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Five small but common mistakes writers make

Posted on March 4, 2016

 

As a content editor, my job is to quibble over matters that would not be picked up by the casual reader and ponder over whether an em dash should be a semicolon, an -ise suffix should be an -ize, and a ‘less’ should be a ‘fewer’. Experience in doing this actually begins to train your brain to reject certain turns of phrase and immediately set off alarm bells when it sees them.

I’ve picked out five seemingly innocuous errors that I probably wouldn’t have noticed before I became an editor, but I now can’t leave alone:

1. “This includes X, Y, Z and much more”

This is a very personal one, and something I’ve never heard anyone else complain about it, but for me it’s possibly the single most irritating writing habit of them all.

How often do you see a sentence along these lines?

“The fair will include games, a car boot sale, refreshments and more.”

It’s common salesy language, and it’s said often enough to have become widely accepted, but it’s at best a redundancy and at worst nonsense. The word ‘include’ means ‘to comprise or contain as part of a whole’, so the fact that there is ‘more’ besides this is a given. I find it deeply annoying and little more than a way to pad out text to hit a word count.

2. Whereas vs. whereby

I often see these two words mixed up. They look similar, but they have completely different meanings and are often misused. A good example of this is:

“This is a scheme whereas people save up money to pay for holidays.”

Incorrect! The ‘whereas’ should be ‘whereby’.

‘Whereby’ means ‘by which’ or ‘so that’. ‘Whereas’ means ‘in contrast’, so you might say “I went on holiday, whereas you didn’t”.

3. “Somewhat of”

The words ‘somewhat’ and ‘something’ have very different functions. The former is an adverb, while the latter is a pronoun. Confused writers will often come out with a phrase like:

“This remains somewhat of a mystery.”

Unfortunately, this doesn’t make sense, and the phrase they are looking for is “something of a mystery”. You could say “somewhat mysterious” though.

4. “Different than”

This might be controversial, as some writers and grammarians argue that ‘different than’ is perfectly OK. Personally, I don’t think it is, and usually use ‘different to’ or occasionally ‘different from’.

The word ‘than’ is used to make a comparison between different values, as in ‘bigger than me’, ‘smaller than you’, or anything else with a comparative adjective (usually one ending in -er). ‘Different’ is different – we can’t say ‘differenter’ – so ‘than’ should really be avoided.

5. Less vs. fewer

We’ll end with this old chestnut, which a lot of people still get wrong.

If you want to say that there isn’t as much of something that’s a mass and can’t be counted individually, like air, water or soup, you say there is ‘less’ of it. However, if it’s individual items, you should use ‘fewer’.

For example:

“I ate less chocolate than him.”

But:

“I ate fewer chocolates than him.”

This might seem like a tedious rule dreamt up by grammarians and kept alive by pedants who enjoy telling other people they’re wrong, but in some cases it can actually aid clarification. Consider the following two sentences:

“Due to NHS cuts, the clinic has less qualified doctors.”

“Due to NHS cuts, the clinic has fewer qualified doctors.”

These have quite different meanings. The first means that the doctors at the clinic are now not as qualified, while the second indicates that there are not as many qualified doctors there.

Having said that, there’s no equivalent for ‘more’, so a double meaning would arise if ‘more’ was used instead of ‘less’ or ‘fewer’ in the above examples. Perhaps we just need to accept ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ as a little peculiarity of English that we need to get right.

Small as these errors are, I generally find that writers only need them pointed out once before they stay in their minds. If you were unsure about how to use any of these phrases, I hope you’re more confident now!

John Murray

Content Team Leader at Engage Web
John works for Engage Web as a Content Team Leader and regularly contributes to the website and programmes of his beloved Chester F.C.

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