Marketers break grammar rules with catchy slogans and tag lines all the time. Unfortunately, those creative liberties have a nasty habit of bleeding into social media posts and updates – a place they simply don’t belong.
The season of renewal has arrived! After you scrub your floors, rearrange your tchotchkes, and clear your closet, take some time to spruce up your writing skills.
Whether you are a veteran or green to the writing scene, we all need a grammar refresher from time to time. Here are three quick tips for cleaning up your writing style this spring:
Modify Misused Words
Self-identified grammar nerds are irked when someone mistakes your and you’re or misuses affect and effect, but what about words that aren’t as obviously confusing? Scan your writing to ensure you don’t get tripped up by these tricky terms:
1. complement and compliment
- complement – to bring together or make complete
- compliment – a praise or polite phrase of adoration
2. desert and dessert
- desert – an arid geographical region; to abandon
- dessert – a sweet dish that is generally eaten at the end of a meal
3. e.g. and i.e.
- e.g. – for example
- i.e. – that is to say
4. hoard and horde
- hoard – a stockpile; to amass
- horde – a large group of people
5. regimen and regiment
- regimen – a prescribed course, such as in fitness
- regiment – a unit of military troops; to control
6. cite, sight, and site
- cite – to quote as evidence
- sight – the ability to see
- site – a particular location or area of ground
7. ironic – when what happens is opposite of what is expected
8. literally – a strict matter of sense; precisely or exactly
Then there are terms like irregardless and conversate, which rear their heads in everyday exchanges but aren’t recognized as standard words. For a heftier (and hilarious) dose of language crimes you may not realize you’re committing, read Buzzfeed’s summary of misused and made-up words.
Prune Your Prepositions
One of the easiest, yet overlooked, ways to improve your writing style is weeding out unnecessary prepositional phrases. These needless additions make long work of otherwise concise points.
- The judge’s opinion… vs. The opinion of the judge…
- My mother responded angrily to my question. vs. My mother responded to my question with anger.
- The thief stole her watch. vs. Her watch had been stolen by the thief.
- A storm is coming; please seek shelter. vs. In light of the coming storm, please seek shelter.
Tip: Use CTRL+F to search for prepositions in Microsoft word or your Internet browser. For a quick preposition guide, check out EnglishClub’s Prepositions Short List.
Stop Using Really. No, Really.
Overusing really is fine when you’re Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers on Saturday Night Live, but leave it out of your professional writing.
Instead of making this lazy attempt at emphasis, take the “less is more” approach. Note that removing really from all of the following sentences doesn’t change the meaning:
- She wanted to go on vacation. vs. She really wanted to go on vacation.
- This assignment is difficult. vs. This assignment is really difficult.
- I liked the steak. vs. I really liked the steak.
This isn’t to say accentuating the intensity of your words is frowned upon – far from it. But rather than funneling your ideas into empty words, go about emphasis using richer language that heightens the reader’s experience and doesn’t skate over details.
- She wanted a vacation more than a baby wants its mother.
- This assignment is as difficult as eating one potato chip.
- The steak was juicy and well-seasoned.
Do you have other suggestions for spring cleaning your writing style? Please leave your quick tips in a comment.
Being a stickler for grammar is not easy. Sure, you may have been that way for as long as you can remember, but I am sure that if you think about it, you will realize that it did take some work to get where you are right now. You started at some point. You learned – formal or not – one way or another. Good grammar may not cost you a thing in terms of money, but you do have to make a little bit of effort – at the very least – to ensure that you stay on top of your game.
As a writer, you have more opportunities to hone your grammar. However, you cannot overlook the possibility of becoming lax. You also have to deal with the fact that language is an ever evolving entity and that we have the responsibility to keep up with the changes. If we want to continue to be effective writers, then making sure that our grammar skills remain sharp should also be part of our list of things to do.
Here are some practical tips that can help you in this regard.
As Dr. Seuss wrote, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” While he probably was referring to knowing and learning about things other than grammar, we can easily use this concept as well.
I think reading can help improve grammar in two ways. One, it serves as a way to discover/remember rules and changes in usage. Of course, the key here is that you read good writers so that you can learn from them. Additionally, by reading the works of good writers, you can learn from their writing style and get inspiration as well! Two, reading helps in developing a critical eye. I do not mean that negatively, but instead, I mean that you can learn from the mistakes of others.
Stay faithful in the little things.
This may seem easy enough, but stop and think for a moment. With text messaging and chatting online, how often are you tempted to ease up on writing complete and grammatically perfect sentences? I will be totally honest and say that I do give myself a lot of leeway when composing text messages and instant messages. I have no excuses, but the more I think about it, the easier it is to go down the slippery slope of bad grammar if we are not faithful in the little things that we do on a regular basis. Am I being too strict?
Ask for feedback.
Feedback is a good thing. It really is! It may be difficult to receive feedback, especially if it is negative, but it is imperative that we open ourselves to constructive feedback. The need for feedback is not the sole domain of writers. It applies to practically any profession in existence, but let me just emphasize how important it is for us to welcome feedback when it comes to our grammar and writing style. More than merely welcoming feedback if it comes our way, I think we should also make it a point to ask trusted individuals to give constructive criticism now and then.
Do you have other tips you want to share?
Image via Glarkware
Readers of the grammar section of FWJ know just how tricky grammar rules and application can be. It is no wonder that a lot of people have developed an aversion to grammar. However, we cannot deny the importance of following grammar rules, especially for those who make a living out of writing. Now what if you had a quick reference guide that you can thumb through for the trickiest grammar points?
That’s exactly what I found in Matteson Claus’s gem of a book, 37 Things to Know About Grammar. Matteson is no stranger to Freelance Writing Jobs, as she has been following us for quite some time now. When she sent an e-mail informing us of her new book, we decided to take it for a spin. What better venue to talk about the book than Grammar Guide?
