Punctuation Marks: The Colon

the colon

Punctuation marks: the colon.

The colon is one of the most clearly-defined punctuation marks. It occasionally acts as a stand-in for a comma or period (though when one of these other punctuation marks will do, the colon is unnecessary).

Most commonly, the colon functions as an introductory punctuation mark, notifying the reader that the forthcoming information supports, explains, or elaborates upon what has been said prior to the colon.

These punctuation marks are common in math and science as well as technical documentation. In creative writing, we don’t see a lot of colons unless we’re working on a script. Colons are most often seen in text where a list is being introduced.

The Chicago Manual of Style provides a succinct definition for the colon: Read More

Homophones: Affect vs. Effect

affect vs effect

Homophones sound alike: affect vs. effect.

Homophones can be confusing. Luckily, there’s an easy way to remember affect vs. effect.

I see it all the time: affect and effect mixed up as if they were completely interchangeable.

But they’re not.

These two homophones may sound exactly alike, but they don’t even belong to the same parts of speech!

If you’ve ever written one of these words and scrunched up your eyebrows wondering whether to spell it with an a or an e, then this grammar lesson is for you! Read More

Ten Grammar Rules Every Writer Should Know

grammar rules

Some of the most overlooked grammar rules and best writing practices.

The more experience I gain as a writer, the more I’m convinced that writing is one of the most difficult skills to master.

It’s not enough to tell a great story, share an original idea, or create an intriguing poem; writers are also obligated to pay diligence to the craft. While the content (or message) of our writing is paramount, the way we use language can be just as critical. Read More

Punctuation Marks: Commas and Clauses

commas and clauses

Commas and clauses.

There’s a fine art to using commas. Today we’ll look at how commas work with clauses — both dependent clauses and independent clauses. And don’t worry if you’re not sure which clause is which. Everything will be explained.

Independent Clauses and Commas

An independent clause can stand alone as a sentence: I watch movies.

Two independent clauses can be joined with a conjunction: I watch movies and I watch television.

A comma can be placed before the conjunction: I watch movies, and I watch television.

So, should you use commas before conjunctions that connect two independent clauses? Read More

Homophones: Accept vs. Except

accept vs except

Homophones: accept vs except.

The English language is fraught with sound-alike words that look nothing alike on the page (or screen). These homophones have given many writers headaches as they agonize over word choice while composing poems, articles, essays, and stories.

Accept vs. except is one such pair of words. Though not among the most commonly confused homophones, these two words do occasionally find themselves getting mixed up and used incorrectly.

Here’s a quick way to remember the difference between accept vs. except. Read More

Homophones: They’re, There, and Their

homophones

Homophones: they’re, there, and their.

Homophones are words that sound exactly alike when pronounced out loud but have completely different meanings. They’re such troublemakers. Homophones confuse kids, slip past spell check, and pop up all over the place as typos and misspellings.

To make things worse, many homophones have different spellings, which means spell check ignores them, since alternative spellings are correct.

These little devils of the English language give readers headaches and copy editors nightmares, so it’s up to us as writers to learn how to use homophones correctly. Read More

Grammar Rules: Split Infinitives

grammar rules split infinitives

What are the grammar rules surrounding split infinitives?

It’s important that we, as writers, know the tools of our trade. Part of our job is to understand the mechanics of language, which includes grammar rules. Yet many writers find themselves asking…

What are split infinitives?

It’s a term that grammarians and linguists throw around a lot, yet few people, including writers, seem to know what it means.

According to Wikipedia:

A split infinitive or cleft infinitive is an English-language grammatical construction in which a word or phrase, usually an adverb or adverbial phrase, comes between the marker to and the bare infinitive (uninflected) form of a verb.

So, what’s an infinitive? What’s a bare infinitive? Understanding these terms will help us figure out what split infinitives are.




An infinitive, or bare infinitive is a simple form of a verb. Examples include write, go, talk, sit, and understand.

When a participle, such as to, appears before an infinitive, it is then referred to as a full infinitive. Examples include to write, to go, to talk, to sit, and to understand.

So, how do we get split infinitives?

Infinitives become split infinitives when another word is inserted between the participle (also called a marker) and the bare infinitive:

We want to truly understand English grammar.

In the example above, the participle is to and the bare infinitive is understand. The full infinitive to understand is split by the adverb truly.

That’s simple enough. So what’s the fuss?

As split infinitives became more popular in the 19th century, some grammatical authorities sought to introduce a prescriptive rule against them. The construction is still the subject of disagreement among native English speakers as to whether refraining from split infinitives is grammatically correct or good style.

In 1926, Henry Fowler wrote, “No other grammatical issue has so divided English speakers since the split infinitive was declared to be a solecism in the 19c: raise the subject of English usage in any conversation today and it is sure to be mentioned.” (source: Wikipedia)

Today, however, most linguists agree that split infinitives are acceptable.

Grammar Rules, Style, and Split Infinitives

While the grammar rules regarding split infinitives are being debated, style dictates that we write our sentences to be clear and consistent. Let’s take another look at our example sentence, but let’s move the adverb so our infinitive is no longer split:

We truly want to understand English grammar.

