This is a guest contribution from Jim Butcher of Mr and Mrs Romance.
There’s never really such a thing as a perfect blog post, is there? There’s always something else you could have done, something more you could have added. Another, better way you could have phrased a sentence.
And then there’s grammar and punctuation. I was never taught grammar at school further than ‘a verb is a doing word. A noun is a naming word, etc’. It’s no wonder native English speakers make so many simple mistakes.
Spotting these mistakes after you’ve hit ‘publish’ or – even worse – having a reader tell you about them, isn’t a nice thing. In fact it’s downright embarrassing.
The good news is these mistakes are pretty easy to avoid.
Here are my top five grammar focus points for mastering – or at least controlling – the written word!
These little things can turn a man’s hair white with fear, but they’re not that bad once you get to know them.
They have a couple of different uses: for contractions, and to show possession.
These are the easier ones that most of us know pretty well. If you’re cutting down a word – like we are, you can just say we’re. Easy.
However, I did see this in an application letter for a job teaching English once: learn’t. This candidate was unsuccessful in their application. By the way, you can either use learned or learnt. It’s up to you – just be consistent. Choose one and stick to it.
More commonly, people get confused between you’re and your. And they’re, their and there, and things like that. Make sure you know the difference between these:
You’re = you are: You’re a wonderful person.
Your = something that belongs to someone: I want to hold your hand.
They’re = they are: They’re wonderful people.
Their = something that belongs to them: I want to meet their friends.
There = refers to a place: I dream about walking on the Moon but I don’t think I’ll ever get there.
We can also contract years with apostrophes. For the 1960s it’s always the ‘60s never the 60’s or the 60s.
The same goes for people’s ages. You don’t need an apostrophe to say someone is in his 20s.
These are the ones that get people confused, but once you get the hang of them, they’re actually quite satisfying to use.
Possessive apostrophes come in two types: singular and plural, but they both do the same thing; they tell the reader who or what owns the object.
Eg: This is Brian’s turkey sub. We know this turkey sub is owned by Brian. Lucky Brian.
So, the shop’s window displays – the window displays belongs to the shop.
In these instances, the apostrophe always goes before the s. That’s because there’s only one Brian and only one shop.
The confusion comes when there is more than one owner. Where does the apostrophe go?
If there are two or more shops, then the apostrophe goes after the s: the shops’ window displays.
These rules work on time periods too. I’ll still be working on my grammar in one year’s time. But I’ll be a grammar guru in two years’ time.
Notice the apostrophe moves to after the s when you’re talking about more than one year.
Sometimes the noun is automatically plural. Women for example already talks about more than one woman. The possessive apostrophe always goes before the s with this type of word. Women’s shoes, children’s books, mice’s food – they are all already plural.
The one exception is it. The only time we use an apostrophe with it is for contractions: it is or it has. It’s a bad day or it’s been a bad day. There is no plural form of it.
If we want to say this thing belongs to it, we simply write this is its thing. No apostrophe. I’ve seen this many times: its’. This makes my head ache trying to make sense of it but there’s no way this is ever possible.
My last point on misused apostrophes is with plurals of acronyms. For example, JB Hi-Fi regularly has signs advertising Cheap CD’s. This is wrong. Cheap CDs or DVDs or even CD-ROMs is what they’re looking for… unless they’re talking about a cheap CD’s case or if a cheap CD’s good.
Every day or everyday?
One of the most common mistakes I see is the confusion between every day and everyday. And I have an internal dialogue every time. It goes like this:
I read: I eat vegetables everyday.
I mutter like a crazy person: No. No, you don’t. You eat vegetables every day.
Everyday comes before the noun, and is used to describe something that is commonplace. These are my everyday clothes. I save my best outfits for weddings and funerals.
Every day comes after the noun, is much more common and describes how often you do something. I wear these clothes every day. Yes, I probably should expand my wardrobe.
Everyday comes before the noun you’re describing, every day comes after.
And if you’re still not sure which you should use, try replacing every with each. It’s pretty much the same meaning (though technically each is for two or more items, every is for three or more!).
