Words, Grammar and Common Mistakes: Conveying Information and Ideas Through Better Writing

Writing blogs and articles? Placing advertisements on the Internet? Writing emails to your friends and relatives? Responding to job postings? Presentation of the written word is extremely important. Spelling, verbiage, grammar and punctuation are all essential, whether your content is informational, casual or conversational.

Have you ever noticed that, as you are reading, a quiet voice in your head is actually reading the content to you? If sentences are not strung together correctly or if too many errors are in the text, the quiet voice we “hear” will trip over everything, causing difficulty for us — the readers — to comprehend the information. Of course, a few spelling, grammar, punctuation or word-usage mistakes in written content won’t necessarily trip up that reader’s voice. But communicating effectively — whether in person, on the telephone or through a computer keyboard — involves articulating the language; in this case, writing in English.

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Every word is important. Misspelled words are noticeable. Missing commas cause reader confusion. Readers — and those quiet voices — miss out on a lot when the text they’re reading is missing punctuation.

Take some online refresher courses on grammar, punctuation and sentence structure. Think like a professional.

Words, punctuation, spelling, verbiage; stringing them all together in the proper way is important for getting ideas across to your readers. Although computer programs generally catch wrongly-spelled words, they don’t always correct other grammatical errors or provide the right words to use for particular sentences. Which word is correct? Here’s a look at some common choices:

Affect & Effect

Affect is a verb mostly used to influence something, for example; “too many sweets may affect your health.” Effect is the outcome of an action, for example; “the effect of all this sugar has produced cavities in your teeth.” “Too many sweets can have a bad effect on you.”

Farther and Further

Farther (farthest) refers to distance and is best used that way. We can discuss this further, if you want.

Hear and Here

Hear is what you listen for; can you hear me? Here is here if it’s not there. “Here is the CD you asked for. If you hear something you like, let me know.”

It’s and Its

It’s means “it is” or “it has.” For example, “it’s nice to see you” is the same as “it is nice to see you.” “It has been a great day” is the same as “it’s been a great day.”

Its refers to possession. “The doll is included in the sale — its dress is not.” (This sentence refers to the doll’s dress, which is not included in the sale).

Lay & Lie

First, let’s take a look at transitive and intransitive verbs.

Transitive verbs require direct objects to complete their meanings. For example, “Teri loves Jeff.” Love is the transitive verb that is directed at Jeff. Intransitive verbs don’t need the direct objects to complete their meanings. “Teri laughed.” Laughed is the intransitive verb. Some verbs are both transitive and intransitive, depending on how they are used.

Lay (present tense), laying (present participle) and laid (past tense and past participle) are transitive verbs, they must have direct objects to complete their meanings. “‘I can lay the tile tomorrow,’ the contractor told his customer.” Lay is the verb, the direct object is tile. “I am laying the tile right now.” “I laid the tile yesterday.”

Lie (present tense), lying (present participle), lay (past tense) and lain (past participle) are intransitive verbs; they do not need direct objects to complete their meanings. “Lie down if you feel sick.” “I was lying down when you came to the door.” “While you were gone, I lay down for a nap.” “The cat had lain down with me, purring in my ear.”

Their, There & They’re

Their refers to plural possession. “I went to their house to see my girlfriend’s parents but the housekeeper said they’re on vacation.” “Their daughter is very pretty.” Theirs also refers to possession. “It’s not our fault, it’s theirs.”

There has a several uses … here are a few;

  • Referring to placement: “I want to go there.” “I’ll meet you there.” “It’s neither here nor there.”
  • A stopping point in action: “The man finished the first paragraph of his speech, stopping there to gauge the audience’s reaction.”
  • Referring to specific matters: “Her fear was understandable, there.
  • Calling attention to something: “OK, there you go.”
  • To introduce a sentence or clause: “I think there is too much violence on TV.” “There isn’t anything you can do.” “There has to be a better way.” “There have been too many mistakes.”
  • As an expression:There! I found it!”
  • An Idiom: “Been there, done that.”
  • As an adjective: “Ask that man, there, he knows the way to San Jose.”

They’re is the contraction for they are. “They’re going to the game too.

To, Too & Two

To is the word to use when you want to use to for direct conversation and directional writing. “I’d like to talk to you.” I hate to cook.” “His condition is listed as day-to-day.”

