Category Archives: Rants

Me going off on a rant about something or other that bothers me.

Fearing agents’/editors’ pet peeves

I just came across Thomas Weaver’s great post on Thinking to myself – or not that raised an interesting point about sometimes having circumstances where you need to dare to break some of the “rules” that seem to be so important to literary agents and editors.

Reading the beginning of the post, where Thomas explains the redundancy of adding “to oneself” after “thought”, at first I thought to m— I mean, I just, er, thought, “Heh, silly noob mistakes.” (Then I ran off and searched my manuscript for occurrences of “to herself”, “to himself”, and “to myself”.)

But seriously in all seriousness(*), I find it scary that agents/editors seem to have all these semi-undocumented pet peeves and the poor sods who submit their hard work and may commit one or two of them (which may soon be me!), despite the fact that these faux pas are easily corrected easy to correct, may never hear back from them nor ever find out what they did wrong.

(*) See what I did there? I avoided triggering someone’s pet peeve against adverbs (against which I’ve ranted previously) by using an adverbial phrase. Same thing, really (except it’s less succinct), but strangely enough, the same people that really mind adverbs don’t seem to mind adverbial phrases. Hypocritical of them, I know, I know… but they seem to “make” the rules.

I hope that there are more “reasonable” agents and editors out there than I realise (despite the fact that I understand how they came to be that way; I’m sure some of the things they have to read are just… shockingly bad). Because I’ll be running that gauntlet soon(ish). #amwriting

Wise Old Tree

Even this Wise Old Tree doesn’t know all the pet peeves that need to be avoided. (Oh, fine, I admit it – the tree doesn’t really have anything to do with this post’s topic. I just wanted to sneak another one of my wife’s great photos into my blog. Sue me.)

Does anyone have (or know of) a list of these types of pet peeves, or unwritten rules, for authors to avoid? And please don’t point me to the Turkey City Lexicon – in my opinion, that’s just common sense mixed with “never do this!” overreactions to serial-pattern-abusers.

I believe…!

(*clears throat and climbs up on his soapbox, manifesto in one hand, microphone in the other*)

I believe...

… that there are a few things I need to say at the start of the new year, 2015.

General

  • … that people who wonder about the meaning of life either don’t have kids or don’t pay enough attention to them.
  • … that love, humour and hope are the three main ingredients for happiness.
  • … in happy endings in real life. (In stories, they sometimes make me cringe, though. Even if I did silently hope for them.)
  • … in the importance of people being able to talk to each other… non-electronically.
  • … that you don’t need to drink alcohol in order to have fun.
  • … that smoking should be outlawed except for people willing to wear a permanently sealed-off helmet, and that the influence of tobacco lobbyists and the like are despicable. We all know what it does… why is it still around?
  • … that America and the UK need to stop hanging on to their confusing versions of the imperial system of units and finally go metric (your medical and military people are doing it… no, not with each other, I mean they use the metric system). Also, the US need to stop insisting on formatting dates with the middle value followed by the smallest value followed by the largest value. WTF? Oh, while you’re at it, guys, fix where punctuation goes on quotes that are less than a “complete sentence”.
  • … that bullies are almost always cowards too weak to stop doing to others something similar to what’s been done to them.
  • … that the most wonderful sound in the whole wide world is that of my kids laughing uncontrollably.
  • … that I’m the luckiest guy alive because my awesome wife, best friend and soulmate gets me and loves me including all my faults.

Politics

  • … that religious extremism of any sort makes this world a darker place, and that the rest of the world should take heed of how Australia handled her first real encounter with it. #IllRideWithYou
  • … that Australia needs to get rid of its current village idiot, climate-change-denying leader to start moving in the right direction again. We’re the joke of the world, being pretty much the only country in the world that is moving away from actively doing something about global warming, and it’s a friggin’ disgrace.

