As we said in our previous blog, making mistakes when creating messages for digital signs can detract from the authority of your content and make your communication efforts seem less trustworthy than you’d like.
Below are five more common mistakes people make in writing today – verb-noun number agreement, using the correct pronouns, capitalization and punctuation, and often misused or misunderstood phrases. What’s listed here are the actual rules, insofar as English has any hard and fast rules, for writing in all contexts.
As you study these rules, you’ll also want to consider the specifics of digital signage messaging, which is a unique writing format. You need your text to be as succinct as possible while still conveying all relevant information. Current wisdom on the subject of message length is that 22 characters is the maximum for a single slide. So, for example, you might choose to use an ampersand (&) instead of the word “and” in a particular message in order to save space. Just make sure that’s a conscious choice you make and not an inadvertent mistake.
If it’s appropriate and interesting to your audience, you could even take these tips to create a series of fun, informative slides for your digital signs. Gamifying things could engage more people, with a “spot the mistakes” or “which is correct?” series that offers kudos or prizes for correct answers. You could reward the first few people who answer, or the most errors caught in a certain time period. This is a great way to see who’s paying attention to your digital signs.
1. Verb-Noun Number Agreement
The number of the noun (whether it’s singular or plural) determines the form of the verb.
- Suki has three cats.
- The cat chases the mouse.
- My friends have three cats.
- The cats chase mice all day.
There might be more than one noun-verb pair in a sentence, so make sure each corresponding verb agrees with its noun.
- An article I read describes how trade wars lead to more serious problems, and it uses the current attitudes both China and the US have to illustrate its point.
Some nouns are plurals, even though they look like they’re singular. These are sometimes called “trick singular” nouns. The words “everybody”, “everyone”, “nobody”, “neither”, “either” and “each” all use a singular verb.
- Everybody has to help out.
- Even though both people have a good track record in sales, neither is suited to the new position.
- Each of the people who applied was a good candidate.
The noun phrase “none of us” uses a singular verb when it means “no one” or “not one”.
- None of us is
Sometimes this is because the noun ends in -s, so it looks like a plural (but isn’t).
- Politics is in my blood.
- The company headquarters is in the Garden District.
Sometimes it’s a collective noun that refers to more than one individual.
- The team is the best in the league. (Note: in the UK, collective nouns for people are often treated as plurals, so “The team are the best in the league.”)
Compound nouns separated with the word “and” are treated as plurals.
- John and Aki work in the shipping department.
A common mistake occurs when there are words that come between the noun and the verb.
- The country with the largest number of self-driving cars is currently the Netherlands.
- The majority of workers wants more paid time off. (Yes, this sounds odd, but it is correct – the main noun is “majority”, not “workers”.)
- The CEO of the company, as well as his CFO and CTO, agrees with the proposal. (The part of the sentence after the comma is parenthetical. Only the main, non-parenthetical noun counts for the number of the verb.)
A singular subject uses a singular verb, even when other nouns are connected to it using “with”, “as well as”, “in addition to”, “except”, “together with” and “less than”.
- His appearance as well as his attitude is less than ideal.
- John, as well as Aki, works in shipping.
Again, this is a singular/plural issue. While no one would say or write “There is three people” or “There are a cat”, it’s becoming more and more common to hear or see things like “There’s ten people in our group”. The problem is that there’s is being used as a word in its own right, and not as a contraction for ”there is”. Simply rephrase it without the contraction, and you will see quite clearly when to use there’s and when not to. (No one would think “There is ten people in our group” is correct.)
- There’s a lot of space in here.
- There are a lot of people in here.
2. Proper Pronoun Cases
English has almost totally eliminated grammatical cases, except for pronouns. She is in the subject case, while her is in the object case and hers is in the possessive case. English compensates for not having extensive noun cases (like most other Indo-European languages do) by having a fairly fixed word order: SVO (Subject-Verb-Object). Subject pronoun forms usually go before the verb, and object forms usually go after the verb.
- I want to talk with her.
- She wants to talk with me.
