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I’ve been noticing another wave of incorrectly used semicolons. I joined another writing forum to see if I could meet any interesting writers, concepts or tips, and to provide advice. It seems a lot of amateur writers are caught in that transition phase between simplistic writing and using linguistic features (such as punctuation, and in this case semicolons) to spruce up their narrative. Unfortunately, this transition phase tends to see a lot of errors.

So let’s lay down some quick terminology. You should all know what a semicolon is. A comma splice is when two sections of a sentence are joined together by a comma when they can be standalone sentences by themselves (known as a main clause/independent clause). By the way, if you omit the comma altogether (so it’s just two sentences stuck on the ends of one another with no punctuation in between) it’s known as a fused sentence.

I’m still learning about punctuation, today I learned how to use semicolons.

That’s an example of a comma splice. Now there’s a number of ways to fix it.

  1. Separate it into two sentences. I’m still learning about punctuation. Today I learned how to use semicolons.
  2. Use a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but or, yet, so). I’m still learning about punctuation, and today I learned how to use semicolons.
  3. Use a subordinate conjunction (because, since, once, as, if, unless, though, etc.). Because I’m still learning about punctuation, today I learned how to used semi colons.
  4. Use a semicolon. I’m still learning about punctuation; today I learned how to use semicolons.

Let’s just solidify what those examples should have taught you (if you didn’t already know) and refocus on semicolons. The two clauses separated by the semicolon have to be independent clauses. They have to be sentences by themselves. It’s very easy to remember but oddly hard to follow.

On an ending note, I’d like to point out that sometimes rules can be broken. I’m a big advocate of bending the rules for stylistic effect but I’m tired of seeing people use this as an excuse. If you break a rule to create rhetorical effect, fair enough. Just make sure there’s a distinct purpose for you breaking the rule, and that even an idiot can tell you did it on purpose. And don’t overdo it. It’s only special if it’s rare.

While I’m on the topic, here’s another excuse that really ticks me off. Using cummings as an excuse to ignore rules of English. For those that don’t know, cummings was a poet famous for (among other things) ignoring capitalisation in his poems. That’s why people often don’t capitalise his name; it’s sort of like a weird little tribute to him. However, let’s get this straight. First, he wrote poetry, which already bends a lot of rules. Second, he became famous. It’s very difficult to criticise the successful. Third, you are not cummings. There are literally tens of thousands of other writers competing with you (in any sense of the word) and not many people have even heard of your name. You will not be excused for breaking rules. At least not until you become famous first.

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Haha. Colon.

Don’t have time for a post so I just wanted to share this funny picture for those of you who like your grammar.

These two are easily confused with each other, and it’s no wonder why! The two are related to each other, blurring the line between. I was guilty of using the two almost interchangeably in my early years of high school, until I read this:

“A metaphor is not language, it is an idea expressed by language, an idea that in its turn functions as a symbol to express something.” – Susanne Langer

Let’s go through a quick definition. A metaphor is a rhetorical device in which the traits of something are attributed to something else, but not in a literal sense. It helps to understand that a simile is a type of metaphor, so let’s take a look at an example:

“But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, Walk o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare.

The coming of morning is likened to being clad in a “russet mantle” (where russet is a red-orange tinted brown). Now obviously, this is not literal. Morning does not wear any clothing. The russet mantle is a metaphor for the rising sun and the colour of dawn.

Let’s look at symbols now. These are not used in rhetoric or discourse, and is usually a specific thing that represents some other thing or concept. Symbols, unlike metaphors, are not specific or definitive in their interpretation. They carry a wide range of ideas through generations in an almost meme like fashion. Because of this, the symbol’s meaning must be inferred from context. For example, anything long and roughly cylindrical can be considered a phallic symbol; whether or not it was intended that way depends entirely on the context.

Definition aside, this is what really helps me remember the difference. Metaphors are like similes, they liken the principle term to something else (whether it be a thing, idea or process) to endow the principle term with characteristics reminiscent of that which it has been likened to. A symbol is much more succinct; it can be a single thing (usually an object but not limited to one) that is not directly given meaning through comparison (like a simile/metaphor) but whose meaning is created by the context in which that symbol is used. Basically, that means I don’t have to explain a symbol because that’s for the reader to determine for themselves based on what’s been written, whereas a metaphor must be directly explained by the text.

As promised, a literary post. This one is a common misconception. I was disappointed when it appeared on the Big Bang Theory because the show is normally fairly accurate when making its witty jokes. I’m not sure why this one is so persistent when all grammarians agree that this claim is false.

