Commonly Misused Words and Other Grammatical Mistakes to Avoid

Proofreading and reputational impacts

Let’s make time for proofreading.  When I train assistants on business writing, I remind people that our communications have the power to build or diminish reputations – our own, those of our colleagues, and those of our employers. Here, with thanks to readers who participated in my July 2022 Weekend Poll, are tips on some common mistakes you’ll want to avoid.

Beings (“who”) and objects (“that”)

Readers correctly noted misuse of the word “that” in reference to beings. It’s appropriate to write, “… person/people who …” or “those who …” rather than “… person/people that…” or “those that“. The use of the word “that” implies reference to an object rather than a being.

Coulda, shoulda, woulda (and more)

Some uses the terms should of, could of and would of rather than the appropriate terms, could have, should have and would have.

Familiarity or formality

Write with the appropriate level of formality. If in doubt, have a look at resources such as Purdue’s Online Writing Lab.

Numerical references

When referencing a number lower than 10, spell the number within a sentence. Try to phrase sentences so they don’t begin with numbers. If this is awkward or unavoidable, spell out the number or percentage you insert at the beginning of a sentence.

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Both misuse and the absence of apostrophes as problematic, and I think many could use a bit of guidance with this.  If in doubt, turn to online resources or other forms of training.


Be sure to write in the appropriate tense, be it past, present or future. When I deliver training on minutes, I remind people to write minutes in the past tense.


A homophone is one of two or more words that sound similar yet have different meanings and/or spellings.

A sampling of homophones

Homophones are each of two or more words with the same pronunciation but different meanings or spelling. Here are some examples. If you rely on autocorrect functions,  double check the results when inserting homophones. When in doubt as to which word is appropriate, check a dictionary.

accept except
affect effect
are hour our
bare bear
board bored
cite sight
complement compliment
discrete discreet
higher hire
incite insight
Its (implies possession) it’s (a contraction)
new knew
passed past
sole soul
stationary stationery ( “e’ for envelopes/writing supplies)
than then
their there they’re
to too two
wary weary
you’re your

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