I developed a talent for editing when I managed the newsroom of a small chain of newspapers in San Diego in the early 90s. My ability to spot a mistake in type grew at roughly the same pace as my list of pet peeves. It seemed as if most of our reporters – trained writers, all of them — made the same errors year after year.
In my 20 years as a professional communicator, I’ve worked with people in a variety of professions, all at different points in their careers. My job was to help them lead, teach, or inform their audiences with clear ideas and compelling words. These people are brilliant thinkers, great orators, strong communicators and literate writers. And they are often guilty of the same writing faux pas that my reporters were making 20 years ago.
The truth is, writing is an art form that you can practice for a lifetime and never fully master. In fact, the most talented wordsmiths I know are capable of butchering great writing with lousy spelling or bad grammar. It happens to all of us. Some days I sprinkle commas on a sentence like a kid sprinkles sugar on her morning cereal. And some days I have to ask myself, “For who, or whom, did the bell toll?”
For those of you who find yourselves in the same situation, here’s a list of the top 12 mistakes that, in my experience, most writers make today. And while I’ve left a few good ones off the list, I believe this dirty dozen leads the stampede of offenses in modern written composition.
Active vs. passive voice.
Know the difference between the two, and use active voice when possible. It’s the quality of a verb that tells whether the subject acts or is acted upon. A verb is in active voice when its subject does the acting, and in the passive when its subject is acted upon.
Active voice examples:
Bob hit the ball.
Kathy fed the kittens.
James captured the frog.
Passive voice examples:
The ball was hit by Bob.
The kittens were fed by Kathy.
The frog was captured by James.
Mind your apostrophes! Its is a possessive pronoun. It’s is a contraction for the words it is or it has.
Regensburg is known for its beauty.
It’s in the heart of Bavaria.
It’s been a landmark in my family’s history.
Their, they’re, there.
There is the possessive form for they (belonging to them). There is a contraction of the words they are. There is used as an adverb or exclamation.
Example: Their home is beautiful.
They’re the proud new owners of a 2-story colonial house.
The party is over there.
There! I’m done.
Improper use of commas.
In the world of amateur writing, the comma is the hands-down favorite among people who punctuate. In fact, commas are everywhere they don’t belong, meddling in phrases that don’t need their help; facilitating those nasty run-on sentences, giving weary readers unnecessary pause, muddling up lines and encouraging long lists.
Let’s all do our part to restore the good name (and good use) of the comma. Resist the urge to use a comma to indicate a pause in speaking (or reading, or writing). And give your comma’s neighbor, the period (or the dot, as folks say these days), a chance.
Don’t drop a comma in between two independent clauses without using a conjunction (and, but, since, etc.), or you’ll end up with a run-on sentence. (An independent clause is a phrase that has a subject and a verb and can stand alone as a sentence).
Incorrect: He went to the store in the storm, I thought that was silly. Correct: He went to the store in the storm, and I thought that was silly. Correct: He went to the store in the storm. I thought that was silly.
Fragments as sentences.
According to one of my books, “The term fragment refers to a group of words beginning with a capital letter and ending with a period. Although written as if it were a sentence, a fragment is only a part of a sentence.” Fragments are phrases, or subordinate (dependent) clauses that are usually missing something important, like a verb, or a subject. Advice: Make sure your phrases have both a subject and a verb. Eliminate fragments, and terminate the offense.
Example: (incorrect) Around the corner.
Solution: Make it into a sentence. Correct: Little Lucy skipped around the corner.
Solution: Connect it to an existing sentence. Correct: Little Lucy was waiting around the corner.
Improper use of quotation marks.
Quotes come in a close second to the comma for popularity and misuse these days. Somewhere along the line people decided to put quotes around a word they really, really, “really” wanted to emphasize. Teachers and readers put this error high on the list of pet peeves. Don’t depend on visual cues to point out your emphatic point of view. Use words, not quotes, when you need to stress a point. Find an interesting and creative way to state the same emphatic word or idea. Use better, stronger, and more descriptive words.
Incorrect — I am “so” mad.
Correct — I’m so mad that if I were a cartoon character, I’d have steam shooting out of my ears.
Correct – I have surpassed the point of irritation. I am ready to hurl a glass vase across the room.
Incorrect – I am “really” disappointed.
Correct – I am bitterly disappointed.
Last resort – use italics.
Avoid unnecessary capitals.
Use standard conventions to determine whether or not to capitalize a word. Consult the dictionary if you have questions.
Proper Names (names/nicknames of people or things, or trademarks):
T. S. Elliot, Buffalo Bill, Liberty Bell, Noah’s Ark, Academy Award, Echo Lane, Honda Accord
America, Middle East, Texas, Ellis Island, Garden State, Estes Park, Oklahoma City, Chicago, Cape Cod, Atlantic City
Peoples and their languages:
American, Asian, Hispanic, German, Italian, English, Spanish
Organizations, government agencies, institutions, companies:
Red Cross, Associated Press, Air Force, National Guard, Congress, St. Edward’s University, Republican Party, Dallas Cowboys, Federal Express
Days of the week, months, holidays:
Thursday, Friday, May, Thanksgiving, Veterans Day, Labor Day
(Note: seasons are not capitalized: summer, fall, winter, spring.)