Software

  • … that OSS (open-source software) is the way to go wherever there’s a choice.
  • … that DRM (digital rights management) is wrong.
  • … that I couldn’t live without some of my favourite pieces of software (sounds like a future blog topic to me!).
  • … that installing a piece of software on my PC or an app on my phone doesn’t give it the right to do things like collect data about me without my explicit agreement, to not give me a choice of when it can dial home or check for updates, or to access any information on my system it doesn’t absolutely need to function. Worst offenders being companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Adobe, but also increasingly “do-no-evil” Google. (I love Cyanogen!)
  • … that it’s a crying shame that Smalltalk isn’t more widely used as a programming language (try Pharo and Seaside if you like to tinker, you won’t want to go back).
  • … that I am fully within my rights, when I see an email from someone that ends with “sent from my iPhone” to add to my own response, “Sent from my 64GB/3G Snapdragon 801 2.5GHz Quadcore OnePlus One with Cyanogen 11S that kicks your iPhone’s arse (and costs less than half as much)”.

Work (in IT)

  • … that programmers shouldn’t have to wear business clothes.
  • … that software architects should have the guts to recommend the right software for the job, not based on which sales reps can throw more money at decision-making board members who still believe that more expensive must mean better.
  • … that IT recruiters are right up there with lawyers and other blood suckers. The fact that they charge between 10% and 40% (or even more) on top of a developer’s rates without really knowing anything beyond buzz words is just appalling.

Blogging

  • … that I should take the time to blog a bit more. (Yeah, like that’ll happen. *sigh*)
  • … that there are too many good, honest blogs out there to read – how I wish I had more time to invest in being a good follower!
  • … that following another blog without really being interested in what it’s about, i.e. just to get them to follow you back, is akin to lying. Thanks to all those who do occasionally read my humble scribblings, and I hope to find more time to read all your blogs. (I _am_ interested in those I follow! I just roll my eyes whenever someone new follows me whose blog is about “making money by blogging” or the like.) For now, though, my aim is simply to have (not necessarily build) a platform while I focus on writing my book. Building my platform will come later, when I have more time for that sort of thing….
  • … that WordPress is great, but they should finally accept that I like the “old” stats page better and stop asking me to vote in their silly survey every time I load it.
  • … that WordPress needs to finally find a way to fix the “invalid certificate” bug that causes security errors. I keep forgetting that certain things only work in certain browsers because of it, and that it sometimes causes my “likes” of other blogs to be lost. Not cool!

Writing

  • … that I’ve had enough of distopian future stories whose premise I don’t buy, or whose premise I buy, but they then make ridiculous assumptions about human nature that I just can’t swallow (might be another future blog post).
  • … that everyone should take grammar seriously. Not just grandpa. All jokes aside, don’t let our language decay because people have to fit everything into 140 characters. Do your part, write things out, learn how it’s done right without needing a spell checker, and gently educate those who fall short. Or, like, mercilessly correct them, or… whatever.
  • … that my story is worth telling.
  • … that 2015 will be the year I finally finish my story. Watch this space. #amwriting

Conclusion

  • … that you should all have a Happy New Year! All the best for 2015 (and beyond).
  • … that it’s about time I stepped off this soap box. Ahem. Sorry for ranting, but occasionally it’s nice to get this sort of stuff off my chest. Now somebody give me a hand getting down, it’s higher than it looks. Huh? What do you mean, the microphone wasn’t on?!?

Political bullying, brown-nosing, and bad grammar

Apologies up front, this post will of necessity be somewhat politically tinged; if that’s not your thing and me having a go at bad grammar isn’t enough to make you continue reading, feel free to skip this one. The next one will be vastly different, promise. ;-)

Reading the online news during lunch today at work, I came across this article in the Sydney Morning Herald:

MH17: Australia cool on expanding sanctions against Russia as access to crash site thwarted again

Quite a serious topic, and currently very much in the forefront of what Australian media are reporting. Two very different sides – the political and the grammatical one – of this story managed to really annoy me.

The political side

Few seem to be willing to say out loud what (I think) seems obvious to most: that Russia’s President Putin is an egotistical bully who needs to be taken down a notch. So many politicians are so worried about how much saying something negative about Putin or Russia might affect their international relationship that they’re willing to overlook all the bullying and the posturing and instead engage in brown-nosing that would make the most sycophantic teacher’s pet jealous.

