Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Some Common Mistakes

And How to Avoid Them

by Melisa Michaels

The Apostrophe: When In Doubt, Leave It Out

The omitted apostrophe confuses meaning less often than the needless one does. If I write a note to tell you, “This is Janes dog,” you’ll likely know I mean to let you know the dog belongs to Jane. If I write instead, “Jane’s friend’s are writer’s,” and you know anything about the punctuation of English, you will be in some confusion as to what belongs to whom.

In general, the apostrophe means one of two things.

  1. There is a missing letter where it is. For example, in “don’t” there is a missing “o”; in “it’s” there is a missing “i”: each of these is a one-word contraction commonly used to represent two words. “Don’t” means “do not,” and “it’s” means “it is.”
  2. Something belongs to someone. For example, “Jane’s dog” means the dog belongs to Jane. “Fred’s house” means the house belongs to Fred (or at least that he lives in it). Apostrophe-S is used to indicate possession.

Unfortunately, number 2 above presents a problem when a thing belongs to a thing. If we want to say, “The box has its label now,” shouldn’t we use “it’s” to show possession? The answer is most emphatically no, we should not. “It’s” means “it is.” It never means “belonging to it.”

And here I present you with a writerly secret about apostrophes: if the reader sees none where there should be one, she will imagine you’ve dropped it by accident, and that the result is a typographical error (a “tyop”) rather than an indication of ignorance.

But if she sees an apostrophe where there should be none, she is unlikely to imagine that you added it by accident. Even if in this one case you really did hit that key without noticing, your reader is going to assume that you did it deliberately, in ignorance. It is a sad truth about readers. As a result, you’re much safer if you follow the apostrophe rule: when in doubt, leave it out.

Phrase-Matching

A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.

Luckily this rather daunting injunction is simpler than it sounds. An example from Strunk’s The Elements of Style:

Walking slowly down the road, he saw a woman accompanied by two children.

The word walking refers to the subject of the sentence, not to the woman. If the writer wishes to make it refer to the woman, he must recast the sentence.

He saw a woman, accompanied by two children, walking slowly down the road.

Strunk considers this example adequate, and perhaps it is. Even without an understanding of “participial phrases” and “grammatical subjects,” you should be able with moderate effort to extend this logic to other, similar sentences.

The next rule contains even more daunting terms:

Participial phrases preceded by a conjunction or by a preposition, nouns in apposition, adjectives, and adjective phrases come under the same rule if they begin the sentence.

If you don’t know what those terms mean, you should still be able to see by example what is meant.

Wrong: On arriving in Chicago, his friends met him at the station.
Better: On arriving in Chicago, he was met at the station by his friends.

Wrong: A writer of popular self-help books, they hired her to write their company manual.
Better: A writer of popular self-help books, she was hired to write the company manual.

Wrong: Inexperienced as he was, it sounded easy to write a book.
Better: Inexperienced as he was, he thought writing a book would be easy.

Sentences that violate these rules are often ludicrous:

Being weather-damaged and badly infested with termites, I was able to buy the house at quite a low price.

Wondering which way to turn, a bird soiled my hat.

As a writer of popular romances, his computer was quite fast.

Spelling

If your word processor has a spell-checker, use it. Be aware, however, that spell-checkers can only determine whether words are spelled correctly. They cannot determine whether the word in question is the one wanted. For example, had I written “they cannot determine weather the word … is the one wanted,” a spell-checker would not have flagged it because, although “weather” was quite the wrong word, it was spelled correctly.

It is therefore necessary not only to spell-check by hand, but also to know more than your computer does about which word you wanted. A hardcopy dictionary is essential. If you know there are other words that sound like the one you used, it’s a good idea to look them up, to make sure you selected the right one.

Did you say “they’re” or “there” when you meant “their”? What about two, too, and to–have you used the right one? Do you know how to decide which of “you’re” and “your” and “yore” you want? Depending on your regional accent, the words within these groups may sound identical. Have you really selected the correct one? Do you know how to tell?

