Sure, you know how to write, but do you ever notice how other people's writing contains some really stupid errors? You think to yourself: "How can this person, who has been to college, make so many mistakes? I no longer love him, my firstborn son." And when that happens, don't you then take a moment's pause and ask yourself, "Do I make any stupid errors like that?" Of course you do! Someone could be reading something you wrote right now and noticing that you failed to match a pronoun with an antecedent. A smug smile is spreading over that person's face, and he is thinking, "That sorry chimp can't write his way out of a wet paper bag." Can you stand that? We sure can't. So we looked into it, and we compiled a list of the most common writing errors people who are otherwise good writers tend to make. This is not a primer on grammar or essay-writing. This is a checklist of things which you might well do and which you must STOP doing. We will tell you the correct way to do things. Ready?


The subject in a sentence has to agree with the verb. This means that the verb has to be correctly inflected (i.e., have the right ending) to match the subject. You know, of course, that you mustn't write things like "You has to go," so we won't bother with the basics. There is, however, an error that you might make without ever noticing, and you must stop. Take a look at this:

"Pavel Bure is a faster skater than him."

If that looks right to you, you are dead wrong. This is because both "Pavel Bure" and "him" are both using the same verb, "is." The sentence is a comparison of what Pavel Bure and some other shmuck can do, but the second use of the verb is assumed and left out. If it were included, the sentence would read like this: "Pavel Bure is a faster skater than him is." That would be so wrong. The correct way to write the phrase is this: "Pavel Bure is a faster skater than he." If that sounds funny to you, we recommend that you include the second instance of the verb, i.e., "Pavel Bure is a faster skater than he is." The wrong way: "Belinda is prettier than her," "We wreck shop at a higher level than them," and "John eats more toast than me." The right way: "Belinda is prettier than she," "We wreck shop at a higher level than they do," and "John eats more toast than I." People make this error so often that it's difficult to keep it out of your speech, but if you're careful you can eliminate it from your writing and give your critics one less reason to smirk.


A pronoun is a word which refers to a subject or object which has already been identified. The antecedent is the word which is being referred to by the pronoun. For example: "When you use an antecedent in the first clause of a sentence, you can refer to it with the pronoun ‘it' in the second clause of the sentence." Pronouns are great things, as speech would be unbelievably tedious without them. Pronouns must, however, agree with their antecedents in number and gender, and many people are not careful enough about this. The most common error is to use the pronoun "they" to refer to a singular antecedent. Bad: "If you go and talk to a grammarian, they will say that you are dead wrong when you use ‘they' as a singular antecedent."

Many people make the foregoing mistake because they do not wish to use a gender-specific pronoun. We do not have a gender-neutral pronoun in English, so when we refer to an antecedent whose gender is unknown we must either use the old method and use "he" or we must say "he or she." Some people recommend alternating "he" and "she" as gender-neutral pronouns within a piece of writing, but we think this is rather contrived. (When feeling trendy, we use "(s)he," but we have heard this horrifies old school grammarians, so do so at your own risk.)

To use "they" with a singular antecedent is simply incorrect, because it does not agree in number with the noun to which it refers.


"If you meet a snake-charmer on the road, tell them that you'll have none of their nonsense."

"I spoke to somebody at the office, but they couldn't help."


"If you meet a snake-charmer on the road, tell him or her that you'll have none of his or her nonsense."

"I spoke to somebody at the office, but she couldn't help."

(In the latter case, since the writer spoke to the "somebody," the gender is probably known and therefore it should be specified.)


Apostrophes indicate possession and form contractions. That's it.

What part of that is unclear? Apparently, the use of apostrophes is extremely confusing to many people. What does "CD's" mean to you? If you answered "It is the plural of CD," you are dead wrong. "CD's" indicates that something belongs to the CD, as in "The CD's case was eaten by a goat." The plural of CD is "CDs." We don't understand when people began using apostrophes to pluralize nouns, but we see signs reading "Driver's wanted" and other such nonsense all the time. We heard, to our dismay, that The New York Times recently used "the 60's" in a headline. Indicating the plural of a decade using an apostrophe (e.g., "70's" instead of "70s" or "seventies") is one of the most common apostrophe errors. We don't care what The New York Times thinks; it's just plain wrong. If you use apostrophes in this manner you must stop doing so immediately.

