Category Archives: Common Mistakes

The Little Things That Matter in Writing


As an editor, I am used to correcting the typical writing errors that appear in most papers, such as those having to do with spelling, vocabulary usage, punctuation, tense, and grammar. However, in addition to those common errors, some writers make little ones which should be corrected before their documents are submitted for publication or review. Here are a few of them:

  1. Inconsistencies in terms of font and size: Some writers vary their use of font and text size in their papers, sometimes in the same paragraph. This often occurs when the writer has copied and pasted text from another source into his or her document. This error detracts from the appearance of the paper, and may cause difficulties in comprehension for the reader. It is very easy to correct this mistake. Once the paper has been completed, the writer need only choose “Select All” from the toolbar at the top of Microsoft Word, and then designate one style of font and one size. Of course, if there are titles, subtitles, headings, charts, graphs, etc., then choosing “Select All” would be a mistake. In that case, sections of text should be chosen and highlighted separately, and then standardized.
  2. Misaligned margins: Some documents suffer from inconsistent left-side margins or/and varying types of alignment. Some parts of a paper may be further or closer to the left-side margin than others, and some sections of text may be aligned-left, while others are aligned-right, or centered, or justified in terms of block text. The only instances in which there should be variations in terms of alignment should be when inserting long quotes or graphs or charts or tables or other additions to the regular text.
  3. Paragraph styles: Within a paper, all paragraphs should either be indented or block justified. Block justified paragraphs should be separated from each other by one space. In general, indented paragraphs shuld not be separated by spaces.
  4. Headings, subheadings, and titles: All headings, subheadings, titles, etc. should be consistent in terms of font, size, and the use of italics and boldface. That is not to say that all headings must be the same. Major headings or titles may be written differently from minor headings or titles, but all major headings should look alike and all minor headings should be consistently written.
  5. Numbering: If letters or numbers are used to designate sections in a paper, they should be consistent and in order. If the writer begins by using capital letters to designate sections, then he or she should continue with that, and not skip letters. The same is true in terms of lower case letters. This also applies to numbers. They should all be either Arabic or Roman. All letters or numbers should also be consistent in terms of the use of boldface and italics. Of course, there may be differences in terms of lettering or numbering when designating different types of information. For example, major headings might be set off with the use of capital letters in boldface, and individual facts listed below them may be designated by the use of lower case letters or Roman or Arabic numerals that are not in boldface. There also may be differences in size from one type of heading to another. It is important, however, that all sections of similar importance be designated with the same type of letter or number in the same size.
  6. Use of capitalization: Besides the normal use of capital letters at the beginnings of sentences and for proper nouns, they can be used to set off titles. If they are used for that purpose, then all similar paragraphs must be written in that way.

These fine points are important to the appearance of a paper, and consistency in terms of their use should be incorporated into all documents.

You Said That Already: Avoiding Repetition


Putting together a good piece of writing is, in some ways, like cooking or baking. Here’s what I mean. In order to prepare a dish, you have to do the following:

  1. Decide what you would like to cook or bake.
  2. Locate or create a recipe.
  3. Gather the necesary ingredients and utensils.
  4. Follow the directions according to the recipe.
  5. Taste the finished product before serving, if possible, or else take your chances when you present it.

Similarly, when you are faced with the task of writing an article, essay, research report, or any other type of prose writing, you should do the following:

  1. Decide on your topic and your approach.
  2. Put together a plan or an outline.
  3. Gather research materials, if needed, and make sure that you have pens, pencils, paper, or your computer or whatever you will need in order to write your paper.
  4. Follow your plan or outline.
  5. Proofread and, if necessary, edit your document, or else take your chances when you submit it.

The key to preparing food and to writing is to know which ingredients and how much of each to use. In cooking and baking, using too much or too little of even a minor ingredient, such as salt, can spoil the entire enterprise. The same is true in writing: the wrong word, or even the right word in the wrong place, can ruin a sentence, a paragraph, or, at times, an entire document.

