Little Book of Confusables

Four words to cut from your writing to instantly improve your impact

Want your writing to have more impact? Cut these four words 

Just as we pepper our speech with filler words like UM, LIKE, SO, and BASICALLY, we do the same with our writing – often without even realising.

Here are four words to cut from your writing to improve impact and clarity.

REALLY and VERY

These are called qualifiers. They may feel like they’re strengthening your message, but they usually have the opposite effect.

Avoid using two words where you can use one.

Try swapping:

VERY ANGRY with FURIOUS

VERY BIG with HUGE

VERY SMALL with TINY

You get the picture.

This quote from Dead Poets’ Society sums it up nicely. “Avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose.”

If you can’t think of a stronger word, take out VERY or REALLY.

JUST

Tune into this one and you’ll be amazed how often you use it. It’s often particularly prevalent in emails:

❌ “I’m JUST checking to see how you got on with my quote.”

✅ “I’m checking to see how you got on with my quote.”

❌ “I’ll JUST leave it with you.”

✅ “I’ll leave it with you.”

❌ “JUST let me know what you think.”

✅ “Let me know what you think.”

Ditch it. You’ll instantly sound more confident.

Finally, THAT – a filler word that’s often unnecessary.

If the sentence makes sense without the word THAT, delete it.

❌ “I checked THAT the document was approved.”

✅ “I checked the document was approved.”

❌ “She told me THAT it was great.”

✅ “She told me it was great.”

❌ “The website copy THAT you wrote for me.”

✅ “The website copy you wrote for me.”

Which of these are you guilty of?

Marinate vs marinade: simple tips to help you remember

MARINATE vs MARINADE – simple tips to remember the difference

MARINATE and MARINADE are easy to confuse. They may sound similar but they have different meanings. These simple tips will help you decide which word you need.

Marinate

MARINATE is a verb, meaning to soak food in a MARINADE to give it flavour and richness.

“Remember to marinate the chicken before you stick it on the barbecue!”

Marinade

MARINADE is a noun. It’s the sauce or liquid in which a dish is MARINATED, to provide flavour.

“Have you added chillis to the marinade?”

If you find it tricky to remember the difference, think of lemonADE to remember that marinADE is a liquid.

I hope this helps you to remember the difference between MARINATE and MARINADE.

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Confusables marinate vs marinade. Language and spelling tips from copywriter Sarah Townsend Editorial

Confusables: marinate vs marinade. Language and spelling tips from copywriter Sarah Townsend Editorial

 

How to use apostrophes: your guide to perfect punctuation

The humble apostrophe – never has a punctuation mark got so many people hot under the collar.

People message me on a daily basis with examples of misplaced apostrophes (“Saw this and thought of you…”). I even created the #apostroppy hashtag to share uses of apostrophe abuse across social media.

Ultimately, mocking apostrophe misuse – or getting wound up by imposter apostrophes (imposterophes?) – doesn’t help if you’re one of the many who finds it tricky knowing where to stick the little blighters.

Like most things in life, it’s easy when you know how.

And if you don’t know how, let me show you.

Here, in simple terms*, is my beginners’ guide** to apostrophes… and where to stick them.

What apostrophes do

In a nutshell, apostrophes have two main uses:

Contractions

This is where two words are squished together to sound more informal – like when you are becomes you’re.

Possession

This is where you want to show that X belongs to Y – the dog’s blanket, for example.

How to use apostrophes in contractions

Let’s start with contractions.

When we talk, we naturally blend words to sound more casual and conversational, like this:

  • don’t rather than do not
  • you’ll rather than you will
  • I’m rather than I am
  • it’s rather than it is

 These shortened forms are called contractions. The apostrophe fits into the contraction to show where letters are missing – simple as that.

More examples of how apostrophes work in contractions

  • I would = I’d
  • she would = she’d,
  • you would = you’d
  • I am = I’m
  • she is = she’s
  • you are = you’re
  • I will = I’ll
  • she will = she’ll
  • you will =you’ll
  • does not = doesn’t
  • is not = isn’t

You get the picture.

How to use apostrophes to indicate possession

This is where things get a little more tricky. Possessive apostrophes show that a thing (a noun) belongs to something, or someone.

Here’s the basic rule:

When the noun is singular – dog, writer, shop – you add apostrophe + s, like this:

  • The dog’s blanket
  • The writer’s pen
  • The shop’s opening hours

When the noun is plural – there’s more than one of them – the word usually (not always) ends with s. When this is the case, you add the apostrophe after the s, like this:

  • The dogs’ blankets
  • The writers’ pens
  • The shops’ opening hours

Remember I said usually? That’s because some plural nouns don’t end with s, like this:

  • One child, two children
  • One woman, two women

When that’s the case, just add apostrophe + s, like this:

  • The children’s toys
  • The women’s shoes

A simple tip for using possessive apostrophes

If you’re in any doubt where to put the apostrophe when you’re indicating possession, just turn the phrase around in your head, like this:

The toys belonging to the child = the child’s toys

The toys belonging to the children = the children’s toys

(Never, ever write the childrens’ toys. That would mean = the toys belonging to the childrens, which is wrong.)

