Can I get away with it? 12 common grammatical errors your copywriter’s probably making!

January 29, 2009 •
grammar mistakes image

I is a copywriter. So my blog posts are all free of grammatical errors and semantic ambiguities, right? Nup.

I write much as I speak. So my style is conversational and my posts share some of the errors of speech. And that’s ok. For two reasons:

  1. My style is CLEARLY conversational. Readers see the signals immediately, so they don’t expect rigorous, prescriptive grammar. In fact, they kinda expect the opposite.
  2. Most of my technical errors are deliberate – perhaps even necessary. In a conversation, listeners would most likely notice if I DIDN’T make them.

And sometimes I use grammatical errors just to get attention. (We all like attention!)

But it’s not just an orgy of offenses. If you’re gonna break the rules, it helps to have a pretty good grasp of them in the first place. Then at least you’ll know you’re breaking them, and you’ll be able to make an educated guess about the likely impact.

Don’t worry, this post isn’t gonna be a boring discussion of the rules of grammar. I’ve simply picked out a few of the more common mistakes I see made, and plotted them on my ‘Can I Get Away With It?’ scale (patent pending ;-).

Grammar errors scale

And now the nerdy explanation

If you didn’t get all you needed from the scientific diagram above, or you’re simply a word-nerd, here’s a bit of an explanation of each mistake.

    • “who” v “whom” – You use “whom” when the person you’re talking about is the object of the sentence, not the subject. Most of the time, there’s an easy way to tell: if it’s got a preposition in front of it (e.g. “by”, “with”, “on”), then you use “whom”. If it doesn’t, you use “who”. If that doesn’t work – as in the example in my scale above – try this. The object is generally the person being acted upon, not the person doing the acting. In the example, “whom do you love”, you are doing the loving, and someone else is the object of your affection. They’re being acted upon. So you use “whom” to refer to them. But how often do you hear “whom” in conversation?! “Who” is good enough for most audiences. 
    • One word sentences – Technically, a sentence needs a subject and a verb. Huh! Rubbish! I say if it conveys your meaning, and you’d get away with it in conversation, use it. 
    • Split infinitives – An infinitive is a fancy-pants term for a construction like, “to go” or “to be”. Purists hate infinitives like these to be torn apart. So Star Trek’s “to boldly go” is out. And so is “to only be”. You get the picture. 
    • Sentences that end with a preposition – A preposition is a word that shows the relationship between two things (nouns). “On”, “in” and “with” are all prepositions. Purists don’t like sentences to finish with prepositions. I’m not quite sure why. They sound fine to me. I’m with Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of nonsense with which I will not up with put.” 
    • “different from” v “different to” – I grew up saying “different to”. But technically, it’s supposed to be “different from”. I don’t know the precise grammatical reason, but I know a rule of thumb to help you out if you get confused: remember that you’d say “oranges differ from lemons”; you wouldn’t say “oranges differ to lemons”. Mind you, many people say “different to”, so you’ll probably get away with it with most audiences. (In fact, “different from” still sounds a little stiff and formal to me. But that may be just because of what I grew up saying.) 
    • Treating a company as a plural, instead of a singular – A company or business is a single entity. You wouldn’t say “he are” or “it are”, so try not to use those constructions when talking about a company. However, sometimes it’s good to talk about a company as if it’s a group of people. It personalizes the company. (This is particularly true of the third example below.) Following is a list of examples of a company being treated as a plural:
      • “XYZ Corp are a great company” (should be “is”); 
      • “XYZ Corp want you to visit their showroom” (should be “wants” and “its”); or 
      • “XYZ Corp is very experienced. They have been around for 10 years, and their customer service is great…” (should be “it has” and “its”).  
    • “who” v “that” – This is one of the most common mistakes I hear. E.g. “I spoke to a woman that said…” It should be “who”. You use “who” for people and “that” for animals or objects. As it’s very common, it’s something you can often get away with, but to me it really stands out. 
    • “you’re” v “your” – To shorten “you are”, use “you’re”. Always. Many people will notice if you get it wrong. 
    • “it’s” v “its” – Only use “it’s” if you’re shortening “it is”. You don’t use it to indicate ownership. (e.g. This is correct: “the dog chased its ball”.) Just another example of the inconsistency of the English language! 
    • “their” v “there” v “they’re” – Use as follows:
      • “The boys rode their bikes.”
      • “They rode over there.” (A good way of remembering: “here” and “there” look very similar.)
      • “Now they’re going to ride back.” (Shortening of “they are”.)

