Amanda Luedeke

December 1, 2016

8 Common Usage Errors, or: How to Make Me Judge You, part 1.


brick green no smile b:wErin here again today, while Chip is sunning himself in Hawaii (and I’m still working on getting my own blog credentials so I can stop using Amanda’s.) Okay, listen: I have a superpower. Most agents do, actually. It’s not terribly useful unless you’re trying to decide whether or not to stake a large amount of time and energy on a person’s potential as a writer, but it comes in real handy in that situation. My superpower, which I share with many agents and editors, is this: I can pass judgement on a person’s writing after reading just a few pages. A few paragraphs, in some cases. Heck, I’ve read some opening sentences that have deterred me from reading any further (see Tuesday’s post for the discussion on effective opening lines), and generally, the criteria that make it easiest to say no to a project are recurring errors in how words are used or spelled and a complete “spray and pray” approach to punctuation (in which the author loads a machine gun with commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks, sprays the manuscript with them, and prays everything lands in approximately the right place). That doesn’t seem fair, the general public may cry, my writing gets really good in chapter two! Or, my story is so compelling, you won’t even notice the mistakes once you get hooked.
People, people.
I got my degree in English. In case you don’t know, English majors basically do two things in college: read and write. This means that we not only become very familiar with the rules of grammar and mechanics that some of the rest of the world forgets after middle school, but we SEE those rules in action in book after assigned book, and the main result of that language-based education is an inability to read anything– books, cereal boxes, instruction manuals, the birth announcement for our best friend’s baby (“Its a boy?” Really?)– without an internal red pencil circling errors and crossing viciously through incorrect word usage. We can’t turn it off. And yes, we realize that your writing is more than your punctuation, and that a good story can be told with less than perfect grammar, but the problem for a lot of authors who query me is that I can’t get INTO that good story if usage errors and punctuation mistakes keep yanking me out.
Now, no one is perfect, obviously, and I understand making mistakes by accident, but when I read a manuscript with certain errors in it, the words tell me two things right off: 1. You’re not a member of a writing group, or if you are, you aren’t surrounded by very good writers, because if you were, they would have caught some of these errors. 2. You don’t read a lot– you haven’t developed your craft by reading extensively, because if you had, you would have unconsciously learned the correct usage for most of these words simply through seeing them used correctly time and again. Both of these are red flags when it comes to choosing whether or not to work with an author because they indicate that the author may not respond well to feedback (or think he needs it) and that the author hasn’t spent a lot of time getting to know good story and writing by READING good story and writing. That said, here are the first four of eight common usage errors that will instantly lower my opinion of you.
1. Should of/would of. I truly don’t understand how anyone ever decides this is correct. “Should” and “would” qualify verbs– I should DO something, she would DO something– and the contraction “should’ve” which sounds like “should of” is actually a contraction of that conditional “should have,” which either implies or is followed by an action, such as “should have run” or “would have answered.” It’s never, ever “should of.”
2. Lose/loose. I seriously doubt many people who confuse these in writing would have trouble defining “lose” or “loose” correctly if quizzed orally, but for some reason, a lot of people don’t seem to have the sound of each word paired mentally with the appropriate spelling. Long story short, “Loose” rhymes with “noose.” Memorize that.
3. Hear/here. I see this one all the time! “Hear” has an “ear” in it and references the sound processing you do with your EARS. “Here” is a location.
4. Who’s/whose. I know an apostrophe usually signals possession– her’s, John’s, etc.– but in this case, the apostrohphe marks a contraction. If you have trouble with keeping these two straight, always replace an “apostrophe s” with the word “is” and see if it still makes sense– “You are one who’s music I really love” vs. “You are one who is music I really love” doesn’t make any sense, so it must require the possessive, “whose.”

Those are the first four, and I’ll add to the list soon! But I want to ask… what are some of your mechanics/usage pet peeves? Do you think an agent is overreacting if they reject a manuscript after three or four of these issues show up?