So what makes 37 Things interesting for writers? As the title implies, it is neatly divided into 37 sections. Each section focuses on a specific grammar point that can be particularly troublesome. Let me give you a few examples.
Does the term “pronoun antecedents” ring a bell? Here’s an excerpt which shows how the book treats this grammar point.
Pronouns are not spies. They should not have secret identities. On the contrary, it should always be clear what noun your pronoun is replacing. A pronoun that loses track of its noun is kind of like a child losing track of its parent. The pronoun gets confused and all sorts of chaos ensues. Unclear pronouns cause misery. Don’t believe me? Say you’re obsessed with dating a supermodel and you get this bit of news:
Yesterday, we interviewed Serena, the serial killer, and Giselle Bundchen, the supermodel, and she said that she thinks you’re hot.
Pronoun antecedents are so basic but can be easily overlooked. In order to get the message across very clearly, we do need to make sure that the nouns and pronouns match and that there is no ambiguity – as is seen in that example. Matteson Claus sums the idea up neatly: “If they are out to get you, it helps to know who “they” are.” Indeed.
Other items included in the book include the use of commas, parentheses, and dashes. You can also read up on the use of who and whom, among other commonly confused words.
To be honest, this book will not serve as a comprehenive grammar guide. In fact, the author will tell you herself that she does not intend her work to serve as such. Instead, she picked out concepts that often cause people trouble and presents them in a light manner. Indeed, the lightness of the presentation may not appeal to hardcore grammarians, but I believe that the treatment will go a long way with those who have an earnest desire to use proper grammar without feeling as if they are being slapped on the wrist. If you have a sense of humor, you will appreciate this book.
To give you more insight on the lightness of the treatment, take a look at some chapter headings.
- Who, that, and which, while pesky, are not worth any nail-biting
- There’s no need to feel bad because you become badly confused trying to do a good job using your adjectives and adverbs well
- OMG r u 4 real? IMHO u must 86 this habit B4U get axed
- Please be gentle with our wee brains separate each of your ideas clearly so our heads don’t explode
I have to say that 37 Things to Know About Grammar can be a handy – albeit limited – reference for those who consider themselves well-versed in the English grammar. To be honest, though, I would not use it as my main guide. I would definitely not hesitate to give out copies of this book to friends, though. I recommend checking it out.
You can buy 37 Things to Know About Grammar from Amazon.
If you want to know more about Matteson Claus, here is a video of her being interviewed on Good Morning Texas.
Parallel structure, or parallelism, is a basic concept that students learn in writing class. Over the years, we may forget the term, but the idea should continue to be applied. Whether you are writing for your personal blog or for a big client, avoiding faulty parallelism can help you get your point across more clearly.
I think parallelism comes naturally to most people. As humans who appreciate beauty and balance, we easily detect if something is off. Take a look at this sentence:
I like to play soccer and swimming.
You don’t need to spend minutes going over that sentence to realize that something does not match! It’s one example of faulty parallelism. Here’s a better way to write the sentence:
I like to play soccer and swim.
I like playing soccer and swimming.
This is a simple example of parallelism: do not mix gerunds (-ing) and infinitives (to do). Choose one and stick with it.
Parallelism should also be followed when it comes to verb phrases. The general rule is to make sure the verbs are conjugated in the same manner.
WRONG: Her boss got mad, called her to his office, and was screaming at her.
RIGHT: Her boss got mad, called her to his office, and screamed at her.
The same thing applies to the use of adverbs.
WRONG: Can you write quickly, concisely, and pay attention to accuracy?
RIGHT: Can you write quickly, concisely, and accurately?
These faulty parallelisms are easy enough to spot, but there is one thing I struggle with – parallelism in using the active and passive voice.
WRONG: The speaker started his presentation well. He told us that he would present the outline first, go over each point thoroughly, and that there would be a question and answer portion at the end.
RIGHT: The speaker started his presentation well. He told us that he would present the outline first, go over each point thoroughly, and set aside enough time for a question and answer portion at the end.
In general, you ought to be extra careful when you are writing lists (x, y, and/or z) and working with conjunctions.
I know it may seem tedious to pay attention to parallelism when writing, but it is way easier than parallel parking, don’t you think?
Photo by richardmasoner
There are certain words in the English language that I love to hear and say. “Splice” is one of those words. I don’t know why, but it just sounds so good to my ears.
This post, however, is not going to be about words that you like to hear. It is going to be about this thing called comma splice. What is it anyway, and why are some people so gung ho on avoiding it?
I woke up at 3 in the afternoon, I was not able to go to church.
The two clauses – one before the comma and the other after – can stand alone as sentences. That’s basically what a comma splice is: when you combine two independent clauses using a comma.
Why is a comma splice wrong?
To answer that, we need to understand how a comma is used when joining independent clauses. The rule is to use a comma before the coordinating conjunction that joins the two clauses. (Now there are actually exceptions to this rule.) In short, it is not a comma’s function to put two independent clauses together.
How do we fix a comma splice?
The most obvious fix would be to use a coordinating conjunction. Using the same example, we can tweak it and come up with:
I woke up at 3 in the afternoon, so I was not able to go to church.
Another way would be to simply separate the two clauses.
I woke up at 3 in the afternoon. I was not able to go to church.
It really is that simple. You may find yourself using a comma splice unwittingly, and truth be told, some of your readers may not even notice it. This error does not really get in the way of communication. However, providing error-free content is something that we should all be proud of. The next time you catch yourself using a comma splice, go ahead and quickly fix it!
Before I end, I want to point out that there are certain exceptions to this rule. In the next post, I will be sharing some cases wherein a comma splice is actually acceptable.