Gotcha Grammar

Gotcha Grammar: Common Word Choice Mistakes

Grammar aficionados across the nation cringe when they see these mistakes in their editing stack, but they cringe even more when they catch themselves making the following errors. These are some of the most common word choice errors that can be found in everything from press releases to blogs and even advertisements. Yikes!

Lay vs. Lie

We all probably remember learning about the difference between these two in elementary school, but don’t recall the specifics of the rule. Lay is a transitive verb, meaning it requires a direct subject and at least one object (e.g., I lay the copywriter’s drafts on her desk). Lie is intransitive, so it needs no object. Did that fly over your head? Here’s an easy way to remember: In the phrase “Lay it on me” you’re laying something (the direct object) on me. People lie down by themselves while you lay an object down.

Who vs. Whom

This is another one of those rules we all learned early on and quickly forgot. Who is a subjective pronoun (just like he, she, it, we, and they). It should be used when the pronoun is the subject of a clause. Meanwhile, whom is an objective pronoun (like him, her, it, us, and them) meaning we use it when the pronoun is the object of a clause. The quick and dirty: When in doubt, substitute he or she for who (e.g., Who posted that link on Facebook? He/she posted that link on Facebook). You can also substitute whom with him or her (e.g., I consulted a public relations specialist, whom I met nearby. I consulted her).

Fewer vs. Less

This is one of our writers’ biggest pet peeves. Fewer should be used when writing about quantifiable amounts (e.g., The graphic designer has fewer than ten projects right now). Meanwhile, less is used when the quantity is hypothetical (e.g., The designer is less messy now that she’s organized her desk). This means all those grocery store signs that say, “15 items or less” are all incorrect. Shopping will never be the same!

Affect vs. Effect

While there are little exceptions to every rule, here’s a trick to helping you remember the difference between these two homophones. Affect is almost always (we’ll say 99% of the time) a verb (e.g., Customer relationship management affects every company’s bottom line). Affect means to influence or cause something. Effect is almost always a noun. It is the thing being produces by the affecting influence (e.g., Customer relationship management has a positive effect on our clients).

These are just a small sampling of the commonly erroneous word choices that are made every day in the English language. For more information on grammar, make sure to check out other editions of our Gotcha Grammar series. We also offer daily marketing tips and more through our Facebook, Twitter, and Google+! Make sure to follow us!

Gotcha Grammar: To Use or Not to Use—The Oxford Comma

In our last Gotcha Grammar blog, we explained the complicated world of the apostrophe. This time we thought we’d elucidate a grammar rule that’s a common debate topic among writers—even among those at McCauley Services: the Oxford comma.

Also known as the serial comma, the Oxford comma is used immediately before a conjunction (and, or, and even nor) in a list of three or more things. For example, in the phrase “Tim, Judy, and Frank design websites,” the Oxford comma appears after “Judy.” Whereas in this version, “Tim, Judy and Frank design websites” the Oxford comma is omitted.

You’re probably wondering, “So which one is correct?” Technically, they’re both correct (we told you the English language was tricky!). Copywriters and editors everywhere have strong opinions regarding whether or not to use the Oxford comma. In everyday use, it’s considered correct to utilize the serial comma, while in more journalistic writing (for those who follow the AP Stylebook) it’s a no-no.

Those who argue for the use of the serial comma say that its use in writing matches the rhythm of actual speech, with a pause before the and or the or. Pro-comma writers also feel as though the Oxford comma helps to distinguish and prevent confusion. Also, when a list gets extensive and semi-colons come into use, a semi-colon is always placed before the conjunction. So why not follow the same rules with commas in a list?

Writers and editors who are against the use of the Oxford comma say that the punctuation is unnecessary since the conjunction (and or or) already serves as a separator between the last two items in a list. Others (especially journalists) say that the serial comma adds unnecessary characters to an already tight word-count.

Confusion because of the Oxford comma is evident in the following example:

“John’s mother, Julia, and their dog were featured in the newsletter.” In this phrase, the Oxford comma causes confusion as to whether Julia is the name of John’s mother, of if there are three separate entities—the mother, the dog, and Julia. A better way to phrase it would be to write, “John’s mother (Julia) and the dog” if it’s just two entities, or if it’s three separate entities, “John’s mother as well as Julia and the dog.”

Confusion because of a lack of the Oxford comma is evident in the following example:

“Her brothers, Haley and Judith work in public relations.” In this sentence, it seems as though Haley and Judith are the subject’s brothers. However, when the serial comma is added in, it clarifies that the brothers and Haley and Judith all work in public relations. “Her brothers, Haley, and Judith work in public relations.”

Most grammarians suggest a moderate usage of the Oxford comma, not using it all the time and not eliminating it completely, but instead utilizing it when appropriate to better clarify the intended sentence.

For more writing tips, make sure to stay tuned for future editions of Gotcha Grammar on our blog.

Gotcha Grammar: The Most Common Writing Mistakes Explained—Conquering the Apostrophe

Our team of copywriters creates large volumes of content every day. From print ads to website copy for education and search engine optimization (SEO), there are words written by marketing professionals on pretty much every subject you could imagine nowadays. Grammar is one of the most important elements of copywriting. While proofreading is crucial to preventing grammatical errors, sometimes they just slip through. We understand that the English language is pretty confusing sometimes. There are plenty of exceptions to every rule.

One of the most common errors in writing is misuse of the apostrophe. There are three accepted uses of an apostrophe:

  1. In possessive nouns (to show something belongs to someone: John’s blog.)
  2. To show the omission of letters or numbers (like in contractions: can’t, don’t, the ‘60s, etc.)
  3. To pluralize lowercase letters (like in “mind your p’s and q’s; not necessary when you pluralize capitalized letters, numbers, or symbols though some editors prefer them.)

Apostrophes are not needed to pluralize regular words (“Hand me the portfolio’s“ vs. “Hand me the portfolios“). When you’re wondering if you should include an apostrophe on a word like this, ask yourself if the word you’re adding the ‘s to owns the word after it.

For example, in the sentence “Teacher’s shape lives,” the teachers are not in possession of shape or lives. Therefore, the sentence should be written, “Teachers shape lives.” In the sentence, “Jill’s battery died,” the battery belongs to Jill and so an apostrophe to show possession should be used. Other examples include the following:

  • My brothers both work in public relations.
  • The kitten’s fur is soft.
  • McCauley’s marketing tips are useful.
  • James’s sister ate my candy. (“James’ sister” is also acceptable since the noun [James] ends in S)

When the subject in possession of something is plural, the apostrophe goes outside the S, as opposed to inside between the word and the S. For example, “three cats’ toys” indicates that three cats (more than one) are in possession of the toys. Other examples include the following:

  • “five designers’ applications”
  • “seven writers’ drafts”
  • “all the flowers’ petals”

Another tip: you can add ‘s to the end of compound phrases, “my mother-in-law’s recipe,” and to the end of the final noun in cases of joint possession, “Sam and Christy’s presentation.”

There’s only one exception to these rules: its and it’s. Because the possessive and contraction of the word “it” would both involve an apostrophe according to traditional rules, there’s a small caveat to the original rules. The possessive “it” does not have an apostrophe: “The dog chased its tail.” Meanwhile, the contraction “it is” does involve an apostrophe: “It’s time to start holiday advertising.”

The proper use of the apostrophe is one grammar rules where it seems like the exceptions are endless. We hope our explanation helps sort out the proper use of the apostrophe so all your writing and website content management can be grammatically correct!

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