Most Common Writing Mistakes: 10 Stylistic Mistakes

In writing, little mistakes are often big mistakes. Make sure you’re not letting any of these potentially tragic gaffes sabotage your readers’ trust in your competency.

1. Don’t Capitalize Articles Such as “the” and “and”

Articles (such “the,” “an,” and “a”) should not be capitalized in a title, except at the beginning.

This: Summer of the Gorgola Monster, One Heck of a Scary Beast

Not This: Summer of The Gorgola Monster, One Heck of A Scary Beast

2. Don’t Put Double Spaces Between Sentences

No need to put two spaces between sentences. This “rule” is a holdover from the days of the typewriter. Modern word processors automatically adjust the spacing between words, so it’s no longer correct to include the extra space.

This: The Gorgola Monster rose from the deep. He shook himself dry and roared.

Not This: The Gorgola Monster rose from the deep.  He shook himself dry and roared.

3. Don’t Use More (or Less) Than Three Periods for an Ellipsis

An ellipsis is always three periods.      

This: “I don’t know” she trailed off.      

Not this: “I don’t know…….” she trailed off.

4. Don’t Use “Less” When You Mean “Fewer”

Use “fewer” to indicate things that can be counted and “less” to indicate things that cannot be counted.      

This: I realized we had fewer flowers and less flour than before the Gorgola’s attack.      

Not this: I realized we had less flowers and fewer flour than before the Gorgola’s attack.

5. Don’t Forget the Comma When Joining Independent Clauses

Use a comma to separate independent clauses.      

This: The Gorgola roared and charged, and I screamed like a baby and ran like a duck.      

Not this: The Gorgola roared and charged and I screamed like a baby and ran like a duck.

6. Don’t Hyphenate “-Ly” Adverbs

It is incorrect to connect a pair of modifiers with a hyphen when the first modifier is an adverb ending in “ly.”

This: The perfectly toned game warden refused to shoot the Gorgola, even when it bit my arm.      

Not this: The perfectly-toned game warden refused to shoot the Gorgola, even when it bit my arm.

7. Don’t Forget the Proper Placement for Ending Punctuation Within Quotation Marks

Commas and periods always go inside quotation marks; colons and semi-colons go outside.      

This: The warden said the Gorgola was “endangered”; I said I was obviously the only one in “danger.”      

Not this: The warden said the Gorgola was “endangered;” I said I was obviously the only one in “danger”.

8. Don’t Use Commas for Lists With Multiple Adjectives or Descriptive Phrases

Use a semi-colon to divide items in a list when one or more of those items contains a comma.      

This: I made an inventory: one bite mark; two yellow, size small sneakers; three crushed flowers.      

Not this: I made an inventory: one bite mark, two yellow, size small sneakers, three crushed flowers.

9. Don’t Precede an Action Beat With a Comma

Unless the action beat interrupts a dialogue sentence or unless you’re following the dialogue with a speaker tag (he said/she said), don’t end dialogue with a comma.      

This: “You’re useless.” I stomped away from the warden.      

Not this: “You’re useless,” I stomped away from the warden.

10. Don’t Capitalize a Person’s Title Unless Using It in Place of a Name

Titles (such as “mom” or “dad”) should only be capitalized when used as a direct replacement for a name.      

This: I called my dad and asked to talk to Mom about the best way to deter a Gorgola from a campsite.      

Not this: I called my Dad and asked to talk to mom about the best way to deter a Gorgola from a campsite.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What stylistic mistakes particularly bother you? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I had no idea word processors adjusted the space between sentences. This is going to be tough! Old habits die hard.
    Great post.

    • If they do, they do a very poor job of it. I will continue to double space until the rule is changed back (or computer programmers learn a little more about aesthetics and reading.)

  2. All the time. ALL THE TIME! Thanks!!!

  3. Hi K.M.,

    The first item on your list highlighted an error that I made with a post title yesterday. These are all good tips and reminders. When using an ellipsis with a comma, should there be a space? “Well Jane,…” or “Well Jane, …”.

    Thanks,
    Ray

  4. Hi–May I suggest you update your post regarding the ellipses. The more common error with this element is not realizing further punctuation is still regarded if the trail off is at the end of a sentence…often requiring that fourth period (or comma). –RMW

  5. Great refresher course, thanks 🙂 Not on your list, but one of my stumbling blocks is when to use “farther,” and when to use “further.” I’m always messing that up!

  6. I didn’t know the semi-colon one. Thanks!

  7. Great refresher. Thanks for posting this.

  8. @Evie: Well, the good news is you don’t have to go through your doc and change every one by hand. Thanks heavens for Find/Replace!

