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This month we have expert advice from Lorraine Mace on how to pitch the perfect non-fiction proposal, Ten Top Tips looks at some of the more common English errors, Successes will leave you feeling ready to tackle anything and Useful Websites has an extra treat.

Ten Top Tips...

Common English Errors To Avoid


With editorial teams smaller than ever, the less work you give them to do on your script, the better! Careful revision is vital.

1. Spelling – use a spell-check but don’t rely on it exclusively. It won’t spot that you’ve made someone love the son instead of the sun, or the flour instead of the flower.

2. Don’t mix British and American spellings. Humour, defence, grovelled can’t go with color, offense, traveled. Set the language of the document to the appropriate version (Microsoft Word includes Canadian, South African, and Australian English, too, among others) and use the spell-check, with the caveat in Tip 1.

3. One or two words? Strictly speaking, alright is all wrong on both sides of the Pond, but increasingly used in place of all right. Everyday is only allowable as an adjective (everyday life) but it’s wrongly used for the adverb, every day. Anymore is beginning to be accepted, and editors may not be as strict any more. If puzzled, check a good dictionary!

4. Split infinitives still offend some editors, so avoid… unless for deliberate effect. It might have been better English for Captain Kirk to go boldly, but “To boldly go” certainly made its mark.

5. Apostrophes matter. One main use is for possession. Childrens’ toys or children’s toys? Expand it to check: the toys of the children, not the toys of the childrens. The tricky one is: its. It might help if you remember there’s no apostrophe in his. With the apostrophe, it’s short for it is or it has, illustrating the other use of apostrophes to replace missing letters: you’re, can’t.

6. Commas can’t be used instead of full stops but often indicate a pause within a sentence. If there’s no pause, you probably don’t need a comma. One important use is before someone’s name when they’re being addressed: “Let’s eat, Peter!” or “Let’s eat Peter!” Ouch!

7. Direct questions need a question mark, but indirect ones don’t. Is he coming? She asked if he was coming. Restrict the use of exclamation marks, too – the occasional one for humour or emphasis, fine, but they lose their impact if scattered like confetti. They’re needed in commands, after Let’s and in exclamations beginning with how or what: Stop! Let’s talk! What a laugh! How silly!

8. Because they’re difficult to use correctly, semi-colons and colons are rapidly going out of fashion. There’s an example of their correct use in lists, in Tip 9. Avoid them especially in dialogue, because people don’t talk in complex sentences. Use shorter sentences or a dash.

9. Punctuation of dialogue often causes major headaches, so pay attention when you read your favourite novel. Basics: final punctuation goes inside closing speech marks; use a comma not a full stop to end with if a speech indicator follows; and this “he said” phrase begins with a lower case letter, not a capital.

10. Talking of capitals, it’s a doctor but Doctor Smith, my mum but “Hello, Mum!” Only use initial capitals in titles or names.

Just don’t get so carried away with microsurgery on the minutiae that it stifles your creativity. Get your story, article, novel written first... but then knuckle down and check the basics!