Lately, I’ve seen a lot of submitted manuscripts with so many grammar and spelling mistakes that could have been avoided with a thorough spellcheck and careful proofreading. Of course, delivering a good story is still the most important thing when it comes to writing fiction, but typos, grammar mistakes, and spelling errors distract readers from the story—and sometimes even make them stop reading entirely.
So do yourself—and your editor—a favor and pay attention to getting the grammar and spelling right, not necessarily in the first draft, but during the revision process.
How to avoid grammar and spelling mistakes
The first line of defense against grammar and spelling errors is your writing software’s spellchecker. The first and last thing I do during the revision process is to run a spellcheck and a grammar check.
But please be aware that your spellchecker won’t catch every mistake. It will point out mistakes such as “comitment” or “committment” (instead of “commitment”), but it won’t pick up on spelling mistakes if you are using a wrong word that would have been correct in a different context. That’s often the case for homophones—words with a similar pronunciation, e.g., quiet vs. quite.
So while spellcheck is a great tool, you can’t rely on it entirely.
Keep a checklist of commonly misspelled words
To catch some of the spelling errors your spellchecker misses, I’d suggest keeping a checklist of commonly misspelled words and checking your manuscript for each of them during the revision process.
Add to your checklist whenever one of your beta readers or your editors point out a grammar or spelling mistake so you can avoid repeating it in the next manuscript.
The 50 most common grammar and spelling mistakes
Here are some examples for common grammar and spelling errors that I think belong on every writer’s checklist. A lot of them are homophones that you’ll have to check manually because your spellchecker won’t flag them.
By the way, I’m using US American spelling, so if your manuscript is written in British, Canadian, or Australian English, check your dictionary for the correct spelling.
acknowledgement: In American English, the preferred spelling is “acknowledgment” without the “e”.
adrenalin: If you are talking about the hormone, the correct spelling is “adrenaline.” “Adrenalin” (without the “e” and capitalized) is a trademarked drug.
affect vs. effect: “Affect” is most often a verb meaning “to influence,” e.g., the disease affects mostly elderly people. It can also be a noun, in which case it refers to someone’s emotional state. “Effect” is most often a noun meaning “result,” e.g., the effect of the disease was devastating. It can also be a verb meaning “to cause.”
alright: This is probably one of the top 3 spelling mistakes I find in manuscripts. Repeat after me: “alright” is not a word. I think the confusion comes from “already,” but the correct spelling is “all right.”
any more vs. anymore: “Any more” means “any additional,” e.g., she didn’t want any more cake. “Anymore” means “any longer,” e.g., she didn’t like cake anymore.
baited breath: The correct spelling is “bated breath.”
blonde vs. blond: Most style guides advise to use “blonde” to describe women, e.g., “she was a blonde” or “the blonde woman” and “blond” to describe men.
break vs. brake: “Break” is either a verb meaning “to fracture” or “separate into pieces” or a noun meaning “interruption” or “respite.” “Brake” is a device that slows down or stops a vehicle or the action of slowing it down or stopping it.
Breath vs. breathe: “Breath” is the noun, e.g., “she took a deep breath” while “breathe” is the verb.
Build vs. built: “Build” is a verb, e.g., vitamins help build up your immune system. It can also be a noun, e.g., he had a stocky build. “Built” is the past tense of “build,” e.g., the company built the hospital last year, and it’s also an adjective, e.g., he was solidly built.
cancelled vs. canceled: “Canceled” with one l is the preferred spelling in American English, while “cancelled” is more common in British English. However, “cancellation” is spelled with two l’s in both American and British English.
coke: If you mean the cola drink, capitalize it (“Coke”). If you are talking about cocaine, lowercase it (“coke”).
cord vs. chord: A “cord” is something similar to a rope, consisting of several strands that are twisted together. A “chord” is three or more musical tones played together. The part of your throat that helps you speak is spelled “vocal cord.”
discreet vs. discrete: “Discrete” means “separate,” e.g., two discrete categories, while “discreet” means “prudent” or “not too obvious,” e.g., she was discreet and could keep a secret.
empathize vs. emphasize: “Empathize” means to relate to someone’s emotions, e.g., she empathized with his fears, while “emphasize” means to put emphasis on or stress something, e.g., she emphasized the importance of good healthcare.
envelope vs. envelop: “Envelope” is a noun that refers to that thing you use to send letters. “Envelop” is a verb meaning “to wrap up in something,” e.g., He wanted to envelop her in a tight hug.
everyday vs. every day: “Everyday” means “ordinary” or “usual,” e.g., her everyday clothes. “Every day” is an adverbial phrase meaning “daily,” e.g., She went to work every day.
fair vs. fare: “Fair” is an adjective meaning sufficient, light, or just, e.g., she had fair skin or she was a fair person. “Fare” is a verb meaning “to perform,” e.g., she fared well on her exam.
farther vs. further: In American English, “farther” is used for physical distances, e.g., she walked farther south, while “further” is used for metaphorical distances, e.g., no further questions. In British English, “further” is used for all senses of the word.
good-by, goodby, good-bye: The most accepted spelling in American English is “goodbye.”
grey: In American English, the color is spelled “gray,” while British English uses “grey.”
here, here: When you want to express that you agree with what someone just said, “hear, hear” is used. It stands for “hear this, hear this” or “hear him, hear him.” The correct spelling is “hear, hear,” not “here, here.”
into vs. in to : “Into” is a preposition that indicates movement toward something, e.g., she led him into the living room. “In to” is part of a phrasal verb, e.g., she was always tuned in to the latest news. The most common mistake I see in manuscripts is “give into” (or “giving into” or “gave into”). Correct it to “give in to.”
