Homophones are words that sound alike but have different meanings. Sometimes, they’re also spelled differently: compliment vs. complement.
Since homophones sound the same, they are often misspelled. Sometimes they’re misspelled because the writer doesn’t know there are two different spellings. In other cases, misspelled homophones are the result of typing too fast or failing to proofread carefully.
Spell check will not catch these typos because the spelling is legitimate, even if it’s for a word with a different meaning.
To make it easier to remember which spelling goes with which meaning, we can use mnemonic devices, which are memory tricks. Today, we’re going to learn how to remember the difference between the homophones compliment and complement. Read More
Believe it or not, the words further and farther have different meanings, although people tend to use them interchangeably.
And it’s no surprise, because these two words look alike, sound alike, and the difference in meaning is subtle. Plus there are a few circumstances when they are legitimately interchangeable.
Let’s solve the further vs. farther mystery once and for all. Read More
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 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
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
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
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 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
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.
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:
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:
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.
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).
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.