Improve your writing: How to avoid Vince's "Dirty Dozen"

To improve your writing, please avoid these twelve common mistakes (Vince's "Dirty Dozen")

  1. Subjects and verbs, agree
  2. Awkward articles
  3. This... what? aka "Clothe the naked this"
  4. Include first names
  5. Write out numbers under 10
  6. When to use passive voice
  7. How to eliminate wordiness
  8. Avoid unfamiliar abbreviations
  9. Cut unnecessary adverbs
  10. Delete unnecessary quotation marks
  11. Find and fix errors not picked up by speck check
  12. Avoid platitudes like, "real world" and "real business"


Many ESL writers struggle to keep their subjects and verbs in agreement.

Here are some useful tips from Jane Strauss, author of "The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation".

Basic Rule.
The basic rule states that a singular subject takes a singular verb, while a plural subject takes a plural verb.
NOTE: The trick is in knowing whether the subject is singular or plural. The next trick is recognizing a singular or plural verb.
Hint: Verbs do not form their plurals by adding an s as nouns do. In order to determine which verb is singular and which one is plural, think of which verb you would use with he or she and which verb you would use with they.

Example:talks, talk Which one is the singular form? Which word would you use with he? We say, "He talks." Therefore, talks is singular. We say, "They talk." Therefore, talk is plural. 

Rule 1.Two singular subjects connected by or or nor require a singular verb.

Example:My aunt or my uncle is arriving by train today.

Rule 2.Two singular subjects connected by either/or or neither/nor require a singular verb as in Rule 1.

Examples:Neither Juan nor Carmen is available.
Either Kiana or Casey is helping today with stage decorations.

Rule 3.When I is one of the two subjects connected by either/or or neither/nor, put it second and follow it with the singular verb am.

Example:Neither she nor I am going to the festival.

Rule 4.When a singular subject is connected by or or nor to a plural subject, put the plural subject last and use a plural verb.

Example:The serving bowl or the plates go on that shelf.

Rule 5.When a singular and plural subject are connected by either/or or neither/nor, put the plural subject last and use a plural verb.

Example:Neither Jenny nor the others are available.

Rule 6.As a general rule, use a plural verb with two or more subjects when they are connected by and.

Example:car and a bike are my means of transportation.

Rule 7.Sometimes the subject is separated from the verb by words such as along with, as well as, besides, or not. Ignore these expressions when determining whether to use a singular or plural verb.

Examples:The politician, along with the newsmen, is expected shortly.
Excitement, as well as nervousness, is the cause of her shaking.

Rule 8.The pronouns each, everyone, every one, everybody, anyone, anybody, someone, and somebody are singular and require singular verbs. Do not be misled by what follows of.

Examples:Each of the girls sings well.
Every one of the cakes is gone. NOTE: Everyone is one word when it means everybodyEvery one is two words when the meaning is each one.

Rule 9.
With words that indicate portions—percent, fraction, part, majority, some, all, none, remainder, and so forth —look at the noun in your of phrase (object of the preposition) to determine whether to use a singular or plural verb. If the object of the preposition is singular, use a singular verb. If the object of the preposition is plural, use a plural verb.

Examples:Fifty percent of the pie has disappeared. Pie is the object of the preposition of.
Fifty percent of the pies have disappeared. Pies is the object of the preposition.
One-third of the city is unemployed.
One-third of the people are unemployed.
NOTE: Hyphenate all spelled-out fractions.
All of the pie is gone.
All of the pies are gone.
Some of the pie is missing.
Some of the pies are missing.

None of the garbage was picked up.

None of the sentences were punctuated correctly.

Of all her books, none have sold as well as the first one.

Rule 10.The expression the number is followed by a singular verb while the expression a number is followed by a plural verb.

Examples:The number of people we need to hire is thirteen.
A number of people have written in about this subject.

Rule 11.When either and neither are subjects, they always take singular verbs.

Examples:Neither of them is available to speak right now.
Either of us is capable of doing the job.

Rule 12.The words here and there have generally been labeled as adverbs even though they indicate place. In sentences beginning with herethere, the subject follows the verb. or

Examples:There are four hurdles to jump.
There is a high hurdle to jump.

Rule 13.Use a singular verb with sums of money or periods of time.