Here are the right ways to use apostrophes:

Use apostrophes to indicate possession

When you want to indicate possession with a singular noun, whether it ends in an "s" or not, you add an apostrophe and an "s" on the end. For example: "the midget's pathos," "the pathos's source" and "the source's nature." The only exception to this is the word "it," with which you indicate possession by adding an "s" alone (i.e., "its"), because the word "it's" is a contraction meaning "it is." When you want to indicate possession with a plural noun which ends in any letter other than "s," you add an apostrophe and an "s" on the end. For example: "the people's champion," "the hippopotami's excrement," and "the geese's habitat." When you want to indicate possession with a plural noun which ends in "s," you add an apostrophe on the end. For example: "the peoples' champions," "the debutantes' routine," and "the undergarments' impenetrability." That's all there is to say about indicating possession with apostrophes.

Use apostrophes to form contractions

Apostrophes are also used to form contractions. We are told that contractions were invented by sign-painters back in the olden days because they kept running out of room or paint when they were plying their trade. Many commentators suggest that contractions should not ever be used in writing, because they are too informal. We think that contractions are fine in informal writing or when it is necessary to convey a conversational tone, but we'll leave it up to you. The important thing is that you understand that contractions are the only other use for apostrophes. For example: "you can't so don't," "they're wrong," and "it's incorrect to use apostrophes for anything other than indicating possession or forming a contraction."

When can you use an apostrophe to indicate that a noun is plural? Never. We hope that's clear.


Look at these examples

This is a tricky subject, because nobody seems to agree on which words are just nouns and which ones are nouns and verbs. The truth is that language evolves and words which once were used only as nouns begin being used as verbs. The hybrid verbs often describe the action of being or obtaining the object described by the noun. Some examples of nouns which are used as verbs are: "contact," "impact," "focus," "parent," "medal," and "liaison." Just to take the guesswork out of it, we will tell you what the verb-forms of these nouns are supposed to mean, which ones you may and may not use, and why you may or may not use them.

Contact: To establish contact with something else. You may use this noun as a verb, because it is so prevalent that you'll end up sounding very strange if you don't use it.

Impact: To make or have an impact on something. You may not use this noun as a verb. It sounds horribly clumsy and many people find its use as a verb aesthetically offensive. You have been warned.

Focus: To narrow or clarify one's figurative focus to concentrate on a particular point. You may use this noun as a verb. Once again, it's just so common that you might as well bow to the mindless masses.

Parent: To behave as a parent would. You may not use this noun as a verb. This is just laziness, and it sounds so idiotically new-age that it makes us ill.

Medal: To receive a medal, usually in the Olympics. Of course you may not use this noun as a verb. How horrible.

Liaison: To attend a liaison. You may use this noun as a verb. The military uses it extensively, and its members will not listen to us no matter what we say. It is also an anglicized noun from French, so what harm will a little more tinkering do to it?

Use your judgment

Modern dictionaries, particularly the Merriam Webster dictionary (, will tell you that it is all right to use words just about any way you might ever imagine. This is because they suffer from Samuel Johnson's fear of missing some word or use of a word in their attempts to be comprehensive. It is perfectly acceptable for you to disagree with the writers of dictionaries and say "Just because some idiot thinks it's okay to use ‘medal' as a verb doesn't mean I'm going to join in." If you look at a dictionary entry carefully, you'll often see that the word you're looking at was used exclusively as a noun up until 1983 or something like that. This is a good sign that only those with no taste would use the noun as a verb. Of the above examples, we only use "contact" as a verb, and we only use that because of pressure from past employers and professors. You might choose to be less sensitive to this issue than we are, but you'd better hope your written work is never evaluated by someone who agrees with us.


There are many words which sound or look similar, but which have different meanings or go with different words. Some of the differences are simple and some are complex, but we will explain them all so that you can use the words properly.

1. Use "affect" and "effect" correctly

"Affect" is a verb which means to influence something (e.g., "The wind affected the kite-flying"), or to attempt to convey something untrue or misleading (e.g., "He tried to affect an English accent").

"Effect" is a noun which refers to the result of some antecedent cause (e.g., "The aphrodisiac had a dizzying effect" or "The effect of the crash was an exploding school-bus"), or it can be a verb which means to bring about (e.g., "The corporate raiders effected a hostile takeover of the defenseless startup company").

The use of "effect" as a verb is what causes the most confusion with these words. Just remember: "affect" = to influence, and "effect" = to bring about. We can affect you with our bad singing (by irritating you) and we can affect a Spice Girls impersonation with our bad singing (by posing as a group who can sing), but we cannot effect either you or the Spice Girls with our singing because our singing has nothing to do with bringing about (1) your existence, or (2) the existence of the Spice Girls. We hope that's clear.