Several European countries like Germany are treading carefully with Putin because of their reliance on Russian oil, and yet are daring to tighten their sanctions – good on them. The Amercians are economically more isolated and speak more freely while still having to keep in mind that Putin is a loose cannon, crazy and brazen enough to escalate a conflict that will make half the world bleed. I recently read some honest-sounding words from John Kerry about Putin, and the US is on board with increased sanctions.

Here in Australia, we’re even more isolated from Russia (as far as I know, I’m not claiming expertise on the subject), but what do our leaders do? The ones who got themselves into office mostly by bullying many Australians into actually believing those ridiculous three-word-slogans are now doing what most bullies do when faced with a stronger bully: they’re sucking up to him while it’s in their best interest.

But Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Australia already had some sanctions against Russia and flagged the possibility of the government expanding those “further”, but not before the multinational team had completed its mission.

We’re trying to get the bodies of many who were on flight MH17 home, and, fair enough, if we upset Putin and that turns out to be the reason we fail to identify and retrieve our dead, then, well, that would really suck. But, come on, he’s had the chance to intervene on the side of sanity and has done nothing to help. He’s proven that his ambitions far outstrip his compassion and has made his priorities clear by not acting when he could (and should) have.

Why are we still holding on to the belief that he’ll use his influence with the separatists if we’re openly saying that we’ll consider expanding sanctions after he’s helped us? Do Abbot and Bishop really think Putin won’t hear that they’re only waiting with the sanctions for now? Or that it comes across as a “gesture of goodwill”? Bullies of that calibre don’t think very highly of gestures of goodwill. But our own, smaller, bullies are too busy brown-nosing to notice, I think.

Shh!

The resemblance is uncanny, isn’t it? (Original Photo by Jonathan Ng, shamelessly taken from SMH and converted to animated GIF by yours truly.)

The grammatical side

The subject matter of the article aside, the other thing that ticked me off while reading this article from what I thought of as a respectable newspaper was that it had several errors that any editor should have spotted. Are all these cuts to education having an effect already? No, wait, people can’t write properly because of previous cuts to education spending.

Let’s start with the title. Wouldn’t some alternative to “cool” have been preferable? I’m imagining most Gen-Y readers (well, the ones that read the news) would skim the headline and think, “Oh good, we’re cool with that.”

“Australia is unlikely to immediately follow the US and EU’s lead…”, the article begins. That possessive should apply to the US as well as the EU, i.e. “the US’s and EU’s lead” for the sentence to make sense. The same sentence then uses the phrase “… help in aiding the unarmed police mission’s safe passage to the MH17 crash site”. Who needs safe passage – the police, the police’s mission, or the “police mission”? The former would make sense, yet the latter is implied.

Later, in the typical one-sentence-per-paragraph style too many journalists use because then they don’t have to think about which sentences belong together: “… the possibility of the government expanding those ‘further’, but not before the multinational team had completed its mission”. (Ah, so the police and the team do have a mission, the abstract kind, not the missionary kind. I hope they get their safe passage.) Why is “further” in quotes? If someone were reading this out loud, would they have to do the “finger quote” thing? Is the article quoting just that one word and has paraphrased the rest, or are they trying to make fun of what the PM said in some manner I don’t get?

Next, they quote Abbott as follows: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again – that’s the approach that the Australian government and our international partners, particularly the Dutch have got to this.” We all know that Abbott is not the “suppository of all wisdom” (one try too many, Tony), but you don’t have to butcher his quotes even more by ignoring the rules of grammar. In the quoted sentence, the dependent clause “particularly the Dutch” should be separated from the main sentence (“…the approach the government and our partners have got to this”) by commas. The first comma is there, the second is missing.

The next quote (“if it doesn’t happen today…”) needs a semi-colon instead of a comma before the second if.

The conjunction but in the next sentence joins two independent clauses (“he said the situation remained fluid” and “they would not be taking sides”), hence it should have a comma to separate them.

