50 writing errors that make you look like an amateur

Got Grammar?

Writing errors make you look bad. I’m here to help. I’ve seen a lot of grammar problems, clichés, awkward usage and just plain awful writing tics in my time, and so I’m on a mission: I’d like to cleanse the Internet of all its amateurish writing.

But I’m scared. Writing about grammar and usage is precarious. What if I get something wrong? What if I use a cliché while slamming cliché usage? I’m on thin ice. What if I start a paragraph with “but?” I’ll take that risk with a boatload of tips that is by no means complete or exhaustive.

100 Writing Errors That Make You Look Like an Amateur

Charlie White’s new eBooklet, 100 Writing Errors That Make You Look Like an Amateur, is now on sale! Pick up your copy here or as an iBook on iTunes.

Here’s how I start my impossible mission, pointing out 50 writing errors you must avoid if you’d like to write like a pro:

  1. Its/it’s: Memorize this, study it, do something, because some readers think this error is so abhorrent, they will stop reading the instant they see you misuse it.
  2. For free: The word “for” is not necessary. “Get out of jail free.”
  3. As: I can’t understand how the word “as” has crept into writing like this, but it has: “He can walk long distances, as he is a nomad.” “… then look no further, as we’ve found 10…” Use a dash if you have to, but don’t misuse the word “as.”
  4. “Out there:” This is almost always unnecessary. It separates writer from reader. Products are not “out there.” Out where? For example, “There are thousands of cellphones out there.” “For all you readers out there…” Draw them in, don’t place them “out there.”
  5. Over at: “The writers over at Boing Boing found an entertaining video.” Unnecessary words. It’s electronic, they’re not “over at” anything or anywhere. And you only need one directional, not two of them up in here.
  6. “Reach out:” Strangely enough, this cliché phrase began its touchy-feely life in a television commercial for AT&T. “Reach out and touch someone.” That was the slogan. Now it’s grown into an all-consuming monster. It’s dragged out every time we want to say we contacted someone. I think it’s important to be specific about how you contacted someone. Say emailed, or called, or talked with someone. How did you “reach out?” Was the guy drowning and you reached out to pull him onto the dock? Even if you have to say “contacted someone,” it’s better than “reaching out.” You’re not reaching out to anything, this is all electronic. No reaching.
  7. Clichés: grails, antes, touch base, loop in, nest egg. The first time someone used these, it was probably clever. Now it’s tired business speak. No grails, don’t raise any more antes.
  8. Towards: It’s toward. It’s forward. Not towards, not forwards (unless you’re writing in British English).
  9. The word “that” can often be omitted — e.g. “There’s not much that its code-free apps can’t do.” We use the word “that” in sentences so often, that it’s something that I think that we might want to stop. Stop that. Try dropping the word “that,” and you’ll notice that your sentences are tighter. I mean, you’ll notice your sentences are tighter.
  10. Company/their: A company is singular. People in a company are “they,” but the company is an “it.”
  11. “Should” instead of “if” — “Should you find yourself without water or power…” I’m not sure where this one came from, but it’s popping up too often.
  12. Awesome: This used to be a wonderful word. Now, it’s been overused and it’s lost all its power. I would suggest using it only in its proper context, such as times when you’re referring to explosions, hurricanes, things that are gigantic, unbelievable, one-of-a-kind and rare.
  13. grammar1“Amazing” is elbowing in to take the place of “awesome.” Use it sparingly.
  14. Use a semicolon if the second part of your sentence can stand by itself but is still related to the first part: “Basic apps are free; more advanced options start at $39 per month.”
  15. An ellipsis needs an extra dot (with a total of four) if it’s the end of a sentence…. And be careful with the ellipses overall — they’re on the verge of overuse.
  16. Impact as a verb: “How has Google impacted your life?” Although some grammar mavens will disagree with me on this one, “Impact” is not a verb unless you’re talking about an asteroid impacting the earth, or a wisdom tooth being impacted. You could have an impact on something, but you can’t impact it.
  17. Pronoun and antecedent agreement: “Each person must remember their own name.” No. “Each person must remember his own name,” or write around it if you want to be gender-neutral: People must remember their own names. Or if you must, write “his or her.”
  18. Very: Write very, very, very powerfully and you won’t need to lean on this crutch.
  19. We want to hear your thoughts.” I’ve never heard a thought before. I would rather use the word “opinion” for thought, anyway. Or perhaps ask, “let us know what you think.” Thoughts? Don’t ask for them. No one is going to write down thoughts. They’re thinking them, not writing them.
  20. Premiere vs. premier: I messed this one up on a TV graphic once, and that’s how I learned it. A premiere is an event when something new is presented. Premier is something at the top of its class, the best, or a person who is in charge of a government. Adobe Premiere is a software application. It is the premier video editing application.
  21. Loose and Lose: You know the difference, right? Oh, what a difference one letter makes. Heads, you win; tails, I lose. I don’t loose.
  22. No period at the end of a phrase that isn’t a complete sentence and isn’t followed by another sentence (Think: bullet-pointed lists)
  23. Passed away, passed: “Passed away” softens death and sounds folksy. Funeral directors say it a lot. But it doesn’t sound professional for writers. People die. Deal with it. They are dead. Someone has died. “Passed away” has religious connotations, and it’s amateurish. “Passed” is even worse, sounding like something your great-grandmother would have said. I don’t even like to use the term “RIP,” which also has religious connotations and is archaic, but it’s good for SEO.
  24. People that, those that — people who, those who. People are referred to as “who,” not “that.” People are humans, not things.
  25. Throat clearing: When emailing or writing anything, you only have about a dozen words to grab a reader’s attention. Use them wisely. Get to the point in the first paragraph, as quickly as possible. People are busy, and you can’t squander your only chance to lure them in.

