Tag Archives: grammar

3 Rules I knew but never knew I knew #amwriting

In English, as in other languages, certain rules of speech are learned so early on in life that they are instinctual. No matter the level of our education or the dialect we speak, we use these rules and don’t know we are doing so.

Today I have three wonderful quotes on these rules from linguist Steven Pinker, editor Stan Carey, and Tim Dowling, journalist for The Guardian.

The Jolly Green Giant rule:

The rule is that multiple adjectives are always ranked accordingly: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. Unlike many laws of grammar or syntax, this one is virtually inviolable, even in informal speech. You simply can’t say My Greek Fat Big Wedding, or leather walking brown boots. And yet until last week, I had no idea such a rule existed. Tim Dowling, for The Guardian, Sept 13, 2016

Word order is why certain sentences seem wrong when you are in the middle of laying down the first draft of a new manuscript. We are madly getting the words out of our heads, and they may fall out in the “wrong” order.  My red large Cadillac is comfortable to ride in. Sometimes these wonky phrasings don’t stand out to us because our minds automatically put the words in the right order, so we don’t see what we have actually written.

My large red Cadillac is comfortable to ride in. 

Actually,my large dirty mini-van is comfortable to ride in, but that’s another story.

To boil what he said down to a bite sized chunk, we automatically order our words this way:

  1. opinion,
  2. size,
  3. age,
  4. shape,
  5. color,
  6. origin,
  7. material,
  8. purpose

Sharon’s light blue wool jacket was left behind.

The Mishmash rule:

“Reduplication” is when a word or part of a word is repeated, sometimes modified, and added to make a longer term, such as aye-aye, mishmash, and hotchpotch. This process can mark plurality or intensify meaning, and it can be used for effect or to generate new words. The added part may be invented or it may be an existing word whose form and sense are a suitable fit. Stan Carey, A hotchpotch of reduplication, MacMillan Dictionary Blog 2012

I love mishmash words. They are fun to say, and while I regularly taunt my grandchildren with them, I hardly ever get to write them. Mishmash. Hip-hop.

The Hip-Hop rule:

Have you ever wondered why we say fiddle-faddle and not faddle-fiddle? Why is it ping-pong and pitter-patter rather than pong-ping and patter-pitter? Why dribs and drabs rather than vice versa? Why can’t a kitchen be span and spic? Whence riff-raff, mish-mash, flim-flam, chit-chat, tit for tat, knick-knack, zig-zag, sing-song, ding-dong, King Kong, criss-cross, shilly-shally, seesaw, hee-haw, flip-flop, hippity-hop, tick-tock, tic-tac-toe, eeny-meeny-miney-moe, bric-a-brac, clickey-clack, hickory-dickory-dock, kit and kaboodle, and bibbity-bobbity-boo? The answer is that the vowels for which the tongue is high and in the front always come before the vowels for which the tongue is low and in the back.(Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994:167)

So now you have it – a mishmash of three rules native speakers of English know and use without consciously thinking about it – the whole kit and kaboodle with all the words placed in the right order.

Credits and Attributions:

Media: In the Classroom, Paul Louis Martin des Amoignes (1858–1925) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:P L Martin des Amoignes In the classroom 1886.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:P_L_Martin_des_Amoignes_In_the_classroom_1886.jpg&oldid=273566736 (accessed April 28, 2019).

Tim Dowling, Order force: the old grammar rule we all obey without realizing, © The Guardian 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/sentence-order-adjectives-rule-elements-of-eloquence-dictionary (accessed 25 May 2018)

Stan Carey, A hotchpotch of reduplication, MacMillan Dictionary Blog 2012 © Macmillan Publishers Limited 2009-2018. http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/a-hotchpotch-of-reduplication (accessed 25 May 2018)

Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct. New York: HarperPerennial.


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#amwriting: Using repetition and parallelism

Some aspects of writing craft were never taught in school. I know! I was shocked to discover this too. Many people learn these things through getting their MFA, but the rest of us must educate ourselves.

