Dec 17

Wednesday Writing Tip #100 May vs. Can (and an announcement)

A bit over two years ago, when I started this blog, I wasn’t sure if I would ever get to tip #100. Was this a worthy endeavor? Would people even care? Was there anyone out there who was as particular about this stuff as me? One hundred tips later, thanks for following, folks. It’s been a great journey, and I look forward to it continuing.

And speaking of which (yes, you can start sentences with “and” on occasion), last week, I said I’d have an announcement. Here it is:

The EFL (English as a First Language) Guide to Grammar (tentative title) will be published in early 2015. Since this is a self-publishing endeavor, I’m aiming for March, but that’s a fluid release date.

More on that soon, but without further ado, let’s get to today’s writing tip.


mother may i

Did their mothers agree to this?

“Mother, May I?” is so much more than a game. It’s a lesson in respect and grammar, isn’t it? The game isn’t called “Mother, Can I?” (You know where I’m going with this…)

I feel like most people know the difference between when we should use “may” and when we should use “can,” but no one takes the time to get it right. “May” is all about permission. “Can” is about physical ability.

“Can I go to the bathroom?” (I sure hope you can.)

“Can I walk down the street?” (It’s possible, but it might not be happening.)

“May I take three giant steps forward?” (Yes, you may.)

We’re all sloppy on this one, so I present a challenge to all of us. Channel the second grade teacher who first introduced you to this rule. Imagine the look on her face every time a student said this incorrectly. Take that look to heart. Embrace it. Internalize it. Then do the grammarians in the world (and yourself) a favor, and say it right.

Challenge accepted?

Dec 10

Wednesday Writing Tip #99: Aloud vs. Out loud

Laughing Out Loud vs. Laughing Aloud

You know who’s laughing out loud? This guy.

“LOL” (laughing out loud) may be ubiquitous these days, but why not “LA” (laughing aloud)? Is there a difference? It’s shorter—and we love shorter these days in this world of texts and Twitter—so was it just the city of Los Angeles that held it back?

Here’s the nitty gritty on these two words. The original form of the word was “aloud,” but in the early 1800s, “out loud” appeared as a colloquialism. Why? Who knows. But in our day of “totes,” “forevs,” and “awesomesauce,” we can understand weird things happening with language.

Most consider “aloud” and “out loud” synonyms, though the diehards might reserve the original “aloud” for formal writing and “out loud” for casual conversation. “LOL” seems to follow this train of thought. It’s definitely an acronym designed for casual use.

So we can’t just blame Los Angeles for the appearance of “LOL” rather than “LA.” Who knew text-speak considered grammar rules?

Read the rest of this entry »

Dec 03

Wednesday Writing Tip #98: Me vs. I (a.k.a. You don’t know how it feels to be “me”)

I-me pronoun confusionSympathies with Tom Petty aside, I’m going to pretend he really wrote the song about the misunderstood and misused word “me.”

When do you use “I”? When do you use “me”? Across the nation, teachers (and editors) squirm with this one every day. We really don’t know how it feels to be that little word that’s so often messed up. It’s so short and innocent sounding. Let’s make an effort to get it right once and for all, folks.

When there’s more than one person in the sentence, the I/me decision seems to explode, so let’s just focus on this single piece. My favorite advice is to think about how a line would be written without the others involved.

If someone said, “Me and Tom Petty are free, free fallin’” (hint: not correct), I’d tell that person to removed Tom Petty.

“Me is free fallin’,” they’d respond.

Wait, what? We all hear that wording as incorrect. “I am free fallin’” sounds more natural for good reason. It’s proper.

This trick works for subjects and predicates alike.

“He’s dancing with Mary Jane and I” might come out of some over-correcting mouths, but does “He’s dancing with I” really sound right? No, no, it doesn’t.

“He’s dancing with me.”

Do you hear the difference? Your ear already knows. Trust it.

Ah, pronouns.

Let’s get to the point

Let’s roll another… hmmm… maybe not.

**insert blues-y harmonica solo here**

Nov 26

Wednesday Writing Tip #97: The Mother of all Writing Tips (when to capitalize family names)

Mom or mom - CapitalizationThis week, when you gather with your siblings, sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law, mom, and dad, will you know how to write down all of their names correctly? And I don’t mean an impromptu spelling bee (there’s a great Thanksgiving idea… just kidding, I’m not that crazy).

Now, I’m going to ignore the cool kids with their graphic design backgrounds who just like writing everything—including proper names—in lower case (you know who you are). I’m also going to pretend I don’t notice the obsession with capitalizing all family names like a nonsensical sign of respect. Sometimes, it’s just “mom.” It’s true. Don’t worry. Respecting your elders is one thing, but don’t get carried away

Let’s talk about the method to the madness:

As you know, you capitalize names. If you’re using “mom” or “dad” as a proper name, capitalize it. To test whether this is the case, swap it out for their real name. If this swap makes sense, keep it upper case. If you’re referring to the role of “mother” or “father,” there’s no need to capitalize it. Perhaps that sounds trickier than it is. Seeing it in action will help:

Mom, what’s for dinner? (Mary, what’s for dinner—yep, checks out.)

Happy Thanksgiving, Grandpa! (Happy Thanksgiving, Ted—yep, that works too.)