Examples:Ten dollars is a high price to pay.
Five years is the maximum sentence for that offense.

Rule 14.Sometimes the pronoun who, that, or which is the subject of a verb in the middle of the sentence. The pronouns who, that, and which become singular or plural according to the noun directly in front of them. So, if that noun is singular, use a singular verb. If it is plural, use a plural verb.

Examples:Salma is the scientist who writes/write the reports. The word in front of who is scientist, which is singular. Therefore, use the singular verb writes.
He is one of the men who does/do the work. The word in front of who is men, which is plural. Therefore, use the plural verb do.

Rule 15.Collective nouns such as team and staff may be either singular or plural depending on their use in the sentence.

Examples:The staff is in a meeting. Staff is acting as a unit here.
The staff are in disagreement about the findings. The staff are acting as separate individuals in this example.
The sentence would read even better as: The staff members are in disagreement about the findings.


Even writers who grew up in English-speaking countries struggle with articles. Here are some tips from the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), which is a fantastic resource.   

Using Articles

Summary: This handout discusses the differences between indefinite articles (a/an) and definite articles (the).

What is an article? Basically, an article is an adjective. Like adjectives, articles modify nouns.

English has two articles: the and a/anThe is used to refer to specific or particular nouns; a/an is used to modify non-specific or non-particular nouns. We call the the definite article and a/an the indefinite article.

the = definite article
a/an = indefinite article

For example, if I say, "Let's read the book," I mean a specific book. If I say, "Let's read a book," I mean any book rather than a specific book.

Here's another way to explain it: The is used to refer to a specific or particular member of a group. For example, "I just saw the most popular movie of the year." There are many movies, but only one particular movie is the most popular. Therefore, we use the.

"A/an" is used to refer to a non-specific or non-particular member of the group. For example, "I would like to go see a movie." Here, we're not talking about a specific movie. We're talking about any movie. There are many movies, and I want to see any movie. I don't have a specific one in mind.

Let's look at each kind of article a little more closely.

Indefinite Articles: a and an

"A" and "an" signal that the noun modified is indefinite, referring to any member of a group. For example:
  • "My daughter really wants a dog for Christmas." This refers to any dog. We don't know which dog because we haven't found the dog yet.
  • "Somebody call a policeman!" This refers to any policeman. We don't need a specific policeman; we need any policeman who is available.
  • "When I was at the zoo, I saw an elephant!" Here, we're talking about a single, non-specific thing, in this case an elephant. There are probably several elephants at the zoo, but there's only one we're talking about here.

Remember, using a or an depends on the sound that begins the next word. So...

  • a + singular noun beginning with a consonant: a boy; a car; a bike; a zoo; a dog
  • an + singular noun beginning with a vowel: an elephant; an egg; an apple; an idiot; an orphan
  • a + singular noun beginning with a consonant sound: a user (sounds like 'yoo-zer,' i.e. begins with a consonant 'y' sound, so 'a' is used); a universitya unicycle
  • an + nouns starting with silent "h": an hour
  • a + nouns starting with a pronounced "h": a horse
    • In some cases where "h" is pronounced, such as "historical," you can use an. However, a is more commonly used and preferred.
      A historical event is worth recording.

Remember that these rules also apply when you use acronyms:

Introductory Composition at Purdue (ICaP) handles first-year writing at the University. Therefore, an ICaP memo generally discusses issues concerning English 106 instructors.

Another case where this rule applies is when acronyms start with consonant letters but have vowel sounds:

An MSDS (material safety data sheet) was used to record the data. An SPCC plan (Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasures plan) will help us prepare for the worst.

If the noun is modified by an adjective, the choice between a and an depends on the initial sound of the adjective that immediately follows the article:
  • a broken egg
  • an unusual problem
  • a European country (sounds like 'yer-o-pi-an,' i.e. begins with consonant 'y' sound)

Remember, too, that in English, the indefinite articles are used to indicate membership in a group:
  • I am a teacher. (I am a member of a large group known as teachers.)
  • Brian is an Irishman. (Brian is a member of the people known as Irish.)
  • Seiko is a practicing Buddhist. (Seiko is a member of the group of people known as Buddhists.)

