The Most Common Grammar Gaffes Writers Make (And How To Avoid Them)

The Most Common Grammar Gaffes Writers Make (And How To Avoid Them)

In 2011, the publisher of my book Enchantment could not fill an order for 500 ebook copies. Because of this experience, I self-published my next book, What the Plus!, and learned first-hand that self-publishing is a complex, confusing and idiosyncratic process. An obvious sign of self-publishing is the presence of gaffes — unintentional mistakes that cause embarrassment — in a book. It’s easy for authors to make these mistakes because editing, particularly copy editing, is a different skill from writing. Whether you’re self-publishing a novel, writing a blog, or typing a term paper, here are some of the gaffes I’ve come across most often and how to avoid them.

Image remixed from DVARG (Shutterstock)

Australian editor note: we’ve adjusted this list slightly from Guy’s original to reflect Australian grammar and style.

Improper hyphenation

Hyphenation and compounding word rules are constantly changing, but violating some rules marks you as a self-publisher. Here are the three main ones: hyphenate two or more words used as an adjective — “social-media sites”; hyphenate compound numbers — “forty-seven”; and hyphenate only between syllables as specified in the dictionary for end-of-line breaks — “enchant-ment.”

Using two spaces between sentences

In the old days of typewriters, characters were the same width, so two spaces were necessary to separate sentences for visual effect. With computers, characters are proportional, so they fit closer to each other, and one space is sufficient. Before you submit your manuscript, search for all double spaces and replace them with single spaces.

Passive voice

The passive voice is weak, vague, and wordy. “New York publishers are being attacked by self-publishers” is not as powerful as “Self-publishers are attacking New York publishers.” I search for every instance of “be” and “being” to eliminate as many instances of the passive voice as I can. Word’s grammar check can also help you spot passive sentences.

Dumb apostrophes and quotation marks

There’s a world of difference between dumb apostrophes and quotation marks and their “smart” versions. There are two ways to ensure the correct usage of smart quotes and apostrophes: turn on a preference in Word to add them automatically, or type them in.


There’s bold text and there’s italic text, but there’s never underline, except as a hyperlink. If you format text with an underline that’s not a hyperlink, readers will think your book has a dead link.


Ensure that the voice and design elements of your book are consistent. For example, bulleted lists should maintain a parallel structure. If one starts with a noun, they should all start with a noun. If one starts with a verb, they should all start with a verb. Consistency also applies to design. For example, when a new section starts, the section title is always on the next right-hand page, even if this creates a blank page to the left.

Excessive adjectives and adverbs

These forms of speech are often overrated, overused, and vague. How dark was the night? So dark that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face? How slowly did he walk? Perhaps a toddler could move faster? How much did you really miss your mother? Maybe enough to make you cry at night? Find more concrete ways to describe things.

Lack of guideposts

Specifically for nonfiction authors — use subheads to help your readers navigate sections of a chapter. The name of the chapter is not enough in nonfiction books because so much material is in each chapter. Real authors use subheads.

Long passages of text

A bulleted list is a sign of an organised mind. Rather than making your reader dig through long passages of text, use bulleted lists to highlight what is most important. Lists also make great back cover copy for your printed versions.

Want more from Guy? Check out his latest book APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur and our recent How I Work post on his productivity tips..

Guy Kawasaki is the author of APE, What the Plus!, Enchantment, and nine other books. He is also the co-founder of, an “online magazine rack” of popular topics on the web. Previously, he was the chief evangelist of Apple. Kawasaki has a BA from Stanford University and an MBA from UCLA as well as an honorary doctorate from Babson College.


  • I really don’t understanding the problem with passive voice. I write in an academic context and use it all the time. There is a time and place for it, so ruling it out completely and putting it into the “never ever do this’ basket seems a bit over the top.

    • The passive voice is much more acceptable in academic papers and almost expected. I never bothered trying to eliminate it from any of my Uni assignments.
      Active voice is easier to read and in business communications the shorter and more direct ways of saying things are preferred. Even still, it is hard to eliminate all forms of the passive voice. I would put it in the “try to minimise” basket rather than “never do this” basket.

    • I agree. Passive voice has its place when you are trying to minimise the importance of the agent, when you are trying to emphasise the ‘target’ of the action, and to promote consistency of voice (e.g. “He sang at the concert and was selected for an award” is better than “He sang and the committee selected him for an award”).

  • I am very thankful for this article highlighting the common errors we are so regularly oblivious to, but there are a few things Guy has only very lightly touched on, to the point it could almost be considered a superfluous tease.

    For instance: dumb apostrophes and question marks? This was eye-catching, but vague in itself. What is an example of a dumb apostrophe? Is this when people misquote, or simply when they add quotation marks to something that isn’t required?

    Excessive adjectives and adverbs: I’m a little bewildered on this one myself. I happen to find that adjectives and verbs are a great way to describe the conceived thought from the mind and help form it into textual existence, given of course, that the writer knows how to properly wield both. I suppose I’m curious to know when can the threshold be considered too much?

    • I believe the reference was to the “smart” type of quotation marks that word processors can insert automatically. Those that look like a super-scripted 66 to begin a quote and a 99 to end one instead of just a pair of apostrophes.

      As a programmer – I hate these with a passion and have a clipboard manager automatically replace them when I copy and paste example code. There is however a strong literary sense to indicating the opening and closing of quotes.

  • I’m confused about the ‘Excessive adjectives and adverbs’ paragraph. Does he mean that you should describe a dark night similarly to ‘So dark that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face’, or is that something you shouldn’t do?
    For me, the more descriptive the better. I like these sorts of sentences.

    • I think that Guy is suggesting more detailed descriptions are preferable, with the adjectives/adverbs referred to in his examples being ‘dark’, ‘slowly’ and ‘really’…

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