One concept I discovered through reading is how my favorite authors will use the intentional repetition of certain key words and phrases to highlight an idea or show a scene. This technique is an accepted rhetorical device and is commonly found in mainstream fiction. It is used to evoke an emotional response in the reader and can be exceedingly effective when done right.

Literarydevices.net says, “The beauty of using figurative language is that the pattern it arranges the words into is nothing like our ordinary speech. It is not only stylistically appealing, but it also helps convey the message in much more engaging and notable way. The aura that is created by the usage of repetition cannot be achieved through any other device.”  (End quoted text)

Also, according to literarydevices.net, repetition as a literary device can take these forms:

  • Repetition of the last word in a line or clause.
  • Repetition of words at the start of clauses or verses.
  • Repetition of words or phrases in opposite sense.
  • Repetition of words broken by some other words.
  • Repetition of same words at the end and start of a sentence.
  • Repetition of a phrase or question to stress a point.
  • Repetition of the same word at the end of each clause.
  • Repetition of an idea, first in negative terms and then in positive terms.
  • Repetition of words of the same root with different endings.
  • Repetition both at the end and at the beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or scene.
  • A construction in poetry where the last word of one clause becomes the first word of the next clause. (End quoted text)

One thing that has been a pain in the pen for me is the way my narrative will feel awkward to me, and I can’t figure out why. When I take a closer look, I realize the awkwardness is caused by poor sentence construction.

When you present two or more ideas in a sentence or paragraph, they must be equal in importance, or parallel. When using repetition for literary effect, parallelism is crucial.

What parallelism means can be shown by a quote attributed to Julius Caesar who used the phrase in a letter to the Roman Senate after he had achieved a quick victory in the Battle of Zela.

I came;

I saw;

I conquered.

Caesar gives equal importance to the different ideas of coming, seeing, and conquering. In literary terms this is elegant on two levels:

  1. It employs repetition of the word ‘I’ to good effect
  2. Three ideas are presented in one sentence: He arrived in Zela, saw something he liked, and took it.

Washington.edu offer us this example. Consider the sentence: They fought in the streets, in the fields, and in the woods.

If you leave out the second instance of the word ‘in’ the sentence is no longer parallel. They fought in the streets, the fields, and in the woods.

In a series of phrases beginning with a word such as to or in, repeat the word before each phrase or don’t repeat it at all after the first one:

They fought in the streets, the fields, and the woods. However, in literary prose, there is magic in the number three: the emotional impact of three repetitions of such a small word as ‘in’ elevates the prose from merely reporting a fact to something poetic.

‘In’ is a correlative word, a word or concept that has a mutual relationship with another word or concept. It is rarely a standalone word, so when used in repetition the words it modifies must be given equal importance.

Intentional repetition of key words can create impact:

Pulling loose from his grip, Ellen wept. “I hate you, I hate your mother, and I hate our life!”

What we want to remember is that when we intentionally repeat a word or a phrase, each repetition must be given equal importance, or the phrase will become awkward in a subtle way.

Sources and Attributions:

Repetition Copyright © 2017 Literary Devices. All Rights Reserved

Quote from the PDF Parallelism: They fought in the streets, the fields, and in the woods.  http://faculty.washington.edu/davidgs/ParallelConstruc.pdf


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#amwriting: Hyphens are the Devil

Book- onstruction-sign copyAs it is March and is that month known as National Novel Editing Month, or NaNoEdMo, I will be be revisiting some of my posts on the craft of writing. Today we are looking at that most abused morsel of punctuation, the Hyphen. In my own work I will be looking at each hyphen and deciding if it stays or if it goes. Much of the time, they must go. 

Most authors know that a compound word is a combination of two or more words that function as a single unit of meaning. Most of us even know that there are two types of compounds: those written as single words, with no hyphenation and which are called “closed compounds”– such as the word “bedspread,”  AND  the “hyphenated compounds,” such as “jack-in-the-box” and “self-worth.”

But there is a third group, and they are the bane of my life–those mysterious, ephemeral denizens of the deepest corner of writer’s hell, called open compounds. These seemingly innocent instruments of torture are written as separate words–the nouns “school bus” and “decision making,” for example.

But how do I tell if  it’s one word, two words or a hyphenated word?  

