9 grammatical mistakes you need to stop making before I throw live scorpions at you


giant-scorpion-1076314_960_720Hi everyone. I was writing a post on the new federal overtime law and how it will affect our sector, when I realized that I needed more time to think about it. Plus, we’ve had a string of posts on serious topics these past few weeks, and I need to give my brain a rest. So that post will appear next Monday. Today, I want to rant about grammar/punctuation/diction.

All of us are highly intelligent, charming, and attractive people (#OxfordCommaForever!) Still, we are not immune to making errors in our speech and writing. Errors such as “I was literally on fire during that evaluation presentation.” Or saying things like, “Between you and I, our equity plan sucks.” (Both are wrong. See “This literally makes my head explode” and “8 grammatical mistakes even smart and sexy people like you are making.”)

Now, as someone for whom English is a second language, I make mistakes all the time. Sometimes on purpose, such as using multiple exclamation points for extra emphasis, like this!!! And I appreciate it when readers email me to help me correct errors, just like I appreciate it when people point out that I have bits of spinach hummus stuck in my incisors. I also know English is a living, evolving entity, kind of like kombucha tea. For instance, the singular they—“Someone left their copy of the strategic plan behind”—is now gaining rapid acceptance, especially in light of our growing awareness of gender identity.

Still, these grammar, punctuation, and word usage mistakes below are irritating the crap out of colleagues and me on the NWB Facebook community, so please cut them out lest I throw live scorpions at you:

Affect/Effect: My organization’s mission includes supporting leaders of color and helping diverse communities work together to “effect systemic change.” People keep changing it to “affect systemic change.” Arrrgh!!! Look, to effect is to bring about something. To affect is to change something that is already in existence. Even smart people get this one wrong all the time. If you ever change “effect” to “affect” in my bio when I am keynoting at your conference, I will turn into the Grammar Hulk and trash your exhibition tables.

Myself. “My treasurer and myself agree with you completely about general operating funds.” Oh no, you did not just say that. You want to fight, don’t you? “Myself” is not a subject, or usually an object (“That timeline works for myself and my team.”) It just sounds weird and pretentious, like “Lady Grantham and myself kindly invite you to our chateau for cucumber sandwiches.” Knock it off. Unless, you are Lord Grantham; in which case, carry on.

Apostrophes. “I forgot my flask, so Janice let me drink from her’s.” Or, “There are leftover donut’s in the conference room, y’all!” Please stop putting random apostrophes everywhere! Apostrophes are like containers of Activia yogurt: They help things go smoothly, but use them excessively and there will be consequences.

Its/It’s. I was generous in the last grammar rant, thinking most people are just lazy when it comes to its and it’s. But I’ve seen enough of this mistake to recognize that it is a serious problem. “It’s” is a contraction for “it is,” and “its” is a possessive. So please don’t write, “The board has reversed it’s stance on allowing live wombats at the office.”

I resonate with. I’ve been seeing this one more often lately. Instead of saying, “Your post on dating in the nonprofit sector resonates with me,” a colleague says, “I resonate with your post…” That’s weird. And it conjures up images of someone resonating, which I envision as someone vibrating. If you’re resonating, please see a doctor.

Utilize. Please stop using “utilize,” such as “Let’s utilize binder clips as door prizes at our gala.” It is one of those words that people utilize to sound important, especially when talking about missions. It usually backfires, making you look like you’re using a big word to sound important. Just use “use.” Remember, “Unless good taste you despise, never ever use utilize.” (It’s midnight; that’s the best rhyme I can create.)

Based off of. “Based off of” is kind of fun to say, which is probably why there’s been an increase in its usage: “Based off of last year’s gala, we should have a signature drink this year, and I think it should be called Equity Juice.” (This is not just an example; I’m creating the recipe for this cocktail, and it involves coconut water). “Based on.” It’s “based on,” all right?

Irregardless. Like “sustainability,” “irregardless” is not a thing. Stop saying it. In fact, carry fruit in your laptop bag, so that you may pummel with aforementioned fruit the people who do say it. Irregardless is redundant. Just say “regardless,” like “Regardless of cultural diversity and dietary needs, beet hummus is an abomination of nature.”  