A dictionary will help in every case. If you look up the word you selected and the meaning turns out to be quite different from what you intended, look up similar-sounding words until you find the one you wanted. You may be surprised how many words are commonly used incorrectly or mistaken for each other in speech.

Identifying Your Pronouns

Fred went to his brother’s house to get his hat.

Whose hat is that? Can you tell from that sentence? I can’t: the hat could belong to either Fred or his brother, or even to someone else entirely. All we know is that it belongs to someone male.

Sometimes it feels awkward to identify a pronoun. In the above example neither “Fred went to his brother’s house to get Fred’s hat” nor “Fred went to his brother’s house to get his brother’s hat” sounds quite as satisfactory as the original. Yet you do want your reader to know just whose hat it is; otherwise she may fuss about it so much she doesn’t enjoy the rest of your story. Readers are like that.

The solution is to recast the sentence:

Fred went to his brother’s house to get the hat he left there the previous day.

This is still mildly ambiguous, but will be understood in context. The probability that it is Fred’s hat is increased.

Or if the hat belongs to the brother, you could say,

Fred went to his brother’s house to borrow a hat for the party.

It could be that Fred’s brother keeps a houseful of hats belonging to persons we have not met, but very likely he does not, and the hat in question actually belongs to him.

This sort of thing is important to the reader. If she is left in doubt as to whose a hat is, she will all too often keep worrying the problem long after a more rational being might have gone on to something else. What’s worse, she’ll bring it up again and again at the most inopportune moments, reminding anyone who’ll listen that she was left in doubt in the middle of your book (she may make it sound as bad as having been left without water in the middle of a desert) as to the ownership of a hat.

Far better simply to tell her at the first mention of it that the hat is Fred’s, or you may never hear the end of it. Nobody wants to spend her entire literary career worrying about Fred’s hat.

Being Consistent

Now that we have settled this pesky matter of the hat I feel comfortable mentioning that although the reader often seems to have only the frailest grasp of what’s going on and therefore needs every clue possible to stay abreast of the fictional situation, it is unwise to assume that he or she will overlook the smallest discrepancy in your logic.

Perhaps you think that the person who could not tell that was Fred’s hat you were talking about will not notice that Fred lived on Elm Street at the beginning of your novel and yet goes home to Ellis Street at the end with never a change of address mentioned in between. Not so. Readers will notice the oddest things.

If your protagonist puts down her blaster on page one, walks away from it, and yet has it handy in her holster to shoot another villain on page three, your reader will be testy about it.

If your protagonist has blue eyes and yellow hair on page forty-two, but has become a brown-eyed brunette by page ninety-eight, your reader will very likely be vexed.

There are a great many hazards in the path of a beginning writer that I have not even mentioned, and seemingly endless skills you will need to acquire. And when you have mastered them all, you will be left alone with that shockingly dense and perversely astute creature called “the reader,” who cannot be trusted to divine the ownership of a hat but will relentlessly examine your every apostrophe for its purpose, meaning, and needfulness.

That creature is the one to whom you are telling your stories. That is your audience, and it can be appeased only with the greatest of care and attention to detail. It will notice when you change tenses in mid-sentence. It will snarl when you change points of view without warning or explanation. It will show its teeth when you confuse it, and it will be easily confused … except when you want it confused so it won’t notice prestidigitation. Then it will remain steadfastly alert and attentive despite your best efforts to bludgeon it into insensibility.

That is the nature of the beast. Fortunately it is willing, even eager, to be amused. If you have done your research, mastered the tools of your trade, exercised all the skill at your command, and been consistent in your choices, you may please it.

Melisa Michaels is the author of the science fiction novels Skirmish, First Battle, Last War, Pirate Prince, Floater Factor, and Far Harbor, the fantasy novel Cold Iron, and the mystery novel Through the Eyes of the Dead.

Distribution of this article is encouraged as long as it is kept intact and proper credit is given.

This page was last modified on Tuesday January 04 2005.


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