Definite Article: the

The definite article is used before singular and plural nouns when the noun is specific or particular. The signals that the noun is definite, that it refers to a particular member of a group. For example:

"The dog that bit me ran away." Here, we're talking about a specific dog, the dog that bit me.

"I was happy to see the policeman who saved my cat!" Here, we're talking about a particular policeman. Even if we don't know the policeman's name, it's still a particular policeman because it is the one who saved the cat.

"I saw the elephant at the zoo." Here, we're talking about a specific noun. Probably there is only one elephant at the zoo.

Count and Noncount Nouns

The can be used with noncount nouns, or the article can be omitted entirely.
  • "I love to sail over the water" (some specific body of water) or "I love to sail over water" (any water).
  • "He spilled the milk all over the floor" (some specific milk, perhaps the milk you bought earlier that day) or "He spilled milk all over the floor" (any milk).

"A/an" can be used only with count nouns.
  • "I need a bottle of water."
  • "I need a new glass of milk."

Most of the time, you can't say, "She wants a water," unless you're implying, say, a bottle of water.

Geographical use of the

There are some specific rules for using the with geographical nouns.

Do not use the before:
  • names of most countries/territories: Italy, Mexico, Bolivia; however, thethe Dominican Republic, the Philippines, the United States Netherlands,
  • names of cities, towns, or states: Seoul, Manitoba, Miami
  • names of streets: Washington Blvd., Main St.
  • names of lakes and bays: Lake Titicaca, Lake Erie except with a group of lakes like the Great Lakes
  • names of mountains: Mount Everest, Mount Fuji except with ranges of mountains like the Andes or the Rockies or unusual names like the Matterhorn
  • names of continents (Asia, Europe)
  • names of islands (Easter Island, Maui, Key West) except with island chains like the Aleutians, the Hebrides, or the Canary Islands

Do use the before:
  • names of rivers, oceans and seas: the Nile, the Pacific
  • points on the globe: the Equator, the North Pole
  • geographical areas: the Middle East, the West
  • deserts, forests, gulfs, and peninsulas: the Sahara, the Persian Gulf, the Black Forest, the Iberian Peninsula

Omission of Articles

Some common types of nouns that don't take an article are:
  • Names of languages and nationalities: Chinese, English, Spanish, Russian (unless you are referring to the population of the nation: "The Spanish are known for their warm hospitality.")
  • Names of sports: volleyball, hockey, baseball
  • Names of academic subjects: mathematics, biology, history, computer science

Contributors: Paul Lynch, Allen Brizee, Elizabeth Angeli Last Edited: 2011-03-03 10:04:28

  • “This” should always have something following it. “This example shows that....” is fine.
  • More generally, this rule helps you to avoid an unclear antecedent to the “this.”
  • Often there are three or more things in recent memory that “this” could point to.

4. Include first and last names

Always refer to current students or alumni by their full name. Some readers only know someone's first name.

IN ESSAYS (Why School X)
  • Student names: Always refer to current students or alumni by their full name. Sometimes, adcom readers only know someone's first name, especially at "wet" schools like Kellogg and Tuck.
  • School name: similarly, in your goals essay, the first time you write a school's name, spell it out officially as the school does e.g. The Kellogg School of Management. Afterward, you can just call it Kellogg.

The first time your recommender mentions you, he should write your full name, like this: "I first met Mr. Vince Ricci in 2002." Afterward, he can refer to you as just Mr. Ricci (or Vince if a peer / casual recommender)
  • I am writing to you with regard to [Mr./Ms. Full Name], who has requested that I write a letter of recommendation on [his/her] behalf.

Mr vs Mr.

  • In British English, abbreviated titles that end with the same letter as the word being abbreviated do not take a full stop (period): “Mr” but “Prof.”
  • On the other hand, in American English, all titles take a period: “Mr.” and “Prof.”
  • Either way, be sure to add a space after Mr or Mr.
    • Too many clients write Mr.Smith, which is always incorrect in US or UK English.


In essays (and recommendation letters), numbers under ten should be written out. If there are numbers in the text, it is preferable to spell them out if they are less than 9 but use numerals if they are greater than nine, for example, “nine” and not “9,” but “87” and not “eighty seven.”

