The following 10 errors in grammar and style bug me. When I’m reading books and come across one of these, I stop reading. And I wonder why a “thought leader” is making this kind of mistake. I’ll continue to read, usually, but I’m now questioning the credibility of the author. There’s no excuse for making these mistakes. So just follow my advice and your credibility as a writer will go unscathed.
This one’s easy. Comprised of is wrong. Always. Just don’t use it. It drives me crazy when I read it. If you must use comprise, use it without of. Wrong: An office is comprised of desks, chairs, and computers. Right: An office comprises desks, chairs, and computers. Unfortunately some dictionaries are allowing the use of comprised of because it’s been misused so much it’s now somewhat commonplace and therefore somewhat “acceptable.” Not by me!
Place a comma before and when it introduces an independent clause but not when it separates two predicates. What’s that mean you ask? Notice that in “The early records of the city have disappeared, and the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed” the group of words before the comma has a subject (records) and a verb (have), and the group of words after the comma has a subject (story) and verb (can) as well. In this case, use the comma. In “He has had several years’ experience and is thoroughly competent”, don’t put a comma before and because He is the subject of the group of words before and (“He has had several years’ experience …”) as well as after (“He is … thoroughly competent.”).
Don’t capitalize words willy-nilly. You capitalize a word when it’s a name or a title. It’s not good enough to just be a noun, even an important noun. So if you’re writing about a Marketing Department, don’t capitalize it, like I just did, unless you’re talking about a specific marketing department that’s officially named Marketing Department.
It’s means it is. Always. It’s a contraction like don’t (do not), shouldn’t (should not), won’t (will not). You get the point. Its is the possessive of it. It belongs to or possesses something. “My BlackBerry lost its connection.” We often confuse the two because most possessives use an apostrophe: “I lost my BlackBerry’s case. Yes, that’s right, I lost its case.” If you’re not sure, just read the sentence as if it says it is. If it doesn’t make sense, then it’s its.
Use then to refer to time. Use than to compare two things. If you’re not looking to know when (then) use than. Now isn’t that easy.
Dangling participles (What?!)
A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Participial phrases are short groups of words that often begin a sentence to add vigor to your writing, sometimes combining two short sentences or thoughts. The problem occurs when the phrase doesn’t modify what immediately follows. Wrong: “After rotting in the cellar for weeks, Jack threw away the oranges.” This sentence smells. The subject of the sentence is Jack, so the sentence is saying that Jack is rotting in the cellar. But you really want to say that the oranges are rotting. Right: “After rotting in the cellar for weeks, the oranges were thrown away by Jack.”
Enclose parenthetic expressions between two commas. Wrong: “Jane’s husband, Charles paid us a visit.” Put a comma after Charles as well as before. It’s called a parenthetic expression because you could also put parentheses around the expression: “Jane’s husband (Charles) paid us a visit.”
Different than, like comprised of, is wrong. Always. Just don’t use it. One thing differs from another, so use different from.
I often see writers use quotation marks to emphasize a word. Don’t do it. Use quotation marks around words or sentences because you are quoting something. Or you use quotation marks around a word or phrase when you are trying to imply so-called. In the first paragraph of this blog I referred to “thought leaders.” The quotes mean that I am referring to so-called thought leaders. Note that when I actually use so-called in front of the word, I no longer put that word in quotation marks. You can also use quotation marks when you use words in special ways, like for irony or slang. Just don’t use quotes for emphasis. Good writing will take care of that.
Avoid starting a sentence with however when it means nevertheless. Wrong: “The roads were almost impassable. However, we at last succeeded in reaching camp.” Right: “The roads were almost impassable. At last, however, we succeeded in reaching camp.” It is proper, however, to use however to start a sentence when it means in whatever way or to whatever extent. Right: “However discouraging the prospect, he never lost heart.” Note that however in this sense is not followed by a comma.
More Information on Writing Well
- Library Spot: Grammar/Style
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- The Elephants of Style by Bill Walsh