5 Common Copy Errors (and How to Avoid Them)


No matter how fabulous your design is, if it contains copy errors, those are what people will focus on. Below are some issues I’ve seen too many times over the years, and how you can prevent them from happening.

1) The backwards apostrophe.

Computers love to do you the favor of wrapping quotation marks around the closest letter. Unfortunately, this can transmogrify an innocent apostrophe, trying to do its job of letter-replacement, into an opening single quotation mark. The poor apostrophe then suffers from a case of mistaken identity, and you end up with egg on your face. Your friends at InDesignSecrets can show you how to fix this issue, but you’ll want to stay vigilant to keep it from happening.

2) Lowercasing the wrong words in title case.

Title case does not mean simply lowercasing short words. It’s more complicated than that, I’m afraid. Generally, you lowercase prepositions (from, by, over, etc.), articles (the, an, a), and coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, etc.)—unless they are the first or last word of the title. But it also depends on the style guide your company uses. The Chicago Manual of Style differs from AP style, and so on. But I have good news! The miraculous website capitalizemytitle.com will instantly put your text into title case, as dictated by six different authorities.

3) FPO copy going live.

Sure, your heart is in the right place when you insert placeholder text to see how it might feel in your layout. But I’ve seen this have regrettable consequences. I had a coworker who would blithely pull text from the internet to flow into her packaging layouts. (Yes, it did get printed in all its plagiaristic glory at least once.) There have also been many scenarios like the one pictured here from The Guardian. Moral of the story? If you’re going to use anything other than copy that was written, proofread, and blessed by a copywriter, slap a big, fat “FPO” on there. Otherwise, you might bring new meaning to the phrase “dummy text.”

4) Making “tiny” changes on the fly that end up being not so tiny.

The requests seem so innocent: “I just need you to take out this one letter,” your client tells you. “We only have one belly dancer on staff now. Just change ‘dancers’ to ‘dancer.’” It seems so simple, but you may not have sufficient time to notice that the new sentence reads, “All of our belly dancer are certified to perform your procedure.” (“All of” is bizarre now; and “are” should be changed to “is” for subject-verb agreement.)

5) Paying the price for trusting spell-check.

Here’s some unnerving news. “Complimentary” and “complementary” mean two completely different things. So do “discrete” and “discreet.” And when someone gets her “just deserts,” it’s spelled differently than desserts like chocolate cake and ice cream. By all means, use spell-check. It will show you that “refrigerator” does not have “fridge” in the middle, and that “minuscule” does not contain “mini.” But make sure a copywriter, editor, and/or proofreader gives everything a final look-over.

These are just a few of the mishaps that can happen in our line of work, of course. But I hope these tips will help error-proof your work, so your design can shine.

Sara Rosinsky is an independent copywriter working under the banner of Shiny Red Copy. She writes advertising and packaging copy, names companies and products, and helps businesses articulate their branding and positioning. She’s the author of Unflubbify Your Writing: Bite-Sized Lessons to Improve Your Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar and posts daily about language and advertising on social media (particularly on LinkedIn).
  • Thank you! These things get overlooked far too often!

  • Derek Pell says:

    Everyone should file this column, Sara.

    I keep a handy reference file in Scrivener for important tips like this, and periodically read them as a refresher. There’s always something one forgets.

  • Rick Johnson says:

    Interestingly, I fed the title of this article into capitalizemytitle.com, and it capitalized the word “and”:

    5 Common Copy Errors (And How to Avoid Them)

    But I still think the way you did it looks better. It just looks right to me.

    • Oh, boy. That’s a rabbit hole I need to go down: parenthetical phrases beginning with a preposition. Good eye! I will investigate as soon as I can. Thanks. :)

  • Ken Jeffries says:

    “Oh, boy. That’s a rabbit hole I need to go down: parenthetical phrases beginning with a preposition.”
    Um, while I agree SOMEONE should go down the prepositional rabbit hole, methinks the example parenthetical phrase begins with a conjunction, right?
    Anyway, thanks so much for this article—you rock!

  • Hillary says:

    Great article! I use FPO for photo placeholders and my uninformed, non-creative-type coworkers scoff, and roll their eyes. There’s a reason for it!

  • Alicia says:

    It looks like capitalizemytitle.com can’t tell whether a word like “since” is being used as a preposition (lowercase in titles) or as a subordinating conjunction (uppercase, using CMS’s guidelines). This is the kind of thing that trips me up.

    • Sara Rosinsky says:

      Ack! This is part of the reason I love using sentence case in my headlines and subheads. So much easier!

  • Dan Gregory says:

    All great tips – thanks for this post. Because of your issue #3 (“FPO copy going live”) we specifically use a top Comments layer in our InDesign documents with a big, semi-transparent bold red box over every issue that needs to be cleared before final release.

  • Alicia says:

    Great tip about apostrophes! After reading your article, I checked the file I’m currently copyediting and found a baddie that would have gotten right by me. This is going on our checklist. Thanks!

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