Five Common Grammatical Mistakes Instructional Designers Make

Posted: May 8, 2014

When writing training material, we sometimes overlook small details in favor of the overall big picture. Simply rereading your content before sending it to the next set of hands can help you catch mistakes you might have missed the first time around. Keep this list of the five most common (and easily fixable) grammatical errors in mind as you write your next module.

Mixing up sentence fragments and complete sentences

Ah, the bulleted list — perfect for PowerPoint® presentations or a quick, to-the-point rundown of the topics you’ll be discussing, but beware! Bulleted items are often sentence fragments, such as “Sending the customer a Welcome Letter,” but they can also be formatted as complete sentences, such as “Send the customer a Welcome Letter.” In the first statement, there is no subject. Therefore, there is no period. In the second statement, “you” is the implied subject, even though it is not written. Be sure not to mix fragments with complete sentences in the same list!

The same rule applies to all writing. Read each sentence thoroughly to make sure it has a subject and a verb.

Using plural nouns with singular verbs and vice versa

In short and sweet sentences like “The manager calls the customer,” it’s easy to determine which form of the verb to use. However, instructional design often involves longer, more complex sentences. When you run across a sentence such as “After submitting the document, the manager and assistant meet with the Sales team and then call the customer,” using the correct words becomes a more daunting task.

The best way to deal with this dilemma is to delete everything! Well, okay, only the extra fluff. Strip the statement to its bare minimum, leaving only the essential subject(s), verb(s), object(s), and articles. In this case, read the previous example as: “The manager and assistant meet with the team and call the customer.”

[Tweet “When in doubt — take it out!”]

Confusing singular and plural pronouns

The use of pronouns is essential for concise training. Without them, we would be repeating names and roles constantly, and all our dreams of perfect sentence flow would disappear. Pronouns are a writer’s best friend; but we tend to get too comfortable with them. It’s common in conversation to use plural possessive pronouns with singular nouns, like “The employee gives their report to a supervisor,” which is incorrect. In writing especially, you must use the appropriate pronoun, which would be “his or her” in this case (since the employee’s gender is unknown).

Quick tip: Use “his or her” and “he or she” when your subject is one person and a gender has not been assigned. Use “their” and “they” only when there is more than one person.

Misusing semicolons, colons, and commas

Commas, colons (:), and semicolons (;) are not always interchangeable, and it’s important to understand the differences between each punctuation mark. Here’s a rundown of their most common uses:

Commas: These little guys always come in handy. Whether separating clauses, items in a series, or parenthetical phrases, commas are an essential part of grammar.

Colons: Generally, colons are used to define or introduce something. Only use a colon when the statement preceding it is a complete sentence (unless you are defining a term).

Semicolons: Use semicolons only when the statements on both sides of the punctuation can also function as standalone, complete sentences. Why not just use a period, you ask? You certainly can, but semicolons are great for linking two related statements without starting a new sentence. Think of the semicolon as the love child of a comma and period; it even looks like one stacked on top of the other!


Above all, be consistent! If you capitalize a term in one place, make sure you follow the same format for each instance throughout the training. Too often, editors see several variations of the same name or phrase and must backtrack to find the correct version or ask the instructional designer which one is the client’s preference.

Tell us: Do you have any advice for avoiding grammatical errors? Share your tips and tricks in the comments below or tweet us!

About the Author