Too has, um, two meanings. One is for something that’s emphasized, for instance: “This test is too hard.” “I am too tired.” “Don’t eat too many sweets.” “This is too much.” But too also means also. “I want to go too.” “I can do it too.” In this way, too can have a comma before it to further stress the meaning of the sentence. “I think so, too.” “I can do it, too.” Either way is acceptable.

Two is the number “two.” Use this cardinal number when you’re talking about two.

It’s easy to confuse these words because sometimes they are too similar. In fact, I’ve done it two times already.

Whose & Who’s

Who’s is a contraction for who is or who was. “Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who’s the prettiest of them all?”

Whose refers to the possessive pronoun. “Teri, whose beautiful voice resonated through the room, smiled as she sang the Star Spangled Banner.”

You’re & Your

You’re means “you are.” “You’re very pretty.” Many people mistakenly use your when they actually want you’re. Although Ur is online jargon and has become acceptable for tweets and tidbits, you’re must be used when formally writing “you are.”

Your refers to possession. “I want your phone number.” “I love your dress.” Yours also refers to possession. “I’ll lend you my sweater if I can borrow yours.

Speak the sentence out loud to determine whether you’re using the best word to articulate your intent.


Use it. That’s the best I can offer in this rather short space. Refer to the stylebooks. But OK, here are a couple of reminders …

Apostrophes are used in a variety of ways, the main one being “ownership.” For example, “the watch belongs to Teri” — it is Teri’s watch. Apostrophes are placed before the ‘s’ when writing a singular notion: Teri’s. Teri is one person. Apostrophes go after the ‘s’ when referring to more than one of something. The lawyers’ fees are too high” refers to more than one lawyer whose fees — plural — are too high. If the word is already plural, then you place the apostrophe before the ‘s.’ “The people’s choice.”

§ Apostrophes are used for contractions: isn’t (is not), can’t (cannot), wasn’t (was not), etc.

§ Apostrophes are used to indicate the elimination of a number. For example, ‘69 is the same as 1969.

§ Father’s Day. Mother’s Day. Valentine’s Day. Note the position of the apostrophe.

Commas are used to set off ideas and keep things in order. Here are a couple of examples on ways to use them:

§ To list items; “Please buy some sugar, coffee, cream and filters when you go to the store.” Use commas to divide the words.

§ To separate an idea; “When you get to the store, if you don’t mind, could you please pick up a dozen eggs and some milk?” Note the commas.

Capital Letters are used to introduce proper names, trademark names, titles and proper nouns. For example, Google (as in the search engine) should start with a capital G. Unless you’re “googling” something; this has become a catchphrase for using the search engine. If you google “Google” on Google, you’ll find more information on how to use capital letters.

Apostrophes, commas and capital letters have many more uses! Check your favorite style manual for more guidelines on apostrophes, possessives, commas, colons, semi-colons and capital letters.

Articles that aren’t followed correctly. ‘A’ is used before consonants; “a book or a car.” ‘An’ is used before vowels; “an apple.” Sometimes an is used in front of ‘h’ when the letter is silent; an historic occasion or an honorary degree. But not all vowels actually produce a “vowel” sound, especially when it’s a one-time deal.

Run on sentences that go on and on and have no punctuation so even when they go on and on it is hard to figure out what the original idea was because there are so many in one place and then the pattern changes to other directions and tangents and …. Follow me?

Sentences that don’t match their subjects and objects. What? Well, for instance, “they are a living creature.” No. “They are living creatures.” Or, “it is a living creature. “The lady had a great idea.” Singular to singular, plural to plural. Singular to plural also works; “the lady had some great ideas.”

Active Voice and Passive Voice

“Voice” of a verb determines whether its subject is creating the action or having action created upon it. Using ‘active voice’ is generally preferable, if your article supports it. This is especially useful in creating a “How-To” article. “HAMMER the nail into the wood.” “DRAIN the water through a hose.” Writing with ‘active voice’ allows you to accentuate the dynamic of the particular action. If the subject performs the action, the verb is in ‘active voice.’

‘Passive voice’ is used when an action is performed upon the subject. Oftentimes, the words was and were are placed in front of ‘passive voice’ actions. “The nail was hammered into the wood.”

Whenever you can, write in active voice. Or better yet, write in active voice whenever you can.

