Marin Pickering shares 6 common mistakes you should avoid to be a better writer.
1. To comprise
The verb “to comprise” fools most people. It means “to consist of”. So “comprised” means “consisted of”.
The usual structure is: “A sandwich comprises two slices of bread and a filling.”
You can change it to the past tense, thus: “During the war, a sandwich comprised two slices of bread with a layer of dripping (beef fat) between.”
You’ll often see “it comprised of” but that’s clearly incorrect. It’s the equivalent of: “It consisted of of”. Worse still, some people are tempted to write “It was comprised of”; a totally nonsensical phrase when translated as “it was consisted of of”. So keep it simple and use “comprise/comprised” correctly. Your text will be more meaningful and concise.
2. To try
This verb is almost always followed by the infinitive of a verb.
For example: “you must try to work harder”.
It is completely wrong to write: “you must try and work harder”.
However, I would add that the majority of readers would not notice the error so it will not stall them. It matters only if you wish to be more than a mediocre writer.
3. Different from, to, than.
The commonly used form in both British and American English is “different from”. It is perfectly acceptable to write “different to” in British English and “different than” in American English but it won’t sound right across the Atlantic. Consequently, to avoid stalling your reader, regardless of nationality, try to use only “different from”. If that’s impossible or sounds strange, rephrase the sentence another way.
4. Omitting relative pronoun “that” or “which”.
Example: “Science has kept our attention focused on the notion of genetic determinism, leaving us ignorant about the influence beliefs have on our lives.”
This is a complex sentence and there’s a tendency to stall at “the influence beliefs” as we think “what are they? It’s easier to understand if we replace the missing word, thus:
“leaving us ignorant about the influence that beliefs have on our lives.”
5. There are a
It is common to see phrases such as “There are a number of things wrong with this concept.”
But is that a correct mix of singular and plural? Would you write, for example, “There are a box of apples” or “There are a bottle of mixed liquids” or “There are a jar of sweets”?
The answer is obviously “no”, yet many writers seem to accept “there are a number” even though it mixes a plural verb conjugation with a singular noun.
However, if we write “There is a number of apples” it sounds clumsy, even though grammatical logic suggests that it’s correct.
My answer is to employ an apostrophe and write “There’s a number of …” This version is logically correct and sounds fine!
My comments also apply to other “non-physical container” words such as “a variety”, “a preponderance” and “a quantity”.
6. KISS = Keep It Simple, Stupid
Don’t treat your readers like complete idiots but don’t force them to look up words in the dictionary. Bear in mind that many readers are probably not native English speakers, so it’s best to avoid unusual words or, if you really feel it necessary to use them, add a brief explanation.
A word like “diarise” (Am: “diarize”) meaning “to make a note in a diary” is great shorthand but, unfortunately, it will make many readers stall because it’s an unfamiliar word. In fact, according to my dictionary, it is “archaic” (old fashioned – no longer used very much).
Also avoid “jargon” – words used in a specific industry (e.g. finance), which are not commonly used elsewhere. Again, if there’s no alternative, add a brief explanation.
Write for Readers – not for Exam
Although I passed English language and English literature exams at school, I’m not an expert and I probably don’t follow the accepted rules. However, I have a good sense of what “flows” and I think that’s more important than sticking to rules. In my opinion, it’s OK to be informal, provided that your writing makes sense, is unambiguous and flows well.
Martin Pickering has a degree in Electronics Engineering. In his early teens he used to read five books per week and, since starting his own mail-order business in 1995, has had to answer customer enquiries where unambiguous English is essential. He writes a monthly blog and has published several technical eBooks for Amazon Kindle. He believes that making your articles easy to understand is more important than adhering strictly to the “rules” of grammar. Martin offers a copy editing service and can be contacted at http://www.your-book.co.uk/copyedit/