English is always changing, so today’s common corrections can easily become tomorrow’s accepted forms. It’s precisely how we’ve arrived at where we are now. But there’s a core to the purpose of any language, and that is that we all understand it so we can communicate. We accept variations from the mean, but stray too far and meaning can change. Some people say we don’t need apostrophes as the meaning is always obvious from the context. I’d say that’s true 99% of the time, but there are always borderline cases where it can cause confusion, so it’s better to have a rule and accept that it might sometimes be disobeyed (wilfully or erroneously) than to simply abandon the rule altogether.
You also can’t ignore the important factors of professionalism and attention to detail. Whether you’re writing for a public audience or for business, there will be a percentage of readers who will be turned off by slapdash writing, but no benefit at all for littering text with errors. Over an entire readership, the net result of error-strewn copy will be negative.
So how can you start to improve your copywriting and stop turning off the pedants among your readers? One way is to pick off the low-hanging fruit: common errors. Good proofreaders prick up their eyes (which is definitely not a made-up idiom) when they encounter certain things because they instinctively know there’s a good chance that there could be something wrong. Oftentimes, they also happen to be things that proofreaders overlook if they aren’t fully focused, so experience counts too. Here’s my list of things that have, over the years, had me reaching for my red pen and highlighting those PDFs.
“in regards to”
We might finish an email with “regards” (or “kind regards” if you want someone to pay you), but when you mean “related to” there’s only one regard given, i.e. “in regard to”.
Separate clauses being linked with a comma is called a comma splice. “Splice” might sound like “slice” but it really means the opposite: joining together. Film editors splice scenes together, for example. This sentence contains a comma splice, it is two separate clauses. There are some easy ways to fix it, however. You can usually swap the comma for a semicolon, and sometimes a colon works. Alternatively, you can insert a conjunction (so, and, but, or etc.) or make the clauses into two sentences with a full stop and a capital.
Possessive plurals (childrens’, womens’)
Possessive plurals have the apostrophe after the s, so we get phrases like cars’ horns, countries’ flags and birds’ nests. But some words have plurality built in, such as women, children, mice, stadia, fungi and sheep. In those cases you have to be careful if pluralising them, and it’s quite common to see childrens’, womens’ and mens’ (and less commonly the other pluralised words when used as possessives). Just put your brain into 5th gear when you come across them as a writer or an editor, as it’s surprising how often this one slips in. (It should be children’s, women’s, men’s, stadia’s, fungi’s and sheep’s, by the way.)
Inconsistency of -ise and -ize spellings
This one’s probably quite forgivable because neither is wrong in itself (it’s a style thing), but there should be consistency throughout the document once you’ve plumped for one or the other. Note that some words never have an -ize ending – think analyse, advertise, advise, supervise, merchandise and surprise, for example.
Another very common one here: led is the past participle of lead, meaning to guide, direct or manage something or someone. The word spelt “lead” has a second meaning, too. It’s a metal, and I think this is where confusion creeps in. Because the metal is pronounced “led” rather than “leed”, it probably accounts for the number of times I see phrases such as “She lead the the UK from 1979 to 1990” which sounds right in the head, but is wrong on paper.
This one seems to have exploded since people were allowed to contribute to chat forums and social media, but it’s quite surprising how often “loose” (free, untied, slack) is confused with “lose” (mislay, be defeated). The error can also infect the comparative adjective “looser” and the noun “loser”, and I know because although I’m frequently called both, I’m sure I’m only one of them.
A simple slip of the finger on the keyboard that spell checkers might overlook is the “choose” and “chose” error. “Chose” is the past tense of “choose” in the absence of a word “choosed”, so just keep your beady eye on that one.
“tough, trough, though, thought, through, thorough”
I read that heading three times to make sure I hadn’t typed one of the words twice. They all have very different meanings but are all spelt similarly, and it’s incredibly easy to get these wrong. Whenever you encounter any of these words, check it throughly, tough even if you though you would have spotted an error, it’s a lot thougher than you would have throught. Just in case you’re unsure of the differences:
- tough: difficult, hard-wearing
- trough: ditch, low point in graph, animal/politician feeding device
- though: despite
- thought: notion (n), past tense of “think” (v)
- through: via, during
- thorough: complete, careful
“and” in lists
When you’re listing things that contain the word “and”, be very careful, as that “and” can often become the grammatical “and” in the sentence. “We went to see Bonny and Clyde, Transformers, Pulp Fiction, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” is wrong. “We went to see Bonny and Clyde, Transformers, Pulp Fiction and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” is correct. There could be borderline cases such as “The company invested £200,000 in uniforms, a new canteen, research and development”. In most cases “research and development” would be one item in the list, so there could be a missing “and” there too. Sometimes it’s best to change the order of the listed items if you can, as it can make everything clearer.
Colons/semicolons before bullet lists
Semicolons shouldn’t lead into a bullet list; it should only ever be a colon.
“between x to y”
Always look out for things like “between 40 to 50 years ago” or “between £60–100 million”. This should always be “and” between this and that.
“there’s, there are”
This one is forgivable in speech, but is creeping into written English at an alarming rate. “There’s plenty of reasons to love this city” and “there’s five people reading this blog – I’d better upgrade my server” are examples. In each case, a plural is being treated as a singular.
Not counting specifically enumerated lists of things properly
We all have to write lists nowadays, but for the love of Apollo, please make sure the number of entries matches the promised number. It isn’t too much to ask.