Common Writing Errors and How to Correct Them

All of us occasionally make mistakes in our writing. To err is human, as one adage goes. Even so, we should strive for error-free copy as often as possible.

An error can take on many forms. What follows are common errors I’ve seen recently. Included with each example are possible solution(s). Watch for these errors in your writing. Then make the appropriate change(s) so you can send out good, clean copy.

Improper use of the question mark

Specifically, using a question mark when another punctuation mark is called for.
Most often, the punctuation needed is a period.

Example: “Please let me know of any questions?”
“Please tells us why you answered the question that way?”

Both are simple statements. (Technically, commands, but we don’t need to go that deep.) The correct punctuation mark in both cases is a period.

Why is the question mark used? I believe the writer is unsure of himself or herself.
The person lacks confidence to stand behind a statement. That’s a shame. There’s no harm
in taking a stand, offering a thought. But the use of the question mark turns a simple statement into a sentence with a glaring error at the end.

Stand your ground when you write. And end with a period — or whatever punctuation mark may apply.

Misspelling when trying to show possession

Example: “He did his own looking at the companies website and found…”

Of course, companies should be company’s (singular possessive).
“He did his own looking at the company’s website and found…”

On a side note, I once spotted this type of mistake on a billboard. Yes, a billboard.
I emailed the business to point out the glaring error in their ad. No idea if it was corrected.
I couldn’t help but wonder: Who wrote the copy — and therefore, made the mistake — and who signed off on the ad?

Improper use of their

This showed up in an online posting:
“Is their a cover charge?”

Correct: “Is there a cover charge?”

Remember: Their is a possessive pronoun.
Example: Their house is at the end of the cul-de-sac.

Incorrect way to describe a reduction in value

I heard this during a recent episode of “60 Minutes.” The episode referred to allegations that Donald Trump misrepresented the value of various properties to secure bank loans. Mar-a-Largo, for example, was valued at $739 million by his team but later determined to be worth only about $75 million. Whether that’s true is irrelevant here.

What I want to zero in on is correspondent Bill Whitaker’s description of that difference:

“… almost 10 times less…” ($739 million vs. $75 million)

No. That change — going downward — cannot be expressed by using times. As you recall from algebra, times refers to a process of growth (“2 times 3 equals 6”). It cannot be used to represent a reduction.

What Whitaker should have said was,
“… about one-tenth of …”
“… about 10 percent of…”
“…approximately 90 percent less…”

This just goes to show that even seasoned journalists make mistakes on occasion.

Be careful how you describe these types of circumstances. Write in terms of a percentage of or a fraction of the original value or amount.

The first time is usually the first time

No need to emphasize this. Some common examples:

“When we were first married…”
“Our house was first built….”
“I first joined General Motors on….”

If an action occurs more than once, it is possible to refer to the first instance. For example, a couple is divorced, then remarries. When discussing the first marriage, it is proper to say, “When we were first married,….”

But usually the action occurs just once. In that case, you can eliminate ‘first’:
“When we married…”
“Our house was built…”
“I joined General Motors on….”

An average cannot be a range

I spotted this in a newspaper article:

“The agency, which says it receives an average of 5,000 to 10,000 calls a week….”

No. The average (all things being equal) would be 7,500.
But it’s an absolute number, not a range. By definition an average (along with median) is a hard number. (Ah, that algebra again….)

Possible solutions:
“The agency, which says it receives 5,000 to 10,000 calls a week….”
“The agency, which says it receives an average of 7,500 calls a week….”

It is possible to use average in a sentence. Just do so correctly.

Along these lines, be careful when you use median to describe a collection of data.
Median is the midpoint in the data: 50 percent of the values are above/greater and 50 percent are below/lesser.

Watch for these types of errors in your writing. Edit if needed for clearer, more professional copy.

For related reading, see “Simple Tips for Editing and Proofreading Copy” and “Writing Tips 4: Refresher on Fundamentals.”

What types of errors do you see often? Feel free to share them with my readers by commenting below. And if you liked this column, could I ask you to share it with others? Just select from the buttons below. Thanks!

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Tom Fuszard



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