Do not use a hyphen unless it serves a purpose. If a compound adjective cannot be misread or, as with many psychological terms, its meaning is established, a hyphen is not necessary. For example:

  • covert learning techniques,
  • health care reform,
  • day treatment program,
  • sex role differences,
  • grade point average

Do use one in a temporary compound that is used as an adjective before a noun, use a hyphen if the term can be misread or if the term expresses a single thought:

For example:

“the children resided in two parent homes” means that two homes served as residences, whereas if the children resided in “two-parent homes,” they each would live in a household headed by two parents.  In that case, a properly placed hyphen helps the reader understand the intended meaning.

We also use hyphens for compound words that fall into these catagories:

  • the base word is capitalized: pro-African
  • numbers: post-1910, twenty-two
  • an abbreviation: pre-ABNA manuscript
  • more than one word: non-achievement-oriented students
  • All “self-” compounds whether they are adjectives or nouns such as self-report, self-esteem,  self-paced.

We hyphenate words that could be misunderstood if they’re unhyphenated:

  • re-pair (to pair again) as opposed to repair (to mend)
  • re-form  (to form again) as opposed to reform (to improve)

We hyphenate words in which the prefix ends and the base word begins with the same vowel:

  • metaanalysis, antiintellectual

But really, unless you are a technical writer, how often are we going to use these terms? Hence, the confusion when we DO use them.

Get It Write online dot com says, “One way to decide if a hyphen is necessary is to see if the phrase might be ambiguous without it. For example, “large-print paper” might be unclear written as “large print paper” because the reader might combine “print” and “paper” as a single idea rather than combining “large” and “print.” Another such example is “English-language learners.” Without the hyphen, a reader might think we are talking about English people who are learning any language rather than people who are learners of the English language.”

Write most words formed with prefixes and suffixes as one word with NO hyphen.

  • Prefixes: Afterglow, extracurricular, multiphase, socioeconomic
  • Suffixes: Arachnophobia, wavelike, angiogram

APPROACHING HELL © cjjasperson 2012 Lif In the Realm of FantasyHooray for Merriam-Webster! One can also look the word up in an online dictionary, to see the various different ways it can be combined. Just go to: http://www.merriam-webster.com

Now the real point of all this is that no matter how much I know when I am editing for another author, I always manage to screw up my own work amazingly well. It’s like my finger has a twitch that absolutely MUST add a hyphen. Thank god for good editors.


Get It Write Online, Writing Tip Compound Words: When To Hyphenate © 2003, http://www.getitwriteonline.com/archive/042703compwdshyph.htm, accessed Feb 28, 2017


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#amwriting: the #nanonovel: starting with the basics

a writer's styleI receive a lot of unsolicited manuscripts, by new authors looking for an editor. Most of them are from authors who just completed NaNoWriMo. They’re just learning the ropes and don’t realize their work is still in the unreadable stage. I always explain to them why these manuscripts are not submission ready, much less ready for an editor to have a look at.

What many first-time authors lack is knowledge, so I direct them to workshops, seminars, and writing groups.

This is where the work comes into it. We must learn and use the basic writing conventions that underpin how all English literature is written. These conventions consist of:

  • Spelling
  • Punctuation
  • Capitalization
  • Grammar

These are the fundamental rules authors follow so their work is understandable by any person who can read English, no matter if they are from Sacramento, London, Sydney, or Mumbai.

Kathleen Cali, in an article at Learn NC, says: “Conventions are the surface features of writing — mechanics, usage, and sentence formation. Conventions are a courtesy to the reader, making writing easier to read by putting it in a form that the reader expects and is comfortable with.”

When we write, whether we are writing a book, an essay, or an email, we are writing something we want the intended reader to comprehend. Therefore, we write using universally accepted rules for sentence construction.

So what makes an understandable sentence? It will consist of

  • a subject (My dog)
  • a verb (barked)
  • some words to help explain those two things (all night long.)
  • My dog barked all night long.