Use numbers (numerals) in these instances:

1. For all numbers 10 and above: "There were 17 students in class."
2. All numbers below 10 that are grouped in comparison to numbers 10 and above: "Only 5 of 17 students passed the course."
3. When using numbers immediately before a unit of measure: "a 5-minute wait"
4. Numbers that represent statistical or mathematical functions or formulas: "a ratio of 12:1"
5. Numbers that represent time, dates, ages, sizes, scores, money, and points on a scale: "It happened 5 years ago"; "a roomful of 6-year-olds"; "$40."
6. Numbers that represent a place in a series: "week 7 of an 8-week diet"
7. In a list of four or more numbers: "We had 1, 2, 5, and 8 pieces, respectively"

For more information, you may wish to check the APA manual



Writing Numbers One through Ten

Spell out numbers one through ten, as in this example:

  • My little brother ate four apples before dinner and became ill.
  • Why do parents always check to see if babies have ten toes?

Writing Numbers Above Ten Spell out numbers above ten, unless writing the number would involve using more than two words. For example:

  • I have sixty-three dead bugs in my collection.
  • My cousin has 207 bugs in his. (That would be three words, not counting "and.")
  • This site has given me a thousand helpful hints for my homework.
  • My grandmother is seventy-two today.
  • My little sister had about 4,763 measles on her face. (That would be four words.)

Always spell out numbers that begin sentences:
  • Four hundred and fifty people attended the birthday party.

However, you should try to avoid using long, clunky numbers at the beginning of a sentence:
  • There were 450 people at the party.

Dates, phone numbers, and time: Use numbers for dates:

  • My birthday is March 16.
  • He was born on Valentines Day, 1975.

And use numbers for phone numbers:
  • The phone number for the school is 800-555-6262
  • The international code for England is 44.

And use numbers for time if using a.m. or p.m.:
  • The alarm will sound at 7 p.m.
  • I make my bed at 7 a.m. each morning.

But spell out times when using "o'clock" or when the a.m. or p.m. are omitted:
  • The alarm will sound at seven o'clock.
  • I make my bed at seven each morning.

More tips here: 10 Rules for Writing Numbers and Numerals


Passive voice is used frequently in technical writing, where the focus is usually on what was done rather than who did it. It is conventionally used to report experimental procedures and to avoid constant repetition of I or we throughout the report, paper, or thesis.

In order to use passive voice correctly, it is necessary to fully understand, and be able to recognize, the difference between passive and active voice.

Active and passive voice

The active voice names an 'actor' which/who is the subject of the verb; the actor does the verb.

Who/What does the verb? If the answer is clear, the sentence is active. Note that often, there is a direct object (DO) 'receiving' the action.
Part of speech

The students
the samples.

The samples

Who/What is the verb done to? This is the direct object.

Part of speech
Direct Object
The students
the samples.

Where possible, use the active voice. It is direct, brief, and easy to understand.
The passive voice places the emphasis on the action rather than the actor. The direct object is placed before the verb, which is given in the passive form. The subject, or actor, is usually not mentioned.

Example: The samples were tested.

Formation of the passive

The passive can use any tense of the verb to be + a past participle

Any tense of the verb to be +
A past participle
The load/s
The report/s
has been
have been

The sample/s
will be
can be

The result/s
is/are being
(should) have been
(could) have been


Reasons for using the passive
1. The 'actor' is not known.
  • Oil was discovered off the coast of Australia.
  • The number of Internet users was estimated to be over one million.

2. The 'actor' is not important.
  • The report has been published.
  • The results will be presented at the conference.

3. It is considered desirable to conceal the identity of the 'actor'.
  • The results are invalid, as the correct testing procedure was not followed.          
  • Research funding will be cut next year.

4. An impersonal tone is needed for academic writing.
  • In this report, the stress fields in a C-shape plate will be analyzed.
An impersonal tone is also used for process descriptions.
  • First, the raw materials are loaded into a container ...

5. A tactful tone is needed to smooth over an error or difficulty.
Compare these two examples.
  • Example of passive voice: The samples were not checked at the second stage . . .
  • Example of active voice: We forgot to check the samples . . .

Changing active to passive

Example of active voice

Part of speech

The group
will present
the report
next week.

STEP 1: move the object to the subject position
  • The report ...

STEP 2: change the verb to the passive, making sure that BE takes the same tense as the verb in the active sentence
  • The report will be presented ...

