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Common Writing Mistakes and How to Amend Them

Common Writing Mistakes and How to Amend Them

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.

Dastardly Dashes

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, stylenot sincerityis 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.

Examples:

  • 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

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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:

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?

Vital Differences

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.

Examples:

  • “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.”

Primer-Style Writing

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:

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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.

Ellipses

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.

Mistaken Homophones

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.

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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”.

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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.

Examples:

  • 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.

Apostrophes

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.

Examples:

  • Won’t = contraction of “will not”.
  • Doesn’t = contraction of “does not”.
  • Possessiveness: Johns mother used to be a stewardess. Other peoples 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.

Happy scribbling.

More by this author

Catherine Winter

Catherine is a wordsmith covering lifestyle tips on Lifehack.

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Last Updated on January 15, 2021

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

The popular idiomatic saying that “actions speak louder than words” has been around for centuries, but even to this day, most people struggle with at least one area of nonverbal communication. Consequently, many of us aspire to have more confident body language but don’t have the knowledge and tools necessary to change what are largely unconscious behaviors.

Given that others’ perceptions of our competence and confidence are predominantly influenced by what we do with our faces and bodies, it’s important to develop greater self-awareness and consciously practice better posture, stance, eye contact, facial expressions, hand movements, and other aspects of body language.

Posture

First things first: how is your posture? Let’s start with a quick self-assessment of your body.

  • Are your shoulders slumped over or rolled back in an upright posture?
  • When you stand up, do you evenly distribute your weight or lean excessively to one side?
  • Does your natural stance place your feet relatively shoulder-width apart or are your feet and legs close together in a closed-off position?
  • When you sit, does your lower back protrude out in a slumped position or maintain a straight, spine-friendly posture in your seat?

All of these are important considerations to make when evaluating and improving your posture and stance, which will lead to more confident body language over time. If you routinely struggle with maintaining good posture, consider buying a posture trainer/corrector, consulting a chiropractor or physical therapist, stretching daily, and strengthening both your core and back muscles.

Facial Expressions

Are you prone to any of the following in personal or professional settings?

  • Bruxism (tight, clenched jaw or grinding teeth)
  • Frowning and/or furrowing brows
  • Avoiding direct eye contact and/or staring at the ground

If you answered “yes” to any of these, then let’s start by examining various ways in which you can project confident body language through your facial expressions.

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1. Understand How Others Perceive Your Facial Expressions

A December 2020 study by UC Berkeley and Google researchers utilized a deep neural network to analyze facial expressions in six million YouTube clips representing people from over 140 countries. The study found that, despite socio-cultural differences, people around the world tended to use about 70% of the same facial expressions in response to different emotional stimuli and situations.[1]

The study’s researchers also published a fascinating interactive map to demonstrate how their machine learning technology assessed various facial expressions and determined subtle differences in emotional responses.

This study highlights the social importance of facial expressions because whether or not we’re consciously aware of them—by gazing into a mirror or your screen on a video conferencing platform—how we present our faces to others can have tremendous impacts on their perceptions of us, our confidence, and our emotional states. This awareness is the essential first step towards

2. Relax Your Face

New research on bruxism and facial tension found the stresses and anxieties of Covid-19 lockdowns led to considerable increases in orofacial pain, jaw-clenching, and teeth grinding, particularly among women.[2]

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that more than 10 million Americans alone have temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ syndrome), and facial tension can lead to other complications such as insomnia, wrinkles, dry skin, and dark, puffy bags under your eyes.[3])

To avoid these unpleasant outcomes, start practicing progressive muscle relaxation techniques and taking breaks more frequently throughout the day to moderate facial tension.[4] You should also try out some biofeedback techniques to enhance your awareness of involuntary bodily processes like facial tension and achieve more confident body language as a result.[5]

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3. Improve Your Eye Contact

Did you know there’s an entire subfield of kinesic communication research dedicated to eye movements and behaviors called oculesics?[6] It refers to various communication behaviors including direct eye contact, averting one’s gaze, pupil dilation/constriction, and even frequency of blinking. All of these qualities can shape how other people perceive you, which means that eye contact is yet another area of nonverbal body language that we should be more mindful of in social interactions.

The ideal type (direct/indirect) and duration of eye contact depends on a variety of factors, such as cultural setting, differences in power/authority/age between the parties involved, and communication context. Research has shown that differences in the effects of eye contact are particularly prominent when comparing East Asian and Western European/North American cultures.[7]

To improve your eye contact with others, strive to maintain consistent contact for at least 3 to 4 seconds at a time, consciously consider where you’re looking while listening to someone else, and practice eye contact as much as possible (as strange as this may seem in the beginning, it’s the best way to improve).

3. Smile More

There are many benefits to smiling and laughing, and when it comes to working on more confident body language, this is an area that should be fun, low-stakes, and relatively stress-free.

Smiling is associated with the “happiness chemical” dopamine and the mood-stabilizing hormone, serotonin. Many empirical studies have shown that smiling generally leads to positive outcomes for the person smiling, and further research has shown that smiling can influence listeners’ perceptions of our confidence and trustworthiness as well.

4. Hand Gestures

Similar to facial expressions and posture, what you do with your hands while speaking or listening in a conversation can significantly influence others’ perceptions of you in positive or negative ways.

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It’s undoubtedly challenging to consciously account for all of your nonverbal signals while simultaneously trying to stay engaged with the verbal part of the discussion, but putting in the effort to develop more bodily awareness now will make it much easier to unconsciously project more confident body language later on.

5. Enhance Your Handshake

In the article, “An Anthropology of the Handshake,” University of Copenhagen social anthropology professor Bjarke Oxlund assessed the future of handshaking in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic:[8]

“Handshakes not only vary in function and meaning but do so according to social context, situation and scale. . . a public discussion should ensue on the advantages and disadvantages of holding on to the tradition of shaking hands as the conventional gesture of greeting and leave-taking in a variety of circumstances.”

It’s too early to determine some of the ways in which Covid-19 has permanently changed our social norms and professional etiquette standards, but it’s reasonable to assume that handshaking may retain its importance in American society even after this pandemic. To practice more confident body language in the meantime, the video on the science of the perfect handshake below explains what you need to know.

6. Complement Your Verbals With Hand Gestures

As you know by now, confident communication involves so much more than simply smiling more or sounding like you know what you’re talking about. What you do with your hands can be particularly influential in how others perceive you, whether you’re fidgeting with an object, clenching your fists, hiding your hands in your pockets, or calmly gesturing to emphasize important points you’re discussing.

Social psychology researchers have found that “iconic gestures”—hand movements that appear to be meaningfully related to the speaker’s verbal content—can have profound impacts on listeners’ information retention. In other words, people are more likely to engage with you and remember more of what you said when you speak with complementary hand gestures instead of just your voice.[9]

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Further research on hand gestures has shown that even your choice of the left or right hand for gesturing can influence your ability to clearly convey information to listeners, which supports the notion that more confident body language is readily achievable through greater self-awareness and deliberate nonverbal actions.[10]

Final Takeaways

Developing better posture, enhancing your facial expressiveness, and practicing hand gestures can vastly improve your communication with other people. At first, it will be challenging to consciously practice nonverbal behaviors that many of us are accustomed to performing daily without thinking about them.

If you ever feel discouraged, however, remember that there’s no downside to consistently putting in just a little more time and effort to increase your bodily awareness. With the tips and strategies above, you’ll be well on your way to embracing more confident body language and amplifying others’ perceptions of you in no time.

More Tips on How to Develop a Confident Body Language

Featured photo credit: Maria Lupan via unsplash.com

Reference

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