Writing Tips

 
It is not the purpose of this page to cover all aspects of grammar and punctuation. These should, however, be fully under your command. If your education has not included mastery of such matters, you will do well to obtain a book that provides a full description of them. You can find a good bit of information in the back pages of a Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, as well as several other. For a full treatment, the campus bookstore offers The Bedford Handbook, a useful text for anyone interested in writing according to the recognized rules of grammar, punctuation, and style. As sociologists, we readily acknowledge that such rules are produced by humans and have no ontological grounding. On the other hand, many people--we among them--judge others, at least to some degree, on how well they speak and write in standard English. Like traffic lights and stop signs, such rules have their place, even though it may be permissible to ignore them on occasion. A non-fiction paper submitted for a grade is seldom one of these occasions.


Grammar


Agreement in Number

WRONG: "Everyone brought their notebook."

"They" and "their" are plural. "Everyone," "anyone," etc. are singular. The two should agree. "His or her" would be better grammar. Using "their" in this kind of construction has come into common use because of the abandonment of the masculine as a universal pronoun. When writing, however, it is best to maintain the agreement in number.
Comparatives

WRONG: "She/they is/are taller/smarter/prettier than me/us."
CORRECT: "She is taller/smarter/prettier than I."

This common mistake can be avoided by recognizing the unspoken part of the sentence. When you say, "He is taller than I," you are saying, "He is taller than I am tall." If you say, "She is smarter than me," the complete thought would be, "She is smarter than me is smart," which would sound entirely plausible if you were actually to use such grammar. Admittedly, it sounds a bit stilted to say, "He is prettier than I." The easiest way to get around this awkwardness is to say, "He is prettier than I am." That sounds more natural and is also grammatically correct.
"Everyday" and "every day"

WRONG: "I do this everyday."
CORRECT: "I do this every day."

"Because I do this every day, it is an everyday occurrence for me."

"Everyday" is an adjective, with no noun attached. "Every" is an adjective and "day is the noun it modifies.
"in regards to."

This is wrong. If you want to use something like it, say, "With regard to..." or "in regard to..."
"IT'S" and "ITS"

WRONG: "This is an idea before it's time." | "Its time for this idea now."
CORRECT: "This is an idea before its time." | "It's [It is] time for this idea now."

A common mistake, but "it's" is a contraction for "it is," not the possessive form. To help you remember that you don't need the apostrophe, remember that "your," "his," "hers" and others are possessive without an apostrophe. There are no contractions without apostrophes. There are some possessives without them.
"LIE" and "LAY"

You will hear these two verbs used incorrectly with increasing frequency, sometimes by people who ought to know better. Do not be lulled into believing this is acceptable.

WRONG: "I am going to lay down." | "She is laying down."
CORRECT: "I am going to lie down." | "She is lying down."

"Lie" means "to recline" and it does not take an object. (It is thus an intransitive verb.)

Its principal parts are lie, lying, lay, (have) lain

EXAMPLES:
"I will lie down."
"She is lying down."
"He lay down yesterday."
"I have lain in that bed."

"Lay" means "to put or place" and takes an object. (It is thus a transitive verb.)
Its principal parts are lay, laying, laid, (have) laid.

EXAMPLES:
"Lay the pencil on the desk."
"He/she/they laid their burden down."
"She has laid a blanket on the bed."

POSSIBLY: "I am going to lay down in the street, although that is a strange place to put feathers."


PREPOSITIONS AND THEIR OBJECTS

WRONG: "She walked over to Vernon and I."
CORRECT: "She walked over to Vernon and me."

Remember: you can go to hell for this mistake. This is becoming a more common mistake, but it is an egregious one. To avoid it, cover up the other person, as if you were alone. You would never say, "She walked over to I." Vernon's presence doesn't change that.


POSSESSIVE BEFORE A GERUND

A gerund--a noun made from a verb form, as in "saying," "doing," "ordering," etc.--requires a possessive form before it. "His doing that made me feel better." (Not "Him doing that made me feel better.") This is a rule that is often violated, but you will not need to violate it again, now that you know it.

 
REFLEXIVE PRONOUNS

"He spoke to Mary and myself." This is a common mistake, but it is a mistake nonetheless. "Myself" (and himself, herself, themselves, itself) is a reflexive pronoun. It is used in combination with the noun or pronoun to which it refers, not alone. One says, "I (he, she) did this myself (himself, herself)." In the above construction--"He spoke to Mary and..."--the proper form is simply "me." You could speak of "visitors like me. "You could say, "I was a visitor myself." But don't say, "Anyone who would like to know more should contact John or myself." People do this, I think, because they think it sounds proper, but it is improper.

 
"WHO/WHOM"

Admittedly, the distinction between "who" and "whom" seems to be dropping from use, but proper grammar still calls for the objective case ("whom") following a preposition or verb of which it is the object, as in "to identify whom."


 

PUNCTUATION


APOSTROPHE

Use to form contractions: "It's" (It is). "You're" (You are).

DO NOT USE to form plurals, as in "The Dobson's."

