The Nine Likeliest Errors in Your Writing

Posted on June 2, 2011

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Every copy editor cringes when confronted with his or her pet peeve—a fatally injured run-on sentence, a horribly misplaced modifier, a hemorrhage of redundancies.  While such errors do keep editors employed, they also may keep readers from clearly understanding the meaning of a paragraph or, even worse, cause them to misinterpret the author’s intent.

Editors might relish a particularly inappropriate turn of phrase or a humorously misshapen sentence, but I’ve found that, every day, I can expect to encounter a short list of recurring errors in the writing I review.  If you’d like to make an editor’s job easier—and your writing more impactful—check your communications
for these nine most likely errors before tapping the Send button:

1. Subject/verb agreement:   Even though your subject may convey a single concept, if the subject of the sentence is composed of a plural noun or nouns connected by “and,” it requires a plural verb.

  • Right: “His charisma and magnetism make him an ideal salesman.”
  • Right: “Social media are changing the public relations profession.”

2. Misplaced modifiers: When a noun or pronoun is modified by an introductory phrase, or a phrase beginning with “which,” place the noun right up against the modifying phrase.  Otherwise, you may generate confusion and/or laughter.

  • Wrong:  “After gobbling up our meals, our table became a gathering place.”
  • Better:  “After gobbling up our meals, we gathered everyone around our table.”
  • Wrong:  “The book that I discussed with the school board, which is old and shabby, should be removed from the library.
  • Better:  “The old and shabby book that I discussed with the school board should be removed from the library.

3. Shifting voice:  Unless you use a purposeful transition, try to keep each sentence and paragraph in the same voice—first person, second person or third person.

  • Poor: “Many business owners shun technology, but you should embrace it instead.”
  • Better: “Many business owners shun technology, but they should embrace it instead.”
  • Better way to change voice:  “Many business owners shun technology.  If you are an entrepreneur, however, you should embrace the digital world.”

4.  Using punctuation improperly: Avoid sentences that use commas (or no punctuation at all) to connect independent clauses without a conjunction.  When using “however” to connect independent clauses, precede it with a semicolon and follow it with a comma.  Finally, understand that your reader will never be as excited about the statement you’re making as you are, so reserve exclamation points for true exclamations.  The best advice I’ve read is to allot yourself three exclamation points over your lifetime; use them wisely.

  • Wrong:  I saw him run up to the house, I opened the door.
  • Right: I saw him run up to the house; I opened the door.
  • Right: I saw him run up to the house, and I opened the door.
  • Wrong: I don’t believe in luck, however, I have crossed my fingers for you.
  • Right: I don’t believe in luck; however, I have crossed my fingers for you.
  • Frequently nauseating:  See you there!!!  We hope you enjoy our blog!

5.  Using incorrect case:  Use the objective case (her, him, me) after prepositions and the subjective case (she, he, I) after “to be” verbs.  Do not use a
reflexive pronoun (herself, himself, myself) where you should use the objective case.  Reserve reflexive pronouns for emphasis or clarification immediately after a noun or pronoun.

  • Wrong: “Do you have room for Richard and I?”
  • Right: “Do you have room for Richard and me?”
  • Wrong: “The winner is me.”
  • Right: “The winner is I.” (Or “I am the winner.”)
  • Wrong: “If you have questions, please contact either Jane or myself.”
  • Right: “If you have questions, please contact either Jane or me.”
  • Right: “Jane herself created this program.” (Jane, not her assistant, created it.)

6. Word confusion: Take particular care to avoid using the wrong form of a word or a sound-alike word:

  • Wrong: “They arrived their early.”
  • Wrong: “Their here now.”
  • Wrong: “Your welcome.”

7. Failing to define terms: While not an error in punctuation or sentence structure, failing to explain the meaning of a new or technical term can seriously wound your copy.  Often a term simply is dropped into an article or Web page because the author doesn’t understand its definition and has not taken the time to  investigate its meaning.

  • Poor:  “This software expedites and optimizes HPC job submissions.”
  • Better:  “This software automatically schedules jobs submitted to high-performance computers to minimize computer downtime and speed
    the completion of these jobs.”

8. Imprecise word usage:  Be precise when choosing your words.  When providing numbers, use “more than” instead of “over.” “Over” should be reserved for describing a spatial relationship.  Use “between” when two items are involved and “among” for three or more.  Note that “anxious” means worried or nervous (the adjective form of “anxiety”), while “eager” means enthusiastic.

9. Using redundant words:  Eliminate unnecessary, repetitious words in your sentences.

  • Poor: “We can add 100 more megs of RAM to your computer.”
  • Better: “We can add 100 megs of RAM to your computer.”
  • Poor:  “I went to the administration building in order to find out my schedule.”
  • Better:  “I went to the administration building to learn my schedule.”
  • Poor:  “You need to cut down on your absenteeism.”
  • Better:  “You need to reduce your absenteeism.”
  • Poor: “We have got to start saving money.”
  • Better:  “We must start saving money.”

As a final thought, always read through each of your communications, especially casual types like emails and instant messages, before sending them.
If you’re going to embarrass yourself, most likely it will result from keyboard errors in one of these simple, but potentially painful, messages that you
deliver without an editor’s input.

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