There’s a poster in my office that says, “Grammar is not a secret code.” It is a code, sort of, but it’s certainly not a secret. Grammar is for everyone, and everyone deserves to feel confident using it. Plenty of resources exist to help people improve their grammar and language skills if they are so inclined.
On the heels of 5 things every editor should remember, here are a few things for writers to keep in mind. These tips are intended for writers of news and professional communication, so if you are writing creatively, feel free to ignore Nos. 2-5.
1. People will judge your content on the quality of your writing. You may be brilliant, have done superb research or have an innovative new idea, but if you can’t communicate it clearly and cleanly, you’ll lose your readers. If you’re asking for their time and attention, don’t waste it with sloppy, convoluted or error-riddled writing.
2. Readers do not know what’s going on inside your head — all they know is what your words say. Your thought process may be clear to you, but your writing needs to make it clear to the readers.
3. It’s not about you. It’s about the information. If you can render it in a particularly engaging and interesting fashion, all the better. But the line between lively prose and eye-rollingly over-the-top prose is fine, so be careful.
4. Get to the point. Don’t make readers slog through a bunch of background or detail before they find out what you’re actually talking about.
Today, Sept. 24, is National Punctuation Day — admittedly, a created holiday, like National Donut Day, and, like National Donut Day, it’s a holiday that celebrates something worthy of celebration. (Yes, there are seven commas in that sentence. Plus a dash and an apostrophe, and the obligatory period.)
Punctuation is like road signs for writing. It tells us where to stop, where to slow down, when a turn is coming, and when rocks might be falling on us (well, not really). It helps readers get where they are going smoothly and safely.
But punctuation is a fairly recent development; in English it’s been around for a few centuries. Look at old manuscripts and you’ll see writing with no spaces, no punctuation and no capital letters. It’s hard to read. It’s slow. It’s confusing. Once punctuation arrived, though, it wasn’t set in stone: the rules have been changing over time. Read Victorian English literature and you’ll see semicolons sprinkled in places they aren’t seen today. Regardless, the reason for using punctuation is to make writing easier to read and easier to understand.
The Associated Press is “the best creative writing school in the world. They have branches in every major city on the globe. They will teach you something that no creative writing school at Stanford or Iowa or anyplace else will ever teach you: Write it down. Do it fast. Keep it simple. Keep it short.”
— George V. Higgins, author of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” and other novels, as told to Chuck Potter in a 1987 interview
Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on July 16, 2010.
We get lots of questions on Twitter, mostly ones about grammar, spelling and usage (we do answer, and we’re happy to help), but there are some questions we’ve had a few times that we thought we’d answer here on the blog.
1. Do people really mess this up?
Almost all of our examples come from real news stories we edit or read online. Some come from news releases. We change the wording sometimes to fit into 140 characters, to protect the guilty, or just to make the example a little more silly. But yes, people really mess this up.
2. How do you come up with answers to questions?
We have piles of word books here on the Eagle’s copy desk, both the serious kind and the fun kind. The one we usually consult first is Garner’s Modern American Usage, which we consider the definitive reference on, as the name implies, modern American usage. We have various dictionaries, general and specific, even an OED. We have books of grammar tips, grammar reference books, punctuation books, style manuals, and usage manuals old and new and British and American.
And there’s the Internet, which has some great reference sites as well, and is also a good way to find out how often certain usages appear in contrast to others. Even with all of this knowledge at our disposal, there are still some questions to which there is no one right answer. So we discuss, sometimes noisily, which way it should go (in the process annoying the sports desk). Continue reading Some questions, some answers→
Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on May 20, 2010.
Often when writers are trying to illustrate the varied nature of a set of items, they use what’s called a “false range.” This is the construction “everything from … to” or “ranging from … to” that throws in a couple of items to show diversity. The problem is that most of these items don’t fall along a real continuum, a Point-A-to-Point-B line, hence the appellation “false” for the range.
This movie has everything from fistfights to car chases to shootouts.
Really? Everything? Talking animals? Tender romance? Discussions about the nature of existence? Aliens?
The upscale women’s boutique has merchandise ranging from handbags to jewelry.
Just what all is in between handbags and jewelry? Clothes? Nope. Shoes? A few. Sunglasses? Bingo! Fancy pens? Yep — who knew?
The kitchen serves up everything from squid to paella to buffalo.
Again, everything? Even rainbow Jell-O?
Fortunately, there are easy fixes for false ranges.
– Drop any mention of the range: This movie is packed with fistfights, car chases and shootouts.
– Use “include”: The upscale women’s boutique has merchandise including handbags and jewelry.
– Use “a variety of”: The cooks serve up a variety of dishes, such as squid, paella and buffalo.
Sometimes, a range is valid. If you’re talking about “prices ranging from $5 to $50” or “snakes ranging from the tiny ‘Leptotyphlops carlae’ to the giant anaconda” — those are true continuums, and a range is appropriate. You can even use figurative, if cutesy, A-to-Z ranges, since A to Z is an actual range — just be aware that “from Albuquerque to Zanzibar” doesn’t make for particularly inventive writing, and “from Australia to New Zealand” is wrong on a couple of levels.