Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tricky Writing Pitfalls to Avoid

Today I’ve decided to tackle some common writing mistakes that I see quite often. I understand that nobody is perfect, and that everyone makes mistakes from time to time (we’re only human, after all). The good news is that these mistakes are all avoidable!

So, in the hopes of raising awareness of errors that often "fly under the radar,” here are five tricky writing pitfalls to avoid:   

5. Using the wrong spelling of words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings (homophones).

Some common culprits are: they’re/their/there, hear/here, you’re/your, too/to/two. 
Incorrect example: I gave them there presents. (There should be spelled their.)
Incorrect example: You’re mother called.  (You’re should be spelled your.)

These are mistakes that spell checks often miss, so just watch out for them. And look up any words that you are not sure of!
4. The misuse of hyphens. This really is a tricky one, because not everyone is aware of all of the rules associated with hyphens (and there are tons).  
One good rule of thumb is to hyphenate compound adjectives that modify a noun:
Correct example: The blue-eyed boy smiled at me.
Correct example: We looked up at the star-studded sky.    

This includes sentences where numbers are used as adjectives:
Correct example: The three-act play was delightful.     

Another simple tip to remember concerns hyphens used with the singular or plural form of the phrase "year old." If you are using "year old," you DO use a hyphen. However, if you are using "years old," you do NOT need a hyphen.
Correct example: The six-year-old girl sang a solo in the play.
Correct example: The little girl was six years old.

Also, whenever the word "self" is used in compound nouns or adjectives, you should use a hyphen. Correct examples include self-storage and self-respect.

You usually do not need a hyphen in between an adverb and an adjective.
Correct example: They are a happily married couple.

And you will usually need a hyphen when words that function as both adverbs AND adjectives are used (such as best, fast, least, most, and well). 
Correct example: One of the best-loved movies of all time is The Wizard of Oz.
Also, you will  usually need a hyphen after all- and self-; before -elect; and between prefixes and proper names. 
There are many more rules concerning hyphens (and also many exceptions to these rules), so when in doubt, look it up!

3. Writing “alot” instead of “a lot.” I see this quite frequently, especially when working with young writers. 
Incorrect example: We ate alot of cake at the party. (It should be a lot.).

Closely related to this is using “alright” instead of “all right.” However, “alright” is actually accepted as a non-standard spelling of the more commonly used “all right,” especially in recent years. I wanted to mention it, though, since I have heard so much discussion about this.  
2.  The misuse of apostrophes. Without a doubt, my biggest personal pet peeve is the misuse of apostrophes, particularly when an unnecessary apostrophe is used. (This one avoided being #1 on my list only because so many people are honestly unaware of this rule.)
The most common place I see this type of error is on billboards and other advertising venues—which is made even worse by the fact that someone has actually paid for the mistake!

The rule to always remember here is to only use an apostrophe to show ownership OR in a contraction!
Incorrect example: Buy 2 pizza’s and get one free! (Pizza’s should be pizzas.)

Conversely, it is almost as bad when I see plurals used where there should be an apostrophe used to show ownership. 
Incorrect example: The Shillington families pet dog is named Ellie. (Families should be family’s.)

A very tricky exception to this rule is the word “its,” which correctly shows ownership without the use of an apostrophe. (The word “it’s” is a simple contraction of “it is.”)
Related to this is another apostrophe error that I see a LOT—the misuse of apostrophes in reference to families.

Incorrect example: The Shillington’s are coming to visit. (This should say Shillingtons.)
Incorrect example: Happy Birthday from the Shillington’s. (Again, it should say Shillingtons.)

I could go on and on about “apostrophe abuse,” but I will stop now!

...And the #1 Writing Pitfall to Avoid is:

1. Failure to proofread in general (capitalization, punctuation, grammar—this can be just about anything). These are perhaps the most forehead-slapping mistakes of all; the ones that are right there in front of your face and you just don’t see them. Like the query letter I sent out to an agent several years ago with an obvious mistake that I noticed the second AFTER I hit “send” on my email. (I did this once—and only once—and still can’t figure out how it happened!)
These kinds of errors are so frustrating simply because they are usually so obvious!
By far the funniest proofreading error I have ever seen was several years ago in Texas. I was driving with my young boys into town when we saw an electronic road sign that said, “CAUTION: STRIPPERS AHEAD.” A short way down the road, a crew of (fully clothed) men in orange vests and hats were doing road work, and a slow-moving truck was spraying stripes onto the highway. Obviously, the sign was supposed to say, “CAUTION, STRIPERS AHEAD.” But for me and the many other amused drivers who happened by, it was a hilarious reminder of how the omission of one innocent letter can make a huge difference. I am still thankful that my boys could not read at that time! = ) 

I hope this short list has helped to clear up some of the confusion surrounding these tricky (and plentiful!) writing pitfalls. I will end with one of my favorite writing quotes, which is from an unknown author but is definitely worth repeating:

Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.  ~Author Unknown 
* * * * *

I am *sure* that I’ve been “preaching to the choir” here, since so many writers I know have the same pet peeves. If you have any to add, please comment below. I will add to this list from time to time, and maybe together we can rid the written word of errors, one mistake at a time!  = )


  1. .this was helpful. Thanks.

    1. Thank you, Will! I am glad you found it helpful!

  2. Yes, yes, yes.
    Becky, you've nailed the common errors.
    I've made everyone of these.
    I guess my biggest problem is that I can see these things in other people's work, but it is so hard to see it in my own.
    Once someone points out my mistakes, I think, how could I be so stupid, I know better than that. But catching these little mistakes requires a check list and you've provided one. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Joy! I have made all of these mistakes, too. Thank goodness for sharp-eyed critique partners! = )

  3. Handy bits of infor. THanks!


    1. Thank you, Jean! I am glad you found it useful! I hope to attend the Write 2 Ignite conference next year--I can't go this year because it is the same weekend as my church Ladies' Retreat. I hope you have fun!


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