This past December, PR News asked its many followers on twitter what they thought were the most common mistakes in writing, spelling and punctuation that we, as public relations practitioners and communicators, need to be careful of. The organization was quickly flooded with responses, including many common mistakes, such as confusing your and you’re. I even got in on the fun, tweeting my biggest grammar pet peeve – confusing affect and effect.
The tweet inspired me to of course think about the other common grammar mistakes many of us, including myself, are guilty of. After all, no one is perfect. However, in an industry where excellent communication and by that token excellent language skills is the lifeblood, being guilty of grammatical errors can be disastrous. The following are some common grammatical errors that many individuals make every day.
- Your v. You’re – Ah the old your versus you’re mistake. It is amazing how much confusion one strategically placed apostrophe can cause. Basically, the word your refers to possession. For example, “Your apple” or “Your shirt”. Meanwhile, you’re is the abbreviated form of the expression “you are”. For example, instead of saying “You are smart”, you can write, “You’re smart”.
- Its v. It’s – Another confusion caused by one strategically placed apostrophe. Like the previous example, the word its means possession, specifically something belonging to an object that is not masculine or feminine. For example, “This pillow is too big for its case”. However, it’s is the abbreviated form of it is. For example, “It is raining” may be written as “It’s raining”.
- Their v. They’re – Like the previous two examples, this is a case of one word meaning possession and the other referring to the shortened form of an expression. The other cause of this common error is that the words are homonyms, meaning they sound alike but mean different things. The fact that they sound alike often increases the chances of someone confusing the two. Their of course refers to possession, such as, “Their parents” or “Their house”, while they’re is the abbreviated form for they are. For example, “They are coming” can be rewritten as “They’re coming”.
- To v. Too – This is another common homonym error. The two words sound exactly alike and the only difference in spelling is an extra letter o. However, that one extra o completely changes the definition. The word to is used both with the infinitive form of a verb, as in, “To dance”, as well as moving towards something, such as, “To the edge”. The word too means also or as well. For example, “I love apples too” or “I love Paris too”.
- Then v. Than – This is another confusion between words which sound very similar. Then is often used in providing step by step instructions and to indicate something following something else in time. For example, “We’ll go for coffee and then go to the movies”. The word than is used for comparisons. For example, “I am better than her at swimming”.
- Affect v. Effect – Ah my personal pet peeve. This one is very confusing for a lot of people, probably because they can often be used together. However, the key factor to remember is that affect is a verb and effect is a noun. More specifically, affect refers to the impact or influence something has on an object, while effect refers to the change itself. For example, “The house was affected by the storm” versus “The medicine had a strong effect on me”.
- Who v. Whom – These two words are actually very difficult to differentiate for many individuals, including professional communicators. The key to distinguishing between the two is to always remember that who refers to the subject of the sentence, while whom refers to the object in a sentence. For example, “Who is at the door?” versus, “Whom should I call about this?”.
- i.e. v. e.g. – Two of the most commonly used abbreviations, they are sometimes confused with each other. Basically, i.e. is a shortened form of saying “that is” or “in other words”. For example, “She hates sports – i.e. she will not be attending the game”. On the other hand, the abbreviation e.g. basically means “for example” and can be used in the following manner, “She likes all types of music, e.g. pop, rap, rock and country”.
- A lot v. Allot – Both words are used in reference to some type of quantity. However, a lot refers to having plenty of something, while allot refers to the setting aside of a certain amount towards something. For example, “She had a lot of apples on the table” versus, “She allotted $10 for buying apples”. It would also be remiss of me to not mention one of the most common grammar errors, as it relates to the word a lot. That is, the use of alot to mean a lot. To put it plainly, this is completely incorrect and should never be used because alot is not a word.
- Fewer v. Less – This is a really tricky one to be honest, that I’ve also been guilty of many times. Essentially, the main factor to remember is that fewer refers to quantifiable objects. For example, “There are fewer apples now” or “We have fewer dogs than we did last year”. The word less however, refers to objects that are difficult to quantify individually. For example, “We did less traveling this year” or “This beach is less sandy than the other one”.
- Assure v. Insure v. Ensure – A triple-threat error, these three words confuse many because not only are they close in meanings but they also sound closely alike. However, they all do have specific definitions and must not be used interchangeably. Assure refers to a promise or stating something with confidence. For example, “I assure you I will get you acquitted”. Insure refers to protection against some type of risk. For example, “The organization is insured for $10 million”. And finally, ensure means to make certain of something. For example, “Ensure that you will be available tomorrow at 10″.
- Subject Verb Agreement – Proper subject-verb agreement is the lifeblood of most sentences and thus at the core of good grammar. It is a topic that could be its own blog post. For now, I will just address some common rules related to it. Such as, a singular subject has a singular verb. For example, “The man is going to deliver the speech”. Two, for sentences with more than one subject connected by the word and, the verb is plural. For example, “The mother and her daughter are dancing”. Three, when a sentence has more than one subject but they are connected by the word or, the verb is singular. For example, “The boy or the girl is going to win a scholarship”. However, with regard to the latter rule, if the one of the subjects is plural, the verb must agree with the subject closest to it. For example, “The man or his children go to the grocery store”. You can find a lot more information on subject-verb agreement here.
- Passive Voice – This is another common one that I have been guilty of in the past. I cannot tell you the number of, “passive voice” errors I got on some of my English papers while in secondary school. To put it in the simplest terms, using a passive voice in writing means making the object of a sentence, the subject. For example, “I edited the press release” is an example of an active voice sentence because I is the subject who is taking the action and the press release is the object. That same sentence, if rewritten in the passive voice, would read as, “The press release was edited by me”. At this point the press release which is the object, becomes the subject of the sentence.
- Use of Commas – Like subject-verb agreement, discussing the proper use of commas is an extensive topic that can be its own blog entry. However, for the sake of brevity, I will focus on the three most common uses. One, commas should be used to separate elements in a series. For example, “I brought a pen, a notepad, and a recorder to the interview”. The second common use of the comma is to separate independent clauses joined by and, but, or, for, nor, so or yet, in a sentence. For example, “The cake is delicious, but I am on a diet”. Finally, commas should be used to separate a phrase or introductory phrase, which is often at the beginning of a sentence. For example, “Earlier this year, the firm saw a 30 percent increase in profits”. For more information on the proper use of commas, follow this
- Semicolons – Semicolons are generally used to connect two independent clauses that are closely related. Many times the two clauses could each be their own sentence but stylistically, they work better as one sentence. For example, “Email me tomorrow; I will have a document prepared for you by then”.
Of course this post just barely scratches the surface of the rules of grammar which is a very extensive topic. And as noted above, many of us, including myself, have likely been guilty of at least one of these. And that’s okay, because no one’s perfect. But that is why revising and editing is essential in writing. You write and say it correctly enough, eventually it becomes second nature.