Take some online refresher courses on grammar, punctuation and sentence structure. Think like a professional.

  • Adequate enoughRepetitive and redundant
  • Advanced planningDitto.
  • Advertisement The word “ad” is short for advertisement. NOT “add.”
  • Afraid – Best used for describing terror or fear. Avoid using this word to describe a negative, for example; “I’m afraid I cannot go with you.”
  • Aggravate – To make a situation worse. “This loud music is aggravating my headache.” Aggravate is not the same thing as annoy.
  • Ahold NO SUCH WORD! The proper way to write it is “a hold.” “I have to get a hold of my husband to tell him about the change in plans.”
  • All ready and Already All ready is two separate words that mean something or someone is prepared. “We are all ready to go to the amusement park.” Already is one word that refers to a previous action; “You’ve cleaned your room already? I’m so proud of you!”
  • All right and Alright – Confusing. But all right is right. Alright is, according to grammarians and style guides, wrong. For example, the Associate Press Stylebook says all right is the way to say all right because it is not at all right to say alright. However, notice how your spell-check does not correct alright, even though it’s not correct.

Some dictionaries have adapted alright as colloquial usage but they may call it “nonstandard.” Random House, for example, says alright is a variant of all right, but it’s “usually considered unacceptable in standard English.” Bottom line is that when you want to say something is all right, just stick with all right and forget about alright. All right?

  • All together and Altogether All together is something being done collectively by a group of people at the same time. “All together, let’s sing this song.” “We were all together when the fire broke out.” Altogether means ‘entirely’ or ‘completely.’ “We are altogether too hungry to wait for Jack to come to the dinner table. Let’s eat!”
  • Alot NO SUCH WORD! A lot is two words. “I’ve eaten a lot of candy tonight.” Unless you want to say allot (which means apportionment). “I’ve allotted each of you an equal share of land.”
  • Because and Since – Something happens because of something else. Since refers to a moment in time. “Because I am a member, I was able to get tickets to the club’s dance at a discounted price.” “I haven’t seen you since last year!”
  • Between you and I – the proper way to say this is “between you and me.” Same thing for any phrase where “you” is before “I” … it should be “me.”
  • Each and every Repetitive, redundant and it means the same thing.
  • End result Isn’t the result the end?
  • Future plans kind of like “advanced planning.”
  • Jewish synagogue/Jewish rabbi Repetitive because synagogues and rabbis are automatically Jewish.
  • Would of/should of/could of, must of ….etc. WRONG! Do not use “of” in this context, the proper word is have. Write it this is way: would have, should have, could have, must have … etc. Or, if you’re using contractions; would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, must’ve … etc. “I would have gotten lost if you weren’t with me.” “I should’ve known better.”
  • Altar and Alter: Altar is, for example, a church’s stage. Alter means to change something.
  • Alternately and Alternatively: When you want to say “one after another,” use alternately. When you want to say “one or the other, use alternatively.
  • Alumni: Alumnus is masculine, singular. Alumni is masculine, plural. Alumna is feminine, singular, alumnae is feminine, plural. The generic word for men and women (plural) is alumni.
  • Amoral, Unmoral, Immoral: If you have no “moral code,” you are amoral or unmoral. If you do something that is against your moral code, you are acting immorally.
  • Apt, Liable, Likely: Apt is the word to use when, based on past knowledge, you know there is a probability that something will happen. “The champion was apt to win another title.” Liable is a prediction of an unfortunate circumstance. “Because of his past record, the man is liable to be a suspect in this crime.” Likely involves probability. “If you eat too much, you are likely to get a stomach ache.” Liable is not to be confused with libel, which is (proven) false information that could injure someone’s reputation.
  • Biannual and Biennial: Biannual means something occurs twice a year. Biennial means something happens every two years.
  • Chord and Cord: Chord is a musical term; three notes played together. Cord is a rope or part of the body’s nervous system; spinal cord.
  • Complement and Compliment: Complement is to add to something, fill a void or bring something to perfection. “‘Your pearls complement that dress very nicely,’ Teri’s husband told her.” “‘Thank you for the compliment,’ she said.”
  • Continually and Continuously: Continually is when something lasts for a period of time but with interruptions. Continuously is when something happens for a period of time without interruptions.
  • Council and Counsel: Council is a governing or organizational body such as “City Council.” Counsel means “to advise” (verb) or “advice” (noun).
  • Fewer and Less: Fewer is used to describe multiple things that can be counted. Examples; fewer dollars, fewer calories, fewer pieces, etc. Less is for multiple things that can be described collectively. Examples; less money, less candy, less than a year, etc.
  • Literally and Figuratively: Literal/Literally means “exactly.” Example; “I have, literally, three cats in my house.” Figuratively involves descriptions, metaphors and exaggerations. “I am (figuratively) the greatest star.” Of course, sometimes figurative forms of speech can be quite literal.
  • Sew and Sow: Sew is about stitching, like on a sewing machine. One can sow the farm fields with seeds during Growing Season. Perhaps the barn contains a sow (female pig; pronounced “sou”). And so, there you have it.
  • That and Which: This one is a bit complicated in that that is a word that may be used or omitted, depending on which phrase you’re using. There are different ways to use these words. Sometimes that is necessary to set off an idea; “I’m disappointed about that show being cancelled.” Other times that needs a restrictive clause — a phrase that restricts a part of the sentence — the meaning of the sentence would be changed if the word wasn’t included. Which can be used with unrestrictive clauses; they stand alone. But which has other uses that describe their sentences. If you can end a sentence without changing the meaning, use which. “This television program, which airs on Tuesdays, is not suitable for children.”
  • Who and Whom: Another one that can be tricky. Who and whom are both pronouns. Who is the subject case — the person who is doing something; whom is the objective case — the person to whom the action is happening.

