My Top 10 Writing Gaffes
I deliberately chose to use gaffes rather than errors or mistakes in the headline. Why? Here’s its definition: an unintentional act or remark causing embarrassment to its originator; a blunder. When I see the following writing miscues, I feel embarrassed for their authors.
1. Who and that. I see this gaffe just about every day. Who should always be used when you’re referring to people, not that. I was screaming at the TV when this popped up after every commercial break during a show to raise money for autism: STARS THAT CARE.
2. It’s and its. English does have some rather screwy rules, but this isn’t one of them. It’s is always the contraction of it is, while its denotes possession. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. I’m thrilled my favorite store has its best sale of the year.
3. Your and you’re. Like gaffe #2, there is no gray area here. You’re is always the contraction of you are, while your denotes possession. You’re going to be disappointed if your favorite player gets traded to a new team.
4. Its and their. Its is singular, while their reflects more than one. The company will hold its holiday party on Saturday; employees are welcome to bring their families.
5. Misused semicolons. In #4, a semicolon is used appropriately to connect two complete sentences that are “related.” Semicolons can also be used to separate list items that include clauses with commas, e.g., the menu includes turkey, ham, and roast beef; scalloped potatoes; and green bean casserole.
6. Using include incorrectly. In #5, include is used to note that only part of the menu is listed. It would be wrong to write, “your three dessert choices include French silk pie, pumpkin pie and apple pie” if those are the only options; use are instead.
7. Unnecessary capitalization. Words like bank and company are not capitalized, even when they refer to a specific organization. It’s also a mistake to capitalize words to make them stand out — and don’t get me started on all caps.
8. Too many thats. The clearer your writing is, the easier it will be to get your message across, so check your copy for the overuse of that. “You’ll find it’s not necessary” reads better than “you’ll find that it’s not necessary.”
9. Missing commas. Proper use of punctuation helps readers understand what you’re trying to say. Commas are needed where you would pause if speaking. I often add to them to what I call starter clauses: In 2017, Cubbie had his third birthday.
10. Homonym misuse. English can get screwy when words sound the same but are spelled differently. The three errors I see most often are compliment instead of complement, principal instead of principle, and lead instead of led.
Do you have any gaffes you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them!
While I say Merry Christmas to those I know celebrate that holiday, I always use Happy Holidays when addressing a group or sending out seasonal greetings. Why? It’s more inclusive. Christmas isn’t an American holiday, like the Fourth of July; it’s a religious holiday — and millions of people, including Jews like me, don’t celebrate it. Whatever you celebrate, have a wonderful time with family and friends at this joyous time of year.
Say What You Mean
I mentioned in my Top 10 that it’s a problem when commas are missing. It also can be problematic when they’re used incorrectly; they can significantly change the meaning of a sentence, as the graphic above denotes. Check out the bestseller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves if you want to become a student of punctuation.