That’s about all the grammar I can stomach for now. All I have left is to advise you to read the above in the context of your own audience. Writing and social media coach, Angie Haggstrom, says it best: “While every writer should aim for perfection, I honestly don’t think a misspelled word could destroy the entire piece. It depends on the situation, and the content itself.”

EDIT: You might also be interested in this infographic

I recently created an infographic showing when it’s OK to use certain contractions. It’s a handy guide, especially if contractions aren’t your strong suit.

Any other examples you’d like to cite, please comment.

Feel free to comment...
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Angus wrote on January 29th, 2009

Good list! One additional comment though relevant to copywriters who work internationally) - treating collective nouns as plural in some contexts is much more common and widely accepted in British/Australian English than American (see http://is.gd/hCHZ ) Also - "Purists don’t like sentences to finish with prepositions. I’m not quite sure why." It's a completely bogus rule invented by John Dryden in 1672 - see http://is.gd/hCKQ (Language Log is a great cure for prescriptivism!)

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Glenn (Owner) wrote on January 29th, 2009

Cool! Thanks Angus. As usual, you've come through with the goods! A "metonymic shift", hey?! I like it! Never heard of it before. And that Wikipedia definition you found is a nice one (http://is.gd/hCHZ). That's going in Delicious! And whatdyaknow? You've delivered a double-bunger! I didn't know that bit of trivia about Dryden (clearly). Another one for Delicious! Thanks again mate!

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Christy McCarthy wrote on January 29th, 2009

I am so utterly bookmarking this page for future reference. I think my grammar's fine most of the time, but sometimes I flip out and can't spell the simplest things. (Writing this comment is even making me nervous!)

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Glenn Murray wrote on January 29th, 2009

C'mon Christy! Where's your Gravatar? Makes life a helluva lot easier. And we all get to see your beaming smile! Thanks for your nice comment. You on Delicious? Or what bookmarking tool are you using?

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Angie Haggstrom wrote on January 29th, 2009

You've managed to make most of us chuckle, and hard-core English buffs cringe all in one post! If you were writing material for a group of English professors, you would have likely been burned at the stake by the end of the title. When I first started blogging, this subject tormented me for some time. My post felt clunky and out of place when I played by the rules. At the same time, I worried about how it might look to others since I write for a living. In the end, I decided if I wanted to feel approachable and real, I would leave them in. I'm happy, the reader is happy, and everyone wins. I've yet to regret the mistake. In my opinion, the rules you choose to break in combination with how you choose to do so makes up an important part of your blogging style. As a reader, I feel comfortable, at ease, and interested in reading what you have to say. If your post read like a history textbook, chances are I wouldn't enjoy it half as much. Besides, you have to admit that breaking the rules ain't no fun unless you know what they are to start with. (Not that I would know ;) ) I believe a good writer is one who can adapt to the situation rather than one who has memorized the rules grammar. They should be able to connect with the reader in an informal way, but they should also be able to write formally in situations that require it. Master this, and the value of your work increases. Blogs are written for the reader, and not the grammar police! If that makes me a rebel, I'm happy to defend that title at any time. Bookmarked and Stumbled! Angie Haggstrom

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Glenn Murray wrote on January 29th, 2009

Go Angie! I think you just wrote a guest-post! Agree with everything you said. And very eloquently put!

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Carl Crawley wrote on January 29th, 2009

A very interesting blog post and one which made me wince at nearly every example :-) This is one of the very reasons why I am a reluctant blogger, whilst I consider my spelling to be pretty spot on, my grammar leaves a lot to be desired (I recall my secondary school English teacher telling me I was comma happy). Even now, I (like Christy) am nervous about posting this comment but, as Angie very eloquently put it - blogging is for the reader, not the grammar police! My only saving grace is that the kind of mistakes I would make are to the right of your diagram, so not as obvious. I am now more at ease about writing blog posts - the next problem is the subject matter!

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Glenn Murray wrote on January 29th, 2009

Good for you Carl! That's the spirit! Fear is the copywriter's natural enemy! And the blogger's. To write true to yourself, it has to flow, and that ain't so easy when you're anxious. (In fact, I wrote about this just two days ago: Dead scribe a-thinkin’: How Missy Elliot’s hips cured my writer’s block.) Thanks for your comment!

