Have You Made Any of These Writing Faux Pas? You’re Not Alone

In my previous blog post, I discussed the consequences of spelling and grammar mistakes. In this post, I’d like to cover some common writing errors. Are you making writing faux pas that could be hurting your reputation and business?

Improper grammar, punctuation, and word use reflects poorly on your company. If your website and social media posts lack attention to detail, why should your site visitors trust your products and services? Avoid these mistakes to improve your business’s first impression and promote your professional image.

Repeating the Same Words and Phrases

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Thesaurus.com is one of your strongest allies. You need to mix things up when you’re writing about a particular topic, and a thesaurus will help you find different words to say the same thing.

It might take a bit of creativity, but there’s more than one payoff. Words most at risk for repetition often are related to your specific industry. They might even be important keywords. A thesaurus can open the door for alternate phrases and words for your SEO. And you won’t bore your audience to death.

Confusing One Word for Another

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Don’t mix up look-alike words! Here are some common errors, and examples of how to use them correctly:

  • They’re vs. their (or there): They’re going up there to take their lunch break.
  • Who’s vs. whose: Who’s going to ask whose garlic bread is in the microwave?
  • It’s vs. its: It’s never a good idea to heat garlic bread in the microwave. Its odor lingers forever.
  • Then vs. than: Leftover tuna in the back of the fridge is worse than anything. First Gina put garlic bread in the microwave, then she pulled this stunt.
  • Your vs. you’re: You’re seriously going to use your camera to catch Gina in the act?
  • Desert vs. dessert: Let’s desert this stinky place and treat ourselves to dessert at Phil’s House of Cake. Did you know Phil was a celebrity chef in Palm Desert?
  • Complimentary vs. complementary: You were very complimentary about Phil’s use of complementary flavors.
  • Stationery vs. stationary: Once I get off this stationary bike, I’m going to dig out my stationery and write Phil a thank-you letter for that extra slice of German chocolate cake.

Everyone slips up once in a while, so if you’re in doubt, check with Dictionary.com.

Using Too Many Words

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If a word isn’t necessary to convey the message, eliminate it from the sentence.

Bad: “If your purchase exceeds $100, then you’re entitled to free shipping!”
Good: “If your purchase exceeds $100, you’re entitled to free shipping!”
Bad: “Click to save the items that you love!”
Good: “Click to save the items you love!”

“Then” and “that” are among the most frequent freeloaders. You want your words to flow, especially in calls to action.

Confusing Collective Nouns, Pronouns, and Possessive Pronouns

Would you say, “Pets.com sold the license to its sock puppet” or “Pets.com sold the license to their sock puppet”? The first option is correct. Pets.com is a company so you would use the collective noun in the singular.

How about “Everybody or everyone is laughing at your poor grammar” versus “everybody (or everyone) are laughing at your poor grammar”? The first version is correct. Think of everyone as two words: Every one. The subject isn’t the collective; it’s each person as an individual.

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These mistakes happen a lot (not “alot”. A lot refers to quantity or frequency. Alot is an imaginary creature dreamed up by humor blogger Allie Brosch to illustrate her feelings about this common gaffe.)

Using a grammar checker such as Grammarly, an application that detects errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation, will help you avoid these issues. The free version is usually adequate for most writers’ needs.

Mistaking “That” for “Who”

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There is a lot (not there are a lot; we’re talking about one lot here) of conflicting advice about the appropriate use of “that” and “who”. The rule is simple: One is associated with an object. The other is associated with people or a person. Here are some examples:

Mary is a person who hates packing peanuts.
There isn’t a single business that enjoys inventory.
There are two IRS auditors in the warehouse who have angry looks on their faces.

This is a good time for a tip about “whom.” Imagine yourself (the subject) throwing something to a person or group of people. Whoooom! Something is being directed to that person (or them). “Who” is reserved for the subject performing the action.

“To whom should I throw the ball?” instead of “who should I throw the ball to?”
“To whom it may concern” instead of “to the people who are involved in this”

Mixing Up Tense and Wording in Bullet Lists

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Be sure to maintain the same tense … and the same flow. Here’s an example of a disorganized bullet list:

Top Five Business Blogging Benefits:

  • Increases backlinks
  • Position yourself in a thought leadership position
  • To establish a personal connection with your clients
  • Ranking higher with search engines

Here’s another version. Do you see how much smoother these sound?

Top Five Business Blogging Benefits:

  • Increase backlinks
  • Position yourself in a thought leadership position
  • Establish a personal connection with your clients
  • Rank higher with search engine

If you use “ing,” use it consistently, but it’s cleaner to pretend there’s a “to” at the beginning of each statement. This helps keep your tense consistent.

Writing in the Passive Voice

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Professional copywriters use the active “voice” or tense to create clear, concise sentences. In the active tense, the statement focuses on the person performing the action. Which sentence looks better to you?

Active: Bob designed the landing page.
Passive: The landing page was designed by Bob.

Both approaches are grammatically correct, but readers and copywriters prefer active tense.

When is it acceptable to use the passive tense?

You may take advantage of artistic license under certain circumstances:

  • To emphasize the action (verb) rather than the subject
  • To avoid naming the subject
  • To describe a circumstance in which the noun is unknown or insignificant
  • To create an authoritative tone
  • When active tense appears awkward

Here are two regularly-used passive phrases that would be awkward if presented in the active tense:

“This program was sponsored by The Sponsoring Foundation.”
“Our coffee was grown in Columbia by workers protected by Fair Trade policies.”

Getting Fouled Up on Follow Up, Follow-up, and Followup

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This phrase is worth mentioning because its format completely changes its meaning.

Follow up is a verb. It means, “to gather more information” or to evaluate or substantiate a previous action. For example, “Our staff will reach out and follow up with you to make sure you’re enjoying your new WhizGig.”

Follow-up is a noun; in short, it’s the product of “follow up. “How did that follow-up go with the customer whose WhizGig caught his house on fire?”

Neglecting to Proofread

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I’ve already recommended Grammarly as a helpful automated grammar and spelling checker. It’s popular among professional copywriters, but it’s not mistake-proof. Read your copy once, then read it again, out loud to better gauge its flow and organization.

Whenever possible, have a friend or colleague review your work before you publish or send it to your customers. Keep an eye out for missing words or incorrect word usage, as these are easy for programs and people to miss.

And if you’re specifically marketing to, or writing copy for, British or Australian organizations, use a plug-in like Language Tool to convert American English spellings to the Queen’s English.

Introducing New Information in Your Closing Paragraph

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Your conclusion should be a general overview of the article or post. Think of your introduction as a promise, the body as the delivery, and the closing paragraph as an affirmation of what you’ve delivered. Don’t drop new information on your readers unless you’re:

1. Proposing a solution—and your contact information—with your call to action (CTA), or

2. Suggesting additional resources.

Here’s this closing paragraph, as an example:

I hope that, by identifying the most glaring writing mistakes, and by providing you with the means to correct them, I’ve helped you become a better writer … and a more successful businessperson!

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