Sometimes, a word or a phrase may be the correct one to use, and it may be in the right place, but it may be overused or it may not be needed because the idea that you are attempting to convey is already evident. Here are some examples of sentences in which words or phrases are overused; each one is followed by a sentence in which the problem has been corrected, along with an explanation of the correction:

  1. One of the problems in terms of global warming is that we do not know whether it is even possible to curtail the consequences of global warming.
    • One of the problems in terms of global warming is that we do not know whether it is even possible to curtail its consequences. (Use pronouns to avoid the repetition of words.)
  2. Too many old people in their late eighties live alone, and cannot take care of themselves.
    • Too many people in their late eighties live alone, and cannot take care of themselves. (Avoid the use of unnecessary explanatory words or phrases.)
  3. I tried to think in my mind about how I would solve the puzzle.
    • I tried to think about how I would solve the puzzle. (Avoid the use of clichés.)
  4. Hundreds of happy people were happily celebrating the happy occasion.
    • Hundreds of happy people were ecstatically celebrating the joyful occasion. (Use synonyms whenever possible; use the Microsoft Word Thesaurus.)
  5. I wanted to invite all of my friends to my apartment, but I didn’t know whether I could find room for all of them in my apartment.
    • I wanted to invite all of my friends to my apartment, but I didn’t know whether I could find room for all of them. (Avoid explaining what is already understood.)

The above examples of repetition apply to conversation, as well as to writing. It is always a good idea to use as few words as possible to communicate ideas. Additional words or phrases are unnecessary and may sound repetitious.

A Number of Confusing Expressions


less or fewer?
When you’re in the supermarket, do you count your purchases to see whether you can use the register for “Less than 14 items”? I hope not. I hope your supermarket has a register for “Fewer than 14 items.” Use fewer to compare numbers of items that can be counted individually (when talking about units of time or money, however, there are some exceptions). Use less for things considered in groups or as a mass, to express degree, extent, or amount. Less also modifies adjectives and adverbs.

  • We did the job in less time. (“time” is not items that can be counted individually)
  • We did the job in fewer hours. (“hours” can be counted)
  • The company hired fewer employees last year.
  • At that store you have fewer choices and less room to move around, there are fewer salespeople, and they are less attentive. (here, “choices” and “salespeople” can be counted; “room” cannot be counted as individual items; “attentive” is an adjective modified by “less” used as an adverb).
  • There were fewer than 52 cards in the deck.
  • The store made less money this month than it did in April.
  • but: She had less than 10 dollars. (exception for units of money)

number or amount?
These two are comparable to “less” and “fewer.” Use number in reference to items that can be counted; amount when speaking of groups as a whole or one item that cannot be counted.

  • A number of employees complained about the new policy. (i.e., several employees)
  • There is a huge amount of sugar in cola.
  • A small number of people win the lottery every year.

a number is, or a number are?
Related to “a number” is the question of whether it should be followed by a singular or plural verb. In the example of the employees, above, “a number [of employees]” seems to imply a singular verb, since “a” means “one.” Would it be correct to say “a number of employees is going to the retirement luncheon”? “A number of,” “a diversity of,” “a variety of,” and similar constructions are idiomatic expressions that mean “several” or “many” or “a few.”

The rule is very simple: An expression such as “a number (total, variety, diversity) of” that means “several,” “many,” or “a few” is followed by a plural verb. If you can substitute “several” in your sentence, use a plural verb. “The number (total, variety, diversity) of” is followed by a singular verb. “The number” is referring to a single entity.

  • A number of experiments have supported our results. (“several experiments” or “a few experiments”)
  • The number of experiments in this area has greatly increased in the last few years. (whatever that number is, it is larger now. The sentence is referring to a single body of experiments).
  • A diversity of students now enjoy the benefits of this program. (“several or many different ethnicities of students”)
  • The diversity of students at this school is surprising. (the single issue of diversity)
  • A variety of viewpoints were heard during the meeting. (“many different viewpoints”)
  • The variety of viewpoints heard during the meeting was not expected. (the fact of a body of viewpoints)
  • A total of 120 tests were conducted
  • The total is 120.

Notice that “a number of” is not comparable to collective nouns such as “group” or “team.” It would be incorrect to say “a group of foreign visitors are coming in for a tour.” “A group” is a single entity. The word “several” cannot be substituted for “a group of” because “several visitors” would mean separate, independent visitors, not members of a single group.

