Here’s a few more tips, tricks and suggestions on spelling, punctuation and grammar. You won’t find the following in this lecture because I addressed them in my previous lecture:
*There, they’re and their
*You’re and your
*It’s and its
*Definite, definate and defanite
*Separate and seperate
*Focusing and focussing
*The “Do not check spelling and grammar” box in the Language dialogue box on the Review tab
But if you can master everything in the previous lecture and everything that follows, you’ll be well on your way to not pissing off an editor every time you hand over a piece of writing.
Plural Possessive Pronouns with Singular Nouns
This one is for my dad who is generally rather calm but gets very upset at the use of plural possessive pronouns with singular nouns. I argue that it’s a natural evolution of the English language because it doesn’t contain a gender-neutral singular possessive pronoun that doesn’t sound like one has a stick up one’s ass. He doesn’t care.
So when you find yourself writing a sentence that breaks this rule, think about how it can be rewritten so that the nouns and possessive pronouns are both singular or both plural.
Poor example: Everyone has a right to their opinions.
Better singular example: Each person has a right to his or her opinion.
Better plural example: All people have a right to their opinions.
Exclamation Marks (AKA Exclamation Points)
As The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide so succinctly puts it, “exclamation marks lose their power to draw attention to anything if used too often.”
As a general rule, exclamation marks in fiction should be limited to dialogue that is said with force or excitement. If you find yourself needing to use an exclamation mark in your prose, then you probably need to rewrite it.
Poor example: Shannon saw Steve emerging from the flames!
Better example: Shannon was shocked to see Steve emerging from the flames.
I Before E Except After C
I think all children are taught this rule in the lower grades of school but in a recent article on the Daily Life website, this alternative was offered: “i before e except when there’s a feisty heist on weird beige foreign neighbours reinventing protein at their leisure.”
It tickled my nerdy, word-loving funny bone but it’s not particularly helpful for those genuinely struggling with this spelling rule.
The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide offers a revised rule: “i before e except after c when it sounds like ‘ee’.” But even then, there are still a handful of exceptions.
Unfortunately (or fortunately if you’re a dictionary aficionado like myself), if you want confirmation of spelling in words with ei or ie constructions, you might just need to look it up.
The issue of hyphenated words can be complex, especially because as the English language evolves, words that were originally hyphenated eventually lose their status as such.
Consider the word email. Short for electronic mail, it was hyphenated as e-mail for a while and some people who can’t move on still insert the hyphen. But for most people these days, email is perfectly acceptable.
Now consider the word coordinate. There are plenty of people who continue to insert the hyphen which always makes me wonder: what does ordinate mean when used as a verb? Nothing, apparently. It doesn’t appear in my dictionary as a verb. It appears as a noun in the context of graphs where there is an x coordinate and a y coordinate but as fiction writers, I doubt we’d be using it in this context very often.
Yet again, I find myself offering the same advice. If you need confirmation, look it up in your dictionary. But one good rule is that if you are using a compound and the last letter of the prefix is the same as the first letter of the root word, a hyphen is used to prevent misreading. Anti-intellectual and de-emphasise but antireligious and deactivate.
However, one set of words that are always hyphenated are the self- compounds: self-esteem, self-centred, self-sufficient, self-conscious, self-destruction, self-actualising. No doubts, no exceptions, no evolution as yet.
OK and Okay
Both “OK” and “okay” are acceptable according to your individual preference. The key is consistency. Whichever you choose to use, make sure you only use that one version. However, if you’re going use it as a verb, “okayed” is more generally accepted.
Disinterested and Uninterested
“Disinterested” means you are impartial or without bias. “Uninterested” means you couldn’t care less. If you can’t distinguish which is which, just don’t use either.
Effect and Affect
As a general rule, effect is a noun and affect is a verb.
Example: The footballer’s injury affected the result of the game. The effect of the injury was an unfortunate loss.
However, effect is also a verb, although a rarely used one, meaning “to bring about”. To check whether it is being correctly used, substitute it in a sentence.
Incorrect example: The footballer’s injury effected (brought about) the result of the game.
Correct example: The footballer’s injury affected (impacted on) the result of the game.
Another correct example: The footballer’s injury effected (brought about) a change in medical policy.
Get, Got and Gotten
If at all possible, try to use these words in a very minimal way. In almost all instances, sentences can be rewritten without get, got and gotten, particularly when they are used as auxiliary verbs. The reason to do this is that their use evokes a very informal, almost incorrect feel, in nearly the same way that writing “I should of” instead of “I should have” does.
Poor example: Sam got caught.
Better example: Sam was caught.
Regardless and Irregardless
This one is simple: “irregardless” is not a word.
Utilise (AKA Utilize) and Use
“Why say ‘utilize’ when there is the simple, unpretentious word use?” So opines The Elements of Style, informally known as a writer’s bible. I’ve referenced this recommendation before but I wanted to add a qualifier. When developing the individual voices of your characters, you might have a stuffy, pompous ass who would quite naturally be inclined to use the fancier version of these synonyms.
The key is always to make sure you can justify it. There are a lot of writers and editors out there who will jump on other writers’ heads if they use anything but plain and simple language but there are always instances when plain and simple just doesn’t cut it. Whole centuries’ worth of beautiful poetry would never have been written if those poets had listened to this sort of advice.
In general prose, using the word use will usually be best. But if English is known for anything, it is its exceptions. And if you’re invoking an exception, just make sure you know you’re doing it and you know why.
Many parts of the English language these days have two or even multiple acceptable ways of being executed. When this is the case, the key is consistency.
As an example, I prefer to use “program” instead of “programme”. The –mme spelling is British English and generally more acceptable in New Zealand English but the former is more common in Australia these days even though it is US English spelling.
A way to ensure consistency is to prepare a style guide. Style guides are frequently used in publishing houses for exactly this purpose. Simply draw up a page with twenty-six boxes and label each box with each of the letters of the alphabet. Then, as you make decisions about which spellings and rules you are choosing to you, make a note of it. Later on, if you need to remind yourself which rule you’ve chosen to use, you can simply refer back to your style guide instead of searching through your manuscript trying to find an example of what you have done previously.
*First published in Project December: A Book about Writing