Note that this sentence sounds clearer, but we’ve changed the meaning. In the original example sentence, the adverb truly modified the phrase to understand. Here, it modifies want. When splitting infinitives, we need to make sure the word doing the splitting is modifying the right words in the sentence.

Let’s rewrite the sentence while keeping the meaning intact:

We want to master English grammar.

Here, the split infinitive to truly understand is replaced with stronger, more precise wording. Instead of truly understanding English grammar, we want to master it! This sentence is far clearer than the original. It has more punch, it doesn’t include a (somewhat questionable) split infinitive, and it communicates the exact same idea.

Split infinitives can sound awkward or clumsy when there’s a simpler, clearer way to construct the sentence.

The Final Frontier

One of the most famous of all split infinitives occurs in the opening sequence of Star Trek:

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” – Captain James T. Kirk

If you can find the participle (marker), the bare infinitive (simple form of the verb), and the adverb (which is causing the split) in the excerpt above, then you’re up to speed on split infinitives. Could it be rewritten without the split infinitive? Would it sound better or worse?

Now you know all about split infinitives. You know:

  • What split infinitives are
  • How to identify split infinitives
  • Split infinitives are acceptable, but
  • Split infinitives can make a piece of writing awkward, so
  • Use split infinitives with care

Do you better understand split infinitives? Have anything to add? Do you have any questions about these or other grammar rules? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

What’s The Difference Between Dashes and Hyphens?

dashes and hyphens

Dashes and hyphens.

To the passive reader, it’s a short horizontal line that appears somewhere in a text, usually joining two words together.

To a writer, it’s something else entirely, but what? Is it a dash, a hyphen, or a minus sign?

More than once, I’ve been pecking away at my keyboard and stopped suddenly when confronted with this versatile and confounding punctuation mark.

Many people use dashes and hyphens interchangeably, which is understandable, since most of us use the exact same keyboard character for both dashes and hyphens. However, they are technically two completely different punctuation marks.

When you use these punctuation marks, do you know whether you’re using them as dashes or hyphens?




This post looks at the following punctuation marks:

  • Hyphens
  • Dashes
  • Em-dashes
  • En-dashes

Hyphens

A hyphen is used to connect words in order to form a compound. It was also used commonly during the typewriter era to show that a word was broken at a carriage return, but that usage is rarely seen these days. Examples include:

  • ten-year-old
  • merry-go-round
  • editor-in-chief
  • co-worker
  • e-mail

Hyphens are also used to denote prefixes and suffixes when they are not affixed to a base word. An example would be re- or -ed.

Hyphenated Modifiers

Certain modifier combinations call for hyphenation. When two modifiers together modify another word, they are often hyphenated. For example, in the phrase “real-world situations,” the words real and world are connected with a hyphen. Note that real modifies world (the world is real) and as a single unit (a hyphenated modifier), the two words together modify situation. This is standard practice when one modifier modifies another to form a single modifier to a noun or verb.

Note, however, that adverb-adjective combinations are not normally hyphenated. For example, a “well understood concept” is not hyphenated (well is an adverb modifying the adjective understood).

Dashes

There are two types of dashes: the em dash ( — ) and the en (-) dash.

The Em Dash

This is also called the double dash — and rightly so — because it actually consists of two dashes without spacing before or after either one. Do note that the spacing is up for debate as some style guides and writers include a single space before and after the em dash, especially in online publishing due to issues with how browsers read and display certain punctuation marks.

The em dash is used to evoke emphasis or to “set off an element added to amplify or to digress from the main clause” (Publication Manual of the APA, 2001, p. 291).

The En Dash

An en dash is used more like a hyphen because it connects words. This connection forms a compound adjective where each individual word has equal weight. Here are two examples: Did you receive the July-August issue of the publication? Will you be on the San Francisco-New York flight?

Why are they called em and en dashes?

In typesetting, the em dash is the same width as the letter m, while the en dash matches the width of the letter n. It’s interesting to note that technically, a hyphen should be a tad bit shorter than the en dash. However, typewriters and computers only have the one punctuation mark (right above the p key) which must do triple duty (hyphen, em dash, and en dash), so unless you’re a professional typesetter, there’s no need to worry about measuring your marks.

How do you use dashes and hyphens in your writing? Do you have any questions or thoughts to add about punctuation marks in general? Leave a comment.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Homophones, Homonyms, and Homographs

homophones homonyms and homographs

Homophones, homonyms, and homographs.

They perplex us, confuse us, and make our heads spin. If you thought learning how to correctly spell words that sound alike was difficult, wait till you try to learn the terms for describing those words.

Homophones

Homophones are words that are pronounced alike but have different meanings.

Some examples are accept and except, affect and effect, and triplets too and to and two, along with they’re and their and there.

Homophones may also refer to words that are spelled and pronounced the same but differ in meaning — for example lie (lie down) and lie (an untruth).