  • A group of foreign visitors is coming in for a tour.
  • The group of foreign visitors is having lunch at The Outback restaurant.

Writing Titles Correctly


There are strict rules that must be followed when writing the titles of full-length books, articles from periodicals and newspapers, and shorter works, such as essays, poems, plays, films, short stories, television and radio programs, etc.

The titles of full-length books should be written in italics, as in the following: The Kite Runner. The author’s name should not be italicized. In fact, the writer’s name should never be given any special treatment in terms of font, underlining, etc. It should always be presented in regular font. Although italicizing the title of a book is the preferred method, it is also acceptable to underline the name, as in the following: Moby Dick. You should not both underline and italicize a title. Neither should you use quotation marks for the titles of full-length books. The names of periodicals and newspapers should, like the titles of books, be italicized or underlined, as in The Wall Street Journal.

The titles of lengthy reports and other long documents, whether or not they have been published, should also be italicized or underlined, as in Effects of Global Warming on the Antarctic Ice Shelf.

Shorter documents may be enclosed in quotation marks, as in “Shakespeare’s Use of Humor In His Historical Plays,” or they may be written without any special notation or punctuation.

Newspaper and periodical articles should always be enclosed in quotation marks, as in “Big Money Still Learning to Lobby” by Jenny Anderson (The New York Times, March 13, 2007, page C1).

The title of a short story, play, poem, musical piece, movie, television or radio program, work of art, or other short literary composition should be enclosed in quotation marks, as in the following example: “The New Colossus.”

Even though there are situations in which these guidelines may be altered, in general, they should be followed, as explained above.

Keeping Your Distance

Keeping Your Distance

What is wrong with the following sentence?

To solve the problem of global warming, you have to develop a strategy to limit the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels by the industrialized nations of the world.

The problem with that sentence involves the use of the personal pronoun you. The word is not being used in its true sense—as a word that is being used to refer to…you, the reader. The intent of the writer of that sentence is to suggest that the industrialized nations of the world, or, more specifically, political leaders and others in positions of prominence, should develop strategies to limit the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere. The writer is not expecting that you, the reader, (or, for that matter, huge numbers of readers, if you is being used as a plural possessive pronoun) will be the one to develop a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The sentence would be more correctly written as follows:

To solve the problem of global warming, political leaders and others in positions of prominence have to develop a strategy to limit the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels by the industrialized nations of the world.

Or, the writer could have written:

To solve the problem of global warming, you, as citizen of the world, have to develop a strategy to limit the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels by the industrialized nations of the world.

That would solve the problem of the use of the personal pronoun you, although the logic of an individual being able to solve a complex problem such as that involving greenhouse gases is weak.

The point of this discussion is the use of personal pronouns in academic papers. In general, in academic writing, it is not appropriate to refer to the reader or to the writer directly. The writer should, as much as possible, maintain distance between him or herself and the reader, and, for that matter, to the subject under discussion. The essay, report, or research paper should appear to have been written by an impersonal writer who is not directly addressing the reader. Therefore, the following pronouns should not be used, except in particular instances: you, we, I, me, and our.

This, of course, does not apply to journals, sections in research reports in which the writer discusses his or her involvement in the subject, portions of a document in which it is necessary and appropriate to directly address the reader, or in more informal types of writing.

In general, it is customary for the writer of an academic document to distance himself or herself from both the subject and the audience. That brings us to the problem of the passive voice, which college instructors warn against. The passive voice refers to sentences in which something is done to the subject, rather than the subject doing the something. The following is an example of the use of the passive voice:

Global warming needs to be immediately addressed because, not to do so, will result in climactic and other consequences which will be impossible to correct.

In a piece of informal writing, such as the blog that you are reading or a memo or an email or a letter, the sentence could be written as follows:

You and I should immediately address the problem of global warming because, not to do so, will result in climactic and other consequences which will be impossible to correct.

