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Spelling and Grammar Q&A

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Spelling and Grammar Q&A

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Everything You Ever Wanted to Ask Your English Teacher,

But Were Afraid to Ask

Topics in This Thread:

  • Spelling -- American or British / International
  • Grammar -- Rules of the Language
  • Semantics and Sentence Sense -- Better Phrasing so the Reader Understands the Author
  • Formatting and Stylesheets -- Clear to Follow, Nice to See and Hear

If you have a question or comment on these topics, this is the place.

If you want to discuss how you should use a certain style of spelling and grammar, or speech styles in a story, that's in the topic below:

See Also: Editing and Style -- was "Formatting Questions"

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The single most common recurring error I see in manuscripts is how and when to use the apostrophe for possessives and contractions. People get confused because of how the use of the apostrophe ( ' ) differs between nouns and pronouns.

Whoa, you're confused already, huh?

-----

Here are the possessive pronouns:

my/mine, your/yours, his, her/hers, its,

our/ours, your/yours, their/theirs;

They are always spelled without an apostrophe. (No '.) Always. You only put an apostrophe in "it's" when you use a contraction.

There is one more possessive pronoun, the stuffy neutral one:

one's;

It always uses the apostrophe when it is possessive.

-----

Possessive Singular Nouns:

* Add -'s unless it ends in an S sound.

-- Jack's, one guy's, a boy's, the man's, the woman's;

* Add -' if it ends in an S sound, like -s, -ss, -se, -ce, -z.

-- Thomas', Laurence';

Possessive Plural Nouns:

* Add -s' or -es' unless it has an irregular plural.

-- many guys', these boys', those horses';

* Add -'s only if the plural is irregular.

-- men's, women's, children's, oxen's, (rare and archaic) brethren's;

Plural nouns that aren't possessive end in -s or -es without an apostrophe. The exceptions are irregular plurals: men, women, children, oxen, brethren.

If you get the urge to put an apostrophe in a plural noun that isn't possessive, don't do it.

-----

Contractions: Use an apostrophe in contractions of two words. Commonly, the second word is one of the following:

not --> -n't -- didn't, wasn't;

is or was --> -'s -- he's, she's, it's = he / she / it is or was;

are --> -'re -- we're, you're, they're;

has --> -'s -- he's been;

have --> -'ve -- I've written;

had --> -'d -- she'd;

should / would --> -'d -- it'd;

shall / will --> -'ll -- he'll;

-----

Verb forms, third person present, end in -s, not -'s:

lets, eats, sleeps, reads, writes,

-----

its / it's

Possessive: Give the dog its supper.

Contraction: It's dog food.

their / they're / there

Possessive: Their balls, not yours;

Contraction: They're balls, not cubes;

Adverb: There they are!

lets / let's

Verb: he lets him see;

Contraction: let's go;

you'll / ya'll / ye'll: you shall / will; ye or ya shall / will (dialect);

y'all: you all (Southern USA dialect, this is the standard spelling);

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One question:

What are the rules for the semi-colon? I've been through quite a few English classes, and not one of them has taught me how to use the thing. For instance, would "I've been through quite a few English classes; not one of them has taught me how to use the thing." be a correct use of a semi-colon?

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One question:

What are the rules for the semi-colon? I've been through quite a few English classes, and not one of them has taught me how to use the thing. For instance, would "I've been through quite a few English classes; not one of them has taught me how to use the thing." be a correct use of a semi-colon?

Can I add to the question by also asking about semi-colon ';' vs paranthesis '()' vs dashes '--'.

What are the guidelines on when to use each of these?

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All sorts of deletia

(1) When you have IT'S and ITS questions, it's very simple to figure it out. READ IT OUT LOUD. When you see "IT'S" say "IT IS" and a sentence like:

The dog lost it's collar

will be instantly recognized as incorrect. Of course the converse is a bit more difficult because it sounds right. So a sentence like

Its hard to tell when you're right

is wrong but you won't notice it unless you realize you haven't said IT IS.

