In my career as a writer, technical editor, and marketing communications manager, I’ve worked with a wide variety of authors. For the most part, engineers, scientists, architects, planners, economists, and lawyers know how to write. I don’t often see grave misspellings or grammar faux pas. I do, however, see opportunities for improvement. Here are ten of the most common writing mistakes, designed to be understood by non-English majors!
It’s absolutely necessary to consider your audience’s vocabulary and knowledge when you write. Writers in any profession have the tendency to forget what their audience understands. Watch out for these patterns:
The more concise your text, the more likely it will be read.
As French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”(This phrase is often falsely attributed to Mark Twain.)
People usually write 25 to 50 percent more words than necessary, because it’s the easiest way to get the words on the page. For example, “due to the fact that” can easily be changed to “because.” Writing concisely takes more effort and more editing. I live to cut text and create crisper, more engaging narrative!
2. Business or industry jargon
I know I’m using jargon at home when my husband gives me a blank look. He’s never worked in the corporate world. To him, “in the weeds” or “low-hanging fruit” means I’m working in our backyard, wading through our jungle or picking apples from our trees.
If you do not work in real estate or architecture, you probably don’t know what these terms mean: “floor-area ratio,” “building crown,” “massing,” or “defining use or position in the façade.” I had to convince my architect colleagues that the general public would not understand these terms. When you write above your readers’ understanding, you lose them…and your work is in vain.
3. Too many acronyms
Acronyms slow down reading, unless they are commonly known. The science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines are particularly guilty of this, but you’ll find it everywhere you look. Here are my cardinal rules for acronyms:
Always spell out the acronym the first time you use it, followed by the acronym in parentheses. Do not assume your reader knows the meaning. For example, “The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued a new rule on air quality.” As an editor, I create style sheets listing the acronyms with page numbers of their first use. Otherwise it's easy to lose track of first mention.
Do not use acronyms unless you use them more than once. For example, if the National Park Service is used once in an article or document, just spell it out. There is no need to put “(NPS)” after the spelled-out term unless you use it again later.
Break these rules only if the acronym is more known to your reader than the actual spelled-out version…for example, people are probably more familiar with "the IRS" than the Internal Revenue Service. If writing an email solely to intellectual property lawyers or internally, you don’t have to spell out “IP.” It is still best practice in formal writing to spell it out the first time.
I rarely have encountered sentence fragments in business writing. Sometimes I see subject/verb disagreements or other grammatical problems, but these are the most common missteps by educated writers:
4. Lack of parallel structure When making any kind of series or list, be careful to write the parts in the same grammatical structure. For example, “The HR director position traveled to several cities delivering leadership training, to give a benefits presentation, and ask for employee feedback” is not parallel. The correct usage is “The HR director position traveled to several cities delivering leadership training, giving a benefits presentation, and asking for employee feedback.”
5. Rambling sentences
Know when to use a period and start a new sentence.
A wise English teacher once told me that if you read a sentence out loud and run out of breath, it’s too long.
For example, “After much careful thought, we have reached the difficult decision to close our Newberg operations, so we’ve been winding down our business there over the past few weeks, and this process should be complete during July.” Break it up. Shorter sentences increase readability.
6. Too many or incorrect commas
People often use commas when they would naturally pause in conversation. For example, in “The bridge rarely had any traffic, because it was located in an infrequently traveled area,” the comma is unnecessary. At other times, commas are used when semicolons are the correct choice, such as “The engineer and architects of record visited the site, however, they were not able to meet with the client.” In this case, the first comma should be a semicolon. Semicolons should be used with complete phrases (which could be sentences on their own), while commas are used for incomplete phrases.
7. Incorrect apostrophes
The most common apostrophe errors involve the word “its”or the possessive:
It’s/its: Here’s a guide to correct use of this term: -It’s: A contraction for “it is” or “it has.” If in doubt, substitute "it is" to see if it works. If it doesn't, it's wrong. “It’s the only time to use it’s.” -Its: The possessive for “it.” “The government agency revised its procurement process.”
Plural nouns and possessive nouns: Plural nouns NEVER have apostrophes unless they are in the possessive form. For example, “My sister’s are getting together for Thanksgiving” is always wrong. “Sister’s” is the possessive, so if you said, “My sister’s children,” that would be correct. I have seen highly educated people make this mistake. I think when some people see a plural, they panic and think it needs an apostrophe. I'm not sure why! The other mistakes I see are unnecessarily adding an apostrophe in a plural number, such as “the 90’s” or adding an apostrophe in the wrong place when the word ends in an “s” (add it at the end of the word, like “the Jones’ house.”) Refer to additional rules about apostrophes to refine your skills.
Here are some frequent word choice errors in writing and speaking.
I see and hear this mistake all the time, mostly in conversation but even in professional journalism, such as “John and myself went to the symphony.” I think people feel it sounds more sophisticated to use that term, but nine out of ten times, "myself" is used incorrectly. “Myself” is a reflexive pronoun, which means that it refers to yourself. As Grammar Girl explains, think of looking into a mirror and referring to yourself (“I saw myself in the mirror”). “I wrote that song myself” is correct, but “My sister and myself wrote that song”is wrong. (It should be "My sister and I wrote that song"--think of what you would say without your sister...you would never say "Myself wrote that song," right?)
9. Due to
I was trained to edit “due to” to “because of” unless it’s about a due date or it’s preceded by a form of “to be,” such as “The rescheduling was due to rain.” “The event became overly crowded due to rain” would be incorrect. One easy way to check it is to see if it could be substituted with “caused by.” If you are writing formally, take the time to write it correctly. Language is always evolving, though, so the rules about “due to” are not as strict as they used to be.
10. Comprised of/comprise These words are almost always used incorrectly.
“Comprise” means “contain,” such as “The document comprises ten chapters.”
The whole comprises the parts. "Comprised of” is ALWAYS wrong grammatically. “Is comprised of” should always be changed to “constitute” or “comprise,” depending on the meaning.
Have I confused you even further?
Let me know if you have any questions, or hit me up for an edit or rewrite of your document. English can be confusing, but I’m hoping I’ve shed some light on some common writing errors and make it easier on all of our eyes!
Fertile Ground Communications LLC inspires people through story and turns dry language into compelling communications.