Friday, April 6, 2012

Grammar and Your Writing: Don’t Ignore the Basics

Back in the day, magazines, newsletters, and newspapers, and, if you were very lucky, books, were the primary outlets for your written words. An editor sat as judge and jury over every query and article submitted for publication, which meant that a writer crafted each adjective, period, and comma in order to please him or her, and thus, become published.

Fast forward to today. Editors and proofreaders along with their attendant publications are dropping like flies. Blogs are the new way of communicating. They’re easy to set up. Write something, post it, and bam! Instant gratification. Right?

Not so fast.

We may be knowledgeable about our topic, but to gain credibility we must be able to present our information in a professionally written manner. (Note that “professionally written” is NOT hyphenated, unlike many adjectives.)

If you snoozed through English classes, learn the basics of grammar now.

DailyWritingTips.com offers Basic English Grammar as a downloadable PDF, plus there are websites such GrammarGirl.com, which can provide quick references. Grammarly on Facebook is a fun look at grammatical goofs and its website will check your writing for style and punctuation.

If you live near a major city, check out the one-day classes available through Pryor (www.pryor.com). You may think a grammar class is boring, but the one I took through Pryor 15 years ago was a lot of fun and has really stuck with me. A quick Google search also lists various online courses.

Microsoft Word offers some help. There’s the ubiquitous SpellCheck, plus there are the red and green squiggles, which can be helpful if you can go beyond the annoyance factor.

None of these is foolproof, rather they can serve as flags: Is that word or proper name spelled correctly? Do the subject and verb agree?

Here are some quick suggestions for improving your copy. They are not a substitute for a well-crafted, well-researched article, but they do give you a leg up on correctness.

The Very Basics. Please learn the proper use of it’s (contraction for it is) and its (possessive); they’re/their/there; your/you’re (that seems to be taking precedence for being misused); to/too/two; a lot (not alot); all right (not alright); through (not thru), then/than, formerly/formally.

Which vs. that: “Which” is a non-essential clause that is set off by commas. “That” is an essential clause, which is used without commas. (There’s some grammatical punning in those two lines…)

Possessives are not rocket science. Think for a minute before your hit the apostrophe, especially in a list: Televisions, radios, CDs (not CD’s).

Use one space after a period, not two. This is not high school typing class. And, in general, watch your spacing. You know that little paragraph mark in your tool bar? It also has little dots that show the number of spaces between words. Make use of it. If you can’t retrain yourself, do a search and find after you’ve written the document.

Be consistent about how you use em dashes, en dashes, hyphens and dashes. It’s easier on the reader’s eyes. If you type your drafts in Word, just hit space-dash-dash-space, then new word and a nice em dash should appear.

Pick up a copy of the AP stylebook: it’s an easy way to learn the use of consistent and correct references, numerals and abbreviations.

Avoid text-speak. Period.

Amidst? This is not the King’s English.

Break copy into short paragraphs. Online readers have shorter attention spans.

Vary your sentence structure. Don’t be afraid of short punchy sentences.

Avoid repetitious phrases.

While we’re all dying to post our latest interview, product review, or kitty-related experience, walk away from your copy for a few hours before hitting “send” or “publish,” or have someone else read through it. You’re sure to find things that need fixing.

The good news about using a blogging format is that you can go back to your document and quickly fix any errors. Take advantage of that even if the post is old.

The grammar gods will sleep better for your efforts.

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