(2) When you have YOUR and YOU'RE questions, it's very simple to figure it out. READ IT OUT LOUD. When you see "YOU'RE" say "YOU ARE" and a sentence like:

Where is you're book

will be instantly recognized as incorrect. The converse situation such as

Your going home

is hard to tell verbally for some people. However in the case of YOUR/YOU'RE, they are NOT PROPERLY pronounced the same. It's the fact most people don't pronounce them differently that causes the problem. I'm weird; when I listen to the radio I can sometimes tell when the announce is reading a sheet that has the word spelled wrong.

YOUR rhymes with YORE

YOU'RE sort of rhymes with SEWER

(3) Blue left off the infamous To/Too/Two error.

TWO is a number

TO is a directional

TOO means also or an excess of

I'm doing this all from memory, so although accurate may not be entirely complete.

-- wbms

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One question:

What are the rules for the semi-colon? I've been through quite a few English classes, and not one of them has taught me how to use the thing. For instance, would "I've been through quite a few English classes; not one of them has taught me how to use the thing." be a correct use of a semi-colon?

Can I add to the question by also asking about semi-colon ';' vs paranthesis '()' vs dashes '--'.

What are the guidelines on when to use each of these?

Again, I refer all of you to EAT, SHOOTS, and LEAVES as mentioned previously in the other thread. Or go here http://tinyurl.com/6nqkb to see the book.

Some people will say that you don't have to be so careful. And that may be true. However punctuation is NOT FLEXIBLE. You are right or you are wrong. The end.

Now, from a more practical standpoint, as both an author and editor I am far more forgiving of what's INSIDE QUOTATION MARKS because people simply don't speak in flawless grammar -- and neither do I despite what you may think from my anal posts :)

SEMI-COLON:

You have two related COMPLETE sentences. Basically it's a period not followed by a capital letter. The difference is the second sentence is directly related to and inseperable from the previous one. (You did indeed use it correctly).

COLON:

I have a thought: blue, grub beetles. It's similar to a semi-colon but the part following it need not be a complete sentence. Together they form one thought.

DASH:

See previous paragraph for useage example. It's to set off an appositive clause. In many cases, the use of a dash is incorrect because you cannot join two complete sentences with a coma. Ever. Don't do it because you've made a run-on sentence. That's when you may use a dash.

PARENTHESIS:

These do not belong in a well written story. Never. If you need to use a parenthetical statement to explain something, you've not written it well to begin with. A parenthesis in a work of fiction means the author hasn't done a good job. In a work of non-fiction, it's to explain something that is barely related to what you are typing, but the reader might want to know. We were discussing computing theory (much like Turing did) in today's class. Even that is very, very, sloppy. Nothing you use a parenthesis for needs to or should be written that way.

Again, go read the book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. It's good. It's humorous, and it's the final say on many things including my most beloved Oxford Comma.

-- wbms

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This is another really common error. One of the first things i do when i'm editing a new draft is get on the 'find' function of Word and find all the uses of 'then' and correct all the places where it should be 'than' and vice versa.

Here, as far as i can figure, is the rule: 'then' refers to a sequence: 'if a, then b,' or 'first we did this, then we did that.'

'Than,' on the other hand, is used for comparisons: 'y is greater than x,' or 'I love you more than you love me.'

cheers!

aj

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Again, I refer all of you to EAT, SHOOTS, and LEAVES as mentioned previously in the other thread. Or go here http://tinyurl.com/6nqkb to see the book.

Some people will say that you don't have to be so careful. And that may be true. However punctuation is NOT FLEXIBLE. You are right or you are wrong. The end.

Now, from a more practical standpoint, as both an author and editor I am far more forgiving of what's INSIDE QUOTATION MARKS because people simply don't speak in flawless grammar -- and neither do I despite what you may think from my anal posts :)

SEMI-COLON:

You have two related COMPLETE sentences. Basically it's a period not followed by a capital letter. The difference is the second sentence is directly related to and inseperable from the previous one. (You did indeed use it correctly).

COLON:

I have a thought: blue, grub beetles. It's similar to a semi-colon but the part following it need not be a complete sentence. Together they form one thought.

I like a lot of what Truss has to say but I find that sometimes she relies on terminology that looks clear but is not, on reflection, self explanatory. With respect to semi-colons and colons, I think it's possible to give more precise guidance.

