A Word, Please: The things skilled writers know

Everyone makes mistakes. And everyone knows everyone makes mistakes. So, in just about every realm of life, it’s OK to be human.

This applies to writing and grammar. New writers often fear that even tiny typos peg them as amateurs, but that’s just not so. Every day in my editing work I catch errors made by skilled professional writers. (In fact, that is my editing work.) So take it from a professional nitpicker of others’ mistakes: No one expects your writing to be perfect.

When I see “then” in place of “than” or “it’s” in place of “its” in an article I’m editing, I give the writer the benefit of the doubt. I figure it’s one of those typos that’s easy to make when your mind is in writer mode. But if I see a mistake like this repeatedly, it’s a different story. That’s when “This writer slipped up” becomes “This writer doesn’t know his craft.”

After years of doing this work, I’ve seen that some mistakes form a thin black line separating the pros from the posers. So, if you want your writing to look professional, here are the top mistakes to never make twice.

The biggest clue that a writer is out of his element is the use of apostrophes to form plurals, most notably: using “it’s” instead of “its.”

As most people know, the standard way to form a possessive of a singular noun is to add apostrophe and S.

To show that a car belongs to a man, you write “the man’s car.” But that doesn’t extend to “it.” Like his, her, your, our and their, “its” doesn’t use an apostrophe to show possession. The “it’s” with an apostrophe isn’t possessive. It’s a contraction of either “it is” or “it has.” It’s a nice day. It’s been fun.

Apostrophes forming plurals of other nouns are much worse: I have two dog’s. The restaurants offers a selection of pizza’s and pasta’s. Those should be dogs, pizzas and pastas.

Skilled writers also know that “My commute is longer then yours” is an error. For comparisons, you always want “than.” The word “then” refers either to time, “I’ll see you then,” or means “in that case,” “If you like beaches, then you’ll love Hawaii.”

Writers who aren’t careful often replace “lose” with “loose,” which is understandable when you consider that “lose” rhymes with “choose” even though they have a different number of O’s. So professionals take note that lose is a verb, as in “Don’t lose your head,” and loose means not tight, “a loose screw,” or set free, “a moose on the loose.”

The past tense of the verb “lead” troubles some people. The past tense of the verb has no A. Yesterday, the manager led a seminar. It should never be confused with its homophone “lead,” which is a metal: a lead pipe.

Most skilled writers are careful to write “a lot” as two words. And they know that “could,” “should” and “would” are sometimes followed by “have” or “’ve,” but never by “of.”

As skilled writers know, when you carefully read something, you pore over it, not pour; and when you’re not bothered by something, that thing didn’t faze you. Advice is a noun that rhymes with ice while advise is a verb that rhymes with flies.

Stationery is paper while stationary means unmoving. And breathe is a verb with a long E sound, while breath is a noun that rhymes with death. If something affects you, that’s a verb that starts with an A. But if it has an effect on you, that’s a noun that starts with E.

Demonstrate that you know these rules and your reader is guaranteed to take you more seriously.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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