These words are a major source of frustration for many writers, students, and professionals who struggle to memorize variant spellings for words that sound alike but have different meanings. Read More

Grammar Guidelines Versus Grammar Rules

grammar rules

Guidelines vs. grammar rules.

In grammar, there are rules and then there are guidelines. Rules may sometimes be broken, but usually breaking the rules of grammar leads to prose that sounds awkward and is indisputably incorrect.

But breaching the guidelines often leads to prose that sounds more natural.

An example of a grammar rule would be the use of singular and plural nouns. We do not say I have ten cat or I have one cats. Both sentences are absolutely incorrect. Would this rule ever be broken? Maybe if you’re writing dialogue for a two-year-old.

On the other hand, a guideline is a best practice. It’s not a rule; it’s a rule of thumb. An example of a grammatical guideline would be don’t end a sentence with a preposition. In fact, this guideline is commonly mistaken for a rule when in fact, it’s not. There are plenty of sentence constructs where the only sensible thing to do is end a sentence with a preposition.

Grammar Rules, Guidelines, and the Evolution of Language

Unfortunately, guidelines are often confused for rules. They are taught in schools and propagated through editors and armchair grammarians.

It’s important to understand that grammar, in general, is a form of consensus. When we all agree on how language should be structured, it’s much easier to communicate clearly and effectively.

Language is a living, breathing thing, and it evolves over time. Today’s rules are tomorrow’s guidelines, and in a few years they may fall out of practice altogether.

Guidelines Often Mistaken for Grammar Rules

Let’s look at a few guidelines that are widely misunderstood as rules. Warning: Proceed with caution when you flout these guidelines. As mentioned, grammar is a consensus, so there are still a lot of people who believe these are hard-and-fast rules. In fact, some of these guidelines may have once been grammar rules.

Split Infinitives: This myth states that you should not split an infinitive with an adverb. An infinitive is a basic form of a verb. If the verb is go, then the infinitive is to go. The guideline against splitting infinitives says that we shouldn’t insert the adverb between the words to and go. We would say “to go boldly” instead of “to boldly go.” But this isn’t a rule at all, so split your infinitives whenever it makes sense to do so.

Ending a Sentence with a Preposition: This non-rule, which says you must never end a sentence with a preposition, is one of my pet peeves because when you press a sentence that would naturally end with a preposition into this so-called rule, you end up with something that sounds forced, outdated, and uncomfortable. Consider the following sentence: To which store are you going? While this sentence adheres to the guideline, it sounds pretentious and would feel awkward coming from anyone under the age of two hundred. For prose that sounds natural and normal, use Which store are you going to?

Verbing Nouns: This annoys a lot of people, but I think it’s exciting to see new words emerge. A classic example is the use of the verb googling, which is derived from the proper noun, Google. We have to be careful here. If a perfectly suitable verb already exists, there’s really no reason to clutter up the language by creating a second verb with the same meaning. But as new technology emerges, like text messaging, it makes sense that we’ll create verbs like texting.

Starting a Sentence with a Conjunction: This can become a bad habit if left unchecked and can result in run-on sentences comprised of multiple clauses linked together by any of the four major conjunctions (and, or, but, and yet). Many sentences simply sound better when they stand alone as opposed to being linked by conjunctions. Consider the following: My friends are going to the football game, and I don’t want to go. This expression actually works better without the conjunction: My friends are going to the football game. I don’t want to go. Oftentimes, starting a sentence with a conjunction adds a punch to the prose: My friends are going to the football game. But I don’t want to go.

Using Whom in the Twenty-First Century: Whom is one of those words that has been pushed to near-extinction by the evolution of the English language. Nobody says, “To whom is this letter addressed?” We say, “Who is this letter addressed to?” (Ah, there’s a preposition at the end of that perfectly acceptable sentence!) There was a time when whom had its place in the rule book, but those days are long gone. Unless you want to sound like you just stumbled out of the eighteenth century, you should probably avoid it.

Using They for a Generic Singular Pronoun: This is a tough one that is in wide use but still sounds odd to many ears. If we’re talking about a generic person, the old practice was to default to the male singular pronoun. Here’s an example: If a reader likes your book cover, he is more likely to buy your book. We don’t know the actual gender of the generic reader. But using the male default was a biased approach that marginalized females by creating a sense that everybody was male. Many solutions have been offered, ranging from alternating between he and she to coming up with a brand-new, genderless generic pronoun for such cases. However, the most widely adopted practice has been to use they as follows: If a reader likes your book cover, they are more likely to buy your book. Although it sounds odd, it will likely come to sound normal as it’s used more often. Also, I would offer another solution, which would be to simply use plural generic nouns and pronouns whenever possible: If readers like your book cover, they are more likely to buy your book. Problem solved!

Final tip: Again, these are still best practices. If you can write a sentence without pinning a preposition to the end, then by all means, follow that guideline.

Can you think of any other guidelines that are often presented as hard grammar rules? What about grammar rules and constructs that have faded out of common use? Are there any rules or guidelines that grate on your nerves? Which ones do you break and why?

Fact verification: Grammar Girl