Before we launch into this article, let’s take a moment to remember that no piece of writing will ever be perfect. Since people first rammed styluses (styli?) into clay to get their cuneiform scribblings down before they forgot what they wanted to say, there have been spelling errors, awkward modifying sentences, and countless other gaffs. These are inevitable any time words move from the spoken realm to that of paper, papyrus, or computer screen—the key is to recognize issues that spring up in our own writing so we can learn from them and not repeat them in the future.
As an editor, I’ve noticed certain issues that pop up more often than others, and I’ve listed some of them below. Hopefully these will you polish up your writing, which will in turn prevent editors and proofreaders everywhere from sustaining brain damage caused by banging their heads on their desks.
Many people don’t realize that there are several different dashes used in writing, and they don’t all serve the same purpose. Most will use hyphens on either side of a sentence to emphasize it, when an em dash should be used instead, or use a hyphen when citing a period of time. Here’s what they’re actually used for:
The hyphen (‐) is a punctuation mark used to join words and to separate syllables of a single word.
Hyphens between words can also differentiate between concepts:
A man-eating shark is a shark that likes to eat people.
A man eating shark is a man who has sat down to nibble a shark steak.
Now for the dashes. I’ve taken the descriptions from Wikipedia, as they’ve explained things very clearly:
A dash is a punctuation mark that is similar to a hyphen, but that differs in length and function. The most common versions are the en dash (–) and the em dash (—), named for the length of a typeface’s lower-case n and upper-case M respectively. Either version may be used to denote a break in a sentence or to set off parenthetical statements, although it’s best to use a single form consistently in your work. Generally, en dashes are used with spaces, and em dashes are used without them:
[Em dash:] In matters of grave importance, style—not sincerity—is the vital thing.
[Spaced en dash:] In matters of grave importance, style – not sincerity – is the vital thing.
The em dash (but not the en dash) is also used to set off the sources of quotes:
“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” — Oscar Wilde
There are additional rules for attributive compounds, as well as compound adjectives in which one of the elements is an open compound, but I don’t want to send anyone into apoplexy right now. Unless you’re writing for textbooks or government papers and have to be really pedantic about the dashes you choose, stick to the guidelines above and you’ll do just fine.
Mixed Up Plural and Singular Forms
If the noun you’re using is in its plural form, your modifier has to reflect that, and the same goes for the singular form.
- There are enzymes that gets mixed in your mouth. “Enzymes” is plural, so the modifier would be “get”.
- The container of eggs in my fridge is falling apart. “Is” modifies “container”, so it’s singular.
- The eggs in the container have gone bad.
Misused Closed Compound Words
These seem to be popping up more and more (probably as people read less in favour of watching TV), and I cringe every time I see them. Spell-checking won’t highlight them either, because they’re spelled correctly; it’s merely the form of the word that is misused.
Everyday vs Every Day
Everyday is an adjective that means normal, commonplace, and ordinary. For example: An umbrella is an everyday essential for someone who lives in a rainy climate.
Every day, however, means “each day”: Pugsley takes his umbrella to work every day, just in case it rains.
Other commonly misused compound words include:
- Onto, instead of on to: I held on to my mother’s hand as I leapt onto the camel.
- Let down, instead of letdown: He let down his sarong and the effect was a real letdown.
There’s also the issue of compound words vs. verb phrases. These can change form and meaning depending on whether they’re being used as nouns or adjectives, causing no end of frustration.
- We went back up the hill to Gran-gran’s house to teach her how to make a backup disk. (“Back up” = verb form, “backup” in this sense is an adjective that modifies “disk”.)
- Did you set up the camera for the secret comedy show? This is going to be a great setup. (“Set up” = verb, while “setup” = noun.)
Has your head exploded yet?
Less vs. Fewer
Use “less” if you can’t count individual items, and “fewer” if you can.
Our new car uses less gas than the last one.
Your mother drinks less vodka than she used to.
Try using fewer words to express yourself.
