Thayer Literary Services ~ Book Editing

Common errors

This is not a comprehensive list, nor is it intended to be one. These are errors

that have turned up repeatedly in the many manuscripts I have read.


“An historical”—Forms like this one are not idiomatic in American English. The indefinite article a should be used before words with a pronounced h, a long u (or eu), and such words as one. Use the indefinite article an before words where the initial h is not pronounced: an hour, an herb, an honor, an heir, etc.


Adverb modifiers—An adverb modifies an action verb, not an adjective as in this sentence: The city lights shined bright. Bright is an adjective (a bright light). An adverb, brightly, should modify the verb shined.


Affect / effectAffect is usually a verb meaning “to influence.” The verb effect means “to bring about, to achieve.” The noun effect means “the result.” Examples:


The reforms affected many citizens.

The citizens effected a few reforms.

She said that wars affect the economy.

She stressed the effect of wars on the economy.


All ready / AlreadyAll ready means “completely prepared” and already means “before” or “by this time.” The athletes were all ready; the warm-up had already begun.


Amount / number—These two words are often confused in the same way as the terms fewer and less. The word number is used before a plural noun to refer to numbers of things—things that may be counted. The word amount is used before a singular noun, referring to quantity. Examples:


He had only a small number of bullets left.

He had a small amount of ammunition left.


“And/or”—Borrowed from legal writing, this nasty little gadget impedes the reader with an apparent riddle. Eliminate it from your writing.


Anymore / any more—Incorrect: I can’t give you anymore of my time. What we need here is the two-word expression any more, a combination of an adjective (any) and a noun (more) that is used in sentences such as: She didn’t like him any more than I did. The single word anymore is an adverb that’s used in sentences such as He doesn’t live here anymore.


Anytime / any time—Incorrect: The sheriff didn’t waste anytime enforcing his rules. The single word anytime is an adverb meaning “at any time whatever,” as in You can call me anytime [adverb modifying the verb call). The word pair any time combines an adjective or adverb (any) with a noun (time).


Apostrophe—The apostrophe (') is used to indicate possession (except with personal pronouns) to mark omissions in contracted words or numerals and to form certain plurals. Adding 's to the end of a word always indicates possession: Laura’s books, a week’s pay, anyone’s guess, Keats’s poetry.


“As to”—This is another nasty (and dated) little gremlin to avoid. Use about instead.


As / because—Using as to mean “because” seems old-fashioned these days, and using it may confuse readers temporarily because the word is more often employed in another way. Use because and you won’t confuse anyone.


“Aware that”—You may say someone “knows that” or “sees that,” but not "aware that." Sentient beings become aware of things. If aware of doesn’t work in a sentence, then the sentence should be rewritten. Don’t solve this problem, however, by writing “aware of the fact that.” [See “The fact that” topic below]


Awhile / a while— Incorrect: She had been telling him for awhile that. . . Making this particular one-word/two-word decision is tougher than others. The word awhile is an adverb—a part of speech that modifies verbs—and a while pairs an article and a noun. While, as a noun, means “a period of time that is usually short and marked by some action or condition.” Examples: Rest awhile before you leave. (adverb modifying the verb rest). Rest for a while before you leave. (a short time, during which you rests).


So the example sentence should read:


She had been telling him for a while that. . . .(a short period of time, during which she repeatedly told him something).


Before / ago—Confusing the words ago and before is easy to do. Remember: ago means “earlier than the present time” or “prior to now” (ten years ago). The word before, when used as an adjective or adverb, means “in advance, ahead” (marching on before) or “at an earlier time, previously” (the night before/knew her from before). As a preposition, before means “in front of,” “in the presence of,” or “under the jurisdiction or consideration of” (the case before the court). The prepositional before also means “preceding in time, earlier than” or “in a higher or more important position than (put quality before quantity). The conjunction before means “earlier than the time that” (Call me before you go) or “rather or sooner than” (would starve before he’d steal), among other shades of meaning. When you’re talking about time, in many cases the word ago is used in the simple past tense, and before is used in the past perfect tense, as in these sentences:


I met her four years ago. [met is simple past tense]


They had married a few months before and were expecting a baby. [had married is in the past perfect tense]


Ago can be used in certain past-tense constructions, according to Fowler in Modern English Usage, as in this sentence:


The Atlantic Monthly was founded 144 years ago. (where ago means “prior to now.”)


But you don’t want to use ago where the idea is “X years prior to some time prior to now,” as in:


When the Civil War started, The Atlantic Monthly had been founded four years ago. [use before]


Between / among—Use between for two people or things; use among for three or more people or things.


“A brief moment”—A “moment” is, by definition, a little snippet of time. A brief moment, therefore, is redundant. Neither should you write a long moment.


Bring / Take—Incorrect: “I’m bringing Rover down to my mother’s for the two weeks.” Bring should be used for movement from a distant place to a near place or toward the speaker. Take should be used for movement from a near place or from the speaker to a distant place. Example: If you bring a leash when you come to my house, you can take Rover to the vet.


Capital / capitolCapitol always refers to a government building, including the Capitol in Washington, D.C., where the U.S. Congress meets. Use capital in every other situation, including the nation’s capital, the state capital, capital letters, capital stock, a capital crime, capital gains.


Capitalization—Some words should be capitalized; others should not be capped. The term president, for instance, should not be capped unless it’s part of a proper name (President Bush). The word States should be capped when you’re referring to the United States of America, and so should the proper name of the board game Monopoly. Pronouns used to refer to deity as the one supreme God, including references to persons of the Christian Trinity are preferably not capitalized today (God in his mercy), according to The Chicago Manual of Style, but many publications still cap them.


The word earth is a special case. It should be capped when you’re referring to the earth as one of the planets in our solar system: The rocket left Earth’s atmosphere on schedule. When this term is preceded by an article, however, it is lowercased: The astronauts looked back in awe at the earth. From The Chicago Manual of Style: “The word earth, in the sense of our planet, is usually lowercased when preceded by the or in such idioms as down to earth and move heaven and earth. When used as the proper name of our planet, especially in context with other planets, it is capitalized, and the is usually omitted.” Examples:


Some still believe the earth is flat.

Where on earth have you been?

The astronauts have returned to Earth.

Mars, unlike Earth, has no atmosphere.


The Chicago Manual of Style will help you with capitalization questions.


“CAPs” rule for titles—Not all words in title lines should be capitalized. Memorize the sentence Do not cap CAPs, meaning that you do not cap conjunctions (and, but, or, for nor), articles (a, an, the), and prepositions unless they are the first or last word of the title or subtitle (first and last words are always capped). Also, the to in infinitives should be lowercased.


Clichés and trite expressions—A cliché is a tired and worn-out expression that adds nothing to your writing, such as like a bat out of hell. Other hackneyed expressions, such as try though he might, are trite. The challenge of being a good writer is to find new and vivid ways to use words to paint mental pictures.


Collective nouns—Some nouns, such as corporation and team, are often considered to be plural by writers who then use plural verbs and pronouns after them. For instance, The Acme Corporation held their annual shareholders meeting. Or: Our team of scientists are working on better crop yields. Even though a corporation and a team are made up of individuals, they are single entities, and a singular verb and pronoun should be used with them. Note, however, that a plural verb is used sometimes because the group or quantity is regarded as individuals or parts rather than as a unit. Examples: A number of the board members were absent. A thousand bushels of apples were crated.


Comparatives—When you’re comparing two items, use more, and when you’re comparing three or more items, use most. Similarly, use taller for two, tallest for three or more; livelier for two, liveliest for three or more, etc.


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