When Should I Use a Semicolon?

The semicolon is perhaps the least understood punctuation mark. Rather than try to wrangle this mythical half-colon half-comma beast, some writers steer completely clear of it, but doing so can lead to comma splices,* which are just as bad as an improperly used semicolon. Other writers pepper their prose with semicolons because they think it lends sophistication. However, excessive use of semicolons can seem pretentious or overelaborate. A third category of writers are hesitant to use semicolons in their writing; they use them from time to time but never feel quite sure whether they’ve done so correctly.

Yet the rules are quite simple. There are two major uses of the semicolon… Read the rest of this entry »

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“If” vs. “Whether”

This week, I’ve created a new category of blog post called “Advanced Grammar.” This category is for the things they don’t teach you in school, even in college. This category is also for controversial grammar-related issues or those that I can’t find a satisfactory answer to, some of which I’ve already written about here and here. Without further ado, let’s examine “if” and “whether.”

Both “if” and “whether” are meant to be used when discussing possibilities or uncertain events. There is, however, a slight distinction, and saying “if” when “whether” would be more appropriate is one of those colloquialisms (i.e., common phenomena in speech) that often makes its way into formal writing. Read the rest of this entry »


Frequently Asked Question: “Its” vs. “It’s”

Itsy bitsy, or it’sy bit’sy? Or eensy weensy? (Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Why do so many people confuse “its” and “it’s”?

Apparently this mix-up happens a lot on Twitter, and even big news agencies and nationwide brands sometimes get it wrong. Read the rest of this entry »


Between vs. Among

OK, so a mistake here isn’t going to make or break you, but there is a difference between “between” and “among,” so why not learn it? If all of the following sentences sound right to your ears, read on.

A. It came down to a contest between Sally, Greg, and Consuelo for class president.
B. I couldn’t decide between lavender and strawberry scented air freshener.
C. Neil Armstrong truly was a giant among men.
D. Katniss decided that the forest was the safest place; she could easily hide among the trees.

Read the rest of this entry »


Leaving the Body

This has nothing to do with astral projection or any other form of out-of-body experience…but, inspired by a recent article in Discover magazine, here are five ways for writers to “leave the body.”

  1. Kick with your feet.
  2. Listen with your ears.
  3. Look with your eyes.
  4. Smell with your nose.
  5. Think with your mind.

All five of these verbs describe actions performed with, or processes involving, a certain part (or parts) of the body. The crossed-out part goes without saying. So don’t say it! This is what I mean by leaving the body: if the body part that’s doing the action is self-evident or can be guessed at with a bit of common sense, leave it out of your writing. Read the rest of this entry »


Somebody IS Watching You. (Grammar Geeks.)

Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’m not one of those grammar fascists who corrects other people’s speech. I don’t point out when a speaker should use “whom” instead of “who.”

Or at least, I don’t do it that often, and not to people’s faces. That would just be obnoxious. (I’m not saying I haven’t done it in the past.) I feel that people coming up with language on the fly should be given more latitude than if they were writing it down, where it had a chance to be analyzed. Colloquialisms are okay when they are uttered and forgotten, when they don’t exist for longer than the seven seconds of a listener’s short-term aural memory. If you use “me” instead of “I” in conversation, I probably won’t chastise you—although, for my amusement, I can and will imagine you talking with a Jamaican accent. If you say, “Me and John are going to get a beer,” my mind will superimpose dredlocks on you and play, “Me gwan to get a Red Stripe, mon.”

When you’re writing, on the other hand, you have the chance to look over your work and make it as clear and correct as it can be. So there I hold you to a higher standard. That includes speechwriting, copywriting, and songwriting. Read the rest of this entry »


Copy Righting

I understand that folks who work in advertising and marketing sometimes really want to drive home a point. As a hammer is to a carpenter, so repetition is to a copywriter. It’s a recognized tool of the trade and often the one that works best. Repetition is totally valid as a writing strategy. Even poets use it.

I have no beef with the following fake ad, for example:

When you come down to Hamm’s Burger this Memorial Day weekend, buy any two burgers and get a third one free! That’s right, you can get three burgers for the price of only two! A trio of burgers at two-thirds the normal price. That third burger is yours 100 percent free. It costs you nothing! A 90 percent lean all-beef patty is yours 100 percent free! Just throw it away if you want to! It’s gratis! We’re giving away burgers to folks who buy two! But you have to get here before we close! Otherwise we won’t be open! So get on over to Hamm’s Burger and choose from any of our twelve mouthwatering, delicious, savory signature burgers! Right next door to Frank’s Hot Dogs! Hamm’s Burger, Hamm’s Burger, Hamm’s Burger!

This is an example of saying the same thing in different ways and using simple repetition. However, copywriters often commit two terrible offenses: Read the rest of this entry »