Want to distill Abbott’s foreign policy down to one short phrase? He’ll do it for you:

I know that various things are happening in Europe and elsewhere, that’s a matter for the Europeans and others.

Douglas Adams defined those things as SEPs (someone else’s problem). Yeah, Tony, if all countries just worried about their own problems like you do, we wouldn’t get all those boats you want to stop, right? Do I even need to point out the fact that the comma in that quote shouldn’t be a comma? The same thing goes for the Hockey quote, “I made no such claim, that’s just dead wrong.” Does anyone even know what commas are used for any longer?

At least there’s a comma after “Wednesday”, but the rest of the sentence (“Moscow’s support for the unarmed mission was vital for the team’s support”) reminds me of Austin Powers’ wonderfully awkward “Please allow myself to introduce… myself.”

I won’t even mention the last sentence, but I will repeat this: it’s a newspaper article. Not just some scribbling in a blog no one reads. Journalists! You should hold yourselves to a higher standard. Especially on a topic of this gravity.

a very brief semi-rant about punctuation

Amos M. Carpenter:

As writers, I think it’s our duty to lead by example as much as possible. Even if you’re not serious about ever being published and just blog for fun, consider that every time you make a common error, the chances of someone reading your error and subconsciously registering that that’s the way to do it increase, and you’ve helped the error to spread. If you write, consider yourself one of the guardians of good language. Thomas’ succinct post hits the head on the nail.

Originally posted on North of Andover:

It’s not that difficult a concept:  If you have a sentence that could be divided into two sentences by removing a conjunction (a compound sentence), there must be a comma before that conjunction.  This isn’t optional.  This isn’t a matter of personal taste.

It is also a good idea not to use a comma after a conjunction-type word at the beginning of a sentence.  If you’re going to start a sentence with but (usually fine in informal writing, which is what fiction is), don’t use a comma after it.  The same thing goes for and.  After all, if you use but or and in the middle of the sentence, the comma goes before it.

Inept punctuation in a novel makes the author look bad; inept punctuation in an indie-published novel makes every other indie author look bad, too, because a lot of readers still think indie equals unprofessional.  Perpetuating this misconception is

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10 more common mistakes writers shouldn’t make

Previously, on Amos M. Carpenter

In one of my very first posts, back in early March, I wrote about 10 common mistakes writers shouldn’t make. Spotting mistakes is one of my gifts – or curses; hard to say which at any given moment – and I’ll go over some I notice in writing of all types, from Internet scribbling to serious books.

To recap those from the last post, the five easy ones were:

  1. Definitely
  2. Don’t add apostrophes to make plurals
  3. Homonyms: “its” vs “it’s”, “their” vs “there” vs “they’re”, “your” vs “you’re”
  4. Using “alot” a lot
  5. I before E, except after C… how hard can it be?

The five that were slightly trickier:

  1. Careful with your tenses
  2. Singular “is” vs plural “are”
  3. Who thinks of whom
  4. The postfix -ward vs -wards
  5. Using “if” vs “whether”

Continuing on from last time, I thought I’d blog about 10 more mistakes that have caught my eye.

Five (arguably) easy ones

1. Separate

Like “definitely”, this is one of those words an incredible number of people just do not know how to spell. It’s not “seperete”, or “sepret”, or “separete”. If you can’t remember it any other way, think of the word “karate” when you write it.

2. Space before punctuation

I believe that some people who also speak (and read/write) French get confused on this one (because in French, you use a space before punctuation). Or they just don’t know any better. In English, there is no space before punctuation like commas, full-stops, exclamation marks, or question marks. (“No space for you!”) Of course there’s one space after them, though. With en- and em-dashes, it can be different, depending on which style guide you’re following, as some prefer to use spaces both before and after them.

3. Couple OF

Dropping the preposition “of” after using “couple” is becoming more popular. However, I’d always recommend adding the “of”, as dropping it is mostly due to writers following in the footsteps of sloppy speakers. In spoken language, of often gets abbreviated to o’, so we go from “a couple of apples” to “a couple o’apples” to “a coupl’a apples” to “a couple apples”. It’s the same with “a cup of tea” becoming “a cuppa tea” – but would you ever say “a cup tea”, dropping the “of” completely?

