On Celtic Fairy Stuff
Preparing Your Canvas for a Watercolor Painting
Fabulous Fabrics Without Breaking the Bank
The Sun, Part II
Writer's Boot Camp: Punctuation Patrolby Megan Myers
If you ever write anything at all, knowing proper grammar is important. While it's true that Great-Aunt Edna, who can barely turn on the computer, won't care about your comma usage (or lack thereof) in an e-mail, you can bet a prospective employer will notice your inability to end a sentence in that cover letter.
We're not perfect. Before I became a grammar freak, I spelled 'definitely' wrong all the time - until a friend wrote it on a bar napkin and chastised me. Complete embarrassment does wonders for changing bad habits, but let's not have it come to that, shall we?
Sometimes it's hard to admit (or even know) your writing needs improvement. You can always ask for a harsh critique from a nitpicky friend, but knowing and using the rules of grammar and style will help you avoid that potentially painful situation.
First, take a look at the tools you use while writing. If you're coming up blank, that's a red flag. At the absolute minimum you should be using the spell and grammar checks on your word processing program. But that won't help you with incorrect word choice, publication-specific style issues, or many proper names. I once received a review that included mention of 'Neil Gaimon' - I was probably only the second person to see it, and I was still completely embarrassed. Knowing how to properly search for things on the Internet will help with names (but don't place all your faith on it), but for everyday language you should keep a good-sized dictionary and thesaurus nearby - not the pocket editions! The bigger the dictionary, the more words will be in it, and the more helpful it will be.
Now that you have the two most basic items, think about what and who you're writing for. Almost every publication, including online magazines, will have a specific style they will want you to use. You wouldn't turn in a term paper without using the format your professor wanted, right?
For the most part, magazines and publishing companies use the Chicago Manual of Style, while newspapers tend to use Associated Press style. The two are very similar, but knowing the specifics is a good idea, and all major bookstores carry the corresponding guides. There is also something called 'house style', which is a set of guidelines written specifically for that publication. Always ask if there is one, especially if you are dealing with a niche market publication.
The important thing is to actually use the style guides. Professional copy editors use them every day - even those who have been on the job for years.
You have the tools, so let's talk about the nitty-gritty details.
I think therefore, I am?
What did the comma do to deserve such wrath? The poor little guy has been tossed around for years without much concern to how it feels. There seems to be two groups of writers: those who don't use commas enough and those who use too many. In both cases, this is an easy fix. Read what you have written out loud, pausing where you have your commas. If you're gasping for breath, you need some commas. If your writing sounds more like Captain Kirk, ease up on that punctuation mark. Of course, this doesn't help you figure out where the commas should be. Here are some basic rules, as given to us by the Messrs. Strunk and White:
This brings us to the semicolon itself. While I hardly ever see this used incorrectly, it would seem that some writers love the semicolon so much that they can't bear to let the period in on the action once in a while. A sentence can be grammatically correct and still need revision, because who wants to read sentences that take up half the page? A period will not kill your prose, but a long-winded, rambling exposition with no room for air can kill any reader interest you might have cultivated earlier.
Sometimes it seems like apostrophes cause as many problems as commas. You've got possessives, plural possessives, contractions, and apostrophes used to show dialect. And with the peculiarities of the English language, it's no wonder people get confused.
A contraction is a word created from two, with the help of an apostrophe. The most problematic example is 'its' and 'it's'. 'Its' is a possessive, which causes many people to think there should be an apostrophe. Not so. 'It's' is a contraction of 'it is', and that's why the apostrophe is needed. If you have problems deciding which to use, say the full phrase with 'it has' and 'it is'. It will become clear immediately which the correct choice is.
Beware of words such as 'can't', which means cannot, and cant, which has many meanings, including 'a slanted surface' and 'monotonous talk filled with platitudes'. Also make sure you really want to use 'you're' instead of 'your', and 'they're' instead of 'there' or 'their'. Sounds like third-grade mistakes, but you'd be surprised at the rate they happen.
Possessives can be tricky, and this is where we also have to pay attention to style again. In most cases the apostrophe will go before the S in the word, such as parent's. On a plural possessive, it goes after the S, to make parents'. The tricky part comes in with words that already end in S. In some styles, it would be Tess'. In others, it is Tess's. This might seem like S's are being thrown all over the place, but the latter style makes most sense in terms of rule consistency. Of course, check to see which style you are supposed to be using before committing either way.
Em and en dashes
Most of you probably have no idea what I'm talking about here. An em dash is much like a comma, used to indicate a break in thought, add emphasis, or separate two clauses. Strunk and White say to use em dashes only when other punctuation—such as commas or parentheses-are not enough, but I like to also use them to add variety to my sentence structure. If you tend to write long sentences with many clauses, em dashes can help your writing seem less long-winded.
An en dash looks like a hyphen, but it technically is not. A hyphen is used for compound words or between syllables of words (like Kit-Kat); while an en dash is used to indicate a closed range, or to connect two words. Some examples include 1990-2000 and father-son trip. However, an en dash can be used like a hyphen in compound adjectives, when one part consists of two words or a hyphenated word (like 'pre-Civil War' or 'high-priority, high-pressure tasks'). Most of the time you won't need to worry about the nuances of en dashes and hyphens, so if you're confused, just focus on getting the other bits of your grammar fixed for now.
Next month we will cover word choice and usage, but there's one more thing I want to mention this month, as it is a large problem, especially on the Internet.
Don't use all capital letters. Ever. Not for emphasis, not for shouting dialogue, not because you just like how those big tall letters look. Don't do it. There are many other options available to you, and unless there is actually a real reason for using capitals (such as for an acronym), it just makes your writing look amateurish and lazy. And in writing for publication, that's probably not the effect you're going for.
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