its vs. it’s: “Its” is a possessive pronoun, e.g., the horse lifted its hoof. “It’s” is a contraction that stands for “it is,” e.g., it’s a sunny day.
judgement: In American English, the preferred spelling is “judgment” without the “e”.
lie vs. lay: “Lie” is an intransitive verb meaning “to recline,” while “lay” is a transitive verb meaning “put something down.” The tricky thing is that “lay” is also the past tense of “lie,” e.g., she lay in bed. The past tense of “lay” is “laid,” e.g., she laid down the book.
like vs. as/as if: In informal contexts such as dialogue, it’s perfectly fine to use “like” and “as” or “as if” interchangeably, because that’s how people speak, but in all other contexts, never use “like” in place of “as” or “as if”! That’s probably the grammar mistake I encounter most often in the manuscripts I edit. “Like” is a preposition, while “as” is a conjunction. Rule of thumb: If a noun follows, use “like.” If a clause containing a verb follows, use “as” or “as if.” Examples: She looks like a supermodel. He looked at her as if she were an alien. He felt like a loser. She felt as if she had lost everything.
loath vs. loathe: “Loath” is an adjective meaning “reluctant” or “unwilling,” e.g., she was loath to admit her mistake, while “loathe” is a verb to “detest,” e.g., I loathe cooking.
lose vs. loose: “Lose” means to fail or misplace something, e.g., her team is going to lose, while “loose” is the opposite of tight or tightening, e.g., all hell broke loose.
ok/OK: It’s best to spell it “okay.”
onto: Sometimes, writers confuse “onto” and “on to.” “Onto” is a preposition that means “on top of,” e.g., she laid the book onto the table. The “on” in “on to” is part of a phrasal verb, e.g., to hold on, to log on, etc. The most common mistake with “onto” vs. “on to” is “hold/held/holding onto.” The correct spelling is “hold/held/holding on to.”
passed vs. past: “Passed” is the past tense of “to pass,” meaning “to move past,” e.g., she passed him in the hallway. “Past” is a preposition, e.g., she drove past the house. Rule of thumb: If there’s already a verb of movement in the sentence, use “past,” not “passed.”
peace vs. piece: “Peace” is a synonym for tranquility, while “piece” is a part of a whole. It’s “she marched to her boss’s office and gave him a piece of her mind,” but “the sturdy lock gave her peace of mind.”
peak vs. peek vs. pique: “Peak” is a high point, “peek” is a synonym for “glance,” and “pique” is a verb meaning “to arouse,” e.g., she piqued his interest/curiosity. If you are giving readers a brief excerpt of your work-in-progress, the term you want to use is “sneak peek” (not “sneak peak”).
rein vs. reign: “Reins” are the straps you use when riding a horse, and the verb form means to control someone or something by use of reins, e.g., she reined in her impatience. “Reign” refers to royal power, e.g., chaos reigned in his office. The correct term to use is “free rein,” not “free reign.”
safe vs. save: “Safe” is the adjective, e.g., a safe place, while the verb is spelled “save,” e.g., they tried to save their marriage.
scarred vs. scared: The word with one r means “afraid,” while “scarred” means “having scars.”
shutter vs. shudder: A “shutter” is a movable window cover, while “shudder” is a synonym for “shiver.” Example: The shutters shuddered in the storm.
stationary vs. stationery: “Stationary” is an adjective meaning “unmoving” or “unchanging,” while “stationery” refers to paper and office supplies.
their vs. they’re vs. there: “Their” is a possessive pronoun, e.g., the family left their house. “They’re” is a contraction that stands for “they are,” e.g., they’re making a movie. “There” means “that place,” e.g., she put the box over there.
then vs. than: “Than” is used in comparisons, e.g., he was taller than his sister, while “then” is an adverb of time, e.g., she closed the door, then walked to the kitchen.
towards: In American English, we usually spell it “toward,” while “towards” is more common in British English.
t-shirt: The correct spelling is “T-shirt” with a capital T. The article of clothing is actually named after the shape of a capital T, so make sure you capitalize it.
unphased: The synonym of “undaunted” is spelled “unfazed.” It has nothing to do with a phase.
vicelike: If your character clutches something tightly, their grip is “viselike.” A vise is a clamp fastened to a workbench, while a vice is a bad habit.
waive vs. wave: “Waive” means to relinquish a right, e.g., the lawyer waived her fee, while “wave” means to move back and forth, e.g., she waved to her friends.
waste vs. waist: “Waste” refers to either garbage or the unnecessary use of resources, e.g., waste of time, while “waist” is the part of the body between the hips and the chest.
weary vs. wary: “Weary” means “tired of,” e.g., she grew weary of the same old argument, while “wary” means “cautious,” e.g., she gave him a wary look.
who’s vs. whose: “Who’s” is a contraction that stands for “who is,” e.g., the man who’s wearing the red shirt, while “whose” is the possessive form of who, e.g., whose shirt is this?
your vs. you’re: “Your” is a possessive pronoun, e.g., pack your bags, while “you’re” is a contraction that stands for “you are,” e.g., you’re going on vacation.
Do a search for each of these 50 common spelling errors to make sure none of them have made it into your manuscript! Once you have done that, carefully proofread your manuscript. Here’s a blog post with 20 proofreading tips.
What are the spelling or grammar mistakes you encounter most often—either in your own manuscripts or in other writers’ works? Let us know in the comments.