Category: Writing Tips

Jan 09 2017

Writing Tips for January 9, 2017

From Facebook on January 3, 2017:

One way to make sure what you’ve written makes sense is to read it out loud. Sometimes our physical ears can pick up on something our “silent reading ears” miss.

Big words won’t make you sound smart if your audience doesn’t understand what they mean — you’ll just sound pretentious. Make sure you know who your audience is so that you don’t overestimate them — or underestimate them!

Singular “they” can be grammatically correct, but it may not be acceptable depending on where you’re writing for. Always check to see if there’s a style guide, and if need be you can ask your editor!

Do you have any tips and tricks you’d like to share? Let me know via the comments here! You’ll get credit when I share it with the world!

Sep 12 2016

Writing Tips :: Semicolons and Colons

This is a topic that I am not going to delve into too deeply today, but there are a few simple rules that I want to outline briefly.

A colon (:) draws attention to something and is most often used to set off a list or an example. It basically says “look at this” and it either separates two independent clauses (so you could change it to a period and it would make sense) or sets off a list, as below.

I finished the grocery list yesterday: eggs, milk, and bread are definitely on it!

I learned something new today: hummingbirds are really territorial!

A semicolon (;) is different from a colon. It still draws attention to something, but you shouldn’t use it instead of a colon. Rather, you can use it to delineate items in a list (particularly if one or more of the items uses commas) or use it to separate a dependent clause from an independent clause.

I had several stops to make before I could go home: the toy store for a birthday present for my niece; the shoe store for a pair of sandals and some new sneakers; and the grocery store for eggs, milk, and bread.

I have always loved to read; one sign is that I usually have more than one book on the go at a time!

I could get into more detail about how to know which to use, but this brief explanation is enough for now. Don’t neglect these two wonderful pieces of punctuation; they are often forgotten or used improperly, and it’s truly a shame!

Jul 11 2016

Writing Tips :: Plural vs Singular

If you have more than one of something, that is plural. If you have just one of something, that is singular.

I know this seems really simple, and it is; the thing is, there are little rules that apply when you write about more than one thing.

For example, you do need to pay attention to your verb conjugation. I touched on this in the verb conjugation post back in January.

You also need to make sure you pluralize your nouns properly. Most words can be pluralized by adding an “s” to the end, but some are irregular in this regard. For example, moose = moose; goose = geese; man = men; child = children; and mouse = mice. Meanwhile, noose = nooses; can = cans; and house = houses.

Adjectives don’t need to be adjusted, though. “The green tree blew in the wind.” is just as correct as “The green trees blew in the wind.”

It’s funny how things that we think of as being really easy can turn out to be really difficult!

Jun 13 2016

Writing Tips :: Commas

A few years ago I realized that I was a chronic comma-over-user. Since most of the things I edit are written by people who have the opposite problem, I didn’t really notice it until someone else pointed it out to me. Now I check whenever I want to put in a comma. They aren’t always necessary, though there are a few instances where I will always add them.

Commas and lists

Commas are great in lists because they show where each list item ends and begins. I can take a grocery list like this:

eggs
milk
cheese
macaroni

and turn it into a sentence like this:

I need eggs, milk, cheese, and macaroni.

Commas and ‘and’

One mistake I see a lot is people putting a comma before the word “and” no matter what. That’s actually incorrect. “And” is a conjunction, so it is often preceded by a comma, but it isn’t always necessary. Also, while I am a fan of the Oxford Comma (the comma that goes before the last item in a list — see my above grocery list for an example), you do have to be judicious about where that final comma really goes.

Let’s take a couple of examples.

I closed the door behind me and checked my pockets to make sure I had the keys.

Sarah wrote her name at the top of her paper, opened the test booklet, and began to answer questions.

Billy wasn’t sure he wanted to go on the airplane because it was so loud, and besides, he didn’t need to go to Florida anyway.

Okay, so the first example doesn’t need a comma before the “and” because the two actions are connected. The second example does because it’s a list of actions. The third example does because “and besides” is an interjection; if you took out “besides” you might not need the comma!

Commas and ‘but’

“But” is also a conjunction, but it almost always has a comma before it (like in this sentence).

The computer started to boot but it hung on the loading screen, as usual.

The cat was purring loudly, but its bristling tail indicated its discomfort with the situation.

Commas for breathing

The most interesting advice for commas that I have ever been given was to put them in where I expect the reader to breathe. That’s not actually how to do it, but it’s an interesting idea and why I’m adding it here! If I did that, I would probably use commas even more rarely. I think if you’re going to do this, you should save it for when you’re writing dialogue.

