Tricky Tuesday: Being Consistent in your Writing

I thought it might be ironic to write about consistency when my blogging lately has been so inconsistent.

Intelligentediting.com makes the point well:

Writers and editors must constantly seek to achieve consistency. Each inconsistency we remove eliminates a barrier between readers and understanding, facilitates communication, and thereby increases the likelihood that our writing will convey the message we intended. Readers learn the conventions we have used early in a manuscript and use that knowledge to facilitate comprehension of subsequent material. Editing for consistency thus serves two goals: it both eases the task of reading by teaching readers how to understand our writing and eliminates obstacles that would make that task more difficult.

Essentially, this means choosing a style and sticking with it. I’ve written a lot about rules that it’s okay to break and situations there is a choice between different rules to follow, especially here and here. The key is that you need to choose a rule and stick with it throughout your writing, or at least throughout a given work.

This is why most publishers, newspapers and other industries that deal with writing have a “house style” – to ensure that their publications remain consistent. If you pick up any well-edited magazine, you should be able to read it cover-to-cover without encountering variations in style.

Further reading: American Journal Experts on consistency in academic writing. Most of what they say applies to pretty much any type of writing.

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Tricky Tuesday: Half and Other Fractions

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Picture via Pixabay

Half is a weird word because it can be either singular or plural.

Example 1: Half of a pie was left after we each ate a slice.

In this sentence, a singular verb (was) is used since I am referring to half of a singular object (pie).

Example 2: Half of the sodas were left after we each drank one.

In this sentence, a plural verb (were) is used since I am referring to half of multiple objects (sodas).

Fractions can be tricky since sometimes they are plural, even though a fraction is usually less than 1. For example, all of the following are correct:

  • Three quarter teaspoons
  • Three quarters of a teaspoon
  • Three eighths of a truckload
  • .375 truckloads (read aloud as “point three seven five truckloads”)

Usually in writing, it’s best to write a fraction as “half” or “three eighths,” etc. Only use decimals when it is important to be accurate and a simple fraction can’t be easily conveyed, as in “that house is worth $3.279 million.” If the house were worth $3.5 million, you could say “that house is worth three and a half million dollars” or “that house is worth $3.5 million.” It all depends on the context.

There really isn’t a rule that applies across the board with fractions, so sometimes it is best to check a dictionary if you are unsure. Or you could always check with your editor!

Tricky Tuesday: Dashes

 

Today I’m going to tell you about the various types of dashes and how to use them. Each one has specific uses and contrary to popular belief, they are not interchangeable. The most common dashes are the em dash (so called because it is about as wide as an uppercase M) and the en dash (which is the approximate width of a lowercase n). Here’s a list of dash types and the correct way to use them:

  1. The en dash is used to indicate spans or differentiation, where “and” or “to” could be used, as in “from 1880-1890” or “the Mason-Dixon line.”
  2. The em dash is used to denote a break in a sentence, set off parenthetical statements, or to set off the source of a quote. For example:
    1. It was a beautiful day — warm, sunny, but not too hot.
    2. The girl gasped and smiled as he presented her with a bouquet of daisies — her favorite flowers — on her birthday.
    3. “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.” — Napoleon Bonaparte
  3. The figure dash looks the same as the en dash. It is the width of a single digit and is used to separate the digits in phone numbers, social security numbers, etc. For example, (123)555-4567.
  4. The hyphen also looks the same as the en dash and is used to connect words like hyphenated names and prefixes or suffixes; for example, “pre-Civil War era” or “ex-convict.”
  5. The swung dash, ~, is commonly used to mean “approximately equal to,” especially in dictionaries where a phrase is given to show the context in which a word could be used. For example,

    henceforth (adv.) from this time forth; from now on; “ she will be known as Mrs. Wales”

A few notes on these dashes:

Most computer keyboards don’t actually have a key for the em dash. Microsoft Word will usually autocorrect an en dash to an em dash if you put spaces on either side of it, but not all applications do this. On my blog, I actually went into HTML view and entered the character entity reference —. I’m sure there’s an easier way but I haven’t found it yet. Technically, you can use two en dashes (–) to stand in for the em dash, but I don’t like the way it looks. You can also use an en dash with spaces around it, but I am not happy with that either. That’s not to say that you have to be as picky as I am – do whatever works for you.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, dashes are not interchangeable. Besides the en dash/em dash substitutions I just mentioned, it’s not correct to use the swung dash, for example, even though it might look cute or something. I’ve seen a few people using the swung dash to set off the source of a quote, like:

“If a man does his best, what else is there?”~ General George S. Patton

Sorry, it might look cute to you but it’s not correct.

I hope this has improved your knowledge of the correct way to use a dash. For further information on dashes, go here. Also, I don’t usually like to recommend Wikipedia but they do have a pretty complete and well-researched page on dashes, here.

Tricky Tuesday: Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

Could of, would of, should of – this mistake happens all the time. It’s probably because the contracted form of “could have” – “could’ve” – sounds a little like “could of” when you say it out loud.

The rules:

  • When people write “should of”, what they really mean is “should have”.
  • Written down, the shortened version of “should have” is “should’ve”.
  • “Should’ve” and “Should have” are both correct, and the latter is more formal. (remember my post on contractions?)

Incorrect:

  • I could of done it if you had reminded me
  • They would of made it if they had been faster
  • You should of told me you were going to be late

Correct:

  • I could have done it if you had reminded me
  • They would have made it if they had been faster
  • You should have told me you were going to be late

 

Tricky Tuesday: Misplaced Apostrophes

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Here’s a random pen, just because. Image via

Apostrophes can be complicated to get right – their use depends on several factors including singular or plural, possessive or not, and whether the word they’re used with ends in an S.

Putting apostrophes in the wrong place is one of the most common grammar mistakes in the English language. Often, an apostrophe is used incorrectly to form the plural of a word, or it is left off entirely from a plural possessive.

Here are the rules of correct apostrophe use:

  • Apostrophes indicate possession – when a thing belongs to another thing or person, e.g., “the girl’s dress.”
  • To indicate that the thing belongs to one person, the apostrophe comes before the S, as in the example above.
  • To indicate that it belongs to more than one person, the apostrophe comes after the S, as in “the girls’ dresses.”
  • Apostrophes are used to indicate contracted words like “don’t” and “they’re” and to indicate that part of a word or year has been left out, as in a reference to ’78 rather than 1978.
  • Never use an apostrophe to make a non-possessive word plural, i.e., “the 1980s” should never be written as “the 1980’s.”

Here are a few examples:

  • Incorrect: “The childs toys are all over the floor.”
  • Correct: “The child’s toys are all over the floor.”
  • Incorrect: “Dont touch the artwork, please.”
  • Correct: “Don’t touch the artwork, please.”
  • Incorrect: “The Jone’s front yard is getting rather overgrown. Do they ever mow their lawn?”
  • Correct: “The Jones’ front yard is getting rather overgrown. Do they ever mow their lawn?”
  • Incorrect: “The 60’s were a wild decade, with several historical events including the rise of the hippie’s.”
  • Correct: “The ’60s were a wild decade, with several historical events including the rise of the hippies.”

I hope this helps the next time you’re wondering whether to use an apostrophe! I used 15 apostrophes in this post, and 4 incorrectly.

Further reading: here is a great and funny article on apostrophe use from The Oatmeal.