Grammar Pet Peeves

If you’re a technical communicator, and odds are that if you’re reading this blog you are, then you already have your own personal list of spelling sins, grammar gripes, and punctuation pain points. If I ever decide to get into teaching, the following pet peeves will not be tolerated because quite frankly people should know better. However, I’m a grammar snob and I once had the dubious pleasure of grading papers for a semester at UCF, but I still see these errors in the professional world and, most notoriously, on the internet.

There vs. Their vs. They’re

There: a location meaning “not here”

Their: possessive word denoting ownership by multiple people

They’re: contraction of “they are”

Usage: They’re going to leave their SUV over there.

Assure vs. Ensure vs. Insure

Assure: make someone feel good/better about a situation

Ensure: make effort to verify that a particular event/action will happen

Insure: establish a financial arrangement to protect, recover, or replace property in the event of theft or damage (e.g., insure your home, car, health, etc.)

Usage: It is better that you insure your vehicle, or I can assure you that the criminals of the world will ensure that your car is stolen.

Its vs. It’s

Its: possessive word denoting ownership by an inanimate or semi-animate object

It’s: contraction of “it is”

Usage: Why are you taking apart your laptop? It’s not like you can fix its hard drive with a ball point pen.

Affect vs. Effect

Affect (verb): change the outcome of a situation

Effect (noun): a changed situation

Effect (verb): put into action

Usage: The only way I could affect the end of the Bears’ game would be to effect a blackout at the stadium, the ultimate effect of which would cause several thousand Lions fans to become very angry.

The second usage of effect is so rare and unusual that my grammar checker underlined it. If you have an aversion to the little green squiggles, as I do, you might want to consider another verb to avoid the situation altogether.

Bad Writing

The following items are stylistic solutions to the occasional “tics” I encounter in the engineering profession. For more details on these types of markups, I highly recommend Joseph Williams’ Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace.

Instead of… Try…
has the capability of/ to / is capable of can

(Reduce number of “to be” verbs and other excess words)

will have an effect on affects

(Reduce number of “to be” verbs)

multiple noun modifier phrases phrases with multiple modifying nouns

(The point here being that we should avoid long strings of nouns to convey one concept.)

will perform the investigation of investigates or will investigate

(Eliminate passive voice, excess verbiage)

Testing to investigate loads due to unsteady aerodynamic phenomena will also be performed. The SLS team also will investigate loads due to unsteady aerodynamic phenomena.

(Several things happening here:

  • Moving the verb closer to the subject and the beginning of the sentence.
  • Adding an actor to the sentence:
    “[Someone] performs an action” instead of “an action was performed”
  • Reducing the number of words in the verb.)
The functionality of the avionics… The avionics’ functionality

(Reduce excess verbiage)

Through the use of… By using…

(Reduce excess verbiage, passive voice)

Here endeth the lesson. 🙂


About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to Grammar Pet Peeves

  1. NyNy says:

    A nice list you have here! I totally agree with most of your points, it really annoys me! Some of these are what I have to watch out for myself especially It’s vs. Its or Affect vs. Effect! By the way, I wrote a post about my own fiction pet peeves on my blog so I hope you will read and comment with your own opinion telling me what you think!

  2. Pingback: Attention to Detail in Technical Writing | Heroic Technical Writing: Advice and Insights on the Business of Technical Communication

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