Everybody – even a copywriter – makes a grammar or spelling mistake now and again, or bashes out a typo. Don’t sweat it – you’re human.
But beware of the textbook clangers and howlers that make your brand look careless, your people look uneducated, and your credentials look shaky.
In this blog, we look at six of the worst offenders, explore the scene of the crime in each case, and show you how you can get your writing back on the straight and narrow again!
- “The person that….”
Arrrrrgh!! This is ritual abuse of the relative pronoun!
(“What’s a relative pronoun?”, I hear you ask. It’s a word that refers back to a person or thing that you’ve already mentioned, like “The blog that I wrote”.)
But… the correct relative pronoun to use when a person is involved is ‘who’, not ‘that’!
So, it’s “The person who answered your call”, or “The account manager who looks after you”, or “The technician who’ll be coming out to repair your fault.”
Does it matter if you get this wrong? Well, put it this way, would you ever consider writing “The technician what’ll be coming out to repair your fault”? No, because it sounds like a yokel wrote it.
But it’s exactly the same order of error as using ‘that’.
- Phonetic false friends
Heard of the Great Vowel Shift? There’s probably no reason why you should have, but it was an ancient change in English pronunciation that unfortunately occurred after the spelling rules for the language were already fixed. This is why so many of our words are not pronounced how they are written.
Given this background, bloggers, marketing writers and others need to be careful about checking spelling. If you blindly follow the phonetics, you’ll soon get into this kind of trouble (which I see all the time):
- ‘Amature’ (wrong) instead of ‘amateur’ (correct)
- ‘Wierd’ (wrong) instead of ‘weird’ (correct)
- “Seperate” (wrong) instead of “separate” (correct)
- “Definate” (wrong) instead of “definite” (correct)
I could go on!
The basic rule is this: don’t trust our language to be written the way it’s pronounced! And if you’re not 100% sure of the spelling, paste whatever you’re writing into a word processing application (if you’re not already using one) and run it through a spellchecker, rather than just ‘winging it’!
- The absent H
We all drop our aitches in conversation now and again.
But as a consequence of our willingness to do away with this breathy spoken sound, many people have now sliced it out of their writing, too – leading to wholesale confusion between, for example, ‘has’ and ‘as’.
Again, spellcheck is your friend here. The spellcheck built into Office 365, for example, now has enough knowledge of grammar and context to spot an example of this kind of confusion automatically, but if in doubt simply do a text search for ‘has’ (put a space in before and after) and check each example in isolation. Then do the same thing with ‘as’.
Chances are you’ll kick yourself when you see the results – but that’s a lot less painful than publishing or sending to print and then being kicked by your boss or customers instead!
- “Must of…”
Yet another example of unhelpful phonetics, this one drives readers nuts (trust me, I’ve asked a few hundred in my time).
The confusion arises because of the contraction of “must have” to “must’ve”. That ‘ve’ on the end sounds an awful lot like “of” – and before you know it, it’s there, on the screen or the page, alienating your audience!
‘Must’ is an example of something called a ‘modal verb’ (‘should’ is another one that often attracts the same mistake).
But the ‘have’ or ‘ve’ bit is also a verb, and it’s understanding this that is the key to avoiding the error, because one of the ways you can test if something is a verb is to put a pronoun (like ‘I’) before it, and check if it makes sense.
“I have” makes total sense. “I of” doesn’t.
- ‘Are’ or ‘our’?
What’s interesting about this example is that it is often influenced by regional accents.
If, like me, you hail from Peter Kay’s part of the world, you’ll tend to pronounce “our” something like “ouwwer”, but you’ll pronounce “are” as “ah”. Not too much scope for confusion there – clearly, these are two different words requiring two different spellings.
But most of you probably don’t make any real spoken differentiation between these two words at all – they’re both simply pronounced “ah” in most cases.
Again, a spellchecker will probably help to flag this kind of issue, but a handy prompt to remember is that both ‘our’ and ‘ownership’ (which is what the word ‘our’ signifies) start with the same letter.
- ‘Ery’ or ‘ary’?
Walking through a local town recently, I looked up to see the following legend proclaimed on a garish orange shop-front: ‘Confectionary’.
Despite the sugary subject matter, this left a bitter taste in my mouth – for ‘confectionary’ simply does not exist as a word (at least not in any widely used or understood sense). Toffees are always, always, always ‘confectionery’!
I felt more forgiving of a client recently who had used the word ‘stationary’ throughout his website when talking about paper, however, as this word can indeed be written two different ways, depending on meaning – and it often trips writers up.
To clarify, ‘stationary’ means ‘at a standstill’, whereas ‘stationery’ means paper. And the way to remember this? The ‘e’ in ‘stationery’ is the first letter of ‘envelope’!
There we go, then. Six common mistakes you really don’t want to make when writing – and some quick tips for how to steer clear of them.
(Oh, and be aware – there are hundreds more we could tell you about, if you wanted to get in touch to discuss! )