By John O’Callaghan, JOC Comms
Reading the comments section of online news stories and social media posts, I wince and shrug when people confuse “your” and “you’re”, leave out the apostrophe in “haven’t” or use creative phonetic spellings such as “incompatance”.
But I really get incensed when I see very basic errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation in articles, blogs and press releases from professionals who should know better or at least make an effort to do better.
As a communications consultant and former journalist, I’m passionate and sometimes pedantic about good writing.
Yes, language evolves and everyone makes mistakes. But how you write makes a big impression.
The devil is in the details. If your email or story is riddled with basic errors, the reader starts to question how thorough and accurate you’ve been with the rest of the information. Your abilities and credibility suddenly become an issue.
Luckily, there are plenty of tools and courses — many of them online and free — that can help you spot mistakes and improve your writing.
But no technology is perfect and there is no substitute for learning the basics, so here is a primer on how to avoid simple mistakes in whatever you’re writing.
(By the way, this is especially true if you’re getting inked up. It’s advisable to triple-check every last detail before the needle sinks into your flesh. Indeed, knowledge is power in the tattoo parlour.)
English is a particularly tricky language for spelling, with many exceptions to the rules and words that sound the same but are spelled differently.
This is one of my favourite examples about how a rule we all learned at school doesn’t always hold true: “I before E except after C — except when your foreign neighbour Keith receives eight counterfeit beige sleighs from feisty caffeinated weightlifters. Isn’t that weird?”
Spelling can be tough but spell-checkers are built into almost every writing platform, so use them. Just don’t trust them 100 percent and always check the dictionary to make sure.
Here are some pointers to avoid mistakes in spelling and usage that are amazingly common:
Their daughter is studying there. They’re very proud. (Their shows possession or association. There denotes a place or direction. They’re is a contraction of “they are”.)
Your dog is yours. You’re his owner. (Your and yours show possession or association. You’re is a contraction of “you are”.)
It’s = it is (“It’s warm outside”)
Its = possessive (“Give the dog its bone”)
Apostrophes are misused all the time. It’s “1970s” (plural for the years in that decade) not“1970’s” (which would be possessive)
To: Describes an action or destination. (“I went to the store”)
Too: Describes an extreme (“It’s too cold to go outside”) or is a synonym for also (“She went to Rome, too”).
Fewer: “There were fewer than 10 people.” (Countable noun)
Less: “You should eat less meat.” (Uncountable noun)
Perhaps it’s just me but lately I’ve noticed many people misusing “who” and “that”.
Who is for people. (“She is someone who never gives up”)
That is for objects or non-human living things. (“This is the dog that chewed your shoe”)
I’ll wrap this up with a dash through punctuation marks — the traffic signals on the road to clarity and understanding. In the writing courses I run, I use an example to show how the placement of a colon and a comma transforms the entire meaning.
An English professor wrote on the board: A woman without her man is nothing. The class was asked to punctuate the sentence.
The men wrote: “A woman, without her man, is nothing.”
The women wrote: “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”
Emoticons and emojis never belong in professional writing. 😡 👎😡 👎😡
Are question marks effective? They can be but use them sparingly.
Exclamation points do not belong in pitches, press releases and presentations!
Double dashes can be very effective – to highlight a point or a list of items – but do not overuse them.
To convey information clearly and cleanly, bullet points are great for:
- action points
Colons are used to set off a list before bullet points or within a sentence. “He had three points to make: this, that and the other thing.”
Personally, I dislike the Oxford comma — “She ate bananas, grapes, and strawberries” — as an unnecessary interruption between “grapes and strawberries”. But I make an exception for the sake of clarity: “She went to the bank and the store, and called her mother after lunch.”
I realise the Oxford comma is a very emotive topic, so that’s enough about that…
The punctuation mark I truly despise is the semicolon, which is used to link two independent clauses that are closely related. But most people don’t know how to use it — or overuse it — so it’s better to use “and” or break the sentence in two.
Here I will leave you with the immortal words of author Kurt Vonnegut in a rant of mine published in the Economist.
Of course, the editors could not resist a little poke of punctuation in the headline…