Service. OK, this, like “utilize,” is not a grammar mistake. It’s more about word choice. But please pay careful attention, because we in the nonprofit sector use this word a lot. And when it is used as a noun, it’s fine. When it’s used as a verb, though, it opens a hole in the fabric of space and time, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse unleash themselves upon the earth. Watch: “We service low-income individuals through our employment programs.” NoooOOOooOOOooo!!! If you don’t know why that is wrong, please ask a friend.

All right, please get those down so that you don’t have to worry about being attacked by live scorpions. Meanwhile, here are a few bonuses. These are debated by grammarians and the general public, and the tides seem to be shifting on them, meaning they can go either way. However, if you are going to be interacting with people who are sticklers for grammar, especially if they are also donors, you can quickly impress them if you get these right:

Comprised of. “The board is comprised of seven people.” Nope, it should be “The board comprises seven people.” Comprises is closer to “include” than “compose.” Composed of seven people is fine. But included of seven people is weird. As I said, things are a-changing, and grammarians are not as obsessed with this one. Still, I’m in favor of “comprises seven people.”

Momentarily. It traditionally means “for a short period of time,” but it’s started to mean “in a short period of time.” So “We hired a juggler, who will be here momentarily” could mean the juggler will be there for about five minutes and then he’s gone, in which case, why did you even hire him? Just say, “In a moment” to avoid confusion.

Myriad. “We have a myriad of options for venues for next year’s gala.” Myriad is more like an adjective, kind of like “countless,” but it’s started to be treated more like a noun. You don’t say, “We have countless of options.” So, you can win major sexy grammar points by dropping the “of,” like this: “The myriad services we provide are a testament to our awesomeness.”

Related post: “21 irritating jargon phrases, and new cliches we should replace them with.”

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82 thoughts on “9 grammatical mistakes you need to stop making before I throw live scorpions at you

  1. rickygr

    Let’s add “you need to,” as in, “mistakes you need to stop making.” Need is for things like food, that you actually need. Must is for things I insist you do, to comply. Please, people, you have to stop saying “you need to” when you mean “you have to” or “you must.” Thanks, from another honorary member of the language police force.

  2. Charity Becker

    As the Editor-in-Chief of a not-for-profit publishing house, I “resonate” with this article. =D

  3. Michael Rosen

    Vu, as a fellow grammar nerd, you probably are familiar with the book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynne Truss (http://astore.amazon.com/mlinn-20/detail/1592402038). If not, you’ll definitely want to read it. I also recommend it for your readers. Truss’ book is a smart, funny rant about grammar. Any true grammar nerd will appreciate it.

  4. IR Volga

    LOL. The idea of throwing scorpions is good one. Hey..Thanks for the revision. It makes sense.

  5. John Hornbeck

    Also, try simplifying sentence structure and word choice. For example, “comprised of” versus “comprises” should usually not even be an issue. How about: “There are seven people on the Board”. Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.

    1. S NV Nonprofit Info Ctr

      People who have sat through my workshops know my mantra is “Why say it in 4,000 words when you can say it in 4?”
      In the introductions, I always ask them to say their mission statement. After they say it, I tell them “What *you’ve* just said is like a Chinese menu – one buzzword each from column A, B and C… What *I* just heard is buzzword babble. Now try it again – in 5 words or less”.

      1. RobAlex

        Government (or corporate) reports are prime offenders. Why say something in one page when you can do it in 1000? It’s a great technique to hide important information in plain sight using an avalanche of words. Buzzwords help here too.

  6. Jenny Levison

    Thank you for all of these! The one that’s been scorpion worthy to me lately is “hone in on.” Nope! It should be “home in on” — as in, I am homing pigeon, and I’m getting closer!

        1. Sarah England

          I’m not sure that I like it though. Let’s say I am working on the last round of copy edits, I feel like ‘to hone’ is a better choice. It is not that I am getting closer to my solution, as ‘to home’ would suggest, but that I am cleaning it up, and making it more precise. I don’t think about homing a knife, as much as I do homing an engine block (married to a mechanic), in which, you remove unnecessary build up to leave behind a nice finished product.

