11 Compound Word Errors that Might Make You Look like a Numbskull

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Even as a seasoned writer, I’m not immune to making simple but stupid mistakes. Take the word “jive” for instance …

Ever since I was kicking the slats out of my crib, I thought it meant “to agree with, to be in harmony.” But nnnnnnnnoooooo.

Jive is a language immortalized by the movie Airplane. The word that I should have been using was “jibe.”

Here’s the thing, the English language is full of pitfalls — simple errors that can alienate readers, turn off subscribers, and annoy buyers.

This is why Copyblogger has historically put a heavy emphasis on correct spelling, usage, and grammar. You may have seen articles like:

And when you’ve been doing this as long as we have, you’re going to discover even more common errors.

The most recent for me has been a host of compound words. Let me show you what I mean …

Never mind v. nevermind

Let’s blame Kurt Cobain, because ever since the poster child for Generation X’s winter of discontent christened Nirvana’s world-altering album Nevermind, I’ve always spelled “never mind” as a compound word. 

But, as Cobain knew, that’s grammatically incorrect — to a degree. See, the compound word nevermind is actually an old fashioned way of saying “notice” or “pay attention,” but used in a negative style:

You’ll do well to pay Cobain no nevermind.

You’ll never need to use “no nevermind” in a sentence, since “pay attention” or “notice” will work better. But do use the two-word variation when you mean “please ignore.”

Never mind what I just said.

A lot v. alot

This one’s pretty easy.

“A lot” is an idiom, and means “very much.”

Brian rocks out a lot when he listens to Nevermind.

Alot,” on the other hand, isn’t a word, so you shouldn’t use it. Ever. People will laugh at you.

By the way, don’t confuse “a lot” with “allot,” which means to distribute or give out.

I will allot four donuts to each of you. That’s a lot of donuts.

All together v. altogether

One means “as a group,” while the other means “completely” or “entirely.”

He stacked the records all together, and the collection amounted altogether to four hundred.

Every day v. everyday

The single word can be used as a noun or adjective. It expresses the routine, the commonplace.

The two word phrase, however, expresses duration or time.

He listens to Nevermind every day on his everyday record player.

All right v. alright

This one is a little tricky because they both mean the same thing: okay, very well, satisfactory, certainty, or safe.

I’m all right if you’re alright.

However, the single word is informal, which is why you’ll get the red squiggly lines in WordPress or Word if you try to use it. The preferred use is two words, all right? Better yet, to avoid reader confusion, be specific:

Are you safe? Is that paper satisfactory?

Compound v. verb phrases

Now let me introduce you to a special set of compound words that change in meaning and shape when they are being used as a verb, adjective, or noun … and can cause all kinds of problems.

The verb form usually consists in two words:

  • I need to back up my WordPress site.
  • Did you set up the camera?
  • You need to make up the exam before October.
  • We are trying to work out our differences.
  • Stop by the office and pick up your money.
  • I couldn’t wake him up on time because I couldn’t wake up myself!

The compound usually serves as an adjective:

  • Do you have a backup copy of your site?
  • I lost the setup instructions.
  • The makeup exam is on October 1.
  • Marathon runners have insane workout programs.
  • Watch out, he’s a pickup artist.
  • Hit the wakeup button!

Or the compound can serve as a noun:

  • I wish I had a backup of my site.
  • That was a setup.
  • She puts loads of makeup on her face.
  • That workout makes people vomit.
  • There’s been a pickup in business.
  • What time is wakeup?

What’s the big deal?

You might wonder why we flip out over stress the importance of accurate grammar and usage. Well, there are a couple of reasons …

  1. You look silly or unprofessional when you don’t get it right. Don’t think the proofreading police aren’t watching. They are. And they never sleep.
  2. Great writers not only struggle with their words and getting ideas down on paper accurately, but with fine tuning everything — including their usage.

Sharpening the saw in the small stuff is a healthy habit for writers … no matter how long they’ve been in the business.