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  • Lisa Holloway says:

    I was curious to see where you’d go with this. I used to work as a copy editor, so when I saw your post, I remembered all the discussions I used to have with my manager (who was a former English teacher) over commas, when to spell out numbers, and the occasional split infinitive Chicago style embraces but English teachers do not. Many grammar rules are dependent on the style employed. Then I saw your list and knew that I could share your pain. “Could of” drives me insane. So do incorrect usage of to/too and employing subject pronouns in object positions. I don’t understand why people make it so hard. Some issues are subjective and everybody makes mistakes, but I agree glaring or repeated errors distract from otherwise nice writing.

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    Oh yay! I get to disagree with something you said.
    I’ve been reading and writing a very long time (writing with the serious goal of publication for 15 years) and it was not reading extensively that taught me correct word usage. I’ve always read extensively, about a book a week on average since I could pick up a book and read it. Yet, proper grammar did not just stick. Homophones are my Achilles heel and I was always typing out the wrong spelling for the word I heard in my head until kind friends marked up mss. for me again and again and again. It has been actually going into the text and fixing the mistakes that helped me to remember. I still read about a book a week and I love that and I think that this teaches you a whole lot about writing. But reading never taught me to “see” the grammar, only fixing it repeatedly did that. My best friend learned that way. The teacher told her the grammatical rule and she just knew it and recognized it every time she saw it in print. Me, not so much. But things were not hopeless, just harder.

  • April says:

    I defiantly agree with you. If you’re grammer is bad, your going to get laughed at. I could care less if they say were being nitpicky with there righting—their the ones whom look dumb for not getting it write.

    (Ugh, that hurt to write. But those are all of my biggest pet peeves worked into one example. Well, and sight/site/cite, but I couldn’t figure out how to get that in there succinctly.)

  • Tammera Ayers says:

    Growing up, I learned hillbilly slang from my relatives and the community. I heard shoulda, woulda. For the longest time, I believed roasting ears were rossen ears or sneers. I even wrote this in one of my early short stories. Pre-teen, mind you! My family butchered helping verbs and tenses, especially the ‘to be’ verbs. I moved away for 25 years and recently returned with my 21 year-old daughter. She was shocked to hear many of the adults in our community. “They was going shopping.” Shiver…like nails on a chalk board. Thankfully, I read voraciously as a teenager and could hear the difference in what I read vs. the speech around me. Adding to Lynn’s earlier comment, I was also brought up diagramming sentences. I think I would have learned more if we had studied sentence structure in the context of what we read instead of looking at random sentences. As a writer, I’m constantly paranoid about making grammatical and usage errors. I have several books and homemade note cards I reference. Thank you for the blog post, Erin. Very helpful.

  • Barbara Cleary says:

    Excellent observations with nice ways to be sure writers are using the correct form on these all too (not to/two) common errors! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I think also that lack of understanding does undermine the writer’s professionalism. I know I am heartily embarrassed when I reread some of my blogs only to find a punctuation or usage error. No one (not that many are reading my blogs) points out these errors….which I would truly appreciate!

  • Lynn D. Morrissey says:

    I would add, too, that one reason I believe so many authors make grammatical errors is that they have not been taught well in school. I am dating myself, but I was taught diagramming in junior high and freshman year. It was an invaluable tool. Years later, I had to hire an English tutor because my daughter’s English usage was abysmal. She simply was not being taught well in school.

  • Lynn D. Morrissey says:

    Erin, thank you for this list and your insights. They are most helpful. I’m certain each of us has his own grammar-usage pet peeves. Today, to be politically correct, my previous sentence likely would have read, ” I’m certain each of us has their own grammar-usage pet peeves.” Today, it seems that it is perfectly acceptable now to use a plural possessive pronoun paired with a singular one, but I find it grating. I’m unclear on your meaning here: “I know an apostrophe usually signals possession– her’s, John’s, etc. . . . ” I infer you are saying that her’s is correct as the singular possessive of her. The singular possessive of her is hers (no apostrophe), so perhaps I was misunderstanding your meaning. Thanks again for a great post.

  • Mike Sheehan says:

    Hi Erin,

    Fun read.