- He wants to talk to her and him.
- Will Chen or he be hired?
- She gave it to Jane and me.
In more complex sentences, the same rule applies.
- The person who won was she. (Simply re-cast the sentence in a more standard form – She was the person who won – and it becomes clear.)
- The trainer gave some great advice to Hector and me. (Just eliminate the other person and it makes sense.)
Only use a reflexive pronoun, e.g. myself, if the subject and the object are the same person. And never use it as the subject of a sentence. (Yes, we’re repeating advice from our previous blog, but we see this a lot.)
- I did it myself.
- Who’s going to the meeting? Bob and I.
- NOT “The project was completed by Hector and myself”. It should be “The project was completed by Hector and me.”
- He did it himself.
- The problem will work itself
There is a strange new trend in written English to capitalize random nouns, and even other words. Writing a word in ALL CAPS can be a form of emphasis (e.g. I want to go TOMORROW), though some online readers still find this to be equivalent to shouting (an alternative is to use asterisks for emphasis, e.g. “I want to go *tomorrow*”).
English used to capitalize all nouns (like German still does) until a couple of hundred years ago. Today, common nouns are never capitalized. Never. Even though advertising copy may play with capitalization, the rule is to only capitalize proper nouns and adjectives that come from proper nouns:
- Henri Rousseau
- a Polish deli
- a Christmas present
- the French language
We still capitalize:
- days of the week
- holidays (Easter, Memorial Day)
- brand names
- company names
- musical groups (Led Zeppelin, Muse, The Who)
- artistic groups and movements (the Surrealists, Surrealism – note: this is beginning to change)
- institutions and organizations (Harvard University, the United Nations)
- governmental departments (Congress, but “congressional”, the Department of Agriculture)
- man-made structures and objects (the Titanic, the Washington Monument)
- streets and roads
- man-made territories (New York City, Dade County, Oregon)
- landmarks, both natural and man-made (the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Lake Eerie, Mount Shasta)
- collections of islands or mountains (the South Sandwich Islands, the Cascade Mountains)
- planets (but use lower case for “sun” and “moon”)
- time periods and many events (the Roaring Twenties, World War I, the Middle Ages), but not the names for centuries (the twentieth century)
- races and nationalities (but use lower case for “white”)
- religious and deity nouns (the Bible, but biblical; note that this is changing, and many people no longer capitalize the words “heaven”, “hell” or “the devil”)
- titles when used before a name (“Senator Blake Uffersly will talk at 4pm”, but “Blake Uffersly is a senator from Maryland”); sometimes the highest ranks of government, royalty, religion and so on will be capitalized as a sign of respect, so the President, the King, the Pope); titles are not the same as professions (director Martin Scorsese, comedian Bill Burr, chef Kristen Kish, professor Barbara Harbach)
Note that seasonal things (spring, summer, winter solstice, daylight savings time, etc.) are no longer capitalized.
While you need to capitalize in full direct quotations, you don’t need to in partial quotations. So, “She said, “I am really too busy to come tomorrow night,” but “She said she was “way too busy” to come.”
In the English-speaking world, it has become common practice to only capitalize the first word of a title. So, in the UK, for example, Agatha Christie’s novel would be Evil under the sun.
In the US, older formats still apply for titles. Always capitalize the following in titles:
- the first and last word of the title, no matter what they are
- all adjectives, adverbs, nouns and verbs (including all forms of “to be”)
- all pronouns (including “it” and “these/those/that/this”)
- “no”, “not” and the interjection “O”
- All proper nouns and names
Do NOT capitalize (unless they are the first or last word of a title):
- Articles (a, an, the)
- Coordinating conjunctions (and, or, nor, but, for, yet – but capitalize “because”)
- The word “to”, either with or without an infinitive
In the US, you’d generally see the Agatha Christie novel written as Evil Under the Sun.
There are different house styles and style guides out there, and some disagreement as to how to handle capitalization with other words. Some suggest capitalizing short conjunctions (like as, if, how) and others do not. Prepositions are another problem – the Associated Press Stylebook says you should capitalize prepositions longer than three letters (with, across, about), while other say only capitalize if it’s five or more letters.