STEP 3: drop the subject
  • Example of passive voice without the subject: The report will be presented next week.

or move it to a position after the verb
  • Example of passive voice with the subject: The report will be presented by the group next week.

Verbs that can't be used in the passive

Most verbs can be changed from the active to the passive.

Active voice: We tested the samples. > Passive voice: The samples were tested.

If the verb can be followed by a direct object (a direct object answers the question who or what after the verb) it can be made passive.

Part of speech

Direct object

These difficulties
may delay
the completion of the project.

But the verb occur, for example, cannot take a direct object.

Part of speech

Indirect object

A solution


to him.

This cannot be transformed to the passive since there is no direct object to become the subject.

Some verbs that can be used only in the active are: occur, rise, happen, arise, fall, exist, consist (of), depend (on),  result (from).

Active and passive verbs

Active (correct)
Passive (incorrect)
Problems may
Problems may be
consist of
depend on
They are

consist of
depend on
Note: 'They are dependent on . . .' is correct since 'dependent' is an adjective.

A special case:

Part of speech

Lack can take a direct object but cannot be transformed to the passive: Resources are lacked (incorrect). However, you could write: Resources are lacking.

Concern and involve

Concerned about means 'worried about'.  Concerned with means 'involved in'. The passive voice can be used with both meanings. Whether or not they can be used in the passive depends on the meaning.

To involve has three meanings:
  1. To participate, to take part
  2. To include
  3. To require

Only the first meaning, to participate, to take part can be used in the passive form.
  • This week, students are involved in lab work.

The active voice must be used with the second meaning, to include.
  • Example: He often involves his students in his research.

The active voice must also be used with the third meaning, to require.
  • Example: The project involves buying new software.


Never use two words if one is enough.

Instead of "past experience," simply write "experience."

The verb "resigned" is a concise alternative for the phrase "left the firm".

  • end result → result
  • future plans → plans
  • past experience → experience

If a sentence has more than 20 words without punctuation, or more than 40 words altogether, it may be excessively wordy. Consider re-phrasing the sentence, or breaking it into smaller sentences. People have very short attention spans; if too much information is presented all at once, the brain cannot properly process it.

While there are no strict rules about length of a sentence, if your clauses are longer than about 20 words, or if your entire sentence is longer than about 40 words, it may be too much for your reader to clearly understand. If the reader has to go back and re-read too many sentences, they may just give up reading... and possibly fall asleep.

S-V-O is the way to go!

Subject - Verb - Object (S-V-O) Sentences
  1. I play football.
  2. Max reads books.
  3. We can speak English.
  4. Sue is singing a nice song.
  5. I like table tennis.

more tips here:


When two independent clauses are joined by a co-ordinating conjunction (e.g. "and", "but", "or", "so"), there must be a comma before the conjunction or it will be a run-on sentence. Clearly identify the conjunction in the sentence with two independent clauses, and insert a comma before the conjunction.

Incorrect: Matthew went to the library and I headed back to the science lab.
The two clauses, “Matthew went to the library” and “I headed back to the science lab”, are independent; a comma should be inserted before “and”.

Incorrect: The wind was brisk but the sun was strong.
The two clauses, “the wind was brisk” and “the sun was strong”, are independent; there should be a comma before “but”.

Correct: The man’s business was failing, so he was searching for alternative income.
The two clauses, “the man’s business was failing” and “he was searching for alternative income”, are independent. The co-ordinating conjunction, “so” requires a comma before it.



A: Typically, an abbreviation is spelled out at its first instance in an article, followed by the abbreviated form within parentheses; in subsequent instances, only the abbreviation is used. However, this is not compulsory for terms that may be familiar to the intended readers.

For example,

  • "I work as an engineer for NTT. NTT is Japan's leading telecommunications company."


  • "I work as an engineer for Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corporation (NTT). NTT is Japan's leading telecommunications company."


  • "As my long-term goal, I plan to become CEO of my company." (CEO is a well-known, universal acronym, so you do not need to spell it out the first time)


A: Please try to avoid acronyms. 

While they are effective in technical reports and internal communications for fellow practitioners, they have no place in MBA admissions essays. 

Instead, use this opportunity to prove your ability to explain complex, technical information in a way that readers (and future MBA classmates) can understand.


