Posts Tagged 'grammar'

Ten Quick Tips to Improve Your Writing

Most writers experience the struggle of finding the right word, clarifying meaning, or pondering punctuation. That’s just part of writing. One thing that can help get a writer unstuck is to get back to basics. Here are ten quick tips for doing just that–and improving your writing in the process.

  1. Follow the rules of grammar. Grammar rules are created to help us communicate. Without them, we would have a hard time understanding each other.
  2. Avoid changing verb tenses in the same paragraph. Thus, if you’re writing in present tense , wait for a new paragraph to change tenses  so you don’t confuse your reader.
  3. Understand the difference between plural and possessive. Examples: All of the boy’s toys are put away (singular possessive). All of the boys’ toys are put away (plural possessive). All of the boys had toys (plural, no possessive).
  4. Watch your pronoun-antecedent agreement. What does that mean? It means plural pronouns require plural antecedents (antecedents are nouns the pronouns refer to). In our effort to be politically correct, we’ve ignored this rule to a fault. Good writers don’t take the easy way out–they figure out how to rewrite the sentence to follow the rule. Here’s an example of the easy way out: A successful person is measured by their material wealth. (Antecedent is person, which is singular, and pronoun is their, which is plural.)  A good writer will rework the sentence to something like this: Material wealth is often a measure of a person’s success.
  5. Watch your subject-verb agreement. Plural subjects require plural verbs and singular subjects require singular verbs. Example of doing it wrong: One of Kathy’s favorite movies are Sound of Music. The subject (one) is singular, but the verb (are) is plural. Because movies is plural, writers might use a plural verb if they don’t think about the subject of the sentence. The correct way to write that sentence is: One of Kathy’s favorite movies is Sound of Music.
  6. Avoid dangling modifiers. What does that mean? It means make sure your descriptive phrases describe the correct thing. Example of doing it wrong: Searching for the murderer, the suspects all stood in the line-up. (This says the suspects were searching for the murderer.) Rewrite it to say: Searching for the murderer, the police gathered the suspects and stood them in the line-up.
  7. Be aware of language changes. English is a living language. New words are added, while others become antiquated. Stay current.
  8. Know that sometimes perfect grammar doesn’t make for perfect writing. Huh? Depending on what you’re writing, you may be better off with less precise grammar (examples are characters, dialogue, description, tone, etc.).
  9. Make a list of the words that trip you up and keep the list handy. For example, if you’re confused about when to use lay versus lie, make yourself a cheat sheet to help you.
  10. Avoid splitting infinitives. Huh? If you place “to” between an adverb and a verb, you have a split infinitive. Example of split infinitive: Dianne wanted to really make it big as an author. Better to write: Dianne really wanted to make it big as an author.

There you have it. Ten quick tips to improve your writing and some samples to show you how to use the tips.

Happy writing!

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Words Can Be Confusing

Whether it’s because the English language incorporates so many words from other language origins or because we use words erroneously when we speak, there are many commonly confused words in English that you’ll want to be aware of in your writing.

Here are some examples.

  • Bring and Take–Use  bring when something moves toward the person. Use take when something is being moved away from the person.

Bring example: Bring me the remote control.

Take example: I don’t know what to take to the meeting (not bring to the meeting).

  • Can and May–Use can when you’re writing about something having ability. Use may when you’re writing about something being permitted.

Can example: With my new job, I can pay my bills on time.

May example: I’ll ask if I may go to the party.

  • Continually and Continuously–Use continually if your intention is to write about something having occasional interruption. Use continuously if your intention is to show no interruption.

Continually example: We hear loud music from that house continually.

Continuously: She listened to her favorite song continuously for two hours.

  • Data and Datum–Data is the plural of datum. Thus, if you are writing about one fact or statistic, datum is correct. If you are writing about more than one fact or statistic, use data.

Datum example: The datum suggests e-books currently sell better than print books.

Data example: The data for the past three months show e-books are outselling print books by a substantial number.

  • Disinterested and Uninterested–Use disinterested when you’re writing about something not influenced by self-interest. Use uninterested when you’re writing about someone simply not interested in something.

Disinterested example: I am a disinterested  party.

Uninterested example: I am uninterested in the topic.

  • Each other and One another–Use each other when you’re writing about two people.  Use one another when you’re writing about three or more people.

Each other example: The couple looked at each other with desire.

One another: The dinner guests greeted one another politely.

I’ve offered just a few examples of words I see writers commonly confuse. Books are in print a long time and your name is on your book as the author. Don’t undermine your credibility with sloppy writing. And don’t rely on your editor to save you. Frankly, many editors hang out their shingle but really aren’t very good. Some are fantastic and worth everything you pay them.  When you find a good book editor who understands your voice and understands grammar and punctuation and the Chicago Manual of Style (the book publishing industry standard), don’t let him/her go!

