Common Grammar Mistakes that Make My Skin Crawl

This post originally appeared on my business’ blog. You can read it here.

Being in the middle of the information age, computers and software are getting very good at catching and/or correcting our mistakes when it comes to language. Google especially is famous for “Did you mean…” or “Showing results for…”, because we often misspell or misuse words so much that Google is getting to know us better than we know ourselves.

Unfortunately, for every mistake that our softwares catch, many make it through the cracks. This often isn’t because of typos or misspellings; the words that we’re typing are correct, but are being used in the wrong context.

This is extremely important for several reasons…

  • It’s good to take pride in your craft, whatever that may be. How we write about it shows that we put care and attention into our communications with the outside world.
  • Using proper grammar and language gives credibility to your brand.
  • With the overuse of “internet abbreviations”, proper writing helps people and brands stick out online.

I see common and easily avoidable mistakes every day, in every medium available; radio shows, news reports, newspaper articles, signage, and even important corporate memos ALL have grammar, spelling, and diction errors every single day.

The following is not a comprehensive list of do’s and don’t’s of grammar. These are the little, easily fixable things that I read or hear every day and make my skin crawl.


is / was • are / were

This is the most common grammatical issue that I hear or read in every spoken or printed medium. Not only personal conversation with people who couldn’t care less, but even professionals who should know and care about the difference.

I don’t think I need to explain what these words mean, but just point out how most people are using them wrong. Put simply, if the subject or object of a sentence is plural, you use “are” instead of “is”.

Example:
“There is a lot of things…”   “There are a lot of things…”
“Was there any people…”   “Were there any people…”

there • they’re • their

There is used to reference something specific.
Ex: I’ll meet you there.

They’re is a contraction meaning “they are” and is also plural.
Ex: They’re always traveling.

Their is conveys ownership or possession and is also plural.
Ex: Their car is new.

its • it’s / whose • who’s

I’ll admit that these two are actually a little complicated, but not impossibly so.

For years in school we were told that apostrophe-s (or ‘s) shows ownership. In the case of It and Who, it’s the opposite. When these words are followed by ‘s, it’s a contraction of “it is” or “who is”, whereas the words that show ownership are actually “its” and “whose”.

Example:
“Whose book is this?”
“It’s Michael’s book.”
“Its pages are torn.”
“Who’s responsible?”

every day • everyday

This is one that particularly annoys me, simply because these words are used incorrectly on a decorative sign that I see in my kitchen every day.

Every (day) is a determiner that proceeds a singular noun and refers to all without exception. Everyday, while having a similar meaning, is an adjective.

Example:
“I go to the gym every day.”
“Going to the gym is an everyday thing for me.”

who • whom

For anyone who is not aware, a sentence includes three elements; a subject, a verb, and an object. The subject does the verb action, which somehow affects the object.

Simple, right? (Just FYI, anything without those three elements is a phrase.)

Words like who and whom are used to make it very clear what is the subject (who) and what is the object (whom).

Example:
“Who is coming tonight?” Here, who is the subject that is completing the action.
“John is giving that to whom?” Here, whom is the object that is reacting to the action.

literally • figuratively

I’m sure that at one time or another you have said, or heard someone say, the word literally without truly meaning what what was said (such as “I am literally going to kill you”). Did you know that this word is not supposed to be used for emphasis in this way?

A few years ago I was watching a TV show called The Newsroom, wherein a character mentions that the definition of the word has been expanded to include the way it’s commonly used.

I honestly couldn’t believe my ears, and had to research it immediately. Turns out that it was true, and I was heartbroken.

New words are invented and added to the dictionary every day, but that is not what happened here. I am of the firm belief that a dictionary should not cow-tow to society’s misuse of a common word. Let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard.

less • fewer

Back in 2009 I came across the following image. I forget where from, but it perfectly sums up the difference between these two words.

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Social media and SEO experts are constantly asked “How do I stand out on the internet?” The answer can sometimes be complicated, there’s a lot of noise out there, but the answer can also be simple:

Do something that other people aren’t doing.

Every single day I hear and see so many people making simple, common grammatical mistakes. Set yourself out from the crowd by speaking or writing correctly. Anything that you post online on behalf of your business should undergo a lot of scrutiny.

Perhaps writing isn’t your strong suit. That’s okay, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. You can of course call us to help, but at the very least have a friend or partner review any content you’re about to release.

Furthermore, I implore you to please use words properly. Doing so will give you more credibility, increase the value of your content, and make you smarter. I promise.

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