So, what’s a preposition? Well, simply put it’s a word that creates a relationship with another word. Here are a few common ones: for, of, about, in, to, with, on, at, by, after, over, etc.

To use the Big Bang Theory’s example, Dennis Kim the genius Korean boy tells Leonard that his English is pretty good, except for the tendency to end his sentence with a preposition. Leonard replies: “What are you talking about?” (Which ends with a preposition).

Now, is this wrong? Certainly not. To avoid ending with prepositions, one would have to talk like Yoda. It would be “About what are you talking?”.

Apparently this convention for not ending sentences with prepositions began in the 18th century when some grammarians believed that English should follow Latin grammar. Regardless, it is not wrong to do it.

The only time you shouldn’t end with a preposition is when that preposition is extraneous (unnecessary). An example would be “Where are you at?”, where the “at” is unnecessary because “Where are you?” is perfectly proper by itself.

With the advent of the computer, more and more writers are using word programs to write. The convenience and speed are incredibly helpful, but it’s come at the cost of knowledge about spelling, grammar and punctuation.

This time, I’d just like to draw attention to the three types of dashes.

Hyphen:

This is a form of punctuation used to separate compound words, such as water-powered or heat-seeking. This is the minus key on standard keyboards and is noticeably shorter in length. Originally, I believe hyphens were meant to be slightly diagonal as we can see above, but now they’ve been mixed up and confused so much that it’s become interchangeable with a dash. Hyphens are appropriate from most word breaks and compounding (including hyphenating telephone numbers).

En Dash:

In typography, “en” is a unit of length around the width of the letter “N”. The En Dash gets its name from this by being roughly that wide. It is used to describe a range of values or distance. For example, the range: people between ages 18 – 30 would use an En Dash. This blog doesn’t actually auto-correct the length of dashes so my dash up there is the same size as a hyphen, which is wrong. I could copy and paste one to be correct but I thought that it would be a good example of how this typographical standard remains ignorant to most. In terms of distances, the En Dash sort of replaces the word “to”, such as: the Sydney-Tokyo flight was delayed.

Em Dash:

Similar to the En Dash, this gets its name from it’s length being that of the letter “M”, which is roughly twice the length of an “N”. The Em Dash is used to denote parenthetical elements to a sentence, similar to using commas as a parenthetical marker. As the word parenthetical comes from parenthesis, some of you may already know what I mean by this. For those that don’t, I’ll have to use an example.

The building, still burning from the attack, began to crumble.

The two commas are used to describe some attribute of the subject that may not be directly a part of the sentence. Similarly, the Em Dash can be used for the same purpose, but is often used to denote abrupt parenthetical elements.

The building – a burning and crumbling mess of shattered stone and woodwork – was no longer the proud fortress it had once been.

Due to its abrupt nature, the Em Dash is also used in fiction to denote interruption in dialogue, such as: “Hey Bob, what was that sou-“. Again, wordpress doesn’t correct it to the proper length dash so just take note that even though I used a hyphen, it should be an Em Dash.

So just remember guys, not all dashes are the same! Make sure you’re using the right one, or at least understand the difference.

I remember an article a while back condemning our future generations to a world where English literacy has suffered at all levels – particularly spelling. The cause is technology’s “auto-correct”.

In the interests of keeping English literacy at an acceptable level, I’m going to tell you 10 words that people still can’t seem to spell and how I remember it. It would suck to survive a massive global recession and be remembered just for butchering the English language.

This overlaps a bit with one of my other posts so I’ll try to make these words different.

  1. Since we’re talking about misspelled words, let’s start with that: Misspelled. Remember it this way – the prefix “mis” alludes to being wrong. “Mispelled” would be wrongly “pelled”. In the same way, it’s misstep not “mistep”.
  2. Next up is accommodate. It’s double “c” double “m”. Straight forward enough – if you’re not sure just double them because there’s enough room to accommodate them all.
  3. Professor is a crowd favourite. It’s often the butt of jokes on TV shows. I just think of the short term “Prof.” and consider that all the “f” I need.
  4. This one is definitely a problem. People are always saying “definately”. This is mostly due to how people pronounce the word these days. Remember it this way: the word “finite” is in it.
  5. A lot and never mind are both two separate words! Stop combining them! I think the culprit here is the word “anyway” which makes you think you can combine all the words that you say quickly.
  6. Don’t be embarrassed when spelling this word – just remember it’s double “r” and double “s”.
  7. Per se does not come from English (it’s Latin), so remember, it’s not “per say”.
  8. Lightning is the electrical discharge. Lightening is the process of making something lighter. Remember this by remembering that you “lighten” something.
  9. A principal is the position for a person and he is not your pal. It’s the principle of the matter.
  10. It’s separate. Remember the “par”!

