I have many loves. Travel, history, entrepreneurship, raspberries…but at the top of the list is grammar. Yes, I’m a grammar nerd.
I didn’t choose this fate, but as my clients, friends, and family will tell you, I’ve certainly embraced it.
It’s more than mere grammar. I love the entire world of writing, whether fiction or non, business or personal. The fact that twists of a black line on paper can convey messages and meanings fascinates me. An unassuming gang of 26 letters…and they revolutionize the world time and again.
As an expert, the way you communicate with your audience is vital to your success. You may lean toward video or audio, but chances are that writing creeps into your process somewhere along the way.
I’m here to make it better.
With the right words, you can thrive at every step. You can engage your visitors and motivate them to join you. You can build a relationship through powerful and persuasive content. You can inspire them to invest in your solutions and earn a well-deserved income.
I know what you may be thinking. “Don’t all the gurus say to write like you talk? ‘Proper’ writing will make things too stiff, unauthentic.”
This is a common misconception. Correcting common mistakes, using proper grammar, and following the rules of writing will actually make you more human, more relatable and connected to your audience. I want you to write in a tone that matches your personality and intention, but I also want you to avoid jolting the reader out of the text and into questioning your authority.
Few things cast doubt on your expertise as
quickly as rookie writing mistakes.
To save you from this dastardly result, we’re going to set things straight by solving some of the most common writing goofs and gaffes.
#1. THERE, THEY’RE, THEIR…AND THEIR FRIENDS
You’ve most likely seen these culprits before (called homophones), so we’ll move quickly. Each word below has its place, but please do make sure it’s the right one.
There vs They’re vs Their
There is a word of many uses. It can be used to show location (e.g., put the stolen lawn mowers over there) or the existence of something (e.g., there are too many vultures in my kitchen) among others. But it’s not the troublemaker. That label belongs to his brothers, they’re and their.
They’re is simply a contraction of they are. If you asked what we’re going to do with those stolen lawn mowers, I would tell you: They’re going to be used to get rid of the vultures (obviously). Their, on the other hand, is the plural possessive form of the word. It’s used to show that something belongs to them: My friends are angry that I stole their lawn mowers to chase away their vultures.
Your vs You’re
With the ever-growing dominance of texting, this is a common area of befuddlement. Your is used to show possession, to show that something is of, belongs to, or was made by you: Your painting of your face is in your kitchen. As with they’re from above, you’re is a contraction, used to shorten you are. If you are doesn’t fit in your sentence, the word you’re looking for is your.
Its vs It’s
It wasn’t until college that I understood the difference between these two, causing many a teacher beforehand to silently pray for my demise. No bother. I now know the difference and escaped high school without any (permanent) damage. Its is the possessive form of the word: The crocodile hit its head on the kitchen cabinet. It’s, as you’ve probably guessed, is the contraction for it is or it has: It’s going to be unusually difficult to sleep with both vultures and crocodiles in the kitchen.
Whose vs Who’s
Wrapping things up is whose and who’s. Much like the rascally words above, the apostrophe makes all the difference. Whereas we use apostrophes to show possession with proper nouns (e.g. Benjamin Franklin’s kite), in these cases it’s the words without that show possession. Therefore whose is the possessive form (e.g., Whose lawn mower is this?), while who’s is the contraction for who is or who has.
#2. COULD YOU CARE LESS?
If you don’t care about something, the proper expression is couldn’t care less. Most people, however, couldn’t care less about the rule and mistakenly say I could care less. Drives us grammar nerds batty. If you could care less, you care at least a little, which is the opposite of what you’re trying to convey.
#3. EVERYDAY SALES EVERY DAY
Sadly, I’m losing the battle on this one. Every day I see these two fiercely independent words forced together to form the incorrect everyday. I must admit, when looking for the adjective (describing word), everyday is correct: Stop by our lawn mower store for everyday low prices. In this case, everyday is used to mean common or normal and should be one word. When something occurs every 24 hours, be a gem and squeeze that little extra space in there and use every day.
#4. WHERE DO THESE “” GO?
“This sentence is punctuated incorrectly”. “This one too”! (If you live in the US; rules differ in the UK.) More often than not, punctuation marks go inside quotation marks. We merely pull a switcheroo to fix these sentences. “This sentence is now punctuated correctly.” “This one too!” See how easy that was?
#5. I IS ALWAYS RIGHT, RIGHT?
Wrong. People want to sound smart. Over time, me has been misused so often that I now reigns supreme. The problem is that me is often right. We’re good at choosing the right word when we’re the only ones involved in the sentence: Johnny took me to the store to get a new lawn mower. Add in a second person and things get screwy: Johnny took Victor and…um…I? ‘Fraid not.
Solving this problem couldn’t be easier. Merely stay true to our need for attention and remove the second person. Someone may think Stew and me went wild and crazy, but if that person took the time to remove Stew from the situation, he’d realize I went wild and crazy, alone. (Bonus tip! It’s grammatically correct to say between you and me. Never even think about saying between you and I. Ever.)
#6. ONE, TWO, 3?
When writing numbers, spell out one through nine. 10 and above can be written as numerals.
