I’m occasionally asked which errors I bump into the most frequently during my everyday editing tasks. These are five very common ones.
- Double spaces between sentences. In the pre-PC era, when typewriter fonts allotted the same space for every character—called monospacing or fixed-width—the space bar was hit twice after every sentence to help readers identify where sentences ended. The advent of word processing programs, which employ proportional fonts, has made this practice unnecessary.
Rule: Add only one space between sentences.
- It’s as a possessive. People are used to adding an apostrophe-s to indicate the possessive case: John’s plate, the cat’s toy, Seattle’s skyline. The word its is a possessive pronoun, like his, hers, and yours. The word it’s is always a contraction of two words, either “it is” or “it has.”
Rule: Include an apostrophe in its only if it is a contraction.
- An apostrophe-s indicating plurality. I don’t understand why this error is so common. Generally, when making a noun plural, simply add s or es as appropriate: cars, dresses. The rare exceptions are when making a single letter or character plural [she got straight A's] or when referring to words themselves [replace your &'s with and's].
Rule: Generally, don’t use an apostrophe to indicate plurality.
- Excessive capitalization. Over-capitalization is common in marketing, where writers try to make products [we sell Business Software], services [we offer Free Estimates], or general concepts [the Service Economy] sound particularly important. Another common trap is when defining acronyms [ask your Business Decision Maker (BDM)]. Just because some words make an acronym, that doesn’t mean they are capitalized when spelled out. Do not capitalize a word unless it’s a proper noun, appears in a title, or is the first word in a sentence.
Rule: Do not capitalize a word unless there’s a reason to do so.
- Random dashes. The usage of dashes can vary according to the style you’re following (for example, AP Style recognizes only two dash lengths). Business styles often employ three.
Hyphen: Used to join words [half-dollar] or word parts [ex-president], and to combine two or more words to form a compound adjective [full-color logo, around-the-world race]. Generally, do not hyphenate prefixes [undone, premade] unless the resulting word would be confusing [recreation/re-creation].
En dash: Used to indicate a range of numbers [1992
–1997; pages 33
–120]. It also replaces a hyphen in a compound adjective when one of the elements is an open compound [ex
–vice president, San Francisco
–based]. In Microsoft Word, it is created by pressing ALT while typing 0150 on the numeric keypad.
Em dash: Used to give emphasis when a comma might not be strong enough [Get going—now!], or to indicate a sudden break in thought [Meet in the conference room—if it's available]. Do not use a space before or after an em dash. In Microsoft Word, it is created by pressing ALT while typing 0151 on the numeric keypad.
These five items are pretty straightforward, but mastering them can greatly improve the cleanliness of your writing (oh, and always use the spell-checker).
Ian Smith blogs for Gemstone Media, Inc., in Boise, Idaho.