English Writing Errors

You can go straight to the short reference to quickly find out what matters and what doesn't matter.

OK, so you're not an English major. I'll even concede to the fact that so-called "Standard English" is nothing more than a man-made cultural phenomenon, an elusive, ever-changing dictum brought about by centuries of seemingly random whims of social interaction. Its rules, in many cases, are neither logical nor consistent.

Nevertheless, there is a small list of mistakes which, though commonly made, so contradict accepted practices as to bias the reader against the competence of the person who inadvertently makes such blunders. Such judgements are analogous to the reaction of one in the U.S. when faced with a friend who has for once forgotten his or her deodorant. Regardless of the extent one is familiar with the hygienic practices of another, repeated encounters with others in such odorous moments can cause one, if only unconsciously, to question the cleanliness of even a close friend.

Simply put, even if it is well-known that you're quite intelligent, there are certain glaring writing blunders that can present you in a very bad light as to make you seem, shall we say, unenlightened. The fact that these errors are extremely easy to prevent can be regarded as either good or bad: good in that it only takes a few moments to heed these simple guidelines, or bad in that ignoring this short list will make your public presentation that much worse because you neglected such an easy task.

So ignore those dense paragraphs written above and print out the simple rules presented below. Post them by your desk, and glance over them right before hitting, "Send E-Mail." We both know that you're bright; spend just a few seconds with these instruction and ensure that the rest of the world isn't left unaware of that same knowledge.

The first section, "What Matters," presents rules which should not be broken except under the most exceptional of circumstances. These are no different than those presented in almost every English class that has ever existed in modern times. You'll notice that the list is quite short, so you haven't any excuses for not abiding by them. (Note that I will be adding a few rules from time to time as I receive letters that particularly make my mind shudder.)

The second section, "What Doesn't Matter," is presented partly for entertainment but mostly for comparison. It should help to show that the rules in the first section should be easy to follow. These are extra rules you may hear from time to time that, although technically worthy of following, will not grate against the senses of a reader to such an extent as the errors presented in the first section.

Garret Wilson

August 5, 1998, 7:15pm

What Matters

What Doesn't Matter

Summary of What Matters

Compare the errors in the two examples below. The latter, while an extreme example of writing mistakes, should make it evident that simple errors can leave quite an unfavorable impression. You can examine more in-depth reasons by reading the explanations presented below.

Correct Example: You need to put Disneyland on your list of things to see. It's a fun place to visit.

Incorrect Example: you need to put Disneyland on you're list of things to see its a fun place to visit

Capitalization and Punctuation

Explanation: The rules involved are pretty straightforward, and don't need much explanation. Each sentences should begin with a capital letter and end with punctuation. Common punctuation marks include the period (.), which represents a normal statement and is the most common; the question mark (?), which represents a question; and the little-used exclamation point (!), which indicates excitement or a command. The first-person singular pronoun, "I" is always capitalized.

Note: This rule, as with all rules, can be broken, but only successfully by an expert (e.g. Dave Barry, Arundhati Roy) who is using or creating a literary technique. If you have first mastered all of the rules categorized under, "What Doesn't Matter," only then should you come back and try to break this one on purpose.

Correct Example: When I return, I will bring some groceries. Do you really think that I will forget like last time?

Incorrect Example: when i return, i will bring some groceries do you really think that i will forget like last time

Run-on Sentences

Explanation: A simple sentence should be a complete thought; no more, no less. If you're combining several thoughts, then use a conjunction, such as, "and," "or," "but," or "because" to combine the thoughts. Don't just jam them together, or you get something that sound bad, looks worse, and is referred to as a run-on sentence.

Note: Again, this rule can be broken by experienced writers to create special effects. If you do it inadvertently, though, it just creates the effect that you are less-than-special. This error is many times a variation of the missing punctuation error.

Correct Example 1: You should go to Disneyland. It's a fun place to visit.

Correct Example 2: You should go to Disneyland because it's a fun place to visit.

Incorrect Example: You should go to Disneyland it's a fun place to visit.

The Difference between "It's" and "Its"

Explanation: "It's" is a contraction (a combination of two words into one, with the missing letters represented by an apostrophe) whitch literally means, "it is." "Its," on the other hand, indicates possession, as in, "this thing belongs to it."

Note: What makes this somewhat confusing is that with nouns we use an apostrophe (e.g. "The dog's bone"), making it seem natural to use "it's" for possession when switching to a pronoun (e.g. "It's bone" should be, "Its bone.")

Correct Example: It's hard to catch the dog when it's burying its bone in the flowerbed.

Incorrect Example: Its hard to catch the dog when its burying it's bone in the flowerbed.

The Difference between "You're" and "Your"

Explanation: Here again, "you're" is a contraction: it literally means, "you are." "Your," on the other hand, is another possessive pronoun which does not use an apostrophe.

Correct Example: If you lose your lottery ticket, you're out of luck.

Incorrect Example: If you lose you're lottery ticket, your out of luck.

The Difference between "Who" and "Whom"

Explanation: Who is usually used as the subject of a sentence (that is, the person doing some action). Whom is the object of an action (that is, something is being done to someone, about someone, for someone, by someone, etc.)

Note: In the examples below, notice that who is doing the writing and who knows something; who therefore represents the subject doing an action. Also notice that the bells are tolling for whom, I have respect for whom, and I should ask whom; in these cases, the person isn't doing the action, but receiving the action.

Correct Example: Who wrote, For Whom the Bell Tolls? It is someone for whom I have much respect. If you don't know, whom should I ask? Who would know?

Incorrect Example: Whom wrote, For Who the Bell Tolls? It is someone for who I have much respect. If you don't know, who should I ask? Whom would know?