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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!

10 common mistakes writers shouldn’t make

I know posts and articles like this are all too common, and many people are probably sick of them. Maybe, but too many people still make these mistakes for me not to at least have a go at ranting correcting them. (Any mistakes in any of my posts? Please let me know in the comments. Really.)

Five (arguably) easy ones

I’ll start with five I find all over, though I assume serious writers would know them, from online newspaper articles where “journalists” should really know better to informal scribblings where they’re not as bad, but anyone who writes anything on the ‘net should really know these first ones.

1. Definitely

So many variations of how this word is misspelled, yet it’s so simple when you remember that the word “finite” is in there.

2. Don’t add apostrophes to make plurals

I see this on shop signs and the like so often it’s embarrassing. To make a word plural, you generally just add an “s“, not an “‘s” (i.e. without the apostrophe). You may have to make adjustments like changing “y” to “ie“, but otherwise there are very few exceptions. (For instance, there are different opinions on what to do with numerals, but that’s another story.)

3. Homonyms: “its” vs “it’s”, “their” vs “there” vs “they’re”, “your” vs “you’re”

Just know your possessives and it’s a whole lot easier.

Generally, possessives are where you add apostrophes to words: Fred’s head, Amos’ blog (note the apostrophe at the end there since it already ends with “s”, though some would argue that another “s” won’t hurt).

However, possessive pronouns are an exception: mine, yours, his/hers/its, ours, yours, theirs… no apostrophe. (Same goes for “whose”, an interrogative possessive pronoun.) The examples in the above heading that do have an apostrophe are all contractions: it’s (it is, or it has), they’re (they are), you’re (you are).

Everyone should be clear on when to use “there” (though some apparently don’t bother to think about it).

4. Using “alot” a lot

They are two words. Just like “a little”.

5. I before E, except after C… how hard can it be?

This is the golden rule when you don’t know whether it’s “ie” or “ei”. Long “ee” sounds almost always conform to it: “believe”, “relieve”, “thief”, “piece”, but “receive”, “ceiling”, “conceit”, “transceiver”.

Actually, this one isn’t as easy as the others, as it has quite a few more exceptions. But I’d argue it’s better to follow the rule and be wrong on the occasional exception than to not follow it and be wrong on, well, many more words. Don’t let the weird exceptions seize you and scare you off.

Five more, slightly trickier

Knew all of the above already? The next batch aren’t quite as obvious and some can catch out even seasoned writers.

6. Careful with your tenses

Writers should really be comfortable with these, but occasionally I still spot mistakes of this kind even in printed books that should have been proof-read by professionals. I’ll leave it at one example I saw just last night in an otherwise very well-written story, where a character “knew he overreacted”. The story is told in the past tense, so it should be either “knew he’d overreacted” (if the overreaction was over by the time he knew it), or “knew he was overreacting” (if the overreaction was still occurring).

7. Singular “is” vs plural “are”

This one seems to be sneaking its way into formal English from everyday use. People no longer just (mis)use it when speaking informally, it can now be found on radio/TV as well as written online or in print. It may seem innocent when people say something like “There’s two things that tick me off”, but beware of using “is” with a plural. “Things are“, not “things is“.

8. Who thinks of whom?

Some may argue I’m flogging a dead horse here, but I don’t think we should give up on the word “whom” just yet, at least in formal writing. The rule of when to use which is not as tricky as most would think. Just remember that who replaces the subject of the sentence while whom replaces the object.

(Edit: while writing this, I googled the subject and found a great “comic” on this describing both when and why to use whom in a sentence. It explains the subject/object rule better than I could as well as pointing out a simple he/him test that’s easy to remember. “Do it for the steeds!”)

9. The postfix -ward vs -wards

Did he go toward her or towards her?

Short version? If unsure, leave out the “s”.

Long(er) version? Historically and more formally, the form with the “s” is an adverb, while the form without the “s” can be an adjective, a noun, or an adverb (a variant of the “s” form). From what I’ve been able to read from various sources (please correct me if I’m wrong), it seems that this distinction has become less relevant in recent years, and that the form with the “s” (towards, downwards, backwards) is used more in UK/AUS/NZ while the shorter form (toward, downward, backward) is chiefly used in the US. Personally, I’d still say something along the lines of “He moved backwards in a backward world.”

10. Using “if” vs “whether”

“I don’t know if I should tell you this.” Correct or incorrect? We all use it in informal language, but, at least formally, “whether” should replace “if” in this example. Formally, “if” indicates a conditional phrase, but “If I should tell you this, then I don’t know” doesn’t make sense. In cases with two distinct possibilities, use “whether”. Mixing these two up can drive students of logic up the wall (which, admittedly, can be fun).

Conclusion

Whether or not you use “if”, especially if you’re your own boss’ boss, and they’re not in their right mind over there while it’s obvious that saying “definitely” is its own reward a lot of the time, remember whom to thank for these great rules and continue to believe in the gloriously weird language that is English.

Cheers,

AMC