When cutting words to fit word limits, try removing adverbs. They add little value. In the following examples, you can see that removing the adverb does not affect change the meaning of the sentence. Instead, use those precious words to show your fit with a particular school.

Example #1

"I strongly feel the need to broaden my business perspective."


""I feel the need to broaden my business perspective."

""I need to broaden my business perspective."

Example #2

I see the following phrase far too often:

"I strongly believe that your MBA program is the best one for me."
Belief is not an action. One cannot "sort of" believe something. You either believe it or you do not.
Just write, "I am convinced that School X best prepares me to realize my goals for three reasons. First, ..."

Avoid adding modifiers between the infinitive ("to" and "verb"). The following phrases can be shorter. Again, save space for new ideas that add value.

  • to further improve
    • to improve
  • to fully understand
    • to understand
  • to directly share
    • to share
  • to effectively implement
    • to implement
  • to actually realize
    • to realize

(read more about split infinitives here



I would like to take Professor William Duggan's "Napoleon's Glance" course.

I would like to take Professor William Duggan's Napoleon's Glance course.

Since I enjoy teaching and direct service activities, I plan to increase international students’ participation in community volunteering activities like “International Student Advisory Board” and “Community Action Rewards Everyone (CARE)”.

Since I enjoy teaching and direct service activities, I plan to increase international students’ participation in community volunteering activities like International Student Advisory Board and Community Action Rewards Everyone (CARE).


Common spelling and grammar errors (not picked up by spell checkers)

There are many errors that are not detectable by spellcheckers. There are words which, though misspelt, are actually correct spellings for the wrong word: "I go to work on Monday threw to Friday."

The list below shows a number of common errors. It's worth a quick read-through to ensure that you have not made any of these mistakes. If you are doubtful about a particular word or phrase in your essay, use the 'Find in page' option on your browser to see if it appears here.

(Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)

The following words are spelled correctly, but they are incorrectly used in most essays. Spell check will not catch them. Therefore, you need to read your essays aloud. If you want to be extra sure, record yourself reading your essays, then listen for awkawd phrases and wordy passages. 

  • affect/effect
    • In most cases, 'affect' is the verb and 'effect' the noun.
    • "If I don't complete my assignment, it could affect my degree mark."
    • "I banged the door as hard as I could, but it had no effect."
    • However, 'effect' can be used as a verb in certain cases, meaning 'to bring to pass': "I wanted to talk to her to effect a reconciliation."
    • (Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)

  • boarder
    • use "border" when discussing boundaries and edges, as in Doctors Without Borders, border guard, and cross-border M&A 
    • "boarders" refers to residents in a boarding house or school paying for their room and board (food), or people who ride snowboards
    • A 'boarder' is someone who 'boards' - a lodger. A 'border' is a barrier surrounding an area; either a fence or sometimes simply a notional line, as in borders between countries. It is also used in computers to indicate the edge of an object - the borders of a page, for instance. (Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)
  • carrier
    • you mean "career"; a "carrier" refers to a person or thing that carries, holds, or conveys something

  • criteria/criterion

'criterion' is the singular, 'criteria' the plural.
"He seems to have met all the criteria."
"We must look closely at this criterion."
(Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)

A 'hole' is something you get in your sock (or roof, or whatever).
'Whole' means a complete entity, rather than just a part:
"The shoes looked good, but it was a different matter if you considered the whole outfit."
(Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)

'it's' (with the apostrophe) is always short for 'it is':
"It's a good job we didn't go out in this weather."
'its' (without the apostrophe) is the possessive case, i.e. 'belonging to it':
"This car has its own built-in air conditioning."
(Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)

This is a confusing one, because 'lead' has two completely different meanings, depending on the pronunciation.
'To lead' (pronounced 'leed') is present tense, meaning 'to go in front of' or 'to guide':
"When the band is in a procession, the Sergeant-Major leads the way."
'lead' (pronounced 'led') is a heavy, soft, grey metal.
Led is the past tense of the verb 'to lead' described above. Hence:
"Joe led the way back to the main road."
(Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)


"Learnt" and "learned" are two acceptable forms of the past simple/past participle of the verb learn, which means exactly the same thing. 
Learn is an irregular verb in the British English where the past tense is spelt with a ‘t’ at the end - [learn/ learnt]. 
Conversely, Learn is a regular verb in the American English where the past tense is spelt with a ‘ed’ at the end - [learn / learned]. 
Thus, neither is incorrect as “learnt” is more commonly used in the British English, and “learned” in American English.