Preamble:

Writing fiction, whether it be fanfiction or original fiction, is a hobby that has experienced a recent resurgence in popularity. I might attribute this spike in popularity to the recent success of some mediocre and terrible books, but that’s a rant I’ll have to save for later. Another factor influencing this trend is the ability to self-publish. Unfortunately, self-publishing has no quality control, and is really just the dead-end for a deadbeat writer, like a basketball player resorting to coaching primary school kids. The ultimate goal has, and always will be, to be published by a real publishing house with the means to distribute your book and pay you royalties (as opposed to self-publishing where you pay to get your book published).

Anyway, I’m a regular on a number of writing forums and have given quite a few hopefuls some advice ranging from advanced writing concepts to simple techniques. Since it’s inevitable that there will be a large increase in self-proclaimed writers (or god-forbid, authors), I figured that it was in my best interests to compile a quick 5 tips so that the stuff I’m reading in the future will – hopefully – be a little less crappy. Keep in mind these tips apply for all fiction but not necessarily academic writing – so those of you who need to do short stories at school can also boost your marks with these tips.

Fiction Writing Tips:

1. Grammar: Surprised? You wouldn’t believe how many stories are plagued by basic errors. Well this actually includes all basic English syntax. Please, if you’re going to write, make sure you have a high level (if not perfect) of spelling, punctuation and grammar. It’s infuriating trying to read something that looks as if it belongs to a primary school student with an F in English. It’s worse when you call yourself a writer with that kind of English. Not only does poor syntax distract from the story, it is really just a sign that you don’t care or are not good enough to be writing.

2. Consistency: This one is more applicable for longer stories (like novels) but should be a logical aspect of any piece of writing. Keep it consistent. If you say your main character is a red-headed girl, don’t turn her into a blonde. That should be obvious. The hard bit comes when you have a world and landscape that you need to keep consistent. Directions, environment and physical features need to be the same throughout the text. For this, I like to keep a little document that quickly summarises these things (for example: City X, west of City Y, Forest of the Lost in between, mountains to the north, etc.). Even more difficult is your characterisation. You need to be firmly aware what kind of character you’re creating so you don’t end up with the melancholy introvert being the party animal – and so you don’t end up with an entire cast of characters that are exactly the same. This relates to the category below.

3. Characters: Some of you may have heard the term “Mary Sue” before. A Sue is basically a character that is unrealistic within the mechanics of your fictional world. The more things your character has that defies reality, the closer it is to a Sue. For example, in a medieval world, your character would be pushing it if he was a cyborg with laser weapons. If your character is a beautiful girl who is good at all sports and a professional in all fields of science and knows how to overpower trained hitmen whilst also being loved by every guy she meets, then yes, you have a Sue and you’re also probably projecting some of your insecurity on to your own character.

The key to characterisation is focusing on a few key personality traits and making that character unique. Your story will be more realistic and there’ll be more depth to the environment if there’s a wide range of characters with their own unique identity. This is very difficult to achieve and is something I’ve always had to struggle with, but your goal is to avoid having a cast of characters that are identical to each other. If you remove the names of your characters and judge them solely by how they act and talk, can you tell the difference? Mannerisms and key personality traits are an advanced set of writing techniques that you can incorporate into your characters to make them stand out from the others.

Remember, humans are unique, you need to demonstrate this through your characters.

“If everyone is Han Solo, then nobody is Han Solo” – Cleveland Brown Jr.

4. Pace: There’s a term in writing known as “purple prose“. It basically means over-the-top flowery writing. I remember an amusing quote from a writing website that described purple prose as if the writer had made love to a thesaurus. The reason why purple prose is bad is because it kills all sense of pace in your story. You can’t capture the heat of a battle when you’re describing birds chirping and what not. Let me demonstrate:

“The soldiers formed up ranks and stared each other down across the no-man’s land. Two veritable walls of steel and flesh were about to collide in a bloody clash, but Hero couldn’t feel any fear as he only felt beauty. A swallow dipped across the divide and, as if sensing impending danger, pulled up quickly in a graceful arch. As they men charged, Hero could see the morning’s dew glistening on the grass, and the little shimmering lights that were flung through the air as the soldiers trampled past. The gentle kiss of the breeze was a direct contrast to the blood curling war cries and the sounds of death, and as he drew his elegant long sword, he could see deer bounding away in fear.”