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AmandaBC wrote on January 29th, 2009

Just lately I've been noticing "bored of" appearing in newspapers and other formerly authoritative environments, and I'm surprised at the strength of my antipathy toward the phrase! Indeed, I'm quite bored *with* it. Re split infinitives, I was once told that you can't split an infinitive in Latin (not sure whether it's because it's a single word or because separating the two bits changes the meaning), so hide-bound grammarians who came up through the British public-school system say you shouldn't split an infinitive in English. That story might be apocryphal, though! ;)

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Ben McKay wrote on January 29th, 2009

I'm definitely with Christy's comment: "Writing this comment is even making me nervous!" ...I think I have just learnt (the UK English version not Amercanised / Americanized 'learned'!!) more from reading this than in all of my English lessons put together (sad, I know!)...a truly excellent resource and one certainly worth bookmarking! Thanks for the tips and tricks Mr Murray.

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Jim Malmberg wrote on January 29th, 2009

You left "then" vs. "than" off your list. This one really bugs me and I know a lot of people who make this mistake.

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Glenn Murray wrote on January 29th, 2009

Hi Amanda, Ben, Jim! Thanks for your comments. Ben: No need to be nervous! (Although Amanda's now made me nervous with her "apocryphal" !!! ;-) ) Glad the post was helpful. Amanda: Hmmm. I'm just tryin' to figure out what I use. Very tricky. Firstly 'coz I have two young kids, and never enough time to be bored. And secondly 'coz I think I usually use the construction, "XYZ is boring". (How's that for externalizing?!!!) I'll have to keep a close eye on this one. Jim: Very good point. Definitely one that should have been on the list. It probably would have been better then then a couple of the above. Than again, maybe it wouldn't. (Hahaha. Copywriter humour! I'm so funny! ;-) ) Cheers.

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Brandee wrote on January 29th, 2009

I am glad to see posts like this. I spend countless hours trying to convince "old school" clients that you can bend the rules sometimes, ESPECIALLY in "marketing prose". When writing a paper for your Masters in English literature, perhaps not, when writing a website I don't see any issue. As far as I am concerned, if people can make up words like "crumbelievable" and "cosmetology" I can start a sentance with "And" or "Because" I also spend countless hours rolling my eyes at the misuse of conjuncitons and words like "preventative" or "de-thawed" (isn't that technically refreezing?). I am also starting a big movement on the proper use of the word "literally". "I literally DIED when I saw that" is wrong on many levels. If you're literally dead, how are you talking to me? Then there is always the "Too" vs. "To" issue. My dad taught me how to tell the difference when I was about 5, and I can't figure out what that one is so difficult for people to grasp. Maybe they are TOO lazy. Thanks for a good post!!!!

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Glenn Murray wrote on January 29th, 2009

Starting sentences with a conjunction. There's a post in that alone. And I'm gonna write it!

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Paul wrote on January 29th, 2009

I'm sure I make at least one of these mistakes daily.

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Sally wrote on January 30th, 2009

Hi, This is great - grammar in a nutshell. In my school days grammar was taught implicitly rather than explicitly therefore it is someting that I have acquired rather than learned. As a copywriter too, I also write conversationally so completely agree that there is a lot you can get away with. After all, the English language is constantly evolving and it is a communication tool - something to be played with. BTW - 'Sentences that end with a preposition – A preposition is a word that shows the relationship between to things (nouns). - shouldn't that be '...that shows the relationship between two things' :-) Great post.

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Glenn Murray wrote on January 30th, 2009

Chuckle. Of course! In my defence, I'm putting that one down to a typo! :P

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Glenn (Owner) wrote on January 30th, 2009

@sallyormond, it now says "two". Thanks for picking that up. Just proves I need an editor! Much appreciated.

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Sally wrote on January 30th, 2009

S'ok - I'm glad to see I'm not the only one that makes typos :-) Please be kind if you ever see any of mine!

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T Edwards wrote on January 30th, 2009

This is a post every blogger should read. I've read some blogs that were so poorly written that I was embarrassed just reading them. A very good book that I have is "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk, Jr. It's very short and breaks writing down to its basic, classic elements. T

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5 important links from this week, 31st January 2009 - Crane Factory wrote on January 30th, 2009

[...] Can I get away with it? 12 common grammatical errors YOUR probably making! - I make at least one of these mistakes in my writing every day. [...]

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Clare wrote on February 2nd, 2009

This post brought back memories of my final year English paper - the one with "This is not a sentence" written on it in big, bold red pen. Thanks Glenn, I always knew it was OK!!! Great reference post - bookmarked.

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Sue wrote on February 3rd, 2009

Excellent post! The "its" versus "it's" has always been a source of confusion and frustration for me so I'm thrilled to have that finally resolved. And where do people say "different to"? I'm from the east coast and have never heard that expression before. (sorry - never before heard that expression :) I could totally join or start a crusade to get bloggers and internet marketers to extend the courtesy to us, their readers, of proofreading their work. Since entering into the internet marketing arena I have actually put feelers out about starting a proofreading service. As "they" say, having multiple streams of income is a good thing! Thanks so much for your insight. I'll be back for more.