  26. In order to: There’s rarely a case when you need to use this phrase. Just leave out the words “in order” and just say “to.” In order to make the most of your writing, stop using the inefficient and flabby phrase, “in order to.” It’s similar to that other hitchhiker of a word, “that.” Try getting rid of “in order to” and “that,” and notice how much tighter your sentence sounds.
  27. Whenever you talk about a couple of things, don’t forget the word “couple” has a trusty companion, the word “of.” Sure, people like to talk about having a couple beers, things that happened a couple months ago, giving a couple examples — but I think it’s a bit too folksy for pro writing.
  28. Passive voice: Make your writing more rigid by losing that passive voice. “The world was in disarray, so changes were made.” Changes were made? No. “World War III changed the world.” BOOM
  29. New words: These two relatively new words haven’t gotten their usage nailed down yet: ereader and checkin. Make those electronic books easier to read about by referring to them as e-readers. And please, make your favorite thing to do on Foursquare sound like something beyond a description of barnyard animals, and call it a check-in.
  30. Junkies: The era of calling people “junkies” if they like to do something is over. If you’ve ever seen, known, or heard about what junkies are really like, you won’t want to call someone that, or refer to yourself as such, either. Better to use the words aficionado, fan, lover, or even fanatic if you must, but junkies are sad and ill and need our help.
  31. Real time: When you talk about real time, leave out the hyphen. If the words “real time” modify another word, put in the hyphen. (Correct: in real time, real-time acceptance.)
  32. Wide variety: A variety is already wide enough without adding the word wide. Ask yourself whether there is such a thing as a narrow variety.
  33. Tweeted out: It’s stylish to talk about “tweeting out” and “sharing out” things, but is the word “out” really necessary in this context? Is it possible to “tweet in” something?
  34. Called out: Unless you’re writing extremely informally, the phrase “called out” is not exactly a professional term to use if, say, a company has criticized another company. Nor does it need a hyphen in this context: “Being called-out for his policies by the public.”
  35. Retina: Apple’s high-resolution displays are Retina displays, not Retina Displays or retina displays.
  36. Dollars dollars: When you have a dollar sign next to a word, you don’t need to have the word dollar written after it: “$13 billion dollars” is incorrect. All you need is $13 billion. And love. Love is all you need.
  37. Crowdsourced, not crowd-sourced.
  38. miss-shari“Like” instead of “such as:” If something is like something else, then you’re not referring to that thing. You’re referring to something else. For example: “Bands like the Beatles were big in the ’60s.” A band like the Beatles would be the Rolling Stones, not the Beatles. The correct usage here would be, “Bands such as the Beatles were big in the ’60s.”
  39. Teen slang: While we’re on the subject of the word “like,” a word we hippies were so fond of using in the ’60s and which has grown to the teen-slang monster it is today: like, stop, like, using it in that context. You know?
  40. My personal favorite: No need to write the word “personal” here; tighten it up. Just write “my favorite.” Same with the word “personally.”
  41. How many? “A number of” or “numerous” tells you nothing. What’s that number? Is it a secret? Just write “several,” or “a few” for rough estimates — or better yet, get the actual number.
  42. Begs the question: Writers get this wrong almost every time it’s used. The phrase “begs the question” seems to say that it practically begs for a question to be asked. But the term “begs the question” actually means using an unproved point to prove itself. For example, “You shouldn’t beg the question because begging the question is something you shouldn’t do.” That’s begging the question.
  43. Cellphone: one word
  44. Borrow: “Can you borrow me a dollar?” I think this is a Midwestern thing, something I was surprised to hear someone say. But I put it in here for laughs and to make you feel superior for not saying it.
  45. But: Starting a sentence or paragraph with “but” is not a good idea, in the opinion of some grammar sticklers. But I think it’s okay, and this is my opinion piece, it says right there at the top of the page. So that’s my opinion. But I could be wrong.
  46. Email: no hyphen, just “email”
  47. They’re, there, their: I don’t even need to tell you about this one, do I? “Look there, they’re combing their hair.”
  48. Any more/anymore: Here’s how to use these words: “I don’t buy books anymore because I don’t need any more books.”
  49. Will make you drool: This was a popular phrase with which to express affection for a particular gadget, a usage that arrived shortly after the “throw up a little in my mouth” era. However, describing your lust for consumer electronics using any kind of bodily secretion is a bit over the top.
  50. Only time will tell: I once worked at a TV station where the news director said he would fire anyone who used the term “only time will tell” at the end of a story. Somehow, that’s never left me, and maybe the guy had a point. We had just gone through four newscasts in a row where reporters ended their stories with those words. The phrase was never spoken again within those walls. Will I actually use this phrase again? Only time will tell. I mean, no, I won’t.

