Today’s post introduces a new post category for the Aerie, "Writing." I hope this won’t be the only article in this category, but I do hope all are helpful.
I’ve also categorized this article under "Soapbox" because it is a rant, of sorts. Yes, I am going to put on my grammar nazi hat. Sorry, I hate to do this, but it really is for your own good. (Well, if you see yourself in any of the following, anyway!) Besides, as I tweeted earlier this morning, I’m feeling rather cranky today (no clue why, either), so I may as well get this stuff out of my system.
English is a living language, but it doesn’t have to be a zombie!
Now that I have you all worried and such, relax! What I really want to do today is (I hope) educate you about some common errors people make when blogging (or speaking). Nitpicky? Probably. And to the argument I know some will advance (as I have, elsewhere), "English is a living language," I simply respond, "But it doesn’t have to be a zombie language."
Enough with the preliminaries, already! On with the show!
The Serial Comma
Yes, I realize an entire textbook chapter could be devoted to commas, but I’m going to just talk about one use: the so-called "Oxford comma." This is also known as the serial comma or Harvard comma. There is a myth that putting a comma before "and" is always wrong. Well, that’s wrong. When writing a list, it is never wrong to place a comma before "and."
Don’t fear the serial comma!
- I invited Sargeras, Jaina, and Arthas to lunch.
- I invited Sargeras, Jaina and Arthas to dinner.
- Various color combinations I considered were red and white, blue and yellow, and purple and gold.
All three of those examples are equally correct. In fact, the third example becomes downright ambiguous without the final comma. Don’t fear the serial comma!
Colons and Caps
Many of us use the colon in our writing. I could be accused of overusing (and probably misusing) both the colon and the semicolon (especially the latter). It helps that I know how to use them, and generally do so correctly. One common error I see is with respect to capitalization following a colon: If what follows the colon is a complete sentence, then the first letter after the colon is capitalized. (See what I did there?)
If, on the other hand, your construction is a list, then the first letter after the colon is not capitalized (unless, of course, it’s a proper noun!). The following example is illustrative:
I settled on three colors for my new blog theme: white, dark brown, and light yellow.
An idiom is generally a phrase unique to a language, for which the meaning can’t be deduced just from the definitions of the words in the phrase. However, idiomatic phrases do depend on particular words to form the phrase correctly. Unfortunately, some people hear a phrase incorrectly, and it shows up that way in their writing. Here are some examples to illustrate what I’m talking about:
- Correct: one and the same Wrong: one in the same
- Correct: once in awhile Wrong: once and awhile
- Correct: couldn’t care less Wrong: could care less
- Correct: all of a sudden Wrong: all of the sudden (no, really…this is wrong!)
American English vs. British/Canadian English
We’re all aware that American and British English have different spellings for many words; e.g., color/colour, honor/honour, truck/lorry, elevator/lift.1 *grin* But there are also different grammatical conventions, of which most people are unaware. For example, punctuation inside/outside quotation marks: Note the location of the comma in the following sentences. 2, 3
- American: I tried to find unusual uses of "and," but I was unsuccessful.
- British: I tried to find unusual uses of "and", but I was unsuccessful.
The rule of thumb I endorse is, if you’re an American, write American English. If you’re British or Canadian, write British English. If you’re an American writing for British publication (for example, in the British medical journal, The Lancet) get a British copyeditor! (And if your internal spell checker prefers "copy editor" to "copyeditor," as mine does, it needs one. A copyeditor, that is.)
"However" is probably one of the most overused words in the language. It’s probably one of the most misused, as well. For instance, I remember being taught never to start a sentence with "however."4 You could probably convert all your phrasing where "however" begins a sentence to make it begin a separate clause, but that can be unwieldy. However, when you do use the word mid-sentence, there is a right and wrong way. The following example shows how to use "however" correctly:
I love peaches and apricots; however, I don’t care much for peach or apricot pie.
Note the preceding semicolon (not a comma or colon!) and the following comma: Those are the elements needed to make the construction correct.
Me, myself, and I
Hoo boy, this is a big one! Most people use "me" correctly, when they use it. The problem is, they often replace it with "I" or "myself."
- Correct: The last two people invited to the raid were my wife and me.
- Wrong: The last two people invited were my wife and I. Even more wrong: The last two people invited were I and my wife.
- Still wrong: The last two people invited were my wife and myself. ("Myself" wasn’t invited. I was invited. They invited me.)
- Correct: My wife and I were the last two people invited to the raid.
- Wrong: My wife and me were finally invited to the raid.
- Correct: The last person invited was me.
- Wrong: The last person invited was myself.
- Correct: I did it myself.
Me and… (doesn’t matter what else follows; this construction is already an epic failure)
Especially in constructions of two or more people, an easy way to figure out correct usage is to leave the other person(s) out of the sentence and see which sounds better:
- "Tom and me went out." "Me went out." Ergo, "Tom and I went out."
- "They asked Tom, Mary, and I." "They asked I." Hence, "They asked Tom, Mary, and me."
"Myself" is a little harder, because its misuse is so widespread that it sounds right: "They asked for a paladin and myself." Once again, if you leave out the paladin, "They asked for myself" seems stilted at best, and downright painful at worst. They didn’t really ask for "yourself," they asked for you. "Who, me?" YES!
Another way to help keep things straight is to avoid passive voice: Put the object ("my wife and I") in front of the verb. In other words, have the object of your sentence perform the action, rather than have the action done to them. Chances are, you’ll get the correct pronoun, and your writing will be more alive!
In English, infinitives are naturally split.
I’m going to keep this simple: Don’t worry about it, unless you’re writing in Latin. In Latin, you can’t split an infinitive: The language just doesn’t work that way. In English, though, infinitives are naturally split (see what I did there, again?), so it’s no crime to do so. (And yes, infinitives can be split naturally, too.)
That’s That, or That Thing You Do
Want to know what word is used even more than "however"? Can you guess? That’s right! Go look at any blog article, and do a search on the word "that." For each use of "that," read the sentence without it. Probably nine times out of ten, the sentence reads just as easily, without any change in meaning.
And yes, of course, I just went through this article to ensure
that all my thats help rather than hinder comprehension.
There are a lot of things I didn’t cover today, such as "than/then," "its/it’s," "that/which" and a myriad of other bugaboos and gotchas. Instead, how about you bring up your favorite foibles in the comments? (But be nice, please! Some people get pretty passionate about these things: Let’s respect that passion, and the people.)
- While I know that Australians and New Zealanders use British spellings, I really don’t know if they adhere to the same grammatical conventions, although I suspect they do. ↩
- Some may argue the comma is unnecessary, but even the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) now acknowledges the common practice of indicating a verbal pause with a comma. ↩
- Just an aside: I recently learned (through watching House Hunters International on HGTV) that what we Americans call a "yard" the British call a "garden." My wife has a garden in our backyard; I’m not sure how an Englishman would phrase that: "There’s a vegetable garden in the back garden"? ↩
- Ditto for "and" and "but," but I do it all the time. It’s a convention in conversational writing, but probably not something you’d see in a scholarly text. ↩