copywriting, editing, grammar, proofreading, writing tips

Top ten grammar hacks – seriously, can someone please explain that f*&^ing apostrophe?

Ever considered yourself the ultimate “grammar nazi”? Perhaps you’re wildly frustrated by the constant pedantic corrections of the obsessive “Oxford comma” user. Even those well versed in linguistic intricacies are sucked into hot debates about where and when sentence structure should be messed with. Is it the author’s prerogative? Are we just being lazy by not correcting them? I spent years being chastised for splitting infinitives, and using literally figuratively, so shouldn’t everyone else?

The wobbly fluid world of the English language is just not that easy to navigate, no matter how many by-lines you boast. As a team of writers, we are putting our hands in the air in joint exasperation.

We decided to pull together our top ten grammar hacks to help you get it right. We even touch on where to put that dreaded apostrophe (though we are acutely aware how many books have been devoted to attempting to get to the bottom of it).

Where to plonk the colon… or was that a semicolon?

Firstly, we love that there is a website devoted entirely to explaining this, with some excellent examples. As the website purports, there are many varied and appropriate differences between the old dot, dot and the comma, dot. The key thing to remember is that a colon is used to create a pause before new information is introduced (such as a list), whereas the semicolon is used to break up a sentence (kind of like a supercharged comma).

Be active… unless you mean to be passive

This one can be incredibly frustrating. The active voice is more direct. It gets to the point more efficiently. It also gives control to the actor in the sentence. It gives the author authority. We recommend that when you are writing for business that you try to stick to the active voice. The exception is style. The passive voice can be a lovely tool for subtly illustrating a point.

Choose a tense and stick to it

It must have been so easy for the educated in the days of yore. You knew exactly which tense fit in which situation. Today, things are a little more complicated. We experiment with tense depending on the purpose of our content. A lot of the time, it actually doesn’t matter which tense you choose. What matters is that once you’ve chosen that tense, you stick to it. That is of course until there is a reason to change.

Confused yet?

Where do I go? Or was that me?

Many grammar enthusiasts get wildly frustrated when a person uses ‘me’ instead ‘I’. Strangely, this writer’s pet peeve (yes, I am very aware I should not have one) is when people do the opposite. This is a classic case of overcorrection. People have clearly become so concerned that they’ll appear uneducated if they pop ‘me’ in the wrong spot that they avoid using it all together. As a general rule, you can use ‘me’ whenever something is happening to, for, with, at you. If you are the object of the sentence, then it is appropriate to use ‘me’. If you are the subject or actor in the sentence, then you should use ‘I’.

The same goes for whom. Sometimes, it’s who.

As Monica so hilariously pointed out in Friends all those years ago, sometimes it’s who. This is another situation where overcorrection has only served to confuse us all. The trick is knowing who is the object and who is the subject. Here’s a little clue for you: ‘me’ and ‘whom’ are generally used in the same spot. ‘Who’ is always the actor. “Whom” is the object.

How many commas do you really need?

There is really no hard and fast rule about commas. Some people love to break up their flow with a comma, some don’t. The trouble is, the comma serves so many purposes, it makes it hard to know which rule you should be adopting. As a result, it really comes down to style and intent. Commas can add a lovely rhythm to prose. They can also make the sentences sound choppy and disjointed. The key is to work out your approach and as always, stick to it.

How does one split an infinitive anyway?

For those totally lost, when a grammar enthusiast disdains that they have once again broken the cardinal rule of grammar, ignore them!  Sometimes, splitting an infinitive is the best way to effectively get your point across. What is an infinitive? It is the uninflected form of a verb. For example, to walk, to jump, to see. What people mean, when they talk about splitting that infinitive, is when you place an adverb (the word you use to describe the verb) in-between the ‘to’ and the action. If it makes sense, by all means, avoid doing this, if only to save yourself from having to explain. But, like many of these ‘rules’, it’s not nearly as steadfast as some would have you believe.

Seriously, where do I put that apostrophe?

Simon Griffin wrote the hugely entertaining book ‘F*&^ing Apostrophes’ in an attempt to clarify things. The apostrophe and its role in language can be so frustratingly confusing that Griffin is right to infer that it does inspire a foul-mouthed response. The most discouraging thing about apostrophes is that you do have to get it right. If you pop one in the wrong spot, this tiny punctuation mark has the power to change the entire meaning of your sentence. Oxford Living Dictionaries has a great piece on apostrophes, and if you are at unsure, we recommend you bookmark this page.