See 25 more pro writing tips here

Images: Courtesy Kurt Wagner, Miss Shari and somecards.com, all used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license

100 thoughts on “50 writing errors that make you look like an amateur

  1. Disagree on ‘cellphone’. Pay phone, cordless phone, flip phone, cellular phone, cell phone. Smartphone, however, is one word.

  2. Uh-oh. Number 17 is called “Keep tenses the same” but has nothing to do with tense.

    • Uh-oh is right! That’s why writing this was so scary. I got that wrong. Of course, you are correct, Claire — number 17 refers to pronoun and antecedent agreement, not tense. I’ve fixed the text, and I thank you for your help!

      • Of course, you could easily include an entry on keeping tenses the same on a list such as this. I actually hope you add more to this, as there are many, many more common errors that drive me crazy! Will you do it? Only time will tell!

        • I plan to extend this post with a sequel or two. This is an ongoing project — I accumulated those 50 points over three years. I have more, but it won’t take three more years.

  3. Meh. Some of these do address outright errors, but many of them are just matters of stylistic preference. The latter don’t necessarily make you “look like an amateur” (whatever that is supposed to mean; I’d argue the phrase is itself a cliché).

    Also, I’d say “your” vs. “you’re” belongs in the list of genuine errors commonly encountered. A friend of mine regularly writes, e.g., “if your interested, let me know” and “hope your doing great.” Ugh.

  4. Number 8 is not just British. It’s almost everywhere else in the world that speaks English, except the US. You works TOWARDS something, not toward it. It’s also definitively a preference, as it means the same thing, and is interchangeable. So not a “rule”

  5. I can’t help but notice how the title of this article was improperly stated. It ought to have been “50 writing errors which make you look like an amateur.” I chuckled when I reached #9 which criticized the usage of “That” when there was a misuse of it in the title of the article. Many of these are stylistic opinions, so good choice on placing this in the opinions category. Regardless, this is still a good list for those looking to improve their communication and writing skills.

    • Nah, no use of the word “which” without a comma next to it. But that’s my opinion, I could be wrong.

      I agree, they are mostly stylistic opinions, but in my opinion, they separate the amateurs from the pros in most cases.

