Grammar Girl: Three Tips to Better Writing

Although I love writing about health and nutrition, I have lots of other interests, grammar among them. This is expected, considering my job, but even if your writing consists of Facebook updates only, it’s still important to write well. That said, between texting and tweeting (oh, the verbs of the digital age . . .), it’s easy to forget (or even learn) grammar rules. I myself took a refresher course last year, and I’ve since become slightly grammar obsessed—I now notice errors everywhere, such as in ad copy, blog content, magazine articles and even media releases penned by “communications professionals.”

I often see the following grammar (and usage) faux pas, which are personal pet peeves (though I was once guilty of them, too!). The good news? A few tweaks are likely all it takes to transform your writing from sloppy to superb . . . in 140 characters or less.

Top 3 Grammar Gaffes

Gaffe #1: The Comma Splice 

When you use a comma (and only a comma) to separate what could be two sentences, it is a comma splice. For example: 

To separate the clauses correctly, insert a comma plus a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) OR a semi-colon OR a period. For example:

  • My coco-chia balls are a healthy sweet snack, and my protein bars are tasty and nutritious, too. (Comma + Coordinating Conjunction)
  • My coco-chia balls are a healthy sweet snack; my protein bars are tasty and nutritious, too. (Semi-colon)
  • My coco-chia balls are a healthy sweet snack. My protein bars are tasty and nutritious, too. (Period)

Tip: Use a semi-colon to link two closely related ideas, making sure each clause could be a sentence on its own. For example, the following sentence should take a period rather than a semi-colon as the two clauses aren’t really related. 

  • My coco-chia balls are a healthy sweet snack; kale is a superfood. (Not great)
  • My coco-chia balls are a healthy sweet snack. Kale is a superfood. (Best)

Gaffe #2: Jargon

Mignon Fogarty, the original Grammar Girl, refers to jargon as blechyuckyness, which is rampant in business and government writing. You know the words: facilitate, utilize, impact, communicate . . . ugh. I call them “big shot” words, used by people to appear smart or important. Most often, these words replace short, simple words (help, use, affect, tell) that better convey what you mean. For example:

  • She facilitated the cooking class. (Big shot)
  • She led (or taught) the cooking class. (Bingo!)

Although “big shot” usage is sometimes allowable (for example, stakeholders, jargon-y as it is, doesn’t really have a synonym), usually a shorter word can and should be used. (However, I object to utilize in any circumstance. Please, let’s banish that word altogether.)

Gaffe #3: The Misplaced Colon

The colon, my favourite piece of punctuation, is often called the “mark of expectation”: what follows the colon describes or explains what precedes it (see how I just did that?). Whether you use it in a sentence or a vertical list, make sure what comes before the colon could be a complete sentence. If not, don’t use a colon.

For example:

  • Plant foods high in iron include: lentils, spinach, tahini and tofu. (This is incorrect because what precedes the colon is not a complete sentence.)
  • Plant foods high in iron include these: lentils, spinach, tahini and tofu. (This is correct because what precedes the colon is a complete sentence. However, the next example is preferable.)
  • Plant foods high in iron include lentils, spinach, tahini and tofu. (Correct)

The same rule applies to a vertical list. For example:

Plant foods high in iron include

  • lentils
  • spinach
  • tahini
  • tofu

Because what precedes the list is not a complete sentence, no colon is used. (Yep, you can start a sentence with because. I know, it’s crazy!) Note that I did not use commas after each listed item nor did I insert and after tofu. This is a style thing; I think lists look cleaner without them.

Better Writing Resources

Bitten by the grammar bug and want to learn more? Of course you do! For a fun (that’s right, fun!), easy guide to all things grammar, I highly recommend Grammar Girl’s book Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (or any of her books). Check out these great websites, too.

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Posted on June 21, 2012, in How-to .... Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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