So, any time you think you might be using a word incorrectly, look it up. You’ll keep people from laughing at you, and get a little smarter in the process.

About the author

Demian Farnworth


Demian Farnworth is Copyblogger Media's Chief Copywriter. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.

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Comments

  1. Grammar is very important indeed I must say!

    As I was reading each and every comparison you made here, my mind was even getting confused to decide what I used to do while forming a sentence!

    Thanks for correcting me at some places there. Great useful tip from CopyBlogger once again!

  2. Great post! I am working on writing my first book, and I look for advice like this a lot. Most of the time I think I know the correct usage, but I usually do a quick search, just to be sure. There are definitely places where I inadvertently make a mistake, and then catch it while proofreading. I don’t always find these errors though. When posting something I can’t edit or revise (like comments on a webpage), it haunts me. I always feel as if the grammatical errors in my posts will expose me as a fraud. I am still learning to accept that what I am is a writer, and that the mistakes will lessen and fade with practice.

    • The best piece of advice I ever got about this was to look it up if you are ever in doubt. Of course, what you don’t know can hurt you, but this is also how we learn. So don’t be afraid if you make one mistake. Just don’t make it twice. :D

  3. I wish you had included “log in” and “login” in your list of “compound and verb phrases.” I see those terms misused constantly. The former is a process and the latter is a thing (or sometimes an adjective, as in “login credentials”).

    Useful article, Demian, but I fear that the folks who need it most won’t see it.

  4. Jive is also a ballroom dance. It’s kind of like swing dancing on crack. So it makes a leeeeetle sense to use it to mean “in harmony with.”

    Now you can feel better. :)

  5. Thanks for posting! I see many of these daily. Do writers need help sometimes? Of course. One of my favorite sources is the Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab). Terrific resource when my brain elects not to remember 5th grade grammar.
    Using poor grammar is like showing up to the board meeting naked. It just isn’t cool. It is also one of the fastest ways to undermine your authority in a blog.
    And Kevan? I love Allie Brosh also. Hold your breath – it seems she’s coming back!

  6. Awesome list! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rolled my eyes or cringed over reading copy with simple grammar mistakes (or hearing them in commercials!). I can think of several more, but this is a good list of some of the most common ones.

    I’m personally trying to fix the use of Flyer vs. Flier. :P But I love that you included “A lot” vs. Alot. (*shudder*) and so many other great ones!

    Thanks!

  7. You also need to bear in mind your audience because in proper British English “jibe” is most commonly understood as meaning “an aggressive remark”.

    As to “jive”, it is way older than Airplane, which only dates back to 1980. As a dance you are looking at the 1930 and 1940s and, in the way it was parodied in Airplane, it has its roots going back hundreds of years but more recently was a 60s/70s thing.

    Tricky stuff, language..!

  8. I am a little older than the Corbain model, but recall the Police’s album (on vinyl) Synchronicity. An entirely made up word that won’t even bother my spell checker 40 years later. Never mind, in another few years it will be part of the language.

    Thanks for a terrific post!

    • Loved the Police, and if I remember that album correctly I think I loved it, but it wasn’t there best? Synchronicity is actually a word coined by Carl Jung, but WP or Word still don’t like it. :/

      • “but it wasn’t there best?”
        I hate myself for being such a pedant, even as I write this, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point it out.

        I like to think I’m pretty good at grammar and spelling but I find myself looking up spellings and definitions, or agonising over the placement of a comma or semi-colon, all the time.
        I loved the article, by the way, and I’m fully prepared to be shot down if I’ve made any errors in my comment.

        • Haha! Do comments counts? I make this mistake often enough that my wife made me a sheet (and laminated it) … I was annoyed. I know the difference between “there” and “their” but often don’t slow down to look at what I write in comments. :/

          • Ha ha ha! Note to self: Do not laminate “helpful hints” for your spouse, even if they involve crazy-annoying grammar errors. Got it. ;)

          • I love the idea of having a laminated cheat sheet. I might make one for words like “accommodate”, “recommend” and “commitment”.