Sentences consist of clauses. Commas are the universally acknowledged pausing and joining symbol. Periods (or full stops) are how we signify the end of a sentence. Without these pausing and stopping symbols, our words become a jumble and make no sense. You might think this is a “Well, Duh!” moment, but when a person is in the throes of laying down the first draft they begin to write in a kind of mental shorthand, and sometimes these fundamentals fall by the way. This is why we do a second draft before we have anyone look at it.

Readers expect to find a pause between two clauses and commas are sometimes the signifiers of those pauses. Words that are conjunctions (such as and, or, but) also serve to join clauses to form compound sentences.

According to About EducationA clause may be either a sentence (an independent clause) or a sentence-like construction within another sentence (a dependent or subordinate clause).

Subordinate Clause definition: A group of words that has both a subject and a verb but (unlike an independent clause) cannot stand alone as a sentence. Also known as a dependent clause. Contrast with coordinate clause.


If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
(John F. Kennedy)

Mostly I find subordinate clauses cropping up in conversation–dialogue–when I look at my own writing. These “grammatical juniors” are like any other form of seasoning in our writing and must be used consciously and sparingly. When we write with too many subordinate clauses, we separate the reader from the narrative.

We provide balance in how we phrase our sentences, using a variety of sentence structures. We use complex sentences, consisting of:

  1. a simple clause 

I went to the grocery store.  (the meat of the matter)

  1. a dependent clause

because I needed skewers. (technically not necessary but adds to it)

  1. I went to the grocery store because I needed skewers.  

Who was I going to skewer? I don’t know, but I at least I had the right tool for the job.

We can set the clause off with commas:

The lake, its surface calm and black, called to me.

The lake called to me is the meat of this sentence, the clause describing it is technically not necessary, but without that clause the sentence is flat.

Sometimes, we want to use sentence fragments in our narrative. When they are written well and interspersed correctly, using sentence fragments emphasizes certain passages, creates a desired atmosphere, and can make conversations sound more natural.

A sentence expresses a complete thought.  Also, every sentence, no matter how short, contains a subjector an implied subject—and a verb.  Linda Neuman of Sophia.org says:

So a sentence fragment would be a piece of a sentence.  It’s not a sentence because it’s incomplete, and does not contain both a subject and a verb.  Sometimes sentence fragments are referred to as incomplete sentences.  There is something missing, and you know it when you read it.  The thought is not complete, like a sentence would be.

Example of a sentence:  Her car was old, but very stylish.

Example of a sentence fragment:  Her car was old.  But very stylish.

The internet is full of good information about sentence construction and how to write a narrative that any reader of English, no matter what their nationality, will be able to understand. You can access a great deal of information on how to construct a readable narrative and it will cost you nothing.

commaThe Chicago Manual of Style is a volume that defines the rules of the road for US English Grammar.  I consider it an indispensable guide for serious authors. This particular book is the reference manual used by the US publishing industry and is the foundation book for my personal reference library. It is one of the oldest and most comprehensive style guides available, and for me in my role as an editor, it’s an indispensable tool because it contains information that I can’t find anywhere else. While I could easily access it all via the online version, I do like having my large book at my fingertips.

Quoted and Researched Sources:

AboutEducation.com: Clause (Grammar) by Richard Nordquist, accessed Dec. 11, 2016

GrammarRevolution.com:  What are Clauses by Elizabeth O’Brien, accessed Dec. 11, 2016

LearnNC.com: The five features of effective writing, by Kathleen Cali and Kim Bowen, accessed Dec. 11, 2016

Sophia.org: Using Sentence Fragments Wisely, by Linda Neuman, accessed Dec. 11, 2016


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#amwriting: Verbs: when to use “if I was” and “if I were”

epiphanyMost of my ideas for blog posts arise during work, or in conversation with other writers. Usually, these revolve around concepts I have a basic understanding of but haven’t really given a lot of thought to. Writing about them helps to clarify and cement them in my mind.

Every now and then a grammar topic comes up that I’ve never really thought about. If it’s a subject I am not really clear on, I will research it, and then try to distill my discoveries into bite sized chunks.

We writers often operate by instinctively using the knowledge we gained in school. Often, as in my case, that knowledge is a bit tarnished and worse for the wear.  Today’s topic is one fabulous instance of that very thing.

