3 Careless Flubs That Make You Look Bad

Okay, we’ve all done it – made embarrassing writing mistakes we wish we could take back. The trick is to avoid those mistakes that can cost us readers.

I fillRecently, my reading (especially on the Web) caused me severe eye-roll syndrome. A bunch of thoughtless errors made me want to stop reading, but I trudged on. I think most readers would have shared my frustration.

Careless errors reflect poorly on writers and cause readers to doubt writers’ abilities (maybe even their intelligence). We need to do ourselves a favor and avoid these three types of embarrassing errors.

Proper Verb Form

English is weird. It’s a combination of several other languages. This makes for some rather illogical verb forms. But using the wrong form will get us in trouble – fast.

I was reading an online news item where the writer twice used the word “payed,” as in “he payed for that mistake.” Now, that would seem to be the logical past tense of to pay, but the correct form is paid. Didn’t the guy have a spelling checker? It comes up on mine.

Another common tense hang-up is the went-gone difficulty. Too many times I have read and heard “I had went …” Seriously? It’s “I had gone…”

There’s always the lie (to recline) versus lay (to set down) confusion. When it comes to verb forms in English, it’s a good idea to have a chart of irregular verb tenses handy. I know I do.


I’m not sure why, but people have trouble with the preposition of.

Sometimes they’ll leave it out, as in “we had a couple drinks to celebrate.” Does that make “couple” an adjective instead of a noun? How about “I drank a can soda”? That just doesn’t sound right.

On the other hand, people will use of when they mean have, to whit “I could of been a contender!” The difficulty here is one of sound. When we make the contractions “could’ve” or “should’ve,” that second syllable sounds an awful lot like “of.” But, well, it’s still wrong.

Wrong Words

Using a word we think sounds right instead of the correct word is the worst kind of error. It’s just plain sloppy writing, and the reader knows it.

We all know the problems with there, their, and they’re, and its and it’s. Yet, people will use fill when they mean feel. I had one student who kept using an in the place of and. It took me a while (and a lot of re-reading) to catch on.

And it mystifies me why people will use the word defiantly when they mean definitely. They are not even close in meaning or even pronunciation.

Using incorrect words forces the reader to figure out what the writer really means, and we don’t want to make the reader work that way.

Remember: We always want the reader to concentrate on what we’re saying, not struggle to translate the mistakes in our writing.

There are all kinds of crazy writing errors out there. What are some of your favorite (or should it be despised) errors?


Thanks, Mr. Bradlee

Ben Bradlee at his Washington Post desk in 1971. Photo/New York Times

I can thank (or blame, depending on your perspective) Ben Bradlee, someone I never met, for my entrance into the world of newspapers.

Mr. Bradlee, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, died last week. For those too young to remember, he and Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher, took on big government and the Richard Nixon administration when they fought to publish the Pentagon Papers and pursue the Watergate scandal.

Mr. Bradlee was, in a large measure, responsible for the high regard and reputation journalists were experiencing when I was a high school senior. I was trying to figure out where I wanted to go in life and originally wanted to become a high school English teacher. My mother, a teacher’s aide, told me that I wouldn’t be able to find a job and that I should become a newspaper reporter instead. So I did.

This decision was more crucial to my life than I gave it credit for at the time. I love to share learning, but I realize, as I look back, that the raging hormones and teenage angst dripping from the halls of the average high school would have sent me screaming to the oblivion of a good bottle of rum.

I loved working for a newspaper and, when I became senior news editor then managing editor of a local weekly chain, I found myself in occupational nirvana. I had a job that let me write, design pages, edit the writing of others, manage a staff of full- and part-time reporters and photographers, interact with public officials, and talk with all kinds of people. The hours were long, the pay was low, and we worked like crazy people to put it all together each week. But the newspaper work was fun. Every day was a new adventure, and every week we put out quality work.

