Updated August 2012 — LWJ2
Listed below are some of the most common — or irritating — usage mistakes I've run across in years of reading. Note that many of these are homophones, words which are spelt differently, mean different things but are pronounced the same.
Therefore, if you use pour instead of pore to describe your character reading very intently, your Spill Czech will not pick it up. And yes, that was a deliberate typo, which will also pass through a spell-check analysis. So after running your work through a spell check, you still have to proof read it.
The definitions are mostly my own, you can get the general idea from them.
Alter: to change something, i.e., He altered the settings on the radio.
Altar: Located on sacred ground, a part of a religious ceremony, i.e., The priest approached the altar.
The apostrophe: used to indicate a contraction, i.e. can't; or a possesive, i.e. Hitler's limousine. NOT used to indicate a plural. Smith's is the singular possessive. "John Smith's car." Smiths is the plural. "The Smiths left their house." The plural possessive uses an apostrophe at the end, i.e. The Smiths' house.
Principle: Primary, main, a firm belief, i.e., A man's principles are the foundation of his character.
Principal: A key portion or individual, i.e., Joe Doakes is a principal in the firm of Doakes, Smythe & Jones, LTD.
Pouring: emptying a vessel of it's contents. He poured coffee from the pot.
Poring, to pore: to study or contemplate. The scholar pored over many old manuscripts.
Prone: to lie on one's stomach, face down.
Supine: to lie on one's back, face up.
Your - something you own, i.e., Your favorite tea mug.
You're - contraction of you are, You're scheduled for your dental appointment this morning.
There: A geographical location.
Their: The possessive form of they. Can be singular or plural.
They're: A contraction of they are.
Aide/Aid: An aide is an assistant, a physical person. An aid is something that helps someone, not a person, "...with the aid of a chisel"; or the verb to aid; viz., "He aided them after the accident". "Joe Smith was Motchenfotch's principal aide."
Council: A governing body or group of people, viz.: a County or City Council.
Counsel: To advise, also used to refer to an attorney, viz.: Counsel of Record, Defence Counsel.
Here: A physical place.
Hear: What one does when a sound is made within a certain distance, the processing of auditory input by the brain.
Cloth, cloths: fabric used to make garments,or something one uses to wipe down a bar or scrub a floor.
Clothes: items used for apparel generally made of cloth.
Breathe: to inhale air, i.e., He breathed deeply.
Breath: what one inhales, i.e., He took a deep breath.
Knew: present perfect or past perfect tense of the verb know, viz.: He knew they were liars.
New: unused, fresh, viz.: There were new potatoes on the menu or The clothes were new.
Peak: the top, i.e., They climbed to the mountain's peak.
Peek: to view or look sureptitiously, i.e., She peeked between her fingers.
Heal: to cure, to become healthy or whole.
Heel: the posterior portion of the foot just below the ankle, also os calcis or calcaneus.
Roll: a small loaf of bread or the motion of movement, tumbling, moving in a circular manner, generally on the ground. Also applied to cooking/baking, viz. "He rolled out the dough."
Role (also rolé): a part in a play or motion picture.
Planned: past tense of the verb "plan", i.e., "They planned to go to Venice."
Planed: past tense of the verb "plane", i.e., "The joiner planed the door smooth."
Plain: from the dictionary:
1. clear or distinct to the eye or ear: a plain trail to the river; to stand in plain view.
2. clear to the mind; evident, manifest, or obvious: to make one's meaning plain.
3. conveying the meaning clearly and simply; easily understood: plain talk.
4. downright; sheer; utter; self-evident: plain folly; plain stupidity.
5. free from ambiguity or evasion; candid; outspoken: the plain truth of the matter.
6. a geographical feature, viz, an extensive, basically flat area of land or sea bed.
Stationary: un-movable, not moving; frequently used to refer to large machinery, i.e., stationary machinery.
Stationery: writing paper, envelopes, et c.; goes back to the term for speciality printers known as stationers.
Horde: a large mass of people, usually with fell intent, viz: A horde of barbarians.
Hoard: to store something, hold something closely, the place where something is stored in such a manner, i.e., The dragon's hoard and She hoarded information as a bee would honey.
Shear: to cut, frequently with scissors
Sheer: steep, i.e., a cliff face is sheer
Do: verb, i.e., He had to do his chores, Their homework was done.
Due: adjective, i.e., The utility bill is due on the 15th. Due to unique circumstances ...
Starred: This sneaks through Spill Czech. It's a sort of verb, as in He starred the critical items on the list. It's most frequently a typo for:
Stared: Past tense of the verb to stare.
Now on to newspapers and geography; something which really annoys me is that newspapers are constantly mis-identified — which probably puts me at the top of the column under "anal-retentive." I'm the ugly one with the moustache in the photograph, just in case you decide to look. The white-haired lady next to me is Dr. Grover, my high-school English teacher; my aunt is next to her. Don't mess with the lady, she worked for the Internal Revenue Service.
First, it's The Times not, I say again NOT the "London Times" or "the Times of London." Second, the New York Times is NOT "the Times." It is the New York Times. The same applies to the Los Angeles Times — although that rag is generally called "the LA Times," for which I am thankful. I realize most American readers have probably never known the proper names, however, if one is writing, one should at least do minimal research. And yes, I'm well aware that denizens of the metropolitan New York City area routinely refer to the New York Times improperly. That does not make it proper or correct. The New York Times, well aware of their limitations, does refer to itself properly.
Second place, coming up fast in the clubhouse stretch, is bad geography. Again, research. In this day and age, the internet can easily show a writer an overhead or map of almost everywhere. Prior to that, street maps of major areas were — and still are — readily available. One of the errors that still stands out in my mind was the author who had a rendezvous set at "35th and E NW" in a Washington DC-based novel. It doesn't exist; extending lines from those streets leaves one on North Kent Street between 19th Street and Wilson Boulevard in Arlington VA, not far from the Potomac River. If you're not writing a contemporary novel there's still no excuse, historical maps are available for some areas through Google Earth, there are references on-line for other locations. It isn't difficult. And editors, beta-readers — the same are available to you also. I can understand an unpaid beta-reader not doing that, but a professional editor? There is no excuse for muffing something like that when the information is so readily available at no or minimal cost.