Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Grammar Mistake That Will Kill Your Career

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, or even in a blog post can cost you your career. (You never know who might be reading your blog.)

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 are never used in plurals, either. You don’t buy *CD’s (or sell them), you weren’t born in the *1980’s, and you very definitely haven’t read *book’s.

As an editor, the misuse of it’s is the most common error I come across. And 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 errors I frequently encounter. (All of these make me take out my red pen.)

Lay versus Lie. Even people with degrees in English get this wrong. Lie is an intransitive verb. That means it cannot take an object. “I lie down every afternoon” is correct, not *“I lay down every afternoon.” Lay is a transitive verb (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 fine. So, what is the past tense of lay? Why lay, of course.

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 storms was devastating.” Now, here is where it gets dicey. Affect is also a noun meaning “emotion.” “The patient was devoid of affect.” And effect (you guessed it!) is also a noun with a meaning that has nothing to do with the verb. For example, “You can pick up your effects tomorrow.” Both of those uses are considered somewhat formal. (If you are kicking out your boyfriend because of his lack of affect, you’ll probably want him to pick up his $#!+, rather than his effects.)

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? We are.

Me versus I. The object of a preposition is object case, not subject case. Let’s keep this between you and me, not you and I. Whoa! What about “Me and Julio down by the schoolyard”? Me is being used as a subject in that sentence, which, despite appearing in a famous song, is dead wrong. You can reverse cases when you are chatting with your friends, but don’t put it in writing. Ever.

“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.”)

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 time wasnot * “I asked him what was the time.” If you are quoting, feel free to use interrogative structure. I asked him, “What was the time?” is correct.

Reported speech is comprised of sentences beginning with phrases using verbs such as wonder, consider, ask, etc. For example: I wondered what the time was. I considered what the alternatives were. I asked him what he was doing in my closet.


And now for jargon. Technically, jargon is not always incorrect. However, it is always annoying. Avoid jargon unless it’s used in satire, or you’ve got quotes around it.

“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.”)

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

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

“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 it is even listed as a verb in the dictionary. But I eliminate it from every piece of writing that crosses my desk. It may be in common use, but it is evil.

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 at the time, 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, nonprofits 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. Use your spell check on 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.

  7. In the UK, we believe that Americans can't speak (or write) English! LOL

  8. Great article! I would add that 'effect' is also a verb that means 'to cause.' The poet's lack of affect effected consternation in her audience.

    One of my major pet peeves is seeing 'lead' as the past tense of 'to lead.' It's 'led'!

  9. What a wonderfully ironic article. To have so many mistakes in an article about the importance of grammar is hilarious. But offering no sources yourself, then rudely dismissing a comment that does, is maybe taking the joke too far.

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