10 Quick Fixes That’ll Make You Look Really Smart …or How Not to Peeve an Editor

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Spoken language is casual, peppered with clichés and idioms, and words that are mispronounced and misused—sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. In everyday speech, this is fine. This is how people talk. We have other ways of assessing people in person, besides their word choice.

But in print, word choice is everything. All people reading your words have to go on is, well, your words. So unless you’re writing dialogue, don’t write like you talk. Easy to say, not so easy to do. After all, even writers speak and listen more than they write. So it’s almost impossible for casual-speak not to sneak into our writing.

You probably know to edit overused expressions from your writing—that’s basic writing class advice. But what about the mistakes you don’t even know are mistakes?

Here are some common errors to check for before you hit send or drop your envelope in the mailbox. Strive to make your writing as error-free as possible at all times, even when you’re just composing a message board post. That way, when it comes time to write that query letter or put the final polish on your novel, correct grammar and spelling will be a habit.

  1. Watch for HOMONYMS and make sure you use the correct one.

I once read a front page newspaper story where the writer used the word “grizzly” to describe a crime scene. Despite the graphic details, I had to laugh. Why? Well, a grizzly is a large brown bear with a hump. Ursus arctos horribilis, to be specific. The word the writer wanted, of course, was “grisly”, as in gruesome, an appropriate word to describe this murder scene. By using the wrong homonym, he instead conjured up images of bears romping through the victim’s house, à la Yogi and Boo-Boo.

Homonyms are words that sound the same. Some homonyms are spelled the same, e.g. “pool” (body of water) vs. “pool” (game), but many homonyms are spelled differently, and these are the ones to look out for. Often they’re very common words that you use in everyday speech—words you know so well, you don’t think “How do I spell that?” when you write them down, the way you do more unusual or complicated words.

Examples:

  • here / hear
  • know / no
  • oar / ore / or
  • they’re / their / there
  • bear / bare
  • you / ewe
  • one / won
  • read / red
  • where / wear
  • which / witch
  • do / due
  • for / four / fore
  1. Don’t use apostrophes to create PLURALS.

Plural words are created by adding an S, or in some cases an ES, to the word. A plural is NEVER created by adding an ‘S. ‘S (apostrophe S) indicates a possessive, not a plural (see #3).

This error is so common these days that it’s become self-perpetuating. People and organizations who should know better make this mistake; others see it and assume that must be the correct way, so they do it too, and so on and so on… just like that old shampoo ad. But just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to. Show an editor you’re smarter than the average bear and pluralize correctly.

Commonly mis-pluralized words are names, words ending in S or a vowel, numbers, and acronyms. If in doubt with numbers or acronyms, write the words out in full to double-check.

Examples:

  • The Smiths live at 123 Sesame Street. The plural of the name Smith is Smiths, not Smith’s or Smiths’. Smith’s means something belonging to a person named Smith, e.g. Bob Smith’s car was stolen today. Smiths’ means something belonging to more than one person named Smith, e.g. We’re going to the Smiths’ house for dinner.
  • If the name ends in S, add an ES. For example, for a family named Hobbs, you’d write: The Hobbses live next door at 125 Sesame Street. If the Hobbs family were to put a sign outside their house, either The Hobbses or The Hobbses’ [house] would be fine, but not The Hobbs’s.
  • Similarly, when pluralizing an ordinary word ending in S, add an ES, not ‘S, e.g. the plural of glass is glasses, not glass’s. Glass’s indicates something belonging to a glass, e.g. My favorite glass’s rim is chipped.
  • When pluralizing a word ending in a vowel, just add an S. Bananas, not banana’s. Antiques, not antique’s. Portfolios, not portfolio’s. If the final vowel is a Y, change the Y to IE and add an S. Thus, ferry becomes ferries, not ferry’s. Baby becomes babies, not baby’s.
  • I went to high school in the ’80s. (I went to high school in the ‘eighties.) The apostrophe here indicates a contraction—the 19 of 1980s has been dropped. Writing the word or number without the preceding apostrophe is acceptable: 80s / eighties. 80’s, on the other hand, is not. 80’s means something belonging to the number 80, which, when you think about it, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
  • I own 200 CDs. (I own 200 compact discs.) CDs is the plural of CD. CD’s means something belonging to a single CD, e.g. That CD’s case is broken. (That compact disc’s case is broken.)
  1. When you need an APOSTROPHE, put it in the right place.

Apostrophes are used for two reasons. First, to indicate possession, e.g. someone’s stuff. Second, to indicate a contraction, i.e. one or more letters have been dropped from a word.

Most people don’t have difficulty using an apostrophe to indicate possession when the word/name is singular and doesn’t end in S. But when either of those things apply, watch out.

Examples of apostrophes used to indicate possession:

  • simple singular possession: Jane’s dog = the dog belonging to Jane.
  • singular possession when a name ends in S: Chris’s dog = the dog belonging to Chris. You’ll sometimes see this written as Chris’, and that’s acceptable, but I don’t like it, and neither does Strunk & White. It’s inconsistent, and that leads to confusion with plural possessives (see next example). Besides, you say the extra S, so it makes sense that it’s there.
  • plural possession: The Smiths’ dog = the dog belonging to the Smiths. Here the apostrophe comes after the S, indicating the dog belongs to a family (more than one person) named Smith.