'To lose' (pronounced 'looze') is to misplace something:
"Whenever I'm in a hurry I always seem to lose something."
'To loose' is to free up, or loosen. More often used as an adjective:
"This belt is too loose."
(Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)

  • managements
    • use the singular "management" to refer to the executives of your company; "Management decided to sponsor my MBA studies." "At first, management disagreed with my proposal."
Overseas means across an ocean (or oceans), in another country
Oversee means to supervise
Oversea is not a word

A 'plain' is a large, flat stretch of land. 'Plain' can also be used as an adjective, as in:
"Annette was a very pretty girl, but her sister Molly was rather plain."
'Plane' is short for aeroplane (US: airplane) but can also be used for a flat surface or a woodworking tool.
(Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)

A 'pole' is basically a long metal or wooden bar, but is also used to describe the North and South Poles, magnetic poles on a magnet, and extremes of opinion.
"She and her father are poles apart when it comes to politics."
'poll' is only used when it comes to voting, although it is used as a metaphor in other contexts.
"We conducted a quick poll, and came to the conclusion that option 3 was the most popular."
(Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)


'principal' is an adjective meaning 'main'. It can also be the head of a school or college.
"Coffee is the principal export of the country."
"We had a good discussion with the Principal concerning school discipline."
A 'principle' is a basic truth or law which someone holds to:
"To do something like that would be against his principles."
(Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)

'reason because'
Use 'the reason that' or 'the reason being' (but not 'the reason being is..')
(Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)

You can have a 'roll of honour', a 'roll down the hill' or a 'bread roll', but if you are playing a part in any sense, you are acting a 'role'.
"All winners will have their names added to the roll."
"He was present in his role as Vice-Chairman of the company."
(Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)

  • staffs
    • write "staff"; like "fish", staff can refer to more than one; "Our staff includes professionals from three different countries." "The entire staff appreciated my effort."

'than' is used when comparing things:
"It's much quicker than going on the bus."
'then' refers to a sequence of events:
"First I'm going to have a bath then I'll read the post."
(Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)

Probably the most common mistake in student work.
'their' means 'belonging to them':
"That's their car, I'm sure."
'they're' is an abbreviation for 'they are':
"I'm sorry, they're not in at the moment."
Any other use is probably 'there', which is used in a number of contexts:
"There is no point in going on about it."
"The accident happened just over there."
"Is there a cafe near here, please?"
(Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)

'very unique'
The 'very' is unnecessary. If something is 'unique' there is nothing else like it, so it can't be 'very unique'. (Consider 'extremely mediocre'.)
(Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)

  • where/wear/were/we're
    • 'where' refers to a place: "Where did I put those keys?" "It all depends where you want to get to."
    • 'wear' is about clothes, usually: "I don't have a thing to wear." "This tire (tyre in UK) is definitely showing signs of wear."
    • 'were' (pronounced 'wurr') is the plural of 'was': "They were all together in the lounge at the time."
    • 'we're' (pronounced 'weer') is short for 'we are': "OK, we're just coming."
    • (Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)
  • whether/weather
    • A simple mistake, but very common. 'weather' refers to rain, sun, hail, snow, etc.
    • "The weather looks better than it did yesterday."
    • Whether indicates that a particular course of action is dependent on certain factors: "The question is whether she really wants that or not."
    • (Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)

  • whose/who's
    • Can be quite tricky. Essentially, 'who's' is short for 'who is', so if you read it as 'who is' in your head and it makes sense, that's the right one.
    • "David is the one who's coming with me to the party on Sunday."
    • 'Whose' is to do with possession.
    • "Whose car keys are these?"
    • (Thanks to Alan Rolfe at The School of Art, Design and Media, University of West London: found at; accessed 2012/03)

More hints here ▸


Some clients write phrases like, "Before getting into the real world, I would like to ..."

What is the "real world"?

If you are working a full-time job, you already LIVE in the real world. 

Graduate school is not Disneyland.

You mean, "Before starting my next career phase..."
"I need an MBA to prepare me for the real business world."
Again, if you are working now, you are already in the real business world.

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