In reality, the proper use of a comma (aside from marking items in a list) is to indicate the end of a clause. A clause is part of a sentence that has a subject (the noun that the sentence is about) and a predicate (the verb and something about the subject). There are two types: independent and dependent. An independent clause can be its own sentence, but a dependent clause can’t. So a comma (often with a conjunction) is used to connect two clauses. You can connect an independent clause with another independent clause, or you can connect an independent clause with a dependent clause (the dependent clause can go before or after the independent one, but you don’t need a comma if you put the independent clause first). Here are some examples:

Peter drew a tree, and it was green. [Independent clause, Independent clause]

Sally ran home with her new puppy. [Independent clause Dependent clause]

Although the bell rang on time, Faith stayed in her seat to finish her work. [Dependent clause, Independent clause]

Clear as mud, right? Happily I am here to help! If you need help understanding commas in your writing, fill out my contact form and let me know!

May 09 2016

Writing Tips :: Apostrophes

The apostrophe is a great piece of punctuation. It can show possession and it can show when we’ve eliminated letters from words, things like that. So let’s get down to it.

Possession

For a single person (or thing), you want to use an apostrophe-s to show possession: “Sally’s shoes were brown.”

If the word ends with an s but is singular, you don’t have to use the apostrophe-s but check with whomever you are writing for because which is correct depends on what has been decided by the higher-ups, assuming they care. (People often don’t care about punctuation. It’s sad but true.)

For a group of people (or things), the apostrophe goes after the s: “The clowns’ shoes were red.”

If the word doesn’t end with an s but it is still plural (like “people”), you use an apostrophe-s: “The people’s voices rose and fell in the train car.”

And just to be confusing, the word “its” (without an apostrophe) is already possessive: “Its food was in the bowl.”

Eliminated Letters

Here’s a list of a few examples of this. I’m sure that as you look around you’ll see where apostrophes have been added in place of other letters.

do not = don’t

continued = cont’d

Saskatoon = S’toon

you will = you’ll

I hope this has been enlightening for you — good luck with your future use of apostrophes!

Mar 14 2016

Writing Tips :: Parentheses

Have you ever heard the phrase “parenthetical remarks”? That basically means that the remarks aren’t the meat of the message but could still be important. In writing, we can use parentheses to enclose an interjection, a clarification of some kind, a list, or even an entire sentence or group of sentences. Which you use when, and how you punctuate them, is what we’re going to cover today.

Like I often do, let’s look at each situation using examples. Examples make it easier to understand a concept and how to apply a technique.

First up: interjections. In dialogue we would use em-dashes (—) to set these apart but in prose it makes more sense to use parentheses.

Sally had on a pair of walking boots (they were last year’s fashion but still quite serviceable), grey woollen socks, and a pair of worn denim overalls.

Note that the punctuation that belongs after the word “boots” goes after the closing parenthesis. This is because everything inside the parentheses applies to the boots, and if we take all of that out our sentence is still a perfectly good sentence.

Next up: clarifications. Sometimes these are things like acronyms, and sometimes they are statements.

The staff are all required to obtain First Aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification as soon as possible (i.e., within three months of hire).

Here we get a note that “CPR” stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation as well as clarification that “as soon as possible” actually means “before the probation period is up.” This is important information but is not essential to the overall message of the sentence, so it is in parentheses.

Moving on to lists! Lists can seem tricky at first because they include commas or semicolons between the items, but if you remember the rule I gave for interjections you’ll do fine.

The shelves in the closet held a lot of board games (e.g., Sorry!, Clue, Candyland, Twister), but The Game of LIFE wasn’t there.

See? Easy! The punctuation that goes with “board games” goes on the outside of the parentheses, but you have commas between the names of the board games themselves.

Okay, one more. How do you use parentheses to enclose an entire sentence or group of sentences?

Someday Cathy will learn the truth. (She won’t like it when she does, but she will.)

Just like that! See how the parentheses enclose the entire sentence, including its closing period? That’s because it’s a separate sentence from the one it’s responding to. This is great for asides in prose, because you can give the most important information in a really straightforward manner and then make snarky comments in parentheses afterward. (Not that I ever do that. Really. Okay, maybe a little bit.)

And that is your crash course on using parentheses! I’m sure I missed something, but these rules should stand you in good stead for most of the times you might need to use them. Go forth and make parenthetical remarks!

Feb 08 2016

Writing Tips :: When to capitalize nouns

Okay, story time: When I was in grade eleven, we wrote a lot of personal essays for English class. One was supposed to be about something we believed in. I worked pretty hard on mine and wrote about Santa Claus. I capialized a lot of words that didn’t really need to be capitalized.

On the day we were supposed to get our papers back, the teacher said he was very sorry but partway through reading our essays he had to stop and take a long break because one of them was really hard to understand.

That essay was mine.

I still got a good grade, but he wrote on the back that “it is customary to provide an industrial-strength Tylenol with an essay such as this” (not a direct quote, but you get the gist). Sorry Mr Moore! I didn’t mean to give you a massive headache!

