We’ve all been there. Maybe it was a friend’s social media post, an online article, or – gasp – something you wrote yourself and didn’t adequately proofread. Obviously, as an editor, my internal cringe factor kicks in when I come across some of the more common mistakes. If I had a nickel for every misuse of too/to and their/they’re/there, I could supply every person in my neighborhood with their very own copy of Merriam-Webster’s latest. The fancy kind, with leather bindings.
Whether it’s an unnecessary apostrophe (the do’s and don’t’s of online dating), a superfluous letter L (I like reading books allot), or the most egregious use of the possessive your in place of the contraction of you and are (you’re), poor grammar sends a message. Hint: it’s not a positive one.
Grammatical mistakes give the reader the impression the author is careless and possibly not fully vested in the content. Worse, it can convey a lack of intelligence, despite the fact even the smartest people are rarely skilled grammarians. This applies to personal and professional social media, company emails, white papers, school papers, or anything being shared with others (although of course, even private writings should strive to meet the same standards). And, just as importantly, it distracts from the content. Maybe it’s not the end of the world if you wish a neighbor congradulations on their new house. Send the same message to your CEO via LinkedIn? A great way to inadvertently stall your career.
Not everyone is a grammar whiz, and homophones can mess up the best of us, but with today’s technology, it’s easier than ever to write well. What are the most common pitfalls and how can they be avoided?
- There means the opposite of here; at that place. Example: “I would like to sit over there.”
- Their denotes possession; it belongs to them. “It is their front yard. We can’t sit there.”
- They’re is a contraction of they + are or they + were. “I heard they’re nice people. Maybe we can sit there on their lawn.”
- Your is used to describe possession. “This is your stuffed armadillo, not mine.”
- You’re is a contraction of you + are and is often followed by the present participle (verb ending in -ing). “You’re great at collecting obscure taxidermy art.” Pro-tip: read it out loud with the words you are; if it works, use you’re. And above all, for the love of words, it’s always you’re welcome and you’re doing great.
3. To/too. Bless its heart; I believe this is the hardest one for most, especially using social media as a litmus test.
- Too is an adverb that can mean “excessively” or “also.” Example: Me, too! or: There is too much going on in my life right now.
- To is a preposition with several uses. Its primary use is to show motion to a point or destination (the opposite of from); “We are going to Cuba.” It can also be used for time, distance, comparing, giving, and as a motive or reason.
- It’s is a contraction of it + is. Example: It’s a great time to start a new hobby, although I don’t think taxidermy is for me.
- Its is the possessive of the word it. Example: That pool looks inviting; I wish I knew its owner so I could go for a swim.
5. Other ways to sabotage your credibility when writing? Subject-verb agreement errors. Subject-verb agreement means your subject and verb must be the same. Singular subject? Singular verb.
- Incorrect example: The two things Sarah loved about her wedding was the clown and the music.
- Correct example: The two things Sarah loved about her wedding were the clown and the music.
6. While I could go on for days, I think I’ll end with incorrect word usage. When in doubt, look it up. For decades I misused nonplussed with brazen confidence. I confidently believed it meant bored or unperturbed. In standard use, it means surprised and confused. When I was enlightened to its true meaning, I was at last truly nonplussed. However, thanks to many confused writers such as myself, North American English has started to embrace this new use. I feel like a bit of a trailblazer. Some more:
- Should of instead of should have.
- Inc. Magazine ran a terrific list of other commonly misused words and phrases. This also doubles as your Friday Funny. Follow the link for the entire list, but my favorite is prostrate cancer.
- Bemused means bewildered and does not mean amused.
- Disinterested means unbiased and does not mean uninterested.
As tempting as it is to list additional offenders, I’d like to pause and offer some solutions that apply to everyone; even professional writers need these tools at times, along with a well-worn copy of a style book.
- Read what you wrote before hitting send.
- Is it important? Will a client/manager have eyes on the document? Read it again. This time out loud.
- Install grammar-checking software on your device. My favorite is Grammarly. This isn’t a sponsored post by any means; I happen to prefer its ease of use combined with its other tools in addition to grammar checking such as vocabulary, clarity, conciseness, and formality.
- Read as often and as much as you can. There have been numerous times I’ve looked at a sentence and known something was off, even if I couldn’t immediately recall which rule I was breaking, thanks to all of the well-written books I’ve read over the years.
- Traditional style books can be daunting, even a bit soporific. If you can’t stay awake while reading it, there’s no point. My favorite series is anything by Grammar Girl, with a special shout-out to Grammar Girl’s 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again.
- More of a podcast person? Grammar Girl has a great one. I also like Grammar Underground with June Casagrande.
On a final, very personal note, be cautious when using the dictation feature on your phone. Several years ago I was doing what busy moms do: sitting in my car at the school pick-up line, trying to cram in a few last-minute emails before the kids arrived. One day, one terrible day, I was responding to an email from my publicist who had recently procured a spot for my book on a prestigious list. I wanted to thank her immediately; I was so honored and knew once I got home, the after-school chaos would mean writing the email much later. From a distance, I could see my children exit the school. So I pressed the little microphone icon and dictated my email response and quickly hit send. I did not read over my email for errors. Or content. Or any words Siri might have thought I said but most certainly did not intend to say. Without going into gory detail, I believed I was thanking my publicist for the “great publicity” she and her firm provided me. Siri, on the other hand, had her mind in the gutter and replaced the word publicity with something else. Another word, starting with the letter P but (I am dying a little inside merely remembering this) one that was a crude slang term for a part of the female anatomy.
I got lucky. I pulled my car into a parking spot and immediately issued a mea culpa. Thankfully, the creative industry can be an eclectic one, and my publicist put me on speaker so I could hear the team laughing. They had assumed it was an autocorrect fail (thank goodness for the sent from my iPhone signature at the end of mobile-generated emails) and knew me well enough to know it was an honest mistake. Had this been a more conservative company, I might have volunteered for the Mars colonization.