          1. Jenny Levison

            Well — you can definitely hone the last draft, and hone your craft, and I would be very happy about that. But if you want “xxx” in on something, I’m gonna want you to “home” in. =)

    1. Jan

      I recently had an ongoing and increasingly hostile exchange with a copy editor over this very thing. I finally resorted to pointing out that the subject was a dog, not a duck, and there were no eggs. Honestly. Even Smith grads don’t know grammar these days.

    2. John Hornbeck

      Yes, yes, yes to both this example from you, and the one from Sarah. Very common. I sometimes wonder (not wander) whether anyone ever proofs before they post.

  7. Erica Waasdorp

    they, they’re and their is another really common one that bugs me. It’s interesting because I learned English in the Netherlands and they really hammered on all of these a lot!

    And in fundraising world: in my world of monthly donations… re-occurring is a very common one I hear all the time.. argh… it’s recurring.

    i’m on Cape Cod, so no scorpions here to throw at and lobsters are too expensive, but I can throw a few shells…

    thanks! erica

  8. betty barcode

    OK, I’ll go there. Machines are serviced, people are SERVED. Why? Because “service” is a euphemism for providing quick sexual gratification for a fee. Or any other interaction that treats a human being like a machine.

    If we would never use euphemisms for lying, cheating, stealing, killing, or intoxication in our elevator speeches, mission statements, or grant applications, then we should also avoid euphemisms for prostitution.

  9. Maggie B

    The one that gets me and is everywhere is “to advocate for.” We may be advocates for reform, but we don’t advocate FOR anything, we simply advocate a change or a position.

  10. Mehitabel

    Vu, if you haven’t read Mark Twain’s essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”, you probably should. I’m the only person I know who thinks that it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious, but you might like it as much as I do. http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/projects/rissetto/offense.html

    You left off my particular pet peeve, which is the misuse of quotation marks. They are not for emphasis, people.

    1. Ann Tydeman-Solomon

      Loved the essay! I may need to post ‘Eschew surplusage’ on my bulletin board.

      1. Karen Tolstrup

        I had a bumper sticker on one of my deceased autos that read “Eschew Obfuscation” Sometimes at a stop light I could see the folks behind me reading it and getting that quizzical look. I am sure I have not punctuated properly here, but don’t really care.

    2. betty barcode

      Hearty amen about quotation marks! Do not “give in” to the “temptation” to put them around the “key words” in a “sentence.”

  11. Jan

    While I sympathize with all of the above, my personal pet peeve is actually not grammatical, but the misuse of a popular turn of phrase. “Begging the question” refers to circular reasoning. Most people use it when they mean “raising the question.” Drives me mad. Scorpions are simply not sufficient for this egregious error. Perhaps sharks would be useful here.

  12. Joanne Yatvin

    I agree with you completely and think more people need to read it. May I re-post this piece on my blog, “the Treasure Hunter”?

  13. Robert Meiksins

    Another ARRGH!!! for me is the confusion between “insure” and “ensure.” “Insure” means to take insurance out on something to protect it. “Ensure” means to help make it more likely that something will happen. I just found this error in a blog about plagiarism where the writer enjoined us to “insure” that what we are writing is indeed our own. Should I contact Aetna about that?

    1. Rebecca Stratosphere

      This is my second-most hated error, after mis-used apostrophes. I don’t know why it gets to me so much. I understand why people confuse effect and affect, since their functions are so similar. But in- and ensure? ackldoiawo;eA

      1. Robert Meiksins

        The issue for me with apostophes is my ipad. I type away in the MS Word app and suddenly find that all the plural nouns have been auto corrected to end with an apostrophe and an s! Why would they do that?

      2. RobAlex

        Another distinction between affect and effect that I was surprised wasn’t mentioned: effect is often a noun and affect a verb. “It had an effect on me.” “It affected me.”

  14. Joanne Yatvin

    Grammar errors are not the only things that annoy me. Currently, the two words that bother me most are “individual” when the speaker means person, and “rigor” when what we need in education is more vigor.

    1. RobAlex

      Buzzwords drive me nuts. See Dilbert for many good examples. Or any corporate report or website. Do you notice that often you can read a web page about a product and at the end have no clue as to what the thing actually does?