I recently noticed how much this annoyed me when I read Patrick Rothfuss’ otherwise wonderful books (as I mentioned in this post). He’s one of those people (or perhaps it’s his editor?) who don’t believe “couple” needs a preposition, and many times while reading his story, it jarred me enough that it broke my immersion. (He’s still one of my favourite authors. I’m a forgiving sort of person. At least when someone tells such great stories.)

4. Then vs than

This one should be very simple – use then when referring to time, use than when comparing – but many people still get it wrong. First comes one thing, then something else. Jack is taller than Jill. Simple.

5. Have isn’t of

When “have” gets abbreviated, as in “I could have” becoming the contraction “I could’ve”, it sounds like, but isn’t “I could of”. I suppose people who get this wrong just write things the way they hear it, but pausing just a second to think about it should make it obvious that the two are not interchangeable. I could of, would of, should of used could have, would have, should have.

Five more, slightly trickier

Ok, I’m sure you knew all of the above, so here are some that are just a tad more advanced.

6. Is “alright” all right?

Many careful English users would consider the shortened form, “alright”, to be less acceptable than “all right”, especially in formal writing. Some would even consider it to be an invalid word, but it can be found in some writing, mainly in the US, so perhaps it will become more acceptable in time. For now, I’d recommend sticking with “all right”.

7. Further vs farther

You’ll know this one if you’ve seen Finding Forrester. It’s easiest to remember if you keep in mind that “far” relates to (measurable) distance, as does “farther”. On the other hand, “further” is used when denoting an abstract amount of something. So it’s “set them farther apart”, but “of no further value”.

It gets tricky when the dividing line between the two isn’t immediately obvious, as in “to go one step further/farther” – you have to ask yourself whether it is a physical step (i.e. “farther”), or a metaphorical step (“further”).

8. Capitalisation of formal titles

Obviously, certain things are always capitalised (capitalized, if you prefer – in Australia, we use the “s” form, I believe both are used in the UK and the US prefers “z”), such as days of the week, languages, or countries. But what about formal titles, “honourifics”, like General, or Professor, or Queen? Are they capitalised or not? Well, it depends on how you use them. If the word is used to refer to a particular person holding that title, it should be capitalised. If it is used to refer to a group of them, or to the title itself, leave it in lowercase (with the obvious exception of being the first word in a sentence).

Thus, it would be “Professor Smith”, or even “there’s the Professor” (despite the name not being used, it’s a particular professor), but “he’s a professor at my university”, or “the professors have arrived”.

If you invent a title for your story, you should treat it the same way.

9. Full-stops (periods) after abbreviations

When do you place a full-stop after an abbreviation? Why do you sometimes see it written as “Mr.”, and sometimes as “Mr”?

In British English (similarly for AUS/NZ/SA as far as I’m aware), the deciding factor is whether the abbreviation begins and ends with the same letters as the full word or phrase. Since “Mr” does meet this criterion (mister), there is no full-stop: Mr Jones. “Prof.”, however, does not begin with “p” and end with “r” (professor), so it gets a full-stop: Prof. Jones.

In US English, I believe the full-stop is always used. Just something to be aware of when you read and write.

10. Ellipses at the end of sentences

The ellipses I’m talking (well, writing) about are the ones in creative writing that indicate the speaker trailing off, or leaving something unsaid, as opposed to those that indicate an omission in a quote.

This is one that depends on which styleguide you follow. Some argue that an ellipsis (dot dot dot) at the end of a sentence finishes that sentence, while others consider it a part of the sentence and add a fourth dot to end the sentence, just as if the ellipsis had been any other word….

Personally, I add the fourth dot, even in informal writing (e.g. in blog comments), but I think the main thing is to pick a convention and stick with it consistently.

Conclusion

There you go, I hope some of these common mistakes have refreshed your memory of what to look out for, or perhaps even taught you something new.

