12 popular writing mistakes

I’ve read quite a few small press and self-published novels now, and I’ve noticed certain mistakes of punctuation and grammar cropping up. Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style has a great chapter listing many more common errors. But from my own reading, here’s a list of the most popular blunders I’ve observed, listed in no particular order. Take heed!

#1: I was born in the 1980’s. I saw several UFO’s last night. I use two PC’s at work.

What’s with the apostrophes folks? You all know that an apostrophe is inserted before the “s” in the sense of “belonging to” (e.g. the UFO’s lights blinded me), not in the sense of plurality. The 1980s, UFOs, and PCs, might look wonky on paper, but it’s correct.

#2: He dare not open the closet.

Assuming we’re dealing with typical past tense prose, the sentence should read “He dared not open the closet.” For example:

He did not die … He died not.
He did not murder … He murdered not.
He did not dare … He dared not.

#3: He was sat on the bench.

The word for the “state of being” regarding the verb “sit” is “seated”. You would never say of someone, “He was died,” you would say “He was dead.” To have died is to be dead; to have sat is to be seated.

#4: The man said, “I can see a sign.” On the sign the word ‘Portadown’ was written.

People have this erroneous idea that speech should be done in double quotes while all other uses of quotes should be single. The truth is that all quotes should either consistently double or consistently single, regardless of usage. Changing to the other style of quotes is what you do when you write a quote within a quote. For instance:

The man said, “I can see a sign. The word ‘Portadown’ is written on it.”

#5: `85 was a good year.

Your browser may not show this, but the error I want to draw attention to is the use of an “opening quote” rather than a “closing quote” for truncated words. It should always be a “closing quote” (more correctly referred to as an apostrophe in this context). Microsoft Word, with its wonderful gift for second guessing the writer, automatically thinks you’re opening a quote when you use apostrophes this way. You have to fiddle with your text in order to get around Word’s auto-formatting.

#6: Inconsistent use of regular quotes and smart quotes.

All literature should be printed with smart quotes (that is, curly quotes). They simply look tidier and more professional than straight quotes. I can almost forgive straight ones if they are used consistently. What I do not want to see is a mixture of both in the same book.

#7: “Hey John, how are you?”

If you can’t spot the error in the above sentence, then you are probably guilty of omitting a great many essential commas from your work. The comma is one of those odd punctuation marks that every author uses slightly differently, because there is some scope for personal style. Some authors think this gives them a license to use the comma in whatever manner they wish (usually by omission). It should not be forgotten that the comma does have specific uses that there can be no argument over. This is one such. Then sentence should be correctly rendered: “Hey, John, how are you?”

#8: He was the same officer that arrested Johnny.

Let’s stop referring to people as inanimate objects. He’s “the same officer who arrested Johnny.” Writers usually make correct use of “who” when referring to people by name, or in such cases as “the man who.” But when we start referring to people in terms of their occupation or other distinguishing trait, “who” often gets incorrectly replaced by “that.” If the noun you are referring to is a person, always use “who.”

#9: The family have always had their problems.

Although the word “family” refers to more than one person, the term itself is singular. Therefore the sentence should read: “The family has always had its problems.” Keep your eye out for other singular terms that refer to more than one person, such as “class,” “staff,” etc.

#10: The window which was on the upper floor had been left open.

This rule was an absolute pain for me to learn, but it finally clicked. The problem is when to use “which” and when to use “that.” I had always thought they were interchangeable; I was wrong. And the above example is wrong. The best way I can explain this is that if the subject of your sentence is “the window” in a general sense, use “which.” But if the subject is specifically “the window on the upper floor,” use “that.” “Which” is normally used in a parenthesis (an aside), in the following fashion (observe the commas): “The window, which was on the upper floor, had been left open.” The sentence reads as if there is only one window in the entire building. But if you render the sentence as “The window that was on the upper floor had been left open,” it’s clearer that you are referring to one specific window out of many.

#11: If he was able to fly, he would leave the country.

“Was” is the erroneous word here. The sentence looks grammatically sound, because you have a singular “he” followed by the singular past tense of the verb “to be”: “was.” But the professional writers write it like this: “If he were able to fly, he would leave the country.” For a long time, I was baffled by such grammar, wondering if so many pros could possibly be wrong. It turns out they were right. The reason why it’s “were” is because it’s a hypothetical statement. He’s not able to fly, but if he were … Get it? Now, if I were (see, there it is again) referring to someone who really could fly, rather than making a wish-fulfilment statement, I could say, “If he was able to fly,” meaning “Assuming he was still able to fly.”

#12: “Well, hello,” he smiled.

You can speak, shout, mumble a string of words, but you cannot smile them, laugh them, or frown them. Smiling is something you do with your lips, not with the words you speak. If you think the above way of doing it is a suitable shorter method, pay closer attention to the way the pros do it. Because the example above is just another mark of amateurish writing. Use either of these two renderings instead:

“Well, hello,” he said, smiling.
“Well, hello.” He smiled.

I came across a website today called First Chapters, inviting you to submit the first chapter of an unpublished novel. Forget the fact that it’s a competition; submit your work for the value of the many critiques that will result. It looks like a great resource for self-published authors to hone their work, at least between now and April, when the competition closes.

4 thoughts on “12 popular writing mistakes

  1. Michael Reed

    I think that you have an extra amount of license* in dialog. In such a case, you might reasonably use punctuation to indicate pauses as opposed to its conventional gramatic function.

    *I have a (British) grammar book that states that, in words like “licence”, the rule is C in the noun and S in the verb. I think that they are synonymous in American spelling.

    Also, as dialog is an indication of what characters say, putting believable speech into the characters mouth might be more important than keeping everything grammatically correct. I’m often at a loss for where to to strike the balance.

    However, I don’t like “Hey, John, how are you?” as it’s not a sentence. “Hey! John, how are you?” sounds better to me. Hey is an exclamation.

    I would say: “He was the same officer who had arrested Johnny”. The event happened once, in the past and was completed. One problem with learning Latin grammar is that some things such as tense don’t quite match up with English. My version of that sentence parses correctly for me.

    I think that people make this mistake because “which” can sound “posher” than “that”. Like “affect” and “effect”, I’ve had to relearn this rule a couple of times. I just remember the phrase “The house that jack built”. It’s the specific house that he built. I like this example as it sounds utterly wrong to use “which”.

    Needless to say, any errors in my reply have been added for humorous effect 🙂

  2. Darryl Sloan

    #7: “Hey, John, how are you?” is definitely a sentence, while “Hey! John, how are you?” is two. 🙂 Both are grammatically sound, but each one give a different vibe to the reader. The latter makes the speaker seem a lot more excited.

    #10: I can forgive the misuse of “that” and “which”, but “affect” and “effect” are vastly different (since the first is a verb and the other is a noun). I recall Strunk & White covering this one. I’ve noticed some classic literature using a lot of “which” in place of “that.” Perhaps the evolution of language is another factor.

  3. Jeffrey Allen Davis


    The “First Chapters” link isn’t working. Blogger seems to want to assume that it is a page on their site that doesn’t exist.


  4. Darryl Sloan

    Fixed. Of all the things to cause an error, it was because I was using smart quotes instead of straight quotes in HTML.

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