In a piece of academic writing, however, the way to avoid the passive voice, and still refrain from using personal pronouns, is to name a third party subject, as in the following:

The leaders of all of the nations of the world need to immediately address the problem of global warming because, not to do so, will result in climactic and other consequences which will be impossible to correct.

Remember, as the writer of a piece of academic writing, you (as I said, this blog is a type of informal writing, so I am allowed to use personal pronouns such as you) must distance yourself from both the subject and the audience.



Contractions are, of course, shortened versions of two word phrases. The meaning of “contract” is to shorten, lessen, or shrink. Contractions are used more often in conversation than in written work, and, in fact, they are considered inappropriate in most academic and business writing. Nevertheless, it is important to know how to spell and how to use them.

Contractions are generally created by dropping a letter or two from the second word of a two-word phrase, inserting an apostrophe in place of the deleted letter or letters, and then combining the two words into one. Here are some common examples:

  • Do not becomes don’t
  • Is not becomes isn’t
  • You will becomes you’ll
  • It is becomes it’s

Before I continue, let’s (a contraction of let us) consider it’s. That contraction is often incorrectly used when the possessive pronoun its should be used. Here are examples of the correct uses of it’s and its:

  • We decided not to go to the beach because it’s about to rain. (contraction)
  • The dog found its way home. (possessive pronoun)

The confusion involving the use of its and it’s lies in the fact that apostrophes are used for possession, as in That is my friend’s house. Therefore, it might seem logical that apostrophes should be used in possessive pronouns too. But…they are not. The following are possessive pronouns: its, his, hers, yours, theirs, and ours.

Now, to return to the use of contractions, it is important to use the correct contraction in terms of number, meaning singular or plural. For instance:

  • It is incorrect to write: He don’t want to eat his dinner. It should be He doesn’t want to eat his dinner.
  • They isn’t going to be ready is wrong. It should be They aren’t going to be ready.

Some contractions seem to be different from the typical ones. For instance, can’t is not derived from the contraction of two words, as in the case of other contractions. It is the contraction of one word, cannot. By the way, that is how that word should be spelled—as one word. It is incorrect to write can not. In fact, there is no such word combination as can not. Another odd one is won’t. It is a contraction of will not. Most people in the U.S. do not use shan’t, but it the correct contraction of shall not.

And, remember, while contractions are normally used in conversation, they are generally considered to be inappropriate in academic writing. In other words, during a chat, it is fine to say, Sometimes, it isn’t possible to communicate an idea to other people. However, in a college paper, you would write, Sometimes, it is not possible to communicate an idea to other people.

Good, Better, Best

Good, Better, Best

The homelessness situation in Chicago is the worst.

Well, you may ask, what does that mean? It does not mean anything because of two serious, fairly common mistakes. They both have to do with the use of the word worst. Worst is the superlative form of bad or troublesome or some other adjective that refers to a negative situation or condition. In order to understand what is wrong with the use of worst in that sentence, and before it can be corrected, you must first understand how and when to use comparatives and superlatives.

Adjectives and adverbs can be used to convey three levels of influence. Let’s discuss adjectives first. When you are describing a person, place, thing, or idea, you should use the regular form of an adjective, such as happy, angry, or hungry. Look at the following examples:

The boy is smart.

Florence seems to be angry.

If you want to move the expression up a notch in terms of intensity, you would use the comparative form of the adjective, as in the following:

The boy is smarter than his brother.

Florence seems to be angrier than she was before.

In both cases, the comparative form has to be weighed against someone or something. It would not be correct or meaningful to write The boy is smarter or Florence seems to be angrier.

Now, if you wanted to express the fact that the boy’s intelligence or that Florence’s anger is beyond comparison to that of everyone else’s, you would use the superlative form:

The boy is the smartest in his class.

Florence seems to be the angriest that I have ever known her to be.

When you are using a superlative, it must be compared to others—not to one other, but to at least two others or to more than one situation. Since the boy’s intelligence is being compared to that of the other children in his class, it is assumed that there are at least two other children. That is why smartest is used. Florence’s anger is being compared to more than one other instance of anger. That is why angriest is used.

The father of two children, for instance, should not say or write, She’s my oldest daughter. That implies that he has at least three children. He should say, instead, She’s my older daughter. In that case, the comparative form of the adjective old is being used in reference to his two daughters.