Which errors do you frequently commit, or spot? Which ones really annoy you when you see them in written form? Or do you think sticklers for detail (like me) should just stop with the nitpicky posts already? Please let me know in the comments!

Five aspiring authors in a cage

Most people would have read the “five monkeys in a cage” tale. If not, google it or (if you’re lazy), watch the summary on vimeo. Essentially, it is a tale encouraging us to question why things are sometimes done the way they are done with no apparent reason.

Five monkeys in a cage

Five monkeys in a cage (ok, the picture has more than five… it still gets the point across I think)

Today, I read fellow blogger Jodie Llewellyn’s nice post on “Adverbs… yes or no?” and I agree with her about adverbs getting a bad rap (not “wrap”, by the way ;-) ), but couldn’t help but notice that some of the comments there were fairly one-sided and “anti-adverb”. Is comparing people who advise against using adverbs to the five monkeys left in the cage a little extreme? Perhaps, but so is flat-out advising against the use of adverbs.

Adverbs are not evil, people.

As with so many things, the importance is to use adverbs in moderation. Granted, many of the commenters did advise moderation, and some pointed out why their overuse should be avoided. I don’t disagree with that. But saying their use is the “easy way out”, or a “shortcut”, that removing all adverbs from a manuscript makes it “stronger”, and that “said” should never be modified with an adverb? Really? I don’t want to offend anyone, and I don’t want anyone committing the strawman fallacy of claiming that I advocate liberal use of adverbs in all styles of writing (I don’t), but that just sounds like parochial adverb-bashing to me.

I also noted (with the slightest of smirks, I must admit), that those with adverb-allergies don’t mind using rather long adverbial phrases. How is that any better?

Journalism is probably an area where adverbs should be avoided more than in fiction. Sections in fiction where the reader should be left to fill the partially-drawn canvas with her own imagination should have fewer or no adverbs.

However, adverbs can (I stress can) be useful: they can clarify, modify, moderate, strengthen, explain; they can be elegant, precise, and more succinct than a laborious adverbial phrase. I suspect a number of adverb-despisers don’t realise how heavily they use adverbial phrases, and that sometimes – sometimes – a good adverb can be better. Adverbs have their place in first-person perspectives, for instance, where the narrator’s opinion should colour the reader’s impression.

I see close similarities between what is considered to be “good writing” and what is considered to be “elegant programming” (in my day job). Inexperienced writers, like inexperienced programmers, tend to sometimes follow certain patterns, or do too much or too little of something. Editors or code reviewers pick up on these patterns and, in formulating advice on how to prevent such anti-patterns, sometimes generalise a little too much, or state their advice as though it was doctrine. Such advice has its use, but experienced writers or programmers should take this advice with a hefty pinch of salt. The turkey city lexicon is a prime example. Know the rules, know the conventions, but also be aware of when and how they should be broken (or at least bent).

The comment that scared me into writing this post was one from a writer who said he was new to sharing his writing, hadn’t considered the use of adverbs too much, and now thought he should indeed remove adverbs to make his writing stronger. Please… let’s not create more monkeys who do things just because “that’s the way things are done around here”.

10 common mistakes writers shouldn’t make

I know posts and articles like this are all too common, and many people are probably sick of them. Maybe, but too many people still make these mistakes for me not to at least have a go at ranting correcting them. (Any mistakes in any of my posts? Please let me know in the comments. Really.)

Five (arguably) easy ones

I’ll start with five I find all over, though I assume serious writers would know them, from online newspaper articles where “journalists” should really know better to informal scribblings where they’re not as bad, but anyone who writes anything on the ‘net should really know these first ones.

1. Definitely

So many variations of how this word is misspelled, yet it’s so simple when you remember that the word “finite” is in there.

2. Don’t add apostrophes to make plurals

I see this on shop signs and the like so often it’s embarrassing. To make a word plural, you generally just add an “s“, not an “‘s” (i.e. without the apostrophe). You may have to make adjustments like changing “y” to “ie“, but otherwise there are very few exceptions. (For instance, there are different opinions on what to do with numerals, but that’s another story.)

