As the resident copy editor at OS, I read a ton of documents every week with varying purposes and deadlines.
Mostly I’m looking for grammatical errors and unclear ideas that need more definition, while also contributing thoughts on flow and substance. It’s given me a great sense of the errors that commonly occur when people are writing off the cuff, especially when I’m looking at a first draft.
I am even guilty of some of these when drafting a document, but most of the errors I see can be easily caught on a re-read, which can greatly improve the quality of a draft. So before you fire off that next e-mail, look for these common mistakes:
1) Compound Sentences
If your sentence uses a conjunction – such as “and” or “but” – and the segment coming after the conjunction is a complete sentence on its own, it needs a comma before the conjunction.
- WRONG: I made bacon this morning and it was very crunchy.
- RIGHT: I made bacon this morning, and it was very crunchy.
2) Serial commas or semicolons in bulleted lists
Oftentimes main ideas will be summarized in a bulleted list. Here’s the right way to do it. Notice there is no comma after the conjunction:
- The bacon was delicious;
- It was all I ate for breakfast; and
- I think I might have a bacon addiction.
This one is kind of a personal pet peev. I’m an AP Style guy, so using comprise/compose incorrectly really bugs me.
- Comprise means to contain, to include all or embrace. It’s used only in active voice, followed by a direct object:
- WRONG: A package of bacon is comprised of many strips.
- RIGHT: A package of bacon comprises many strips.
- Compose means to create or put together and can be used in both the active and passive voices.
- RIGHT: A package of bacon is composed of many strips.
- ALSO RIGHT: She composed a song about bacon.
- A good way to remember how to use the correct word is that compose is almost always followed by “of,” while comprise is not – because it is followed by a direct object.
4) Subject/verb agreement
If your subject is singular, make sure the verb and any subsequent pronouns are also singular. The same goes if your subject is plural. Most often, I see this mixed up when referring to an organization. An organization is singular, even if it comprises many people. (See how I used comprise there?)
- WRONG: The Federation of Bacon Eaters are working for their bacon-loving members.
- RIGHT: The Federation of Bacon Eaters is working for its bacon-loving members.
- WRONG: The Federation of Bacon Eaters serve as an informational resource for members.
- RIGHT: The Federation of Bacon Eaters serves as an informational resource for members.
5) Lastly, just some common mistakes that are easily fixed
- online – Not on-line or on line.
- well-being – Not wellbeing or well being.
- administration – Not capitalized. Again, this is AP Style, but a man’s got to have a code. For example: The president’s administration, the administration or the governor’s administration.
- annual – There is no “first annual.” Only use if it has been held at least two successive years.
- toward – Not towards.
- farther/further – Farther refers to physical distance, while further refers to an extension of time or degree.
- RIGHT: He walked farther into the grocery store to find the bacon.
- RIGHT: He will think further on how to use bacon in more sentence examples.
Sam Wineka, Account Director