My dad is excited about the football games on Thursday. (My David is excited—nope, that’s a bit weird.)

Across the country, moms and daughters will be prepping Thanksgiving feasts. (Across the country, Bettys and Sues will—okay, you get the idea.)

I hope this clears up the confusion. Have a happy turkey day, everyone!

Nov 12

Wednesday Writing Tip #96: Whether vs. Weather vs. Wether

wether goat

Whether the weather is sunny or not, this wether is one mellow dude.

It has recently been brought to my attention that “wether” is not necessarily an incorrect spelling, because a “wether” is a castrated goat. Did I know this? No, I did not. My guess is, though, that this isn’t quite the word most writers were intending to use… unless there’s this mass goat fascination that I’m just not aware of.

The real decision probably comes down to the use of “weather” or “whether.” I’m fairly certain that most know the difference between these two words and that it’s just fast typing and auto-correct bringing people down. If I’m wrong, don’t tell me. Let me keep my faith.

Remember, “weather” refers to the conditions outside; “whether” is a word used when considering two or more alternatives. “Wether” really isn’t the word you want to use. I’m 99% confident on that last one.

Nov 05

Wednesday Writing Tip #95: Canvas vs. Canvass

ID-100220297Ah, Election Day, that day when a candidate canvasses neighborhoods for the last time. Or is it “canvases”? Whether you’re happy with election results or not, we can all agree on one thing: gay marriage, states’ rights, rooster ownership laws, “canvas” and “canvass” are two different words.

“Canvas” is the material one might paint upon. It’s something hung upon your wall or the material that makes up a bag. As a verb, it can mean to cover with canvas.

“To canvass” is to campaign, stump, or solicit votes. It can also mean to thoroughly discuss.

This one came to my attention recently in a caught typo, but it seemed like a timely one. You have many civic duties. I know knowing proper word choice isn’t necessarily one of them, but I hold that it’s important. (If you didn’t get that from me already.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Oct 29

Wednesday Writing Tip #94: Everyday sins (or is that “every day”?)

everyday pink shoes

These are this girl’s everyday pink shoes, but she doesn’t wear them every day.

We are only human. We sin every day. Or maybe I should reword that. “Sin” might be a bit strong. Perhaps I should say that we mistype “everyday” nearly every day. Do you know the difference between when it should be one word versus two?

Some rules are hard to remember, but this one shouldn’t be.

“Everyday” (one word) is simply an adjective, meaning something is commonplace, informal, or normal.

“Every day” (two words) is a time expression, meaning “each day.”

I might have started off this tip a little severe. No one’s going to anywhere hot and fiery for confusing these two words. But getting language right is a little bit of heaven, no?

Oct 22

Wednesday Writing Tip #93: Avoid over-using names in dialogue

over-using names in dialogueReader, you know what comes across a bit strange?

What is it, Kris?

Well, reader, have you ever read something where the characters use each other’s names way too often?

I don’t know what you mean, Kris.

Wow, part of me cringed just writing that. Do you see what I’m going for? Sometimes, newer writers have this tendency. Rather than making the language unique or the characters alive through their behaviors, names are dropped way more often than is natural in a normal conversation.

Pay attention when you speak with others. How often do you use names? How often do other people? Use real life as your guide, dear reader. Otherwise, reader, it comes off a bit forced. Don’t you think, reader?

Oct 15

Wednesday Writing Tip #92: Commas around colors (or “Grammar in Technicolor”)

Cat shocked by colors

The whole point of having commas between adjectives is to make sure meaning is clear, but colors don’t tend to confuse people. Unless you’re this cat. Colors blow him away.

When you have multiple adjectives in front of a noun, you separate them by commas, right? Usually. There are a couple exceptions, and colors are one of them. Do you remember this exception to the rule when you write?

For example:

The adorable white cat is in shock.

His shiny pink pool toy boggles his little kitty mind.

It’s so hard to keep his paws on the hard, wooden floor, when his simple, grammar-loving worldview has just shifted.

Did you catch all of the different uses of commas with adjectives ahead of a noun? For those paying attention, you might have caught that the other exception to the comma rule is size (as in “little kitty mind”).

Commas are captivating, aren’t they? (Oh, there I go making you shake your head again.)

Happy writing, everyone!

Oct 08

Wednesday Writing Tip #91: The Royal Order of Adjectives Fantasticus

run-down blue and white old row boat

Is it a run-down blue and white old wooden row boat or a wooden old blue and white run-down row boat?

There is a finite methodology to the order of words that spill effortlessly out of your mouth. When it comes to a string of adjectives, when it’s wrong, it can just sound weird to the native speaker. And it’s not just the preference of style or fashion. Since those sentence-diagramming lessons (for those of us that had them) might be blocked out of your memories, here’s a quick refresher.

I present to you…

The Royal Order of Adjectives Fantasticus*

  1. Determiner – articles (e.g., “a” or “an”), possessive pronouns (e.g., “his” or “her”), amount (e.g., “four” or “number of” or “some”)
  2. Opinionated descriptors (e.g. “lovely,” “delicious,” “worn-out,” “hard-working,” or “dreamy”) Read the rest of this entry »

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