    • First used in 1889, not made up by The Police. I loved that album as well.

  9. For your next grammar post, how about looking at when to hyphenate compound modifiers? Once you’re aware they exist, it’s hard to know when to NOT hyphenate. :) Great explanation of compound phrases, thanks for sharing!

  10. I have been under the impression that altogether isn’t actually a word in on the lines of alright and alot. Frankly, I haven’t had the opportunity to use it.
    Compound verbs and adjectives can trip you when you’re in a hurry to hit publish.
    Does it make me a bad writer if I look up online dictionaries every now and then? Some phrases/idioms are purely British or American and others – part of global English – that has the natives scratching their head in puzzlement.

    • If in doubt, look it up. I rely on online dictionaries heavily, and yeah the type of English used can trip up global readers. I was just reading an article yesterday by a guy from Surrey and befuddled on how he was using Google…”like Google have X, Y, and Z.”

  11. Now I have realized, how many silly looking mistakes I have already made.

  12. Great information presented in an easy to remember way. Something I will use everyday, oops I mean every day!

  13. Guilty as charged! Thank you for the comparison chart. Appreciate it. I will however, continue to use “ya know” and “gotta”, proofreading police or no. It’s my personality and keeps things on an informal level. Ya know what I mean?

    Jive is a language? Is that the native tongue of the Jivenians from the planet Jivenia? Was June Cleaver a Jivenian? Ya learn something new every day!

    Seriously, thanks for the info!~

    Donald

  14. It’s sad that such a valuable post only gets around 7 comments on it.

    I realize other Copyblogger posts seem to offer more direct financial promises and rewards if implemented correctly, but as an ex-English teacher I can’t tell you how vital correct grammar and spelling is in the business world. Without it, you risk your entire authority as a legitimate business (i.e. if you can’t spell “definitely” correctly, why should I believe you know what you’re doing with the other small details of your business?).

  15. Maybe I’m too judgmental, but I usually think that if a writer can’t bother to get his/her grammar right, or to use words correctly, the content of the piece can’t be very well researched, either. Sometimes errors may be attributed to poor proofreading, but other times they arise from just plain laziness. Homonyms are in a category of their own, too. If a writer is in a hurry, it’s easy to think “their” and type “there.”

    • You are so right. It’s like wondering if he’s not careful on this small stuff, can we trust him with the bigger stuff? Might seem small to some people (I’ve fallen in that category before), but it adds up. Thanks for the great comment.

  16. The others haven’t responded yet because they’re still checking their own blogs for today to see how many of these errors they made.

    And correcting them, of course.

    I thought it was an excellent post, serving as a lesson in some cases and a reminder in others.

  17. Thanks! This for me is one of your most useful posts!

  18. Hmmm…I could have put some commas in that last comment! :)

  19. Thank you for clarifying so many brain teasers that have tripped me up on many pages.

    I do see a missing “d” under “Compound v. verb phrases”, in the first paragraph. “Use” should be “used”, but this in no way detracts from your article or professionalism. I hope it can be edited and this comment deleted :) I used to be a proofreader.

  20. Given that this article is online, I can’t believe you didn’t include “log in” and “login”! This one drives me crazy because I see it misused all over the Internet (as well as books on websites, etc.).

    • Great point … there were a lot I didn’t include because once you know the rule, and see a few examples, you don’t need to see every example, but login would’ve been appropriate. I guess I just wanted to say “that workout made me vomit.” ;)

    • Seconded! Being instructed to “login to’ a site makes me want to close the window immediately. Great post Demian.

  21. Good article about the beauty of the English language. The sound alike words are the biggest challenge. I disagree that a grammar mistake here or there will take away your authority. It makes you human. Professional proof readers do not catch every mistake. If your copy is riddled with mistakes though, you do lose credibility. Thanks for sharing.

