Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Grammar Mistake That Will Kill Your Career

Updated 1/7/24

Every writer knows that grammar and spelling errors are the kiss of death in a manuscript. That’s why we hire professional editors and send our manuscripts to proofreaders.

What writers don’t realize is that making simple mistakes in a query letter or a submission can lead to a rejection. 

I’m not talking about spelling the word “supersede” wrong. After all, it’s the most misspelled word in the English language, and chances are your agent won’t know how to spell it either.

I am talking about a little word. It’s its.

It’s is a contraction of “it is.” Its is a possessive (e.g. its teeth.)

Apostrophes aren't used in plurals, either. You don’t buy *shoe's, you weren’t born in the *1980’s, and you very definitely don't read *book’s. (I saw that once on a book reviewer's website.)

As an editor/English teacher, the misuse of it’s is the most common error I come across. I can say without hesitation that an apostrophe in the wrong context is a catastrophe. It tells me that you don’t know your craft.

Here are some other linguistic sins of commission. 

Lay versus Lie. Even people with university degrees get this wrong. Lie is an intransitive verb. That means it cannot take an object. “I am lying on the couch” is correct not *“I am laying on the couch.” Lay is a transitive verb. (It takes an object.) “Stop squirming and lay your head on that block!” is correct. But confusion arises once we launch into the past tense. The past tense of lie is lay. “I lay down after dinner last night” is perfectly fine. So, what is the past tense of lay? Why it's laid, and so is its past participle. (The past participle of lie is lain, by the way, not laid, as in "I have lain in bed all day." Nobody told you English was going to be easy.)

Affect versus Effect. This is another source of confusion. Affect is a verb. Storms can affect crops. (No, it can’t impact them.) Effect is a noun. For example, “The effect of the legislation was devastating.” Now, here is where it gets dicey. Affect is also a noun meaning “emotion.” “The patient was devoid of affect.” And effect can be a noun meaning "possession," ex. “You can pick up your personal effects tomorrow.” (Again, nobody told you English was going to be easy.)

Further versus Farther. Nothing could be simpler: farther refers to distance, and further refers to time. (Just think furthermore.) But in the UK, further is also used for distance. Who is right? Americans are, naturally. (Except when we are wrong.)

Me versus I. The object of a preposition is object case, not subject case. It's "Let’s keep this between you and me" (it's between usnot *"between you and I" (because you can't say *"This is between we"). Whoa! What about “Me and Julio down by the schoolyard”? Me (object case) is being used as a subject in that example, which, despite being the title of a song written by two college graduates, one of whom was an English major for pete's sake, is dead wrong. You can reverse cases when you are chatting with your friends, or composing a folk rock song, or trying to sound less stuffy than you really are, but don’t put it in your writing. Please.

“Like” is for comparing nouns. “As if” is for verb phrases. I can act like you, but we can’t act like nothing matters. We must act as if nothing matters. If you are writing dialogue, it’s fine to use the colloquial form. (Nobody actually says “as if" anymore. I mean, as if...) 

A possessive goes with a gerund. “My going to California upset her” is correct, not * Me going to California upset her.” (The British make this mistake all the time. They can’t speak English.)

Reported speech uses declarative sentence structure. “I asked him what the problem wasnot *“I asked him what was the problem.” If you are quoting, you can use interrogative structure, e.g. I asked him,“What was the problem?” 

Reported speech follows verbs such as wonder, ask, ponder, consider, etc. For example: I wondered where he was. I asked him what he was doing under my bed. I pondered why I had married him. 

And now for jargon. Technically, jargon is not always incorrect. However, it is always annoying. Avoid jargon unless you're writing a satire, or you’ve got quotes around it, indicating that you are only using jargon under extreme duress.

“Issue” does not mean “problem,” it means a topic of debate. You can discuss an issue, but you cannot have one. (This grammar crime was fomented by therapists, who also have convinced susceptible individuals that they are “conflicted” when they have “issues.”)

“Conflicted” is not an adjective. You can feel conflict, you can even be in conflict, but you can’t be conflicted. “Conflicted” replaced “mixed feelings,” which is what people used to have before they had “issues.”

“Grow” is what you do with potatoes — not audiences, businesses, or social media followers. (This is an MBA-speak crime.)

"Concerning" is a preposition. Concerning means "about," as in: Concerning the plight of the refugees, we need to take action immediately. "Worrisome" is an adjective that expresses a situation that causes concern. (Worrying is a verb that describes what you are doing when you can't get your ex-husband out from under your bed.) (In case you have looked it up, I disagree with Merriam-Webster concerning "concerning.")

“Different from” (or “different to” in Great Britain; they can’t get anything right) is correct when you are comparing nouns, not “different than.” For example, California is different from … well, just about anywhere.

IMPACT IS NOT A VERB. Yes, I know you’ve seen it a million times, and at this point impact is even listed as a verb in the dictionary. But I eliminate that misuse from every piece of writing that crosses my desk. It may be commonly accepted, but it is evil. And "impactful" is an outright crime against well-spoken humanity.

And now, a story to demonstrate my point

A while ago, I took a seminar in grant writing. I was the director of a nonprofit, and knowing how to write a grant was essential to the future of my organization. The leader of the seminar asked the group if we knew how grantors made their decisions. We replied, “On the merits of our projects.” (Like writers, nonprofit organizations are under the illusion that good work counts.) She immediately set us straight.

“They hold up the first page of each application to the light,” she said. “If they see Wite-Out [this was in the age of typewriters], they throw the entire application away. They repeat that process, going through each page, until they get a pile of perfectly written applications. Those are the ones they read.”

The moral of the story: Don’t give anybody an excuse to throw your work out. Edit everything you write, consult a dictionary, check all your punctuation marks, and watch those apostrophes.

People in the publishing business — and I know them well— have no mercy.


  1. You are right about this one. I thought you could just casually write on a forum. Boy, was I wrong someone came down my throat and left it raw. So, I try to do my best no matter what I am writing.

  2. When you click that little "publish" button, you really are publishing.

  3. One of the best and most moving pieces of literature I have ever read was written on a napkin. It had errors. I think the world is missing out.

    Love your blog!! Thank you for the invitation. I would be thrilled if you stop by and follow mine, there are mistakes but the people that follow me are amazing.

    All the best ~Kellee Farr

  4. Wonderful. I needed a chuckle...and a lesson. Thanks

  5. You're wrong about use of apostrophes to form plurals. Mind your P's and Q's. Also with single numbers: 6's and 7's. Although using it with '90s looks a tad awkward.
    I could cite several authoritative sources, but here's one that's very clear.

  6. Mind your P's and Q's is incorrect. It should be "Mind your Ps and Qs." Apostrophes are not used in plurals. Ever.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...