How to use possessive apostrophes in names that end in s

Style guides differ in their guidance on whether to write Charles’ or Charles’s, Dickens’ or Dickens’s and the like. Here it’s okay to pick the one that sounds best, as long as you use it consistently throughout your document.

Just don’t make the mistake a Northern Ireland council made, when they wrote Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations instead of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Reprinting the giant advertising poster was reported to have cost taxpayers over £1,000.

It’s vs its: why possessive pronouns are the exception to the rule

One of the most common apostrophe mistakes is sticking an apostrophe in the word its to show something belongs to IT.

But this rule doesn’t apply to pronouns – its, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs.

It’s is always a contraction of it is or it has.

ALWAYS.

Its describes something that belongs to it.

Like this:

  • the dog chased its tail
  • the cat drank its milk

When do plurals need an apostrophe? 

Absolutely never.

You’ve heard of the grocers’ apostrophe, right? Most commonly spotted on market stalls advertising BANANA’S, APPLE’S and PLUM’S , those grocers are completely wrong.

Because you should never – I repeat, NEVER – use an apostrophe in plural words.

No exceptions.

  • Cats, pens, teachers, apples, words… no apostrophe.
  • Even when the word ends in a vowel: tomatoes, potatoes, videos… still no apostrophe.
  • Even when the word is an abbreviation: CDs, DVDs, MOTs… still no apostrophe.

It’s a simple rule, and there are no exceptions to trip you up.

No matter how many times you see an apostrophe intended to show that there’s more than one of something, it’s always wrong. Always.

So, there we have it. Your beginners’ guide to using apostrophes.

I never said it would be short. Feel free to tweet me or email if you’ve any questions.

Want more information on how to use apostrophes?

*Remember how I snuck a cheeky asterisk back there after ‘in simple terms’? This article is intended to cover the basics of how to use apostrophes.

If you’d like to read more – or to go into more detail on certain uses of the humble apostrophe – you might find the following articles helpful.

Phrases such as two weeks’ time, six weeks’ holiday, and one day’s notice need an apostrophe. I cover the rule for using apostrophes in time expressions in this article:
Don’t get caught out by the apostrophe in time expressions

Tips to remember the difference between ITS and IT’S

YOUR or YOU’RE? Simple tricks to get it right every time

LET’S vs LETS: when to remember the apostrophe

**This is a guide for beginners (plural) so the apostrophe goes after the S. You could argue that you’re a beginner and it’s your guide, and therefore the apostrophe should come before the S. And you’d be right, but as it’s intended for more than one of you, we’ll stick with convention.

PS one old-school rule you can ignore

Way back when, it was common practice to use an apostrophe to show an abbreviation – telephone was abbreviated to ‘phone, for example. Thankfully, you no longer need to worry about this archaic type of apostrophe use.

8 tips and tricks to improve your writing in just 8 minutes

The English language is full of quirks that can trip you up – and when you’re writing for business, mistakes can cost you sales.

These simple tips will stop you falling flat on your face.

Tip 1

A lotas wellthank youno one and all sorts are all two words.

(Unless you happen to be writing about Liquorice Allsorts, which – let’s face it – is unlikely.)

Tip 2

Don’t use here’s (here is: singular) or there’s (there is: singular) when you mean here are or there are: plural. 

“Here are tips”, not “here’s tips”.

Tip 3

Too means also (“can I come, too?”) or excessively (“that’s too loud”).

To indicates direction (“I’m going to London”) or shows the infinitive form of a verb (“I’m going to have some lunch”).

Two is always a number.

Tip 4

It’s usually wrong to say you have two choices – you have one choice, with two (or three, or ten) alternatives.

Tip 5

An ellipsis is always three dots – no more, no less (and never a random number just to fill a gap).

Tip 6

Stop confusing you’re and your.

You’re is short for ‘you are’.

Your means belonging to you.

You’re driving to town in your car.”

Tip 7

Blame pronunciation for this one. Saying could’vewould’ve, and should’ve often leads to writing could of, would of, should of – which is wrong.

Always write could have, would have, should have.

Tip 8

Use fewer for things you can count, and less for things you can’t. Less food = fewer calories.

Ditto number (for things you can count) and amount (for things you can’t).