Close-up Of A Person's Hand Marking Error With Red Marker On Document

How to Make Sure Your Message Is What Stands out in Your Writing

Here’s why picky Grammar Police Officers like me point out errors: because mistakes in written materials communicate the message that details just don’t matter. So if you’re writing a project proposal, a grant funding request, or a direct mail letter, and the reader gets the impression that you don’t care about details, your request won’t rise to the top of the pile.

Here are a few of the most common errors and some tips on how to avoid them:

Apostrophes are used to indicate possession and contractions.

  • First up: Possession: Jane’s dog. Abdul’s cat. The Robinsons’ car. One exception: its is how you spell this particular possessive pronoun … as in “When I put my sweater in the dryer, it lost its shape.”
  • Next up: contractions. Words like don’t and can’t use an apostrophe to indicate there’s a letter or two missing (do not and cannot). Another example is it’s which always means it is.
  • Note that apostrophes never make a word plural – so if your see a sign reading No Dog’s Allowed on the Playground, please do me a favor and sneak over at midnight and paint over that apostrophe.

Effect and affect.

Effect is either a noun or a verb – “The sunshine is having a positive effect on my mood.” Or “The only way to effect change is to make your voice heard.” Affect is also either a noun or a verb, but most commonly a verb: “I didn’t think his insult would affect me so much.” Or “Sometimes people in shock have a flat affect, where they don’t react at all.”

Fewer/less.

Use fewer when there’s a set number of whatever you’re referring to, and less if it’s vague. For example:

Wrong: Less than 100 people were in my graduating class.

Right: Fewer than 100 people were in my graduating class.

Right:  Since fewer people go to restaurants now, there’s less crowding.

i.e. and e.g. are not interchangeable

 i.e. is Latin for that is to say or in other words. e.g. is Latin for for example. E.g.:

Right: He brought all kinds of desserts to the party, e.g., ice cream, cake, and cookies.

Right: Chris had adopted their gender-neutral name and pronoun a few years ago, when they began to publicly identify as nonbinary, i.e., neither male nor female.

And please, always add a comma after either abbreviation.

Me, myself, and I.

As the proofreading website Vappingo says, “I is the doer, and me is the done to.” As in “After I have finished shopping, please pick me up.”

It seems like people often use I incorrectly, just because it sounds fancier, so it must be right. So often, it’s not. For example:

Wrong: The party invitation was addressed to Buddy and I.

Right: The party invitation was addressed to Buddy and me.

One way to tell what’s correct in this example is to remove “Buddy and” – that way, you’ll see that “I” doesn’t work.

A couple of general rules for using myself correctly: Myself is never used in a sentence that doesn’t contain the word I. And myself never takes the place of me or I.

Wrong: The meeting attendees will include Sherry and myself.

Right: The meeting attendees will include Sherry and me.

Right: Thank you, but I can do it myself.

Yes, there is a place for an automated Spell Check in your process...

but it’s not to check spelling! Spell Check is notorious for incorrectly “correcting” grammar and spelling, so don’t count on it for that. Instead, run a Spell Check after you’ve finished proofreading your document. It will help you clean up by finding extra spaces and repeated words you need to delete, problems with capitalization, and more.

Please don’t use what I call decorative quotation marks.

These quotation marks curiously surround a word for absolutely no reason. Here’s an example:

We went to lunch at a “soup and sandwich” place and I had the “Blue Plate Special,” while my mother had the $5.00 “Senior Lunch Deal.”

These quotation marks are unnecessary and make the sentence more complicated than it needs to be – some of the quoted words are regular words that are easily understandable. Others are already highlighted by being capitalized, so you don’t need the quotes. My rule: if you’re tempted to use decorative quotation marks, remove them and see if the sentence is clear without them. I promise you, it almost always will be.

Proofreading includes fonts and graphics.

Double check your consistency with headlines and subheads (are some all upper case, and some a mix of upper and lower case?) Also, if you’re using a Table of Contents, make sure the entries in the TOC match what’s in your document, and that the page numbering is consistent. Same goes for bulleted text, font size, boldface text, etc. Consistency is key.

Also pay attention to what might be missing.

Page numbers? Date? Signature?

And just a note about making your writing resonate.

Help your readers by making everything you write crystal clear. Assume that not everyone is familiar with jargon, so avoid it if possible instead of peppering your prose with terms people might have to Google. And it’s always a good policy to spell out all abbreviations or acronyms (at least the first time) so you don’t inadvertently leave your readers behind.

If you’re not sure about a word usage or grammar rule...

… remember the Internet is your friend. Sites like Vappingo, Grammarly, and my favorite: GrammarGirl (especially her Top Ten Grammar Myths), all provide easy-to-understand rules and examples.

One last piece of advice:

It’s much easier to spot mistakes in other people’s writing … so find a friend and help each other out. It’s harder to see the mistakes in a document that you wrote and are familiar with.

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