My mother was from the East Coast, and she had a bevy of funny expressions. A short person was “two jam-pots high.” No one was ever just big; he or she was “great big huge.” But my favorite expression was, “Wouldn’t that just rot your socks?” It expressed good-humored annoyance with something or someone (often me!).
Here are 10 writing mistakes that rot my socks:
1. Confusing affect with effect. I’m starting with this one, because it’s one of the most common errors I see. Remember that affect is usually a verb (the action word of a sentence) and effect is almost always a noun (usually preceded by the word the).
- Your work affects your boss’s attitude towards you.
- The PowerPoint presentation had the effect of making me fall asleep.
(Rarely, effect can be a verb but if you know enough to use this specialized word you surely don’t need me to explain it to you! Same goes for affect as a noun.)
2. Misspelling bated breath. Don’t ever write baited breath, even if fishing is your favorite hobby. The word should be spelled bated, which comes from abated, meaning held.
3. Using could of, would of, should of. These are all 100 percent wrong, born of our sloppy speaking styles—would’ve, could’ve, should’ve. What you want to write is could have, would have, should have. We all coulda, wouda, shouda become better at grammar.
4. Misusing literally. If your boss said, “I literally felt like firing the entire department,” would you think he really meant that? No! He meant it hyperbolically. Small comfort, I know, but help him retain at least a few well-trained staff by stopping him from ever using literally unless it’s the actual (literal) truth.
5. Confusing racked with wracked. If you are racked with nerves, you are feeling as if you were being stretched on the torture device, the rack. You rack your brains when you try to write difficult stories. Wrack, on the other hand, has to do with ruinous accidents. With luck, this won’t apply to your writing, but it might just apply to the stock market, which has been wracked by recession.
6. Making a 360-degree turn, when you changed direction. I’ve had many (otherwise bright) bosses say they made a 360-degree turn when they meant that they turned around completely. But think about it: If you turn around so that you’re facing in the opposite direction, you’ve actually made a 180-degree turn.
7. Confusing systematic with systemic. Systematic refers to things that are arranged or dealt with according to an organized method. For example, Mary was systematic about filing her receipts. On the other hand, if you work for doctors or biologists, you might be able to use the word systemic, which refers to parts of a body or system. A systemic illness affects many parts of the body, just as a systemic problem in health care affects many parts of the health care system.
8. Treating singular nouns as plurals. My daughter recently came to me with the sentence, “The movie 'Marley and Me' is about a couple that get a troublesome dog….” I told her that although a couple involves two people, the word couple actually represents a single unit, so the correct sentence needed to be singular: "Marley and Me" is about a couple that gets…
9. Repeating yourself. Repeat after me: PIN stands for personal information number. Therefore, you cannot say PIN number without being redundant. Similarly, CD-ROM stands for “compact disc, read-only memory,” and DVD for Digital Video Disc—so don’t repeat the word disc in either case.
10. Using it’s when you mean its. This is a mistake I see every day—whether on the Web or in print. The rule is so breathtakingly simple that everyone should learn it’s stands for it is. The possessive version, “The dog chewed on its bone,” somehow prompts people to throw in an errant apostrophe. Whenever I see it’s, I always reread the sentence to ensure the correct meaning is it is. And when I see its, I reread the sentence to ensure it doesn’t mean it is.
Bottom line? Writers need to use words correctly. Besides, my family will really appreciate it if you quit rotting socks!
So, what rots your socks, linguistically?
A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her Web site, the Publication Coach. This story first appeared on PR Daily in October 2011.