Write Right

Most of this list of common writing errors comes from “Selected Grammar and Style Notes” by Jack Lynch, Rutgers University and "Common Errors in English" by Paul Brians, Professor of English, Washington State University. I've also added some errors that I often encounter in student writing. Remember, good writing is as often knowing what NOT to do as it is what TO do.
  • And if your spirits need lifting, here's another funny take on grammar problems. Enjoy.
    1. Affect versus Effect Affect with an a is usually a verb; effect with an e is (usually) a noun. When you affect something, you have an effect on it. The usual adjective is effective. Effect as a verb is a different word altogether, which means to bring about or to accomplish, as in "to effect a change."
    2. Among versus BetweenThe simple rule will rarely fail you: use between for two things, among for more than two.
    3. At this point, At the present time, At this point in time. Never, never, never, never, never. Wasted Words.
    4. AudienceThe key to all good writing is understanding your audience. Every time you use language, you engage in a rhetorical activity, and your attention should always be on the effect it will have on your audience. Think of grammar and style as analogous to, say, table manners. Grammatical "rules" have no absolute, independent existence; there is no Grammar Corps to track you down for using "whose" when "of which" is more proper, and Miss Manners employs no shock troops to massacre people who eat their salads with fish forks. You can argue, of course, that the other fork works just as well (or even better), but both the fork and the usage are entirely arbitrary and conventional. Your job as a writer is to have certain effects on your readers, readers who are continuously judging you, consciously or unconsciously. You will have the greatest effect if you adjust your style to suit the audience, however arbitrary its expectations.
    5. Basically Almost always useless. Qualifiers such as basically, essentially, totally, &c. rarely add anything to a sentence.
    6. BluntnessWriting is too often wimpy. Don't be afraid to be blunt. Instead of "There appear to be indications that the product heretofore referred to may be lacking substantial qualitative consummation, suggesting it may be incommensurate with the standards previously established by this department," try "It's bad" or "It doesn't work." Of course you should be sensitive to your reader's feelings -- there's no need to be vicious or crude, and saying "It sucks" won't win you many friends -- but don't go too far in the opposite direction. Call 'em as you see 'em.
    7. But at the BeginningContrary to what your high school English teacher told you, there is no reason not to begin a sentence with but or and; in fact, these words often make a sentence more forceful and graceful. They are almost always better than beginning with however or additionally. Beginning with but or and does make your
      writing less formal; -- but worse things could happen to most writing than becoming less formal.
    8. Calvary/cavalry "Calvary," always capitalized, is the hill on which Jesus was crucified. It means "hill of skulls." Soldiers mounted on horseback are cavalry. The words are spelled and pronounced differently.
    9. Citation. The importance of accurate citation cannot be overstated: a paper without proper citations is open to charges of plagiary. Be careful to cite your source for every direct quotation and every borrowed idea. Two standards are common in English papers: that of the MLA Style Guide and that of The Chicago Manual of Style.
    10. CITE/SITE/SIGHTYou cite the author in an endnote; you visit a Web site or the site of the crime, and you sight your beloved running toward you in slow motion on the beach.
    11. Clarity. Along with grace, the paramount writer's virtue. Your job is to make yourself clear to your reader. Let nothing get in the way. Many of the entries in this guide -- especially Precision, Obfuscation, and Vocabulary -- address clarity.
    12. Colombia/ColumbiaColombia is a nation in northern South America. The other one is a university or something else.
    13. COMPARE To compare two things is to note their similarities and their differences. There's no need to add "and contrast."
    14. Concrete LanguageUse specific, concrete words instead of vague, general ones wherever possible: instead of "apparent significant financial gains," use "a lot of money" or "large profits." Instead of "Job suffers a series of unfavorable experiences," use "Job's family is killed and his possessions are destroyed."
    15. EconomyOne of the distinguishing marks of clear and forceful writing is economy of style -- using no more words than necessary. Bureaucratic writing of every stripe (including academic writing) loves to pad every sentence with It should continuously be remembered that's and Moreover, it has been previously indicated's, and it makes for slow reading. After you write a sentence, look it over and ask if the sense is damaged by removing a few words or phrases. Become friendly with the "Delete Word" option on your word processor. Oh, and economical means cheap or efficient; economic refers to matters of the economy.
    16. Elite/ Elitist Elite refers to the upper class. Elitist is someone who puts on airs, acts like somebody upper class. Most of the time in history, we're talking about elites.
    17. The Fact ThatUsually unnecessary. You can often simply drop the fact and go with that alone: instead of "The fact that the report is incomplete makes it difficult to finish the project," write "That the report is incomplete makes it difficult to finish the project." Better, rewrite the sentence: "Because the report is incomplete, it is difficult to finish the project."
    18. HISTORIC You should use "an" before a word beginning with an H only if the H is not pronounced: "an honest effort"; it's "a historic event."
    19. HISTORIC/HISTORICAL The meaning of "historic" has been narrowed down to "famous in history." One should not call a building, site, district, or event "historical." Sites may be of historical interest if historians are interested in them, but not just because they are old. In America "historic" is grossly overused as a synonym for "older than my father's day."
    20. IrregardlessNot a word used in respectable company: somewhere between Irrespective and Regardless. Use one of these.
    21. It's versus ItsThere's no handy short cut; all you can do is memorize the rule. It's with an apostrophe means it is; its without an apostrophe means belonging to it. Never write it's. Always write it is. Then you will never confuse the two.]