When in doubt, there’s a free handy online tool to help you capitalize titles correctly for US standards: https://capitalizemytitle.com/. You can see your title using APA guidelines, Chicago Manual of Style, AP and MLA. You can also see if you have used capital letters correctly in a sentence using the same tool.
Though it’s common these days to simply use italics for all titles, there are actually some older rules that can be used.
Underline or italicize longer works:
- Long poems
- Album titles
- A book series (e.g. The Chronicles of Narnia)
- TV or radio series
- Longer musical compositions
- Works of art
- Video games
Use quotation marks (“ “) for shorter works:
- Short poems
- Short stories
- Books contained within a collection (e.g. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”)
- Book chapters
- Single episodes of a TV or radio series
There’s a lot out there about how to use and misuse punctuation in writing. Here is a bit of clarification on the most common punctuation problems that arise today.
Apostrophes are used for possessive nouns, like the book belonging to Akbar is Akbar’s book. They are not used for plurals. So, “Three Coke’s for Two Dollar’s” is a mistake, commonly known as the green grocer’s apostrophe and also as “apostroflies” (because they seem to land wherever they want).
Apostrophes should be used after the s with plural words that end in s. Just make sure the thing belonging to the plural noun is also plural.
- the book’s binding – a single book and a single binding
- the books’ bindings – more than one book, each with its own binding, so more than one binding (but not the books’ binding because that would mean all the book share one binding among them)
When a word is an irregular plural, show possessiveness by adding ‘s as in the women’s room or the people’s choice. However, when considering people’s names that end in s, you should use ‘s (e.g. Charles’s cat). An exception is if you’re referring to an ancient personage, in which case you can use s’ (e.g. Moses’ children – to avoid this, items like this are usually recast as “the children of Moses”).
The possessive pronouns yours, its and his, though they end is -s, do not need apostrophes since they are already possessive.
Apostrophes are also used to show contractions, as in do not = don’t. The apostrophe stands in for missing letters in sequence. So, rock and roll becomes rock ‘n’ roll – one apostrophe for the missing a and another for the missing d. Be careful of their vs. they’re, as we point out in our last article.
Hyphens are used to indicated that two or more words together are describing a single thing, and are used to create compound adjectives. They’re an aid for the eye to see that the words are not separate concepts .These come before the noun they describe. If the combination of words comes after the noun, they are not hyphenated.
- “a five-year-old boy” but “a boy who is five years old”
- “a pay-what-you-want scheme” but “ a scheme where you pay what you want”
- “we need a dog-friendly hotel” but “this hotel is dog friendly”
Do not use hyphen with words ending in ly, as in “freshly baked” – the word “freshly” is an adverb modifying the adjective “baked”, not another adjective. So, no hyphen.
When new compound nouns are coined, they often start life hyphenated, but over time the hyphen disappears as people get used to seeing the two words next two each other. This has happened most recently with the word “email”, which started life as “e-mail”.
Also, hyphens are not the same thing as dashes. A dash is longer and is used as a sort of emphatic parenthesis.
In the US, direct quotes are attributed with double quote marks (e.g. “ “). In the UK and much of the rest of the English-speaking world, they use single quote marks, called “inverted commas” (e.g. ‘ ‘).
The correct use of commas when writing a quote depends on where the quote appears in the sentence.
- She said, “I think we’ll see significant growth in the third quarter if we continue our current efforts.” (comma outside quote marks, period inside quote marks)
- “I think we’ll see significant growth in the third quarter if we continue our current efforts,” she said. (comma at end of quote, inside quote marks)
- “I think we’ll see significant growth in the third quarter,” she said, “if we continue our current efforts.” (a combination of the above two rules)
For a direct quote inside of another direct quote, use single quotes in the US:
- “He then turned to me and said, ‘Is that what you actually think?’ I mean, I didn’t know how to respond to that,” Bill told us.
