English Pitfalls All Authors and Would-Be Editors Need to Watch
English is a tricky language. Even the best of us struggle with it. Whether you’re writing a book, you want to write one, or you’re planning to be an editor, you need to be on the lookout for these common pitfalls.
Its vs. It’s
This one screws a lot of people up. I get it. It’s the exception to the rule of possessive formation in English. See, for most words, we add an apostrophe and an “s” to the word (or, in the case of plurals, just the apostrophe).
So “it’s” is the possessive, right? It has the apostrophe!
Wrong! If you thought English was that easy, please go back to learning German or something. “It’s” with the apostrophe is actually a contraction—it’s short for “it is.” It follows the same rule as other contractions: don’t (do not), won’t (will not), can’t (cannot), and so on.
To make it clear in written form—where we sometimes don’t have the context we need—the possessive version lacks an apostrophe. “Its” isn’t pronounced any differently, but in speech, we usually get clues from the context of the conversation. On the written page, we may not have that context, which can lead to confusion—hence the visual separation.
So how can you remember this? If you see “it’s,” read the sentence with “it is.” If it doesn’t make any sense, you probably want “its.”
Example: The cat wanted its toy.
It’s only natural for the cat to want its toy.
[It is] only natural for the cat to want [it is] toy.
Your vs. You’re
Your and you’re are much like the it’s/its conundrum. Much like its, your is possessive: It indicates something belongs to you. You’re, on the other hand, is a contraction of “you are.” The “a” is dropped and replaced by the apostrophe, following the same rule as other contractions (including “it’s”).
Much like keeping it’s and its straight is easy if you remember to read “it is” in place of the apostrophe, sorting your you’res from your yours isn’t too difficult. When you see a sentence, simply read “you are” into it. If it makes sense with “you are,” then you want the contraction you’re. If it leaves you scratching your head, you need your.
Example: Please go get your book.
You’re going to get your book.
[You are] going to get [you are] book.
He vs. Him
And she vs. her, I vs. me, they vs. them, and so on. This is a grammar rule we all learn, without ever really being explicitly told how it works. We’re just kind of assumed to know the difference between “she” and “her.”
Funny thing is, we do know, to an extent. Someone can tell you when using “she” or “her” in a sentence sounds a little off, but they may not be able to explain why.
Knowing the underlying reason for doing something, however, can help you ensure you’re using the words correctly. I, you, he, she, it, we, and they are all subjective case pronouns. We use them when they’re the subject of the sentence.
Me, you, him, her, us, and them, on the other hand, are objective case pronouns. They should only be used for the object of the sentence.
So how can you tell subjects apart from objects? Easy: Subjects perform the action (remember the whole subject-verb-object sentence construction thing?). Objects are passive and have the action done to them.
Example: You and I went to the hockey game.
You and I invited them to go to the hockey game.
They were sorry they could not come with us.
British vs. American Spellings
No, you don’t need to know American English off by heart if you’re a Brit, and Americans, we don’t expect you to know how to spell manoeuvre in the Queen’s English without looking it up. What you do need to know is that there are different ways to spell certain words, and the spelling you use might depend on the author and on the primary market.
If you’ve got a British author who wants to sell in the UK market, don’t stomp all over their work with American spellings. Pick up a British dictionary—like Oxford English Dictionary. Brits might benefit from having Merriam-Webster’s close by when working with an American friend.
Just remember this: Spelling is actually, in some cases, subjective. It depends on your geographical region … and the dictionary you’re using. Merriam-Webster’s isn’t the only dictionary of American spellings, although it’s a popular one. You might be surprised to see that M-W spells something one way, but another dictionary says another version is correct!
Okay, you don’t need to know every hyphenation rule under the sun. There’s a lot of them, and what gets hyphenated and what doesn’t depends a lot on the style guide and the dictionary you’re following.
Two rules? Be consistent and if you’re unsure, look it up. There are other, general guidelines you can follow, but if you just don’t know, take a quick peek. And once you’ve done that, stick with it!
Every writer has them. The words you use over and over again. The turns of phrase you can’t live without. And guess what? Your reader has noticed your predilection for the word and it’s pissing them off.
Every writer and editor should know to look for and hunt down crutch words and phrases. Keep your thesaurus handy. Pull them out of there. Most often, these words are filler fluff.