Use "thus" and "therefore" correctly

People mix these up all the time. Therefore, you can stand out as a smarty-pants if you avoid messing them up. "Thus" primarily means "like this/that" or "in this/that manner," while "therefore" primarily means "because of the foregoing, this follows." It is far more common to see people using "thus" where they should use "therefore" than it is to see the opposite. Here are some examples:


"I am a goat. Thus, I am not a human."

"We tied planks of wood together with vines and tree branches. Therefore, we effected a raft."

"Water is not an element; rather, it is a combination of elements. Thus, almost every use of the word 'elemental' throughout history has been incorrect."


"I am a goat. Therefore, I am not a human."

"We tied planks of wood together with vines and tree branches. Thus, we effected a raft."

"Water is not an element; rather, it is a combination of elements. Therefore, almost every use of the word 'elemental' throughout history has been incorrect."

Use "e.g." and "i.e." correctly

Finally, just to set the record straight, "i.e." means "that is" and "e.g" means "for example." You don't care which Latin words the letters stand for and we don't remember. Just take our word for it. For example: "We asked the human pustule, i.e., Jerry's cousin, to keep his distance from our pizza," "The continents are made up of various layers of rock, e.g., granite and basalt," and "It was inappropriate for the best man, i.e., you, to make comments about various aspects of the groom's past, e.g., the drugs, the gambling, the whoring, and the war crimes." In order to make sure you don't make errors with these two pesky little abbreviations, just say "that is" in your head whenever you write "i.e." and "for example" if "e.g." is what you want to write. That way you won't mess up unless you have the I.Q. of a vegetable, e.g., a potato, in which case we can't help you much.


The infinitive form of a verb is just the action that the verb describes. Most verb forms need to be inflected (i.e., the verb needs to have something added to the end like an "s," an "ed," an "es," etc.) based on the person or persons who are doing it, when it was done, whether it was actually done or just might have been done, etc. Like we said, we're not going to lay out a whole frickin' grammar textbook for you. The important point is that the infinitive form doesn't make reference to who does it or anything else. It is just the word "to" and the verb root. For example: "to eat," "to sleep," "to drink," and "to prestidigitate." Now that we know what an infinitive form is, we need to insist that the infinitive form of the verb be treated as if it were one word instead of two. It is a form of a verb, just like "ate," "slept," "drank," or "prestidigitated." It is incorrect to monkey about with this poor verb form and to split it up by putting extra words in between the "to" and the verb root. Sorry, trekkies: "to boldly go" just ain't right. Most of our grammar is inherited from Latin, and the infinitives in Latin are one-word (e.g., "comprendere," "facire," and "manere"). We don't know why we ended up with two-word infinitives, but we don't think it's fair to go taking liberties with our infinitives just because they seem vulnerable. Go ahead and say whatever you like, but don't write "to fastidiously sharpen," "to assiduously manipulate," "to ever so slightly dislodge," or anything of the sort.

We should note here that we have heard that the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, of all sources, has declared that split infinitives are no longer incorrect. We don't know where it gets off saying that, and we hope it was that execrable Oxford Dictionary of New Words, instead of the good old OED, but we are too scared to look. It seems that some people think they can make up the rules of grammar as they go along. We see no good reason to stop treating the infinitive form with respect and to place modifiers either before or after the two words which make up the verb. For example "to sharpen fastidiously," or "to manipulate assiduously," or "ever so slightly to dislodge." The important thing for you to remember is that there are many people, not all of whom are wearing smoking jackets and staring through bleary eyes at paintings of their clubs' founders, who will think that you don't know any better if you split your infinitives. We wince whenever we see a split infinitive in a news article or essay, and we don't even own smoking jackets or belong to clubs (yet). You just never know when someone who cares is going to see your writing and think ill of you.


What does the word "hopefully" mean to you? If you answered that it means "It is to be hoped," you are dead wrong. "Hopefully" is an adverb which describes the manner of someone who is hopeful. For example: "When he heard the zipper opening, Antoine looked around hopefully." It is incorrect to begin sentences with "hopefully" and then state something that you hope. For example: "Hopefully, people won't think I'm a goof even though I keep making this stupid error." Don't do that. Instead, say "I am hopeful that," "I hope that," or even "It is to be hoped." We're not kidding. You really have to stop.

Don't you feel smarter already?