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Thursday, 15 March 2012

7 Ways to Improve Your Grammar and Impress Readers.

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Some aspects of English grammar create more confusion and resultant errors than others. I get far too het up about them. But, there you are; I guess I care a little too much about the way writer's constantly break rules they often don't appear to know exist. However, in common with George Orwell, I'd rather all the rules were broken than have to endure an ugly sentence. But, in order to break rules effectively, you have to know what they are.
So, here's a list of seven of the most common errors and some suggested solutions.

1.      Contractions.
We all speak using contractions. But when we write them down, they seem to cause problems. Here are some of the common pitfalls.
They're, you're, we're; all contractions of the pronoun used with 'are'. So, they are becomes they're, etc. The most common error occurs when your, the possessive pronoun, is substituted for you're, the contraction. The only sensible way to avoid the error is to write out the meaning in full and then apply the contraction if it's appropriate. Example:  This is a chance to improve your writing. Here, your refers to the writing and the context makes it plain that it is the writing that belongs to you. The possessive pronoun is therefore the correct usage. However; If you're going to improve the way you write, you need to be aware of how grammar works. Here, you're can be replaced by you are, so the contraction is the correct form. If your were used, it would make no sense, since there's nothing belonging to anyone in the sentence.

2.      Homonyms.
This leads quite naturally onto the homonyms, those words that sound alike but have different spellings and/or different meanings. We've looked at your and you're but there are many examples in English and they confuse even those raised with the language, so it's hardly a surprise if foreign language speakers have problems.
They're, their, there; we're, wear, where, were; bow(bend from the waist), bough; buy, by, bye; row (a boat), roe; tyre, tire; tear (cry), tier; peer, pier; pear, pair; stare, stair. A non-comprehensive list of some common homonyms. These won't be picked up by your spell-checker, because the spelling is correct. Only you, as the writer, can determine whether you've used the right word, though. And, if in doubt, please resort to that invaluable tool of the author; a reference book called a 'dictionary'. And, as a means of getting those of you who rarely open this writers' bible to do just that, I'm not going to provide further help here on this one.

3.      Apostrophe 's'.
Lynn Truss wrote a wonderful short book on this, and other, grammatical pitfalls. If you haven't read 'Eats Shoots and Leaves', shame on you.
The apostrophe 's' identifies the word as a possessive and is often confused with the plural form. So we have the field-side signs inviting the driver to 'Stop and Pick Your Own Potatoe's'. Generally, it's not clear which of the potatoe's belongings we're being invited to choose. That's because it's a simple plural and the apostrophe is redundant, incorrect, wrong, unnecessary and generally no more than the product of a confused and ill-educated mind.
It's not helpful that such worthy stores as Waterstone's, a chain of shops selling books for heaven's sake, decided to ditch the apostrophe in their name. Why? It hardly causes confusion or extra work for the sign-writer.
Please remember to ask yourself the question, when unsure about the insertion of an apostrophe: 'Does this word indicate the ownership of something (apostrophe) or is it simply stating the plural case (no apostrophe). Really quite simple, you see?

4.      Tenses.
I can get quite tense about tenses. Even journalists, particularly TV reporters, can mix these up and it really sets my teeth on edge. Reports tell us that '…the injured player was took off the pitch.' We all know, don't we, that it's '...the injured player was taken off…'? It's not difficult; or, perhaps it is, is it? And then there's the wonderful, '…all thought the boy done good.' What? Surely, even the most basic English education explains that we should say, '…all thought the boy had done well.' or, '…all thought the boy did well,' or, perhaps, '…the boy did a good job.' doesn't it? And then there's the confusion that persists about the use of such forms as 'spun/span, swum/swam, and hung/hang'. 'The spider had spun a web across the corner.' 'The car span out of control.' 'Beryl swam across the current to reach the other side.' 'Georgina has swum the Channel on three occasions.' 'I hung up my coat.' 'Will you hang up my coat, please?' But, 'The killer was hanged for murder.'
English is noted for its irregular forms. I could go on for a very long time here, but I don't wish to bore you. If in doubt about these things, buy, borrow or steal a copy of one of the many 'English Usage' guides. I use Fowler's, the Oxford Guide and Partridge's Usage and Abusage. All worth the few quid/dollars you need to spend to get it right, don't you think?

