How to Catch Common Grammatical Errors

Know What to Watch For

Christopher Simmons, president of Send2Press Newswire, a Redondo Beach, California-based news distribution service, has been proofreading copy for more than 23 years on a daily basis. The most common mistakes he finds in business releases include:

It’s vs. Its: “It’s” is short for “it is” or “it has” (“it’s raining”), whereas “its” is a possessive pronoun, as in “its coat.”

You’re vs. Your: “You’re” is short for “you are” (“you’re not going out like that”), whereas “your” is a possessive pronoun, as in “your coat.”

There vs. Their: “There” is a place (“let’s go there”), whereas “their” is a plural possessive pronoun, as in “their coats.”

Insure vs. Ensure: The term “insure” is related to insurance, whereas “ensure” means “to make sure.” So you would “ensure people make it to the office on time” rather than “insure” they get there.

Punctuation and Quote Marks: Commas separating a direct quote from the rest of a sentence should be placed inside the quotation marks. The same is true for periods. Question marks should be inside quotes only if they are part of the quote. So for instance: “Sales in the Southeast will be favorable in the fourth quarter,” he said.

If the quote is a citation and immediately followed by a related parenthetical reference, the punctuation would follow the parentheses, but the end quote mark would stay with the actual quote. For example: “Sales in the Southeast will be favorable in the fourth quarter” (XYZ Report, pp. 67).

Ellipses (…) vs. Em Dashes (–): Ellipses indicate something was removed from the text and should not be used to separate a thought—that’s a job for the em dash. Here, the em dash is used to set off text that defines the sentence’s subject: “My boss—the one who asked me to give this presentation—is here today.” In this sentence, the words “the one” were replaced by an ellipsis: “My boss…who asked me to give this presentation is here today.”

Proofread Your Work

Grammatical errors can be particularly difficult to catch, because spell-check might not flag them. This is why experts stress proofreading is still the best antidote. Simmons offers these tips for checking your work:

View your document at 125 or 150 percent in Word so you can better see what you’re reading and more easily spot errors.

Switch your font to Courier, a mono-spaced font, to break the brain’s typical pattern recognition. This makes it easier to catch mistakes, because it forces you to pay closer attention to the text.

Don’t just skim. Take the time to really read what you’ve written.

When possible, read your work out loud. Your sense of hearing will help you spot errors you might not see.

Print your document. You can often catch mistakes on paper that you’d miss on the monitor.

Get Another Pair of Eyes on Your Work

Kim Doi, an administrative assistant for a New-York based securities firm, tries to wait a few hours before checking her work to read it with fresh eyes. She also has a friend or coworker double-check what she’s written to make sure she hasn’t missed anything.

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