Happy writing!

Verbs Create Active Voice

One of the things that puts readers to sleep almost instantly is passive voice. Passive voice is writing without ownership. It’s the preference of bureaucracy, business, and academics. If there’s no ownership, there’s no accountability. There’s also no action.

Think about how excited people are to get their hands on the latest government regulation, the latest policy manual, or the latest thesis and you’ve got an idea about how excited they will be to get their hands on your book if you write using passive voice.

The key to avoiding passive voice comes in verb choice. Passive verbs are the forms of “to be.” Examples include is, are, was, were, has, had, have, etc. These are also known as telling verbs. They’re boring, but safe.

Remember basic grammar? What does a verb do? It shows action. Start using verbs the way they are intended to be used.

Too often writers spend their writing capital on adjectives and nouns. But verbs get things done and create reader interest.

If I ask you to write a sentence around a noun or an adjective, you could. But you’ll most likely write a more interesting sentence around an active verb. Try writing a sentence using the adjective “gorgeous.” Now try it using the noun “computer.” Finally, try it using the verb “tumbled.” While you can write interesting sentences around each of those words, I expect the last one came to you easiest. (By the way, I don’t intend you to use all three words in the same sentence, but you probably could.)

So how do you find active verbs? Read. When you find a verb that jumps out at you, capture it in a notebook. I found clobber and pummel that way. Both verbs are interesting because they’re fresh and not overused.

Active verbs can also become tired. Some that come to mind are typically found in clichés or overused phrases. Example: A shot rang out. It’s much more interesting to say,  “A shot pierced the air.”

Give your reader a fresh active verb once in a while and you’ll create a fan.

Happy writing!

Passive Voice is Okay–but Rarely

If you’re into writing at all, you’ve heard the mantra, “Use active voice” more than you care to ponder.

When I teach publishing and writing courses at the local colleges, I repeat the mantra, and I typically get two questions: What is active voice? Is passive voice ever okay?

The answer to the first question is fairly straightforward. Active voice creates more interesting reading. Active voice relies on active verbs. If you recall the job of verbs from your English grammar class, you’ll remember that verbs show action.

Active voice takes away the game-playing in your writing. It’s direct. It’s interesting. It’s enjoyable to read for it creates images (this is the other manta, “Show, Don’t Tell” at work).

One test to determine active voice is reviewing verbs used. Active verbs DO something. Passive verbs ARE something. Active example: Jane appeared sad. Passive example: Jane was sad.

Once you’ve decided to use active verbs, you get to improve your writing by choosing strong verbs. Example using a good, active verb: Tom looked at Bob in disbelief. Example using a strong, active verb: Tom glared at Bob in disbelief. Both verbs offer good choices in writing active voice, but the strong verb makes the writing even more alive in the reader’s mind.

As long as I’m talking about strong verbs, I’ll offer a tip on using strong nouns as well. Dig back to English grammar class and recall that a noun names a person, place, or thing. General nouns, like man, woman, or child, are okay. But your writing becomes more vibrant when you get more specific. For example, a man can become an attorney, a woman can become an entrepreneur, and a child can become an older brother (or sister). When you get more specific, your reader gains insight and begins to make a better connection to the attorney (versus man), entrepreneur (versus woman), or older sibling (versus child).

Okay, now on to the second question: Is passive voice ever okay? The answer is yes, but rarely. Use passive voice when you don’t want to show ownership of the action. Example: It was noticed you were late to work three times last week. Well, who noticed? No ownership. Don’t know.

Use passive voice when the object of the verb (the subject is the one doing the action) is important. Example: Karen was in a car accident. What’s important is Karen, not the accident, in this sentence. Something happened to Karen and she is the object (she didn’t do the action–or at least we can’t tell from this sentence if she caused the accident, which is the “no ownership” point I made earlier).

Government, academia, and business tend to employ the passive voice most of the time. Why not? No ownership! Everyone knows how much people salivate to get their hands on the latest tax regulation, and that should show us how much readers want to read passive voice.

Use passive voice when it serves your purpose, but use it rarely if you want your readers to keep reading.

Happy writing!

Your Words are Relative

One challenge I’ve seen writers struggle with is keeping related words together. You may be thinking, Huh? But when I explain, you’ll understand.

Think back to English grammar and you’ll recall that adjectives modify nouns. Here’s an example of what not to do by keeping adjectives away from what they modify. “The woman rode on the float in the parade as joyful as could be.” Now, floats and parades can be joyful, but it’s better so make sure the reader understands it was the woman who was joyful. A better choice would be “The joyful woman rode on the float in the parade.”

