Reporters should avoid common mistakes in word usage.

Following are a few examples of commonly misused words.

It's and its. If it is correct, it's going to have its apostrophe. More and more writers, even intelligent ones, belie their education and cause readers to question their ability to attend to details by confusing the use of it's and its. Some grammarians would consider denying the right to vote to those who can't sort out the difference!

It is simple, or, it's simple. It's is a contraction of the two words it and is. The apostrophe indicates that a letter is missing.

Its is a possessive—it describes something belonging to something. You can't judge a book by its cover. It's a good book even though its cover is tattered.

The reason people confuse the two similar words is logical. The problem is that the English language does not always follow logical patterns. Normally, apostrophes go after the thing or things that own something, indicating possession.

The book's cover was tattered.
The computer's hard drive failed.
The students' efforts were admirable.

It's is not possessive. It's the exception. In its case, the apostrophe means a letter is missing. Unfortunately, our language has many exceptions to the general rules. Professional writers, including broadcast reporters, should be among those who pay attention to the rules—and the confusing exceptions.

Even though the audience does not generally see your writing, other people in the newsroom do. To maintain the respect of your colleagues and others who may see your writing, pay close attention to the difference between "it's" and "its" and other uses of apostrophes.


Master the English language!


Hopeful/hopefully. What's wrong with this sentence? Hopefully, we'll know the answer by Monday. The sentence is grammatically incorrect because hopefully is an adverb that tells how we'll know. But we don't mean we'll be hopeful in knowing the answer. We mean we hope to know by Monday.

Incorrect: Hopefully, they'll know the answer by Monday.
Correct: Commissioners hope to know the answer by Monday.

Prayerfully is another adverb telling how. Replace the two words to understand the problem more clearly.

Incorrect: Prayerfully, we'll know the answer.
Correct: Prayerfully, we entered the cathedral.
Hopefully, we watched the final play of the game.

This misusage is such a common error that it sounds correct. Serious writers and journalists will make the distinction.

Affect/effect.  Affect is a verb meaning to influence or to stir emotion. Effect is most commonly used as a noun meaning the result of something. The pollution is affecting the health of the forest. The effect of the pollution in the forest is that trees are dying. The confusion in usage of these two words comes partially because effect can sometimes be a verb; however, effect is used correctly as a verb only when it means to bring about. The plan will be effected by monumental effort.

Dilemma. Consider this sentence: The mayor and city council are facing a dilemma—to cut taxes or to give tax refunds to voters. Because the definition of dilemma is having two options that are equally bad, the word is used improperly in this instance. The mayor and council may have a problem, but they are not facing a true dilemma. A true dilemma might be exemplified in a choice over whether to increase taxes or eliminate art and music classes from the city schools.

Number/amount. Just as you cannot have a number of mashed potatoes on your plate, you can't have an amount of baked potatoes on your plate. If it's something you can count, don't use amount. Therefore, protesters can show a small or large amount of frustration, but they don't leave a large amount of cans and bottles on the ground when they depart—they leave a large or small number of cans and bottles, but a small or large amount of trash.

Former/latter. Avoid using these terms. The viewer cannot go back and reread a story to be certain about the order of things. City council considered tearing down the old library, but another group of citizens offered to restore the building from private contributions. The vote supported the latter. By the time the viewers hear the last sentence, they probably won't remember which was the former and which was the latter.

Unique/unusual. Unique means the only one, different from all others. If something is unique, it has no equal. Therefore, something cannot be more unique or most unique—it's either unique or it's not. When something is rare, uncommon or strange, the word unusual may apply.

Literally/figuratively. Literal means following the exact words. If two people's hearts literally burned with passion, we would need to call the fire department-or probably the morgue. Likewise, if the audience literally exploded with laughter, we'd need a cleanup crew. However, the city council could literally bury their history by putting minutes of former meetings underground in a time capsule. The opposite of a literal use is a figurative one. In a figurative sense, two hearts can burn with passion and an audience can explode with laughter. Work hard to use these words correctly, but please don't literally die trying.

Their/there/they're. Their means "belonging to them." They lost their way. There is an adverb telling where. The protesters are over there. They're is a contraction for "they are." The apostrophe represents the missing a.

Meantime/meanwhile. Meantime is part of the phrase in the meantime. Meanwhile stands alone. Both refer to intervening time.

These are just a few examples of common mistakes in word choice. Pay attention to word usage, and make certain the words you are using are carefully and accurately chosen.