Some Common Pitfalls

Did you proofread your paper more than once? Spell check isn’t enough. “Public” and “pubic” are both words, but you don’t want them confused. To proof a paper, follow these steps: read it out loud, read it backwards, then read it one line at a time. If you’re brave, have someone else read it.

Not following directions and formatting instructions
Make sure all letters are in the organizational template (margins, type face, point size).

Subject/verb agreement
Wrong: “The loyalty and pride you have shown is an inspiration to us all.”
Take out the phrase “you have shown.” What you have left is: “The loyalty and pride… (they) ARE…”
To check out if what you have is correct, remove the extraneous phrase and replace the subject with a pronoun. If you use “they,” then the verb is plural. If you use “it” or “s/he,” then the verb is singular.


Technically, “none” is supposed to be singular, since it stands for “not one.” So you end up with “none of us is going” and “none of them is correct,” which sound funny. Same with “any” (one) – you end up with “is any of you going” or “does any of you know,” which also sound funny. Go with the version you’re comfortable with.

Object form of pronouns
Wrong: “That’s exactly what happened to John and I.”
“We had dinner with she and her husband on Sunday.”
Again, take out the “and” part. What you’re left with is “That’s exactly what happened to I,” and “We had dinner with she.”


Turning verbs into nouns.
Wrong: “Unanimous agreement is crucial on this bill.”
“Prior approval is needed.”
This style makes the subject obscure. Who is supposed to be agreeing? Whose approval do you need to get? To get around this problem, think in clear terms about what you want to say. If the action you want is not the verb, then rewrite the sentence until it is.

It’s often best to use good ol’ subject-verb-object order: “We all need to agree on this bill.” “Students need to have the auditor approve the purchase order.”

Using passive vs. active voice
In active voice, the subject is actually performing the action of the verb: “John hit the ball.” In passive voice, however, the subject is acted upon: “The ball was hit by John.”

The main reason to avoid passive voice is that it detracts from readability. Since it’s not in logical order (subject-verb-object), it takes longer for the reader to figure out what you’re saying. Passive voice also can make the subject obscure: “The money was taken during fifth period.” Who took it? Sometimes we don’t know, and that’s the only way to write the sentence. But if the writer is purposely hiding something, you need to dig a little deeper and figure out what’s going on.

Using “this” as a noun. Using “there are.”
In the big scheme of things, breaking these rules is not always a big crime. At most, it makes your writing obscure and detracts from readability.

Not great: “Living in America is a great privilege, one that many people take for granted. This is not a good thing.”

Better would be: This lack of appreciation is unfortunate.”
Not great:There are many ways for an auditor to detect fraud.”
Better would be: “An auditor has many ways to detect fraud.” It’s fewer words, more concise.


Run-on sentences
If you read a sentence out loud and you have to stop your breath before it’s finished, the sentence is too long. A true run-on sentence, however, can be short. It contains more than one sentence within a sentence, typically with inadequate punctuation.

To diagnose a run-on sentence, isolate the subject and the verb, then look for a period. The cure for run on sentences is punctuation: often commas but always periods.

Not great: “He said he would give me the exam but I’m not sure he can since the semester is over and I need to be in St. Augustine for the weekend but we’re going to try because I really need to graduate.”
Better: “He said he would give me the exam. I’m not sure he can, since the semester is over, and I need to be in St. Augustine for the weekend. We’re going to try, though, because I really need to graduate.”


Wrong relative pronouns
Who” refers to people, “that” refers to everything else.

Wrong: “I have a donor that wants to give.”

Correct: “I have a donor who wants to give.”

Spacing between sentences
In high school and college, teachers asked us to put two spaces between sentences. In today’s business world, we use one space.

Obscure, picky points

  • On a ____ basis.

If you do something every day, no need to say you do it on a daily basis. You do it daily. Or weekly. Or monthly. Or case by case. Or individually. None of those needs “basis.”

  • Use “the reason is that” instead of “the reason is because.” “Because” is implied in “reason.”

  • You have only one alternative, but you can have several options.

  • Due means what is owed, or because of. Example: The total amount due is on the bill. The static is due to the lack of humidity.

Note: strictly speaking, it is incorrect to use “due to” to mean “because of.” You can say that the rain is due to the clouds forming, but you should not say, “Due to the clouds forming, it rained.” Remember that “due” is an adjective, not a conjunction.