Before their workshop at the NGV Art Book Fair in Melbourne, writing studio Penny Modra and Max Olijnyk from The Good Copy share some tips.┬á As seen in The Guardian.
1. Mistaking style issues for errors
Should you use italics for movie titles? Do you put full stops inside or outside quotation marks? Is the Oxford comma for all lists ÔÇª or just some lists? Should that ellipsis have had a space on either side of it?
The correct answer to each of these questions is ÔÇ£it dependsÔÇØ. In other words, theyÔÇÖre style decisions. In writing, as in fashion, you just have to figure out the style thatÔÇÖs appropriate to your situation and apply it consistently. Unfortunately, many of us spend our professional lives being corrected by people who believe the style guide they once saw on their nannaÔÇÖs bookshelf is The Official Grammar GodÔÇÖs Eternal English Rule Book.
2. Mistaking ye olde conventions for rules
Beyond style decisions, most of the things people mistake for ÔÇ£rulesÔÇØ in grammar and punctuation are just conventions that crawled out of the swamp at some point and got a foothold, either in a school curriculum or as a recommendation in a 19th- or 20th-century grammar screed.
DonÔÇÖt start a sentence with a conjunction? ThatÔÇÖs never been a rule. True story. If anyone tries to start trouble with you about this, hand them the Chicago Manual of Modern Style:
There is a widespread belief ÔÇô one with no historical or grammatical foundation ÔÇô that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as ÔÇÿandÔÇÖ, ÔÇÿbutÔÇÖ or ÔÇÿsoÔÇÖ.
And then finish them off with the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage: ÔÇ£Everybody agrees that itÔÇÖs all right to begin a sentence with ÔÇÿandÔÇÖ.ÔÇØ
What about ending a sentence with a preposition? Avoiding this has never been a rule, either. As Winston Churchill said: ÔÇ£This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put.ÔÇØ
You: ÔÇ£Hey, mum. Me and Tim are going to the milk bar.ÔÇØ Your mum: ÔÇ£You mean, ÔÇÿTim and I are going to the milk bar.ÔÇÖÔÇØ
When youÔÇÖve spent your childhood receiving slaps on the wrist for using ÔÇ£meÔÇØ, you spend your adult life replacing every ÔÇ£meÔÇØ with an ÔÇ£IÔÇØ. ThatÔÇÖs over-correcting.
Grammatically, ÔÇ£meÔÇØ is always the right choice when you need an objective pronoun. You wouldnÔÇÖt say, ÔÇ£Hey, Tim, want to come to the milk bar with I?ÔÇØ or, ÔÇ£The CEO will be interviewing I next ThursdayÔÇØ. (Unless your friendÔÇÖs name is I, which wouldnÔÇÖt actually surprise us. We met a kid named Better the other day.)
4. Capitalising things because they feel Important
Random capitalisation is a slippery slope. If everyone put a capital on everything they thought was important, weÔÇÖd live in a city full of Sausage Sizzles and Footy Tipping and Pop Up Shops and Flat Whites. Tone it down, team. Capitals canÔÇÖt be decided via a Dennis Denuto-esque ÔÇ£ItÔÇÖs the vibe of the thingÔÇØ logic, because everyone has a different vibe.
LetÔÇÖs stick to what we can all agree on: capitals to start sentences and capitals for proper nouns. Is a job title a proper noun? ThatÔÇÖs a can-of-worms decision for your style guide.
5. Misplacing or confusing your pronouns
Pronouns stand in for other nouns, including peopleÔÇÖs names. ItÔÇÖs nice to give people the pronoun ÔÇ£whoÔÇØ, and save the pronoun ÔÇ£thatÔÇØ for everything else. For instance, ÔÇ£the guy who won the footy tippingÔÇØ arrived in ÔÇ£a car that bloody well breaks down all the timeÔÇØ.
What about animals? Many people like ÔÇ£whoÔÇØ for animals ÔÇô but it does feel weird for spiders: ÔÇ£Have you seen the funnel-web whoÔÇÖs been lurking on the ceiling all week?ÔÇØ
Also make sure your reader can easily understand which noun your pronoun is standing in for, or youÔÇÖll put many innocent pooches at risk.
6. Using the wrong modifier
Modifiers can be single words, phrases or clauses. TheyÔÇÖre optional elements that are inserted to change the meaning of the words around them. There are three kinds of modifier error, ranging from the confusing to the hilarious.
A squinting modifier modifies two things at once: ÔÇ£Cycling up hills quickly tones your thighs.ÔÇØ Wait, should I ride quickly, or will my thighs tone up quickly?
A misplaced modifier modifies the wrong thing: ÔÇ£The food truck served tacos to customers in boxes.ÔÇØ Wow. Did they have much elbow-room in there?
A dangling modifier ends up modifying the wrong thing because the thing itÔÇÖs trying to modify isnÔÇÖt there: ÔÇ£Having studied for the exam, my coffee machine was a welcome sight.ÔÇØ Full on. Coffee machines are getting smarter by the minute!
7. Which or that?
Whether itÔÇÖs ÔÇ£whichÔÇØ or ÔÇ£thatÔÇØ depends on whether you want to listen to the convention police. YouÔÇÖre not wrong if you ignore it, but the convention is to reserve ÔÇ£whichÔÇØ for non-defining relative clauses (ÔÇ£The couch, which has a stain on it, is dirtyÔÇØ), and ÔÇ£thatÔÇØ for defining relative clauses (ÔÇ£Here is a couch that has a stain on itÔÇØ).
To translate from High Grammarian, if itÔÇÖs between commas or after a comma, err on the side of ÔÇ£whichÔÇØ.
8. Creating run-on sentences
Independent clauses are great donÔÇÖt mash them together. Just a little grammar joke for you.
When youÔÇÖve got two main clauses in a sentence, youÔÇÖll need something in between ÔÇô and a comma doesnÔÇÖt qualify. Independent clauses are great; try joining them with a semicolon. Independent clauses are great but donÔÇÖt mash them together. If you subordinate one clause to the other, you can totally use a comma. See what we did there?
9. Freaking out about apostrophes
When youÔÇÖre not sure about apostrophes, your natural instinct is to put them everywhere. Understandable. But this can lead to strange-looking plurals such as bananaÔÇÖs and peachÔÇÖes, and (at least 50% of the time) the wrong itÔÇÖs.
Remember: donÔÇÖt put an apostrophe in ÔÇ£itsÔÇØ unless you mean ÔÇ£it isÔÇØ. Things get difficult with possessive apostrophes only because style guides differ on how to form the possessive when singular nouns end in ÔÇ£sÔÇØ. If your name is Chris and youÔÇÖre opening a cafe, most non-American style guides will tell you to name it ChrisÔÇÖs Cafe. But some American style guides (including AP Stylebook) will recommend ChrisÔÇÖ Cafe.
Definitely donÔÇÖt freak out and name it Chris,s Cafe.
10. Not going with the flow on contemporary usage
How longeth wilt thou persist with ÔÇ£amongstÔÇØ and ÔÇ£whilstÔÇØ? Yea though thine prose doth ring fanciful, long hath the ÔÇ£stÔÇØ lain banishÔÇÖd ÔÇÖpon the pebblÔÇÖd shore. (These days, itÔÇÖs always ÔÇ£amongÔÇØ and ÔÇ£whileÔÇØ.)