  15. Joshua Putnam

    I wouldn’t say singular “they” has enjoyed *rapid* acceptance… even support from Shakespeare, Caxton, and Chaucer barely helped the singular “they” survive 19th century Latinate prescriptivists, but traditional English usage has survived the century-long attempt to impose “he” as a masculine-superior singular for both sexes.

  16. Esther Landau

    Another one I want the whole world to stop misusing: crescendo. You cannot “build to a crescendo,” because a crescendo IS an increase in volume.

  17. Christina Sunley

    I too resonate with this post! Good vibes! But I resent the implication in the first paragraph that this article is not about a serious topic ; )

  18. J101nas

    Good Morning! This was a great post. You are not alone, judging by all the comments.
    Another mistake I often see is loose versus lose. (I would put quotations around them but that has already been called out.)
    Thanks for the explanation on affect/effect. I get tripped up on them.
    I get a newsletter that I find I cannot read sometimes because of the number of exclamation points after each sentence or headline. It’s a shame, because the writer tells a good story, but it quickly starts to resemble a sixth grade schoolgirl’s note about a new love crush.
    Another good book is “Who’s Whose?”


  19. Scarlett

    Will you marry me?

    I’m so pleased that you included some mistakes that don’t get a lot of airplay (momentarily, comprised, based off of, myself). Also, “…to effect is to bring about something. To affect is to change something that is already in existence” is one of the clearest explanations I’ve ever read, and I’m going to adopt it immediately.

    Wondering if you’d be willing to tackle the “substitute with/substitute for” topic, which seems to have become pandemic in the past few years…?

  20. Sarah Weissman

    I have *never* heard such a clear distinction of the affect and effect – THANK YOU!

  21. Tiela Chalmers

    Thanks for this list, and all your terrific blogs. Could we add “less” and “fewer” to the list of gripes?

  22. MO

    Yes, yes–except for “myriad.” The derivation is from the Greek murioi, or a group of 10,000. It functions in modern English as both a noun and an adjective (_dixit_ classics geek wandering through).

  23. Alison

    My current favorite, from the caption of an item in the “Reigning Men” exhibition on view at LACMA, “topless woman’s swimsuit”. Shades of Vincent Musetto’s NY Post headline -“Headless Body in Topless Bar” only unfortunately not intentional.

  24. Stacey S

    Normally I am great at avoiding all of these mistakes, but today I find myself constantly using it’s instead of its. I may be yelling at my fingers to cut it out, and type properly.

  25. betty barcode

    Another common blunder: inserting apostrophes into plurals. It is cats, not cat’s. With dates, it is 1970s, not 1970’s. With acronyms, it is DVDs, not DVD’s.

    Do not use an apostrophe unless you mean ownership: the cat’s home is unknown. The DVD’s label got lost.

    1. Nightshade1972

      There’s a business along one of the major freeways in my town whose signage reads “Pools, Spa’s, Decks.” Drives me batshit crazy every time I see it. Apparently somebody told the signmaker that words ending in consonants don’t need an apostrophe, words ending in vowels do. That’s the only explanation I can come up with for why “pools” and “decks” are punctuated correctly, but “spa’s” is not.

  26. Dina Elenbaas

    My motto is “If it fits your style guide…”

    I’ll accept most “errors” (including word usages I’m not particularly fond of) as long as you’re consistent about it!

    This is what having your education in the United States and your professional life in Australia does to you…

    1. John Hornbeck

      Respectfully, I don’t know that agree with this. Being consistently wrong isn’t a plus in communications. We must always remember that we are communicating to other people.

      By the way, I’ll add another to the list: confused use between “respectfully” and “respectively’.

      1. Dina Elenbaas

        It really depends on your definition of “wrong”! For example, some phrasings that are used here in Australia sound downright strange, and sometimes even wrong, to Standard American English speakers. But that doesn’t mean they’re *actually* wrong!

        Same with things like African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which comes with an added side helping of racism and classism when people talk about it not being “proper”. AAVE actually has a different grammar structure than Standard American English which is internally consistent! That doesn’t make it wrong – it just makes it different.