5.      Plural or Singular?
There is often some uncertainty about whether a plural or singular verb is correct usage in sentences where there appears to be more than one subject. e.g. Bread and water is too good for that prisoner. I suspect most people would agree with the singular 'is' rather than the plural 'are' here, even though we have two subjects; 'bread' and 'water'. The 'and' here engages both subjects and combines them into a single entity that is understood by readers to be a combined subject. Therefore, the singular form is correct. In any case, it sounds better. If you don't believe me, try reading both versions aloud and you'll see how the plural effort makes you squirm with discomfort.
The above is one example of a long list of similar combined subjects, where two or more terms that form the subject are, or may be, understood to be expressed as a single entity. 'Cheese and wine', 'short back and sides', 'rape and murder', 'love and kisses' and 'apple pie and custard' are all examples of such combinations. When in doubt about usage, it is the meaning that should take precedence over the form. Read it aloud and hear it; the correct version should be clear that way.
English, however, being the complex language it is, has another trick up its sleeve regarding plural and singular forms. When we write about collective or group nouns, the decision about whether to use them as plural or singular forms again arises. And the solution depends on meaning. So, you might write, The gang were all at the crime scene. When describing the actions of the individuals making up the group. But you'd write, The gang was first to arrive. When examining the action of the group as a whole.
Meaning is the paramount determiner here. I hope I've cleared rather than muddied the waters. But, if you're still unsure, let me recommend an excellent piece on this in Thomas Parrish's The Grouchy Grammarian.

6.      Dangling Modifiers.
What? A 'dangling modifier' is a phrase that's intended to explain about one subject but actually relates to another entirely, or even to none at all. We've all come across, though hopefully not written, such sentences as; Walking into the library, Karen's list of books befuddled the girl at the counter. Hardly surprising! The poor girl could rarely have witnessed a list of books walking at any other time. It was, of course, Karen who was walking, not her list of books. The sentence needs to be re-written differently; Walking into the library, Karen approached the girl at the counter and befuddled her with her list of books. Not brilliant, but it says what it means. The opening phrase now relates to the rest of the sentence.
Another? Having less knowledge than needed, the teacher sent Jones on a course designed to increase his awareness of the subject. One wonders why the teacher should have less knowledge than necessary and then send the pupil away for improvement. But, of course, the writer meant that the pupil had less knowledge and that the teacher was intent on increasing it by sending him on a course. So, the sentence would have been better written as; Having less knowledge than needed, Jones was sent on a course designed to increase his awareness of the subject. Of course, this sentence doesn't tell us that it was the teacher who sent Jones. But I'll leave it to you to modify the sentence or add another, to include that aspect.
Please don't leave your modifiers dangling; someone might come along and cut them off!

7.      Which, That or Who?
There has been, is, and will be much debate on this issue. When to use which, that or who, because, it seems, it isn't as straightforward as it may appear. The common belief is that who is used for people and that for things and never vice-versa. The which question is not commonly held to be so clear cut.
Please note; I said 'the common belief'. That doesn't make it the right one, of course.
The fact is that that can be used for people, under certain circumstances. For instance, it's perfectly correct to say, Of those members that were in attendance, all were in favour of the amendment. Similarly, it is fine to say, Are you the one that said it was my fault?
However, who should be reserved only for people. It's true that certain journals have, of late, allowed the use of who when referring to an animal, whose gender is known. But this isn't generally accepted usage and is probably best avoided.
Most commentators will agree with the above, but some will not. Because of this, it's probably best for you to decide for yourself which you will use; be consistent, though. Personally, I'd avoid using who for an animal, except in the case where I was deliberately anthropomorphising the creature referred to. I would also not use that for people, as illustrated in the sentences above. Although such usage isn't incorrect, I find it awkward and impersonal and would use who or whom in preference.
So, to the which issue. I'll make a bald statement, with which you can agree or not. Which is never, under any circumstances, used for people. The only which that refers to people is witch, which is an entirely different affair. Depending on the witch in question, I'd avoid the affair, unless of course, the witch has placed you under a spell. Which is used exclusively for inanimate objects and qualities. So, you might say, The tree, which blew down in the storm, is now dead. But you would, hopefully, never say, The robber, which took all your clothes, is a foul asset stripper. regardless of how you might feel about him. You would, of course, always use who when referring to said brigand.
I could go on at length about restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, relative pronouns and other grammatical niceties, but it isn't my purpose here to go into great depth. I'll leave that to Fowler and his ilk, to whom I refer you for such depth of treatment. My purpose is merely to raise awareness of the issues, to point out that there are issues and that it is incumbent on the writer who wishes to impress and learn the trade that such issues should be examined and taken seriously.

So, hopefully, I've provided you with food for thought and whetted your appetite for further research. If you don't own any of the grammar guides I've mentioned, I urge you to add them to your reference library.

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