Hey, all! I feel like I’ve been severely neglecting this blog, and I want to apologize because that is not my intention. I’ve just been busy working on some creative writing projects, some non-fiction as well as reading as much as I can so I can better update this very blog! I promise (though I feel like I say that all too often) that I will get to a new, thought-provoking (at least I hope) post soon, but for now I thought I’d compile a fun one based on a few things I’ve learned as of late. Working as a proofreader, I’ve spent a lot of time agonizing over words and punctuation. I have a BA in Literature and have been an English/Literature enthusiast since grammar school. However, years and years of writing, rewriting, revisions and editing surprisingly do not prepare us for all the grammatical errors we will encounter in later life. Proofreading has also taught me that grammar is ever-changing.
I consider myself pretty affluent in spelling, grammar and punctuation but I’ve been knocked off my high horse many times for having such thoughts. There are certain things in the English language that I just never really gave a second thought to, or as it is in many instances, have just been doing wrong all along. And while the internet is a great resource for correcting errors, one will find that it’s hard sometimes to get the various sources to agree on the same topic (will the MLA, AP and CMS ever agree?!). This has led me to another discovery: grammar is not only evolving, but also way more flexible than one might think! Sure there are plenty of “rules” in grammar (and many that can often be broken in creative writing–with sufficient knowledge of them first), but there are also plenty of instances where the writer has much more control over what to use and how to use it; That’s where the “fun” part comes in.
So, as I’ve been going along I’ve been taking note of certain grammatical tips that I find interesting, and many I’ve made notes of as a reminder myself to keep a keen eye for–not only in proofing, but in writing as well. (Can we skip the part where we go back and count how many I’ve goofed on in these prior two paragraphs?–I’m still learning!!*) I’ve decided to share the notes I’ve made on here, as both useful tips for myself and for anyone who reads this. I’m going to try my best to put these in some kind of readable order, but bear with me; I’m working from notes I’ve jotted quickly in passing. This is, of course, just an abridged version of grammar and syntax tricks and tips and there’s much more out there to learn on the topic. Below the entry I will include all of the sources I look to most for further reading. That said, here are my notes:
**Keep in mind, these rules are strictly for American English, many of them will differ in British English, etc.**
Our Friend (and Foe): The Comma
- The Oxford/serial comma boils down to a matter of taste. I suggest always using a serial comma when listing names, especially when crediting them with a piece of work, so no one feels as though they’re lumped in with another person or that two people worked as a team instead of individually. (e.g. “Kevin Mitchell, Jonie Watson, and Michael Tulley,” and especially when only last names are used, so it doesn’t end up sounding like a law firm!)
- While listing inanimate objects, it’s okay to omit that extra comma: “please pick up milk, butter and bread.”
- However, it is best to drop in a serial comma in order to eliminate any ambiguity/confusion: “I’d like to thank my parents, God and my cat” (your parents have some mighty interesting names) does not read as well as “I’d like to thank my parents, God, and my cat.” But remember: it is always best to be consistent. Oh, and about that whole AP dropping the Oxford comma for good debacle? Just a misunderstanding. Here’s a great article all about it, as well as all about the comma itself.
- Do not use a comma to replace the word “that.”
Colons v. Semi-Colons
- A semi-colon is used to separate two main clauses that are closely related to each other, but could stand on their own as complete sentences.
- The purpose of a colon is to introduce or define.
- Do NOT use a capital letter after a semi-colon, unless it is followed by a proper noun.
- The semi-colon and the colon are the only two punctuation marks which should be placed after closing quotation marks when they follow a quoted text.
- After a colon, more often than not, the following sentence should start with a capital letter. A few exceptions to this rule include: if the independent clause is a quote, if the explanatory statement is more than one sentence, if the introductory phrase is very brief, or if the second clause expresses a rule.
Santa’s Helpers a.k.a. Subordinate Clauses
- Subjunctive: “Wishful” sentences call for the subjunctive mood of the verb “to be,” so the right choice is “were” instead of “was.”
- The subjunctive “were” is hypothetical in meaning and is used in conditional and concessive sentences and in subordinate clauses after verbs like “wish.” The form is “were” for all persons.
- “Was” is used when supposing something that might be true, but it all depends on the context of the sentence.
- Conditional mood: Indicating a conditional state that will cause something else to happen. Marked by the words might, could and would.
- Concessive clause: A subordinate clause which refers to a situation that contrasts with the one described in the main clause. For example: “Although he was tired, he couldn’t get to sleep.”
