Category Archives: Common Errors

Don’t Panic! Just Choose Your Words Carefully

“Pick your words with care” Ford Prefect warns Zaphod Beeblebrox in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I  think that’s great advice for all writers. When you’re writing, it can be very easy to lose yourself in your fantastic plot. Your characters take on a life of their own and you’reGuide away, giving a narrative account of the thrilling happenings in their lives. Unfortunately, this can mean that word choice suffers. In the best works of literature, every word is working hard to create a precise image, an exact impression on the reader. Chilean author Isabel Allende meticulously goes through every word of English translations of her novels, making sure that they are true to her original meaning.

One of the worst consequences of failure to focus on word choice is repetition. Repeated words indicate a lack of craft to the reader; they can infer a lack of originality. ‘Said’ is a regular issue. The word ‘said’ is, in fact, saying very little. Usually the preceding or following text is in speech marks, so the reader is already fully aware that it is being ‘said’ so tell them something they don’t know! What is that character’s tone or expression? How has what they’ve shared affected the atmosphere? Consider this example from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

“Fiscal policy. . .” he repeated, “that is what I said.”
“How can you have money,” demanded Ford, “if none of you actually produces anything? It doesn’t grow on trees you know.”
“If you would allow me to continue.. .”
Ford nodded dejectedly.
“Thank you. Since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have, of course, all become immensely rich.”
Ford stared in disbelief at the crowd who were murmuring appreciatively at this and greedily fingering the wads of leaves with which their track suits were stuffed.
“But we have also,” continued the management consultant, “run into a small inflation problem on account of the high level of leaf availability, which means that, I gather, the current going rate has something like three deciduous forests buying one ship’s peanut.”
Murmurs of alarm came from the crowd. The management consultant waved them down.

towel

Choosing different verbs and describing reactions can give vigour and immediacy to a text. Verb choice is worth getting right and can do a great deal for characterisation and mood. Try to think exactly how your characters each walk, talk and move – what habits do they have? We can tell a lot about the impetuous and larger than life character that is Zaphod Beeblebrox  from the verbs Adams uses to describe his speech: spat, demanded, muttered, seethed, bawled. These all appear on one double page. Compare this to the nervy Arthur Dent: gibbered, asked, whispered, protested, goggled. 

If you see a word repeated often in your text, particularly close together, the first thing to do is reach for the thesaurus. Every writer should have a quality thesaurus. Looking up ‘synonyms’ on Word is okay, but a  thesaurus will provide a more thorough list and give options categorised under multiple possible meanings. A good edition will also provide a sentence for context of trickier words. If you’re considering using a word that you’re not completely familiar with, check it in a dictionary to make sure it means exactly what you intend it to. Every writer should also have a quality dictionary.

A varied vocabulary gives you greater nuance of meaning, enriching your writing to give the reader a more enjoyable and entertaining experience. Because of our history, the English language has more synonyms than any other language. Writers, you have a wealth of options from which to choose! Standard English adults have a vocabulary  of around 20,000 words – are you using yours to its full potential?

By the way, if you haven’t already, do read some Douglas Adams!

The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Thanks for reading! I’m always fascinated to know your thoughts and do please like and share!

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‘Who’s’ or ‘Whose’?

These two words are often confused. We’re used to using apostrophes for possessives and this is not the case here, so this mistake is easily made. It is a similar issue to ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ and is very easy to read past and overlook in your own work. Here’s how to get it right.

TomBakerDrWho

Who’s is the contracted form of who is.

Who’s that wearing the magnificent scarf?

The Doctor, who’s a Time Lord, has a particular fondness for Earth.

Whose is the possessive form of who, it means belonging to whom. 

Whose TARDIS is that?

It belongs to the man whose bow tie is very cool.

tardis-matt_00428408

That’s it for who’s and whose, illustrated by Doctor Who. Any questions, thoughts or Doctor Who memes, you know who to come to! As always, please do like and share if this was at all helpful!

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Comparatives and Superlatives

Comparatives are used to compare one thing to another- they often have an ‘er’ ending. Superlatives are used to compare more than two things- they often have an ‘est’ ending. So ‘Holmes is better than Watson’ (because there are only two of them) but ‘George is the best character in the Famous Five’ (because there are more than two of them).

A common error is using the superlative when there are only two things in contention: mt

‘Of the two methods, the oldest was better’ should be ‘Of the two, the older was better.’

Double comparisons are also not acceptable in standard English:

‘She was the most greatest’ should be ‘She was the greatest’.

‘She is more faster’ should be ‘She is faster.’

Additionally, I also see ’empty comparisons’, the use of a comparative without a base:

‘Today was better.’ Than what? It should be made obvious to the reader what you are comparing.

Also, superlatives are often over-used in writing. Unless used stylistically, exaggeration can become a barrier to how much the reader will understand and trust your statements. Think of the number of times advertisers use superlatives- do we really believe that their product is ‘the best’?

Not all multi-syllable adjectives take ‘er’ and ‘est’. This is where ‘more’ or ‘most’ is used before the adjective.

For example ‘The sofa was the most comfortable seat in the room’.

I hope that’s helped. Let me know what you think or if there’s anything else you’d like explained or discussed. As always,  I’d very much appreciate if you could share or like this if you found it useful! Thanks!

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‘It’s’ or ‘Its’?

These two are commonly confused. Here are the rules:

‘It’s’ is short for ‘it is’ or ‘it has’.

Darth

‘It’s been a long time coming.’

‘It’s not you, it’s me.’

‘It’s a massive hot air balloon shaped like Darth Vader’s head.’

‘It’s rather intimidating.’

‘Its’ is used as the possessive: when something belongs to the ‘it’ in question.

s-BAD-IRON-MAN-COSTUME-large‘The jury has reached its decision: the guy in all the sellotape is not the real Iron Man.’ 

‘The dog chased its tail.’

‘Its colour was unexpected.’

‘The group changed its name.’

 

Could you put ‘it is’ in the sentence instead? Then use ‘it’s’. Could you put ‘him’/’her’ in the sentence? Use ‘Its’.

I’d love to hear from you if you have a good way of remembering this, any questions or good examples!

 

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‘Less’ or ‘Fewer’?

Often, ‘less’ is used when ‘fewer’ is meant. This is easily done, particularly as we are often taught that ‘less’ is the opposite of ‘more’. Basically, use ‘fewer’ when talking about a countable number, but ‘less’ when you mean something that doesn’t have a plural or can’t be counted: ‘fewer dancers have less visual impact.’

danceFewer

‘Fewer people are learning the foxtrot at school these days.’

‘The shop sold fewer feather boas than ever before this year.’

‘Fewer than one in ten adults can perform a proper samba.’

‘There are fewer dance numbers in films than there used to be.’

Less

lift

‘I dance to less pop music than I used to.’

‘There’s less talent than there ought to be.’

‘I should spend less time trying to do the lift from Dirty Dancing.’

‘Less’ is only ever used with numbers when they are on their own or used as expressions  of time or measurement: 

 

‘The tap class lasted less than two hours.’

‘She travelled less than three metres with that leap.’

less-fewer

I hope this will help you make fewer errors in the future!

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Silent Letters

A silent letter is a letter that is part of a word’s written spelling, but is not pronounced when the word is read out loud.

Why do silent letters exist? 

This varies depending on the etymology of each word. Generally, silent letterssilent letters often occur in words originally adopted from other languages that have been subsumed into English. Many of our words have roots in Latin, German, French or Dutch. Moreover, in some words the now silent letters would have been pronounced in the past as in Medieval times, for example, much of the language was more phonetic. Pronunciations change over time. 

Are there rules to learn? 

Unfortunately, there are few spelling rules that tell us when to use a silent letter, but there are general guidelines on whether a letter should be pronounced or not. For example:

is usually silent before the letters and T: lamb, plumber, comb, tomb & subtle, debt, doubt. 

G is silent before an N: gnome, resign, foreigner.

Also, is silent before as in diaphragm. 

The more you learn, the more patterns you will see.

So, what is the best way to learn silent letters? 

Practice is the key- perhaps you could have a go at making sentences with as many silent letters in as possible. It may initially be beneficial  to pronounce the silent letter in your head to help you to remember the spelling. Also, highlight the silent letters, as above, or write them in a different colour to make them stand out to you. Read more about them here or try the quiz here.

Could you give some more examples? 

I would be delighted! Perhaps you would like them in sentences, just for a change. See if you can spot the silent letters in the following:

Silent N: Last Autumn, hymns were all we could hear coming from the church with the columns at the end of our road. 

Silent D: The handsome man trimmed his hedge on Wednesday, with the help of a badger.

Silent U: When my guest left, I discovered the rogue had stolen a biscuit and a guitar.

Silent H: Which ghost could be knocking on the door with such an insistent rhythm at this hour? Honestly!

Surprised cowSilent T: The witch bought a castle, but often missed mortgage repayments.

Silent K: The knight knew that a knife to the knee would knock him, but a knitting needle to the knee was far worse!

Silent L: The calf was calm until it saw a salmon walk and talk. 

Silent W: Two wrens wrestled for the sword.

Do let me know if you can think of any more- I’d love to read your silent letter sentences. Please like and share if you found this helpful!

 

 

 

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Spelling Inconsistencies

Some words in our language are in variation. This means that you can spell them in more than one way and still be right. The only thing you have to be careful of is using just one form of the spelling in each document. Using either form throughout is fine, but never both. The easiest way to sort this out in a long document is to do a ‘find/replace’. Publishers will often have a style guide which says which they prefer so that all their titles are consistent.

Here are some common examples:

Millie Mackintosh wearing a macintosh. Point made, I think...

Millie Mackintosh wearing a macintosh. I’m all about popular culture when there’s a lexical point to be made.

realize/realise

recognise/recognize

focussed/focused

organise/organize

Here are some others I’ve come across:

dehumanise/dehumanize

deflection/deflexion

dependent/dependant

Emmental/Emmenthal

In case you're not aware of Made in Chelsea, have a picture of some cheese instead.

Emmental: in case you’re not aware of Made in Chelsea, have a picture of some cheese instead.

macintosh/mackintosh

randomise/randomize

Scirocco/Sirocco

unburnt/unburned

Sometimes variations happen because of influences from other languages and cultures, sometimes it’s just modernisation (modernization?), others have always been in contention.

Can you think of any more examples?

As always, I’d be very interested to hear if this is something you’ve come across and do please share if you’ve found this helpful! Thanks for reading!

 

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Tautology

tautology

Essentially this means saying the same thing twice, also known as self-reinforcing statements. For example: ‘revert back’; ‘equally as good’; ‘an essential prerequisite’. If the repetition does not add to the meaning, this can seem clumsy. I often see variations of ‘very unique’. Unique is an absolute, thus the first word is redundant.

The same goes for ‘new innovation’, ‘added bonus’ and my least favourite of all, ‘she herself’.  There are some tautologies that are ubiquitous: ‘free gift’, for example.  The Oxford English dictionary defines ‘gift’ as ‘a thing given willingly to someone without payment.’ Thus ‘free’ is in the definition and so unnecessary.

Avoiding tautology will make your writing sharper and mark you out as the sort of writer that chooses their words carefully and constructs something accurate and original.

Have you noticed any tautologies lately? As always, I’d love to know what you think, and do please share if you found this useful!

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