10 more common mistakes writers shouldn’t make

Previously, on Amos M. Carpenter

In one of my very first posts, back in early March, I wrote about 10 common mistakes writers shouldn’t make. Spotting mistakes is one of my gifts – or curses; hard to say which at any given moment – and I’ll go over some I notice in writing of all types, from Internet scribbling to serious books.

To recap those from the last post, the five easy ones were:

  1. Definitely
  2. Don’t add apostrophes to make plurals
  3. Homonyms: “its” vs “it’s”, “their” vs “there” vs “they’re”, “your” vs “you’re”
  4. Using “alot” a lot
  5. I before E, except after C… how hard can it be?

The five that were slightly trickier:

  1. Careful with your tenses
  2. Singular “is” vs plural “are”
  3. Who thinks of whom
  4. The postfix -ward vs -wards
  5. Using “if” vs “whether”

Continuing on from last time, I thought I’d blog about 10 more mistakes that have caught my eye.

Five (arguably) easy ones

1. Separate

Like “definitely”, this is one of those words an incredible number of people just do not know how to spell. It’s not “seperete”, or “sepret”, or “separete”. If you can’t remember it any other way, think of the word “karate” when you write it.

2. Space before punctuation

I believe that some people who also speak (and read/write) French get confused on this one (because in French, you use a space before punctuation). Or they just don’t know any better. In English, there is no space before punctuation like commas, full-stops, exclamation marks, or question marks. (“No space for you!”) Of course there’s one space after them, though. With en- and em-dashes, it can be different, depending on which style guide you’re following, as some prefer to use spaces both before and after them.

3. Couple OF

Dropping the preposition “of” after using “couple” is becoming more popular. However, I’d always recommend adding the “of”, as dropping it is mostly due to writers following in the footsteps of sloppy speakers. In spoken language, of often gets abbreviated to o’, so we go from “a couple of apples” to “a couple o’apples” to “a coupl’a apples” to “a couple apples”. It’s the same with “a cup of tea” becoming “a cuppa tea” – but would you ever say “a cup tea”, dropping the “of” completely?

I recently noticed how much this annoyed me when I read Patrick Rothfuss’ otherwise wonderful books (as I mentioned in this post). He’s one of those people (or perhaps it’s his editor?) who don’t believe “couple” needs a preposition, and many times while reading his story, it jarred me enough that it broke my immersion. (He’s still one of my favourite authors. I’m a forgiving sort of person. At least when someone tells such great stories.)

4. Then vs than

This one should be very simple – use then when referring to time, use than when comparing – but many people still get it wrong. First comes one thing, then something else. Jack is taller than Jill. Simple.

5. Have isn’t of

When “have” gets abbreviated, as in “I could have” becoming the contraction “I could’ve”, it sounds like, but isn’t “I could of”. I suppose people who get this wrong just write things the way they hear it, but pausing just a second to think about it should make it obvious that the two are not interchangeable. I could of, would of, should of used could have, would have, should have.

Five more, slightly trickier

Ok, I’m sure you knew all of the above, so here are some that are just a tad more advanced.

6. Is “alright” all right?

Many careful English users would consider the shortened form, “alright”, to be less acceptable than “all right”, especially in formal writing. Some would even consider it to be an invalid word, but it can be found in some writing, mainly in the US, so perhaps it will become more acceptable in time. For now, I’d recommend sticking with “all right”.

7. Further vs farther

You’ll know this one if you’ve seen Finding Forrester. It’s easiest to remember if you keep in mind that “far” relates to (measurable) distance, as does “farther”. On the other hand, “further” is used when denoting an abstract amount of something. So it’s “set them farther apart”, but “of no further value”.

It gets tricky when the dividing line between the two isn’t immediately obvious, as in “to go one step further/farther” – you have to ask yourself whether it is a physical step (i.e. “farther”), or a metaphorical step (“further”).

8. Capitalisation of formal titles

Obviously, certain things are always capitalised (capitalized, if you prefer – in Australia, we use the “s” form, I believe both are used in the UK and the US prefers “z”), such as days of the week, languages, or countries. But what about formal titles, “honourifics”, like General, or Professor, or Queen? Are they capitalised or not? Well, it depends on how you use them. If the word is used to refer to a particular person holding that title, it should be capitalised. If it is used to refer to a group of them, or to the title itself, leave it in lowercase (with the obvious exception of being the first word in a sentence).

Thus, it would be “Professor Smith”, or even “there’s the Professor” (despite the name not being used, it’s a particular professor), but “he’s a professor at my university”, or “the professors have arrived”.

If you invent a title for your story, you should treat it the same way.

9. Full-stops (periods) after abbreviations

When do you place a full-stop after an abbreviation? Why do you sometimes see it written as “Mr.”, and sometimes as “Mr”?

