoun Errors
Pronouns must agree with their antecedents in gender (male or female) and in number (singular or plural).
Incorrect: Armed with primitive weapons, each ewok warrior risked their life to help the Rebel Alliance defeat the Galactic Empire.
Remember that several indefinite pronouns, such as everyone and each, are always singular.
Correct: Armed with primitive weapons, each ewok warrior risked his life to help the Rebel Alliance defeat the Galactic Empire.
Error #5: Faulty Parallelism
The principle of parallel construction requires that expressions similar in content and function be outwardly similar. A common example of faulty parallelism is the false series. In the following example, three elements are listed in a series, but the syntax is inconsistent.
Faulty: Although stuck-up and half-witted, Han Solo excelled at gambling, herding nerfs, and hyperspace travel.
“Gambling” and “herding” are gerunds (verbs acting as nouns), but “travel” is just a noun, so we convert this noun into a gerund to be consistent with the other elements in this series.
Parallel: Although stuck-up and half-witted, Han Solo excelled at gambling, herding nerfs, and traveling through hyperspace.
For more grammar tips, I highly recommend The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. This classic guide to proper grammar has been a part of my writing resource collection since college. I also recommend Grammar Girl for a quick and easy online resource.
May the force be with you as you go forth and edit!