9 common errors every writer should know about

Hitting the wrong key can explain away a typo, but using the wrong word can damage your credibility as a writer.

Here are nine common errors I come across in my work as a professional editor.

You’ll find explanations and examples to help you use the correct words from now on.

1. Do I use 'I' or 'me'?

This is one of the most common errors in English usage.

TIP – A pronoun is a word used instead of a noun. For example – using she instead of the name, Louise.

RULE – If the pronoun is the object of the sentence, then use I – otherwise, use me.

EXAMPLE – Could you join Louise and me for dinner?

TEST  How do I tell if the example above is correct? Simple. Take Louise out of the sentence and it reads – Could you join me for dinner? It wouldn’t have worked as ‘Could you join I for dinner would it? That’s because I is never the object of a sentence.

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2. Who or that

Another common mistake is using who when that should be used – and vice versa. It’s an easy error to make, but once I demonstrate why it’s wrong you won’t do it again.

If we’re writing about a person such as your sister, a teacher or any other human, then you would not use that.

We use who when we’re writing about a human.

Remember who = human.

EXAMPLE  The actor, who was my sister’s friend, said he would help raise money.

TEST  Ask yourself: Is the actor a human or an object?

If we’re writing about an object, such as a car, tree or office building, then who is not the word you should be using. 

We use that when we’re talking about an object.

Remember that = object.

EXAMPLE – The car was a bright colour that I loved.

TEST  Ask yourself: Is the car a human or an object?

3. Between or among

The general rule is that between is used when comparing two distinct items, people or events.

EXAMPLE – Two days elapsed between his arrival and his departure.

TEST – How many days elapsed? Two? Good.

The rule is that among is used when there are more than two people,  items or events.

EXAMPLE – The choice was made from among four qualified candidates.

TEST – Were there more than two candidates?

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4. Affect or effect

These two words function both as nouns and as verbs. They’re also commonly confused because they’re so similar.

To simplify matters there’s a simple rule of thumb that can be used to avoid most errors.

Affect as a verb has two meanings.

The more common use of affect is to exert an influence, have impact or bring about change through an action.

EXAMPLE – Rising interest rates affected the company’s bottom line.

In other words, the rise in interest rates had an impact on the financial position of the company.

The second meaning of affect is to simulate or fake an attitude or behaviour.

EXAMPLE – For this particular role, the actor affected an Oxbridge accent.

By contrast, you should generally use effect with an e as a noun to signify the thing that was impacted, influenced or changed.

Returning to our example we used above, we would say ‘the company’s lower profits are the effect of increased interest rates.’

5. Practice or practise

Don’t let the US  spellings confuse you. Americans use practice as both a noun and a verb.

US EXAMPLE – Doctor James practices medicine at his medical practice in New York.

In Australia and the UK there are different spellings for the noun and the verb.

AUSTRALIAN EXAMPLE – Doctor James practises medicine at his medical practice on Phillip Island.

Practice is a noun and practise is a verb.

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6. Using i.e. and e.g.

Both i.e. and e.g. are Latin abbreviations that are often confused.

We write i.e. to mean that is.

EXAMPLE – I am a vegetarian, i.e. I do not eat meat.

By contrast e.g. means for example.

EXAMPLE – Citrus comes in many forms, e.g. oranges, lemons and limes.

Note: These two abbreviations are not generally used in sentences, but are used in tables, captions and brackets.

7. Insure, assure or ensure

These three words have one thing in common, but they’re not interchangeable.

What is it that they all share? It’s ‘making an outcome sure’.

To insure means to guarantee against harm or loss.

EXAMPLE – My partner and I will insure our house.

To assure means to earnestly declare or promise something.

EXAMPLE – I assure you she’s going to arrive on time.

To ensure means to make sure or certain something will come.

EXAMPLEEnsure the papers are posted please.

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8. Compliment or complement

 It’s surprising how often you see these two words written incorrectly.

It’s probably more accurate to say that some people use compliment to mean both compliment and complement. 

Let me explain the difference between the two.

Compliment is a commonly used word that is used as both a noun and a verb. It can be used as an expression of praise, and also to praise or express admiration for somebody.

EXAMPLE (Noun) – Penny paid me a compliment when she said my hair looked nice.

EXAMPLE (Verb) – Nick complimented the chef on the meal.

On the other hand, complement means something else that completes something, or makes it perfect.

EXAMPLE (Noun) – My mother used complementary medicine for her allergy.

EXAMPLE (Verb) – The two colours complement each other.

9. En dash or hyphen

This is one of my bugbears.

If you want your writing to look truly professional, learn the difference between a hyphen and an en dash.

There are three types of strokes and dashes – hyphens (-), en dashes (–) and em dashes (––). Let’s forget the em dash because it’s rarely used these days.

A hyphen is a short stroke that’s used within words that are divided.

EXAMPLE – My ex-husband was wearing a suit.

A hyphen is also used between words that make up compounds.

EXAMPLE – Her manager asked for a one-on-one chat.

Note: Over time hyphenated words become established and the hyphen can disappear.

EXAMPLE – We used to write co-ordinate, but now we write coordinate.

En dashes are the length of an N and are also versatile punctuation marks. They’re used in the following examples in text.

En dashes are used in number spans in numerals, time and distance.

EXAMPLES: 

The date was 13–15 May this year.

Kate arrived at 5–5.30 pm.

The road was about 20–25 kilometres long.

En dashes are also used to demonstrate an association between words that retain their separate entities.

EXAMPLES:

They performed a cost–benefit analysis.

He was holidaying in the Asia–Pacific.

You can use a set of en dashes in sentences to replace the commas around non-essential clauses.

EXAMPLE: 

The street was closed – which seemed strange – so I took a shortcut through the park.

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Want to know more?

You might also enjoy reading Which or that: how to choose.

Have an annual report coming up? Read my 6 annual report writing tips from a professional editor.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me through the button below if you’d like to know more about writing or editing.

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