Comparatives and superlatives are used with adverbs also, as in the following examples:

The little boy ran quickly. (Positive form)

The little boy ran more quickly than his friend. (Comparative form)

The little boy ran the most quickly out of all of his friends. (Superlative form)

Again, the comparative form must be used in relation to one other person or instance of something, and the superlative form must be used against two or more persons or instances.

Now, let us return to the original sentence:

The homelessness situation in Chicago is the worst. It would be correctly written in either of the following ways:

The homelessness situation in Chicago is worse than it was last year. That is a correct use of the comparative form.


The homelessness situation in Chicago is the worst that it has ever been. That is a correct use of the superlative form.

To sum up, something can be good; one thing can be better than another; one thing can be the best out of three or more things.

How Do You Spell That?

How Do You Spell That?

The spelling of words in English is difficult because they do not always adhere to established rules. Part of the reason for that is that English is an amalgam of Latin, Greek, French, Germanic, and other languages, all of which have their own idiosyncratic spelling conventions.

While most words in English are spelled phonetically, a great many are not. Their spellings simply must be memorized. There are, for instance, words with silent letters, such as lamb, climb, rhythm, thought, and many, many others. There are also words which seem to defy their own rules. For instance, why don’t cord and word rhyme?

Then there are homophones, words which sound alike, but have different spellings and different meanings, such as principal and principle, there and their, and sail and sale. Of course, there are words which sound different when pronounced, depending on what part of speech they manifesting, but which are spelled the same. Think about record, as in I like this record and We should record that song. There are words which have two correct spellings, such as theater and theatre, although, in American English theater is preferred.

How about the fact that an initial g followed by an e, i, or y usually sounds like j, as in gentle, ginger, and gymnasium, but it has a hard g sound in get? Why is that the case? In order to spell words such as those correctly, you have to understand that the spelling and pronunciation rule has to be ignored sometimes.

Then we have the problem involving irregular verbs. They totally defy spelling (and pronunciation) rules. Take, for example, eat. When that word is in the past tense form, it is not eated. It is ate. Why? The past tense of jump is jumped, so why is the past tense of eat not eated? For that matter, why is the past tense of read not readed? Why is it read? Why does it not change spelling from present to past tense?

Ok. As if that were not confusing enough, how about plural irregular nouns? The plural of boy is boys. That’s simple enough. Boy is a regular noun. But, what about woman? Why is its plural women? Why is more than one wolf spelled wolves? Why is parties the plural of party, but the plural of donkey is donkeys? Why is it that we simply add an s to donkey, but we have to change the y ending of party to ies? Why is it, for that matter, that some nouns are not differentiated at all when they are pluralized? Examples of that strange spelling rule are sheep, shrimp, and deer. The spelling does not change whether you are referring to one or more than one of those. It is not correct to refer to a flock of sheeps.

Why don’t invisible and advisable have the same suffix? Both ible and able sound the same, but different words require different suffixes. How about rambunctious and conscious? The suffixes of those two words sound the same. Why are they spelled differently?

Is there a rule for these spelling (and pronunciation) exceptions? Unfortunately, the answer is no. The only way in which to know the correct words to use in spoken and written English and to pronounce and spell them correctly is to memorize all of the unusual pronunciations and spellings and meanings. Careful reading is very helpful. Once you have seen a word used and spelled correctly in print, it is generally easier to remember how to use it and spell it correctly. A good comprehensive dictionary (not a pocket version, although a few are very good—I like The American Heritage Dictionary) is invaluable. It will include all of the information that you need in order to know how to use words correctly and pronounce and spell them properly. The spell check function on your computer will generally catch misspellings and lead you to corrections, but not always. It may not, for example, distinguish between their and there.

If you are concerned about your use of language and spelling, as I suggested, you should read and observe what you are reading. Another alternative is to submit your document to for professional proofreading and editing.

