5 writing traps to avoid

Homophone confusion. Hyphen traps. Errors in parallel construction. We may feel we know them all, but why do communications pros keep goofing up?

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal, Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of writing, we professional wordsmiths often feel we’ve heard it all before.

Yet it takes only a quick review by an editor or a colleague to reveal blind spots: typos, passive verbs, apostrophe abuse and other transgressions.

In a Ragan Training session, two experts reveal “How to avoid the 10 cardinal sins of bad writing—and prevent your copy from ending up in the trash.”

Scott Leff, owner of Leff Communication, and Brittany Petersen, the company’s editorial manager, offer a review that will prove useful even to experts.

“These are things you probably know already but are going to be good reminders,” Petersen says.

Here are a few tips:

1. Watch for homophone confusion.

Auuugh! You were an English major. You’ve been in this business for 25 years. You’re a shoo-in for that opening as vice president of communications. In other words, you’re a pro. Yet you fire off an email that makes the second-grade error of confusing your and you’re.

Watch out for common homophones that can trip up even the seasoned communicator. Here are a few:

  • Peaked/piqued/peeked
  • You’re/your
  • They’re/there/their
  • Then/than
  • Accept/except
  • Lose/loose
  • Insure/ensure
  • Affect/effect

[Sign up for Ragan Training for this and other video education on cutting-edge strategies and tactics.]

Here’s a more comprehensive list from Purdue University, along with examples such as these:

  • Changing the way you eat will affect your health.
  • I can’t see what effect these new laws will have on me.

2. Avoid word stumbles.

Many of us botch the words comprise and myriad. Leff offers this example:

  • The company comprises the founder and three employees.

The term company, he says, embraces the components. Or as Petersen puts it, “It’s a group hug.”

The word myriad shouldn’t be followed by of. Therefore:

  • She spoke of myriad [not “a myriad of”] adventures during her trip around the world.

Another common term is often misused: Leverage is “influence or power or the increase in force gained by using a lever,” Leff says. Even allowing for metaphorical use, could you (or your jargon-afflicted CEO) be overdoing it with this word?

3. Sidestep hyphen traps.

Hyphens connect words and numbers into a single concept and are often used for building adjectives, Petersen says.

If you’re not connecting two words as a compound adjective, she says, “you don’t need a hyphen.” Adverbial phrases can do without the line segment between words.


  • Full-time worker , but she works full time.
  • Real-time feedback , but feedback in real time.
  • 50-year-old man , but the man is 50 years old.

Also, omit the hyphen following the adverb very and all adverbs ending in ly. Don’t hyphenate phrases such as very funny joke or publicly available information.

4. Stop comma abuse.

Abusing commas? Come on. That’s just mean. Though the subject is a broad one, consider this example: commas that set off parenthetical information.

“The rule is that if you can take a parenthetical out of the sentence and it doesn’t change the meaning, then you put commas around it,” Leff says.

Consider these examples:

  • A chef from New Orleans, who can’t make shrimp and grits, shouldn’t be allowed in kitchen. (Don’t allow this particular Louisianan anywhere near the stove—and by the way, he can’t doesn’t even know a basic recipe from his region.)
  • A chef from New Orleans who can’t make shrimp and grits shouldn’t be allowed in kitchen. It’s a rule we have for any and all Cajuns who can’t whip up a pot of grits.

5. Don’t botch parallel construction.

  • Incorrect: “To succeed is opening a new opportunity.”
  • Correct: “To succeed is to open a new opportunity.”

Another one to watch for is the “not only … but also” construction, Petersen says.

  • Incorrect: “The author not only wants fame but also money.”
  • Correct: “The author not only wants fame but also craves money.”
  • Correct: “The author wants not only fame but also money.”


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