Historical documents, periods, events:
The Fifth Amendment, the Bill of Rights, Federal Housing Act, Stone Age, Civil War, Romantic Movement,
Religions and their adherents, holy books, holy days and words denoting the Supreme Being:
Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Catholic, Protestant, Jew, the Bible, Book of Mormon, Koran, Easter, God, Messiah, Yahweh, Buddha, Allah.
Derivatives (words derived from proper names):
Americanize, Israelite, Christmas, Stalinism, Germanic, Orwellian
Abbreviations and Acronyms (shortened forms of capitalized words):
DC, L.A./LA, DVM, IRS, CBS, ABC, AT&T, OPEC, NATO, AMEX, NOW
Commonly used exceptions: a.m. or A.M., p.m. or P.M.
Capitalize the title of a person if the title is written before the name, but not if the title follows the name. Example: Governor Rick Perry; Rick Perry, our governor / President Kennedy; the president of the United States
In titles and subtitles of books and plays, do not capitalize articles, coordinating conjunctions, prepositions, and the to in infinitives.
Articles: a, an, the
Coordinating conjunctions: and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet
Trouble with possession.
This common trouble spot gives writers grief. Here are a few tips to help:
Singular nouns: take an apostrophe-s (‘s).
Example: Rachael’s cat was named Tigger.
Plural nouns: Add an apostrophe after nouns ending with an s or z, and for words that don’t end with an s or z, add an ’s.
Example: My four cats’ litter box is always filling up.
Compound nouns: the last word of the compound word takes the apostrophe.
Example: My mother-in-law’s kitchen is perfect for cooking large family dinners.
Indefinite pronouns: use an apostrophe.
Example: I have somebody else’s cell phone.
Possessive pronouns: do not have apostrophes: I, my, mine, you, your, yours, she her hers, he his his, us our ours, they their theirs, it its its
i.e. vs. e.g., for example.
We use them, but we don’t know what they mean. To clarify:
i.e. means “that is”
e.g. means “for example”
And both should always be followed by a comma.
Effect vs. affect.
This pardonable offense is committed by most people at one time or another. Use this key of synonyms to help you decide what to use:
Effect: result, consequence, outcome, upshot, end product, achieve, cause, produce, bring about
Affect: have an effect on, influence, involve, shape, concern, change, impinge on, distress, touch
Whom or who?
I use this method to decide which word to use:
Take the who or whom out of the sentence and substitute it with either he or she, or with the words him or her. If the words he or she properly complete the sentence, then the correct choice would be the word who. If the words him or her fits the bill, then use whom. (I also use this as a key: the words him and whom both end in an m, and they are the correctly paired words).
Example: For whom the bell tolls.
(The bell tolls for him.)
I like the boy next door, who has red hair.
(He has red hair.)
Her – whom
She – who
Capitol or Capital?
A capitol is a building. (Cue: Capitol with an “o” is an Office building).
Capital refers to money, or letters, or ideas.
Frequently Confused Words
- accept, except
- access, excess
- adapt, adopt
- advice, advise
- affect, effect
- aisles, isles
- alley, ally
- allude, elude
- allusion, illusion
- already, all ready
- altar, alter
- altogether, all together
- always, all ways
- angel, angle
- assistance, assistants
- baring, barring bearing
- birth, berth
- board, bored
- born, borne
- break, brake
- breath, breathe
- buy, by
- canvas, canvass
- capital, capitol
- censor, censure, sensor
- choose, chose
- cite, site, sight
- clothes, cloths
- coarse, course
- complement, compliment
- conscience, conscious
- council, counsel
- credible, creditable
- cursor, curser
- dairy, diary
- decent, descent, dissent
- desert, dessert
- detract, distract
- device, devise
- dominant, dominate
- dual, duel
- dyeing, dying
- elicit, illicit
- envelop, envelope
- fair, fare
- faze, phase
- formerly, formally
- forth, fourth
- forward, foreword
- gorilla, guerrilla
- hear, here
- heard, herd
- heroin, heroine
- hole, whole
- holy, wholly
- horse, hoarse
- human, humane
- instance, instants
- its, it’s
- later, latter
- led, lead
- lesson, lessen
- lightning, lightening
- lose, loose
- maybe, may be
- minor, miner
- moral, morale
- of, off
- passed, past
- patience, patients
- peace, piece
- persecute, prosecute
- perspective, prospective
- personal, personnel
- plain, plane
- pray, prey
- precede, proceed
- predominant, predominate
- presence, presents
- principle, principal
- prophecy, prophesy
- purpose, propose
- quiet, quite
- respectfully, respectively
- right, rite, write
- road, rode
- sense, since
- shown, shone
- stationary, stationery
- statue, stature, statute
- straight, strait
- taut, taunt
- than, then
- their, there, they’re
- through, thorough
- to, too, two
- tract, track
- waist, waste
- weak, week
- weather, whether
- were, where
- who’s, whose
- your, you’re