Writing with proper grammar is one of the easiest ways to establish credibility. For example, when was the last time you trusted the guy who opened his email with “Hello please sirs and madam” and then offered you one million GBP in exchange for a passport and some pocket money? If he’d cleaned up that grammar, we’d be forging those documents today. In the office and at home, you can win or lose based on the wording of an email or even a text. That mix of letters and punctuation marks is a representation of you — even a Nobel laureate looks like a dumbass when he or she uses the wrong “their”. Correcting a few common errors and linking the proper usage to logic rather than obscure, bespectacled experts hiding in style guide castles will improve both your mood and your writing. Here are nine simple fixes to common errors.
1 Use one space between a period and a new sentence.
Using two spaces is founded in the history of the typewriter. On a modern word processor you’re wasting space on the page and, to anyone who knows their stuff, you look the fool.
2 The number of the subject and the verb must agree.
What comes between the two doesn’t matter.
“The bittersweet flavor of youth — its trials, its joys, its adventures — are not soon forgotten.” (incorrect)
“The bittersweet flavor of youth — its trials, its joys, its adventures — is not soon forgotten.” (We’re only talking about the singular “flavor of youth” not being forgotten, not its trials, joys, adventures or challenges.)
3 Avoid the dreaded comma splice.
Two complete sentences (independent clauses) need a conjunction (and, or, but, for, nor, so, etc.) when they’re joined with a comma, lest an awkward pause be created between two full thoughts. Often, it’s better to break those two complete thoughts into separate sentences or join them with a semicolon. For example:
I like to read Gear Patrol, it is a great publication. (incorrect)
I like to read Gear Patrol. It is a great publication. or I like to read Gear Patrol; it is a great publication. (both correct)
4 Use semicolons correctly.
A semicolon links two complete sentences (independent clauses) that have a special relationship; writers often use them to combine a complete sentence and a fragment, which is incorrect. The first word after a semicolon isn’t capitalized. Get this one right and you’ll feel like a regular David Foster Wallace.
5 Recognize and correct fragments and unnecessarily long sentences.
A complete sentence needs a complete subject-verb relationship (an actor and an action) to stand on its own. On the other end of the spectrum, longer sentences can quickly become convoluted and even misleading. Read the sentence aloud and break it up into shorter, concise thoughts using em dashes, colons, semicolons or periods.
The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition
You could kill someone with this book. Using it as a reference, you’ll kill any trickier problems you come across.
The Elements of Style, Strunk & White
Need just the basics? Here’s your rock-solid nutshell. Take this simple, straightforward guidebook to heart and you’ll become a better writer.
The Copyeditor’s Handbook
This is a more advanced guide that’s useful for both editors and writers; its rules correspond to The Chicago Manual of Style, so you’re not mixing reference guides.
6 Do not use ellipses (unless they’re called for, which is hardly ever).
More often than not you should just use a period. Ellipses make you read like a radio show with poor reception.
7 Do not use emoticons.
Mock those who do.
8 Keep related words and phrases close together.
A common mistake is the dangling modifier: a phrase that opens a sentence and doesn’t refer to the sentence’s subject. Think about it: alike thoughts kept close together make things easier for the reader.
“Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap.” (This sentence implies that the speaker is in a dilapidated condition.)
“Being in a dilapidated condition, the house was in my price range.” (Now the house is dilapidated, not the speaker.)
9 Spell out “percent”.
The percent symbol (%) should only be used in informal writing.
10 When in doubt, write in concise, clear sentences.
You don’t have to be a great writer to be an effective one. Strip out unnecessary language and get to the point, dammit.