Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Annoying writing mistakes


The following is a discussion of some annoying mistakes common in books and articles. Note that it is not a list of specific language errors (e.g. confusing “who” and “whom”), but of what appears to be deliberate stylistic choices. Obviously, these are very personal opinions—the popularity of the mistakes could imply that they work well with the uneducated masses.

Writing in a self-obsessed manner

Many authors write in a stream of “I” statements, e.g. “Here I will show you...” or “Yesterday I noticed something that will fascinate you...”. Beginning an article with the latter is perfectly in order, if it leads into the subject matter in a natural way; having several “I” statements in even short paragraphs is not—in particular, when writing in a condescending manner.


If the text in question explicitly deals with personal experiences other rules obviously apply. Ditto when the “I” is used to distinguish between what the author considers personal opinion and what he considers fact. Many examples of both can be found in my own writings.

How not to do it:

I noticed something yesterday that I would like to share with you. I found that when doing A, I could easily do B. Below I will give you the details, so that you can enjoy the benefits of my discovery. [...] I hope you learned something from the above. Feel free to contact me, if you need my help in understanding it.

A better formulation:

I noticed something yesterday: When doing A, I can easily do B. The details: [...] Feel free to contact me, if you have questions.

Personally, I would likely gone further yet, by turning the second “I” into “one” and dropping the last sentence entirely (if contact information is present this can usually be considered implied).


A logically different, but even worse, use of “I” is to refer to the reader with it, e.g. “Yes! I want to take advantage of this unbeatably cheap offer from the market leader!” (in an order form) or “How do I XXX?” (e.g. as title for a newspaper fact-box or sub-article—quite common in Swedish newspapers).

Note that in a FAQ, “I” is a quote from someone else, not a direct reference to the reader—and is allowed. In a non-FAQ or a pseudo-FAQ (cf. discussion of errors in FAQs), this no longer applies.

Text of low relevance/Human interest

Newspapers are very keen on lengthy introductions with irrelevant material (often some kind of “human interest” attempt) before getting down to business—by which time the information oriented reader has lost interest, zoomed out, or stopped reading entirely. A typical beginning is some version of “One day John Smith (28) went for an innocent walk...”, continuing into a second and third paragraph describing an event of relevance for the text, and with“real” text starting only with the fourth paragraph. A better approach is to get down to business first and introduce examples later to illustrate points (problems, special cases, whatnots) of the text. Obviously, the examples should be kept short and to the point—that John Smith was wearing a tweed jacket, brown shoes, and a black umbrella should only be mentioned if it is actually relevant.

Similarly, newspapers like to intersperse random, irrelevant statements in the text, e.g. a “John’s tiger-striped cat creeps up into his lap as he pours me a second cup of coffee.” between two factually oriented paragraphs in an interview. Not only is this highly uninformative; but it also disturbs the flow of the text, and can cause the reader to lose the thread.

The motivation is likely another attempt to play on “human interest” or give “background colour”. Frankly: I do not know John, I do not care about such details of his private life or the meeting, and I do not want my time wasted in that manner—unless the article directly pertains to the cat, coffee drinking, or similar, the statement has no place in a professional article. If I want to read something with more personal information, I pick up a good novel.

Overuse of “you”

Overuse of “you” is the bane of modern writing (possibly as a consequence of ill-advised or misunderstood rules against the passive and/or the word “one”). The word “you” should only be used when the reader is explicitly addressed—and even here many uses simply show a lack of experience and understanding of good style. Consider the following, hypothetical, passage:

When you plug-in the A-connector, you might be tempted to try the B-socket. You really do not want to do this. You will fry the circuitry if you do. Instead you should always use the A-socket. [etc.]

This kind of writing really makes me cringe: It is unnecessarily verbose (admittedly, a problem I have myself), lacks style, presumes too great a familiarity with the reader, is potentially accusatory, ... Consider instead:

The A-connector should be plugged into the A-socket. Using the B-socket may be tempting; however, this would overload the circuitry. [etc.]

(Obviously, the (non-)use of “you” is not the only difference between the two versions; however, there seems to be a very strong correlation between overuse of “you” and poor language in general.)


There are many far worse real-life examples: Consider e.g. this prime example of how not to use youe.

As a particularity, statements like “When you come in late, then ...” are inexcusable, be it in writing or in conversation, unless the counter-part actually has come in late. If not, the statement contains an implicit unfair accusation (whether intended or not) and can be misunderstood by a third party that happens to over-hear it. Instead, a construct like “If an employee comes in late, then ...” should be used. Consider the following definition from Wikipediaw (retrieved on 2009-05-16):

Reactance — the urge to do the opposite of what someone wants you to do out of a need to resist a perceived attempt to constrain your freedom of choice.

