Updated: Apr 7, 2021
I'm a freelance writer, editor and proofreader, so it's safe to say I've seen it all when it comes to copy flubs.
Writing is something we all do every day whether we think about it or not. We send text messages and emails and write Instagram and Facebook captions. All of these require sentence structure, grammar and vocabulary, and albeit not always high brow, but coherently put together nonetheless.
Whether you're in the writing industry or just looking to improve your skills, these are the most common – and easily avoidable errors – that come across my desk.
1. COMMA HERE, COMMA THERE, COMMA EVERYWHERE
Commas seem to be a crowd favorite but they should be more used far more sparingly than they often are. They're a grammatical tool to signify a pause in a clause, which should mimic the way you might say the sentence if you were to read it aloud. You can actually use them in in a number of other ways including the following:
Separate independent clauses when they're joined by and, but, for, or, nor, so or yet.
Example: The concert was over, yet the fans lingered waiting for an encore.
Following introductory clauses, phrases or words that come before the main clause like after, although, as, because, if, since, when, while, well and however.
Example: While I was eating cookies, my dog sat next to me staring and waiting for a piece to fall.
In the middle of a sentence to separate a clause, phrase or word that's not essential to the meaning of the sentence. One comma goes before the interjection and one immediately after.
Example: This coffee shop, which happens to be my favorite in town, is beautifully decorated.
To separate three or more words/phrases comprising a list.
Example: People often overuse shampoo, conditioner and body wash when showering.
To separate two or more adjectives that describe the same noun.
Example: He is a kind, qualified, respected physician.
In locations, geographical names, dates and addresses.
Example: Los Angeles, California; Seattle, Washington; March 12, 2020; 1234 Del Mar Ave., Phoenix, AZ.
When using quotation marks.
Example: "Can you help me," he asked . "I have a big table to move and can't do it alone."
To clarify or avoid confusion from misreading.
Example: To Olivia, Anne was eating too much.
For more information and examples of how to use commas properly rather than profusely, visit the Purdue Online Writing Lab.
2. Run-on sentences
Most, people can remember an elementary or middle school English teacher repeating the same phrase over and over again, "No run-on sentences." Yet, it's a habit that many people carryover well beyond grade school. A run-on sentence is bad for a number of reasons, but mostly because they're difficult to understand.
What's the definition of a run-on though? Well, it's not simply a sentence that feels too long. Rather, it's a sentence with too many weighted clauses, which means that you're trying to fit too much into one sentence. Here's an example:
Run-on: The meeting was planned for Tuesday, March 23, but not all of the employees could attend, so it was rescheduled for the following Thursday, and then everyone was there.
Better version: The meeting was planned for Tuesday, March 23, but not all of the employees could attend. So, it was rescheduled for the following Thursday when everyone was available.
3. Vague pronouns
Clarity is almost always the number one priority of any written piece. Why? If it's not clear then no one will understand the intended meaning behind the words that have been strung together. The meaning of a sentence can be muddled in a slew of ways and vague pronouns are among the top offenders.
A pronoun, like he, they, it, she, etc., replace a noun, called the antecedent. They can help diversify syntax and let authors refer to a noun without saying the name over and over again. However, using them loosey-goosey often causes some confusion.
A good way to check yourself for vague pronouns is to ask yourself if the pronoun in your sentence could be replaced with another word subject from your sentence other than what you're actually referring to, and still make sense. If the answer is yes, then you need to rework the sentence to make it more clear.
4. Misplaced & dangling modifiers
A modifier changes, clarifies or qualifies a particular word in a sentence to add emphasis, explanation or detail. They are often descriptive words like adjectives and adverbs. Here's a sentence with the modifier bolded to give you a better idea of what I mean.
Sara quickly rose the social ladder and became popular in school, smiling her way through cheerleading and an ASB presidency term.
Modifiers are a great way to spice up your content and engage readers. However, I see many misplaced or dangling modifiers, and that's where things can get messy. Putting a modifier in the wrong place in a sentence can drastically change the meaning or cause unintentional humor. Most often, this happens when a modifier is too far from the noun it's modifying. Here's an example:
Misplaced: She arrived home and flopped onto her bed covered in sweat.
Intended meaning: She arrived home, covered in sweat, and flopped onto her bed.
6. Cap, no cap?
Capitalization, unless it's a name or the first word in a sentence, can be tricky for some people. Knowing when something should be capitalized or not might be a grey area, but usually there'a a style guide to tell you what you should be doing. If you're following Associated Press (AP) style, which is most common, then you can check the AP Style Guide. If you're referencing something specific to a company or brand, check their website or ask your contact there.
Here's a refresher on that grade school-level grammar I mentioned. You should capitalize a word when:
It's a proper noun
It's a language, ethnicity or nationality
It's a day, month or holiday, but not a season
It's the first word in a quote
It's the title of a book, movie, play, or other attraction/venue
For more specifics on when you should or shouldn't capitalize something, read here.
7. Apostrophe catastrophe
Apostrophes still get the best of people, and if you're like me, you can't help but notice when someone incorrectly texts "it's" when it should be "its."
Remember, apostrophes make words possessive or create contractions. Here's what I mean:
It + is = it's
There + is = there's
Who + would = who'd
Jim has apples = Jim's apples
Misspelling words accounts for a pretty big chunk of the mistakes I see in clients' copy. Simple things like "lead" instead of "led" or "Caalifornia" instead of "California." Sometimes you need to double check that you're not using the wrong word, but most times you just need to proofread to ensure there's no minor mistaken misspellings. I often tell clients to write their copy in Microsoft Word and use spell check, then add to their website, social media or whatever platform the copy will live.
If you're looking for a professional copy editor or proofreader, I'd love to help! Reach out for more information on how I can help.