        There are so many dialects of English (SAE! AAVE! Australian! British! Indian!) that it’s really hard to nail down the “right” way to speak or write. So I say – internal consistency is the most important bit. The rest is literally just semantics. 😉

        1. John Hornbeck

          Agreed. Agann, you need to be aware of the audience. But when I wrote what I did above I was referencing Dina’s comment that she would ” . . . accept most “errors” (including word usages I’m not particularly fond of) as long as you’re consistent about it!”.

          1. Dina Elenbaas

            Well, I include in “errors” things like ending sentences with a preposition (completely normal and understood in most English dialects). (And honestly, to that point, I think Vu should consider rewording that use of “effect change” because it’s clearly confusing folks.)

            I’m a little less likely to smile upon its/it’s or they’re/their/there, but I did say “most”!

  27. brian0918

    “Comprised of” has been in use since at least the late 19th century according to OED:

    1874 Art of Paper-Making ii. 10 Thirds, or Mixed, are comprised of either or both of the above.

    1928 Daily Tel. 17 July 10/7 The voluntary boards of management, comprised..of very zealous and able laymen.

    1964 E. Palmer tr. A. Martinet Elements Gen. Linguistics i. 28 Many of these words are comprised of monemes.

    1970 Nature 27 June 1206/2 Internally, the chloroplast is comprised of a system of flattened membrane sacs.

  28. brian0918

    Also, “myriad” has been a noun longer than it’s been an adjective, according to OED:

    1555 R. Eden tr. Peter Martyr of Angleria Decades of Newe Worlde iii. v. f. 116 (margin) One myriade is ten thousande.
    1607 tr. Eusebius in Aunc. Eccl. Hist. (ed. 3) iii. vii. 39 When the Historiographer had collected the number of them that perished by sword, and famine, he reporteth that it amounted to a hundred and ten Myriads [1577, 1585 myllions, millions].
    1624 R. Burton Anat. Melancholy (ed. 2) ii. iii. iii. 269 Rome..vaunted her selfe of two myrriades of inhabitants.
    1635 T. Heywood Hierarchie Blessed Angells vii. 438 Saith Daniel, Thousand thousands Him before Stand, and ’bout him ten thousand thousands more. Which Thousand he thus duplicates, to show Their countlesse number, which our dull and slow Nature wants facultie to aphrehend. As likewise when he further would extend Their Legions, Miriads he to Miriads layes.
    1738 tr. C. Rollin Anc. Hist. (ed. 2) II. 32 One single myriad of talents of silver is worth thirty millions, French money.
    a1785 R. Glover Athenaid (1787) I. iv. 91 Last of horse, With Midias, pow’rful satrap, at their head, A chosen myriad clos’d the long array.
    1811 T. Jefferson Let. 10 Nov. in Writings (1984) 1253 A kiliad would be not quite a rood, or quarter of an acre; a myriad not quite 2½ acres.
    1836 C. Thirlwall Hist. Greece II. 289 That 4000 men from Peloponnesus had fought at Thermopylæ with 300 myriads.

  29. EveRedux

    And here’s what Merriam-Webster says about “momentarily”:

    1: for a moment

    2: archaic : instantly

    3: at any moment : in a moment

    No “traditionally” about it — just alternate meanings. In American English, it usually means “very soon”; in British English, it generally means “for a very short time.”


  30. EveRedux

    And “literally” has long been used in the figurative sense. See here, for example: https://stancarey.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/literally-centuries-of-non-literal-literally/.

    Honestly, these scoldings by self-styled grammar “mavens” do nothing to educate people. They serve mostly to shame the “less educated.” (And I use those quotes deliberately.) I’d recommend reading John McIntyre (Baltimore Sun), Geoff Pullum (Language Log), or Bryan Garner (new Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation) for some well-researched and current grammar info.

  31. Njambi

    Loved the tips. But was a bit stunned by your issue with resonate. I have always used as a verb to show how something is meaningful to me. Even looked the work up and its secondary meeting is indeed – to have particular meaning or importance for someone : to affect or appeal to someone in a personal or emotional way http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resonate

  32. Samantha Tropper

    Did anyone else notice this author’s overuse of commas?

    “I was writing a post on the new federal
    overtime law and how it will affect our sector, when I realized that I
    needed more time to think about it.” — The comma before “when” serves no purpose here. A comma is not necessary before a conjunction.
    “Plus, we’ve had a string of posts on serious topics these past few weeks, and I need to give my brain a rest.” — A comma is not necessary before “and” in this case since it is only there to link two independent clauses.

