WE all have our pet mistakes: the ones that make us wince every time we see them. My inner grammar nerd sheds a tear every time I see the words ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ confused, or ‘there’ and ‘they’re’.
But while we may be painfully aware of the mistakes we see all around us, we might also be as woefully ignorant of the ones that we make ourselves. And there is no place like social media - with its fast pace and short attention spans - to witness those mistakes manifesting themselves.
For private individuals, friends, family members, colleagues I have a lot of sympathy when it comes to those petty mistakes as many of them write in English as their second, third or even fourth language. But for businesses and professionals using social media my patience is limited.
A comment by Grammarly CEO Brad Hoover in a recent Harvard Business Review blog underlines the importance of this:
“If you are a native English speaker and haven’t learned the difference between ‘it’s’ and ‘its’ - especially given access to Google - an employer might wonder what else you’ve failed to learn that might be useful”.
And while many Finnish companies and individuals embracing the use of English in their social media might be perfectly comfortable writing at a non-native level, and I raise my hat for their efforts, as a reader you can never tell whether it’s the lack of fluency in English or just general ignorance to the slight differences behind the mistakes. It is just so much harder to convey the right professional and trustworthy impression with less than perfect writing.
With this in mind, we have compiled a list of those ‘deadly writing sins’ in social media. They are easy to recognise, remember and avoid.
- It's versus its -This is something you see all the time - it even gets me sometimes. How many times have you seen sentences like Its been too long or My dog is enormous; it’s appetite is just endless? ‘It’s’ is short for ‘it is’ or ‘it has been’. It’s time to eat cake or It’s freezing out there. ‘Its’ meanwhile indicates possession. Its fur is ginger. A good rule of thumb is: if you can replace ‘it’ with ‘his’ or ‘her’, there’s no apostrophe.
- Double negatives – Characteristic for spoken language or certain dialects, popular culture is also littered with examples of double negative. Pink Floyd’s immortal line ‘We don't need no education’ from Another Brick in the Wall, might be the best known of these. In writing - novels in particular - it is often employed as characterisation of the speaker’s class status or origin, or to convey sense of irony. Social media, however, is full of the non-ironic double negatives. I don’t want nothing to do with him or the more subtle I could care less (as opposed to I couldn’t care less). Beware of the double negative; it can make you look like a right idiot, even if you opt for a funny Will Smith reference ‘Don’t need no pizza’.
- Then and than – These two sound similar, and that’s probably why they are so often mixed. I like the old Star Wars movies better then the new ones. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it! A helpful reminder is that word ‘than’ always indicates comparison (Andy’s new hairstyle is so much cooler than Tom’s) while ‘then’ indicates time (First I went to Stockmann, then took a tram to Pasila).
- To, Two, and Too – The confusion between these three is also to do their nearly identical pronunciation. Firstly, ‘to’ is a preposition (John is going to pub) while ‘too’ is a synonym of ‘also’ (She too was excited about the end of school) or to indicate excess (He ate too much cheesecake). And the humble ‘two’ is the number (John had only two pints).
- Lose and Loose – These tend to confuse the hell out of most people and even many of the cleverer types have to take a moment to consider which one to use. ‘Lose’ is a verb and means ‘fail to keep’ (I always lose my keys) or ‘to suffer from a loss’ (It seems like HIFK will lose the game). Meanwhile ‘loose’ is an adjective and means ‘free from fastening or not to be bound’ (Merja’s dog got loose on the street).
- Me versus I – You often hear sentences like Paula and me went to movies or the Powerpoint presentation was made by Chris and I. Native English speakers generally get these right, but for us who don’t speak English as our first language these are tricky ones. A helpful tip here is to use only the pronoun part of the subject; whichever sounds right alone is the one to use. So, unless you are Tarzan, you probably hear that Me went to movies or the Powerpoint presentation was made by I are wrong.
- Sentence starters and endings – Social media might be the Wild West for grammar rules, but if you have any inclination towards appearing professional, the correct starters and endings shouldn’t be abandoned in a rush. A sentence should start with capital letter and end with a period, a question mark, or an exclamation mark. And while it’s fairly common to write names without capitalising the first letters, this might not be too flattering for the object.
This blog piece was compiled with the help of the following websites: Social Media Today and Informationweek.