EXCEPTION: plurals of letters and numbers (2's and "A's and B's"and irregulars such as words with no standard plurals. "He confused his 'them's" and 'those's.'"

 
COLONS

Colons are used primarily to call attention to what follows immediately. It should follow a complete independent clause. It should not be used after a verb or preposition.

WRONG: During the last year, a number of states were seen: Nevada, etc.
CORRECT: We visited the following four states: Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and Wyoming.

 
SEMI-COLONS

Use between independent clauses if not joined by "and," "but," "or," "nor," "for," "yet."

Use when the thoughts of clauses are closely connected and you want to avoid a run-on sentence.

I enjoyed teaching William Faulkner how to write; I've never known a more eager student.

Before "however," "therefore," "for example," etc.:
We waited in line for an hour; however, the movie was worth it.
Fred dresses strangely; for example, today he wore a suit of armor."

To separate items in a series that contain internal commas:
The meeting was called by John Bennett, master of Sid Rich; John Hutchinson, Master of Wiess; and Dale Sawyer, master of Will Rice.

 
COMMAS

The comma is an extraordinarily useful piece of punctuation. Without commas, strings of words can take on confusing meanings or meanings quite different from those intended by the writer. The rules are fairly simple and should be mastered. Do yourself and your readers a favor by obtaining a book such as The Bedford Handbook and learn the rules.


COMMA SPLICE IN A RUN-ON SENTENCE.

Run-on sentences are independent clauses that are incorrectly joined, typically with a comma--hence, the designation, "comma splice."
WRONG: The highway was slippery, ice was to be seen everywhere.

To write this correctly, you could use a semi-colon, a comma and "and", or a period. E.g., "The highway was slippery; ice was to be seen everywhere."

WRONG: He was not sad, rather he was happy.
CORRECT: He was not sad; rather, he was happy.

For another kind of run-on sentence, remove the comma from each of the incorrect examples. Now, don't ever do that again.

 
COMMAS BETWEEN SUBJECT AND VERB


WRONG: The man, crossed the street.
CORRECT: The man crossed the street.
CORRECT: The man, who was wearing a derby hat, crossed the street.

Don't separate subject and verb with a comma unless you use two commas to set off an intervening clause, as in the second correct example.


SERIAL COMMA

We prefer the serial comma. ("John, Mary, and Sam," instead of "John, Mary and Sam.") So do most style manuals, with the exception of those used by newspapers. Omitting the last comma is not incorrect, but it can lead to confusion. Using the comma in this kind of construction is never wrong. Why take a chance?

 
HYPHEN

Review the proper use of the hyphen. If you don't have a grammar book, you can find a summary at the back of a Collegiate Dictionary. It is a useful bit of punctuation that can often help you avoid confusing a reader. Briefly, use a hyphen when joining two or more words to make a single adjective before a noun.

CORRECT:
18th-century painting
fleet-footed Achilles
drug-crazed killer

INCORRECT: Between adjective and adverb before a noun.

Except with "well": "well-intentioned fool." But, "He was well intentioned." (No following noun.)


QUOTATION MARKS AND OTHER PUNCTUATION

Here are the rules: Commas and periods belong inside double quotation marks. Semi-colons fall outside them. (He spoke of his "little cottage in the country"; he might have called it a mansion.) Dashes, question marks, and exclamation points fall within quotation marks when they refer to the quoted matter only (He asked, "When did you leave?") (The sergeant shouted, "Halt!"). They fall outside when they refer to the whole sentence. ("What is the meaning of "the open door"?)
TENSES, Agreement of

Keep your tenses consistent within sentences and paragraphs. If you use past tense in one place, use it in the others unless you have a clear reason for doing otherwise.


 

STYLE

 
ACTIVE VOICE

Try to use the active voice and transitive verbs. This will make your writing more lively, interesting, and specific. It can also clarify meaning. Such phrases as "The law was enacted" obscures the fact that someone actually enacted it. Using the active voice tends to bring historical actors into the picture rather than allow us to accept faceless social processes as the engine of history. See "There is," below.

"amongst"
Americans typically use "among." It's a quite suitable choice.

 
CLICHES AND FUZZY PHRASES

Avoid them like the plague.

Avoid terms such as "vast majority," "stark contrast," "each and every," "kicking and screaming," and "de ja vu all over again."
"COMPRISE"

Check the dictionary definition of "comprise." Though often used incorrectly, it is a top-down word. Something comprises several other somethings. They do not comprise something else. E.g., the college system comprises eight colleges, but eight colleges make up (not "comprise") the college system. This class comprises forty students, etc., rather than the reverse.
"HOPEFULLY"

"Hopefully," as commonly used in conversation, is not grammatically correct, technically, though it is so widely used that it is rather pointless to object to it in conversation. It is still better, however, to omit it from your writing. One can approach a task hopefully--that is to say, "full of hope"--but one should not say, "Hopefully, it will not rain."
"HOWEVER"

It is better style to insert "however" at the first logical point in the sentence rather than use it to start a sentence. If it won't work and you still need it, you can put it at the front of the sentence.

 
"IN ORDER TO"

When simply using "To" will do, it is better to drop "In order."


