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Common Writing Mistakes on the Internet

By Chris Codella, W2PA

July 2011

It is easy to find writing errors while reading forums, blogs, newsgroups or any other kind of site where large numbers of people contribute text.  Even if you know they are mistakes some are very easy to make anyway.  And a spelling checker will not catch many of them because they involve words that are correctly spelled, but wrong.  Here is my own list of the ones I most frequently notice, in no particular order.  Please email me if you have additions to suggest, or especially if you see a correction that needs correcting. 

This list isn't meant as a criticism, only an attempt to help hams who are interested in writing just a little better.  Please don't publicly criticize others' Internet writing.  Besides being bad form it is at least considered off-topic in most groups.

This list also isn't meant to be an exhaustive treatment of each item - just a simple (an expert might call it simplistic) explanation with some examples. You don't need to be an expert grammarian to understand them.

If you find this sort of thing amusing, I highly recommend the entertaining book "Eats Shoots & Leaves" by Lynne Truss - the only funny book about grammar (mostly punctuation) that I know of. You might also be interested in the "Grammar Girl" Web site where writing tips and grammar in general are all discussed. There are many others.

(Thanks to W1JA, W2SQ, KJ3P and K4SO for helpful suggestions and comments.)


Improper use of an apostrophe in forming a plural: 

Diode’s means something belonging to Diode.  More than one diode are diodes – no apostrophe.  The same applies to resistors, capacitors and any other noun (person, place or thing), radio-related or not.

Example: This diode’s characteristics are similar to those of many other diodes in its class.

It can be confusing because an apostrophe is often used to form the plural of an acronym or a number – examples are the 1970s written as the 1970’s, and LEDs written as LED’s.  The more widely accepted way is to drop the apostrophe. Be sure to use one, however, when you really do mean to indicate possession, as in, the ARRL's Web site, or 1977's music.


Confusion between lose and loose:

Lose is what you do when something you had becomes lost.  Loose is what something is when it needs tightening.

Example: I’d hate to lose that lug nut because it was loose.


Missing space in no one: 

People often spell the two-word phrase no one as noone.  There is no such word.

Example: I threw a party and no one came.


Misspelling of the phrase used to: 

Used to be normally means something like formerly was.  You often see it written as use to be, or some other way, probably because of how it sounds when spoken.

Example: I used to be mostly a Kenwood user but now I own a Yaesu rig too.


Using the wrong homophone (to, too, two & there, their, they’re):

Homophones are words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings. The most common examples involve to, too, and two; and there, their and they’re.

To – a direction opposite from – as in, going to a hamfest.
Too – means also, or excessively – as in, it costs too much, or it has chrome trim and knobs too.
Two – means the number 2.

There – a location – as in, over there.
Their – belonging to them – as in, the club members have their own stations.
They’re – a contraction for they are – as in, They’re all going to the hamfest.

Your - belonging to you - as in, Your rig is more expensive than mine.
You're - contraction of "you are" - as in, If you're going to the hamfest you can buy a new one.

Examples all in one sentence:
The project requires five diodes.  To use seven would be two too many, and would cost more too.
Hams love a good hamfest. They’re frequently looking to sell their equipment or buy something new there.
You're going to sell your rig at the hamfest.

Confusion between its and it’s:

It’s is a contraction that means it is or it has.  Its (with no apostrophe) indicates possession – as in, belonging to it.  This is really just another use of the wrong homophone, as above, but deserves its own entry in this list because it is perhaps the most frequently seen of all. This is a very easy mistake to make; I find myself typing the wrong one occasionally when I'm going along at full speed not paying attention.

Example: For a classic receiver, it’s not its performance but how many people want it that determines its price.

This one is so confusing and common probably because the apostrophe is normally used to indicate possession (see the item earlier in the list on apostrophes). But the word its is a special possessive word just like her or his or their. And, by the way, don't ever use an apostrophe when adding an 's' to those words either - it's hers, his, or theirs.


Overuse or misuse of quotation marks:

A pair of quotation marks, often called double quotes (“ ”), are used to indicate that a group of words or sentences are literal, such as for direct quotations from printed text or someone speaking. They are also sometimes used to indicate a title. But people often put quotation marks around words or phrases to indicate that they are used oddly, incorrectly or less than seriously.  Sometimes you’ll see someone do this several times in the same sentence.  Resist the temptation.  If it’s the word you mean to use and you’re not quoting someone else, don’t double-quote it.


As such does not mean therefore:

This is a subtle point but frequently comes up in writing. The phrase "as such" is not a synonym for "therefore".

Wrong: Amplifiers generate a lot of heat.  As such, you need to ensure good cooling to avoid failure.
Right #1: Amplifiers generate a lot of heat. Therefore you need to ensure good cooling to avoid failure.
Right #2: Amplifiers are prodigious heat generators.  As such, they must be well cooled to avoid failure.