    @MJones: Knowing you’re making them is half the battle!

    @Ray: No need to use a comma, or any other punctuation, with an ellipsis.

    @Mac: The fourth period is only required if the ellipsis is used to indicate that words spanning more than one sentence have been deleted from a quote. It is rarely, if ever, necessary in fiction.

    @Kenda: That one’s a toughie. Just remember that “farther” applies to distance (something far away), and “further” applies to everything else.

    @Katie: Glad the tip was helpful!

  9. @Lorna: You’re welcome! Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

  10. I think I’ve done that hyphen-following-a-ly-word thing. Ooops, I’ll watch for that. Thanks for the helpful post!

  11. It’s one if those funny rules that don’t really make sense, but getting it right will give you extra brownie points with the punctuation patrol.

  12. That double space one is hard to break, especially when one is from the age of the typewriter 🙂 But find and replace is a lifesaver.

    Great list!

    • Or if you had it driven into your head from 6th grade (there were no typewriters, so no excuse) Apple 2’s, but for some reason they kept to the double space rule and I still have to do find and replace to fix it. Ugh.

  13. Great Blog!!! Love it!!!

    Lola x
    http://lola-x.blogspot.com

  14. @Raelyn: Once your fingers get in the habit of typing something one way, it’s a dickens to break.

    @Lola: Thanks for stopping by!

  15. Absolutely LOVED this. Great post and it helped me a lot in my writing! Thank you!!

  16. You’re welcome! Always makes my day to hear a post I’d useful.

  17. Hi, K.M. while I was reading over your post the thought occured to me that it had been an awful long time since I had been in school. Lol! Thankfully, although I’m terrible at defining these rules, I believe I subconsciously know them and get most of them correct. We’ll have to ask my editor. *grins*
    Thanks for posting,
    -Jimmy

  18. It’s amazing what we subconsciously picked up during school – in spite of ourselves! I have to admit, though, that a lot of these rules didn’t really “stick” for me until I started teaching them to others.

  19. This is a really helpful series. Will RT!

    I’m so glad you included the double space after a period problem. I can’t get older writers to change. They insist I’m the one who’s wrong. Or they say nobody notices. My fingers still want to make the extra space, too, but a quick search-and-replace will fix it.

  20. Thanks, Anne! The double-space problem is prevalent even among some younger writers, but fixing it is just a matter of retraining our fingers.

  21. I’ve used a word processor almost since I could first write, so I’ve never had the double space problem.
    But some of these other mistakes have thrown me off. Grammar was never my strong point.

  22. Those of us who’ve grown up with the computer have an unfair advantage when it comes to the double-space rule.

  23. Not too many of these am I guilty of, though the inside/outside quotation marks with punctuation sometimes trips me up. The one for titles tripped me up for a while before I figured out how to handle it. That one needed more logic than anything.

    I did, however, recently critique a story for someone and it was double-spaced between sentences. Drove me nuts, since this is something I broke myself of doing almost a decade ago.

    Great post.

  24. Good stuff. Lots of great info. Thanks for sharing. I love this series!! ;o)

  25. @Liberty: I have to admit the double-space thing irks me too – especially since it’s difficult to convince some writers that two spaces really aren’t necessary!

    @Erica: Thanks for reading!

  26. Mary R. P. Schutter says

    Wonderful stuff! Since I frequently edit my own writing or that of family members, articles such as yours come as a welcome help and refresher. Thanks!

  27. The best of writers are those who know how to edit themselves. It puts them way ahead of the pack!

  28. Hi K.M.

    In Canada and the UK, the period goes inside the quotation mark if the character said it, outside if the narrator said it. This is the same as the American rule for question marks. It also applies when quoting a poem title.

    Should I read “The Road Less Traveled”?
    I will read “The Road Less Traveled”.

    Type “Hello World.”
    Type “Hello World”.
    In the first, you type the period. You don’t in the second.

    He said, “What?” — He said it questioningly, perhaps not expecting an answer.

    He said, “What”? — The narrator isn’t sure. Maybe he said something that sounded like “what”.

    The Grammar Girl podcast is great for this sort of thing. For each topic, she tells us what several different style guides say.

  29. Good point. I’m dealing with primarily American writers in my consultation service, but things do get dicey when we’re looking at the international scene. I love the diversity found in the grammar/spelling/punctuation of different countries, but sometimes it would be nice if we could all just get together on the subject!

  30. Now I’m second-guessing the comma in the last example. Sigh.

  31. I hate commas. Nough said.

  32. I will never, EVER, stop using two spaces at the end of a sentence. Just the way I roll.

  33. @Jolea: You’re in good company. From all appearances, so did Hemingway.