Beefing Up Your Written Vocabulary

Beefing Up Your Written Vocabulary

In all of your important writing, you should try to use better words. Or, if I were to rewrite that sentence with “better words,” it would look like this: In all of your serious writing, you should attempt to employ enhanced vocabulary. Of course, it is not necessary to do that when you are composing emails and memos and other less formal types of writing, but, on the other hand, it would not hurt.

You need not be an English major to improve your written vocabulary. There are three easy ways in which to do this:

  1. After you are finished writing, reread your work. You should always do this anyway in order to spot and eliminate writing errors. But, now, when you reread your writing, think about substitutes for some of the words that you used. You do not need to, and, in fact, you should not replace all of the everyday words with higher level ones. It is not necessary to do so. Using complex words throughout your document may obscure your meaning, and it may cause your writing to appear pompous. In any case, examine your writing, and ask yourself, “Do I know a better word to use instead of …?” For example, instead of get, use obtain or acquire. Instead of do, try implement or perform. Of course, in some cases, do is more suitable than one of its substitutes.
  2. Use Microsoft Word’s Thesaurus. Simply highlight the word that you would like to replace. Then click the Tools function on Microsoft Word. Click on Language. From Language, click Thesaurus. Then choose a substitute.
  3. Use a hard copy of a thesaurus or a dictionary.

Besides bringing your writing to a higher level, using improved vocabulary will also provide a sense of freshness to your work. This is especially true in terms of helping you to avoid one of the pitfalls of so much academic and business writing—the use of repetitious vocabulary. Look at this example, in which the italicized words in the second sentence are repetitions of words that are used in the first:

One of the reasons why the Southern states seceded from the United States in 1861 is that many people in the south thought that Abraham Lincoln was going to try to abolish slavery. They thought that was a good reason to secede from the United States because they thought that people in the north had no right to tell them what to do about the issue of slavery.

In this version of the same paragraph, the italicized words in the second sentence are variations of words used in the first sentence:

One of the reasons why the Southern states seceded from the union in 1861 is that many people in the south thought that Abraham Lincoln was going to try to abolish slavery. They believed that was a good basis for withdrawing from the union because they felt that inhabitants of the north had no right to tell them what to do about the issue of involuntary servitude.

In conclusion, beefing up your vocabulary can improve your written work by making it interesting and of a higher-than-average quality.

Using Proper Punctuation

Using Proper Punctuation

Punctuation marks are like highway signs. Instead of directing vehicular traffic, however, they control how text is to be read. For the most part, knowing where to place periods, commas, etc. is fairly simple, although there are a few tricky aspects to this skill. The following is a brief outline of the uses of the main English punctuation marks.

Periods belong at the ends of sentences and after abbreviations. They are also used in acronyms.

A full sentence expresses a complete thought. Each of the sentences in this document is a full sentence, expressing a full thought.

The following are examples of the use of periods at the end of abbreviations: Mr., Mrs., and corp.

Acronyms, such as U.S.A. and P.E.T.A. are written with periods after each of their letters.

Commas are used to separate phrases and clauses, when listing things, and to separate dialogue from the speaker of the dialogue.

The following is an example of the use of commas to separate independent clauses in a sentence: After the lions devoured their prey, they rested in the shade.

Here is an example of the use of commas to separate items in a list: I bought apples, oranges, cherries, grapes, and lemons.

The part of a sentence with dialogue that indicates who is speaking is called the tag; commas are used to separate dialogue from the tag, as follows: “Traffic was very bad this morning,” said Bob.

Question marks are placed only at the ends of interrogatory sentences and phrases, as in the following: Is there a solution to the problem of global warming?

Exclamation points are used to express heightened emotion: When I realized that the fire was spreading, I yelled, “Everybody out now!”

Colons are used to indicate that more information is to follow, as in: My favorite foods are as follows: pizza, spaghetti, and ice cream.

Semi colons are used to separate independent clauses. Here is an example of their use: This has been a strange winter; most days and nights have been warmer than average.

One way of learning how to punctuate properly is to read widely. Most books, newspaper and magazine articles, and other published material, in general, contain properly punctuated sentences. By observing the punctuation in those sentences, you will be able to learn their use.

If you are uncertain about your use of punctuation, use your spell check function. You might also choose to submit your document to Papercheck to have it professionally edited.