Five Pedantic Pointers to Help You Pen More Proper Prose
With perhaps the exception of rude strangers and pesky public transportation delays, absolutely nothing irks me more than a published writing blunder. Probe my closest kin and they’d be quick to tell you that I have a relentless (and sometimes super annoying) habit of pointing out even the teensiest grammatical and typographical offenses, from spelling mistakes in restaurant menus, to comma splices (painfully) magnified and displayed on colossal billboards.
Now, don’t get me wrong—my tendency to behave like an extreme word stickler does not mean I’m an incredible expert on the English language, but I do think that as a part-time SAT writing instructor and a contributing writer and editor at several online publications, I possess a slightly plumper bag of tricks than the average Jane when it comes to writing.
That said, I’ve taken some of my greatest writing pet peeves and transformed them into some handy tips on how to become a more astute writer.
Read on for a few jots of gen to help you improve your writing skills!
#1. Be wary of “you and I . . .”
Just because it may sound “more mature” to use I over me, doesn’t mean it’s right to do so in every context. Subject and object pronouns aside (I won’t bore you with a long and winded explanation), just keep in mind this nifty technique to determining which pronoun to use when, so you can fully refrain from ever sounding like a wannabe erudite:
If you can replace the pronoun coupling with us, use “you and me,” but if you can substitute it with “we,” use “you and I” instead.
For example: “Since they aren’t coming, it’s just going to be you and me tonight.”
You wouldn’t say, “Since they aren’t coming, it’s just going to be we tonight,” would you? If anything you’d say, “ . . . It’s just going to be us tonight"--ergo, you and me!
Now that you’re clued in, you should never, ever, EVER again utter a phrase similar to: “Between you and I, I’m quite the eloquent speaker . . . ” because what you’re really saying is, “Between we, I’m quite the pretentious fool!”
#2. Learn when to use “who” versus “whom”
Similar to the “you and I vs. me” case, “whom”—though it might sound slightly more sophisticated—isn’t always correct to use. I won’t bother delving into the technicalities of objective versus nominative pronouns, because let’s face it: very few people would care to hear the dry grammar spiel. So I’ll let you in on a little shortcut, and we’ll leave it at that!
Here we go:
Take whatever sentence you’re pondering, convert it into a question, and then answer it. If the answer engages the use of “he,” “she,” or “they,” use “who.” If it uses “him,” “her,” or “them” though, use “whom.”
Let’s try an example, shall we?
"The girl(s) to who/whom these suitcases belong to will return in a jiffy.”
Who do the suitcases belong to?
They belong to her (or them, if plural).
Based on the rule above, the statement should then read:
“The girl(s) to whom these suitcases belong to will return in a jiffy.”
The meandering wayfarer(s) who/whom got lost eventually found his (or their) way home.”
Who got lost? He (or they) did . . . which means the sentence should say:
“The meandering wayfarer(s) who got lost eventually found his (or their) way home.”
#3. Know the difference between "more/better" and "most/best"
Whenever you make a comparison that involves only two subjects, avoid employing superlative adjectives (and by that, I mean words that typically end with –st, such as most, best, greatest, funniest, prettiest, smartest, fastest . . . you get the picture).
Instead, use a comparative adjective (i.e., with the exception of “more,” words that end with –er, such as better, greater, funnier, prettier, smarter, faster, etc.). If you’re comparing three or more subjects, however, do use the superlative!
For instance, it would be preposterous to say:
“Of the two racers, the fastest runner will most likely win,” since there are only two racers (subjects) being compared. It should instead read: “Of the two racers, the faster runner will most likely win.”
However if it had stated, “Of the three racers, the fastest runner will most likely win,” the use of the superlative form would’ve been just fine!
That said, let me add that there are no such things as “more easier,” “more harder,” and “most toughest” (you get the picture).
Adding more or most to the front of comparative/superlative adjectives just creates a redundant phrase! You could technically also say “more easy/hard” and “most tough,” but it’s more proper and concise to use their shortened forms (i.e., “easier/harder” and “toughest”).
#4. Remedy your run-ons
I spot run-ons plaguing colossal print ads all the time in New York City. Not too long ago, a gigantic billboard promoting Matilda the musical caught my attention as I was meandering through Times Square. Highlighted by a row of astonishingly bright spotlights, it proudly displayed a single-sentence accolade for the show, evidently submitted by the New York Post:
“Everybody knew Matilda was good, they just didn’t know how good.”
Though Matilda might be fantastic, this printed praise isn’t (in the sense that it’s not grammatically sound, of course).
No? Don’t see it? Well, let me explain:
A run-on is not—as many people believe it to be—a ridiculously long sentence.
Au contraire, run-ons can be super short; for example, the phrase: “I win, you lose!” is, in actuality, a run-on!
Run-ons—also known as “comma splices”—are born when a comma mistakenly conjoins two related, yet independent clauses (in layman’s terms, two full sentences). In the abovementioned instance, the phrases “I win” and “You lose” can each stand alone as a complete sentence, so they shouldn't be combined by a comma!
So . . . how can you fix a comma splice?
You’ve got three options:
1) Split it up into two separate sentences (“I win. You lose.”);
2) Replace the offending comma with a semi-colon (“I win; you lose.”); or,
3) Insert a conjunction (e.g. and, nor, but, or, for, yet, so) after the comma (“I win, so you lose.”)
Easy as pie!
#5. Properly position your punctuation (within quotes!)
Spotting commas, periods, question marks, and exclamation points placed outside of quotation marks always makes me cringe, since they’re all supposed to be placed before the closing quotation mark, not after!
Colons and semi-colons, on the other hand, do belong outside them.
“Here’s an example,” “Here’s an example.”
“Here’s an example”: “Here’s another example!”
. . . “Is this an example?” (Why yes, yes it is.)
Also, whenever you insert a quote within a quote, use single quotation marks around the inside quote, and double quotation marks around the entire statement.
For instance: As printed in the nonsensical tale, “The boy cried ‘Wolf!’ when the cow jumped over the moon.”
Note that the quote within the quote—“Wolf!”—is surrounded by single quotation marks, while the outer quote, “The boy cried . . . over the moon,” is bounded by doubles.
Last but not least, "The article said, ' . . . here's an example!'" (Note that that punctuation mark is inside the double and single quotation marks!)