Goofs You Thought Were Right

In my editing travels, I come across some issues more than others. Below is a list of the more common things I need to address, in no particular order.

  1. Adverbs after commas. I don’t believe in many absolute grammar rules, but this is one of them. I’m talking about things like this: “I don’t know,” he said, somberly. Repeat this mantra: No -ly adverbs after a comma, ever. If you absolutely must use the adverb, always leave out that comma. “Much better,” he said happily.
  2. Excessive speech tags. There is no need to end every piece of dialogue with “she said.” Yes, “said” is better (and more invisible) than “answered” or “expounded,” but too much can still be grating. Consider speech tags a disambiguation signal: only use one when there might otherwise be confusion about who is talking.
  3. Sneaky anachronisms. Are your archers “firing” arrows in a world where gunpowder hasn’t yet been invented? Oops. Better to “loose” or “shoot” those arrows. Solid research and knowledge of your story world’s time period is the only antidote to this kind of tricky beast.
  4. Blond vs blonde. This mixup is surprisingly common. The adjective describing the hair color is always “blond” (the masculine form from the original French), whereas “blonde” (the feminine form) is a noun referring to a woman that has that color hair. Hence, “The blonde had blond hair.”
  5. Could of, would of. These are becoming more and more common as ways to spell “could’ve” and “would’ve.” Trust me, they’re not. Please don’t ever do this! The full form is “could/would have.” Unless you’re writing a seriously thick character accent, “could of” isn’t a thing. Like, at all.
  6. Lack of appropriate capitalization. This happens especially with the fixed expression “Oh my God.” Despite your personal beliefs in a deity (or lack thereof), the word “God” here is always capitalized. Nothing to do with respect, and everything to do with the origins of this expression.
  7. Rein vs reign. “To be reined in/ to have free rein.” It’s tempting to associate this expression with “reign” (the rule of a monarch) since it does refer to the power of freedom, in a way. But it refers to reins, as in, the way we steer horses. “Reining someone in” means figuratively pulling on the reins, preventing them from doing what they please.
  8. Head-hopping. You knew this one was coming! Characters being aware of things they shouldn’t know, or describing their own facial expressions, or interpreting another character’s inner emotions perfectly without external cues… Oops. Always be aware of which character “owns” a scene (with some commonsense exceptions, like omniscient POV).
  9. Excessive punctuation. “Great Scott!!!! He said what?!” Please, tone it down! To cap off your exclamatory sentence, choose EITHER one (1) exclamation mark OR one (1) question mark. Imply the other one (if necessary) using the context and description. “How could you?” she screamed at him.
  10. Phrasal adjectives. My most common edit by a mile. Compare “It’s a man-eating bear!” to “It’s a man eating bear!” See the difference? Remember those hyphens; they’re really necessary for good style and to avoid ambiguity. Google “compound adjectives” if you need to brush up.

And that’s it for me. Try to avoid these nasties when you can — your editor (and your readers) will thank you for it.

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EJ Clarke

Freelance editor. Avid reader. Student of languages. Lover of movies, mayhem and chocolate. Other things too, but the main thing’s the chocolate. Find me online at, or Twitter: @ejclarkster