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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 April 6, 2020

10 Powerful Ways to Influence People Positively

10 Powerful Ways to Influence People Positively

Most discussions on positively influencing others eventually touch on Dale Carnegie’s seminal work, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Written more than 83 years ago, the book touches on a core component of human interaction, building strong relationships. It is no wonder why.

Everything that we do hinges on our ability to connect with others and formulate deep relationships. You cannot sell a house, buy a house, advance in most careers, sell a product, pitch a story, teach a course, etc. without building healthy relationships. Managers get the best results from their teams, not through brute force, but to careful appeals to their sensibilities, occasional withdrawals from the reservoir of respect they’ve built. Using these tactics, they can influence others to excellence, to productivity, and to success.

Carnegie’s book is great. Of course, there are other resources too. Most of us have someone in our lives who positively influences us. The truth is positively influencing people is about centering the humanity of others. Chances are, you know someone who is really good at making others feel like stars. They can get you to do things that the average person cannot. Where the requests of others sound like fingernails on a chalkboard, the request from this special person sounds like music to your ears. You’re delighted to not only listen but also to oblige.

So how to influence people in a positive way? Read on for tips.

1. Be Authentic

To influence people in a positive way, be authentic. Rather than being a carbon copy of someone else’s version of authenticity, uncover what it is that makes you unique.

Discover your unique take on an issue and then live up to and honor that. Once of the reasons social media influencers are so powerful is that they have carved out a niche for themselves or taken a common issue and approached it from a novel or uncommon way. People instinctually appreciate people whose public persona matches their private values.

Contradictions bother us because we crave stability. When someone professes to be one way, but lives contrary to that profession, it signals that they are confused or untrustworthy and thereby, inauthentic. Neither of these combinations bode well for positively influencing others.

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2. Listen

Growing up, my father would tell me to listen to what others said. He told me if I listened carefully, I would know all I needed to know about a person’s character, desires and needs.

To positively influence others, you must listen to what is spoken and what is left unsaid. Therein lies the explanation for what people need in order to feel validated, supported and seen. If a person feels they are invisible, and unseen by their superiors, they are less likely to be positively influenced by that person.

Listening meets a person’s primary need of validation and acceptance.

Take a look at this guide on how to be a better listener: How to Practice Active Listening (A Step-By-Step Guide)

3. Become an Expert

Most people are predisposed to listen to, if not respect, authority. If you want to positively influence others, become an authority in the area in which you seek to lead others. Research and read everything you can about the given topic, and then look for opportunities to put your education into practice.

You can argue over opinions. You cannot argue, or it is unwise to argue, over facts and experts come with facts.

4. Lead with Story

From years of working in the public relations space, I know that personal narratives, testimonials and impact stories are incredibly powerful. But I never cease to be amazed with how effective a well-timed and told story can be.

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If you want to influence people, learn to tell stories. Your stories should be related to the issue or concept you are discussing. They should be an analogy or metaphor that explains your topic in ordinary terms and in vivid detail. To learn more about how to tell powerful stories, and the ethics of storytelling, take a look at this article: How To Tell An Interesting Story In 4 Simple Steps

5. Lead by Example

It is incredibly inspiring to watch passionate, talented people at work or play. One of the reasons a person who is not an athlete can be in awe of athletic prowess is because human nature appreciates the extraordinary. When we watch the Olympics, Olympic trials, gymnastic competitions, ice skating, and other competitive sports, we can recognize the effort of people who day in and day out give their all. C

ase in point: Simone Biles. The gymnast extraordinaire won her 6TH all-around title at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships after doing a triple double. She was the first woman to do so. Watching her gave me chills. Even non-gymnasts and non-competitive athletes can appreciate the talent required to pull off such a remarkable feat.

We celebrate remarkable accomplishments and believe that their example is proof that we too can accomplish something great, even if it isn’t qualifying for the Olympics. To influence people in a positive way, we must lead by example, lead with intention and execute with excellence.

6. Catch People Doing Good

A powerful way to influence people in a positive way is to catch people doing good. Instead of looking for problems, look for successes. Look for often overlooked, but critically important things that your peers, subordinates and managers do that make the work more effective and more enjoyable.

Once you catch people doing good, name and notice their contributions.

7. Be Effusive with Praise

It did not take me long to notice a remarkable trait of a former boss. He not only began and ended meetings with praise, but he peppered praise throughout the entire meeting. He found a way to celebrate the unique attributes and skills of his team members. He was able to quickly and accurately assess what people were doing well and then let them and their colleagues know.

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Meetings were not just an occasion to go through a “To Do” list, they were opportunities to celebrate accomplishments, no matter how small they are.

8. Be Kind Rather Than Right

I am going to level with you; this one is tough. It is easy to get caught up in a cycle of proving oneself. For people who lack confidence, or people who prioritize the opinions of others, being right is important. The validation that comes with being perceived as “right” feeds one’s ego. But in the quest to be “right,” we can hurt other people. Once we’ve hurt someone by being unkind, it is much harder to get them to listen to what we’re trying to influence them to do.

The antidote to influencing others via bullying is to prioritize kindness above rightness. You can be kind and still stand firm in your position. For instance, many people think that they need others to validate their experience. If a person does not see the situation you experienced in the way you see it, you get upset. But your experience is your experience.

If you and your friends go out to eat and you get food poisoning, you do not need your friends to agree that the food served at the restaurant was problematic for you. Your own experience of getting food poisoning is all the validation you need. Therefore, taking time to be right is essentially wasted and, if you were unkind in seeking validation for your food-poison experience, now you’ve really lost points.

9. Understand a Person’s Logical, Emotional and Cooperative Needs

The Center for Creative Leadership has argued that the best way to influence others is to appeal to their logical, emotional and cooperative needs. Their logical need is their rational and educational need. Their emotional need is the information that touches them in a deeply personal manner. The cooperative need is understanding the level of cooperation various individuals need and then appropriately offering it.

The trick with this system is to understand that different people need different things. For some people, a strong emotional appeal will outweigh logical explanations. For others, having an opportunity to collaborate will override emotional connection.

If you know your audience, you will know what they need in order to be positively influenced. If you have limited information about the people whom you are attempting to influence, you will be ineffective.

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10. Understand Your Lane

If you want to positively influence others, operate from your sphere of influence. Operate from your place of expertise. Leave everything else to others. Gone are the days when being a jack of all trades is celebrated.

Most people appreciate brands that understand their target audience and then deliver on what that audience wants. When you focus on what you are uniquely gifted and qualified to do, and then offer that gift to the people who need it, you are likely more effective. This effectiveness is attractive.

You cannot positively influence others if you are more preoccupied by what others do well versus what you do well.

Final Thoughts

Influencing people is about centering your humanity. If you want to influence others positively, focus on the way you communicate and improve the relationship with yourself first.

It’s hard to influence others if you’re still trying to figure out how to communicate with yourself.

More Tips About Making Influence

Featured photo credit: Wonderlane via unsplash.com

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