Last Tuesday, we were standing around the virtual watercooler at the virtual offices of Myrddin Publishing. We have authors and editors on three continents, so we use a virtual office. A grammar question arose, and this is how the conversation went:

Shaun Allan (UK) said: Grammar question, please. ‘As if it were’ or ‘as if it was’ ?

Ross Kitson (UK) said: Would it depend upon the subject of it? If it were an individual then I’d say “was” whereas if ‘it’ were an event then I’d say ‘were.’ Might be best to ask a non-Northerner.

Connie Jasperson (me) (US) said: Ross Kitson is correct (in my opinion).

Stephen Swartz (US) said: were.

Gary Hoover  (US) said: A HUGE issue with most people is the subjunctive tense. Anything that is not actual but could be is subjunctive (as your phrase indicates). “If I were a carpenter.” Is correct because the singer isn’t actually a carpenter. “I was a carpenter” is correct if he actually was. (Gary inserted the link to Wikipedia’s article on “English Subjunctive”)

Alison DeLuca (US) said: I’m a subjunctive slore! ‘Were’ all the way.

It turns out this conversation revolved around the “Past Subjunctive Tense.” Gary, Stephen, and Alison had it right.

As a result of this conversation, I did a little more digging, wanting to know more about this oddly named construct. It just so happens that on Saturday morning, Stephen Swartz and I both happened (at the same time) upon an excellent blog post by the Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty.

When you go out to Wikipedia the whole subjunctive verb thing looks quite complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. The subjunctive (in the English language) is used to form sentences that do not describe known objective facts. For the purposes of this post, we are only looking at Past Subjunctive definitionSubjunctives: the verbs was and were.

But first, what does “subjunctive” mean?:

Dictionary.com defines “Subjunctive.” as:


1.(in English and certain other languages) noting or pertaining to a mood or mode of the verb that may be used for subjective, doubtful, hypothetical, or grammatically subordinate statements or questions, as the mood of ‘be’ in ‘if this be treason.’

Compare imperative (def 3), indicative (def 2).


2.the subjunctive mood or mode.

3.a verb in the subjunctive mood or form.

First, let’s consider what Past Subjunctive Tense covers: how to use the words ‘was’ and ‘were.’

Which is correct?

  • I wish I were a penguin. I would fly through the water.
  • I wish I was a penguin. I would fly through the water.

If I am only  only wishing I were a penguin, were is correct. If I actually could be a penguin, was would be correct and I would have to rewrite my sentence, by deleting ‘I wish’ and changing ‘would’ to ‘could.’

The Grammar Girl goes farther. She says: Believe it or not, verbs have moods just like you do. Yes, before the Internet and before emoticons, somebody already thought it was important to communicate moods. So, like many other languages, English has verbs with moods ranging from commanding to questioning and beyond. The mood of the verb “to be” when you use the phrase “I were” is called the subjunctive mood, and you use it for times when you’re talking about something that isn’t true or you’re being wishful.

I love that clue—that verbs can be wishful.

fiddler onthe roof soundtrackThe Grammar Girl gives us a great example: Think of the song “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof. When Tevye sings “If I were a rich man,” he is fantasizing about all the things he would do if he were rich. He’s not rich, he’s just imagining, so “If I were” is the correct statement. This time you’ve got a different clue at the beginning of the line: the word “if.”

However, there are times when we use the verb ‘was’ even though the subject of the sentence has not yet happened, or may not happen at all. Grammar Girl says:  But “if” and “could” and similar words don’t always mean you need to use “I were.” For example, when you are supposing about something that might be true, you use the verb “was.”

Past subjunctive verb forms express a hypothetical condition in present, past, or future time:

  • Don’t complain about the food. What if I was a chef?
  • I wish I were reincarnated. What if I was a penguin?

If it’s only wishful thinking, we use “were.” If it might be true but we don’t know or it hasn’t happened, we use “was.”

So now, thanks to a bunch of editors hanging around the water cooler and the miracle of the internet, we know how and when to use our moody, past subjunctive verbs.

If you are a grammar junkie (as I am becoming) I highly recommend you check out Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl blog, or pick up her books.


