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5 Common Mistakes to Avoid in Formal Writing

The importance of formal writing is often underestimated, save for in school. We’ve all been told that it’s of vital importance to be able to write well in order to get good grades on essays and papers in university. However, many of us entered university without being properly prepared! We weren’t necessarily taught what constitutes proper grammar or formal writing. Not only is this a helpful skill, it’s also essential for school, and the rest of our lives – having a well written resume and cover letter could be the difference between getting a job and being passed over. So, here are a few small tips to help you with your writing. They’re common mistakes we all make once in a while, and while they may seem obvious to some, these things don’t come easily to everyone.

1. Plural vs. Possessive “S”

I’ve been seeing this one a lot lately, especially on social media. The important thing to remember is the meaning of the word that you’re placing the “S” on. If you mean to say that there is more than one thing (ex. multiple photos), then there is no apostrophe. However, if you mean that something belongs to someone (ex. Lindsay’s photos), you would add an apostrophe between the “S” and the end of the word.

2. Have vs. Of

This mistake is so pervasive that it has almost become totally accepted, and often goes by unnoticed. However, correcting it can make a big difference with professors and employers alike. Take this sentence:

“I must of fallen asleep.”

To many of us, this looks and sounds perfectly correct. This is because when we’re speaking we contract words together, so it sounds like:

“I must’ve fallen asleep.”

Though this sounds like “must of”, it’s really a contraction of “must have”. In formal writing, because contractions are frowned upon, the correct sentence would be:

“I must have fallen asleep.”

3. Its vs. It’s

This is a particularly tricky one to remember because it doesn’t quite match up with the other rule for “S”. Instead of the apostrophe being used to show possession, it is used here as a contraction of “it is”, like in this sentence:

“It’s a nice day out.”

The other “its”, without the apostrophe, is the possessive, as in:

“The dog sat and its tail wagged.”

4. Comma Splices

Comma splices are a foreign concept to many students, as they seem to be rarely taught in high school. A comma splice occurs when you try to combine two phrases with a comma where there should be a period or a semicolon. For example:

“The sky was blue, it was beautiful.”

Because these two phrases (“the sky was blue” and “it was beautiful”) could be two separate sentences all on their own, putting a comma where the period would be makes this a comma splice. It’s easy enough to correct; just put in a period or semicolon where the comma was, like so:

“The sky was blue. It was beautiful.”

“The sky was blue; it was beautiful.”

5. Less vs. Fewer

This mistake is so common that many of us have ceased to notice it. Though the words “less” and “fewer” seem like perfect synonyms, they actually have two different uses. “Less” is used to talk about things that aren’t quantifiable; you can’t count them. For example, you can have “less sugar” or “less sand,” but not “less oranges”. This is because you can conceivably count out how many oranges you have. Therefore, you would have “fewer oranges,” as “fewer” is used to talk about things that are quantifiable.

Shaelyn Ryan is a first year student at Queen's University, and is a fiction writer, having completed and self published two novels. She would love to answer questions and comments about her articles, writing, or anything at all at sjryan1900@gmail.com!
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