    • Here or there, no, but over the long-run it can lead to feelings of distrust. As Carol Buchanan mentioned above, grammar mistakes can suggest that the writer is not careful enough, is too hurried, and if he’s sloppy with grammar, is he sloppy with research, evidence, and ideas? Or that you even care. You might not bleed to death from a few mistakes on a blog post, but over time I think it can erode authority.

  22. Great post with so many common mistakes that I have seen people make all the times, Informal words make the writers look so unprofessional, unfortunately, people used to forget that writing language is different from writing language. Thanks for sharing with us mate.

    • Some of those informal uses were new to me (altogether, for example), but conversational language is okay over all. You know, there are times when you really need to start a sentence with “and.” Right?

      • I agree that there are some informal that I do think I personally like to use to start a word such as
        Also but sometimes I cant use it at all because my editor does not want to see sentence like that :D.

  23. Oh my god! How very informative. I make those mistakes everyday in every email I send (including mails to top executives). Sometimes it also throws off the spell checker with outlook. Examples like “it’s vs its”, “your vs “you’re”, “affect vs effect” always throw me off and the tools are of not much help either. Any pointers on how to make it better to catch those before those email go off?

    • For it’s and its simply try substituting “it is” and see how it sounds. If it works use “it’s” all others use its.
      The next one, your and you’re is similar to the first one–substitute “you are”. If it fits use “you’re” all others use “your”.

      Affect and effect are a little harder, but not too. Affect is a verb and means “to influence” or “to touch the emotions” and effect, as a noun, means “result of an action or antecedent” and as a verb means”to produce” or “to cause” Source: “Hodges’ Harbrace Manual 14th Ed. Copyright 2001

  24. My 11th grade English teacher always said that “a lot” was a place where you build a building and to never use “a lot” in place of “very much” or “many.” That was a long time ago though, and it is apparently a more accepted word combination today. There are a few occasions I find that it is almost unavoidable.

    Thanks for the great article; I’ll be sure to share it!

    • The trick is to avoid the errors that can make you look not-so-smart without turning into your 11-th grade English teacher. Because no one really wants to read anything your 11th-grade English teacher wrote. (Don’t get me wrong, I loved mine.)

      You can write conversationally without making errors like alot. But finding that balance is sometimes tricky.

      • I don’t know about that, Sonia. My 11th grade (or was he 12th?) English teacher was also a freelance writer that worked for (among other publications) Soldier of Fortune magazine. I ran into him twenty years after graduating high school when we both wound up at Ft. Dix covering Desert Storm in 1991 or 1992.

  25. Very neat article! You learn something new everyday.

  26. It was this year that I learned about “jive/jibe.” I guess if you’re not a sailor and everyone else makes that mistake, it’s an easy one. Now I feel like an idiot every time I mispronounce it.

    • There are words that just fill me with terror, and “jibe” is one. Even after I’ve looked it up to double check it, I just rewrite the sentence. Post-usage-error trauma syndrome, I guess.

  27. One of your other words has an “Airplane” reference.
    “It’s an entirely different matter altogether.”
    All, together: “It’s an entirely different matter!”

  28. Wow, you hit on a whole lot of my pet peeves in one glorious post! Thank you. The ones that drive me craziest are the misuses of the compound verbs/nouns/adjectives. I, for one, never backup my hard drive — but I always have a recent backup available.

    Maybe some time you could write a post about the misuse of dashes in compound adjectives. . .

    Susanna

  29. Thanks Demian you’ve given me a reason to forever misuse use Nevermind.

    For now on i’ll consider it a tribute to Kurt Cobain.
    Who knows this could have been part of the Genius that made Nirvana great.

    There was something else I was going to say about the post regarding grammar usage but, nevermind.

  30. This post is a great reminder for me to slow down when I write. :)

    I know I’ve made mistakes with every day vs. everyday and setup vs. set up. Sigh. Like you said, “Even as a seasoned writer, I’m not immune to making simple but stupid mistakes.” This is why reading your content out loud is important. You’ll catch your mistakes. ;)

  31. “Great writers not only struggle with their words and getting ideas down on paper accurately, but with fine tuning everything — including their usage.”

