Here are 20 common errors to look out for in your writing:
- Using the wrong its/it’s.
Hint: Say the sentence out loud, substituting it is for its. Does the sentence make sense? If not, no apostrophe is needed.
- Misusing commas. Use commas for lists and for clarity in longer sentences. If in doubt, leave the comma out. Reading your work aloud and pausing where you have put a comma will often show you if it’s really necessary or not.
- Vague pronouns, e.g. John and George joined me, and he shook my hand. Which he – John or George? If in doubt, repeat the name.
- Wrong choice of words – common errors here include affect/effect, aloud/allowed, break/brake. Most people do know the difference but errors occur when you rely on your computer spell checker. It can help to create your own list of words that confuse you, along with their correct usage, and keep it handy.
- Redundant words – saying the same thing twice. Not He received two complimentary tickets for free but He received two free tickets.
- Lack of clarity – often caused by putting too many things in one sentence. Break the sentence up and use full stops. Can also be caused by jargon and stock phrases that are meaningless (need to use Plain English).
- Subject-verb agreement – one person uses a singular verb, more than one uses a plural. Not Mary have two cats, but Mary has two cats. The verb has agrees with the subject Mary.
- Wrong verb tense/switching tenses – Not The committee met last week and decides to elect a new chairperson but The committee met last week and decided to elect a new chairperson.
- Mixed metaphors. Not He took the bull by the toes but He took the bull by the horns. Watch that your metaphors are not overused or inappropriate clichés.
- Dangling modifiers – extra phrases that relate to the wrong thing in the sentence. Not Flying over the fields, the cows looked like ants (meaning the cows were flying) but As we flew over the fields, the cows looked like ants.
- Misplaced modifiers. Not David bought a cat for his daughter he called Fluffy. (his daughter is called Jess!) but David bought a cat called Fluffy for his daughter.
- Unnecessary fragmented sentences. Not Easily misunderstood. but Incomplete sentences are easily misunderstood. Fragments can be used effectively sometimes, but overuse makes your prose jerky and confusing.
- Run-on sentences. There are many examples of this – usually the writer has used a comma when a full stop is needed. If the sentence is very long and is about two separate things, a full stop is necessary. To join two complete sentences with a comma is wrong – it’s a comma splice (e.g. John has parked his car in the street, he carries Mary’s suitcase out for her). You should use either a full stop after street, or perhaps a semicolon.
- Passive voice – keep the subject of the sentence active. Not The meeting was attended by twenty people but Twenty people attended the meeting.
- Spelling errors – everyone has words they routinely misspell. Make a list and keep them by your computer. Add a dictionary. Don’t rely on spell checker!
- Possessive apostrophes – one person’s thing requires an apostrophe before the s. Several persons’ things require the apostrophe after the s. There are exceptions to this rule – check what is correct and keep your own list for reference.
- Exclamation marks – people use too many of them! Be sparing.
- Incorrect capitalisation – capitalise all names, titles, places, nationalities, etc. If you are not sure, buy a style guide.
- Use of American spelling in Australia/UK, or viceversa – Australian style is recognise (not recognize) and realise (not realize). Check your company style to see what is used.
- Missing words – writers are their own worst proofreaders. If you cannot ask someone else to check a document for you, the best way to proofread it yourself is to do it backwards, word by word, against the original.
If you don’t feel confident about grammar, punctuation and spelling, you should keep your own reference list of the things you have problems with (and the correct versions). We all tend to have weaknesses in certain areas. Identifying yours and remedying them with a personal “ready reference” will be immensely helpful.
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