    @Drew: As long as you have agents or editors willing to take the extra one out for you, you’ll be fine, but most will appreciate an author going to the minor effort of correcting the problem themselves.

    • There is no need for agents or editors to take an extra space out, since most programs do it automatically. Instead, I often have to go through and put the space back where IT BELONGS, just because too many people choose to blindly follow rules made up by people who don’t even understand what they are doing.

  34. actually, I’m good on all of them but the spacing between sentences. Even now, I’m double spacing. Hope I won’t have to change the entire MS? sigh.

  35. Find/Replace in Word makes it easy to change the document universally if you just can’t seem to beat the habit.

  36. As a homeschooling mother I was thrilled to read your post! It is amazing how many of these simple rules we need to be reminded of. Thank you for your
    attention to details, and for helping so many of us!
    Linda

  37. You’re welcome! The earlier we can get these rules knocked into our brains, the more likely they are to stick with us for the rest of our lives.

  38. Oh my, I’m flashing back to my days as a copy editor! This is a great list. I remember the days of the double space after sentences, and had to deprogram myself of that. And the fewer/less one drives me nuts; I’ve noticed that as newspapers lay off copy editors this one is occurring regularly now, even in headlines. Ugh.

    Patrick

  39. Newspapers have long been a poor place to look for proper grammar models!

  40. Oh, thank you for the refresher course! Also, no one ever told me about the spacing between sentences and I used to work for writers.

    I’m replacing via “find/change” as suggested.

  41. Do I ever make these mistakes? NEVER. Just ask my mom. She knows everything. 😉

  42. @Anonymous: Thank heavens for modern tools, huh?

    @Chitrader: If you never make any of these mistakes, you’re a wunderkind! 😉

  43. I was recently exposed to the ironclad rule that periods are always inside the quotation marks and, as you said, “thanks heavens” for find/replace – 318 corrections in less than a second!

    I am 58-years-old and I was left wondering – where did I get the idea that the period went outside the quotes to begin with? Was that the norm in high school English back in the 1960’s?

    Now on to the use of commas. Somewhere I was taught to use commas only to separate complete ideas from each other – never use a comma where an “and”, “but” or “or” would otherwise make a comfortable transition. Why is that “rule” wrong and would I have picked it up in the same archaic high school English class that taught me to put the period outside the quotes?

    Thanks,
    Chuck

  44. As cricketb noted above, rules vary between US and UK standards. Brits will put the period outside the quotes in non-dialogue situations. You may have picked up the habit there somehow. But in US usage, I can’t think of an instance in which the period would go outside the quote marks.

    Over the last fifty years or so, journalistic style guides have omitted the Oxford comma (the comma before the conjunction in a list of three or more) to allow space to be saved in journalistic columns. In that instance, you *can* get away with omitting the comma before the conjunction, although punctuation purists will scream bloody murder at you for doing it.

    It is also occasionally acceptable to omit the comma before the conjunction joining two independent clauses if the clauses are short and the reader will be in no danger of confusion: e.g., “I ate the ice cream and he hate the pickles.” But you’re almost always safer including the comma when joining even simple independent clauses.

  45. I keep telling my mom double spaces is incorrect. Yes! Backup

  46. Well, you know what they say: by the mouth of two or three witness… 😉

  47. I just stumbled on to your site and discovered this series. Thank you for taking the time to offer these useful tips. I must admit, however, that I am having a difficult time getting my head around the double space issue. This is the FIRST time I’ve ever heard such a thing! When I view my sentences in my word processor, I don’t see that it is adjusting the space between the sentences. There is still only one space, which looks downright wrong to me. Aesthetically, I like the look of a larger break between the sentences. Does this have anything to do with how I’ve set my justification? Are you assuming that we are all using the blocked justification? I always use left justified, so maybe this is why the idea of taking out that extra space bothers me. Not sure I’ll be super successful braking this habit. 🙁

    What is the rule for spaces following a colon? I’ve always used two, but maybe this has changed too?

    Thank you!

  48. The rule on colons is the same: single space. 🙂

    Take a look at a book published within the last ten years, and you’ll see that it only spaces once between sentences. Because books are justified, the kerning (space) between words is automatically adjusted by the design program. Authors who single space their manuscripts save their typesetter a lot of find/replacing when the time comes for publication.

  49. Again, I have to thank you for this post. My head is still wheeling about the double space thing. LOL I even googled it–the doubting Thomas that I am! There it was in the stark, black-and-white, single spaced text of Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentence_spacing

    I should be single spacing. Learn something new every day!