Chalk this up to my journalism background; I am “old-school.” As a reporter, I’ve covered many news conferences, “spot” news situations, jury trials and just about everything else. Here are some words and phrases I see in writing that sometimes make me cringe.

  • Alleged – Allege a thing, not a person. For example; the “alleged robber” should be “the robbery suspect.” A crime is alleged, not a person.
  • Another You can’t have another cookie unless you’ve had the first one. You’ve had to have at least one look at something before you can have another one.
  • Attorneys GeneralPlural for more than one attorney general. Same idea for words like sons-in-law and daughters-in-law … the plural is on the subject, not on “law.”
  • Author An author writes a book. He does not author it.
  • Awfully Terribly, horribly, dreadfully. Not an “awfully great guy.”
  • Basically Basically, it’s just so overused. Try “mostly,” or “in general.”
  • Close proximity Repetitive and redundant.
  • Controversial issue Ditto.
  • Drug deal gone bad – Is there a good one?
  • InterestingDon’t tell me what I should be interested in, let me — the reader — decide. Same thing for “sell” words that assume readers should see things the same way that writers do. Now, if the article is, in reality, an advertisement, then it’s comparable to commercial copywriting. The advertisement may be interesting or amusing, but it doesn’t mean I’ll actually buy the hype … or the product.
  • Irregardless – Some dictionaries include irregardless although the pretend-word is considered to be “nonstandard.” Spell-checkers underline it in red because irregardless is not a word, regardless of what the dictionary says. The “ir” part is a negative against regardless, which is also negative. Basically (there’s that word again!), use regardless.
  • More than/Over Which is best used to describe collective quantity? More than. “The boy invited more than 30 people to his birthday party.” Over is acceptable but its sound is awkward.
  • Press conference I prefer to refer to a gathering of reporters listening to an official announcement as a “news conference.” News is news, even when it’s pressing.
  • Simple It may very well be simple but I’d like to decide that for myself. When an “expert” tells me how simple something is, it makes me wonder how simple that thing really is.
  • Turned up missing – What?

Proofread before publishing. Read your work out loud … does it sound right? Does the quiet little voice in your head comprehend the written words? Do your sentences make sense? Have you used the proper spellings for the particular words you want? Are there typographical errors in your text that can easily be remedied? If you want your writing to be taken seriously, then you must put time and effort into your work.

Always proofread and edit your articles, advertisements or emails before allowing someone else to see them. USE A SPELL-CHECKER! And yes, one more time … take some online refresher courses on grammar, punctuation, spelling and sentence structure.

Active verb! Think like a professional!

For more information about the proper written usage of words and numbers, refer to the Associated Press Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style or other equally acceptable editorial resource. The Learning Express Library is a good resource for reviewing grammar, punctuation, word usage, writing and comprehension skills (you can also brush up on other subjects, too, like math and science). Your local library is a great place to start.