The correct use of as such is illustrated in the second right example.  The phrase is used to refer back to a previously made definition, not something else such as an action (as in #1). Ask yourself what the word such is referring to and you usually won't go wrong.  You should be able to replace the word such with a word or group of words from the first sentence and have it still make sense.


Quiet vs. quite:

Believe it or not, this happens a lot. Keep them straight.

Example: As a rule, libraries are quite quiet.


Moot vs. mute:

Also in the believe-it-or-not category.  They're different words.  Mute means silent.  Moot means unimportant or inconsequential or in some other way the thing it's describing is no longer relevant. If everyone understood the difference in these two words the point I'm making here would be moot (and I'd be mute on the subject).

Affect vs. effect:

Affect is a verb, effect is a noun.

Example: Raising your audio gain can affect your audio quality.  The effect can sound unpleasant.

However (there's usually a however in this stuff somewhere), there is a verb form of effect which specifically means something similar to bring about, as in, to effect a change.


Who vs. that:

Who should be used when referring to a person, and that should be used to refer to anything else, including groups of people.

Correct: It was John who ended up winning the new transceiver at the hamfest..
Incorrect: John is the guy that won the new transceiver at the hamfest.
Correct: A transceiver is the prize that was awarded to John at the hamfest.
Correct: The local radio club is the group that received the proceeds from the ticket sales.
Incorrect: The FCC is the agency who regulates amateur radio.
Correct: It is the FCC chairman who calls meetings of the commissioners.

Then vs. than:

Then is a time or part of a conditional expression paired with if. Than indicates a comparison.

Example: I went to the hamfest and then I came home.
Example: If one tower is good, then two towers are even better!
Example: This receiver has greater sensitivity than that receiver.


Amateur radio-specific mistakes, idioms, and other quirks

- Ham, as in ham radio, is not an acronym, it's a word.  Thus there is no need to put it in capital letters (HAM) as I often see on amateur radio-related Web sites and news groups.

- 73s -  This is one of the oldest usage disagreements there is.  You can find people writing about it in QSTs from before 1920.  Yet, it never really bothered me much.  Strictly speaking, 73 means “best regards”, therefore it is already plural and adding the ‘s’ is unnecessary (in any case also adding an apostrophe, 73’s, might make it possessive too – see the section above on apostrophes).   Adding another ‘best’ in front of it is even more of a stretch: best 73s might mean “best best regardses.”

- Using CW abbreviations in writing – One could argue that using CW abbreviations, such as ‘ES’ for ‘and’, GM for ‘good morning’, and even ‘73’, is wrong.  I tend to be more lenient.  After all, we use abbreviations in writing all the time in news articles, books and other formal, written text. We hams started doing this on the air a century before people were texting on their iPhones and Droids. Although ham radio abbreviations might be considered jargon and therefore should be avoided, in informal writing I see no harm and, in fact, sort of enjoy seeing it. Of course, speaking CW abbreviations on phone over the air is generally considered poor form. Saying ‘H I’ or ‘hi’ on phone is kind of silly considering one could just laugh into the microphone on phone (do you say "H I" on your iPhone?).  HI was invented for CW precisely because you can’t just laugh on CW.  It’s just like a smiley-face icon (emoticon) in writing on the Internet. ;-)


Extra credit

These are some additional common wording mistakes that are a little trickier but no less frequently seen.

Who vs. whom:

The pronoun who is the subject of a verb and whom is an object.

Example 1: The net control is the person who keeps track of check-ins and directs net operation.
Example 2: The net control is the person to whom a check in must direct all transmissions.

That vs. which:

This is often a tough one.  It has to do with when to use that and when to use which when referring to an object or other noun and then following it with words that describe the thing being referred to.  Here are two examples:

Which: The TR-3, which was Drake's first transceiver, was also used as a mobile rig.
That:    The transceiver that had a bluish tint to the back-lighted main tuning dial was a Drake TR-3.

Can you tell the difference?  It gets harder:

Which: One must use a diode, which serves to allow only one direction of current flow.
That:    One must use a diode that has a sufficient current rating.

The difference is: 
The word that usually adds a description that serves to further narrow down or qualify what kind of thing is being written about.
The word which adds a description that doesn't narrow down the type of thing but further describes what that thing is or does.

This is a particularly tough one to get right - and is one (which?  that?) frequently trips me up.

Less vs. fewer:

Generally speaking, "less" is used when comparing values whereas "fewer" is used when comparing numbers of things. Thus, the following examples:

Correct: On 80 meters the tuner requires less inductance than on 160.
Correct: This tuner has fewer parts than that one.
Incorrect: I have less antennas than the superstation down the road.
Incorrect: After selling my amplifier I have less items on my operating desk.
Correct: After selling my amplifier I have fewer items on my operating desk.
Correct: After selling my amplifier I am limited to running less power.


 Copyright © 2011, 2013 Christopher F. Codella, W2PA.  All rights reserved.