Contractions are words like can’t, ’til, y’all, nothin’ — words that imitate speech.

Examples of apostrophes used to indicate contractions:

  • can’t = can not. The ‘ indicates the dropped no.
  • ’til = until. The ‘ indicates the dropped un.
  • y’all = you all. The ‘ indicates the dropped ou. Knowing that, you can see that ya’ll (a common misspelling) makes no sense.
  • nothin’ = nothing. The ‘ indicates the dropped g.

Remember, if in doubt, write the word out in full, then place the apostrophe where the letters are dropped.

  1. Choose the right IT’S / ITS.

It’s / its gets its own section because it’s a special case.

It’s is a contraction meaning “it is”.

Its is a possessive meaning “belonging to it”.

Note how I used both forms correctly in the opening sentence of this section. Sneaky, huh?

  1. THAT, WHO, or WHICH?

That applies to things. Who applies to people. Which applies to stuff that is not vitally important, which means if you left that part of the sentence out, it would still make sense.

Most people these days use that for everything, people included. But you’re not content to be “most people” are you?

Examples:

  • The car that is parked across the street is green.
  • The man who just got out of the car is about six feet tall.
  • When I finish my shift, I’m going to see Goldmember, which is playing at the Octoplex.

Note that a comma always separates a which phrase from the rest of the sentence. No comma is required for that or who.

  1. Don’t say LAY when you mean LIE, and vice versa.

The verb ‘to lay’ means to put or place something down. The verb ‘to lie’ means to rest or recline. You lay something down, whereas you lie down. However, and here’s where the confusion probably started, the past tense of ‘to lie’ is lay. So if you were speaking it in the past tense, you would say “I laid it down.” vs. “I lay down.”

Examples:

  • Present: Austin lays the book on the table. Austin is laying the book on the table.
  • Past: Austin laid the book on the table. Austin had laid the book on the table.
  • Present: Candace lies on the bed. Candace is lying on the bed.
  • Past: Candace lay on the bed. Candace had lain on the bed.
  1. ME, MYSELF, & I

And the winner of most incorrectly overused word of the early twenty-first century? Myself, a pretentious affectation used by people who are trying to sound smart. But since it’s wrong, it makes them sound dumb. Celeb interviews and reality programs abound with misused myselfs. Example: Triple Q was founded by Dave, Gary, and myself. It’s ME! The word is ME, people! Stop trying to be so clever, or else go all out and tattoo an L on your forehead.

This problem often occurs when more than one individual is referred to in a sentence. If in doubt, rewrite the sentence without the other names. The error will usually be glaring.

Examples:

  • Incorrect: Dave, Gary, and myself met in high school.
  • Incorrect: Dave, Gary, and me met in high school.
  • Correct: Dave, Gary, and I met in high school.
  • Incorrect: Triple Q was founded by Dave, Gary, and myself.
  • Incorrect: Triple Q was founded by Dave, Gary, and I.
  • Correct: Triple Q was founded by Dave, Gary, and me.
  • Correct: I was so paranoid, I used to mail the lyrics to myself. Note how in this sentence there is also an “I”. Myself is a reflexive pronoun. You have to already have referred to yourself once in the sentence to use it. You may also note that you/yourself follows the same pattern. As do all the other pronouns. Funny how that works.
  1. You do know THEN and THAN are two different words— don’t you?

Yes, then and than look and sound similar. Yes, it’s only a matter of one little vowel. But please, people, please, use then when you mean then and than when you mean than.

What an editor never wants to see: My brother is younger then I am.

Why? Well, I’m glad you asked. Than is a conjunction, used to compare two things: My brother is younger than I am. Then is an adverb, used to indicate when something happened: First we finished our homework, then we went to the movies.

I’ll say it again: Please don’t use then when you mean than.

  1. Don’t use FAUX-WORDS.

Generally, these are words that are pronounced differently than they are spelled. Because you hear them more often than you see them in print, the spoken version starts to sound right. But it isn’t. So don’t be getting any wacky ideas.

Examples:

  • Not a word: alot. Correct term: a lot.
  • Not a word: alright. Correct term: all right.
  • Not a word: could of (should of, would of). Correct term: could have (should have, would have) or could’ve (should’ve, would’ve)

My favorite faux-word: copywrite. Correct term: copyright. The term refers to “rights”, not to “writing”.

More of these gems can be found here: Common Errors in English

  1. CAPITALIZE consistently.

Proper names are capitalized. Generic names are not. When capitalizing a proper name consisting of more than one word, all of the words in the name should be capitalized.

Examples:

  • Incorrect: Cindy attends High School.
  • Correct: Cindy attends high school. (Here the generic term is used. No capitals are required.)
  • Incorrect: Cindy attends Victoria high school.
  • Correct: Cindy attends Victoria High School. (Here a proper name is used. The name of the school is “Victoria High School”, not “Victoria”. All words in the name should be capitalized.)

Final Poll Results

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