So there are rules for writing that are meant to help keep things clear. These rules have to do with punctuation, spelling, grammar, and capitalization (among other things). The rules for capitalization are pretty simple: you capitalize the first word of a sentence, and you capitalize proper nouns.

Proper nouns are actual names of people, places, or things. So you capitalize “France” (a country is a place), “French” (a language is a thing), and “Francois” (a name of a person). You don’t capitalize “city” (it is too general), “knife” (again, too general), or “girl” (too general). (You do, however, capitalize “That Girl” but only when you’re talking about the TV show, so again it’s a specific thing.)

Here’s an example with a word I often see capitalized incorrectly. I will provide examples to show you the correct uses of capitalization depending on the way the word is used.

  1. The doctor read the patient’s chart.
  2. Dr Solomon was an expert geologist.
  3. Doctor Who is correctly known as The Doctor because that is his name.

Here’s another rule you should observe — the one I totally ignored when I wrote that essay I opened with: do not use capitalization to provide emphasis. That’s what bold and italics (or even ALL CAPS) are for. Capitalizing a word that is not a proper noun gives it undue importance and will cause your reader to wonder just how and why it is that important. Save everyone the need for industrial-strength Tylenol and leave the extra capitals in your keyboard, where they belong.

Jan 11 2016

Writing Tips :: Conjugating Verbs

If you’ve taken French, you’ve conjugated verbs. You can do this in English too.

Let’s have a go at a common verb.

To Eat
I eat
you eat
he/she eats
we eat
you eat
they eat

It’s important to make sure you use the right form of a verb in your writing. If you say “I eats the cookie” you’re probably Cookie Monster. It’s important to note that the ‘s’ on the end of “he/she eats” doesn’t mean more than one person is eating.

To Be
I am
you are
he/she is
we are
you are
they are

How about a couple more?

To Go
I go
you go
he/she goes
we go
you go
they go

and

To Sing
I sing
you sing
he/she sings
we sing
you sing
they sing

It’s not too hard to make sure you got the verb conjugated correctly, but sometimes it can be confusing. If you’re not sure, ask around and double-check that your sentence is written clearly!

Dec 14 2015

Writing Tips :: Verbs and Tenses

When you’re writing it’s important to decide on a tense and then stick to it throughout your work. It’s really confusing for a reader if the text jumps from being in past tense to being in future tense and then back again.

The three basic tenses are past, present, and future.

Past Tense: He jumped on the dog.

Present Tense: He jumps on the dog.

Future Tense: He will jump on the dog.

There are a couple of other types of tense that you may need.

Perfect Tenses use the verb “to have”:

Past Perfect Tense: He had jumped on the dog.

Present Perfect Tense: He has jumped on the dog.

Future Perfect Tense: He will have jumped on the dog.

Progressive Tenses use the verb “to be” and conjugate the main verb with the -ing ending:

Past Progressive Tense: He was jumping on the dog.

Present Progressive Tense: He is jumping on the dog.

Future Progressive Tense: He will be jumping on the dog.

Perfect Progressive Tenses use both the verb “to be” and the verb “to have” and conjugate the main verb with the -ing ending:

Past Perfect Progressive Tense: He had been jumping on the dog.

Present Perfect Progressive Tense: He has been jumping on the dog.

Future Perfect Progressive Tense: He will have been jumping on the dog.

Most of the time you just need the basic first three tenses, but it’s good to know about these other ones, just in case. Can you think of times when you might need to use each of these tenses in a piece of writing?

Nov 09 2015

Writing Tips :: Redundancy

Redundancy is when you repeat yourself.

There are times when you need to repeat yourself. For example, you might be writing an essay, in which it is common practice to state your thesis in the introduction paragraph and then restate it in your conclusion.

I would argue, however, that you never need to repeat yourself in the same sentence.

What this means is that if your sentence begins with “Also,” “As well,” “In addition,” or a similar word or phrase, you really do not need to use a different one later in the same sentence. By which I mean, a sentence like “In addition, the guests ate chocolate covered strawberries as well.” Another example: “For example, students might need to bring a notebook, pen, and textbook to class every day, to name a few items.”

Notice how awkward these sentences are. That’s because there are redundant phrases. In the first one, you could remove either “In addition” or “as well” and your sentence will be clear and concise. In the second, remove “to name a few items”; if you want to talk about these things being just a few of the things they may need to bring, you should just rewrite the whole sentence: “A few items students may need to bring to class include a notebook, pen, and textbook.” What you do with that sentence really depends on the context — what the other sentences in the paragraph say. (Since I made it up whole cloth, I can’t really put it into context. Sorry.)

Keep an eye out for potential redundancy in your writing; eliminating it will keep things clear for the reader!

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