Semi-colons are used between sentences where the writer wishes them to be treated as a list. They separate sentences as commas do items in lists of noun phrases and so on. The point is that although we are invited to interpret each sentence in relation to the others they all bear more or less equal weight. For example,

Summer ended; flowers faded; leaves turned from green to gold, red and brown.

Colons are used between one sentence and another sentence or a sentence fragment where we are specifically invited to interpret the latter in the light of the former. So, we expect the second element to throw some specific light on the interpretaion of the first. For example,

He divorced her: he no longer loved her.

The relation is of reason-result: the second element provides the reason for the action described in the first.

If we look at the semi-colon example I gave again we can imagine another sentence:

Summer ended: flowers faded.

This time we are specifically to interpret "flowers faded" in the light of the sentence "summer ended". The relation between them is one of statement-exemplification or arguable assertion-evidence.

As it happens, I'm the opposite of a prescriptivist when it comes to grammar and spelling but I think that understanding both as well as you can is empowering. Knowing what the effect of using a colon is gives the writer more fine tuned control in trying to provoke a certain response in the reader.

For what it's worth this analysis of clause-joining is based in part on the work of the distinguished linguist Winnie Crombie and anything worthwhile is to her credit and all mistakes or infelicities are down to me.

Jimbo[/b]

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These do not belong in a well written story. Never. If you need to use a parenthetical statement to explain something, you've not written it well to begin with.

I wouldn't be so fast about that. One place where I think it might be permissible would be for a first-person novel told as a biographical piece. I seem to recall reading a Truman Capote book a few months back that used this technique, and it didn't bother me. Capote's a better writer than you and me, and I suspect he could make it work.

In general, though, I agree with much of what you say here about punctuation. I used to drive my magazine editors crazy about punctuation, and I had some very definite opinions as to when to use (and not to use) a semicolon. I did a lot of that just by gut instinct; after reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves last year -- a book that I found hilarious and also very informative -- I understood why my instincts were right. About the only time I disagreed with the author was when she veered off in a Veddy British direction, pointing out situations that were wrong in England, but textbook-perfect in America.

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These do not belong in a well written story. Never. If you need to use a parenthetical statement to explain something, you've not written it well to begin with.

I wouldn't be so fast about that. One place where I think it might be permissible would be for a first-person novel told as a biographical piece. I seem to recall reading a Truman Capote book a few months back that used this technique, and it didn't bother me. Capote's a better writer than you and me, and I suspect he could make it work.

Capote sucks. He may write a good story but he is NOT a good writer. I will fight you to the death on this one. Grrrrrr....

However, I also maintain my position that all parenthetical bits can be better written as inline text. I do not believe that you need a parenthesis in a work of fiction. Even a dash can be used in its place and work much better.

after reading Eats, Shoots and Leaves last year -- a book that I found hilarious and also very informative -- I understood why my instincts were right.

This is why I have repeatedly recommended this book and am wondering why everyone here hasn't read it yet.

About the only time I disagreed with the author was when she veered off in a Veddy British direction, pointing out situations that were wrong in England, but textbook-perfect in America.

Sir, that would depend on which English you write in. Her book was originally written for a British audience with no intent of a sale here. When it was brought over here, it was done unedited and unchanged which is why parts of it confound the invariably less-educated American audience. For someone like me who is fluent in both versions of English and can write either way, the book was doubly valuable.

I think everyone here should buy it and make up their own mind, then we can have an inter-author flame war for fun :)

-- wbms

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He [Capote] may write a good story but he is NOT a good writer. I will fight you to the death on this one.

Silly me! I guess my mistake is assuming that if one can write a good story, then you're a good writer.

For someone like me who is fluent in both versions of English and can writer either way, the book was doubly valuable.

Lynn Truss points out in the introduction of the American edition the many problems between British English grammar (and punctuation) vs. Americanized English, so I'm well aware of that. Being fluent is one thing, but I find a lot of those British-isms annoying and clumsy. [Yet there are books I prefer to read in their original British editions, like the Ian Fleming James Bond novels and Jo Rowling's Harry Potter.)

