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.
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.