Top 3 spelling errors

As you can imagine, during my 20+ years working as a copy editor and proofreader, I’ve come across a lot of typos and spelling errors. Here are a few of the most common mistakes and some tips on how to avoid them:

“It’s” vs. “its.” This one can be confusing, not to mention challenging to remember, because we’re so used to using an apostrophe to indicate the possessive. In this case, “it’s” is the contraction of “it is” and “its” is the possessive. So when you’re reviewing your copy, ask yourself if you mean “it is” or the possessive. Examples: It’s too bad she wasn’t able to come out tonight. The tree was at least 10 years old, and this was the first time its leaves had fallen in October.

Using “weary” when you mean “wary.” Believe it or not, I’ve seen this one a number of times. “Weary” (tired) being used when the writer means “wary” (cautious, suspicious, on one’s guard). A good way to remember this is “wary” rhymes with “scary”—and both have similar spellings. Examples: They were weary from travelling, so they stopped for a coffee and a snack. They were wary of their luggage getting lost, so they arranged to take carry-on.

“Then” and “than.” “Then” refers to a specific time, or introduces something that happens next. “Than” introduces a second element in a comparison. Are you talking about when (which also rhymes with “then” and has similar spellings) something happened or are you comparing things? Examples: We stopped for a coffee then continued on our journey. This trip was a lot more fun than the last trip we took.

That’s all for now. As always, it’s good to have someone—preferably a professional proofreader or copy editor—check your work before you hit Send or Print on that document.

Happy writing!


Cathy (Cate) McKim is a storyteller with the soul of a cowbell—direct, succinct and whimsical. Through tight editing, powerful writing and a voice that keeps people listening, words with cowbell delivers words that captivate, engage and inspire. Cathy is also the creator and editor of one of Toronto’s most popular arts blogs, life with more cowbell. What can she do for you?

Spell check is useful, but not guaranteed to save your copy

As I was setting up the background info and links in advance of writing my life with more cowbell blog post on Soulpepper’s upcoming production of It’s A Wonderful Life, I noticed that spell check was taking issue with my spelling of “It’s.” Spell check recommended “Its.”

Spell check was wrong about this common spelling mistake.

“It’s” is an abbreviation of “It is,” as in “It is a wonderful life.”

“Its” is the possessive of “it,” as in “Its life was wonderful.”

While spell check can be a useful tool to catch typos and grammatical errors, it’s (and that’s correct, spell check) far from perfect. So when spell check offers an alternative spelling, don’t automatically assume it’s right and you’re wrong.

Since I work mainly with Canadian clients, I use the Oxford Canadian Dictionary. Think of Canadian English as a hybrid of British and American English—“colour” and “centre,” but “organization” and “analyze.” And if a client has a style guide, I also use that as a reference. So spelling will be dictated by the client’s country of origin and any custom style conventions—conditions that spell check may not recognize.

Yet another example of why you need another pair of human eyes on your copy.

Happy holidays—and happy writing!