    Of course, the ever popular “your” and “you’re” switch are a favorite, along with the misuse of poignant, which admittedly had an archaic definition of a “sharp smell,” but is used now to mean “a keen sense of sadness or regret,” kind of like I feel about some of my opening lines. I also see the loose/lose thing a lot, mainly in online posts, and could see how it makes an agent want to toss a manuscript out the window.

  • Laura Davis says:

    Hi Erin,
    Great blog today!
    You asked for our grammar pet peeves.
    Mine are:
    then / than
    It was more then fair . . . . ???
    and . . .
    their / there

  • I was taught a specific set of grammar and style rules in high school, then I was required to follow AP style as a journalism major in college. Later, working in academia, I had to once again get used to the Oxford comma. As a freelance writer, I work for a variety of clients who follow different style guidelines, and on occasion, I have used one comma too many in my technical writing. I’m also a blogger and tend to write conversationally. Switching back and forth can be a challenge.
    I’m a stickler about grammar, but at the same time, I loathed long discussions in marketing meetings about whether we should use a comma or a semi-colon. Would most readers care? Notice? Of course not. The story mattered.
    I’m not an agent, but I’ve been a professor and an editor. I’ve read pieces that have not been grammatically spot on but have still exhibited a unique voice, perspective and message. If those qualities were evident, for me, they transcended the incorrect usage of their/there/they’re (as grating as that can be). I can imagine, however, that in the eyes of an agent, such mistakes may be a sign that a writer can’t possibly care about the big things if she isn’t being “faithful in the small things.”
    I’m enjoying your posts, Amanda! (Just kidding, Erin.)

  • Elizabeth says:

    My nemesis is when to hyphenate. Any rules I’ve heard for hyphenating seem to be applied inconsistently. I absolutely adore the serial (Oxford) comma.

  • Jane Gaugler Daly says:

    I don’t think you’re overreacting. It isn’t up to an editor to fix the problems… master your craft, writer!
    Or should I say, master you’re craft, righter.

  • David A. Todd says:

    Good post, Erin. They say the only way to comfort a grammarian is to say, “There, their, they’re.”
    I think two of my pet peeves are:
    – Overuse of get, got, gotten; as in “I got my degree in English” (you *earned* your degree) or “I should have gotten a good feel for it” (‘I should have a good feel for it’ is sufficient); and
    – Use of ‘there’ not referring to place, which is almost always clunky passive voice. “There is a thunderstorm coming” when “A thunderstorm is coming” is tighter (still passive, but not as bad).

    • Erin says:

      Haha, that’s great, David, I’ve never heard that one before. I’ve noticed that clunky syntax is one of the hardest things to help a writer recognize/overcome– often, as in the example you used, there isn’t a true grammatical mistake I can point to, and I have difficulty making the author understand why certain construction choices “sound” better than others. That’s one of the biggest indicators, for me, of which authors are reading a lot and which aren’t; good syntax becomes easier to recognize/create the more you see it modeled. And don’t worry; where “I got my degree in English” on an informal, voice-driven blog post, I definitely “earned my degree in English” in my formal bio. 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Felicia says:

    Great post, Erin. I agree that punctuation and grammar mishaps make it hard to get into a story, no matter how good it might be. I think my biggest pet peeve is the trend toward apostrophizing plurals. I see it everywhere: In blogs, advertising copy, even on “menu’s.” Thanks for sharing, and keep up the good work!

    • Donna Clark Goodrich says:

      My biggest one of all is it’s vs. its. Others I find quite often in editing mss. are: rein/reign and lightening/lightning. There’s another one I can’t think of right now. Also, as mentioned earlier, using quotation marks in dialogue. This is often misused.

    • Erin says:

      I agree, a post on quotation marks in dialog is already on my list of future topics! Thanks for the comment.

  • Preston Rentz says:

    Zinsser suggests the craft of writing is just as important as subject matter, maybe more. I care little of what’s going on between Amazon and Hachette, but Chip’s post was so well written, I read the entire thing.

