We all make mistakes.
My wife reminds me often … with a strange sidelong glance that makes me wonder if—well, never mind.
But some mistakes are more costly than others. A few can even hinder a writer’s chances for publication. But fear not, writer friend; there’s hope. Because a few of the most common and embarrassing writer mistakes actually have easy fixes. Really. Honestly. I’m telling ya. Stay with me, and I’m hopeful that we can agree on easy fixes for five frequent faux pas.
1. Imply and infer
Repeat after me: Speakers imply, hearers infer. Say it again: Speakers imply, hearers infer. There. That’s it. I would never imply otherwise, and I advise you not to infer anything else. One more time: Speakers imply, hearers infer.
2. It’s and its
This should be so easy; but even experienced, accomplished writers trip up on this one. But here’s the fix. Whenever you see that apostrophe in “it’s,” un-contraction it. (I know I just made up a word, but just go with it.) In other words, whether you’re writing or proofreading, always pronounce “it’s” as “it is.” If “it is” doesn’t make sense in the phrase or sentence, guess what? It should be “its.” Every time. You’re welcome.
3. Your and you’re
This is the corollary to #2. Whenever you see that apostrophe in “you’re,” un-contraction it. If “you are” doesn’t make sense in the phrase or sentence, write “your.” Again, you’re welcome.
4. Subject/verb agreement
You did finish third grade, right? So maybe you remember problems like “A litter of kittens [was/were] born in our backyard” and “The isthmus, with its many lakes and more than three hundred miles of trails, [appeal/appeals] to hikers and sportsmen of all kinds.” It’s a minefield, to be sure. (Did you do it? Did you read that sentence as “It is a minefield, to be sure?” If not, deduct fifty points. Come on, pay attention!) But the fix is pretty simple: Take out the words in between the subject (litter, isthmus) and verb (was/appeals). See how simple it’s?
5. The pluralized apostrophe
You’re thinking that pluralized is a made-up word, like “un-contraction,” aren’t you? Well, look it up, smarty-pants. But one of the most egregious mistakes you can make is to try to make a word plural by using an apostrophe. Such as, “Deep-fried Oreo’s.” Nope. Or “Open Sunday’s.” No, just no. Or “Using Apostrophe’s Well.” Nopity nope nope. Repeat after me: An apostrophe never makes a word plural. Say it again: An apostrophe never makes a word plural. One more time: An apostrophe never makes a word plural.
I acknowledge that the above fixes won’t solve all of your problems. After all, there’s still who and whom. But even that has a fairly easy fix, which I’ll leave for someone among this blog’s readers to reveal in the comments.
“Who” is a simple pronoun. “Whom” is an objective pronoun, and should be used when the rest of the sentence is directed to the pronoun.
Who knew English could be so confusing?
To whom should we send our comments?
DAMON J GRAY
Yup. I generally ask if I can say who the who is I’m whoing, and if the answer can be “him” I know it’s “whom.”
It doesn’t always work, but it helps me more often than not.
100 points for youm, Tim. And youm too, Damon.
Great list, Bob! Couple of things.
1. I noticed you used “in between.” I was taught that double preposition constructions such as “in between” and “at around” were redundancies that should never be used in formal writing. However, I see them frequently employed by professional writers these days. Has their use become acceptable?
2. The word I see most frequently misused by professional writers is “comprise.” Until I looked it up a couple of years ago, I too thought that “comprise” was interchangeable with “compose,” but it isn’t. While the two words are similar, “comprise” is used more like “contain.”
Example 1: “The Pentateuch comprises Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.”
Example 2: “The Pentateuch is composed of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.”
Example 3: “Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy compose the Pentateuch.”
All three sentences are correct, but a sentence using “comprised of” would not be.
Good catch, Cole, on the “in between” thing. I won’t say I’m caught in between a rock and a hard place, because that’s a cliche which is also a misused biblical allusion.
Thanks, Bob! Look forward to reading your next post from around here at about the same time in between next Tuesday and Thursday.
Your or you’re, where do I turn
to dodge all the fau passes?
And what of the Southern your’n,
or better still, y’allses?
Perhaps its something I infer
while writing for your gimlet eye,
and writing pot, well, its astir
as you read it and imply.
A rash of errors are now quick-born,
a minefield full of mine’s,
and writers heart, so quickly torn
sees them grow and multiplies,
and throws up it’s bloodied hand’s:
“Its just not what I had planned!”
MY EYES! MY EYES!
Not a writer but I try to help one whose passion it is to put pen to paper. Thank you so much for the chuckles and fun you add to your wisdom. Warm hugs and wishes for a very Merry Christmas.
Thank you for all the wonderful tips. I think I may have to compile a book of all your tidbits.
I look forward for more.
Kristen Joy Wilks
This is such a clear and easy guide. Thanks so much!
Great list! #5 came up recently on a writers group and it was noted that there are a few exceptions to #5.
According to CMOS at 7.15:
“Capital letters used as words, numerals used as nouns, and abbreviations usually form the plural by adding s. To aid comprehension, lowercase letters form the plural with an apostrophe and an s (compare “two as in llama” with “two a’s in llama”). ” Some sources suggest also using ‘s to make plurals of the letters A, I, M, and U for clarity. #neversaynever 🙂
Clarity shmarity. #neversayneversaynever
I appreciate your humor in correcting many of our writerly blunders. You should compile your tidbits into a book. Would be much more enjoyable reading all our mistakes with your sense of humor to soften the cringing.
Love it! It’s a field full of mines…
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D.
Some of my writing students have told me that they don’t have to prove reed ’cause they’re writing is prefect. Be still my soul……
Not trying to be a wise guy, Bob, but if an apostrophe never makes a word plural, did you use “Do’s” just to mess with us?!
Thank you!! I am a retired teacher. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cringed when I’d see a sign or email with the mistakes you listed. Even principles and superintendents.
Around here it’s common for people to say “ I seen it” or “her n I”.
I hadn’t heard the imply/infer before. Though also I hardly ever use those words and I think I’ve used them mostly properly. *crosses fingers* What really gets me is effect and affect. I still struggle with those.