If you’re anything like the folks in “The Confident Copywriter” group on LinkedIn, you go through your daily life editing all of the words around you. I asked the group what their biggest copy pet peeves were and these are the results. It turns out that a lot of them are stuff you learned, then subsequently ignored, in English class. Maybe we all should have paid closer attention.
1. “Collective nouns and their companion verbs.” – Victoria Ipri
Wrong: The firm announced their new digital media program.
Right: The firm announced its new digital media program.
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.
2. Abbreviations or Initials in headlines/subject lines
Man, this bugs me. When I am reading an email the last thing that I want to see are 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. And that’s the important thing with headlines and subject lines, in order to get an open or read, the 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 the subject lines, but it truly isn’t. Write it out or simplify it, that’s the only way.
3. “Using apostrophes incorrectly…drives me nuts!” – Victoria Ipri
Right: girls night out (multiple girls)
Wrong: girl’s night out (Only one girl?)
It’s interesting that Victoria brings this up and I think that a lot of common errors may come from falling back on spellcheck. It brings up Victoria’s correct example as wrong and corrects it to the wrong. Just another example of spellcheck not being perfect. Human eyes should issue the last corrections. Always.
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.
5. 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.
6. 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 pinched up 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.
7. Same sentence starters too near to one another
This is the phenomena 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.
8. Fewer vs. Less
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.
“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
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 less direct and specific you are in your copy, the less credible you sound.
10. 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.
11. 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 could add flavor to your writing, breaking them all is just in bad taste.
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