3. Homonyms: “its” vs “it’s”, “their” vs “there” vs “they’re”, “your” vs “you’re”

Just know your possessives and it’s a whole lot easier.

Generally, possessives are where you add apostrophes to words: Fred’s head, Amos’ blog (note the apostrophe at the end there since it already ends with “s”, though some would argue that another “s” won’t hurt).

However, possessive pronouns are an exception: mine, yours, his/hers/its, ours, yours, theirs… no apostrophe. (Same goes for “whose”, an interrogative possessive pronoun.) The examples in the above heading that do have an apostrophe are all contractions: it’s (it is, or it has), they’re (they are), you’re (you are).

Everyone should be clear on when to use “there” (though some apparently don’t bother to think about it).

4. Using “alot” a lot

They are two words. Just like “a little”.

5. I before E, except after C… how hard can it be?

This is the golden rule when you don’t know whether it’s “ie” or “ei”. Long “ee” sounds almost always conform to it: “believe”, “relieve”, “thief”, “piece”, but “receive”, “ceiling”, “conceit”, “transceiver”.

Actually, this one isn’t as easy as the others, as it has quite a few more exceptions. But I’d argue it’s better to follow the rule and be wrong on the occasional exception than to not follow it and be wrong on, well, many more words. Don’t let the weird exceptions seize you and scare you off.

Five more, slightly trickier

Knew all of the above already? The next batch aren’t quite as obvious and some can catch out even seasoned writers.

6. Careful with your tenses

Writers should really be comfortable with these, but occasionally I still spot mistakes of this kind even in printed books that should have been proof-read by professionals. I’ll leave it at one example I saw just last night in an otherwise very well-written story, where a character “knew he overreacted”. The story is told in the past tense, so it should be either “knew he’d overreacted” (if the overreaction was over by the time he knew it), or “knew he was overreacting” (if the overreaction was still occurring).

7. Singular “is” vs plural “are”

This one seems to be sneaking its way into formal English from everyday use. People no longer just (mis)use it when speaking informally, it can now be found on radio/TV as well as written online or in print. It may seem innocent when people say something like “There’s two things that tick me off”, but beware of using “is” with a plural. “Things are“, not “things is“.

8. Who thinks of whom?

Some may argue I’m flogging a dead horse here, but I don’t think we should give up on the word “whom” just yet, at least in formal writing. The rule of when to use which is not as tricky as most would think. Just remember that who replaces the subject of the sentence while whom replaces the object.

(Edit: while writing this, I googled the subject and found a great “comic” on this describing both when and why to use whom in a sentence. It explains the subject/object rule better than I could as well as pointing out a simple he/him test that’s easy to remember. “Do it for the steeds!”)

9. The postfix -ward vs -wards

Did he go toward her or towards her?

Short version? If unsure, leave out the “s”.

Long(er) version? Historically and more formally, the form with the “s” is an adverb, while the form without the “s” can be an adjective, a noun, or an adverb (a variant of the “s” form). From what I’ve been able to read from various sources (please correct me if I’m wrong), it seems that this distinction has become less relevant in recent years, and that the form with the “s” (towards, downwards, backwards) is used more in UK/AUS/NZ while the shorter form (toward, downward, backward) is chiefly used in the US. Personally, I’d still say something along the lines of “He moved backwards in a backward world.”

10. Using “if” vs “whether”

“I don’t know if I should tell you this.” Correct or incorrect? We all use it in informal language, but, at least formally, “whether” should replace “if” in this example. Formally, “if” indicates a conditional phrase, but “If I should tell you this, then I don’t know” doesn’t make sense. In cases with two distinct possibilities, use “whether”. Mixing these two up can drive students of logic up the wall (which, admittedly, can be fun).

Conclusion

Whether or not you use “if”, especially if you’re your own boss’ boss, and they’re not in their right mind over there while it’s obvious that saying “definitely” is its own reward a lot of the time, remember whom to thank for these great rules and continue to believe in the gloriously weird language that is English.

Cheers,

AMC

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