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Lay, lie, laid

to lie means to restIs it to lay, to lie, or what? I want to get this right but these words can be a complicated morass of misery. It boils down to a simple concept: is it RECLINING  or was it PLACED THERE?

“Lay” is a verb meaning to put or place something somewhere. It has a direct object. Its principal parts are “lay,” “laid,” “laid,” and “laying.”

What the words refer to is the action: If you set it (object) there, it is laying there. Lay it there. Lay it on the pillow.

If it is resting or reclining, it is lying there. Lie down. Lying down. Lie down, Sally. (Clapton had it wrong? Say it isn’t so!)

The internet is your friend, and can teach you many things besides how to make cute kitty memes. Quote from the wonderful website Get it Write: The verbs to lie and to lay have very different meanings. Simply put, to lie means “to rest,” “to assume or be situated in a horizontal position,” and to lay means “to put or place.” (Of course, a second verb to lie, means “to deceive,” “to pass off false information as if it were the truth,” but here we are focusing on the meaning of to lie that gives writers the most grief.)

As another great resource, in his July 7th, 2015 post on this subject for Writers’ Digest,  Brian A. Klems gave us a useful chart:

Lay vs. Lie Chart

Infinitive    Definition         Present    Past    Past Participle    Present Participle

to lay      to put or place     lay(s)           laid     laid                     laying
something down

to lie     to rest or recline    lie(s)            lay      lain                     lying

“end of quoted text” 
Brian A. Klems is an awesome author and blogger. Check out his personal blog at The Life of Dad.


This is where things get tense: present, past and future.

A ring lay on the pillow. 

Lay, Lie, Laid

But I needed to rest:


So what this all boils down to is:

final comment lay laid

But just to confuse things:

A living body lies down and rests as is needed.

A dead body is cleaned up and laid out by other people,  if said corpse was important to them. However, after having been laid out, said corpse is lying in state to allow mourners to pay their respects.


Filed under Humor, Literature, Publishing, Uncategorized, writer, writing

It may be rattlesnake, but it tastes like chicken

MSClipArt MP900390083.JPG RF PDWriting the first draft of your novel is a lot of fun, but there are times when getting your phrasing right is confusing. Wrangling words is not for the faint of heart! Many frequently used words are what is called “homonyms” — soundalike words.

Yeah–you know that casserole contains rattlesnake surprise, but it tastes like chicken, so the kids haven’t a clue.

You as the author, do not always see the rattlesnakes among the chickens in your work.

You MUST NOT expect an editor to straighten out a mess that you can take of with a little attention on your part, so it is important to do your  research, and learn your craft. Submitting a mess to an editor will result in rejection, as it is an expensive waste of time to try to teach a would-be author how to write a book.

At times, only a homonym, a word that sounds very much like another, can be used in a sentence. That similarity makes it hard to know which word is the correct word in a given circumstance, and when you are spewing the first draft of a manuscript, autocorrect may “help you” by inserting the wrong instance of those words. If their meaning is similar but not exactly the same, negotiating the chicken-yard of your manuscript in the second draft becomes quite tricky.

For instance, take this sentence from my current work in progress, where Friedr is explaining the events that led to Christoph’s sacrifice, speaking to Dane: “With Zan’s assistance, Edwin modified the parasite that will ensure no Bear Dogs can ever survive in Mal Evol ever again…”

Now I wasn’t sure that ensure was the correct word to express what I wanted to convey, because there are three words that could work and they sound alike, and have similar but different meanings.  So I did my research:

Assure: promise, as in I assure you the house is clean.

Ensure: confirm, as in Ensure that you have set the burglar alarm before going on a long trip.

Insure: protect with an insurance policy, as in Insure your home for your peace of mind.

Hmmm.  2 of these words will convey an intent that would work, but I think I will stay with my original idea– Ensure as in Confirm.


Some other oft confused soundalikes are ( these are borrowed directly from the Purdue Online Writing Lab)

  • advise = verb that means to recommend, suggest, or counsel:

advise you to be cautious.

  • advice = noun that means an opinion or recommendation about what could or should be done:

I’d like to ask for your advice on this matter.