Who, that or which?

Here, catch this spanner! ‘Who’, ‘that’ and ‘which’ all have traditional roles. Depending on where you live, the rules will change. British English suggests one rule for ‘that’ and American English suggests another. What about us poor Australians, stuck in the middle of the debate again. One thing to remember is ‘who’ generally refers to people and ‘that’ and ‘which’ to things. It really comes down to a preference of style.

Whatever you do, be consistent

English is a changing beast. Rules that were hard and fast years ago, now hold little weight today. You can experiment with language to find the style and tone that suits your purpose. Play with rules and disrupt the status quo. The only rule we think everyone should stick to is consistency. Once you’ve made the choice, stick to it. If you jump between styles, you really will confuse your reader. So, unless that is the intent, please, be consistent.

 

copywriting, editing, proofreading, sub-editing, typos, writing tips

Don’t let silly mistakes spell the end of your credibility

We’ve all been there. You’ve spent hours working on the perfect pitch or article and in a proud state of exhaustion, you publish without a second thought. Only then do you, and all your colleagues and followers, realise that you’ve made some key mistakes. Mistakes you could have easily fixed. Mistakes that just chip away at your credibility as a knowledgeable resource in your field. Mistakes I can help you avoid.

I have created a basic checklist that should help you avoid some of the common mistakes. Use it wisely.

There vs They’re vs Their

It is so easy to mix these up.

There has a number of meanings. It can be an adverb, a pronoun and adjective or a noun. It generally refers to a place, but not always. For example

My cup is over there.

Is there anybody out there?

My cup there is empty.

We’re going over there.

Their is a possessive adjective. This means it is indicating that you own something. For example

You can borrow their ball to play soccer on Thursday.

They’re is a contraction. This means it is a shorter way of writing they are. For example

They’re coming over for dinner after the game.

If you would like a more detailed explanation, read this article on E Learn English Language, which explains it all in more detail.

Loose vs Lose

This is an incredibly common mistake, which can fundamentally change the meaning of your sentence.

Lose is a verb to describe the loss of something. For example

I lose my keys if I don’t leave them in the same place.

Loose is an adjective to describe the opposite of tight. For example

When I lose weight my trousers become loose.

Desert vs Dessert

Mixing these two up could be the difference between a delicious chocolate mud cake and eating sand.
Desert has two meanings and two pronunciations. The first is a noun describing a dry, baron land. The second is a verb to describe abandoning someone or something. For example

I thought I found an oasis in the desert, but it was just a mirage. 

A loving mother does not generally desert her child.

Dessert has just the one meaning. It is the noun to describe the tasty treat you have, or shouldn’t have, at the end of a meal. For example

My husband forgot to share his chocolate dessert with me because it was too delicious.

You’re vs your

Your is a possessive adjective. This means it shows that you own something. For example

Did you bring your book to class?

You’re is a contraction. This means it is a shorter way of writing you are. For example

If you’re going to go for a walk in the rain, I suggest you bring an umbrella.

Everyone’s favourite pedant Ross Geller explained it his way when breaking up with Rachel.

The dreaded apostrophe

The apostrophe is a mean and complicated beast. Knowing where to put it can have even the most engaging writers stumped. There are many ways to use and misuse the apostrophe and Scribendi have written a really comprehensive article on the proper use of apostrophes. One of the most common mistakes people make is in relation to plurals. Plurals that are not possessive do NOT require an apostrophe. For example

I play football on Thursdays.

Don’t let your computer do all the work

By all means use tools such as spell check and grammarly. Please don’t let that be your last line of defence. The great thing about these tools is that they will often pick up on major mistakes or incomplete sentences, but they will never be able to pick up your intent. You need to read over your work to make sure you haven’t altered your intent with a well-spelt typo.

Is your spell check on the right region? It’s easy to forget that even though we are speaking the same language, sometimes our spelling is specific to our country.

Read it aloud. If it doesn’t sound right when you speak the words, chances are, it’s wrong. Reading it aloud will give you a realistic feel for the rhythm and feel.

Finally – NEVER PROOF YOUR OWN WORK.

Even experienced editors and proof-readers follow this rule. When you are personally invested in the content it is so much harder to pick up the small mistakes. Always ask a colleague or friend to give your work a once over, just to make sure.