  50. You’re welcome! It *is* a pain for those who have spent all their lives with double tapping that space bar their thumbs. Blame the software designers!

  51. I was raised and educated in the U.S. and was taught to use the punctuation with quotation marks just as @cricketb commented. Interesting.

  52. That is interesting. I’ve never run into that in American usage before.

  53. How about the difference between THAT and WHICH? A copy editor in NYC explained this to me two decades ago, and I’ve depended on it ever since. (The entire island of Great Britain is absolutely clueless about this distinction)

    There is a party on a block with 10 houses. How likely are you to send your friend to the wrong house?

    Go to the first house that is green. (could be any of the houses, but is the first green house, not the second or third)
    Go to the the first house, which is green. (is ONLY the first house)

  54. Great explanation. I like little visual and mnemonic tricks. They’ve saved me many a day!

  55. Hi K.M., I just had to reply with my own experience. I went to Chicagoland schools and I was also taught the same as cricketb. Something else I noticed is all the journalists and bloggers that use “a” and “an” differently than what I was taught. I was taught to use “an” before words that begin with a vowel or vowel sound, otherwise use “a”.

  56. Yes, and to make things even trickier, we pronounce certain words with or without vowel sounds (“herb,” for example), which means some of stick an “an” in front of them and some of us stick an “a” in there.

  57. Author Allyn Lesley says

    Love this. It took me awhile to learn about ellipses and dialogue/action tags, but learning both have been really instrumental in polishing my writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      All those little tricks of prose seem inconsequential on the surface, but they really are crucial to developing a strong writing style.

  58. Janey Egerton says

    Hi Katie, I struggle with something related to the last one, namely with the capitalisation of terms of endearment like dear, darling, sweetie, etc. Do you write: “Do you love me, Darling?” or: “Do you love me, darling?”
    Thanks,
    Janey

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If the term is replacing the name in a formal way (e.g., “Do you love me, Mother?”), then it should be capitalized. If it’s just a generic term, such as “darling,” it should be lowercase.

  59. I often find myself placing semi-colons and and hyphens in my everyday writing, such as forum posts. It’s a habit that I need to try to knock when it comes to fiction, because I have a tendency to write very complex sentences as I try to jam as much information as I can into everything I say. On an internet forum, it doesn’t matter, but I actually find myself trying to rearrange my paragraphs when writing fiction because my natural flow of thought and speech differ from the manner in which I write. As a result, sometimes in first drafts, I go ahead with my habitual method of writing and then rearrange the paragraphs at a later time. It’s tough, though, because the way I write has a certain flow to it. Rearranging these paragraphs disrupts it when I re-read it post-edit.

    I managed to avoid doing it here, thankfully. :/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Actually, social media can be a great training ground for writing good sentences. Twitter, especially, is great for learning how to trim fat.

  60. I agree with Rebecca, I plan on continuing to put in the extra space because I find it much easier to read. I wish they hadn’t changed the double spaces rule. Yes, I do realize it’s “old school” (however, I did think it was optional).

    It is my opinion that this started because of web pages. Since HTML removes the extra space (unless it is hard coded using  ), it seems to me that people got used to reading that way thus making the change happen. As much as I enjoy the internet I wish this had not changed.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I always enjoy reading your articles.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Certainly nothing wrong with adding that extra space for your own comfort while writing and editing. But I would still advise running a universal search through your document before submitting to an agent, since you’ll want your manuscript to be up to professional standards the first time it’s viewed as a potential for publication.

      Glad you’re enjoying the site!

  61. It is incorrect to connect a pair of modifiers with a hyphen when the first modifier ends in “ly.”

    >>Some adjectives end in -ly though. The headline says “-Ly Verbs,” so I assume you know this (even though they’re technically adverbs). What I’m saying is that this is true when the -ly word is an adverb, but it’s not true when the -ly word is an adjective.

  62. Hi K.M.,

    Yes I have made plenty of those mistakes but I have learned so much from others online such as yourself. So should I use commas inside quotes “because” I’m showing the reader what they are doing while the character is speaking?

    Example: Jennifer leans back in her chair “Yeah Cindy, that’s what John told me,” Tapping the pencil on her face.

    Is that the correct way and reason?

    • The actions you’re referencing here are called “action beats” (more on them here). They stand as sentences of their own. The only time you would want to separate them from the dialogue with commas is if the action literally applies to how the dialogue is said (e.g., “she screamed”).

      The correct way to write your excerpt would be: Jennifer leaned back in her chair. “Yeah, Cindy, that’s what John told me.” She tapped the pencil on her face.