  • advise = verb that means to recommend, suggest, or counsel:

advise you to be cautious.

  • advice = noun that means an opinion or recommendation about what could or should be done:

I’d like to ask for your advice on this matter.

Conscious, Conscience

  • conscious= adjective meaning awake, perceiving:

Despite a head injury, the patient remained conscious.

  • conscience = noun meaning the sense of obligation to be good:

Chris wouldn’t cheat because his conscience wouldn’t let him.

Idea, Ideal

  • idea = noun meaning a thought, belief, or conception held in the mind, or a general notion or conception formed by generalization:

Jennifer had a brilliant idea—she’d go to the Writing Lab for help with her papers!

  • ideal = noun meaning something or someone who embodies perfection, or an ultimate object or endeavor:

Mickey was the ideal for tutors everywhere.

  • ideal = adjective meaning embodying an ultimate standard of excellence or perfection, or the best:

Jennifer was an ideal student.

Its, It’s

  • its = possessive adjective (possessive form of the
    pronoun it):

The crab had an unusual growth on its shell.

  • it’s = contraction for it is or it has (in a verb phrase):

It’s still raining; it’s been raining for three days.

(Pronouns have apostrophes only when two words are being shortened into one.)

Lead, Led

  • lead = noun referring to a dense metallic element:

The X-ray technician wore a vest lined with lead.

  • led = past-tense and past-participle form of the verb to lead, meaning to guide or direct:

The evidence led the jury to reach a unanimous decision.

Than, Then

Than used in comparison statements: He is richer than I.
used in statements of preference: I would rather dance than eat.
used to suggest quantities beyond a specified amount: Read more than the first paragraph.
Then a time other than now: He was younger then. She will start her new job then.
next in time, space, or order: First we must study; then we can play.
suggesting a logical conclusion: If you’ve studied hard, then the exam should be no problem.

they're their there cupTheir, There, They’re

  • Their = possessive pronoun:

They got their books.

My house is over there.

(This is a place word, and so it contains the word here.)

They’re making dinner.

(Pronouns have apostrophes only when two words are being shortened into one.)

To, Too, Two

  • To = preposition, or first part of the infinitive form of a verb:

They went to the lake to swim.

  • Too = very, also:

I was too tired to continue. I was hungry, too.

  • Two = the number 2:

Two students scored below passing on the exam.

Twotwelve, and between are all words related to the number 2, and all contain the letters tw.

Too can mean also or can be an intensifier, and you might say that it contains an extra o(“one too many”)

We’re, Where, Were

  • We’re = contraction for we are:

We’re glad to help.

(Pronouns have apostrophes only when two words are being shortened into one.)

Where are you going?

(This is a place word, and so it contains the word here.)

  • Were = a past tense form of the verb be:

They were walking side by side.

Your, You’re

  • Your = possessive pronoun:

Your shoes are untied.

You’re walking around with your shoes untied.

(REMEMBER: Pronouns have apostrophes only when two words are being shortened into one.)

Special thanks to the Purdue Online Writing Lab for posting these amazing hints, and SO much more information crucial to the craft of writing. If you go out to their website you will find it chock full of really good lessons for you to use to improve your skill at the craft of writing.

to, too, twoIt seems like a no brainer when you are reading it, but when you’re in the throes of a writing binge these little no-no’s will pop up and confuse you the second draft. The problem is, you will see it as you intend it to be, not as it is written, so these are words you must pay attention to. Sometimes, doing a search will locate these little inconveniences.

Some are obviously wrong and stick out like sore thumbs, like improperly used they’re, their, and there but some like accept and except are so frequently confused and misused in our modern dialect that it is best to simply look it up to make sure you are using the right word for that context. If you search for these now, you will save your editor having to do this for you, and your edit will be much more productive.

Searching for these bloopers is what I like to think of as sorting the rattlesnakes out of the chicken yard, and is part of making your manuscript submission-ready.



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Dash it all

Rex BArksI am a product of 1960’s American public school system.  The foundation of my knowledge of the English language is that of American English from forty years ago.