This effectively accuses the reader of having a certain negative characteristic that he need not have (admittedly, statistically speaking he will; but that is beside the point). It is also logically incorrect, because the exact same characteristic in someone else would not be reactance... Consider instead

Reactance — the urge to do the opposite of what others want, out of a need to resist a perceived attempt to constrain freedom of choice.


Reactance — the urge to do the opposite of what someone wants one to do out of a need to resist a perceived attempt to constrain ones freedom of choice.

Both avoid the accusation, both are stylistically better, and the first is shorter and easier to read.

Further problems can be caused by confusing references: Consider the statement “Maybe John is ill. That can make you miss school.”— certainly, there may be situations where John’s illness makes the listener miss school; however, typically it would be John himself, and the correct sentence would be “... him miss school.” or “ ... one miss school.”. The problem arises because the speaker moves from a discussion of a specific person to persons in general, while abusing the word “you” to fill the role of “one”.

The Female Brainw contains many good examples of how not to do it, e.g.:

Major interest in doing what you want to do;

[Referring to post-menopausal characteristics of women in the central overview “Phases of a female’s life”. Emphasis present in the original text.]

The obvious reaction of a male reader: “Great! Finally we can watch the game together, and skip all that brainless shoe-shopping!”—this, however, is rather the opposite of what the author actually intended. The emphasized “you” does confusingly not refer to the reader, nor is it an abuse of “you” where “one” would be appropriate—it refers to a generic woman. (Unless, obviously, the author made the naive assumption that all her readers would be women. Even if so, the use would still be highly inappropriate, because in contexts like these “you” is confusing.)

Fragmented sentences

A horrifyingly large number of authors write texts like “I like Ike. Because he is X. And knew how to Y.”, with complete disregard for grammar. Such texts are harder, not easier, to read than texts using correct punctuation: The help in understanding the text that is given by grammatical constructs is missing, leading to an increased amount of guessing. Further, the natural flow of the text is hacked to pieces, and reading becomes similar to driving on a road with speed-bumps.

I grant that this problem is much larger for fully fluent readers than for those who tackle a sentence one word at a time—much the same way that an expert tennis player will see his game hindered by flaws in a racket that will not even be noticeable to a beginner (who is so hindered by his own flaws that those of the racket are not an issue). I also grant that the increasing deterioration of what is considered adequate literacy in schools can lead to more people being unable to read texts like those I write; however, this is not a valid reason to start a never-ending vicious circle of lowered literacy and lowered text quality; further, there is plenty of space between my, arguably, too complicated way of writing and the ungrammatical rubbish of some modern writers.


I have an article on education, which discusses some issues with dumbing down of schools.

Starting sentences with conjunctions

Sentences starting with words like “and”, “or”, “but”, or similar, are increasingly common. Often this is a side-effect of poor punctuation (as discussed above); however, another reason seems to be lack of understanding of what purposes different words serve. Example: Starting a sentence with “but” is often ungrammatical and almost always a stylistical blunder; however (ha!), using “however” is perfectly in order. Similarly, “and” is incorrect, but “additionally” is allowed; and “alternatively” can be used where “or” cannot.


Specifically, most of the “bad” words are conjunctions intended to join parts of sentences together; while e.g. “alternatively” is an adverb and intended to give modifying information.

The line is not always clear-cut: “but” and “however” can be either depending on context, and it is not entirely wrong to consider “however” to be “just a fancy but”. Still, “however” is more of an adverb than “but” and is easier to justify at the beginning of a sentence.

Starting a sentence with one of these “bad” words is not always incorrect (but when in doubt avoid them): Consider e.g. an interjecting “But I saw you!”. I myself sometimes use them within parentheses to increase the connection with the preceding text, while still keeping the parenthesized expression in a separate sentence: Sometimes a logically disputable division can be better than an overcomplicated unity, and the stronger connective feel of “but” can reduce the confusion about whether the parts belong together.

Overuse of emphasis

Overuse of emphasis makes a text harder to read, in particular when emphasizing through caps (instead of italic or bold). Further, because the eyes of the reader are naturally drawn to emphasized text, the reading procedure is disturbed. Compare e.g. “I saw a plane CRASH yesterday. With MY OWN EYES. The ENTIRE plane was ON FIRE...” with the same text without emphasis.

The use of caps is more problematic than other common forms, because it is more intrusive than they are; further, text in caps can be hard to read, as can be seen e.g. in many contracts, EULAs, and similar. (Admittedly, the latter is seldom noticeable when single words are emphasized. It may, however, be worth remembering that the use of cap-emphasis in the mentioned documents is often a deliberate attempt to make the reader skip the text—not to make him take particular notice of it.)

