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09 Nov 2020

Our Top 5 List of Most Common Grammatical Errors

A nod to the writers in the creative world

Writing, especially in the creative services industry, is fundamental, yet it continues to be one of the most difficult things to do well. At Smith + Connors, we write collaboratively, which means that one of us will draft something, and then it’ll get passed around a lot on its way to publication or the client. This can create interesting challenges when it comes to copyediting and proofreading. 

To share what we’ve learned, we’ve pulled together a list of mistakes that we look for when we’re editing each other’s work. We’re not talking about basic grammar and punctuation – these are higher-level issues that you should be aware of as you improve your writing.

Adjective hierarchy

The English language has many peculiar rules. Among the “hidden rules” of English lurks one that is foundational to the way we write, but almost never discussed. This is the rule of adjective hierarchy (also referred to as “cumulative adjectives”). Most native English speakers use this rule intuitively, without ever realizing it exists. But when someone breaks this rule, most writers immediately understand something is wrong.

Adjective hierarchy refers to the fact that when listing multiple adjectives to describe an object, there is a specific order in which those adjectives must be listed: quantity, opinion, size, age, color, shape, origin, material, and purpose. Here’s an example:

"I purchased three sturdy large old brown French wooden chests."

While this sentence is certainly a mouthful, it sounds intuitively correct to a native English speaker. Now let’s see what happens when we break the rule:

"I purchased three wooden sturdy old French brown large chests."

This sounds odd, and now you know why. Heed the rules of adjective hierarchy!

Consistency and agreement within metaphors, similes, and analogies

In our industry, we write differently from government agencies or large bureaucratic organizations. We use colorful, descriptive language to help create narratives or tell stories about a brand, design, or other creative deliverable. This style makes frequent use of metaphors, similes, analogies, and other devices to help convey complex ideas, thoughts, and emotions. This kind of writing can be helpful when used properly, but sound downright silly or confusing when not. Here are some examples:

“We look forward to partnering with you as you take the first step on this voyage towards a better brand strategy.”

This example is subtle, but take a look: Most voyages do not involve walking; they are defined as “a long journey involving travel by sea or in space.” So, taking a “first step” on a voyage doesn’t make sense. Instead, it would be better to replace “voyage” with “journey,” which includes travel by foot. Don’t mix your metaphors.  

Switching subject perspective within a paragraph

This is a very straightforward, and yet very common error made in writing. Use the subject perspective and tense consistently. For example, if you begin your paragraph by speaking in terms of “the organization,” (using the third-person perspective), it can be confusing to the reader if you start referring to that same subject as “you” (second-person perspective). While the writer may be referring to the same subject conceptually, switching between these perspectives could lead the reader to think that they, personally, are now being addressed, instead of their organization. This happens all the time.

Tone and style agreement between writers

The issue of tone agreement is one of the more difficult problems to tackle when editing a piece of writing. Tone refers to the “impression” conveyed through diction, punctuation, and other stylistic features that each author uses when they write, consciously or not. Because there are not necessarily set “rules” for how to write in a certain tone, and because the overall context of the discussion plays such an important role in shaping tone, it can be difficult to determine if there is a mismatch in tone between authors, and if so, how to fix it. Similarly, style speaks to the characteristics of the writing itself. Some authors write in a few very long sentences; others tend to write in shorter, but more numerous sentences.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself to ensure the writing is consistent when multiple authors collaborate on a piece:

  1. Punctuation plays an important role in the “flow” of a piece, and having inconsistent punctuation can disrupt the natural rhythm a reader develops as they make their way through the piece. Is one author using things like exclamation points, while others aren’t? For longer sentences, is the use of commas and semicolons consistent?

  2. Is one of your authors writing in simple, short, declarative sentences? If a different author in the piece is writing in long, flowery prose, this can be very jarring to the reader.

  3. Diction, or word choice, can play a major role in shaping the tone and style of a document. Is one author making use of austere language, while another makes heavy use of flowery adjectives? If so, this can make it difficult for the reader to get through the piece.

Use of language describing race, ethnicity, religion, gender, etc.

While using inconsistent punctuation or misordered adjectives can make a piece of writing difficult to read, misusing terms when speaking on issues related to social equity, prejudice, and related issues can actively harm marginalized groups.

One of the more widely-recognized sources of information for best practices is the Associated Press. Here are some key points they discuss:

  1. When writing about a person, always ask yourself: is someone’s group identity (race, religion, gender, etc.) relevant to the writing? Unless it serves a clearly defined purpose within the context of the piece, this information is irrelevant and does not need to be included.

  2. If someone’s group identity is important, make sure you have complete and accurate information. Do not just assume them to be a member of a particular race, ethnicity, etc. If you cannot confirm the information, then you probably should avoid writing about it.

  3. Be sensitive to issues of capitalization, spelling, and terminology, as they are prone to change. Recently, the AP made the determination that the word “Black” should be capitalized when used to discuss race. It is important to always research the subject you are writing about, to confirm that your use of language is as current as possible.

  4. Understand that not every member of a “group” feels the same way about the language used to describe them. For instance, there is some discussion surrounding the use of terms like “people of color” versus the acronym “BIPOC.” Individuals within a racial, ethnic, or other social group can have different feelings about the way language is used when addressing their community. It should be your job, as an editor, to ensure that, regardless of the specific language being used, every effort is being made to speak to the audience as it wants to be spoken to. While not everyone may agree on a specific term, conducting a thorough evaluation of the way your audience uses language, is an important step to making sure your team’s writing does not perpetuate stereotypes and inflict further harm on communities that have historically been marginalized.

The job of an editor, especially one working on pieces with multiple authors, can be challenging. Hopefully, the tips listed above will you ensure that the written work being produced represents your organization to the greatest extent possible!

NOTE: Our print design for our Northwest Carpenter's Union project was featured in the Top 10 Print Designs on DesignRush!


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