 

NUMBERS AND NUMERALS

 

Various publications disagree on this, but most will suggest that you spell out numbers of zero to ninety-nine and use numerals for 100 and above.


PERCENT

Most style books seem to favor writing out "percent" instead of using a percent sign (%).

 

SYNTAX

 

Word order can be crucial to saying what you mean to say. Note the following:
"He was questioned about payments made during the 1970s, which were kept secret from the Board of Directors."

It would be difficult to keep an entire decade secret from anybody.

 
"THAT/WHO"

It is better to say "people who" instead of "people that," since you are talking of humans. It is not grammatically incorrect to do what you have done, but it's stylistically better to use "who."

UNNECESSARY USE OF "THAT"

This "that" is superfluous and should be omitted. Note that the sentence says the same thing without it. It's a useful exercise to go over you writing after you have done a draft and look for such instances and see if you cannot eliminate most of them. Again, not grammatically incorrect, but stylisically better not to use it.

"THAT" and "WHICH"

Many writers use "which" when "that" would sound better.

I could go into a discussion of "restrictive relative clauses" and "defining clauses," but a shortcut way of remembering the more felicitous choice is to use "that" whenever it works easily.

 
"THERE/ARE"

To make your writing crisper, avoid "There is/are/was/were, etc." These have a static quality. Instead of saying, "There was a picture hanging on the wall," say, "A picture hung on the wall." This also helps you avoid needless words.

"TO BE," "There is..."

For a cleaner and livelier style, try to cut down on your use of various forms of "to be": "There is....," "There were..." etc. Often, it is easy to switch to a transitive verb construction. Notice what I have done here. When you finish writing a paper, go back over it and see how many such constructions can be changed to active voice, transitive verb.

 
"VERY"

"Very" is a weak word. It adds little to a sentence. It is difficult to avoid it in speech, but you can and should avoid it in writing. It's not a bad idea just to go through your paper and delete it.

 

COMMON MISTAKES

 
affect/effect

Both of these words can be either a noun or a verb, but they have different meanings.

affect:
Verb: to produce an outcome our effect. "He affected the outcome." (The outcome is an effect.)
Verb: to make a display: "He affected a British accent."
Noun: (rather uncommon), an emotional state. "His affect was one of discomfort."

effect:
Noun: result. "This was the effect of his actions." Or "He had an effect."
Verb: to cause to come into being. "He effected a settlement." (Different from "He affected the settlement." The former means he made it happen; the latter means he changed (had an effect) on its terms.

 
bad/badly

CORRECT: "I feel bad."
WRONG: "I feel badly." (Unless you are a poor groper.")

 
between/among


Use "between" only when talking about two of something. When talking for three or more, use "among."
data, media.

These are plurals (of "datum" and "media"). Therefore, use plural verbs with them.


disinterested/uninterested

distinterested: not influenced by personal or self-interest.
uninterested: not interested

 
good/well (See bad/badly, above)

CORRECT: "I feel good."
WRONG: "I feel well." (Unless you have been sick and are contrasting "well" with "sick," or unless you are describing your skills as a groper.)

 
farther/further


farther: physical distance. "We walked farther down the road."
further: matters not measurable by physical distance. "We considered the matter further."


less/fewer

Less pertains to amounts (less money, less weight, less butter, etc.)

Fewer should be used to designate things that can be enumerated (fewer dollars, fewer people, fewer opportunities, fewer dishes, etc.)

 
"in regards to"

It should be "with regard to."

 
may/might

Use "may" to indicate permission and future possibility: "I may finish."

Use "might" of a condition dependent on a hypothesis. "If I got your papers on time, I might be able to finish them sooner."
real/really

WRONG: "That is real good." "I was real anxious to see her."
CORRECT: "That is really good." "I was really anxious to see her."

 
when/where

"That was a time where people felt free to criticize."

"Where" is a geographical term. Don't use it when speaking of a time. Use "when."


 

COMMON PRONUNCIATION ERRORS



You may not make any of these errors, but intelligent people often do. Fortunately, they are all quite easy to correct.


ask

Pronounced as spelled, not axe.


et cetera

This should be pronounced as it is spelled and not as "ek cetera." (et is Latin for "and." ek is not.) The seldom-heard but worst possible corruption of this term is "and ek cetera." Don't ever say that.

 
forte and forte

Though spelled alike, these are two different words, from two different languages, with two different meanings, and two different pronunciations.

forte. for'ti or for'tay is Latin/ Italian in origin and refers to loudness, particularly in music.
forte. fort is French in origin and refers to one's strong point, as in "This is my forte."


interesting

in'ter-is-ting or in'tris-ting is preferable to in'ter-es'ting.

 
preventive and preventative

The first of these is the preferred term. We acknowledge that the second is also found in the dictionary and is technically acceptable. It should not be.


schism

siz'm. NOT shizm or skizm. OK, it's not phonetically obvious. But that's the way we do it. Don't ask questions. Just obey.

 
Weber (as Max Weber)

It should be VAY-ber, not Webber. People will laugh at you behind your back if you get this wrong.