10 Classes of Careless Usage
If you find yourself making any of the following types of errors, general or specific, brush up on your writing with grammar guides and usage handbooks and/or any or all of the other strategies mentioned at the end of this post.
1. Appending an s to words in which, in most usage, the letter should not be included (for example, regards, as in “in regards to”) or that, in American English, have dropped it altogether (backward). (Using the -st ending in such words as amidst and amongst is a similar sign of poor usage.)
2. Using the incorrect form of pronouns — writing, for example, “My friend and myself” instead of “My friend and I” or “That happened to she and I at the same time” rather than “That happened to her and me at the same time.” (If you don’t like the way that sentence looks, either, write, “That happened to both of us at the same time.”)
3. Using unnecessarily complicated words or phrases in favor of simpler, well-established terms: utilize instead of use, “prior to” in place of before, subsequently instead of later.
4. Using nonwords: irregardless, supposably, theirselves.
5. Using plural forms of words instead of singular ones: “a criteria,” “a phenomena.”
6. Using less when fewer is appropriate: “There are less boxes than I thought” instead of “There are fewer boxes than I thought.”
7. Using euphemisms: “He passed away last year” instead of “He died last year.”
8. Using badly in place of bad in such sentences as “He feels badly about the decision.”
9. Adding extraneous prepositions: “That’s too small of a shirt for you.”
10. Employing erroneous wording of idiomatic phrases: “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes.”
So, how do you know if you’re making such mistakes? Printing this representative list out and tacking it up next to your computer is all well and good for reminding you about these ten pitfalls, but what about the hundreds of others that plague writers?
A combination of strategies is called for:
Do Your Homework
Borrow or buy some of the books listed in the post I linked to in the first paragraph, or check out the resources reviewed on this site. You needn’t read these guides cover to cover; just browse each one to determine whether its content or presentation style is appropriate for you, then, a few pages at a time, work your way through the ones that work for you.
Read Role Models
Seek out high-quality prose: leading magazines and newspapers and great literature. You don’t have to give up reading your favorite blogs or pulp fiction (some of which is/are very well written), but divide your leisure reading between the exemplary and the acceptable so that you can distinguish between the two and recognize well-constructed prose.
Go Back to School
Take a writing or editing class, whether offered as part of a university’s regular curriculum or as a continuing-education course. Whether you earned an MA in literature is irrelevant. You probably didn’t focus on the mechanics of writing during your college years, but now it’s time to do so.
Ask for Backup
Get a friend or a colleague whose writing or editing skills you respect to look over shorter pieces for you and flag grammar and usage errors. (Emphasize that you’d like them to merely call out the problems; you’ll solve them.) This strategy doesn’t work if you’ve completed a novel or a thick report, unless you can pay or trade for services, but when applied to short stories or modest work projects, it will help you develop your skills.
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