I have a hard time remembering the difference between then and than also effect and affect. The fact that I can’t spell to save my life only makes it worse. I take solace in knowing I’m not the only one.
I have a couple small scraps of paper on my desk with usage of words I commonly screw up, and yes, I look at them almost every time I use that word.
Brian Clark at Copyblogger has a post about Five Grammatical Errors That Make You Look Dumb. He hits on one that I notice quite often, the dangling participle.
The dangling participle may be the most egregious of the most common writing mistakes. Not only will this error damage the flow of your writing, it can also make it impossible for someone to understand what you’re trying to say.
Check out these two examples from Tom Sant’s book Persuasive Business Proposals:
After rotting in the cellar for weeks, my brother brought up some oranges.
Uhh… keep your decomposing brother away from me!
Featuring plug-in circuit boards, we can strongly endorse this server’s flexibility and growth potential.
Hmmm… robotic copy written by people embedded with circuit boards. Makes sense.
The problem with both of the above is that the participial phrase that begins the sentence is not intended to modify what follows next in the sentence. However, readers mentally expect it to work that way, so your opening phrase should always modify what immediately follows. If it doesn’t, you’ve left the participle dangling, as well as your readers.
I often tell people to “just write” and stop worrying that it’s not perfect. The second part of the thought is always, “you can fix it up later”. That’s the important part. One thing your readers will let you know is when you have incorrect grammar!