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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.

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Catherine Winter

Catherine is a wordsmith covering lifestyle tips on Lifehack.

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Last Updated on July 8, 2020

How to Say No When You Say Yes Too Often

How to Say No When You Say Yes Too Often

Do you say yes so often that you realize you aren’t really happy about this, wondering how to say no to people?

For years, I was a serial people pleaser. Known as someone who would step up, I would gladly make time especially when it came to volunteering for certain causes. I proudly carried this role all through grade school, college, even through law school. For years, I thought saying “no” meant I would disappoint a good friend or someone I respected.

But somewhere along the way, I noticed I wasn’t quite living my life. Instead, I seem to have created a schedule that was a strange combination of meeting the expectations of others, what I thought I should be doing, and some of what I actually wanted to do. The result? I had a packed schedule that left me overwhelmed and unfulfilled.

It took a long while but I learned the art of saying no. Saying ‘no’ meant I no longer catered fully to everyone else’s needs and could make more room for what I really wanted to do. Instead of cramming too much in, I chose to pursue what really mattered. I started to manage my time more around my own needs and interests. When that happened, I became a lot happier. And guess what? I hardly disappointed anyone.

The Importance of Saying No

When you learn the art of saying ‘no,’ you begin to look at the world differently. Rather than seeing all of the things you could or should be doing (and aren’t doing), you start to look at how to say yes to what’s important.

In other words, you aren’t just reacting to what life throws at you. You seek the opportunities that move you to where you want to be.

Successful people aren’t afraid to say no. Oprah Winfrey considered one of the most successful women in the world confessed that it was much later in life when she learned how to say no. Even after she had become internationally famous, she felt she had to say yes to virtually everything. It was only when she realized that after years of struggling with saying no, I finally got to this question: “What do I want?”

Being able to say no also helps you manage your time better.

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Warren Buffett views no as essential to his success. He said,

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

When I made ‘no’ a part of my toolbox, I drove more of my own success focusing on fewer things and doing them well.

How We Are Pressured to Say Yes

It’s no wonder a lot of us find it hard to say ‘no.’

From an early age, we are conditioned to say ‘yes.’ We said yes probably hundreds of time in order to graduate from high school and then get into college. We said yes to find work. We said yes get a promotion. We said yes to find love and then yes again to stay in a relationship. We said yes to find and keep friends.

We say yes because it feels better to help someone. We say yes because it can seem like the right thing to do. We say yes because we think that is key to success. And we say yes because the request might come from someone who is hard to resist like the boss.

And that’s not all. The pressure to say yes doesn’t just come from others. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. At work, we say yes because we compare ourselves to others who seem to be doing more than we are. Outside of work, we say yes because we feel guilty we aren’t doing enough to spend time with family or friends.

The message no matter where we turn is nearly always, “You really could be doing more.” The result? When people ask us for our time, we are heavily conditioned to say yes.

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How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty

Deciding to add the word ‘no’ to your toolbox is no small thing. Perhaps you already say ‘no’ but not as much as you would like. Maybe you have an instinct that if you were to learn the art of ‘no’ that you could finally create more time for things you care about. But let’s be honest, using the word ‘no’ doesn’t come easily for many people.

The 3 Rules of Thumbs for Saying No

1. You Need to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Let’s face it. It is hard to say no. Setting boundaries around your time especially you haven’t done it much in the past will feel awkward.

2. You Are the Air Traffic Controller of Your Time

Remember that you are the only one who understands the demands for your time. Think about it, who else knows about all of the demands on your time? No one. Only you are at the center of all of these requests. are the only one that understands what time you really have.

3. Saying ‘No’ Means Saying ‘Yes’ to Something That Matters

When we decide not to do something, it means we can say yes to something else. You have a unique opportunity to decide how you spend your precious time.

6 Ways to Start Saying No

Incorporating that little word ‘no’ into your life can be transformational. Turning some things down will mean you can open doors to what really matters. Here are some essential tips to learn the art of no:

1. Check in With Your Obligation Meter

One of the biggest challenges to saying ‘no’ is a feeling of obligation. Do you feel you have a responsibility to say yes and worry that saying no reflect poorly on you?

Ask yourself whether you truly have the duty to say yes. Check your assumptions or beliefs about whether you carry the responsibility to say yes. Turn it around and instead ask what duty you owe to yourself.

2. Resist the Fear of Missing out (FOMO)

Do you have a fear of missing out (FOMO)? FOMO can follow us around in so many ways. At work, we volunteer our time because we fear we won’t move ahead. In our personal lives, we agree to join the crowd because FOMO even while we ourselves aren’t enjoying the fun.

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Check in with yourself. Are you saying yes because of FOMO or because you really want to say yes? More often than not, running after fear doesn’t make us feel better.

3. Check Your Assumptions About What It Means to Say ‘No’

Do you dread the reaction you will get if you say no? Often, we say ‘yes’ because we worry about how others will respond or the consequences of saying no or because of the consequences. We may be afraid to disappoint others or think we will lose respect from others. We often forget how much we are disappointing ourselves along the way.

Keep in mind that saying ‘no’ can be exactly what is needed to send the right message that you have limited time. In the tips below, you will see how to communicate your no in a gentle and loving way. You might disappoint someone initially but drawing a boundary can bring you the freedom you need so that you can give freely of yourself when you truly want to.

4. When the Request Comes In, Sit on It

Sometimes, when we are in the moment, we instinctively agree. The request might make sense at first. Or we typically have said yes to this request in the past.

Give yourself a little time to reflect on whether you really have the time, or can do the task properly. You may decide the best option is to say ‘no.’ There is no harm in giving yourself the time to decide.

5. Communicate Your ‘No’ with Transparency and Kindness

When you are ready to tell someone no, communicate your decision clearly. The message can be open and honest to ensure the recipient that your reasons have to do with your limited time.

Resist the temptation not to respond or communicate all. But do not feel obligated to provide a lengthy account about why you are saying no.

A clear communication with a short explanation is all that is needed. I have found it useful to tell people that I have many demands and need to be careful with how I allocate my time. I will sometimes say I really appreciate that they came to me and for them to check in again if the opportunity arises another time.

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6. Consider How to Use a Modified ‘No’

If you are under pressure to say yes but want to say no, you may want to consider downgrading a “yes” to a “yes but…” giving you an opportunity to condition your agreement to what works best for you.

Sometimes, the condition can be to do the task but not in the time frame that was originally requested. Or perhaps you can do part of what has been asked.

Final Thoughts

Beginning right now, you can change how you respond to requests for your time. When the request comes in, take yourself off autopilot where you might normally say yes.

Use the request as a fresh request to draw a healthy boundary around your time. Pay particular attention to when you place certain demands on yourself. If you are the one placing the demand on yourself, try to evaluate the demand as if it were coming from somewhere else.

Try it now. Say no to a friend who continues to take advantage of your goodwill. Or, draw the line with a workaholic colleague and tell them you will complete the project but not by working all weekend. Or, tell someone in your family you can’t loan them money again because they never paid you back the last time. You’ll find yourself much happier.

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Featured photo credit: Chris Ainsworth via unsplash.com

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