Happy New Year! What better way to start the year than to make sure that those nasty little grammar missteps are banished for good? (I suppose that there are some better ways to start the year, such as striking it rich or finding your true love, but this is a close runner-up.) For this special New Year’s Day (or day after…), I wanted to offer something special that could relate to a variety of writing disciplines and be applied throughout the year. So this blog is devoted to the parts of speech—not the boring basics, but the annoying little particulars that plague people who want to get it right.
Defeating your grammatical worries can be cause for celebration.
For the fiction writers who struggle with common nouns that double as family names:
When addressing a person by nickname, the nickname should be capitalized:
- Happy New Year, Mom!
When referring to a person by nickname, the nickname should be lowercased:
- I wished my mom a happy new year.
When addressing a person, the name should be set off in commas:
- Happy New Year, Mark.
Whether your writing is fiction, nonfiction, or academic, try to favor the active voice and avoid the passive voice:
- The editors at WordsRU helped me improve my paper. (active voice)
- My paper was greatly improved by the editors at WordsRU. (passive voice)
- The research showed a strong correlation. (active voice)
- A strong correlation was detected. (passive voice)
When two adjectives can switch positions equally, separate them with a comma. When they must follow each other in a specific order, do not use a comma:
- She wore a fitted, white dress. (Also acceptable: She wore a white, fitted dress.)
- She wore a long white dress. (Not acceptable: She wore a white long dress.)
When two or more words work together to convey one meaning as a preceding adjective, they should be hyphenated:
- This is a well-known topic.
- This topic is well known.
Avoid using adverbs whenever they can be replaced by strong verbs:
- He ran really fast. (adverb)
- He sprinted. (strong verb)
- He carefully looked around the corner. (adverb)
- He peered (peeked) around the corner. (strong verb)
Always avoid using vague pronouns. In other words, make sure that you have previously stated in the paragraph the actual noun that is being replaced by the pronoun:
- It is a common difficulty. (This is vague; what is a common difficulty?)
- Many people struggle with proper grammar. It is a common difficulty. (Clearly, proper grammar is the difficulty.)
Note: Never begin a paragraph with a pronoun.
Try to avoid beginning sentences with ‘it is’ or ‘there are’. These phrases are weak and passive, but they can be transformed easily:
- There are many ways to improve your grammar skills. (weak)
- You can improve your grammar skills in many ways. (stronger)
- Grammar skills can be improved in many ways. (stronger)
When prepositional phrases support one another, they should not be separated with a comma. When they are separately describing the same thing, they should be separated with a comma:
- We found the specimen in the lake near the mountain. (no comma: the lake is near the mountain.)
- We found the specimen in the lake, beneath a large rock. (comma: the lake is not beneath a large rock. In the lake and beneath a large rock are both describing the specimen.)
Insert a comma before a conjunction that is found in a series:
- We interviewed people from China, Japan, and Australia.
Insert a comma before a conjunction when joining two independent clauses (This means that both halves have a subject and verb.):
- We interviewed 152 students, and the majority of them were in favor of the changes. (We interviewed … majority were)
Note: This isn’t always necessary when the clauses are short.
Do not insert a comma before a conjunction that joins two nouns, two verbs, or two phrases:
- Students and faculty attended the seminar.
- Students at the seminar shared their ideas and asked questions.
- The results of this seminar proved that our original premise was valid and that additional research is needed.
Use a to represent a general noun; use the to represent a specific noun:
- I am going to a party tonight. (general)
- I am going to the birthday party tonight. (specific)
Note: The second example could also use a if the party were a general, generic affair. If the speaker is denoting a specific party, however, the would be accurate. You can see how the use (or misuse) of one word can create a different impression.
For fiction writers:
Interjections should be avoided as much as possible. Although people often use interjections such as hey, wow, yeah, um, and others, use of these terms does not add to your storyline; it only weighs the story down:
“Hey, are you going to the concert?”
“Well, I’m not sure. Are you?”
“Um, I’m thinking about it.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
“Are you going to the concert?”
He shrugged. “I’m not sure. Are you?”
She twirled a strand of hair around her finger. “I’m thinking about it.”
A grin spread across his face. “Me, too.”
Grammar rules abound and exceptions can be found everywhere, but the editors at WordsRU can help you muddle through the grammatical quagmire. Hopefully, these tips will save you time and make your writing smoother and easier this year!
What would you like to see in the WordsRU blogs this year?