Barbara S. Rivette, my mentor and former executive editor, is a Syracuse University School of Journalism graduate who knew and hobnobbed with many leading journalists. She never met Mr. Bradlee, but closely watched the developments at the Post throughout the 1970s.  His ethics are her ethics.

Although we never had ethical or legal dilemmas the scope of which Mr. Bradlee and Ms. Graham faced, we still had some newsroom clashes over journalistic integrity. Ever present was the issue of the public’s right to know weighed against the right of individual privacy. Although local town, village, and school boards couldn’t hide behind “national security,” they often tried to cloak their activities in executive sessions.

As time and technology progressed, the nature and economics of print journalism have changed. Newspapers have stopped printing daily, opting for electronic editions; the need for writers and editors has diminished; typesetters, proofreaders, and page strippers have vanished; and the driving force today is how fast an organization can get the story on the web. Speed is becoming more important than accuracy; excellence is measured by hits instead of the quality of the content.

Mr. Bradlee’s brand of journalistic integrity seems to be falling prey to a world that ignores individual privacy and is more concerned with getting the story out than getting it right. An era of bright and shining journalism is fading like the tangy smell of printer’s ink.

R.I.P., Mr. Bradlee; thanks for a great run.


A Fight for Apostrophes’ Rights

imageThere’s a situation that is getting out of hand, and the time is long past to address it. What I’m talking about is apostrophe abuse.

The apostrophe either is prohibited from doing its work or is expected to work where it’s not supposed to. What an apostrophe does is not all that complicated. Heck! It’s not like an apostrophe is a comma, y’know.

An apostrophe really only does two things: stands in for letters in a contraction or shows possession.

Standing in for Those Not There

Folks, contractions are easy! It + is = It’s; would + not = wouldn’t; there + is =there’s. Get it? Simple, right? If it is so simple, why do we see the apostrophe left out all over the place? How many times do we see Im, theres, wont, til (which should be ’til for until), or the one that tends to set my teeth on edge most which should be ’most because people mean almost?

And folks, if you want to shorten the 1960s, it is the ’60s. Please notice that there is no apostrophe in the whole numerical decade and the apostrophe appears before the shortened number to stand in for those that are missing.

Helping Show Who Owns What

It’s bad enough that the apostrophe is prevented from its proper place in contractions, it often gets barred from doing its job with possessives. Admittedly, showing possession with an apostrophe is a little trickier than contractions, but it’s still pretty logical.

If you are showing that something owns (possesses) something and the word does not end in an s, put in an apostrophe and an s: boy’s, girl’s, children’s, geese’s. Yet how many restaurants, bars, or taverns have doors posted womens and mens?

If a singular word ends in an s, put an apostrophe then an s: boss’s, James’s, lass’s.

Just tack on an apostrophe to plural words that end in s to show that they all own something: bosses’ desks, boys’ bikes, students’ grades, writers’ books.

(Psst! Never use an apostrophe with a possessive pronoun. That includes its –the dog gnawed its bone.)

Apostrophes Against Plurals

There is a tendency for people to force apostrophes into servitude to indicate the plural, especially with abbreviations and acronyms. There is no need! Write assts., mgrs., CDs, and apps. This also applies to numbers and symbols: 3s, 13s, $s, or &s.

The only time an apostrophe should be used to show something is plural is for lowercase letters; p’s, q’s, and g’s. In this case, the apostrophe is needed for visual separation. Otherwise, don’t do it!

The OWL, Purdue’s Online Writing Lab, has a very nice page on how to properly use apostrophes.

“But, really, how big a problem is this?” you ask.

Well, there is a subversive group of grammar aficionados who go around correcting apostrophe abuse and misuse on signs. In fact, there were a couple of gentlemen who corrected a sign at a national forest and were arrested for vandalism.

So, if you can’t use apostrophes correctly for the apostrophes’ sake, do it to save a radical grammarian!

Image taken from http://blackcatsramblings.info/damn-that-apostrophe