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Glenn (Owner) wrote on February 10th, 2009

Heya Sue. Sorry to take so long replying to your comment. In answer to your "different to" question, it's certainly very common here in Australia. I've noticed that Americans tend to favor "different than".

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Joyce Jacobsen wrote on February 12th, 2009

Loved the way you pointed out the many errors bloggers, copywriters, etc. make on their posts. To me they stand out like a sore thumb. One mistake a lot of writers make is using "a" instead of "an" before a word starting with a vowel. I also see many writers using "that" in their sentences several times when that could have been omitted. Great post and content - thanks for sharing. Cheers.

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Beariaovarp wrote on March 4th, 2009

Excellent site www.divinewrite.com and I am really pleased to see you have what I am actually looking for here: this .. as it's taken me literally 1 hours and 38 minutes of searching the web to find you (just kidding!) so I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor :)

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Glenn (Owner) wrote on March 4th, 2009

Hi Beariaovarp. How's it going? Thanks for your kind words. Look forward to seeing you here more often! Cheers.

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Simonn wrote on March 21st, 2009

Keep working ,great job!

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rebecca wrote on April 25th, 2009

I'm not a copy writer but a mother wanting to make sure my young childrens grammar is correct. Can you please confirm when you use i versus me: eg, who went to the shops today? daddy, sarah and I or daddy, sarah and me. Also do you ever put me first or is it always last if with others. thanks

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Glenn Murray wrote on April 25th, 2009

Hi Rebecca. Thanks for your question. The first part is easier than you think. Just remove the other people from the sentence, and ask whether you'd say "I" or "me" without them there. e.g. "Daddy, Sarah and I/me went to the shops" - Remove Daddy & Sarah, and you're left with either "I went to the shops" or "me went to the shops". It's clear which one's right, then. As to whether you put the "I/me" last in the group: that's what I've always been taught. But I think it's more a matter of courtesy than grammar. Hope this helps. Cheers.

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Copywriter wrote on July 2nd, 2010

Hi all, This is really a nice and true post. People often make these silly mistakes that make them little embarrass sometimes. This post will really help to lots of people. Thank you

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Schedule wrote on October 30th, 2010

Maybe you could make changes to the blog name title Can I get away with it? 12 common grammatical errors YOUR probably making! to something more generic for your subject you create. I loved the blog post however.

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Copywriter wrote on November 10th, 2010

It can be seen with many copywriters. They are the good copywriters and experts in their field and generate good content, but there are some grammatical mistakes in their content. They use some plural, gender and verb, adjectives error in their sentences. which give a bad impression to your content. I have read some blogs and articles that are written in poor language and feel embarrassed reading them. Good post given on this topic. Thanks for sharing it.

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Marlana Ciraco wrote on November 25th, 2010

When i visit a blog, chances are that I see that the construction is poor and the writting bad. Regarding your blog,I have to say that you have done a good job here.

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Thomas Hack wrote on September 26th, 2011

You have a wonderful blog here! would you like to make some invite posts on my blog?

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Emily Read wrote on September 30th, 2013

Great list! One thing I would add is beginning sentences with conjunctions - 'and' & 'but'. I do it all the time. And I couldn't believe it when I was told to cease this practice... in a year 12 Creative Writing class, of all places. I refrained from ever using 'and' or 'but' at the beginning of a sentence in all my essays at school and uni, but who places a restriction like that in a creative writing class?

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 30th, 2013

Ah yes. I 100% agree. But I never actually thought of it as a mistake. It was just over-zealous English teachers who thought that. My understanding is it was never an actual rule of grammar, just a stuck-up preference... Nonetheless, it probably fits here. If only because most everyone else will think it's a rule! Thanks for the suggestion, Emily. :-)

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Six points to remember when writing a promotional animation script wrote on March 18th, 2014

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Tom wrote on July 12th, 2015

Nice list. Funny that some of my favourite fiction writers of all time break a lot of what I was taught at school and university. Not so much the common grammatical errors you've mentioned, but sentence structure (one word sentences) and so on. It's quite refreshing to write fiction after days of copy...

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Glenn Murray wrote on July 13th, 2015

Yeah, mine too. I'm sure I've written about one word sentences somewhere, but I couldn't find it with a quick search. I don't do any fiction writing, but I do find it refreshing writing for myself. I hear a lot of writers say they struggle writing for themselves, but I love the freedom.

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