By Beth Crosby
Because I’m an editor, people frequently tell me they are afraid to write me and to post on my Facebook page. Fear not! I am in a hurry on those social media platforms too, and you’ll find errors in my posts.
I assure those who express concern that I can fix poor grammar and typos. But I can’t weave a good story or enlightening text if what I am given to work with is poor. If you feel passionate about writing, get it on paper (or saved in a computer file). Corrections and re-writes come later, and here are a few insights you can use when you do edit and proof your work.
First, run spell check! Sometimes, the word processor’s dictionary doesn’t recognize words. The Microsoft Word program defaults to underlining those words in red. When you run the spell-check, you have an option to “Add to Dictionary”, so that saves time with future spell checks. Other times you can “Change All” or “Change” just the word that’s flagged. Of course, you can “Ignore Once” or “Ignore All”, as well. But don’t RELY on spell check. As I proofed this paragraph, I saw that up a few lines I had dropped the “s” in the phrase, “so that saves time”. Word didn’t notice.
Colored squiggly lines are first-line editors. The green line indicates a grammatical error. Sometimes, the error is a little-known rule. You might want to rewrite the sentence to eliminate the offense. I find that rewriting to satisfy the word processor can be a challenge. And sometimes, I get a stronger sentence from the struggle. Word can also check for contextual errors and will underline the word when it thinks you have used the wrong one (an example would be, “to”, “too” or “two”). These default to blue lines. Be aware that Word can frequently misunderstand the context.
Many times, I see one sentence that should be two. Often, the jammed up single sentence creates a comma splice, or two thoughts that use a comma instead of a comma and connecting word and comma together, such as and. Sentences that are so related that they MUST be one sentence require a semicolon (;). An example of when the semicolon is necessary is, “We bought our tickets; they got free passes.” Most sentences also use a conjunction, such as however, after the semicolon with a comma following the conjunction. (Suddenly my mind is playing the Schoolhouse Rock song, “Conjunction Junction”. You can see it on YouTube.)
The conjunction combines two complete clauses, or sentences, with the use of a comma. We went to the beach, and we collected sea shells. This could be shortened to, “We went to the beach and collected seashells.” No comma is necessary in the second example because we are not combining two complete sentences with two subjects and two verbs. The same subject, we, is doing both actions. But, “We went to the beach, and they went to the mountains.” requires a comma because it pairs two complete sentences. (The previous sentence begins with the conjunction but, which we were always taught is poor form. Sometimes, we make exceptions.)
Run-ons, comma splices, and fused sentences are all names given to compound sentences that are not punctuated correctly, says OWL online. Sponsored by Purdue University, OWL is a reliable source for grammar and style questions. (owl.english.purdue.edu) I had a resourceful grammar text book in eighth grade that taught diagramming sentences and more correct English than I could digest. Now, I wish I had that manual. But I don’t, so I look in the books I have and on-line for grammar refreshers.
Commas are incorrectly used before a conjunction if no second subject is involved. “We ate potatoes and gravy, but not dessert,” is incorrect. The sentence should read, “We ate potatoes and gravy but not dessert.”
Alas, I have fallen into the pit of grammar exposition. So I’ll close with a few more tips that might be easy to remember.
Look for your common errors. My keyboard is not fond of the capital I, so often I have to go search and replace my lower case “i” with a capital “I”. It’s a time waster, but it’s better than a typewriter and correction tape.
Also, perform a word count on words you tend to overuse. My favorite overused word currently is so. And if I read a manuscript with an overused word such as “well”, that word shows up in my own copy. We consume so many words, written and spoken, that some do make their way into the crevices of our minds.
The solution to many of these errors is to share your work with a friend, proofreader or editor. If they are attentive and detail-oriented, readers will see frequently used words or grammar errors.
This column has been edited and proofread by me and at least two others, so none of us gets it right on the first try!
And notice, I used me above instead of myself. Myself is a word used to describe an action you perform on or for yourself. I brushed my hair myself. We say, “He and I went to the store,” Never Him and me went …, Him and I … or …with him and myself… .
If I could share my passion for the English language, I would. I understand it’s not important to everyone, and it by no means defines a person’s intelligence. But using proper grammar does convey our meanings accurately and concisely. And skilled use of the language shows concern for what is correct. Write your story, proof it, and then share your knowledge and passion! We can fix the grammar.