In British English (similarly for AUS/NZ/SA as far as I’m aware), the deciding factor is whether the abbreviation begins and ends with the same letters as the full word or phrase. Since “Mr” does meet this criterion (mister), there is no full-stop: Mr Jones. “Prof.”, however, does not begin with “p” and end with “r” (professor), so it gets a full-stop: Prof. Jones.

In US English, I believe the full-stop is always used. Just something to be aware of when you read and write.

10. Ellipses at the end of sentences

The ellipses I’m talking (well, writing) about are the ones in creative writing that indicate the speaker trailing off, or leaving something unsaid, as opposed to those that indicate an omission in a quote.

This is one that depends on which styleguide you follow. Some argue that an ellipsis (dot dot dot) at the end of a sentence finishes that sentence, while others consider it a part of the sentence and add a fourth dot to end the sentence, just as if the ellipsis had been any other word….

Personally, I add the fourth dot, even in informal writing (e.g. in blog comments), but I think the main thing is to pick a convention and stick with it consistently.

Conclusion

There you go, I hope some of these common mistakes have refreshed your memory of what to look out for, or perhaps even taught you something new.

Which errors do you frequently commit, or spot? Which ones really annoy you when you see them in written form? Or do you think sticklers for detail (like me) should just stop with the nitpicky posts already? Please let me know in the comments!

About Amos M. Carpenter

Web dev by day, author by night, and generally interested in (and opinionated about) way too many things.

Posted on 12 May, 2014, in Rants, Tips, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Brilliant tips, will definitely be noting these down for future reference!

    The titles thing caught me recently when I write my medieval story. The amount of times I had to check whether, ‘king’ had to be capitalised or not! 😀

    • I hear you. I edited a medieval fantasy not long ago. Keeping track of titles before names versus direct addresses versus simply referring to the character by their title or whatnot… shakes head

    • Thanks, Mishka. I think the first time I really became aware that there were times when it should be “King” and times when it should be “king” was reading a medieval fantasy. I initially thought the author was being inconsistent, then looked up the rule and paid more attention to when it should be uppercase and when it should be lowercase.

  2. One error that I see A LOT is the use of a semicolon instead of a colon, or instead of a comma. (Yes, I know there are instances where a semicolon should be used where a comma would normally go, but I’m not talking about those. I’m an editor; I know the difference.) Seeing a semicolon right before a list really, really irks me.

    I think that sticklers for details should CONTINUE to be nitpicky about punctuation and grammar. Informal writing is fine — it definitely has its place in fiction, especially — but errors only lead to miscommunication, and why would anyone write to share with others if they don’t care about clear communication?

    • Well said, Thomas, couldn’t agree more about clear communication.

      I know what you mean with the semicolon introducing a list; I even see that one on official government forms and such. (Ok, bad example, arguably that one could have been a colon as well.)

      Etymologically speaking, I sometimes wonder why it’s even called “semicolon”, since intuitively (if I’d never heard of it) I’d expect a full stop (.) to be called a “semicolon”. I might have to look that one up 🙂

      • I think the name has to do with how long a pause it indicated back when punctuation marks were mostly for telling a person reading aloud when to pause and for how long. (They’re a bit like musical notations that way.)

      • Interesting, didn’t know that!

        And, seeing you use it correctly, I’m reminded of another pet peeve of mine: incorrect use of punctuation near a closing bracket. (A complete parenthesised sentence ends with a full-stop inside the brackets.) It’s different for sentence fragments (the full-stop is outside because it completes the sentence, not the fragment).

  3. Tara Southwell

    I agree to the vast majority of these points. However, punctuation is somewhat murkier because, as mentioned by Thomas Weaver above, it’s likely that punctuation was used to indicate beats of rest when being read aloud. Omitting or adding punctuation in unconventional ways can be stylistic and deliberate. I think that people who write tend to pick up on these “errors” and forget to read for the sake of enjoyment first. I know I’ve personally been guilty of forgetting.

    • I can’t read past errors, no matter how hard I try, so my enjoyment of a good story is severely dampened by bad grammar. Sometimes I wish I could switch that off, but I really can’t stop it from breaking my immersion. I know when I’ve truly enjoyed a great book – it’s when I don’t really remember much about how it was written, just like a great film draws you into the story so much you don’t think about how they did the special effects for this scene or how well they crafted the set for that scene.

      I’m not sure about unconventional use of punctuation, though. Do you have a particular example in mind? I can see your point applying really well in poetry, but bending the punctuation rules in formal writing? I’m fairly certain it would nag me. The fact that punctuation served a specific purpose historically doesn’t mean we should use it that way now that the “rules” have changed. (I see many people putting commas where natural pauses are instead of using them to properly separate subordinate clauses, for instance, and in my opinion that’s just wrong.) Like I said, though, some grammar comes down to which specific conventions you follow, and to some extent, I agree that you can make up your own, or pick and choose from different conventions – as long as you’re consistent.

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