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Test Your Error-Finding Skills

Each of the three short passages below has one error in the choice of a word. Can you find all three errors? Test your skills.

Passage 1:
Bishara’s most recent position was principal designer for Barton and Bloss. In the interviews we conducted, his interviewers gave him the highest amount of positive comments compared with the other applicants. Regrettably, Dr. Su was not able to meet with him.

Passage 2:
During our vacation in Washington, D.C., we are looking forward to seeing the sites, especially the museums. It will be fun to visit awhile and enjoy our capital and its many treasures.

Passage 3:
Avoid ambiguity! When writing to individuals who do not speak your language fluently, use words with fewer alternate meanings, i.e., choose seminar, which has only one meaning, over class, which has many.

Have you made your choices? Below are explanations.


Passage 1

The word principal is correct. If you thought principle might be a better choice for “principal designer,” not so. The word principle (le) means only “rule” (le).

Regrettably is also correct. Dr. Su might have had to regretfully decline, but it was regrettable that she was not there.

The incorrect word is amount. Use number with things you can count, like comments: “the highest number of positive comments.”



Passage 2

The incorrect word is sites, which means “locations or positions.” It should be sights, things to be seen.

And capital is also correct when referring to a capital of a country, state, or province. Use capitol only when referring to the building in which the legislature meets. For the building where the U.S. Congress meets, use Capitol.  



Passage 3

The problem is i.e., which means “that is.” Example: “He works the graveyard shift, i.e., 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.” The test sentence required e.g., which means “for example.”

Fewer is correct with countable things: “fewer meanings.” Less would be wrong.

If you thought alternate was wrong, you agree with many strict grammarians, who believe alternative should replace it in the test sentence. Alternate implies a substitution: “When a delegate is unavailable, the alternate may vote.” It’s also correct for “every other”: “alternate Saturdays.” Alternative is the right word for something nontraditional (“an alternative newspaper”) or for a choice (“alternative meanings”). However, the rule is loosening, and some writers accept “alternate meanings.”


How did you do? Do you want to invest in your proofreading skills? Take my online self-study course Proofread Like a Pro.



Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

6 comments on “Test Your Error-Finding Skills”

  • Thanks for these occasional tests, Lynn, to keep us on our toes!
    I spotted and agree with all your corrections. But the use of “awhile” in this context would be unusual in British English, where we would expect to write “a while”.

  • Hello John,

    Thank you for letting me know “alternate” has become acceptable for “alternative” in some cases. Although I could not read the Polish, I checked my reference books and found one (“The Gregg Reference Manual”) that agreed with your comment. Therefore, I changed the original blog post. However, I would suggest that careful writers observe the difference between the words. The new “Chicago Manual of Style” still makes the distinction.

    Thanks for keeping me honest.


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