      • Hi Charlies,

        Thanks for your reply! I took another look at the usage of “which” vs. “that” and found this on the CMOS site:

        “Some people use “which” restrictively, which is more or less okay (and popular among writers of British English) as long as no commas are involved:

        Pianos which have a fourth pedal to mute the strings are popular among apartment owners.

        CMOS covers this issue in several places. For starters, see 6.22. Then take a look at the entry for “that; which” in the “Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases” following paragraph 5.220.”

        I am an American but I have always had more of a British style of speaking and writing (likely due to reading many British works as a youth) so I see now why I use which restrictively and why I would have seen your title as needing correction. It appears we are both right if for no other reason than style preference. Rats – foiled again!

        Have a great day!


        • Thanks for reminding us about mass confusion when using “due to,” rather than “because of.” @tempamatic:disqus please expand your list with explanations for these misused phrases. Also, “deal with” or “dealt with” are equally bad choices when other more appropriate words exist.

  6. Passive: Kelly was convicted, sentenced, and hanged. That sounds tight to me. I don’t see how changing it to active would improve it.

    • I once read that an acceptable context for passive voice — perhaps *the* acceptable context for passive voice — is in a sentence that is absolutely, positively, undeniably about its object. In your example, the sentence is undeniably and powerfully about Kelly; making it about the jury, the judge, or the hangman would only weaken it.

  7. I disagree with 24. “That” can be used–and is used–to refer to people. We can–and do–say, “the employee that served me”, and you’ll find examples of structures like this in carefully edited prose by professional writers, celebrated novelists, well-loved plumbers, etc. Other pronouns (“them”, “they”) are used for both people and things. The argument that “that” for people treats them as less than human and therefore is incorrect begs the question.

  8. In your bio, “Charlie’s that guy you’ve seen writing for years at Mashable.” I’ve never seen you writing, but I may have read some of your work.

  9. I do not see where #36 (wide variety) is misused. You may not hear someone say “narrow variety”, but you do hear people say there is a limited variety.

  10. Number 44 came so close to one of my favorites: lend vs. loan (verb vs. noun).

  11. Bravo! I’d also like to add the annoying habit of using “journal” as a verb. “Do you journal? I journal! I was journaling last night”. No, I don’t journal but sometimes I WRITE IN A JOURNAL! Or I keep a journal. And here in New England, when you tell someone “I hate beets” they reply, “Oh so don’t I”. So, you don’t hate beets? Or you do?

    • That one sounds like an English Learner mistake. But I hate to say, I see it with our teachers here in SoCal. Many do not speak English as their first language so they make these mistakes, but what is worse, they are teaching them to the students!

  12. Number 10 is an American preference; the Brits use a plural descriptor when we would use a singular one. We say, “The Who is a good band.” They say, “The Who are a good band.” We’re also constrained by the form of the proper noun. We say, “The Heat is a good team but the Lakers aren’t.”

    Also, no love (i.e., hate) for “anyways”?

      • I hope you add the misues of “myself” to the lisst.
        I haven’t looked it up but I surely” impactful is not correct.
        I will use this list to clean up my speech. Thank you for the reminders and clarifications.

        • Please excuse the spelling errors. The font on my laptop has suddenly become too small to see clearly.

    • No, I don’t think it’s optional, but I would rather write around the gender markers rather than using the awkward “he or she” or referring to one person as “they.”

  13. My biggest pet peeve is misuse of the words “less” and “fewer”. We have less forested area compared to a generation ago. (Use “less” when referencing a non-countable item or a concept.) We have fewer trees than a generation ago. (Use “fewer” when referring to countable items like trees.) The common mistake is to never use “fewer” and to always use “less” such as “less trees” – WRONG!

      • I like “thanks” and believe it is fast becoming part of the vernacular as the informal version of “thank you”, exclamation or not!

  14. The misuse of “farther” and “further”, which may have British-American issues, is common also. In the US farther is related to distance like how far did they travel and the town is farther down the road while further relates to other concepts like time or progress, he is further along in the book than I am. The Brits tend to use further for distance too.

    Then vs than was not discussed either where then is time related and than covers most everything else.

  15. Good list, except for “like” vs. “such as.” That is still debated, and the New York Times Stylebook, among other style guides and grammarians, see the two words as synonymous and prefer “like,” because it doesn’t sound as cerebral and highbrow as “such as.”

