Writers and editors spend their lives paying attention to the words they see around them. We surveyed the “The Confident Copywriter” group on LinkedIn and asked the group what their biggest copy pet peeves were. These are the results. Maybe we all should have paid closer attention in English class.
“Collective nouns and their companion verbs.” – Victoria Ipri
This is something that was drilled into me in college and has stuck with me ever since. The firm is treated as a singular entity, not a group of people. The same goes with teams of people.
Wrong: The firm announced their new digital media program.
Right: The firm announced its new digital media program.
Abbreviations or Initials in headlines/subject lines
I am reading an email the last thing that I want to see is obscure initials or abbreviations. Maybe it’s just the writer in me, but there is nothing more boring than reading a subject line for an email and having it be loaded down with industry-related abbreviations. Yeah, the recipient likely knows what it means, but that doesn’t mean that it interests them on a human level. That’s an important part of headlines and subject lines. In order to get an open or read, you must appeal to someone on a human level. Because without the human interest in something, it will never make it to the business interest. It may seem unavoidable to use abbreviations in subject lines, but it truly isn’t. Write it out or simplify the language, that’s the only way.
“Using apostrophes incorrectly…drives me nuts!” – Victoria Ipri
Wrong: girl’s night out (Only one girl?)
Right: girls’ night out (multiple girls)
Pay attention to apostrophes. It can change the meaning of your writing if you get it wrong.
Don’t even get me started on this. There are very limited instances that the body text of copy needs capitalization. Repeat after me: Proper nouns and the beginnings of sentences. Even if a word seems important to you, it’s not that important. Don’t use capitalization for emphasis, it just looks weird. Use bolds or italics and be done with it.
I vs. Me
“Using ‘I’ and ‘me’ incorrectly…and interchangeably. Always say the sentence to yourself without referencing the other person and you’ll discover the correct use.” – Victoria Ipri
Right: Jill and I are going to the store.
Wrong: Jill and me are going to the store.
Overuse of adverbs
Okay, I’ll admit that I took this one out of Stephen King’s book, On Writing. But I have no shame in using it here because it is by far the most useful piece of advice I have ever gotten about writing. Hands down. There is nothing that compels you to be a better writer than eliminating adverbs. Adverbs are the words that modify verbs. “She ran across the street quickly,” for example. Quickly modifies ran.
But what makes adverbs so bad? Remember when you first started writing and your English teacher told you to show not tell? Adverbs tell every time. I could say, “Her sneakered feet pounded on the pavement as she dashed across the road.” This sentence tells you more about the girl running across the road than the one with adverbs.
Same sentence starters too near to one another
This is the phenomenon when the first word of a sentence is repeated at least a couple times in a row. Unless you are using it to make a point, there is no reason to let this happen.
After you write the first draft of something, you should then go through your sentences and make sure that you are changing up the way you start them. Not only does it sound less repetitive, but it also compels you to be more creative while you write.
Fewer vs. Less
“Use ‘fewer’ when objects in the sentence can be counted one-by-one. Use ‘less’ when the sentence contains qualities or quantities that cannot be individually counted.” – Victoria Ipri
Right: “I have less than $20” refers to the total money in your possession.
Wrong: “I have fewer than $20” refers to the number of bills in your hand, not how much money you possess.
This definitely comes from my journalism training, but I hate when copy beats around the bush. Just say it. In journalism, if someone dies, you don’t say, “She passed away after being hit by a car.” You say, “The woman died after being hit by a car.” The more direct and specific you are in your copy, the more credible you sound.
It’s not “try and”
“A major peeve for me is ‘try and …’ instead of ‘try to …’ ” – Mary H. Ruth
This is one of those errors that comes from common speech. Much of our speech is lazy and that’s something that is incorrectly translated into writing. Sometimes, these lazy bits of speech sneak into our writing without us noticing. If they’re too prevalent than it makes your writing come off as unprofessional and no one wants that.
Its vs. It’s
“Oh brother, no one seems to know when to include the apostrophe in ‘its.’ ” – Mary H. Ruth (see her post on this)
This is so common and irritating that it merits its (see that) own point. Maybe it’s (there it is!) because the word is so small that it gets looked over by nearly every copyeditor. Regardless of how small the word “its” is, it’s (and again) still important.
“When my ADs and designers try to write and come up with all the puns they can think of, I cringe on the inside and pretend not to know them for a minute.” – Tommy Lai
I’m afraid I would likely make you cringe on occasion, Tommy. Coming from the news industry, I love the occasional pun. But you’re right. Puns need to be sprinkled into writing, not used as a coating.
Remember, (almost) all rules can be broken and some writers can create compelling copy even while ignoring some of these rules. But don’t assume that you’re above them all. Especially the ones related to spelling and grammar. And certainly don’t try to break them all at once. Moderation is key. Breaking these rules in moderation adds flavor to your writing, breaking them all at once is just in bad taste.
We want to hear from you:
- Did you agree with this list?
- What did we miss?