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OOPS! Common Goofs Beyond Its/It’s and Their/There/They’re


Many editor/writer types like myself frequently kvetch about how often people mistake its for it’s; their, there, and they’re; your and you’re; than and then; to, too, and two; and so on and so forth. But there are all sorts of homonyms, homophones, heteronyms, and homographs that litter manuscripts (and tweets and posts and billboards and cereal boxes …) and cause all sorts of problems, such as clarity of meaning.

Some of these mistakes stem not from a misunderstanding of the rules of spelling and grammar; rather, they can be the result of typing too quickly, writing in haste, disinterest in proofing your own work, etc. etc. (I’m being charitable here, giving abusers some leeway.) Some of the mistakes stem from laziness. Some from ignorance.

No matter the cause, no one need spend his or her life consistently making the same mistakes over and over. I really wish everyone would band together to stop the confusion. Could we maybe send everyone back to junior high English class?

Probably not.
So, instead, I offer this wee tutorial.

Let’s start by explaining homonyms, homophones, heteronyms, and homographs. They’re all related, but each one is a little different from another. Think of homonyms as the top of a ladder above homophones, heteronyms, and homographs. Sort of like this:





Now let’s take a look at the differences among these terms. Homonyms are words that sound alike but have different meanings. Homophones are words that sound alike and are spelled alike but have different meanings. Some words are both homonyms and homophones; homophones are a type of homonym. Homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. Heteronyms are words that are spelled the same, have different meanings, and sound different. Heteronyms are a type of homograph.

Confusing? TMI? Let’s look at some examples:

  • Homonyms
    • ad/add—ad = an advertisement [noun]. add = as in to compute figures [verb]; as in to to join one thing to another in order to increase number [verb]
    • led/lead/lead—led = the past-tense form of the verb to lead [verb]. lead = to command or be in charge of [verb]. lead = a heavy metal (i.e., plumbum), as in Professor Plum killed Miss Scarlet in the kitchen with the lead pipe [noun]
  • Homophones
    • bank—a place where you put your money [noun]; an area of sloping land near a body of water [noun]; counting on or betting on something  [verb]; tilting when turning [verb]; etc.
    • beam—a sturdy piece of wood or metal used to support a ceiling or roof [noun]; a ray of sunshine [noun]; to transmit a signal [verb]; to smile brightly [verb];
  • Homographs
    • bow—the fore of a vessel [noun]; ribbon, string, etc., tied in loops [noun]; to bend at the waist [verb]
    • incense—that smelly stuff that you burn to obscure the scent of pot [noun]; to infuriate [verb])
  • Heteronyms
    • extract—as in vanilla extract [noun]; as in a piece of a larger work [noun]; as in to remove with effort [verb]
    • invalid—an individual who is weak or disabled [noun]; no longer valid [adjective]

The examples above illustrate just  some of the more common words that are often goofed-up. But there are lots more. Here’s a Top 10 list of those I see most frequently (listed alphabetically):

  • accept/except—accept = to agree to receive or do [verb]. except = to exclude [verb]; as in other than or not including [preposition]; as in but for [conjuction]
  • affect/effect—affect = to alter someone or something in some way [verb]; to take on airs [verb]; to evoke emotions [verb]. effect = to cause something to happen [verb]; personal belongings [noun]; lighting, sound, scenery, CGI, etc., used in a production [noun]
  • assure/ensure/insure—assure = to dispel doubt [verb]. ensure = to make sure something does or does not happen [verb]. insure = to arrange for compensation for a loss [verb]
  • a while/awhile—a while = a period of time [noun]. awhile = for a period of time [adverb]
  • discreet/discrete—discreet = careful, circumspect, cautious [adjective]. discrete = separate and distinct [adjective]
  • foreword/forward—foreword = a short introduction to a book [noun]. forward = toward the front [adverb]; a direction in which to move [adjective]; a sports position [noun]; to send correspondence to another person [verb]
  • poor/pore/pour—poor = lacking sufficient resources [adjective]; worse than desired, expected, or usual [adjective]; pore = a small opening [noun]; to study something closely (as in to pore over) [verb]. pour = to flow or cause to flow [verb]
  • principal/principle—principal = first in order of importance [adjective]; the person with the highest authority [noun]; a sum of money invested [noun]. principle = a belief, truth, or value [noun]; a mathematical or scientific theorem [noun]
  • sight/site—sight = the faculty of seeing [noun]; an area, distance, or spot within which someone or something can be seen [noun]. site = an area upon which something is built or constructed [noun]; the location of a event [noun]; to fix something in a particular place [verb]
  • tenet/tenant—tenet = a rule, guideline, principle, or belief [noun]. tenant = a resident of a parcel of land, a building, or other property [noun]

I don’t think its really to much two expect written work too be free of grammatical errors. (See what I did their?) (and there?) Indeed, the internet is full of resources* to help you understand homonyms, homophones, heteronyms, and homographs and use them correctly. Words matter. Four accuracy, fore clarity of meaning, for precision, for understanding. Clean and correct writing will make a difference for you’re readers (and four you’re editors). So—pleads oh pleads—take the thyme too brush-up on your understanding and use of these commonly confused words.