  16. “I could of” instead of “I could have”. “Amount of people”; it’s an amount of stuff & a number of items or entities. These are like fingernails on a blackboard to me.

    • I have seen that “could of” written by professional writers. Is there such a shortage on writers that they have to hire people who do not know the English language? Sad . . .

      • On the subject of ear-fleas; “Bridish”! I hear BBC broadcasters saying that. It’s “British”. Harumph!

    • I think the proper term is tilting at windmills, a reference to Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

      • Thanks for proving my point. I succeeded at conveying a thought and yet that just wasn’t good enough. What is the purpose of communication?

  17. Ummmm. I think companies are referred to as they. (All the biotech companies are in Silicon Valley. They have California addresses.) However, when you talk about a single company, it is an It, not a their.

    • Another British thing is referring to singular companies as “they”. For example, they might say BMW are, or BBC are, etc. (And now I’m nervous about anything I may have typed incorrectly in this post.)

  18. In the loose,lose one. You said head you win, tails I lose. Dumb, you are saying the same thing. I’d love to gamble coin flipping style with you. Hey heads I win, tails you lose…

  19. Love the list alot! Or maybe a lot. Help me understand: Why is it “e-reader,” but “email”? Which brings up quotation marks as another item for your list (commas and periods inside, question marks and exclamation marks outside).

    • I think “e-reader” is easier to understand than “ereader.” But “email” is easy to read either way, so I go without the hyphen because I’m lazy.

      • E-mail should have a hyphen, because it’s short for Electronic mail (similar to how you would write C-section). Whether or not you capitalise the ‘E’ is personal preference, although I always do.

    • I would be delighted if you would! I’m flattered. Thank you. Perhaps you could ask the students to please share the post on their Facebook accounts so others might benefit from it.

    • Wonderful, Jack! Thanks for sharing that. I agree, the language is changing and alive, but he also makes some good points about suitability of language and the image you project if you use new linguistic explorations on, say, a prospective employer.

  20. Thanks! These issues bothered me so much that I wrote The Bugaboo Review and now teach my high school honors students from it. Another teeth-grinder? Pronoun agreement: (ex.) it’s She and I went shopping, not, Me and her went shopping. Think: she went and I went…

  21. I like this article, some of your points are anything but obvious for people whose first language is not English.

    A new one I’ve noticed is apparently becoming more widespread by the day is “would of”, “should of”, “could of”.

    • Yes, we mentioned that above. You will see it in so-called professional columns. Well, at least if that is what you cal HuffPost.

  22. Something that bugs me is ‘ATM machine’ or ‘PIN number’. ATM stands for Automatic Teller Machine. So saying ‘ATM machine’ is saying ‘automatic teller machine machine’. Ditto with PIN number.

  23. [While] I am guilty of about a dozen of the 50……many are pet peeves that others do that makes me feel superior to them. I am laughing out loud at the irony of my own hypocrisy. (was that a proper sentence? hee hee). I am quite guilty of the overuse of elipses. A lazy habit I must begin to stop. hee hee.

    I do not consider myself the Grammar Police and am really annoyed by those who practice that online or in conversation . If I understand what you are saying, I do not care if you said it grammatically correct or not. I am not even sure if the previous sentence is grammatically correct.

    I love this article. I printed it and will keep it next to me when writing. I would bet that most anyone reading the article will find they are guilty of several if not more than “several”. (did I miss a comma in that sentence? I am so confused).

    We will all do well to use the “edit” button where provided.

  24. Please do then/than – one of the more egregious mistakes committed by your fellow americans. (If you’re going to speak English, THEN please do so properly. This example might just be better THAN yours.)

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  26. Item 42 could have been tighter. Don’t use begs the question when something invites or raises the question.

  27. 44) common primary school usage, Tasmania Aust.: ‘can i lend your pencil?’ (for borrow) 🙂

  28. Tchr asks little Johnny how his holiday went – Johnny replies: ‘It was great, a bit short but!’ Tchr says: ‘Johnny, don’t end a sentence with a preposition!’ Johnny: ‘It’s not a preposition, it’s a conjunction, but!’

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  33. Paul Auster uses “in order to” 16 times in ‘The New York Trilogy’, considered one of the best book of short stories ever by many. Just saying. good advice though thanks

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