When I was a student in elementary school and even in high-school, we “diagrammed sentences,” and in doing so, it was thought that we bored students would learn the proper way to write a compound sentence, and even to combine our sentences into paragraphs. Had I ever paid attention in class, I suppose I would have learned something.

Alas, I spent more time staring out the window, or reading my contraband ‘Lensman Series’ books concealed inside my textbooks than I did studying.

Sentence diagramming is defined as a method of grammar instruction that relies on a standardized framework of lines and branches to reveal the syntactic structure of a sentence.


Years and years spent diagramming sentences and at the end of it all I had learned little, if anything, about grammar. Even in high-school I had no clue what the diagram meant or why we were doing it. It was like hearing Merlin mumbling a magic spell. I didn’t understand it, but I knew it must mean something.

But I could quote lengthy passages from any of Tolkien’s works.

Many people still swear by this arcane and mysterious craft. There are entire websites devoted to teaching grammar to people blessed with  more patience and free time than I. If you are interested, here is one I came across:

Basic Sentence Parts, Phrase Configurations

Over the years, as I’ve become a professional writer, I have learned what I know about my craft by not only experiencing the editing process, but by availing myself of both the Chicago Manual of Style, and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I have also invested in many books written by editors and famous authors, all in my quest to write as well as I can.

In the last year I have noticed a plague of sorts–a plethora of hyphens and dashes, as annoying as a wall of italics and they show up in both indie and traditionally published works.  I don’t really like them, as a reader, but I find myself using them almost habitually. I have resolved to break that habit.

Elements of StyleIn informal writing, such as notes or Facebook posts, hyphens and dashes are common, and are like the ubiquitous ‘F’ word–one hardly notices it anymore. (See?)

Hyphens and dashes are used in several ways. One is the ‘en dash’, which is the width of an ‘n’. It is written space hyphen space.  Another is the ’em dash’, which is the width of an ‘m’. It is written this way: word–word (or word dash dash word) and when using the MS-WORD program for word-processing, it makes a long dash. The en dash seems to be more British, and em dash more American, but they have become interchangeable.

I have read an amazing number of books written by wonderful authors who all seem to use em or en dashes in lieu of proper punctuation when they are trying to emphasize a particular thought.  I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, but I hate to see it used in a novel.  I DON’T like them because some authors rely on them too heavily. It is too distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph or even on every page. If we think about it, it is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. It is useful to emphasize certain ideas, but needs to be used sparingly and creatively.

Properly, an author should use a comma, a semi colon, or a period to create that dramatic break, because too many em dashes are like too many curse words: they lose their power when used too freely.  Lynn Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, has been quoted as saying “People use the em dash because they know you can’t use it wrongly—which for a punctuation mark, is an uncommon virtue.”  

So what are these alternative forms of punctuation to create that dramatic pause?

MSClipArt MP900390083.JPG RF PD

PERIOD = a full stop. End of Sentence. That’s all folks.

SEMICOLON:Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two sentences where the conjunction has been left out. Call me tomorrow; we’ll go dancing then. ( The AND has been left out.)

COLON: Use the colon after a complete sentence to introduce a list of items when introductory words such as namelyfor example, or that is do not appear.

Hyphens, en dashes and em dashes are like crack. Authors and editors become addicted to using them. Perhaps this plague of dashes has occurred because they don’t understand the basic rules of the road regarding periods, colons and semi-colons.

I love this quote from a wonderful blog on the website Slate.com. The blog post, called “The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash,” is by the witty Noreen Malone, staff writer for The New Republic:

“What’s the matter with an em dash or two, you ask?—or so I like to imagine. What’s not to like about a sentence that explores in full all the punctuational options—sometimes a dash, sometimes an ellipsis, sometimes a nice semicolon at just the right moment—in order to seem more complex and syntactically interesting, to reach its full potential? Doesn’t a dash—if done right—let the writer maintain an elegant, sinewy flow to her sentences?”

That wonderful paragraph says it all for me.  I will have to work harder to develop my writing chops, and find ways to set certain phrases off within the framework of a sentence without resorting to the hyphen, the dash, the em dash or the en dash.

Dash it all.

The butter churn


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