  63. K.M. – Thank you so much that helps. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate getting useful advise from an established author. Bless you!

    I look forward to learning lots more

    Eric

  64. The quotations are where I have the most trouble.

    For example – I understand that quotation marks are used like this:
    George said, “That blighter owes me money.”

    However, I thought when we were talking about things that were not a direct quote, they were not “part of that rule”.

    Where am I going wrong?

    🙂
    Dave

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Unless you’re British (where the usage is different), all periods go inside the quote marks, regardless of how the quotes are used. Same goes for commas.

  65. Thank you for the concise lesson. I find it hard to tell an independent clause from a dependent clause. I seem to put in too many commas.

  66. Excellent reminder! Thank you, Katie 🙂

  67. Very interesting… Strucked me kinda funny, that these rules aren’t universal – I mean, that they are right in English, but not in other languages. In Polish, for example, period always goes outside the quotation mark – actually there is a golden rule, that every indicative sentence has to end with period. We have also different rule for listing the items – semicollons are acceptable only in the case of the list of paragraphs. In other circumstances we use commas.
    Just some curiosities, anyway your job is superb and I’m reading your website and ebooks with great pleasure….:-)

  68. Great list. Just wanted to check on the usage of mom as that’s used in my book a lot. Are these right?

    My mom said,
    said my mom
    I told my mom
    I called my mom over

    Hey Mom!
    The doctor told Mom
    Why does Mom always say…

  69. Great post, K.M. Two quick questions about quotation marks–which of these are correct in American English?

    1A. He styled himself “The Savior.”
    1B. He styled himself “The Savior”.
    1C. He styled himself ‘The Savior.’
    1D. He styled himself ‘The Savior’.

    2A. “How would you feel if people called you “Bwama”?” he asked.
    2B. “How would you feel if people called you “Bwama?” ” he asked.
    2C. “How would you feel if people called you ‘Bwama’?” he asked.
    2D. “How would you feel if people called you ‘Bwama?’ ” he asked.

  70. Hi, K.M. Great site!
    Another question re: quotation marks.

    The author Lee Child references speech like this:
    ‘What am I supposed to do about it?’

    Whereas Dan Brown does it this way:
    “What am I supposed to do about it?”

    Which is correct, and why?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Not sure why the difference in those cases, but single quotes is accepted in British usage, while double quotes is standard for American usage.

  71. If you use a professional editor or proofreader who charges by the hour or provides a quote based on a manuscript review or sample, these little tips can save you money. As an editor, these errors are often indicators of an MS that’s going to require a lot of work. If my schedule is tight and I see all or most of these (and some others on my “Uh-oh” list), I might turn down the MS or give a higher quote to account for the scope of the work ahead. I always recommend cleaning up what you can/know how to. Self-editing is a good practice. It’s kind of like getting new carpet. You can have the contractor do the tear out and the install–or you can save a few hundred by doing the tear-out yourself. 😉

  72. Regarding double spaces between sentences, I recently had an on-line discussion where some people said one should write in the format that the finished document needs to be in. This is to say one’s computer screen should look like the submission guidelines. They said it was wrong to use Courier font as one writes, or to put two spaces between sentences as one writes, or even to double space between lines as one writes. I disagreed.

    I believe one should write using any method that helps one write effectively. I use double spaces between sentences when I’m writing because it helps me see the sentences, which helps me edit, which reduces my error rate. I would use five spaces between sentences if it helped me write better.

    I believe writing and submitting are two different steps in the process. One does not dictate the other’s format. My method is to write in a format that maximizes my productivity and the quality of my work. At submission time, however, I change the formatting of the finished manuscript to match the guidelines for each market. It’s easy to do when one know how to use one’s tools.

    It’s strange, though, that it seems these same people who are so zealous about what is the proper way for a writer to write on a computer don’t have the same complaints when the writer writes by hand. If you write by hand, you can write anyway you want. Although, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone said there are rules about what kind of pen and paper a writer must use.

    I write using this format because it helps me edit.
    • 12-point Courier
    • Double-spaced
    • One-inch margins
    • 25 lines per page
    • Two spaces after sentences
    • Two hyphens (‐‐) for em dash
    • Underscore for italics

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree with you. Write however optimizes your creativity. You can reformat for submission when the time comes.

  73. Felicia R Johnson says

    I was confused about where punctuation goes with quotation marks. Your post clarified things for me. But what about other punctuation marks like question marks and exclamation points? Same as commas and periods?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, same as commas and periods.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Unless (I should add) what is within quotes is part of a larger question or exclamation.

      For example: Did she really say “oui, oui”?
      Or: I can’t believe you said “oui, oui”!

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