Similar statements apply to exclamation marks and other individual characters that are usually used to stand out: Please!!!! Spare us the exclamation marks!!!!

“In this chapter you will learn ...”

Use of phrases like “In this chapter you will learn ...” have long annoyed me: Apart from the “you” issue, they are both condescending and illogical: The reader may already know some or all of the contents (or even be a peer reviewer with superior knowledge), and there is no guarantee that the reader will actually learn something because he reads it.

A good alternative is the use of “we”. Consider e.g. “In this chapter we will look upon [...]”, rather than the patronizing statement above. As a bonus, a “we” can help the less rational reader feel included and a member of an imagined group.

Self-lauding wishes

Ending an article or tip of some kind with “Enjoy!” (with variations) is is highly presumptuous, and shows a lack of self-perspective. I in particular recall reading a long series of tips related to (probably) software development, each trivial and lacking in insight, each ending with “Enjoy!”. The contents of the trivial tips are long forgotten, my memory of being annoyed at the author (both for wasting my time with trivialities and for being presumptuous) remains.

Journalist style parenthesis

A common journalistic construct is to start a sentence with a parenthesis, e.g. “A newspaper magnate from Kentucky, John Smith moved to Florida in his forties.”. While this kind of sentence has some limited value, it should normally be avoided: It tends to put the important issue towards the end of the sentence, make the overall structure unnecessarily complicated, and can mislead the reader as to the topic of the sentence. When used at all there must be a strong connection between the start and the end; above, e.g., there is no obvious connection between “newspaper magnate” and what follows later, while a limited relevance of “Kentucky” can be granted.

As an alternative, consider “John Smith moved from Kentucky to Florida in his forties.”, with a mention of his occupation somewhere else (if at all needed). If everything absolutely must be in one sentence, then “John Smith, the newspaper magnate, moved ...” is a reasonable compromise.

A good rule of thumb is to use this construction only when it groups related information (and nothing but related information), when the structuring improves the logical flow of the sentence, and when no trivia is inserted. Otherwise, is should be avoided. (Note that the above example fails on at least the first two counts; the third is contingent on whether “newspaper magnate” is trivia in the given context.)

An example of a valid use: “Having just graduated from KSU, John Smith moved to Florida to pursue a Ph.D.” (Even here it can be argued that the traditional word order is preferable, however.)


Why would the original example be worse than e.g. “John Smith, a newspaper magnate from Kentucky, moved to Florida in his forties.”?

Mainly, because the latter gives clear indication that the parenthesis is a parenthesis, while the former could mislead the reader entirely. It can, however, be argued that even the traditional word order is suboptimal, and that it would be better to not use a parenthesis of more than several words at all (not that I will ever be able to resist them). Still, this is not a justification of the journalistic style, but an argument against the ordinary style.

Use of prose for table data

Poor authors, in particular sports writers, often use prose where a table or numbered/bulleted list would be easier to read, easier to investigate, take less place, often contain more information, and would avoid the dull drone that such “prose” almost invariably turns into.

Consider the following result reports of the same, hypothetical, 100m race:

PlaceNameTimeReaction time
1John Smith10.000.1455
2Generic Runner210.010.1855
3Generic Runner310.080.1454
4Generic Runner410.100.1873
5Generic Runner510.150.1785
6Generic Runner610.200.1348
7Generic Runner710.260.1347
8Generic Runner810.500.1234


John Smith won an exciting race in 10.00 in a close decision, before second placer Generic Runner2 in 10.01. The third place went to Generic Runner3, who landed a 10.08. For fourth we saw Generic Runner4 run 10.10. Generic Runner5 took fifth in 10.15. Generic Runner6 (10.20) and Generic Runner7 (10.26) were never in contention, but far out-distanced last placer Generic Runner8 (10.50).

If the number of rows is at a premium (which is sometimes the case with less important results in printed news papers), a variation of the table is still superior (if by a much smaller margin):

1. John Smith (10.00/0.1455) 2. Generic Runner2 (10.01/0.1855) 3. Generic Runner3 (10.08/0.1454) 4. Generic Runner4 (10.10/0.1873) 5. Generic Runner5 (10.15/0.1785) 6. Generic Runner6 (10.20/0.1348) 7. Generic Runner7 (10.26/0.1347) 8. Generic Runner8 (10.50/0.1234)


In contrast, there would be nothing wrong with using prose to add information not present in a table, e.g. “Smith got of to a poor start and trailed by two meters around the 60m-mark, but finished the race with ferocious speed to nap the victory with the better lean.”.