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Common Writing Mistakes and How to Amend Them

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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 November 18, 2021

10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

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10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

We all fall into the trap of judging a person’s character by their appearance. How wrong we are! All too often, the real character of the person only appears when some negative event hits them or you. Then you may see a toxic person emerging from the ruins and it is often a shock.

A truly frightening example is revealed in the book by O’Toole in Bowman called Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Instincts Betray Us. A perfectly respectable, charming, well dressed neighbor was found to have installed a torture chamber in his garage where he was systematically abusing kidnapped women. This is an extreme example, but it does show how we can be totally deceived by a person’s physical appearance, manners and behavior.

So, what can you do? You want to be able to assess personal qualities when you come into contact with colleagues, fresh acquaintances and new friends who might even become lifelong partners. You want to know if they are:

  • honest
  • reliable
  • competent
  • kind and compassionate
  • capable of taking the blame
  • able to persevere
  • modest and humble
  • pacific and can control anger.

The secret is to reserve judgment and take your time. Observe them in certain situations; look at how they react. Listen to them talking, joking, laughing, explaining, complaining, blaming, praising, ranting, and preaching. Only then will you be able to judge their character. This is not foolproof, but if you follow the 10 ways below, you have a pretty good chance of not ending up in an abusive relationship.

1. Is anger a frequent occurrence?

All too often, angry reactions which may seem to be excessive are a sign that there are underlying issues. Do not think that every person who just snaps and throws his/her weight around mentally and physically is just reacting normally. Everyone has an occasional angry outburst when driving or when things go pear-shaped.

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But if this is almost a daily occurrence, then you need to discover why and maybe avoid that person. Too often, anger will escalate to violent and aggressive behavior. You do not want to be near someone who thinks violence can solve personal or global problems.

2. Can you witness acts of kindness?

How often do you see this person being kind and considerate? Do they give money to beggars, donate to charity, do voluntary work or in some simple way show that they are willing to share the planet with about 7 billion other people?

I was shocked when a guest of mine never showed any kindness to the weak and disadvantaged people in our town. She was ostensibly a religious person, but I began to doubt the sincerity of her beliefs.

“The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.”

Abigail Van Buren

3. How does this person take the blame?

Maybe you know that s/he is responsible for a screw-up in the office or even in not turning up on time for a date. Look at their reaction. If they start blaming other colleagues or the traffic, well, this is an indication that they are not willing to take responsibility for their mistakes.

4. Don’t use Facebook as an indicator.

You will be relieved to know that graphology (the study of that forgotten skill of handwriting) is no longer considered a reliable test of a person’s character. Neither is Facebook stalking, fortunately. A study showed that Facebook use of foul language, sexual innuendo and gossip were not reliable indicators of a candidate’s character or future performance in the workplace.

5. Read their emails.

Now a much better idea is to read the person’s emails. Studies show that the use of the following can indicate certain personality traits:

  • Too many exclamation points may reveal a sunny disposition
  • Frequent errors may indicate apathy
  • Use of smileys is the only way a person can smile at you
  • Use of the third person may reveal a certain formality
  • Too many question marks can show anger
  • Overuse of capital letters is regarded as shouting. They are a definite no-no in netiquette, yet a surprising number of  people still use them.

6. Watch out for the show offs.

Listen to people as they talk. How often do they mention their achievements, promotions, awards and successes? If this happens a lot, it is a sure indication that this person has an over-inflated view of his/her achievements. They are unlikely to be modest or show humility. What a pity!  Another person to avoid.

7. Look for evidence of perseverance.

A powerful indicator of grit and tenacity is when a person persists and never gives up when they really want to achieve a life goal. Look for evidence of them keeping going in spite of enormous difficulties.

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Great achievements by scientists and inventors all bear the hallmark of perseverance. We only have to think of Einstein, Edison (who failed thousands of times) and Nelson Mandela to get inspiration. The US Department of Education is in no doubt about how grit, tenacity and perseverance will be key success factors for youth in the 21st century.

8. Their empathy score is high.

Listen to how they talk about the less fortunate members of our society such as the poor, immigrants and the disabled. Do you notice that they talk in a compassionate way about these people? The fact that they even mention them is a strong indicator of empathy.

People with zero empathy will never talk about the disadvantaged. They will rarely ask you a question about a difficult time or relationship. They will usually steer the conversation back to themselves. These people have zero empathy and in extreme cases, they are psychopaths who never show any feelings towards their victims.

9. Learn how to be socially interactive.

We are social animals and this is what makes us so uniquely human. If a person is isolated or a loner, this may be a negative indicator of their character. You want to meet a person who knows about trust, honesty and loyalty. The only way to practice these great qualities is to actually interact socially. The great advantage is that you can share problems and celebrate success and joy together.

“One can acquire everything in solitude, except character.”

Stendhal

 10. Avoid toxic people.

These people are trying to control others and often are failing to come to terms with their own failures. Typical behavior and conversations may concern:

  • Envy or jealousy
  • Criticism of partners, colleagues and friends
  • Complaining about their own lack of success
  • Blaming others for their own bad luck or failure
  • Obsession with themselves and their problems

Listen to these people talk and you will quickly discover that you need to avoid them at all costs because their negativity will drag you down. In addition, as much as you would like to help them, you are not qualified to do so.

Now, having looked at some of the best ways to judge a person, what about yourself? How do others see you? Why not take Dr. Phil’s quiz and find out. Can you bear it?

Featured photo credit: Jacek Dylag via unsplash.com

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