Still, seeing dialog punctuation placed outside of the quotes makes me absolutely nuts. Speaking as a guy who has read the Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style, plus having actually written stylebooks for two magazines (including the late, lamented Video Review back in the 1980s), that one's etched in stone for me. Lapsing into a Comma is another fairly cool discussion of the subject, though with a decidedly American bent.

(BTW -- note how I never mentioned your misuse of the word "writer.") :twisted:

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He [Capote] may write a good story but he is NOT a good writer. I will fight you to the death on this one.

Silly me! I guess my mistake is assuming that if one can write a good story, then you're a good writer.

No, I've seen some fantastic story ideas that were written terribly poorly -- enough that I can't stand them. In fact "Fool's Tavern" comes to mind (available at Amazon but I'd not recommend it.)

Truss points out in the introduction of the American edition the many problems between British English grammar (and punctuation) vs. Americanized English, so I'm well aware of that. Being fluent is one thing, but I find a lot of those British-isms annoying and clumsy. [Yet there are books I prefer to read in their original British editions, like the Ian Fleming James Bond novels and Jo Rowling's Harry Potter.)
Yes, I agree on both counts. Pudding to the lot, I say :)
Still, seeing dialog punctuation placed outside of the quotes makes me absolutely nuts. Speaking as a guy who has read the Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style

I agree. I don't use that convention. It looks 'icky' :)

-- wbms

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He [Capote] may write a good story but he is NOT a good writer. I will fight you to the death on this one.

Silly me! I guess my mistake is assuming that if one can write a good story, then you're a good writer.

Capote does not suck. If he's not to your taste, fine, but his use of parenthesis (among other things) surely isn't up for debate in this forum. Saul Bellow uses paranthesis rather regularly and extremely well, as do other authors. Does Saul Bellow suck, literarily speaking? [if the answer is yes, consider me tuned out...]

I'm just not sure absolutes have a place in a discussion of what works and what is acceptable in fiction writing. There are just too many styles and too many ways to use the English language beautifully to insist on, expect or even wish for grammar class sentences in works of the heart. You, we, listen to the voice in our head and the meter, the rhythm, may call for something outside standard punctuation or use...and that's a GOOD thing. Anyone writing has likely spent most of their life reading and that reading, that familiarity and facility with way words sound inside a head, is what has prepped them to write much more so than any grammar class. From somewhere we get that voice for each story or character and it might take a bagful of commas to make it work, or it might take a mess o' parenthesis.

Tragic Rabbit

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Bravo, Rabbit! I believe that punctuation and grammar should serve the cause of art, not vice-versa. Once one knows the rules and can use them with some facility, then feel free to break them in the service of art...always remembering that art must tread the line between originality and comprehensibility.

cheers!

aj

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It seems the thread has digressed into stylistic issues to some degree. Admittedly, it's hard to separate the mechanical rules from the stylistic rules.

I tend to agree with TR on this. It's the basic saying, "It's important to know the rules so you know when and how to break them." If the writing is clear, the reader will understand the meaning intended by the author. If a piece is grammatically correct but fails to move the reader, it doesn't work. If a piece is so ungrammatical or so stylistically hard to follow, it also doesn't work. But there is a lot of room in between. Come on, we all know there are times when clever bending or breaking of the "proper" rules makes for more interesting and understandable and vibrant writing.

Those who know me as an editor know I tend to be conservative about grammar rules, but I try to be flexible in their application. When I post, I consider it like letter writing or note writing, so I don't get so uptight about the rules then.

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"I used to drive my ..."

This "used to" usage DRIVES ME NUTS.

Another serious irritant is the TO/AND, as in, "He wanted to cut more wood, so he grabbed the axe and went and cut down the tree in the back yard." instead of "He wanted to cut more wood, so he grabbed the axe and went to cut down the tree in the back yard."

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With inventions of words such as "thur", "scurd" and "afurd",

are you ever afraid all this grammar might just . . . disappear?

Let me tell you, based on the posts on blogs, comments on blogs, stories posted on Nifty, and crap I read on the 'net it already has.

I think that in most places I could type anything and nobody would be upset or even notice.

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