    And that’s just in the first paragraph alone.

    I’m not trying to point out this person’s errors just for the sake of it. All I want to do is show that no one is perfect and most of us aren’t claiming to be so. Grammar errors annoy me, especially in formal writing, and I agree with many of the points made in this article. The word choice ones might be a bit nitpicky, however, especially since evidently the author is not so perfect either. Relax a bit. Just a thought.

    1. Maryn Boess

      These commas are not errors at all … they are not grammatically incorrect. They’re used to shape the flow of the thinking through the reader’s brain. In the first sentence, the comma separates two related but independent thoughts, and cues the reader to slow down a tad because there’s a curve in the road ahead. In the second sentence, the comma before “and” serves something of the same purpose. Reading it aloud, I would read each sentence in a different way if the comma were omitted. The comma provides a slight pause between related but independent thoughts – again, as if slowing just a bit before a curve in the road.

      These aren’t errors – these are stylistic choices. As you say, a comma isn’t necessary in these cases. Neither are they incorrect.

      1. Samantha Tropper

        If we are speaking strictly according to grammar rules, they are actually incorrect. However, I see your point (even though the function of a comma is not really to tell “the reader to slow down”). And again, I wasn’t pointing that out to show that this author is inherently wrong, but rather to point out a little bit of the irony in the writing here. The author also has issues with words and phrases that are “stylistic choices,” and yet many grammar sticklers may have an issue with the incorrect usage of commas (according to strict English grammar and punctuation laws) displayed here. That’s all I was trying to show.

        1. Maryn Boess

          Samantha, I’m not familiar with any comma usage rule that fits what you’re pointing out. And in fact in your post I can see at least three instances where you seem to be using a comma in exactly the same way that Vu does … to mark a slight shift in thought and a turn ahead, where it isn’t grammatically necessary. Just noticing.

          1. Samantha Tropper

            I would love to ask where I am “using a comma in exactly the same way” in my post but I am not going to argue this with you in such a petty way as you seem to want to interact. I wasn’t attacking anyone; I was only pointing out irony and saying that no one is perfect (and, might I add, I never professed to be perfect either). A simple and innocent post is being turned into sarcastic warfare and I do not wish to partake. Thank you.

        2. Maryn Boess

          Yikes, Samantha … I just reread our posts and clearly see how judgy and snarky mine (below) sounds. I am truly sorry. Evidently I’ve been watching waaaayyyyy too much political coverage. I hope you’ll accept my apology …

  33. Lara

    This post is so funny. My comments are several and unrelated so I’m spacing these out:

    Another variant to replace Momentarily could be “shortly”.

    I never had thought about the fact that “resonates” is usually only ever a past tense verb. It makes sense when you say that resonated with me but not I resonate with that.

    Why do we have to be divided about our comma preferences though when both are legit by the English language standards? I actually swing both ways with comma depending on the audience and situation, but I’m consistent, of course. I’m against comma bigotry. Tolerate others of a different comma orientation!

  34. Forth Sadler

    And my personal favourite (and by “favourite” I mean “thing that most makes me want to set people on fire”) – “everyone doesn’t wake up screaming” is not the same as “not everyone wakes up screaming”. Do you even syntax?

  35. Lee Rowan

    I am convinced that many people use “impact” when they should be using “affect” because they have NO idea which way to spell the latter.

  36. Jeff Guyett

    Here is another: “in order to” always seems to over-complicate things. Just say “to.”
    And PLEASE never say to me, “That’s a whole nother thing.” WHAT?

  37. Debby Stirling

    I am a retired editor who worked in aerospace egineering. I used to tell our writers, “You would USE a hammer to drive in a nail, If you had no hammer on hand, you might UTILIZE the sole of your shoe.

  38. Jennifer Haude

    THANK you. Every time someone uses “service” instead of “serve,” I think of very seedy things.

  39. Beth Pirtle-Frazer

    Can we add “advocate for”? It’s redundant and btw, you can be an advocate; you can advocate a position and you can not advocate against something.

Comments are closed.