You might recall that adverbs modify adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs. An adverb should be close to the word it’s modifying. Here’s an example of what not do do. “Susan noticed an embedded woodtick that was clearly in the dog’s ear.” A better choice would be “Susan  noticed a woodtick clearly embedded in the dog’s ear.”

Then we have the relationship of the pronoun to the noun (antecedent). Readers expect pronouns to relate the nearest antecedent. So if you’re writing about a young girl exploring grandma’s attic, you’ll want to make sure your pronoun refers to the correct female. For example, let’s say the young girl is Mary and, of course, grandma is Grandma.  You wouldn’t write “Mary knew Grandma kept special things in the attic and she couldn’t wait to once again explore the dark space.” Well, what antecedent (noun) does she (pronoun) refer to? Convention says Grandma because that’s the closest noun to the prounoun. But I suspect the writer intends the answer to be Mary. The sentence is more clear if written,  “Mary knew she couldn’t wait to once again explore the attic, the dark space where Grandma kept special things.”

It just takes a little tweaking make sure your reader understands your intent. Your words are relative–all you have to do is make sure they get along and they’ll be better understood.

Happy writing!

Can You Edit Your Own Writing?

One of the most commonly discussed issues in writing is whether or not writers can self-edit their writing.

While I truly believe writers need editors, I also believe writers can improve their writing by learning some self-editing techniques.

Your writing reflects you. You shouldn’t allow an editor to change your voice or your intent. And you should allow an editor to make you look good.

Here are some things to get you started in editing your own writing.

  • Be honest about what your writing weaknesses are. If you know you go comma crazy, learn the rules for inserting commas (“because this is where I took a breath” is not a rule). If you know you’ve got spelling issues, use your spell checker but understand spell checkers don’t catch every error, which means you need a dictionary too.
  • Put yourself in your reader’s position, then ask if what you wrote is clear to the reader. Ask if what you wrote clearly says what you intended the reader to know.
  • Make sure you include only one idea per paragraph. I wrote on topic sentences in an earlier post, so won’t belabor the issue here.
  • Look for redundancy. Check to see if you unnecessarily repeated yourself or if you overused a favorite word or phrase.
  • Analyze your sentence structure. Do you have some short sentences and some compound sentences? Do you always start with I or The or do you vary how you begin your sentences?
  • Look for parallel structure in your sentences. Here’s an example of parallel structure: Jimmy went skiing on Friday, swimming on Saturday, and sailing on Sunday. (All the verbs are “ing” verb.) Here’s an example of a sentence that doesn’t have parallel structure: Jimmy went skiing on Friday, to the beach on Saturday, and he decided to sleep all day Sunday.
  • Buy and use a grammar book. Browse your writing reference section of your bookstore and find a grammar book that’s friendly to your preference of looking things up.  Since we’ve become PC (politically correct), we’ve made it harder to write with subject/verb agreement. That is, we use the gender neutral, plural subject (they, for example) with the singular verb. Every grammarian knows that’s incorrect English, but it’s easy, so writers do it anyway. There may be a time when it’s acceptable, but we’re not at that time yet. Better to rewrite the sentence and assure you have subject/verb agreement.

Can you edit your own writing? Yes, you can, but it’s a lot of work. It may be easier to get someone else who loves the language to help you. As always, you have a choice, so make it a good one.

Happy writing!

Guide Your Reader with Punctuation – Colon

It may help if you understand what impact the colon is supposed to have on your reader. Simply put, the colon is supposed to create a sense of anticipation.

Here’s how:

  • Use the colon to introduce a list, a summary, a long quotation, or an explanation of what preceded the colon. NOTE: you capitalize the first word after the colon only if that first word begins a complete thought or quotation or if more than one sentence is required to finish the thought.

Some of you may remember Victor Borge, a comedian who put sound to punctuation. He said, “Santa Claus had the right idea: Visit people once a year.” His quote shows how to use a colon and capital.

  • Use a colon with “as follows” or “the following.” Example: Every writer needs the following: a good dictionary, a thesaurus, and a grammar book.
  • Use a colon with formal salutations (Dear Dr. Hyde:) and in ratios (3:2).
  • Use colons in dialogue.

Ellen: I won’t go to that dumb old dance.

Mom: You will go and you will enjoy yourself.

  • Use a colon to separate your book’s title from it’s subtitle. Example: Encouraging Your Heart: 15 Ways to See, Hear, and Know God Better.

One error I see too often is using a colon after a verb. Here’s an example of what not do. Things you need for camping are: a tent, lantern, sleeping bag, wood, and matches. Delete the colon.

Remember, the colon is supposed to set your reader up for anticipation. Use it the way it’s intended.

Happy writing!