How many spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors can you count in one of your recent blog posts or email newsletters?
Go ahead. Go count them. Take your time, read out loud, take it sentence by sentence.
How many mistakes did you find? If you didn’t find any, try again.
Almost every blog post has at least one tiny little error. At least one.
Most have a few big typos, grammar errors, misspellings, and punctuation mistakes. The higher the word count, the more errors you’ll find.
It can’t be helped, really. Very few bloggers have an editor or proofreader—I sure don’t—and we’re often pressed for time.
And only one or two errors isn’t a big deal.
What makes a blog post suck, though, are lots of small errors. Or more than a few big ones, depending on how bad they are.
Serious grammar or punctuation problems that make anyone question a writer’s credibility should be avoided. Of course.
You know better than to mix up to, two, and too, right? You’re checking you’re and your, and you’ve got a magnifying glass on their, there, and they’re. Right?
You also know that a lot isn’t one word, and it’s not spelled allot. Please say yes.
The mistakes I’m talking about aren’t the kind people rant about on social media.
These are much bigger. More complex. Insidious, even. But they’re pretty common in blog posts, especially when the blogger’s main marketable skill or product isn’t their writing.
Fixing these mistakes might require a bit of thinking. Maybe a bit of rereading and rewriting. And practice, especially if you don’t realize you’re making them.
But it’s well worth the effort, and it can make the difference between a blog post that sucks and a post you’ll be proud of.
Here are the 5 big mistakes that make blog posts suck and how to fix them
1. Dashes used as abstract art
A dash—an em dash, that is—is used in place of a comma, a semi-colon, a colon, or a set of parentheses to give extra emphasis.
A dash or pair of dashes can also be used to set off a sudden shift in thought in the middle of a sentence or at the end.
Used sparingly, dashes are great. And if you know how to use other punctuation, you’re probably in good shape with dashes. If you don’t, you’re pretty much screwed.
But there’s hope. There’s always hope. I haven’t always known how to use dashes either.
Here are two rules for dashes to get you started.
If a set of dashes interrupts a sentence—like this—the rest of the sentence must make sense relative to the beginning of the sentence.
If the dash sets off a final thought at the end of a sentence, the sentence must be able to survive without it.
Got it? Check out these examples.
While she was getting ready for a date with Gregor—her very first—she was so nervous she poked herself in the eye with a mascara wand.
Try removing the words in between the dashes. Does the sentence still make sense?
While she was getting ready for a date with Gregor, she was so nervous she poked herself in the eye with a mascara wand.
That works, so the dash is fine.
Wanda went out on a date last night with that guy she said she hated—shocking, I know.
Can the sentence live without the extra comment at the end? Yep.
Apply these rules to your own writing, and you’ll soon be a master of dashes.
2. Messy, disorganized “drawers” aka faulty parallelism
Do you have a refrigerator? I’ll bet you do. What’s in it?
In the typical refrigerator, there are separate drawers for different kinds of food: vegetables, fruit, meat, cheese, and so on.
Maybe your fridge is as messy as mine is, but your writing shouldn’t be.
Put the same parts of speech, types of phrases, and kinds of clauses together in the same “drawers.”
This is called parallelism or parallel construction.
If you’ve got all sorts of stuff in a refrigerator drawer—onions, sliced tofu, tomato soup, rotten carrots, cat food, butter, a pint of cream, two bottles of beer, and loose chocolate shavings—you’ve got a mess.
The same goes for writing. When we mix things up in a particular context—infinitives with gerunds in a list, for example—it’s messy and known as faulty parallelism.
Let’s take a look.
Today I’m going to clean the refrigerator, empty the drawers, dust and wipe, and the door shelves need it too.
Today I’m going to clean the refrigerator by emptying the drawers, wiping the inside, tidying the door shelves, and dusting the exterior.
I have lots of cheese in my refrigerator: sliced for sandwiches, gouda, cheddar, the spreadable kind, and parmesan.
I have lots of cheese in my refrigerator: muenster, gouda, cheddar, brie, and parmesan.
Not only are there rotten carrots in my fridge, but a potato with stems and leaves is in there too.
In my fridge there are not only rotten carrots but also sprouting potatoes.
Place like items with like items in your drawers and sentences, and your refrigerator—and blog posts—will be much tidier. (Rotten stuff goes in the garbage, of course.)
3. You believed the lie about commas
“Place a comma where you naturally pause in a sentence,” your English teacher may have told you.
Well, maybe not completely wrong because it does seem that way sometimes.
Thing is, where you pause might be different from where a reader pauses. Plus, there are plenty of very simple comma rules that are far more accurate and reliable, not to mention correct.
Here are three comma rules that can significantly decrease suckage in your blog posts.
1. Two independent clauses (complete sentences with subject and verb) joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, for, so, yet, but) get a comma after the first clause.
The cat eats, and he sleeps.
The dog runs, but he also catches balls.
I am typing, yet I am relaxed.
Running is fun, so I like to run often.
Most sentences are much longer and more complex, of course, but I’ve kept these short for clarity.
2. A dependent clause (a clause with a subject and verb that starts with a subordinate conjunction such as after, although, because, before, since, until, while, etc.) joined to an independent clause does not get a comma.
The dog runs before he eats his breakfast.
The cat eats because he is hungry.
I am typing while I eat my lunch.
Running is fun although it can be hard on my knees.
3. A dependent clause acting as an introductory element to any type of sentence gets a comma after it.
Because he is hungry, the cat eats.
Before he eats his breakfast, the dog runs.
While she eats her lunch, she types.
Although it’s hard on my knees, I love to run.
Check that your comma placement follows these rules (rather than your breathing patterns), and your readers will thank you.
4. Quotation mark madness
If you use US English, the main rules for quotation marks go like this:
“Use double quotation marks around quoted material or dialogue,” the teacher said.
“If there is a quote within a quote, such as ‘to be or not to be,’ single quotation marks are used,” she continued.
The class was silent.
“And whatever you do, put your punctuation inside the quotation marks!” she yelled.
Murmurs rippled through the room.
“Right. There are a few exceptions. Semi-colons and colons go outside the quotation marks.”
She stared at the ceiling, as if an example were written there. Then she smiled and wrote on the whiteboard:
“Juliet said, ‘That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’; however, do roses smell sweet to people who are allergic to them?”
For writers of British English, the general rule is to reverse US conventions. But it varies, so be sure to consult a good reference manual such as the Oxford Style Manual.
Moral of the story: be consistent, not confusing.
5. Semi-colons competing with dashes as abstract art
There is only one rule—just one—that governs semi-colons in sentences.
Remember the comma rules? If you know the difference between an independent clause and a dependent clause, you’re in great shape.
Join two closely related independent clauses with a semi-colon. Or separate them, depending on how you look at it.
My cat loves to eat; he is always hungry.
My dog loves to run in the park; he looks forward to it every day.
As far as sentences are concerned, the only time you should use a semi-colon is to join two independent clauses. Got it?
But you can add a conjunctive adverb and a comma after it, if you like. The two clauses are still independent clauses.
My cat loves to eat; however, he hasn’t been very hungry lately.
My dog loves to run in the park; therefore, I take him as often as I can.
There are a few other rules for semi-colons (in long lists, for example), but this is the only way to use a semi-colon in sentences.
And there you have it.
If you’re not making any of these common mistakes, that’s great! But if you are, get to work. Remember, grammar and punctuation rules aren’t something we’re born with. We all had to learn at some point, so why not now? Instead of blog posts that suck, you’ll have blog posts that shine.
Share in the comments: how did you learn grammar and punctuation? What are your weak areas? What are your strengths? Have you been making these mistakes?