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Most Common Mistakes Series: 10 Stylistic Mistakes Sabotaging Your Story

By K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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


Articles: 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



Double Spaces: 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 sentences, 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.


Ellipsis: An ellipsis is always three periods.
      This: “I don’t know…” she trailed off.
      Not this: “I don’t know…….” she trailed off.


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.


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.


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

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



Punctuation: 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”.



Semi-Colon: 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.



Speaker Tag: 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.



Title: 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.



***
This is the eighth post in the Most Common Mistakes Series, inspired by the prevalent slip-ups I run across in editing other people’s work via my First Chapter Story Consultation. Don’t worry: I don’t use any names or specific examples from my clients’ stories. I hope the series will prove helpful to you in nabbing these mistakes in your own work—before an agent or editor nabs them for you.



Tell me your opinion: Do you ever find yourself making any of these mistakes?


Related Posts: Active vs. Passive Voice


Do You Know How to Use Emphasis in Your WRITING?!


10 Ways to Write Skinny Sentences_________________


Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Wordplay podcast in iTunes).

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Story by K.M. Weiland

Tags: Feature , Grammar , most common mistakes , punctuation , style

50 comments

  1. Evie August 14, 2011 6:55 AM

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

  2. MJones August 14, 2011 7:07 AM

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

  3. Ray Colon August 14, 2011 7:11 AM

    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. Mac August 14, 2011 7:24 AM

    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. Kenda August 14, 2011 7:27 AM

    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. Katie August 14, 2011 7:39 AM

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

  7. Lorna G. Poston August 14, 2011 7:50 AM

    Great refresher. Thanks for posting this.

  8. K.M. Weiland August 14, 2011 7:55 AM

    @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. K.M. Weiland August 14, 2011 7:56 AM

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

  10. Angelica R. Jackson August 14, 2011 8:33 AM

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

  11. K.M. Weiland August 14, 2011 9:03 AM

    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. raelynbarclay August 14, 2011 9:38 AM

    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!

  13. Lola X August 14, 2011 9:40 AM

    Great Blog!!! Love it!!!

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

  14. K.M. Weiland August 14, 2011 9:51 AM

    @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. Anonymous August 14, 2011 10:37 AM

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

  16. K.M. Weiland August 14, 2011 11:39 AM

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

  17. James Garcia Jr August 14, 2011 1:37 PM

    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. K.M. Weiland August 14, 2011 1:44 PM

    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. Anne R. Allen August 14, 2011 2:05 PM

    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. K.M. Weiland August 14, 2011 2:18 PM

    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. Gideon Reynolds August 14, 2011 3:28 PM

    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. K.M. Weiland August 14, 2011 3:32 PM

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

  23. Liberty Speidel August 14, 2011 9:48 PM

    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. erica m. chapman August 14, 2011 10:31 PM

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

  25. K.M. Weiland August 15, 2011 9:54 AM

    @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 August 15, 2011 11:22 AM

    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. K.M. Weiland August 15, 2011 11:33 AM

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

  28. cricketb August 15, 2011 4:55 PM

    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. K.M. Weiland August 15, 2011 7:16 PM

    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. cricketb August 15, 2011 7:19 PM

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

  31. Jolea Harrison August 15, 2011 9:52 PM

    I hate commas. Nough said.

  32. Drew August 15, 2011 10:32 PM

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

  33. K.M. Weiland August 15, 2011 10:44 PM

    @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.

  34. Sarah Wedgbrow August 16, 2011 9:30 AM

    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. K.M. Weiland August 16, 2011 9:50 AM

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

  36. Linda August 16, 2011 2:36 PM

    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. K.M. Weiland August 16, 2011 3:11 PM

    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. artistsroad August 16, 2011 5:21 PM

    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. K.M. Weiland August 16, 2011 7:15 PM

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

  40. Anonymous August 16, 2011 8:47 PM

    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. chitrader August 16, 2011 8:54 PM

    Do I ever make these mistakes? NEVER. Just ask my mom. She knows everything. ;-)

  42. K.M. Weiland August 16, 2011 10:43 PM

    @Anonymous: Thank heavens for modern tools, huh?

    @Chitrader: If you never make any of these mistakes, you're a wunderkind! ;)

  43. Chuck Brooke August 18, 2011 2:35 AM

    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. K.M. Weiland August 18, 2011 9:56 AM

    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. Galadriel August 18, 2011 3:36 PM

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

  46. K.M. Weiland August 18, 2011 3:49 PM

    Well, you know what they say: by the mouth of two or three witness... ;)

  47. Katherine Bayless September 7, 2011 3:01 PM

    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. K.M. Weiland September 7, 2011 4:28 PM

    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. Katherine Bayless September 7, 2011 10:22 PM

    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. K.M. Weiland September 8, 2011 9:54 AM

    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!

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