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Being a freelance writer or journalist isn’t easy, particularly if you write in a language that isn’t your mother tongue. Yet, many foreign speakers are tempted to write in English because it promises a greater audience and thus better opportunities to earn a living. The drawback is that we are constantly struggling with the details of the little devils in the language.

Regardless of how long, how thorough, or how well you have studied and mastered a foreign language, you’re always at a disadvantage to a native speaker. In writing, the accent is easily hidden, but the written word reveals many subtle misconceptions. That’s why you should always consult an online translation tool Understand Any Language With These 5 Language Translation Websites Understand Any Language With These 5 Language Translation Websites Technology has made the world a smaller place. People from every part of this planet use many of the same tools, visit some of the same websites, and mix in various chat rooms online. The... Read More .

Many more tools can help you correct slips of the pen Why Typos Always Matter, Even Online & In Text Messages [Opinion] Why Typos Always Matter, Even Online & In Text Messages [Opinion] We all make mistakes from time to time. It's natural, a part of life, a learning curve which we use to better ourselves. Typos are no exception. They happen often, and if writing forms a... Read More and ensure you use proper English Write More Good: 7 Free Online Tools To Ensure You Use Proper English Write More Good: 7 Free Online Tools To Ensure You Use Proper English Improper use of English is one of my pet peeves. I’m not a full-blown "grammar nazi" (a colloquialism for someone very strict with grammar) but it does irk me. An exception can be made for... Read More . Only few of these tools will catch your misuse of apostrophes, common phrases, or homophones and thus cannot help you gain a deeper understanding of the language. Not surprisingly, native speakers are just as prone to making careless mistakes, which is why this little resource will be useful for any writer.

The Proper Use Of Apostrophes

This is a huge pet peeve of mine and few people seem to get it right. Plurals (almost) never see an apostrophe. Possession and contractions on the other hand are (almost) always indicated by the presence of an apostrophe. Unfortunately, there are exceptions.

The Oatmeal provides a great overview on how to use an apostrophe, including exceptions to the general rule.

How To Use An Apostrophe

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Catching Homophones

Probably the most common homophones are there, their, and they’re, closely followed by your and you’re, as well as it’s and its. You see the problem, don’t you? They sound the same, but they don’t mean the same. Any tool just correcting your spelling won’t detect those mistakes because these words are all spelled perfectly fine.

Homophones

Unless you’re using a good grammar checker After The Deadline - Check Your Grammar & Polish Your Writing After The Deadline - Check Your Grammar & Polish Your Writing The World Wide Web is a world of writing. Most web content is still written text and because statistics say that English is the most used language online, you definitely need good English skills to... Read More that can perform contextual spell and grammar checking Get Improved Spelling & Grammar Corrections With Ginger [Chrome & Firefox] Get Improved Spelling & Grammar Corrections With Ginger [Chrome & Firefox] Whether you like to admit it or not, we all make heavy use of our computer's spell checker. They save us from all sorts of typos and downright horrible spelling. Thankfully, more powerful software such... Read More , you’ll have to consciously watch out for these common pitfalls. You can find more examples in a comic of the Oatmeal highlighting 10 words you need to stop misspelling. Finally, this comprehensive list of homophones on Wikipedia reveals them all.

Phrases

Every language has common phrases that are used in passing to express a general idea. When the origin is forgotten or the true meaning is confused, errors creep in. For example would you know why people say “Nip it in the bud” or would you have written “Nip it in the butt”?

Nip In The Bud

Lifehack has revealed 25 common phrases that you’re saying wrong. And if you are ever unsure, you can use The Phrase Finder to search proverbs and phrases and find their origin and correct use.

British vs. American English

Sometimes even the spell checker is wrong! The default language in my browser’s spell checker, for example, is American English (AE). Whenever I edit work from someone using British English (BE), the text is sprinkled with red squiggly marks, even when there isn’t a single mistake. Since you are using either one or the other, it’s worth knowing the main differences between AE and BE. So here is a quick summary:

  • AE has simplified many words, for example by dropping the ‘U’ in words like harbour or flavour.
  • Similarly, nouns that end in –ogue in BE, end in –og in AE, for example “dialog” vs. “dialogue”.
  • Moreover, AE uses a simple –k or –ck ending to replace the –que common in BE, as found in “check” vs. “cheque”.
  • In line with simplification, some words retain a single ‘L’ in AE when a suffix is added, while in BE the ‘L’ is doubled, as in “signalling” (BE) or “labelling” (BE). However, there are many examples where it’s the other way around, such as in “skillful” (AE) or “fulfill” (AE).
  • In verbs, AE uses -ize instead of the BE –ise, for example “legalize” vs. “legalise”.
  • The preference for “S” in AE is found again in the ending –ense, which replaces the BE –ence, for example “defense” vs. “defence”.
  • In AE, nouns tend to end in -er instead of -re, for example “meter” vs. “metre”.