- Subordinate (or dependent) clauses are groups of words containing both a subject and a verb, but cannot stand alone as a sentence. Some examples include: if, although, as, because, since, though, unless, whenever, whether.
Em Dashes, En Dashes and Hyphens–Oh My!
- The em dash is an elongated or double dash: “—“ or “– –“ (it should be the length of the typed letter “m”). Always use in formal writing as opposed to a hyphen (“-“).
- Spaces should typically not be used around an em dash but can change based on dramatic emphasis or the publication it appears in.
- The en dash is a shorter dash, but longer than a hyphen: “–“ (it should be length of the typed letter “n”). It is only used to denote amount of time or numbers (e.g. “the years 2001–2006,” “April–May”).
- Do NOT use the en dash with the word “from,” instead use the word “to.” For example, you would write “from April to May” as opposed to “from April–May.”
- Apostrophes ONLY indicate a contraction or possession.
- Apostrophe after names that end in “s”: Classic pre-CE names only need apostrophe, not ‘s. The same goes for names ending with a z-sound (Adams’), and for plural nouns (e.g. cats’, boys’, men’s). But in most other cases, “‘s” is correct. The idea is to convey the notion of possession without creating an awkward pronunciation. Though this can be chalked up to a style choice.
- Possessive of singular nouns ending in an S or Z sound are usually formed by adding ‘s, unless the next word begins with an S or Z sound.
- When writing out an abbreviated version of decades: the apostrophe should only go BEFORE the first number, and nowhere else!
- The apostrophe at the beginning of the number should be pointing in the direction of the omitted numbers, it should look almost like a small number 9: “ ’80s”
- Possessive of plural nouns ending in an S or Z sound are formed by adding only an apostrophe, e.g. churches’.
- Collective nouns are nouns that describe a group, such as “family,” “band” or “couple.”
- When you are thinking of the individuals within the group as separate things, use a plural verb. (The couple are travelling home in separate cars.”) However, when you think of it as a single unit, use a singular verb. But there is no real rule attached to using was/were with collective nouns.
- “None” can be singular or plural. It can mean “not one” and followed by a singular verb, or it can mean “not any” and take a plural verb.
- “Somewhere” is classified as an adverb, but actually has a noun-like function.
- The phrase “somewhere where” is not necessarily superfluous since “somewhere” can be an antecedent of a relative clause (e.g. “where”).
- The word “farther” indicates physical distance, while “further” is used metaphorically.
- In certain cases, “further” and “farther” can be used interchangeably, but if you can’t decide which to use, you’re safer using “further” because “farther” has some restrictions.
- Avoid using wordy phrases in place of “because.”
- “Internet” is capitalized because it is a proper noun referring to a specific network, “website,” however, is not.
- “Web” as a proper noun can be either.
- Dropping the “had” in “had better” is acceptable only in speech or recorded language.
- The word “yet” is what’s known as a coordinating conjunction. Others include: for, nor, but, or and so.
- “i.e.” stands for “that is,” while “e.g.” stands for “for example.” I.e. is used to further clarify a subject, while e.g. introduces examples. Example: “Michelle likes reading old mystery novels (i.e. And Then There Were None and The Hound of the Baskervilles).” These are the only two novels of the genre she likes. “Michelle likes reading old mystery novels (e.g. And Then There Were None and The Hound of the Baskervilles). These are just two of the mystery novels she likes.
- The word for this punctuation mark “?!” is called an interrobang.
And just remember: it is always important to BE CONSISTENT. If there’s anything to take away from this it’s the one major rule of writing, consistency comes first. So, if you choose to stick to an MLA-approved style while writing, make sure you don’t waver between that and Chicago style. If you want to include the Oxford comma in lists, do so every time. It can be a pain to have to go back and check every time, but it’s worth it for the end result of having an intelligent and eloquently written piece of work. Hope this helped in some way even if it was a bit scattered! I promise to have a part two when I encounter even more grammar tips! The links for all your writing needs are below the cut.
*I’m kidding, of course. Actually, if anyone who’s read this would like to point out any errors in the body of this text, please feel free to comment and chide me. Grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling–it’s all fair game! Sometimes the hardest work to edit is one’s own, so I’m completely open to fixing my errors and learning in the process. Also, if anyone wants to point out any errors, updates, or other ideas and suggestions in the notes I’ve made, please do so! I’d love to hear what everyone has to say!
Here are the sources that have helped me along the way: