Some errors just keep popping up over and over again. Here are five of the most common:
Errors of fact
Our ability to get things wrong is considerable. When I was editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest magazine, we had researchers who checked everything. They came up with numerous elementary errors made by top journalists – from misspelt names to incorrect figures. So double-check your own work for accuracy, and query the facts of other writers if you have even the slightest suspicion they might be wrong.
Spell check programs can reduce spelling errors, and you should use them on every document. But they won’t pick up words that are inappropriately spelt. So one of the big danger areas is confusion about words that are similarly spelt but have different meanings or grammatical functions. For instance, in “the CEO of the company was formally the finance director”, formally should be changed to formerly.
This is an area of grammar where many people go wrong. The rule is that a verb takes a different form depending on whether its subject is singular or plural. Most of the time, it is easy to get this right. Few people say “he run” or “they runs.” When it becomes tricky is in more complex sentences where the verb gets separated from its subject, as in: “The challenge of our troubled times, with global warming and massive population growth, are to stabilise our planet.” It should be: “The challenge … is to stabilise our planet.”
Many good writers find the apostrophe difficult. One of the most common mistakes is to put one in a word that is simply a plural: “Don’t eat all the plum’s.”
It is very easy to use more words than necessary. An editor needs to be on the lookout for these superfluous words and chop them out. That means thinking about the meaning of each word carefully. If you do that, the redundancies in advance warning and two-way dialogue will become obvious.
Tony Spencer-Smith will be teaching The Essentials of Editing over four Thursday evenings in May.