Friday, August 06, 2021

3 Mixed-Up Writing Goofs You Might Be Making

By Aly Brown, @AlyConnerBrown

Part of the How They Do It Series 

JH: Using the wrong word in our writing is not only embarrassing, but can hurt our novel's chances at success. Aly Brown shares a few tips on how to remember these often-goofed words.

Aly Brown is a newspaper editor and author represented by BookEnds LLC. She recently inked a deal with Feiwel & Friends / Macmillan for a nonfiction middle grade book on Alvin Submersible called The Last Unexplored Place on Earth. Release date 2023.

Take it away Aly...
Thanks, Janice! Great to be back here on Fiction University!

Aly Brown
As the editor of a newspaper, I come across common writing mistakes in my day-to-day work. I’m not talking about the improper use of they’re, their and there. I’m talking about some under-the-radar mistakes that many people make — even some of my seasoned reporters and the professionals who write press releases. Mistakes like writing “for all intensive purposes” when it should be “for all intents and purposes.”

After mocking a colleague for one such mistake, I created a doodle of a chicken to help him understand the difference between lay and lie (and all of its messy present/past/past participle BS). Pretty soon, my desk was full of chicken doodles and a sign that read “Please refer to the chicken for all your grammar needs.”

With that, dear reader, The Grammar Chicken is also here to help you if:

You can never remember if it's "that" or "which" or where the commas go either way

We could get technical and start talking about essential and nonessential clauses when it comes to that and which. But unless you're cramming for an English test and you have to memorize all the different grammatical terms, odds are you just want a layman's answer.

When should you use that?

When it's necessary for the sentence to make sense. For example, at left, you can't remove "that is shaped like a nest" without ruining the sentence.

On commas: You don't need them around “that.”

When should you use which?

Which can be an "oh, by the way" portion of the sentence. The Grammar Chicken does her best work in her office chair (and oh, by the way, it's shaped like a nest). You can easily remove "which is shaped like a nest" and the sentence still works.

On commas: If the "oh, by the way" element appears in the middle of the sentence, offset that portion with commas. If it appears at the end, like in the drawing at right, make sure there's a comma before which.

You might have thought it was slight of hand, but it's actually sleight of hand

Sleight means tricky, cunning, deceptive.

Slight, as an adjective, means small (i.e. She has a slight build). As a verb, it means to insult (i.e. She slighted her guests by not offering napkins). An insulting slight can also be a noun. And slight as another verb with a different definition can also mean to destroy.

So while slight can have various meanings and uses, it seems to be that the only time anyone means to use sleight with an E is when talking about magic tricks.

You wrote "first annual" when you meant "inaugural"

A ton of press releases come to my desk every week, and for whatever reason, this one hasn't hit home for PR writers. For those of you writing "first annual" with devil-may-care attitudes, let me stop you right there. Until that thing you or your company planned happens more than one year in a row, it's just an event. However, if you intend for it to happen again, feel free to call it “inaugural.”

For more tips, tricks and chicken doodles, visit


  1. This was fun, and was actually things that (for the most part) were new to me! Thanks!

  2. Most helpful. And I love the grammar chicken!

  3. Kudos to the Grammar Chicken! What a fun way to teach newer wordsmiths and to remind more seasoned ones without embarrassment.

  4. Thank you, Aly. I love the chicken. And what a great idea for an office chair!