    22. It is important to or "it is necessary to," etc. Do not begin sentences with such "say-nothing," "add-nothing" phrases. Cut right to the chase and get a real subject and verb up front.
    23. Jargon --the bane of far too much writing. Not only academic writing but business English suffers from jargon and technobabble. Of course some technical terms are useful and even necessary, but the English language should not be abused with these phrases: sign off on, re, imperative, impact, methodology, functionality, network, parameters, &c.
    24. Less versus FewerLess means "not as much"; fewer means "not as many." You earn less money by selling fewer products; you use less oil but eat fewer fries. If you can count them, use fewer.
    25. Like (in speaking)Just drop it! Do not inject, like, a “say-nothing” word just to fill space. It's no better than uhhh, ummmmm, and other say-nothing fillers. Just be quiet until you're ready to speak again. Never ever say the word like, unless you simply like someone.
    26. Long WordsThere's nothing inherently wrong with long words, but too many people think a long word is always better than a short one. It doubtless comes from a desire to impress, to sound more authoritative, but it usually ends in imprecision and gracelessness. Words like functionality and methodology have their proper uses, but they're not the same as function and method.
    27. ParagraphsThere's no hard and fast rule for the length of a paragraph: it can be as short as a sentence or as long as it has to be. Just remember that each paragraph should contain only one developed idea. A paragraph often begins with a topic sentence which sets the tone of the paragraph; the rest amplifies, clarifies, or explores the topic sentence. When you change topics, start a new paragraph.
    28. Passive VoiceOveruse of the passive voice makes a passage dense. The active voice takes the form of Something does something. The passive is in the form of Something is done. Instead of the passive "You will be given a guide," try the active "We will give you a guide." Do not confuse am, is, are, to be, and so forth with the passive voice, and don't confuse action verbs with the active voice. The real question is whether the subject of the sentence is doing anything. I have been giving is active, and I have been given is passive. A danger of the passive voice is that it lets the writer shirk the responsibility of providing a subject for the verb. [Slatta: Historians may never never commit the sin of the previous sentence.]
    29. Plurals Do NOT insert an apostrophe to create a plural. Elites not elite's is the plural of elite.
    30. Punctuation and Quotation MarksIn America, commas and periods go inside quotation marks, and semicolons and colons go outside, regardless of the punctuation in the original quotation. Question marks and exclamation points depend on whether the question or exclamation is part of the quotation, or part of the sentence containing the quotation. Some examples: See the chapter entitled "The Conclusion, in which Nothing is Concluded." The spokesman called it "shocking," and called immediately for a committee. Have you read "Araby"? He asked "How are you?"
    31. SentencesA sentence should contain one idea, though that can be a complex or compound idea. The most obscure sentences in academic writing are sentences filled to bursting. If your writing lacks clarity, check to see if a long, bad sentence might make two short, good ones. This isn't to say that all sentences should be short. Long sentences add variety, and some ideas are too complicated to fit into seven words. But don't turn your simple ideas into monstrous sentences, devouring line after line without mercy. One idea, one sentence.
    32. Sexist Language and the Indefinite Third PersonThe movement away from potentially sexist language has been a mixed blessing. Most of the time it requires only a little sensitivity. But perhaps the most confusing issue is the use of the third person indefinite pronoun, as in "Each student is responsible for revising his/her/their/one's papers." Which pronoun is correct?
              Each student is singular -- the is instead of are proves it -- so the colloquial their (a plural) doesn't agree with the verb, and is not grammatically correct. We use this often in speaking -- "A friend of mine called me." "What did they say?" -- but, although many writers have used it, it often makes for bad formal writing today.
              There are several ways out. One is to mix the occasional his or her together with his's and her's separately; this cuts down on suggestions of sexism without making your writing clumsy. Another is to use his sometimes, her at other times, although this doesn't feel natural to most writers (yet). Finally, you can avoid the problem altogether and make your subject plural whenever possible [Slatta: the best tactic]: "All students are responsible for revising their papers."
    33. Transitions Writing should flow. Each sentence should follow on the one before it, and each paragraph should pick up where the previous one left off. Try to make the connections between your sentences and paragraphs logical. The paragraph's topic sentence is a good place for this.
    34. UNIQUE "Unique" singles out one of a kind. That "un" at the beginning is a form of "one." A thing is unique (the only one of its kind) or it is not. Something may be almost unique (there are very few like it), but nothing is "very unique."
    35. VerbalVerbal means "related to words"; a written agreement is just as verbal as an oral one. If you mean something spoken, use oral.
    36. Wasted WordsMany words and phrases rarely add anything to a sentence. Avoid these whenever you can. A very short list of some of these offenders: Quite, very, extremely, as it were, moreover, it can be seen that, it has been indicated that, basically, essentially, totally, completely, therefore, it should be remembered that, it should be noted that, thus, it is imperative that, at the present moment in time. These are fine in their place, but they often slither into your writing with the sinister purpose of tempting you into the sin of padding your sentences.
    37. Who versus WhomIt is possible to memorize a rule for distinguishing who from whom, but it's easier to trust your ear. A simple test to see which is proper is to replace who/whom with he/him. If he sounds right, use who; if him is right, use whom. For example: since he did it and not him did it, use who did it; since we give something to him and not to he, use to whom. It gets tricky only when the preposition is separated from
      the who: Who/whom did you give it to? Rearrange the words in your head: To whom did you give it?
    38. WITH REGARD TO Business English is deadly enough without scrambling it. "As regards your downsizing plan . . ." is acceptable, if stiff. "In regard to . . ." is also correct. But don't confuse the two by writing "In regards to."