Here are ten of the most common writing mistakes people make. Because they involve use of incorrect words, and not misspellings, your spell checker won’t see them. So you have to catch them yourself.
There is much more that can be written about each of the following examples, and academic grammarians will gladly oblige. But my intention is just to give you some easy hints for how to tell, in most cases, which word to choose. I hope they help.
1. Less/Fewer: (The fewer mistakes, the better!)
People often use these words interchangeably, but each has its own correct usage. It helps to think of it like this: Less is for items that can’t be counted. Fewer is for items you can count. There is less pollution in the air, but there are fewer particles of dust. You can’t count pollution, but you can count particles (at least somebody somewhere in a lab can count them). After a storm, there is less sand on the beach, but there are fewer grains of sand. Get it? You can’t count sand, but you can count grains. (If you want to spend your day at the beach that way, it’s up to you.) Another example: This checkout line is for people with ten items or fewer. (Darn right! And if you can’t count the items in your cart, get in another line, because I’m in a hurry.)
2. Two/Too/To -tsie, Goodbye!
OK, I’m showing my age. It was an old song by Al Jolson. Trust me on this, there was a song called “Toot-Toot-Tootsie, Goodbye.” Really.
Two is the number. Most people get this right.
Too means also or overly. You like potatoes, and I do too. I ate too many French fries. This shirt is too big. (Well, maybe not, after all those French fries.) Too is also used as an emphatic, especially on the playground. You won’t catch that ball. I will too! (Oh yes I will. You just watch me! Oops!)
To means…everything else. According to my old Webster’s dictionary, to has about 20 usages. The first few listed are: (1) In the direction of, towards (I’m going to the kitchen); (2) toward a condition of (her rise to fame); and (3) on, onto, against (apply the lotion to the skin). It’s also part of the infinitive form: To be, or not to be. To sleep, perchance to dream.
Which two/too/to is the correct one in any given situation? That is the question!
3. They’re/Their/There (It’s all going to be okay.)
They’re is the contraction of “they are.”
Their is the possessive – things that belong to them or that they have. Their hats are on their heads. (They own hats and they have heads – which is a good thing, otherwise the hats would have been a waste of money.) It is their intention to get to class on time. (They have an intention, and it includes getting up when the alarm rings. They may not pull it off, but they mean well.)
There answers the question “where?” It refers to place (I live there) and direction (I’m going there). There is also used with the verb “to be” (wasn’t I just there?), as in: there is very little time; there are several options; there be whales here (Okay, nobody says that last one any more).
There can be used to express satisfaction (There! I finished it.); or dismay (There! Now you’ve done it!); or sympathy (There, there. It’s all going to be okay.) And that’s where we came in…
4. The Who’s Who of whose and who’s
This is really simple.
Who’s is the contraction for “who is.” That’s all.
Whose is the possessive of “who.”
The reason people get confused is because they think all possessives need an apostrophe. Not true. Possessive pronouns don’t have apostrophes (mine, ours, yours, his, hers, its, theirs, whose). So just learn it. Who’s going to pay for dinner? (Who is going to pay for dinner?) Whose money is on the table? (Not mine.)
5. Its and it’s (It’s the same story as whose/who’s.)
It’s is the contraction for “it is.” That’s all.
Its is the possessive of “it.” (Are you seeing the similarity here?)
Just as in the example above, there’s no apostrophe used in this possessive. It’s another one you just have to learn. It’s high time everybody started getting this right. I hope this example does its job. When it comes to which word gets the apostrophe, the contraction wins and the possessive loses.
6. I and me (You’ll have to deal with both of us.)
When you’re talking about yourself and someone else, be careful to use I and me correctly. Many people think it’s classier to always use I, and they end up getting it wrong half the time. The best way to know which one to use is to eliminate the other person from the sentence and see what you’ve got left.
Jenny and I went to the store. I went to the store. (That’s right.)
Grandma gave the cookies to Jenny and I. Grandma gave the cookies to I. (Nope.)
Grandma gave the cookies to me (that’s right), and I didn’t save any of them for Jenny. (That’s probably right, too.)
7. You’re/Your (It’s as easy as apple pie.)
You’re is the contraction of “you are” – nothing else.
Your is the possessive of “you.”
You’re the apple of my eye. (Yes, you are!)
Your apple just squirted juice in my eye! (Use a napkin!)
8. Bad/badly (Sorry if this makes you feel bad.)
Many people think badly is a more genteel form of bad, so when they’re expressing hurt, sympathy, or regret, they’ll say “I feel badly about that.” That’s bad writing. These two words are not interchangeable. When someone hurts your feelings, you feel bad. You don’t feel badly. If you felt badly, that would mean that your emotions weren’t working well, or that you were numb. It would be about your ability to feel. If your emotions are working just fine, then when you hear something sad, or someone insults you, or you do something wrong, you’re going to feel bad. (It’s a shame that you have to go through all that, but at least your usage will be correct.)
9. Imply/infer (or be careful who you call fat!)
The speaker or writer implies. The listener or reader infers. This is all about who’s putting it out there, and who’s taking it in. When you imply, you express something. When you infer, you understand something. There’s interpretation going on. When a speaker/writer implies something, he’s not saying it outright. He’s leaving some meaning for the listener/reader to pick up on his own. It’s also a tricky way to say something about somebody that you can later deny.
Jane: Didn’t those pants used to be looser on you?
Sally: Are you implying that I’m fat? Because that’s what I inferred from your question.
Jane: Oh no, I must have them confused with a different pair of pants.
Judyrose: (Yeah, right!)
10. A lot is two words.
That may not be a lot, but that’s all I have to say about it.
All of this will be on the test.