    Better: Great writers struggle not only with their words, but also with fine tuning….

  32. Yes, comments too. Thanks for the reminder.

  33. Yep, a few of those definitely look familiar though I must confess – to my knowledge – in my entire life I have never used the word “jive” in a sentence. One other thing that creates havoc for writers is cultural language differences. I review books on a fairly regular basis, and the UK authors are regularly getting thumped by US readers for “poor” English when in fact the terms they use are normal for UK audiences.

  34. My inner editor (I call her Picky Patty) goes bonkers whenever I see “every day” compounded incorrectly. I’ve noticed it in national ads of major companies, too. So much so that, I fear that the incorrect usage will be perceived as correct by the masses. Like reverse training of good grammar. Shudder…

  35. Ah for the days of “don’t pay him no nevermind.” Although come to think of it, I’ve never actually said that. Probably comes from reading too many historical romance novels. . .

  36. Thanks for sharing this. One of the saddest developments in the social media and internet age is the lack of attention paid to spelling and grammar. I really don’t think this is progress. Blogging, tweeting and facebooking should not be an excuse for poor grammar. I agree that you should adapt your writing for the web, but I don’t believe it’s right to dumb down standards.

  37. It’s all good, but there are times when I think it’s better to let your hair down a little. I’m currently rewriting content I wrote for an insurance company awhile back. They are now launching a site targeting blue collar workers. This time I’m using a lot (not alot) of slang and making some minor grammatical errors that are commonly used in everyday (not every day) speech. I also write for the Australian market, so have to be sure to spell correctly (labour, not labor).

    • Totally agree about loosing up rigid language, and going conversational, but that’s not the same thing as making grammar mistakes and misspellings … you can be grammatically correct (for the most part) and let it swing (as Sonia would say).

  38. I’m getting the feeling that Cobain meant “Nevermind” in the correct sense of the word and was laughing at us all for thinking he got it wrong. ;) This was a great list post!

  39. Oh I loved the web comic…really…alot!!! I have worked as a copy editor/proofreader often over the years, and regardless of squiggly lines, I just love my trusted dictionary; online or hard copy! I actually love this stuff. And yes, hyphenated words, dashes, e-mail vs. email, and then there are em dashes, en dashes and ellipsis. So much material to choose from or rather from which to choose!

  40. I tend to agree with Rob S. It is great to try to keep it grammatically correct as much as possible, but only if it doesn’t keep someone from writing at all. I am more of the mind, you don’t have to get it perfect, just get it going…

    • I agree, and you can learn on the way. But you need the fundamentals down first, otherwise nobody is going to take you seriously. You’ll look like a spammer.

  41. This is a very insightful article for me since I am not a native English speaker and the beginner in blogging. I already noticed where I could have made mistake earlier. Some words are so similar that we don’t usually take time to look up the right meaning. Personally I’ve never really used “altogether” word. I am happy I learned new stuff here.

  42. Great post. I know I’m guilty of making occasional errors. I’m a careful writer, but sometimes the online world of writing moves fast. It’s easy to miss little errors from time to time.

  43. Great article. You learn new things on Copyblogger everyday. Keep them coming.

  44. Very useful for a non-native copywriter :D

  45. People have become so relaxed about spelling and grammar, and seem to easily overlook and forgive common errors we all learned in elementary school. But they are important or you start to lose credibility and yes, look silly! We all make mistakes, but thank you for stressing the importance of proper spelling and grammar!

  46. Haha! I love the part about the proofreading police always watching. :D I’m very attentive to grammar and think I annoy people with my corrections, but now I have a funny reason to back it up.

  47. That’s funny. I used the word “jibe” correctly in some copy once and my client insisted it was a sailing term. She wouldn’t let me use it.

  48. That darn Cobain…

  49. Thank you Demian. Your post is really helpful.

    I was wrong with never mind every day (intended pun). :)
    Compound v. verb phrases is also useful.