Much and Many
Same idea as above: “much” for volume, “many” for items you can count.
How many hipsters can you cram into a vintage Volkswagen?
How many imported cigarettes will each of them smoke?
How much smoke will accumulate during their journey?
“Who” vs. “That”
When writing about people, it’s important to always use “who” as the relative pronoun, rather than “that”. Referring to a person by using “that” seems to indicate that they are somehow less than human, i.e. a person referring to their stepmother as “the woman that married my father”. It implies a sense of disdain and animosity, and is best avoided.
- “He’s the guy who loaned me fifty bucks.”
- “Therapists who prescribe LSD to patients are usually arrested.”
- “The dog that ran off with the chicken still hasn’t been caught.”
There seems to be a trend in web-based writing in which the articles are constructed from a series of single sentences, rather than full paragraphs. This kind of writing is extremely jarring and halting, and reminds us of the early learning books we had in first grade:
Here are Sam and Sandy. They are twins. They like to play games. They like soccer and baseball. Their favourite food is ice cream. They like cake too. On weekends, they visit their grandmother. She gives them cake. Sometimes ice cream too.
Horrible, isn’t it?
A better way to write is to consolidate several single sentences into full paragraphs by rephrasing those sentences, and joining them with coordinating conjunctions, semicolons, dashes, etc:
Twins Sam and Sandy enjoy playing games like soccer and baseball. They visit their grandmother’s house on weekends, where they get to indulge their love of sweets with ice cream and cake.
Also known as the “dot, dot, dot” at the end of a sentence (…), ellipses tend to be overused, especially in places they’re not meant to be. They’re intended to be used as place-holders for missing blocks of text, such as before and after a quote when you don’t want to use the entire piece, and can also be used to imply that the story is trailing off, giving the impression of anticipation. When used too often, it makes the writing seem scattered and flighty.
Ellipses are never used in lieu of colons, so you don’t use them if you’re introducing a new sentence or paragraph. Be sure to never use more than 3 dots for an ellipses (some people go overboard and use 4 or more), and try not to use them more than twice per article unless you want your post to look like Morse code.
There are many words out there that either look or sound similar, and people often mistake one for another. When in doubt, look up the word you want to use to double-check if it’s the right one.
They’re, There, and Their
Remember that an apostrophe stands in for a missing letter, so they’re is a contraction of they are. There is a place, and their refers to something belonging to another.
Their table needs to be put over there, or they’re going to be upset.
Its and It’s
Its implies possessiveness, while it’s is a contraction of “it is”.
The platypus uses its poisonous spurs to ward off enemies: it’s a defense mechanism.
You’re and Your
As mentioned above, apostrophes replace letters, so you’re is a contraction of you are. Your refers to something you own. Your new puppy ripped the pillows apart, so you’re vacuuming the house tonight.
Effect and Affect
Effect is a noun, while affect is a verb. If you don’t know which one to use, swap out a different verb to see if it would work:
Losing one’s hair is an effect of chemotherapy.
Losing one’s hair is an agree of chemotherapy. (No. Use a noun here.)
We will all be affected by the plague if more rats escape the lab.
We will all be killed by the plague if more rats escape the lab. (Yes! It’s a verb. Have a biscuit.)
Stationery and Stationary
Stationery is something that you write upon. A bicycle that doesn’t go anywhere is stationary.
Peek, Peak, and Pique
You would peek around a corner to look at something. A mountaintop is known as a peak, or you could say that someone reached the peak of their career when they were rich and famous. If something interests you, it has piqued your curiosity.
Compliment and Complement
“I like your hat” is a compliment, while tomato sauce is a complement to pasta.
Allowed and Aloud
Allowed = permission, while aloud = not silently. The opposite of silent is loud, correct? Remember this example:
He isn’t allowed to play Slayer aloud after 2 am.
Although they’re not homophones, lose and loose are often used in place of one another, but they’re far from interchangeable. “Lose” is a verb, while “loose” is an adjective:
I set out to lose 300 pounds, and now my pants are loose.