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you and your readers thank you.

March 30, 2018

*Some sites to check out (not checkout):

Anarchy is as detestable in grammar as it is in society.
—Maurice Druon






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Oh, the crazy things I see when prospective authors share their manuscripts with me. Dingbats. Fun with fonts. Huge margins. Tabs, tabs, tabs. Odd line spacing.

When you’re submitting a manuscript to an editor, you need not be creative with the look of it. Indeed, most editors want to see a simple, clean manuscript devoid of frills and embellishments.

With that, a few pointers on how to format a manuscript:

  • The order of your manuscript should go roughly like this:
    —Title page, which features the title and subtitle and your byline. And that’s it.
    —Contents, which features chapter titles (complex or technical manuscripts might also require subheads). No page numbers.
    —Foreword. (Please note it is a foreword. Not a forward or a foreward or a forword.) Not every manuscript requires a foreword, but if you have one, it goes here.
    —Introduction/preface/prologue. The typical manuscript uses just one of these, of course.
    —Main text. Chapter by chapter. Each chapter should start on a new page, which is created by using “insert new page,” not by hitting return return return return until you get to the next page. Chapter titles can be centered or flush left, and the text can start two lines below or about a quarter of a page below.
    —Conclusion/epilogue. Note that if your front material was called a prologue, the back material should be called an epilogue.
    —Notes, bibliography, resources. Of course, fiction manuscripts typically do not include this backmatter, although some novelists do include a bibliography or list of resources.
    —Index. Again, typically for nonfiction titles; not for fiction.
    —Acknowledgements. The space you use to thank everyone who helped you with the manuscript usually goes at the back of the book, although it’s also appropriate to include it between the Contents and Foreword or after the Introduction. Some authors elect to incorporate their acknowledgements in the Introduction.
  • Your manuscript should be formatted with 1″ margins all around—top, bottom, left, and right. Line spacing should be double-spaced throughout, with no points above or below. Paragraphs should be indented 0.5″ at the first line.
  • Most editors prefer a simple typeface, such as 12-point Times New Roman. A serif font like this is much easier to read than a sans serif face such as Arial or Helvetica. Do not mix and match fonts.
  • Chapter titles and subheads should be in bold, and they can be centered or flush left, but be sure to be consistent with usage. Make clear whether a subhead is an A-, B-, or C- level head (sometimes called 1-, 2-, or 3-level heads) by using different font sizes—e.g., chapter titles at 16 points, A-level heads at 14 points, B-level heads at 12 points, and C-level heads at 12 points italicized.
  • Primary text should be ragged right rather than justified. Pull quotes (usually extracts from other sources that are more than 50 or 75 words) can be set off as justified text with narrower margins and tighter line spacing.
  • For the love of Pete: one space after a period!
  • Also: serial commas! Whether you call this an Oxford comma, a Chicago comma, or a serial comma, please use it. (See that? I used a serial comma right there!)
  • For footnotes, use the handy footnotes tool in Word, which automatically numbers the notes for you and drops them at the bottom of the correct page. If you prefer endnotes, that’s completely fine, but still use that tool. Use Cardinal numerals instead of Roman numerals. Notes should be formatted in 10-point Times New Roman, single-spaced, with a hanging indent of 0.25″.
  • Tabs are best saved for tables and charts. You can center titles, headlines, and subheads using the centering tool. You can indent paragraphs using the first-line indent tool. Don’t tab tab tab tab tab over to wherever you want to place an element. That’s annoying and can screw up your formatters/typesetters later on down the line once the manuscript goes into production.
  • If you’re going to open a chapter with a quote, make sure that all chapters open with quotes. Be consistent!
  • Page numbers should be inserted at the bottom of the page in the footer, flush right. It can be helpful to include your name and the book title in the footer as well; these should go flush left.

Of course, if you are already working with a publisher, the style and formatting guidelines required by that publisher rule above all else. Too, the field for which you are writing might have a preferred style guide, such as Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Language Association, or American Psychological Association. Whether you use CMS, MLA, APA, or some other style guide, be sure to be consistent with usage throughout the manuscript.

Why is any of this important?
For at least a couple of reasons.

For starters, although it might seem mundane or finicky, a properly formatted manuscript is easier to read. A messy, goofy, dolled-up manuscript can be annoying, which doesn’t exactly predispose your editor to read your manuscript with a charitable eye. Editing is as much art as science, and if your sloppy manuscript sets the wrong tone, it might not end up well for you.

In addition, if you’re paying out of pocket for an editor to work on your manuscript, it might cost you less in the long run if that editor doesn’t need to spend a lot of time reformatting your manuscript. I’ve worked on projects that required many hours of formatting. If the author had taken the time to format the manuscript correctly in the first place, he could have saved himself hundreds of dollars.

In the end, remember that a manuscript isn’t a printed book. A manuscript isn’t even typeset pages. There is no reason for any writer to play “Fun with Formatting,” because any design elements will be settled on later in the production process when the internal design of the book is determined. The manuscript should be clean and easy to read. You’re much better spending your time being creative with your writing than being creative with the appearance of your manuscript.

September 12, 2017


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