September is back-to-school month for much of the country, and that got me thinking. I yield to nobody in my admiration for teachers. They should be celebrated as heroes.
I could never be a teacher. Oh, I enjoy the process of mentoring people and seeing the light of comprehension dawn on someone’s face. But I do not have the required patience to re-explain, and then re-explain again, until a student finally understands. I get positively peevish when someone who has supposedly mastered the material goes on to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Willful ignorance infuriates me. To paraphrase Woody Allen: there are some people you just want to pinch.
Now, reasonable people can disagree about the fine points of grammar. I’m happy to let smart people chose the grammar rules they wish to use. But the other side of that coin is that there are some fundamental rules that aren’t up for debate. The possessive its does not contain an apostrophe. Your and you’re cannot be swapped for each other. A comma, by itself, cannot join two independent clauses into one sentence. Questions must end in a question mark.
When I see glaring errors prominently displayed in professional website content, I wince. But a handful of mistakes have become more common, not less, over the years I’ve been writing this column.
Let’s fix those now.
There’s No Hall of Shame When Writers Are Shameless
We’re going to take a look today at six particularly annoying error types I see over and over again. I’ll illustrate the mistakes with excerpts from actual content writing—with slight modifications to the text so I don’t embarrass anyone. Review these errors. Think about whether you commit them regularly. Resolve to do better.
1. Don’t Mix Singular and Plural Willy-Nilly
I understand that people are sensitive about gender and can be quick to take offense. Some writers balk at a statement like, “After a car accident, visit your doctor and make sure he keeps careful records of your injuries,” because there might be a sexist assumption that all doctors are male. But in order to avoid a possible mistake in gender, those writers make an actual mistake in number, writing, “After a car accident, visit your doctor and make sure they keep careful record of your injuries.” The singular doctor becomes a plural (and gender-unspecified) “they.”
This will not do. Muddling singular and plural forms can only confuse the reader. But it’s done a lot in content writing. And the mistakes can affect multiple parts of speech, as we see in these examples:
Singular subject, plural pronoun
- “In some cases, an employer may prevent an employee from seeking the care they need.” Who is this “they”?
- “You don’t even know what a claims adjuster does. Should you trust them?” Claims adjuster is singular, but them is plural.
- “When someone calls your office, they have already made an emotional investment in their relationship with you.”
- “Get to know your audience and what they want.”
Singular subject, plural possessive adjective
- “But if the U.S. Congress has their way, spending on Social Security disability will be significantly diminished.”
Singular subject, plural verb
- “In the general public, one in 100 people are addicted to drugs or alcohol.” The singular subject one requires the singular verb is.
- “It is up to the state bar to make subjective decisions as to whether mental illness or depression, either treated or untreated, are a barrier to a potential attorney’s ability to practice law.” When two singular nouns are connected by or, the result is singular.
2. Remember That Organizations Are Not People
Businesses, charities, governments, and other organizations that consist of people are not people themselves. Grammatically, they are treated as things. They are referred to as “it” rather than “he.” A single organization is treated as a singular noun.
- “When an employer prevents you from getting the treatment you need, they can be held accountable.” An employer isn’t a they.
- “Are you a company looking for an intern?” No. The reader may manage or own a company looking for an intern, but the person is not the business.
- “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who tracks accident statistics, estimates that car seat use reduces the risk of death in an accident.” That who should be which; we use “who” for people only.
3. Beware of the Ampersand
The ampersand—also called the “and sign”—is an ugly little squiggle (&) that should be avoided in content writing. Yes, you must use the ampersand if it’s part of a title, trademark, or business name, such as Scrooge & Marley. But don’t substitute an ampersand for the word “and” on your own. I’d caution that it’s especially important not to use an ampersand to cram in more characters into titles, headlines, and other meta-content.
Because the ampersand isn’t a common symbol, it interrupts the flow of reading in a way the written word “and” does not. It stops a reader for a moment in the middle of your sentence, and that’s never a good thing. It also proclaims that the writer is lazy, preferring to save a couple keystrokes no matter how it may inconvenience the reader. Look at this example:
- “When you are injured because of another person’s negligence, you need justice & closure to prevent others from a similar experience.”
Ampersands should be avoided in business writing. It’s just that simple.
4. Don’t Use a Hyphen When You Need a Dash
The hyphen and the two forms of the dash are different symbols and perform different functions. When you want to include information that’s not essential to a sentence, use a pair of dashes, not hyphens.
Consider this example:
- “It’s easy for anyone - even a first-time driver - to calculate how much car insurance to buy.”
The hyphen is used properly to weld together the compound adjective first-time. But the breaks in the sentence require dashes instead.
5. Random Capital Letters Will Lead You to Ruin
Using capital letters for emphasis is acceptable if done sparingly. And I admit a certain fondness of the modern habit of using capitalized words to signal irony (“No,” Ginevra said, “Please don’t take Anthro 101 with Professor Herkimer. He will expose you to Secrets Man Was Not Meant to Know.”) But I would think twice before using ironic capitals in business writing.
But the target of our wrath here should be those instances where writers simply stick in capital letters for no good reason. Consider these examples:
- “The only exceptions to this rule include railroad carriers, U.S. Government agencies, farm laborers, and domestic servants.”
- “Read about recent auto accident case Results.”
- “Share it with your Social Media networks by using the buttons below.”
Content writing for law firms seems especially prey to random capitalization disease in a couple of specific ways. Remember these rules:
- Don’t capitalize the “the” in law firm names unless it’s the first word of a sentence. This is wrong: “At The Law Offices of Zebulon Marsh, we want you to walk away satisfied.”
- Don’t capitalize “Attorney” or “Lawyer” when naming a person unless it’s the first word of a sentence. This is wrong: “On our website, you can order a copy of Attorney Zebulon Marsh’s free book, How to Win Your Misdemeanor or Felony Case.”
6. Please Don’t Use “And/Or”
The combination “and/or” is widely disliked for everyday writing, and some critics even object to “and/or” in legal writing. The phrase is stuffy and legalistic. Almost always, it can be replaced by a simple “or” or, less often, “or...but not both.” Instead of giving your writing clarity, “and/or” creates ambiguity. Just avoid it.
“What Do You Read, My Lord?”
When Polonius asks this question, Hamlet replies, “Words, words, words.” True enough, but not very helpful.
One might equally ask someone who produces content for a professional website, “What do you write?” The best answer, of course, would be something along the lines of “engaging and informative text that my reading audience can use.” Sorry to say, there’s no ready recipe for writing that meets those specifications.
It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that the general public is not known for strong reading skills. To communicate effectively, you will need to eliminate barriers to clear communication—such barriers as the six common errors we discussed today.
Are you also exasperated by other common errors you see over and over in content writing? Did you manage to train yourself to produce more readable content? The comment section of this page is where you can tell your story. Please take a few moments to share your observations with our community. We’d love to hear your views.