Lose rhymes with snooze, while loose rhymes with juice. Remember this one or I’ll hunt you down and knot your arms behind your head.
Another issue that often comes about is when people write something phonetically, instead of using the correct spelling. One of the most egregious errors that has come up in recent years is the use of “should of” in lieu of “should have” or the informal “should’ve”. Yes, when you hear it said aloud, “should’ve” SOUNDS LIKE “should of”, but it isn’t. The same goes for the following:
Could’ve is the condensed form of “could have”.
Would’ve = “would have”.
You get the idea. “Should of” doesn’t mean a sodding thing, and will just infuriate your editors and readers beyond possible measure.
Hyphens in Phrasal Adjectives
Phrasal adjectives cause a fair bit of grief for most writers, but there’s a fairly easy way to remember when there’s a need to hyphenate them: when you have a noun that’s preceded by two or more words that describe it, those words tend to be hyphenated.
- Traffic is so bad that it’s causing two-hour delays. Note that if “two hour” wasn’t hyphenated, it would imply that there were two separate hour-long delays.
- The room was full of six-year-old kids. This tells us that the room was chock full of first-graders, rather than six toddlers.
- Other examples: Razor-sharp wit, over-the-top character, larger-than-life personality.
The exception to this rule would be adjectives that end in an -ly suffix, such as poorly, badly and the like: there’s no need to put a hyphen after them.
I can’t tell you how often I come across apostrophes that have been used to pluralize words. NO. BAD PUPPY. Apostrophes are only used in contractions, or to imply possessiveness.
- Won’t = contraction of “will not”.
- Doesn’t = contraction of “does not”.
- Possessiveness: John’s mother used to be a stewardess. Other people’s houses are bigger than ours.
An incorrect usage is as follows:
- This goes out to all the mommy’s and daddy’s out there. = NO. Change Y to an I and you ad “es” to get mommies and daddies.
If you’re going to use the word mommy’s, it will be in reference to something the mother owns, or is in the process of doing:
- Don’t hide mommy’s copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, or she’ll freak out. = possessiveness.
- Mommy’s going to lose her mind if she can’t find her book. = contraction of “mommy is”.
Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers
This one is a bit more advanced, but it deals with an issue that even experienced writers will have on occasion. A modifier is an element in a sentence (generally descriptive), that changes the meaning of the noun that immediately precedes it, as in a pre-modifier, or follows it, as with a post-modifier. These modifiers can generally be removed from a sentence without changing the basic meaning of it.
Confused yet? Okay, consider this example:
I followed the brown dog down the street.
The adjective “brown” is a modifier, as it describes the dog. You could remove the word “brown” from that sentence without changing it too much—the reader would still understand that you followed the dog down the street. When we don’t use modifiers correctly, we can end up with muddled, confused, and even rather horrifying sentences like this one:
After rotting in the cellar for weeks, my brother brought up some oranges.
With the way this sentence is set up, it implies that your brother is a zombie that’s been rotting in your basement for a while, because the first noun that follows rotting is “brother”.
As a final note, please be sure to write as though you have an education higher than that of a standard third grader. This includes not using phonetic replacements for entire words (like U R instead of “you are”), emoticons ( :P ), or inappropriate acronyms. Referring to someone as the CEO of a company instead of calling him/her the Chief Executive Officer is fine, but peppering your article with things like OMG WTF ROTFLMAO is not. Also, use exclamation marks sparingly—preferably no more than 2 per 1000-word article. It’s understandable that you may be excited about the topic you’re writing about, but using too many ex!cla!ma!tion! marks!!! makes a piece look as though it’s being shrieked by a sugar-fuelled, hyperactive pre-teen.
*Caveat: Muphry’s Law dictates that I will have undoubtedly screwed something up in here, which brings us back to the earlier point that no writer is ever error-free, and we’re all on a journey of self improvement.
We all pride ourselves on being productive. That’s why you are reading these words right now. The 5 Most Common Mistakes Productive People Make
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