  • Elizabeth Ludwig says:

    It used to astound me to hear agents or editors say they can judge the quality of a person’s writing with just a few paragraphs, and then…I started getting bombarded with requests for endorsements. And I started a freelance editing business. Now I know what I’m in for after page two. I can honestly say I don’t have any pet peeves, unless I’m on page 312 and the same word has been repeated 547 times. That kinda gets me. 🙂

    Great article, Erin!

    • Linore Burkard says:

      As a fellow college English major, I hear ya. My pet peeves run more along the line of cliches and overused phrases in fiction, such as, “He cupped her chin,” (I abhor that one) or, “…her heaving breasts.” Makes me want to throw a manuscript at the wall.

    • Erin says:

      Haha, Linore, it’s a tragedy of the modern era that I seldom have a physical manuscript in my hands which I could throw against a wall! After throwing the first few laptops, I had to learn to control my frustration. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

    • Erin says:

      Oh yes, what I like to call the “Twilight syndrome,” named for Stephenie Meyer’s reluctance to let a page go by without describing Edward’s skin as “marble.” 🙂 (Note: I’m not hating, I still found those books extremely fun to read.) Thanks for reading, Elizabeth!

  • April says:

    “I know an apostrophe usually signals possession– her’s, John’s, etc.– but in thise case, the apostrohphe marks a contraction.”

    Thise? Apostrohphe? Hensley would disown you! 😉

    If you write a grammar post, you know people are going to be looking for mistakes, subconsciously or no. People (ahem, me) are stinkers like that.

    But no, you’re definitely not overreacting. My biggest pet peeve is “I could care less.” No, you *couldn’t*! COULD NOT care less! [foams at the mouth]

    THAT is overreacting. 😉

    • Bryan Davis says:

      I will be another stinker and add that “her’s” shouldn’t have an apostrophe. 🙂

    • sally says:

      heh heh. I read that and thought, Ah, she’s testing us to see if we’re paying attention.

    • Erin says:

      Haha, sadly, I can only claim the “her’s” as a test– a reader bet me no one would notice if I used an incorrect usage of a possessive apostrophe as an example because we’re conditioned to skim over parenthetical content, and I assured her the Internet was full of smarty-pants readers who jump at the chance to catch a smart-aleck blogger in a grammatical mistake! 🙂 So, kudos to Bryan and Sally for their smart pants, and Rachel, I told you so! April, regarding “thise” and “apostrohphe,” I will just say that I wrote this entire blog post on an iPhone keyboard the size of a credit card in a dark hotel room at 1:30 in the morning after a 16-hour day at Disneyland and fell asleep four times in the process of writing it, and chose not to waste a single second of Disneyland time proofreading it the following morning. And I’m not sorry! 🙂

  • TedtheThird says:

    My biggest personal struggle
    is punctuating dialog. I have a page bookmarked and I have to constantly refer
    to it. I’ve done enough dialog that I should have gotten a good
    feel for it, but I still seem to make constant errors.

    If I had my own pet
    peeve, and the use of I instead of me after the word and as in ‘She will be joining
    Jim and I’. We wouldn’t say ‘She will be joining I’. So why does this continue?

    • Erin says:

      Good for you for finding a good reference and consulting it! I definitely don’t have every grammar/punctuation rule memorized, so a good style handbook is essential. I like “A Writer’s Reference,” by Diana Hacker; it’s easy to navigate and has lots of examples. Thanks for commenting.

  • Rick Barry says:

    You’re not overreacting at all. I have judged opening chapters for writing contests. It’s amazing how many amateurish mistakes you can find while scrutinizing other people’s work. That exercise also makes you examine your own words in a fresh way. A paragraph or two will reveal of lot of what is to follow.

    My main pet peeves involves confusion over various possessives and plurals. (Your vs. You’re — Ugh!) Or statements such as, “That is the house where the Smith’s live.” One or two instances can make me laugh or grit my teeth. More than that will drive me up the wall and across the ceiling. (However, in Facebook I’m lenient with friends!)

    Thanks, Erin!

    • Erin says:

      Oh yeah, there’s a perpetual epidemic of possessive problems! But like you say, I’m much more forgiving in an informal setting like Facebook or a blog. Thanks for reading, Rick!

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