The following is a guest post from Brent Minderler, a friend and fellow copywriter. Brent loves English so much that he lived, studied and received a Master’s degree in American Literature from a university… in ENGLAND. His prose, passion, and patience with the language puts mine to shame, and I’m happy to have him guest post here.
William Strunk once wrote:
It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules.
What we say is as important as how we say it. Grammar nerds aren’t the only people who unite behind this simple idea. Many would agree that linguistic communication is the most valuable source of expression people have. Using language to its full advantage is understanding the rules behind how words (and punctuation!) work together. When we use words properly, we have a great chance at achieving the clarity and efficiency of language needed to connect with people for reciprocation of thought and feeling.
If you’re not sold yet, you might agree with this statement: we all want to improve ourselves (in a variety of different ways), and improving our communication skills is the best approach to take to improve in other ways. How do we know what qualities we’re trying to improve if we don’t know how to articulate them?
The same goes for business, right? We’re trying to accomplish certain goals, and the main method through which we attempt to achieve these goals is by communication. We write emails and blogs telling customers about our products and offers. We try to appeal to the needs of our target audience and beyond by articulating certain truths behind the products we offer. In order to do this, we must be able to relate to the customer. He or she is expressing a problem, a concern, and we exist to help articulate the reality of that concern. We’re people trying to connect with other people in a meaningful way, and language is that difficult tool we try to use to our best advantages, and it’s not easy; language changes with us.
One major way in which people continuously judge one another is how they use language. How many times have you encountered the situation, whether directly or indirectly, when someone pointed out the grammar mistakes of others? ‘You have it all wrong! Use “their” to indicate possession, “there” to indicate place!’ ‘Oh my god, did you hear that person say “ain’t got none”? That’s so bad. So bad. No one says that!’
Yes, it’s true! People are listening to us, and they are determining how we communicate. And it’s not just us, it’s everyone and everything. We’re talking to strangers and friends, looking at billboards and pamphlets, reading books and articles; we’re on your business’s website (yeah, you!), your competitor’s website and we’re reading the information. If it’s unclear or just plain bad we’re going to move on to the next one, and we’re not going to think twice about it. It’s up to us whether or not you succeed or fail. So sharpen your tools, and execute.
Here are 5 writing mistakes you might be missing in your proofs that are typical, annoying to readers and, worst of all, make you look bad:
1. The possessive singular: add ‘s no matter the consonant
Contrary to popular belief, the possessive singular is used even when the word ends with an s.
For example, write,
I placed Charles’s book on the shelf.
The Jones’s cat is in our yard.
E.E. Cummings’s poems are great.
The only exception to the rule is with classical and biblical proper names ending in –es and –is, and the possessive Jesus’
For example, write,
Pericles’ home was Athens.
Isis’ temple was magnificent.
Jesus’ teachings are in the Bible.
2. Omit needless words
How ridiculous does it sounds when people say ‘like’ after every word?! Verbal fillers are annoying in your writing as well. Qualifiers take away from the power of the right words used on their own, muddling up the flow of sentences, diluting meaning and confusing people. Rather, very, little, pretty are some of the culprits, and they do nothing but get in the way of what you truly want to say. Of course, little indicates size, and that’s all it should indicate, not some unknown measurement to describe how mediocre the party was; make that clear in the greater context of you’re writing.
Which sentence do you want to destroy?
We went to the party and it was a little fun, but we got there kind of late, and the music was very loud and the food was pretty cold.
We went to the party and it was fun, but we got there late, the music was loud and the food was cold.
3. Semicolons aren’t just for fun; they serve a specific purpose.
Semicolons are used to join two or more independent clauses that are grammatically complete and are not joined by a conjunction, to form a compound sentence (even if the second clause is preceded by an adverb). In my daily browsing, I see semicolon mistakes all the time. Most often, people seem to use semicolons in place of commas, which is wrong; the two marks are not interchangeable. Although, since semicolons are used to separate two independent clauses, it is grammatically correct to replace one with a period instead.
A comma is used to connect either a dependent clause and an independent clause, or two independent clauses before the conjunction: and, but, or, nor, for, while, etc. The relationship between one part of the sentence and the other is what is at stake here. Therefore, using a comma to connect two parts of a sentence is more succinct and more powerful because of the brevity, as well as more closely noting the relationship between each statement. But for longer sentences with longer clauses, the semicolon is preferred.
4. The number of the subject determines the number of the verb
No one says this better than Strunk and White, which is why I’ve credited them. At first, the rule seems easy. You take the subject and whether or not it’s plural, the verb corresponds; no word or list in between the subject and verb is to affect the number:
The time we shared today – exploring the city, sharing a great meal, enjoying the play – is everlasting.
The rule becomes difficult in a relative clause following ‘one of . . .’
One of the academics who have tackled the difficult readings of McCarthy
The subject might be confusing, but it is not ‘one’, it is ‘academics.’
Other rules to note: use the singular verb form after each, either, everyone, nobody, neither, someone
Both of the men look strong, but neither works hard.
With none, use the singular verb form when the word means ‘no one’ or ‘not one.’
None of us want what you’re offering.
When none suggests more than one thing or person, use the plural verb form.
None are as silly as those who make assumptions.
Lastly, a singular subject stays singular even when other nouns are connected to it by with, as well as, in addition to, together with, and no less than.
His rhetoric as well as his contemptible behavior is disgraceful.
5. Friends don’t let friends misspell on purpose
‘Texting language’. Oh, man. Don’t get me started. This one raises my hackles more than anything. ‘Texting language’ is not a thing. Texting is not a civilization with people. There was no time in history, nor will there ever be, where the Texting People from Textopia ordered a manifest to settle the land of Grammaria to drive out the Grammarians, in an attempt to satisfy the gods of Time, Technology and Colloquialisms. Needless to say, ‘texting language’ is not a linguistic advancement, it’s a regression, a linguistic apocalypse, and it’s definitely not a language, it’s a perversion of language.
Dumbing down the power of expression of language is fine if you’re using colloquialisms for yourself on your own time, but don’t try to expand your scope and implicate anyone else in your petty crimes against language. Most people don’t appreciate repeated attempts at deciphering a bunch of acronyms and jargon, and it will lead to more and more people giving up on your material and bouncing off your site. But I don’t have to tell you that because you’re smart.
I started my career as a consultant/freelance journalist and content writer 2 years ago, after receiving my Master’s degree in American Literature from a prominent university in England. I currently work as a content writer for a Silicon Valley tech company. I have written many articles and other documents that have helped my clients in their cause to promote quality, factual information to build droves of loyal followers while building and promoting their brands. I help them in the more immediate cause of translating what they want to say in order to appeal to what readers and customers want to hear.