If each fits just as well as every, you should use two words: every day.
Amazingly, companies have made this mistake. Big companies. Glad’s slogan on their Glad Wrap is ‘Seals in Freshness. Everyday.’ They’ve even trademarked it! The same goes with Officeworks. ‘Lowest prices everyday’ – and they’ve had huge signs with this on.
It’s an easy mistake to make, but it shouldn’t really happen.
Using that, which, and who
We use these words all the time (they’re called relative pronouns, by the way) and they’re very handy. But there are finer points that can make your writing more readable.
We know that which and that are used to talk about things – this is an apple tree, which my grandfather planted. Or, this is the apple tree that my grandfather planted.
If you are using ‘which’, it should come after a comma. You do not need a comma if you are using ‘that’.
When do you use ‘which’? – when you are including extra information. It becomes a non-restrictive clause, because you can leave it out and the sentence will still make sense (“This is an apple tree”). “Which my grandfather planted” is interesting extra information you’re adding, but not vital to the sentence.
You will also use ‘which’ when the clause is descriptive: “an apple tree”.
When do you use ‘that’? – when your piece of information is vital to the sentence. “This is the apple tree that my grandfather planted”. The fact your grandfather planted the tree is the most important part. The clause is also now defining: “the apple tree”, not just any old apple tree.
So who and that are used to talk about people – this is my brother who/that lives in Zimbabwe.
But sometimes, we only want to use these parts of a sentence as an aside – I passed my driving test first time, which was a relief. Or My other brother, who lives in a commune, is a bit strange.
Notice the comma in these last two sentences. They separate the sections that the which and the who command. Notice also that we can’t use that in these types of sentence. It’s just a grammar rule.
How do you know whether to use a comma or not? Read the sentence aloud. If you pause when you come to the which or who, you need commas.
The commas will give your sentence a rhythm that makes it that much friendlier to read.
When you’re writing directly to someone, don’t forget the commas. Compare these two sentences:
I know Mum. = I know and am aware of this person called Mum and I’m telling someone else this information.
I know, Mum. = I agree with you, my mother. I understand what you’re saying.
While we’re on commas, let’s talk about if sentences – also known as conditional sentences.
You need to separate conditional sentences with a comma if your sentence begins with if or whether or unless or when. Conditional sentences show a cause and an effect. The comma shows where these two elements are in a sentence.
If you don’t use a comma in a conditional sentence, I will release the hounds.
Unless you use a comma here, I’ll start crying.
When I see a conditional sentence without a comma, I dream of owning a nuclear warhead.
However, if you have the if, whether, unless or when words in the middle of the sentence, you don’t need a comma:
I’m so happy when I see a correct sentence like this one.
In English, we use a capital letter for proper names. Like English. Surprisingly, mum can also be a proper name. This is my mum doesn’t need a capital m. How are you today, Mum? does need a capital.
This is because – in the second sentence – Mum becomes that person’s title. It’s that person’s name now. The first sentence is talking about mums in general. Notice it says my mum.
This rule also applies for things like university. If you’re just talking about studying at university, no capitals required. If you are talking about a specific uni by name, you need a capital letter.
I went to university when I was 14… I’m not a genius I just got lost.
I went to Cambridge University – dressed as Harry Potter. Security didn’t see the funny side of it. Expecto patronum!!
It’s amazing the difference in intimation a little comma can make, isn’t it?
Most of these grammar points will be picked up by Word’s grammar check – the blue squiggly lines. Pay attention to them – they’re not always exactly right, but sometimes they are.
If you’re interested in this sort of thing and want more information on it, I can’t recommend highly enough the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss. It’s quite sardonic at times but it’s a fun way to learn about punctuation and grammar.
To make it simple for you, I’ve also created a downloadable Grammar Cheat Sheet. Get yours: Grammar Cheat Sheet for ProBlogger.net.
Do you have any handy tips for getting tricky grammar points right? Are you a grammar pedant? What mistakes make you cranky?