    I guess these mistakes have more to do with the way we interact and get influenced, the way you mentioned about Nirvana.

  50. I believe as long as your “theme” or “design” is mobile friendly, you are in the clear. Although now you will have to take in account differences between two designs that offer more “SEO” worth. That could be simple things like using proper Canonical tags, schema markup, and code that passes W3C tests.

  51. William Harrison :

    Demian,
    Great piece. Everyone else is commenting on the content. What I love, though, is that you go ahead and call call out the numbskulls.”
    How many otherwise intelligent people do we all know can’t be bothered to look it up, and who assert confidently that grammar doesn’t matter because they are too busy? One bad error in the wrong place does so much more damage than a weak handshake ever did. Numbskulls.
    Thanks for a good refresher. Will bookmark and send my first-year college students to your article for the instruction.

  52. Great read, I always have to proofread more than once to make sure that I didn’t make some of the errors mention above. The funny thing is I almost made some in this comment LOL.

  53. Samantha Clark :

    Demian, I rarely comment on posts (because I usually just grab Brian’s ear and tell him what I think). But this, I have to say, is one of my favorite posts on one of my favorite topics. Big ups.

  54. Good piece! But in your last paragraph, I would use “anytime” instead of “any time.” :-)

  55. Great post Demian! I read this post just it time. I commit these blunders too many times, and I am always worried not to commit grammatical blunders on my blog. Interestingly, these are errors that are easily made. I hope to be able to remember all you have said.

    Thank you for the post.

  56. Thanks for those Demian – great read.

    I’ve just realised this weekend that I’ve been doing ellipsis all wrong on my blog text. I’ve been using more than 3 dots and was told this weekend that it’s only ever 3.

  57. Here’s another that you don’t see as often but I’m sure you and many of your readers have seen: “expect” and “suspect”.

    I remember more incidents of this in the spoken word than in the written word. However, I did see it on a blog today. Hence this post.

    “While I am pleased to have used [product] and cork insulation on my home, I suspect that [product] will find its way into my next project.”

  58. This post reminds me of my teacher telling me that English is a hard language to master, I thought to myself that English is not that hard. Well, now that I have read this post, I was wrong.

    Thanks for sharing

  59. What’s funny is I think of Nirvana every time someone makes that mistake.

    JR

  60. Hi There! Loved this post:)

    Quick question about the compound vs. verb phrases.

    When is it appropriate to hyphenate?

    • In all the examples above, do you don’t have to hyphenate ever. I’m working on a totally different post on when you should hyphenate in other instances.

  61. The proofreading police are watching and are waiting to call you out. My stepmother will read my post and then text me the corrections. These are important to know!

  62. Here is how one of my favourite bloggers deals with her
    rage at the confusion between “a lot” and “alot”:

    http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com.au/2010/04/alot-is-better-than-you-at-everything.html

    She pretends that “Alot” is the name of a creature.

  63. A wonderful blog. I am a teacher and learners often confuse usage of these compound words. Some people confuse use of words such as “its” instead of “it’s” due to recklessness. Some forget the grammar rules too soon. In most cases, people write wrong words instead of correct ones and usually, when they use correct ones, they cannot differentiate with the confusing phrases. Thank you for identifying with these sections.

    I have also noticed that the other most misused punctuation mark is the apostrophe. People confuse it a lot in writing yet in most cases they sound so perfect in spoken.

    Keep the good work up.

    Omaya

  64. Thanks for these clarifications. They are so helpful!

    I have a question…what about flip out? I notice you have it stricken…is it never appropriate to use? And while I’m asking, what is the official stance on using, “freak out”?

    I refer to the usage of both as nouns, not adjectives.

    I realize there are other ways to describe a freak out or a flip out…but those would require longer verbage which, in certain circumstances, can take away from the essence of a sentence or passage because one or the other fits better than anything else due to tone and voice.

    Thoughts?