If you’ve dropped by here before, you’ll know that I don’t mind monkeying around with the so-called ‘rules’ of language. When I want to start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ or any other conjunction, then I will. And often.

But only if it works for the reader. Good, lively prose is far more desirable than wooden sentences that creak from the self-conscious weight of unsplit infinitives and straitjacketed prepositions. And if you’re a copywriter, it’s essential.

That’s why this isn’t a post about pedantry: it’s about errors that jolt your readers into consciousness. The ones that ruin the pleasure of reading. Read on to learn how to avoid them.

Colonic Irritation

Copywriters don’t just churn out effortless prose: they spend lots of time reading other people’s. Especially the ones who want their work ‘tidying up’ or ‘put in house style’ (both euphemisms for a complete re-write).

After a few years, you start to notice trends. You get sent documents by different people – who haven’t met each other – and you spot the same mistakes in their work.

And the one that’s really caught my attention over the last year is…

Error 1: using a semicolon in place of a colon

For some reason it’s getting fashionable to start off lists like this;

  • and it annoys me.

Because, if you’re going to do it properly, you need to do the following:

  • introduce the list with a colon;
  • and then end each list item with a semicolon;
  • until you get to the very last item;
  • when you bring everything to a full stop.

Or, to be a shade more modern:

  • start off with the colon as before
  • then leave out end-of-line semicolons
  • also avoid using end-of-line commas
  • finish with a full stop.

Introducing more errors

Sometimes it’s easy to see patterns where there are none. So I thought I’d ask some of my Twitter followers what they thought. Many agreed with me – Andrew Chadwick was even seeing erroneous semicolons in academic works – but they didn’t stop there.

Within minutes we’d shared all the spelling, punctuation and grammatical mistakes that we were increasingly spotting in written English. Here they are – along with some tips on avoiding them.

Error 2: ‘Peak’, ‘Peek’ or ‘Pique’?

How about peeking (or peaking) one’s interest? Hope that doesn’t pique you too much
(Web designer Simon Thompson)

Simon’s bang on the money with this one. One of the most irritating errors I see – and it’s particularly common in newspapers – is the phrase ‘sneak peak’.

Let’s iron this one out by taking a sneak peek at the three homophones.

Peak: what you get on top of a mountain, or what the horses I bet on tend to do too early.

Peek: when you take a look at something. Think ‘peek-a-boo’ with a baby. Or the Siouxsie and the Banshees track of the same name.

Pique: when your feathers are ruffled, possibly because your other half has walked out on you, taking the baby and the record collection.

Error 3: Disinterested vs. Uninterested

I see a lot of confusion with disinterested/uninterested, and folk using ‘centred around’ instead of ‘centred on’.
(Book dealer and literary blogger Catherine Hawley)

I’ve seen this one too. The problem is almost always people using ‘disinterested’ when they mean ‘uninterested’.

Uninterested: this means you are simply not interested. For example: “I am uninterested in dodgy goth bands” means “I’m not interested in The Mission”.

Disinterested: this is a word that means ‘impartial’ or ‘without bias’. For instance, a disinterested reviewer (that rare breed) is a person who writes a book review without knowing or wishing to please or irritate the author. Okay, that’s a fantasy scenario – but you get the idea.

Error 4: ‘Centred around’ vs ‘Centred on’

Don’t use ‘centred around’ or ‘centred round’. A centre is a fixed point, so if you want to go around it it’s better to ‘circle’.

Error 5: Dinning tables

I would be greatful if you would mention dinning tables
(Copywriter Judy Olsen)

Much used on Italian furniture store signs in Hackney, this is ugly and wrong. It’s a dining table for Chrissakes.

Error 6: ‘Greatful’ dead

Greatful is not a word. Nor will it ever be. Just stop it.

Error 7: ‘Raise’ vs. ‘Raze’

Crikey. There are far more Google results for “raise to the ground” than “raze to the ground”. What’s going on?
(Copywriter Chris Miller)

Quite. To raise something is to lift it up. To raze something is to demolish or tear it down.

Error 8: ‘Affect’ or ‘Effect’?

Effect and affect are two that I always see used in the wrong context.
(Actress, singer & web designer Sandra Marriott)

People have been getting this one wrong for centuries. Let’s clear it up.

Effect: You can have a positive effect by giving money to charity. If you effect change, you’re responsible for it. You may have some personal effects. You may enjoy special effects in films.

Affect: You can affect the quality of wine by letting it breathe. You can affect a Cockney accent to hide your public school roots.

Essentially, if you’re influencing something, use ‘affect’. If you don’t, it will affect the effectiveness of your prose.

Clear as mud?

Error 9: ‘Allude’ or ‘Elude’

This is one that I’ve noticed more in spoken English than on paper, but if you elude something you’re escaping from it. If you allude to something, you refer to it. So, you elude an angry bouncer, who was angry because you alluded to his mother’s lax morals.

Error 10: Complement vs. Compliment

Also, compliment instead of complement
(Copywriter Claire)

This one’s easy to fix. Think ‘I’ when someone says something nice to you: it’s a compliment.

If one thing goes well with another, it makes it more complete: it’s complementary.

Rather in the way that part 2 of this series will complement this post nicely. My compliments if you have contributed to either.