10 Tips to Improve your Grammar, Diction, Punctuation

A friend who is an academic lecturer in English Literature recently recommended Mignon Fogarty, aka “Grammar Girl.” Fogarty is the American host of a website by that name and founder of “Quick and Dirty Tips” for better writing, among other, accessible books.  She has written for magazines, and has worked as a technical writer and entrepreneur, in the U.S.  (She has a B.A. in English and a M.Sc. in Biology, and reads very widely on the art and subtleties of writing in English.

Her e-newsletter, emails and (hard-copy) published books have garnered lots of positive reviews.

Since I admire Fogarty’s work, I’m blogging today (in the first in a series) on the technicalities of good writing—grammar, structure, style and diction—that are essential both in academic study and writing, as well as in marketing (copy)writing.

In the series ahead, I draw on Fogarty’s insights, but also on my own experiences as a marketing copywriter, and as an academic writer and editor. (For instance, I have consulted Don LePan’s volume, The Broadview Book of Common Errors [4th ed., 2000].)Writers of all fields and students of literature and language, alike, can benefit from tips on how to write better. (I know I’ve learned from what follows!) So let’s get started.

(1)   Don’t confuse the words “bemused” and “amused.” “Bemused” (meaning “puzzled” or “confused”) is distinct from “amused” (meaning “to find something funny”).  Grammarians often recommend making a mental connection (or mnemonic) between a word and its meaning, to enable you to remember it. Fogarty suggests here that “bemused” sounds similar to “befuddled” and is similar in meaning, which should help you to remember how “bemused” and “amused” differ. Fogarty cites 18th Century poet Alexander Pope as first using the term “bemused” to describe someone “muddled by liquor.” (Here’s an example: Her husband was bemused by her religious conversion, and amused many family members by telling stories of eccentric members of her parish.)

(2)   Don’t confuse the words “famous” and “infamous.” Since the word “famous” appears in both words, a surprising number of people these days (notably in the media) are using these terms interchangeably. Wrong! By contrast, “infamous” means “terrible,” of “bad quality,” or even “shocking” or “bad moral quality.” Since the “famous” part of “infamous” is pronounced differently from the word “famous,” itself, I recommend that you use that difference as your mnemonic. (E.g. The famous underwear factory became infamous in the news, as the scene of two murders and a suicide, in one week.)

(3)   Don’t use modifiers with absolute words. For instance, terms like “unique,” “pregnant,” “destroyed,” “murdered,” and “fatal” should not be used in the following manner: “very unique,” “totally pregnant,” “completely destroyed,” and “most fatal.” Logic and meaning here will guide you. (Usually the results of using modifiers with absolute words are funny. E.g. The silkscreen shirt was a unique hue of blue and green.)

(4)   Don’t confuse “nauseous” and “nauseated.” The first term describes something that causes nausea. The latter means simply to feel ill. (E.g. The smell of the unwashed dog nauseated me, while my friend saw the wallpaper in the same room to be a nauseous colour.)

(5)   Don’t confuse “home in” with “hone in.” To “home in” on something is to approach or focus on it closely, while to “hone” is to sharpen something.  Fogarty’s mnemonic is to think of a homing pigeon that closes in on its destination. (The pigeon homed in on its nest. Meanwhile, John’s knife was honed by striking it against the steel rod.)

(6)   Don’t use apostrophes when writing plural forms of abbreviations. Fogarty first distinguishes between “acronyms” (abbreviations pronounced as words, such as SSHRC or NASA) and “initialisms” (that are abbreviations for which you speak each letter, such as MBA, U of S, FBI, etc.). She says that in either case, you add an “s” to the term to render it plural, regardless of which part of the word would be plural, if you were to write out the whole term. (E.g. “runs batted in” is written as “RBIs.”) In the past, a lot of media and popular culture used apostrophes to make an abbreviation plural. That practice has declined, recently and is not recommended.)

(7)   Don’t confuse “dinner” with “supper.” Both terms are now used to refer to the evening meal. In the past, “dinner” referred to a heavy lunch served for farm labourers, and “supper” was and still is associated with a small meal. (E.g. Having eaten only a light supper that evening, Bill nearly fainted the next morning, waiting for breakfast to be served.)

(8)   Don’t confuse “anxious” and “eager.” Anxious now has negative connotations, regarding mental health (it has the same Latin root as “anxiety”). But “eager” refers to someone “looking forward to something.” (E.g. He was anxious that the bus was late, since he was eager for the meeting to begin.

(9)   Don’t confuse “waiting” with “awaiting.” Both refer to loitering/lingering around, in expectation of something. But they are used differently: the verb “to wait” doesn’t take an object (instead it often is used with “for”), while “to await” does take an object. (E.g. I waited for the plane to arrive, while John awaited his wife.)

(10)  Use a hyphen for new words made by beginning with “e,” where the “e” refers to electronic media. (E.g. The group descended into a lengthy dispute over the authorship of the e-book.) The Associated Press and Chicago Manual of Style editors recommend using a hyphen here. Fogarty here stresses not to capitalize an internal capital letter in such a word. “e-Book” is wrong, “e-book” is right. An internal capital letter [termed “camel case”] can only be used in Standard English for proper names.

I hope that these 10 tips from Mignon Fogarty and me assist you in your writing. Feel free to drop me a line, with your comments. To be continued!


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