In the UK, it’s exactly the opposite:
- ‘He then turned to me and said, “Is that what you actually think?” I mean, I didn’t know how to respond to that,’ Bill told us.
Never use quotation marks for emphasis. They can actually make something seem weaker than intended (like using “air quotes” in conversation). For example, if you write Take advantage of our “low prices” while supplies last, it seems as if the prices are not actually low at all.
Colons and Semicolons
A colon (:) is generally used to introduce an item or list.
- We need to do three things before the meeting: print the agenda, make copies, and place a copy at each seat.
- I have one word to say to you: plastics.
A semicolon (;) is used to join to independent clauses together; it’s sort of halfway between a period and a comma (not as strong as the first, not as weak as the second). An independent clause is a part of a sentence that could stand on its own as a sentence in its own right. This means it has its own subject and verb.
First off, you can just write the two clauses as two separate sentences:
- We have made great progress towards our mid-quarter goals. Yet there is still more work to be done.
But if you want to show that they are very closely related, you can combine them into a single sentence. There are three ways to do this:
- We have made great progress toward our mid-quarter goals, yet there is still more work to be done. (joined with a comma followed by a conjunction)
- We have made great progress toward our mid-quarter goals; there is still more work to be done. (joined by a semicolon, with no conjunction)
- We have made great progress toward our mid-quarter goals; however, there is still more work to be done. (joined by a semicolon, then an adverb, then a comma)
And or &
While the ampersand (&) means “and”, it’s not always an appropriate replacement for the word. In texts and on Twitter, it’s commonplace to use & instead of and, but this is not so elsewhere. You should never replace the word and in a sentence unless you’re referencing a title, an address, a brand name or some other proper usage of the ampersand.
5. Commonly Misused Phrases
There are number of sayings and idioms that are used so often that they border on cliché. Most marketing advice is to stay away from them, but they can actually be effective for something that’s short and succinct like digital signage messages. However, recent surveys have found that many of them are either used or said incorrectly, or are misunderstood. Here are ten of the more common ones:
- the exception that proves the rule – What this phrase means that the rule can be deduced from the thing or things left out. For example, if an office says Fridays are casual dress days, you can deduce that other work days are not casual dress days.
- I could care less – This is a mistake. What you are trying to say is that the depths of your apathy have been reached, and you couldn’t care less.
- out of pocket – This saying is about money. If you are out of pocket $30 because you’ve bought the office donuts, that means you spent that money and no longer have it. It does not mean you are unavailable or have no time.
- for all intensive purposes – The phrase is actually for all intents and purposes.
- one in the same – The correct saying is one and the same.
- first-come, first serve – The phrase is really first-come, first served.
- make due – It’s actually make do.
- do diligence – It’s due diligence.
- you have another thing coming – It’s actually you have another think coming.
- irregardless – This is not a real word; the word is
You will notice that we have not included all the various rules for commas here; this would take up far too much space. We’ll just mention what’s known as the Harvard comma in the US and the Oxford comma in the UK. This is the final comma in a list or series. These days it is often not used unless absolutely necessary.
- We need to order paper clips, staples, a hole punch, and three clipboards. (with the Harvard comma)
- We need to order paper clips, staples, a hole punch and three clipboards. (without the Harvard comma)
However, if items in the series also include conjunctions (like and), you will need to use the Harvard comma in order to be clear.
- I want toast, coffee, and bacon and eggs.
English gives you lots of choices – but you need to be consistent. Many institutions and companies adopt either the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style. AP is used by journalists and PR professionals, while Chicago is used by authors and publishers. Whichever you choose, or if you create your own set of internal rules and guidelines, just make sure you stick to it. Using rules haphazardly will cause audience confusion and negatively affect your messages’ impact.
And, if you’re ever in doubt about language or grammar, simply use your spellchecker or Google it. (Be careful of spellcheckers – don’t automatically accept every correction.) There are lots of resources online to help you out.
The important thing is to capture viewers’ attention, engage them and motivate them to action. With well-crafted messages for digital signs, you can do just that.