Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Try and not write lightening, and other mistakes in your and your fellows’ writing

There are some errors that drive me crazy, not because they’re so terrible — anything can be corrected — but because they appear so frequently, and they’re really so simple that it’s hard to imagine how people make them.
Lightning image from Suvro Datta
on freedigitalphotos.net

“Lightening” for “lightning.” People who should know better make this mistake all the time. Even some websites where I found the images of lightning called it “lightening.”

“Lightening” is a progressive verb, meaning “making lighter”—in weight or in colour.

  • “Using bleach is lightening the colour of my shirt.” 
  • “Help from the community is really lightening my workload.”
 The flash in the sky that accompanies thunder is “lightning.” There’s no e in it.

“Try and” is another common error.
  • “I’ll try and get there before 8:00.”

It’s a childish expression. To interpret the above sentence strictly, you get two ideas: “I’ll try,” (what are you trying?) followed by “and get there.” Are these two different things? The speaker intends to say he or she will try to arrive before a specific time. Solution: “I will try to get there before 8:00.”

“Two-month anniversary.” Newscasters, who should know better, kept using this phrase as the Occupy Wall Street protests continued into their third month in November. An anniversary is something that happens once a year. The syllable “ann” comes from the Latin word for “year.” The protest may have reached the “two-month mark” or “point,” but not an “anniversary.”

The most awkward sentence construction I have ever seen takes this form:
  • “This causes problems for our and our supplier’s accounting departments.”

The first time I noticed it, in a memo brought to me by a student from her employer, I thought it would never happen again. However, I have seen this kind of phrase in a few places lately:
  • “The document must bear your or your representative’s signature.”
  • “This copy is for his and his agent’s records.”
The writers of these phrases are trying use words efficiently. The effort is commendable, but it leaves this dangling modifier: “his and ...” Read it aloud and you’ll hear how strange it seems.

The solution: rewrite the whole sentence. Start over by thinking about what you want the reader to do after reading the sentence. (That’s the G for Goal in Get a GRIP).
  • “The author and his or her agent should retain copies in their records.”
  • “Please sign this document yourself, or have an authorized representative sign it on your behalf.”
  • “This causes problems for our accounting department as well as our suppliers.”

That’s the Writing Tip for this week. Use the Comments section below to add your own!


  1. Anonymous11:40 AM

    Grrrrr . . .

    All of *the* sudden, I am *very* *flustrated*, *very* unique, and not religious but *spiritual*.

    "The other day, I was *like* sayin' that he was *like* way hot, when all of *the* sudden, he was *like* *flustrated*, *like* as if he *really* thought he was *like* so *very* unique.

    And by the way, I write paranormal romance novels about vampires and double-jointed zombies who *like* want to *you know* all the time, and my greatest inspiration for writing this stuff has nothing to do with the paranormal zombie movies I watch when I'm not busy gossiping about hot guys and then try *and* imitate because I want to become the kind of popular author that my 2812 Facebook friends are.

    Because *like* my *really* real inspiration is the author Edgar *Allen* Poe (and no, I never look at the *scary* book covers to *like* see how the weird guy spelled his middle name, and even if I did *like* look there, I wouldn't see my mistake).

  2. Hilarious, Anthony! I like so agree, ya know? I wish I could of thot of that!

  3. I like so agree with both of you and what bugs me is using "I" when it's the object of a preposition and should be "me." Newscasters do this all the time and it really irks me. Great blog and I'll be back!

  4. When I read or hear "try and" I want to scream! I "try and" compose myself but it usually doesn't work. :P

    Great post, Scott!

  5. Anonymous10:30 AM

    "Like I totally love your stuff, your like so smart, and I'm totally gonna try and use your advise."
    (Actual note from a full-grown adult, wanting advice on becoming a writer)

    1. I should have kept more copies from students' work when I was a college teacher. Sometimes, it's depressing to think about all these people who manage to graduate from high school without ever learning what a sentence is.

    2. isn't that .... without ever learning what is a sentence? Can't end a sentence with "is".

  6. I reckon there ain't no sense in getting in this conversation to.

  7. Great tips, Scott. I'm going to keep these on my and my partner's desks.