#7. REALLY, VERY BAD
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” — Mark Twain
Want to punch up your writing overnight? Refuse to use really and very. They weaken your writing. Instead of using the right word that alone delivers the intended message, they show laziness of craft. Don’t be lazy. Please don’t be very lazy. The same goes for most adjectives and adverbs. They’re often unnecessary. When you take time to find the right word, it already contains the meaning an unneeded adverb or adjective would add.
As William Zinsser says (more on him later), “Don’t tell us that the radio blared loudly; “blare” connotes loudness… Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs. So are adjectives and other parts of speech: “effortlessly easy,” “slightly spartan,” “totally flabbergasted.” The beauty of “flabbergasted” is that it implies an astonishment that is total; I can’t imagine someone being partly flabbergasted.”
#8. REALLY, VERY UNIQUE
We’ve already booted very and really, but just in case they creep back into your writing please avoid using them with unique. Unique is absolute, meaning one of a kind. Something cannot be partially or “kinda” unique. It is or it isn’t.
#9. BE ACTIVE
You have two choices: active voice or passive voice. Active voice, to simplify matters, is when someone does something; passive is when something is done unto something else. For example, I kicked over the table of peanuts is active; the subject is actively carrying out the action. The table of peanuts was kicked over by me, however, changes everything. The subject is no longer taking the action as it becomes passive.
Not only that, but the sentence is weak, harder to visualize. This is why the active voice is often, but not always, preferable to the passive voice. Caesar was killed by Gaius Cassius Longinus doesn’t pack the same punch as Gaius Cassius Longinus killed Caesar. (Either way, it’s not looking good for Caesar.)
#10. ONCE UPON A TIME…
We are wired for story. Humans crave it, are attracted to it, endlessly need and want it. Trouble is that few experts use it. Instead, they attack their readers with an unforgettable hailstorm of facts and figures–pure information–that can’t possibly connect with them the way a story can.
Many years ago I used to listen to Zig Ziglar tapes with my dad in the car, parked outside of Kopp’s Frozen Custard eating the kind of food that would dropkick my heart into submission these days. I’ve forgotten nearly everything he said in those tapes–except for his stories. They created vivid images in my mind. They brought the message to life. They’ll stick with me forever. From the bull chasing the boy to the pool cleaner and cookware seller and every story in between, those words remain.
Be more than a fact giver. Be a storyteller.
#11. I HATE COMMA SPLICES
Comma splices make my blood boil. That’s a bit much. They make my blood heat up, slightly. Like everyday, it seems I’m losing this battle as well. Everywhere I look comma splices are slapping me in the face. I wish they’d stop. You’re probably wishing I’d tell you what they are (if you didn’t already know).
A comma splice is using a comma to separate two independent clauses: The Ferrari stood up and walked away, on second thought that probably wasn’t a Ferrari. These two sentences should be separated by a period or semi-colon, or connected with a conjunction (e.g., and, but, etc.). From here on out, two sentences that can stand on their own must never be connected with a comma.
#12. I LOVE SERIAL COMMAS
While it’s true I wish nothing but the worst for the comma splices, I love me some serial commas. (How’s that for proper?) The serial comma, often called the Oxford comma, is the final comma used in a series of three or more items: I hope I’m never attacked by ducks, rabbits, or hamsters. The final comma, after rabbits, is the serial comma. And I love it.
Yes, I know, it’s a controversial issue, on par with nuclear weapons and global warming. Many are against this mighty soldier of prose, but I for one am standing my ground. Without the comma, you may inadvertently show a stronger tie between the final two items of the list: I hope I’m never attacked by ducks, rabbits or hamsters. In this case, rabbits and hamsters appear to be more closely linked than ducks. In truth, I’m equally afraid of their ducks.
Even worse is the utter confusion caused by kicking out the serial comma. As the trusty Wikipedia page illustrates…
The style that always uses the serial comma may be less likely to result in ambiguity. Consider the apocryphal book dedication quoted by Teresa Nielsen Hayden: To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
Is she dedicating her book to three entities or calling her parents Ayn Rand and God? Without that comma, it’s impossible to tell.
#13. MAKE EVERY WORD TELL
Writing, as Zinsser says, is rewriting. Rarely will perfectly pruned sentences tumble onto the page at first breath. It takes time and it takes editing. I’m not talking about proofreading. I’m talking about methodically reviewing your words to ensure precision and clarity while slicing away every ounce of fat–the fillers and hedging words (obliterate kind of, sort of, etc.), the unnecessary openings and endings (I wanted to tell you that…just tell them!), the redundant sentences that merely repeat what you just said. (Get it? I was just redundant.) Cut your writing down to its core and you’ll be left with powerful prose.
William Strunk, Jr. said it best…
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.
Make every one of your words tell.
#14. NOTE OWNING ON WRITING WELL
William Zinsser is my role model of writing. Author of the best-selling On Writing Well, he has helped shape the minds and the words of thousands of students through his books, classes, and courses. Because you may not have heard of him, I’m counting this only as half a mistake, one you can quickly correct by clicking here. You’ll thank me.
Writing well matters. The words you choose to put on paper are your image, your authority, your expertise, and, in today’s digital world, your legacy. Deliver mistake-ridden posts or awkwardly-worded pieces and you’ll be seen as lazy or inexperienced. Write strong, clear, human English and you’ll inspire the masses with your message.