Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Don't Make These Common Mistakes

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Another one of our favorite previously-published posts.

When you work with the same group of editors for a long time, it becomes a training ground in which you all learn to accommodate each other's styles—especially those of the editor-in-chief. If the big boss hates the word impact (except when talking about car accidents), then everyone learns to edit that word out of their own writing and out of the articles they’re editing. I worked on the same magazine for seven years, and both my bosses were very fond of The Careful Writer by Theodore Bernstein. So I learned not to misuse certain common words, and now I consistently make these edits in the documents of my main corporate client. In turn, the writers at this company are now self-correcting these mistakes. Here are few of the most common word usage errors:

Since is a time reference and should not be used to imply cause. Many people had it drilled into their heads that they can’t start a sentence with because, so they write: Since delegation is the only way to get things done, I now make my assistant do all the faxing. It is more correct to say: Because delegation is the only way …. Or if you can't start a sentence with because: I make my assistant do all the faxing because delegation is the only way to get things done.

The word over is meant to describe a location. She drove over the bridge. The book is over there. So the statement “Over six thousand people attended the event” would be better written as, “More than six thousand.” I know, I know. Everybody says over, even TV newscasters who make a lot of money. It’s still more correct to say more than. Here’s another common misuse of this word: We reached a milestone over the past year. Correct usage calls for: We reached a milestone during the past year. If you’re writing nonfiction, why not be as correct as possible?

The word while is also a time reference. You go out and play, while I stay here and clean. Yet many people use while to start a sentence to refute something: While it’s usually a good idea to start early, in this case, we’ll wait. That sentence is better constructed with although. Although, it’s usually a good idea…

The preposition on is also meant to describe location: The book is on the desk. One of the most irritating phrases I see again and again is information on. For more information on the subject, go to our website. Wrong. It should be: For more information about the subject . . .

The Careful Writer is a great resource (even if the author is a little snooty), especially for nonfiction. For the record, I agree with him about the word impact. Never use it as a verb, and the word impacted should refer only to wisdom teeth or dysfunctional bowels.

L.J. Sellers is an award-winning journalist and editor and is the author of the Detective Jackson mysteries, The Sex Club and Secrets to Die For. She also loves to edit fiction and works with authors to keep her rates affordable. Contact her at:
L.J. Sellers
Write First, Clean Later


  1. Reminds me of newscasters who always say Gone Missing when describing someone who is lost. For some reason it sounds really cold to me and not very great English.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. I'm glad fiction is more lenient with grammar. You can misuse words if they fit common usage and can use contractions.

  3. A lot of business jargon drives me crazy. The words aren't necessarily used incorrectly—they're just overused buzzwords.

  4. Thanks for this. It's funny how you take common words for granted and think you're using them correctly.

  5. One editor I worked with had a pet peeve with the word "unique." I have to agree. As someone with a background in the sciences, the word does bring out my argumentative side. "Unique"? Really? Can you PROVE it? You want to communicate an idea to the reader, not spark a semantics conflagration!

  6. Good stuff here! I think I'm guilty of a few of those no-nos.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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