Back to school: common grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors

Back to school: common grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors


Striving for better communication with a whistle-stop tour around some grammar, punctuation, spelling and common sub-editing errors, writes Scott Guthrie. Last week I was having a ‘discussion’ about being clear in meaning when Stephen Waddington told me about the post on grammar he was writing.

I explained my rant. Stephen suggested a guest post. Here we are.

My discussion, okay table-thumping bluster, centred on whether meaning trumps all things in language.

Patricia, my sparring companion, took George Orwell’s line: “Correct grammar and syntax are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear.”

I took my steer from another George.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place," explained George Bernard Shaw.

I pointed out, too, that though Orwell spouted his line in Politics and the English Language he rarely, if ever, lived by his own maxim. In any event as a former Eton scholar he knew grammar, syntax and punctuation rules intimately and if he broke them it was for effect only.

Using punctuation, spelling and grammar are like using cutlery. Eating with your hands from a plate on your lap watching X Factor is a different setting to sitting bolt upright with your elbows tucked close to your side at La Gavroche as you work your way inwards from the array of forks and knives and attempt to impress your dining companion.

Like the rules surrounding eating writing depends upon context and understanding the journey from unconscious incompetent to unconscious competent.

My writing style for this post sits in stark contrast to when I have written a chairman’s report, quarterly shareholder announcements, sales pitches, book chapters or stories for my five-year-old.

This post teases out some further grammar, punctuation, spelling and sub-editing mistakes and explores meaning. It starts with a pet peeve: the grocer’s apostrophe.

Yes, we have no banana’s: Grocer’s apostrophe

The grocer’s apostrophe. Where an apostrophe is used incorrectly to form the plural of a noun. It drives me bananas - note not banana’s. You don’t make a singular noun plural by adding an apostrophe followed by an s. Drop the apostrophe. They’re bananas, tomatoes, CDs not banana’s, tomatoe’s and CD’s.




Commas save lives. Here one comma separates encouragement from cannibalism. “Let’s eat, Jim.” So much more civilised than “Let’s eat Jim.”


Oxford Comma

The 'Oxford comma' is an optional comma before the word 'and' at the end of a list: We sell books, videos, and magazines.

Sometimes referred to as the serial comma it's known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.

Long before Vampire Weekend sang about the Oxford Comma this punctuation device was helping save – if not lives, then the reputations of the famous. Consider the difference in meaning between these two sentences:

“For the launch we invited the Chuckle brothers, Jeremy Corbyn, and David Cameron.”

“For the launch we invited the Chuckle brothers, Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron.”

Caution with commas

The comma is the most used, and the most misused, of all punctuation marks - some use a salt cellar to sprinkle their commas about the page.

The comma’s main function is to break up sentences into convenient bundles. They slow the reader's pace. This can heighten tension or bring the read to a funereal pace.

Capital letters

Capital letters are also important. They're the difference between "Helping your Uncle Jack off a horse" and "Helping your uncle jack off a horse".


Double meanings

Of course, even the most diligent of grammarians can fall victim to an unintended homonym.

As part of my research for this post I sought advice from a dear friend - a former sub-editor at a national newspaper. He described a news report in which a man was chased into toilets by thugs and beaten with stools.

The double-meaning should have been obvious, but it appeared in the first edition of a national newspaper before the aforementioned, sharp-eyed sub altered 'stools' to 'chairs'. It sat better.

Time poor and context

And there's the simple inexplicable mistakes - made all the funnier by context.  My sub-editor friend tells a story involving Ken Starr, the American lawyer made famous by his investigation of the Clinton administration:

“There was a story breaking about him [Ken Starr] right on deadline, which a colleague had to turn around at light speed. They did and it was in time for the edition, with only a minor flaw. Starr was referred to throughout as Freddie - the hamster-eating comedian…

There are many apocryphal tales swapped between journalists on dark nights such as plans for a wind farm being passed, a lord complaining about a mobile phone tower, saying he hated seeing an enormous erection in the morning, and a reporter referring to the 'legendary God'. There but for the grace of the legend go us all.”

Often confused words

Here I offer a small selection of words I often have to think twice before using correctly.

Reign vs. rein

Stephen gave me free rein to write this post. Sadly it wasn’t within his gift to grant me royal office. Rein comes from horse riding. Whilst reign is the period of rule for a monarch.

Tow vs. toe

You toe the line. It comes from the chorus line not from pulling something along.

Compliment vs complement

If you compliment someone, you’re admiring or praising them for something. If one thing complementsanother, each of the two separate items function or look better because they are together. Your silk cravat may complement your pyjamas and dressing gown, but you may not garner any compliments from wearing this ensemble at a board meeting.

Stationary vs stationery

Stationary, with an a, is an adjective only. It means not moving or not capable of being moved. Stationery, with an e, is a noun only. Think pencils, biros and envelopes.


None is an abbreviation of no one or not any. It is singular. So, none of them is needed. Not none of them are needed.


Unique means being the only one of its kind. Unique is an absolute. You can’t have gradations of uniqueness. Just like being pregnant you’re either unique or you’re not.

Moveable feast

Stephen Waddington is visiting professor to Newcastle University so I thought it apt to end this post with a list of words compiled by Professor J.Y.T Greig of Armstrong College, Newcastle-upon-Tyne:

Boss, Joy ride, bunkum, peter out, tote, under the weather, rowdy, fizzle out, and lobby (verb).

What binds these words? Nothing really save for that they were all deemed unacceptable by good writers in Britain around a century ago.

England has nothing comparable with the Acadamie Francaise.  We have plenty of word police, but no central authority or enforcement powers. Like our legal constitution this places context at its core.

Language is not set in stone but rather its vocabulary, punctuation and grammar are swept along a shifting tide of context, use and meaning. This doesn’t mean we should throw the rulebook out. Rather it means we should learn when to use the rules. And also when to break them.

About Scott Guthrie

scott-guthrieScott Guthrie specialises in creative communications. He writes regularly at and is the creator of Short Thoughts: one-minute reads about communications, creativity & change in leadership.

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