And then there are a host of other words that are just spelled vastly different in BE vs. AE.

British vs. American English British vs. American English

Once you have mastered the spelling, you can advance to studying the differences in vocabulary. Oh the fun!

American vs. British Words

And remember it doesn’t stop at British vs. American. English comes in so many different variations, it’s easy to get confused! Fortunately, you don’t have to know them all, you should just be consistent and stick with one flavor of the English language. And if in doubt, you can always consult The YUNiversity of Righteous Grammar. Now don’t get me started about punctuation…

Conclusion

Language is a complex subject. Especially the English language, with all its inherent exceptions and local peculiarities, is a great challenge for foreign and native speakers alike. With over a million words, it’s also one of the more wordy languages. And unlike common perception might indicate, it only keeps growing in size and complexity.

What was your biggest A-ha! effect in this article? And how do you ensure correct spelling and grammar in your writing?

Image Credit: British vs. American English, American vs. British Words

  1. Binky Melnik
    July 31, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    You used the Oatmeal's (Matt Inman's) grammar chart describing the they're/their/there homophone without attribution. You'll wanna correct that ASAP, if not sooner.

  2. Fr Dcn Michael Bishop
    July 31, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    Thank you. This is very badly needed. I constantly hear "Me and my brother" as subject of sentences and "between you and I." Another major problem is the usage of singular subject and plural verb, for example, "He do a good job", or "He work at McDonald's." So I appreciate good grammar instructions.

  3. Mike Unwalla
    July 31, 2013 at 9:02 am

    > And how do you ensure correct spelling and grammar in your writing?

    To help me to find errors, I use the LanguageTool style and grammar checker (www.languagetool.org). The software is free, open-source, and fully customizable.

    Frequently, software cannot tell you if you use an incorrect word. For example, if you write 'dairy' instead of 'diary', spelling checkers and grammar checkers do not find the error. Therefore, I wrote a term checker. If a term is not specifically approved, the term checker finds the term.

  4. Angela Alcorn
    July 30, 2013 at 9:36 pm

    Hah, that title is really broken. I'm guessing it got rewritten at some point but not re-edited.

    You should read some of the history of these language changes. Most of the American differences were made by Webster (of the Webster dictionary). He wanted to make words easier to spell. Aluminium is also a good one - someone misread a box label!

  5. michel
    July 30, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    Could you please ask your fellow contributors to this site to stop using the phrase "based off" when they mean "based on"?

  6. Gary
    July 30, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    And what about acronyms, eh? I was taught long ago that acronyms should be written/typed in caps throughout (to signify that they are acronyms) and not treated, capitalistically, as ordinary words.

    There are just a few exceptions, where an acronym has become so established that it is treated as a regular word. I suspect that the main example which most people could cite would be "laser". (For those unaware, that originally stood for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation!)

  7. Craig C
    July 30, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    Banque is French not English. :P
    Also, a lot of the words you put as being different versions of each other are actually both words we use but meaning different things.

    For example:
    -programme and program (a television programme, a computer program)
    -draught and draft (draught is generally used when talking about draught beer, and draft is used the rest of the time)

    With naivety (and naive) we just use standard I's.

    The only real problem is with "ou" to "o" which auto-correct often can't cope with.

    • Angela Alcorn
      July 30, 2013 at 9:28 pm

      I was going to say banque is French. You beat me to it. :)

  8. Doc
    July 30, 2013 at 7:05 pm

    Another way to improve one's grammar is to use *title case* - except for the first and last words of a title, one- and two-letter words are lowercased. Example: "Stop for a Grammar Check: 4 Areas in Which to Improve Your Spelling & Grammar" (also, I replaced "Where" with "in Which."

  9. dragonmouth
    July 30, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    "That’s why you should always consult an online translation tool."
    Translation tools do not provide an idiomatic translation.

    Additional stumbling block is the syntax of various languages. For example, German and English treat compound forms of a verb differently.

  10. Jackie P
    July 30, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    I wish everyone would read these! Misuse of apostrophes is a huge pet peeve of mine, too. Don't they teach grammar in school anymore?

    • Duckeenie
      July 30, 2013 at 5:59 pm

      Can one have a huge pet peeve? :P

    • dragonmouth
      July 30, 2013 at 6:41 pm

      "Don’t they teach grammar in school anymore?"
      Not as diligently as they used to, at least not in the US.

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