Thursday Thirteen

Thirteen (More) Common Writing Mistakes


I did not write these tips. These tips, and many more like these, can be found at Common Errors in English. So, if you disagree with these rules, then please, don’t kill the messenger. These are here just for your learning/entertainment, nothing more, and nothing less.

Now that you know my disclaimer, let’s move on to the juicy stuff … *rubs hands together in glee* …

1. AS SUCH: The expression “as such” has to refer to some status mentioned earlier. “The CEO was a former drill sergeant, and as such expected everyone to obey his orders instantly.” In this case “such” refers back to “former drill sergeant.” But often people only imply that which is referred to, as in “The CEO had a high opinion of himself and as such expected everyone to obey his orders instantly.” Here the “such” cannot logically refer back to “opinion.” Replace “as such” with “therefore.”

2. ASSURE/ENSURE/INSURE: To “assure” a person of something is to make him or her confident of it. According to Associated Press style, to “ensure” that something happens is to make certain that it does, and to “insure” is to issue an insurance policy. Other authorities, however, consider “ensure” and “insure” interchangeable. To please conservatives, make the distinction. However, it is worth noting that in older usage these spellings were not clearly distinguished.

3. ASTROLOGY/ASTRONOMY: Modern astronomers consider astrology an outdated superstition. You’ll embarrass yourself if you use the term “astrology” to label the scientific study of the cosmos. In writing about history, however, you may have occasion to note that ancient astrologers, whose main goal was to peer into the future, incidentally did some sound astronomy as they studied the positions and movements of celestial objects.

4. ATM MACHINE: “ATM” means “Automated Teller Machine,” so if you say “ATM machine” you are really saying, “Automated Teller Machine machine.”

5. ATTAIN/OBTAIN: “Attain” means “reach” and “obtain” means “get.” You attain a mountaintop, but obtain a rare baseball card. “Attain” usually implies a required amount of labor or difficulty; nothing is necessarily implied about the difficulty of obtaining that card. Maybe you just found it in your brother’s dresser drawer.

Some things you obtain can also be attained. If you want to emphasize how hard you worked in college, you might say you attained your degree; but if you want to emphasize that you have a valid degree that qualifies you for a certain job, you might say you obtained it. If you just bought it from a diploma mill for fifty bucks, you definitely only obtained it. (HAHA!)

6. AVENGE/REVENGE: When you try to get vengeance for people who’ve been wronged, you want to avenge them. You can also avenge a wrong itself: “He avenged the murder by taking vengeance on the killer.” Substituting “revenge” for “avenge” in such contexts is very common, but frowned on by some people. They feel that if you seek revenge in the pursuit of justice you want to avenge wrongs: not revenge them.

7. AWAY/A WAY: “Jessica commented on my haircut in a way that made me think maybe I shouldn’t have let my little sister do it for me.” In this sort of context, “a way” should always be two distinct words, though many people use the single word “away” instead. If you’re uncertain, try substituting another word for “way”: “in a manner that,” “in a style that.” If the result makes sense, you need the two-word phrase. Then you can tell Jessica to just go away. (HAHA, this guy’s funny!)

8. A WHILE/AWHILE: When “awhile” is spelled as a single word, it is an adverb meaning “for a time” (“stay awhile”); but when “while” is the object of a prepositional phrase, like “Lend me your monkey wrench for a while” the “while” must be separated from the “a.” (But if the preposition “for” were lacking in this sentence, “awhile” could be used in this way: “Lend me your monkey wrench awhile.”) (Clear as mud?)

9. BACKSLASH/SLASH: This is a slash: /. Because the top of it leans forward, it is sometimes called a “forward slash.”

This is a backslash: \. Notice the way it leans back, distinguishing it from the regular slash.

10. BALL/BAWL: To “bawl” is to cry out loudly, so when you break down in tears you bawl like a baby and when you reprimand people severely you bawl them out. Don’t use “ball” in these sorts of expressions. It has a number of meanings, but none of them have to do with shouting and wailing unless you’re shouting “play ball!”

11. BARE/BEAR: There are actually three words here. The simple one is the big growly creature (unless you prefer the Winnie-the-Pooh type). Hardly anyone past the age of ten gets that one wrong. The problem is the other two. Stevedores bear burdens on their backs and mothers bear children. Both mean “carry” (in the case of mothers, the meaning has been extended from carrying the child during pregnancy to actually giving birth). But strippers bare their bodies—sometimes bare-naked. The confusion between this latter verb and “bear” creates many unintentionally amusing sentences; so if you want to entertain your readers while convincing them that you are a dolt, by all means mix them up. “Bear with me,” the standard expression, is a request for forbearance or patience. “Bare with me” would be an invitation to undress. “Bare” has an adjectival form: “The pioneers stripped the forest bare.”

12. BARTER/HAGGLE: When you offer to trade your vintage jeans for a handwoven shirt in Guatemala, you are engaged in barter—no money is involved. One thing (or service) is traded for another.

But when you offer to buy that shirt for less money than the vendor is asking, you are engaged in haggling or bargaining, not bartering.

13. BESIDE/BESIDES: “Besides” can mean “in addition to” as in “besides the puppy chow, Spot scarfed up the filet mignon I was going to serve for dinner.” “Beside,” in contrast, usually means “next to.” “I sat beside Cheryl all evening, but she kept talking to Jerry instead.” Using “beside” for “besides,” won’t usually get you in trouble; but using “besides” when you mean “next to” will.

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11 thoughts on “Thirteen (More) Common Writing Mistakes”

  1. Wow another very informative TT participatant. I am getting such an education visiting everyone’s TT blog posts.

    Wishing you a scent-sational day!

  2. This is a printable list for constant laughs…especially during meetings where can keep score on these kinds of things. 😉 I really enjoyed this one!!

  3. Love that list! Takes me right back to my days of copy editing… it’s been a while, but some of that stuff stays with you! Good reminders.

  4. You have no idea how many times people keeps mistaking “atm” from automated Teller Machine to at the moment lolz

  5. Can I keep you on speed dial for my writing sessions? Almost all (never thought of the ATM) of these have stumped me. I’d like to think I’m literate and “well-read” but I’m afraid the reality is much worse. Fortunately, the average Joe is much worse than me so no one knows that I don’t know the correct usage most of the time. I think you’ve already got me out of one pickle before (via Twitter?)

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