Ok, so I’m not very good at purple prose because I instinctively shy away from it, but the point is – why is Hero noticing all this random crap when he’s about to enter a life-or-death situation? Wouldn’t it be more realistic and appropriate for him to be noticing his emotions and those of the terrified men around him? There’s no sense of urgency when you’re describing random things that are irrelevant to the matter at hand.

So, how do you create pace? Well, first avoid irrelevant details. If you’re writing a scene, focus on the purpose of that scene and write in a way that builds the scene and makes it stronger. If the purpose of this scene is for Hero to end up surrounded by the enemy and the corpses of his friends, then go for gritty and write the damn scene. No one cares that there was a gentle breeze kissing him, but they do care what kind of emotions were rushing through Hero, as well as the fighting itself. Second, play with sentence length. Length can play a huge role in creating pace, and even using sentence fragments is acceptable (though technically incorrect English, sentence fragments are a writing technique to generate pace). For example consider this: (By the way, “c.f.” means “compared to”)

“He could smell smoke and turned to see fire bursting through the windows to blossom out across the walls, consuming the manor in a blazing inferno.”

c.f.

“He could smell smoke and turned to see fire bursting through the windows. Flames blossomed across the walls and consumed the manor in a blazing inferno.”

c.f.

“He could smell smoke. Turning, he saw fire burst through the windows. It blossomed across the walls and consumed the manor in a blazing inferno.”

c.f.

“He smelled smoke. Turning, he saw fire burst through the windows. It blossomed across the walls and consumed the manor.”

Hopefully you can see the difference, if not between each example than between the first and last. Essentially, short sentences create impact and a sense of urgency. The first example feel as if the character is just standing there observing this fire whereas the last example has a sense of urgency. Sometimes this means going easy on the adjectives. Just remember, sometimes pace is more important than description.

5. Diction: In writing, diction is essentially your choice of words. You can make a huge difference by avoiding obscure, generic words. Examples of these words are: good, happy, take, read, walk, look, thing, and book. Now let me explain – first, these words are often unavoidable and are perfectly good words in the right context. However, when you’re trying to add that extra sheen to your writing, you should attempt to substitute these words where applicable. The reason is because these words lack detail and emotion. What kind of book? How does she take the book? Is there any emotion when she takes it? When she reads it?

Here’s an example from one of the forums: “She took the pieces of paper and read over them.” Now I’m going to transform this sentence, step by step, keeping in mind the main concepts in diction – focus on detail and emotion.

“She took the pieces of paper and read over them.”

c.f.

“She took the papers and read them.”

c.f.

“She snatched the papers and read them.”

c.f.

“She snatched the papers off his table and began to read them.”

c.f.

“She snatched the treatises off his table and began perusing.”

c.f.

“With keen anticipation, she snatched the treatises off his table and began perusing.”

As you should be to see, we’ve turned a generic sentence with no detail or emotion into one that conveys a sense of urgency and excitement. “Snatch” instead of “take” creates pace and anticipation. “Treatises” instead of “papers” tells us the nature of this anticipation is probably due to an academic discovery. “Peruse” instead of “read” tells us how absorbed the character is and heightens the sense of excitement, as well as conveying a bit of disbelief.

Too often do I get carried away championing the Grammar Nazi cause that I forget to educate in a less scathing way. This is an odd habit of mine considering I used to be an English tutor – a patient and encouraging one too (I’d like to think).  I blame the impersonal nature of the internet for my blunt, borderline-mockery of those that commit errors relating to English syntax, although I’ve mentioned before that I generally don’t bother correcting people unless they’re trying to correct someone else – and getting it wrong. I’d like to think this absolves me of some of the gravity of my crime – I leave the oblivious alone and hunt the self-proclaimed Grammar Nazis who obviously need a bit of a lesson themselves.

Anyway, to amend my sins I’ll quickly throw together some of the most common errors that I see so that this can be used as a reference for those trying to fix up their English (to whom I give my utmost respect – props for your effort). I don’t believe absolutely perfect grammar is necessary, and I have many well-educated, intellectual peers who have problems with English syntax themselves, but a good degree of English writing is necessary for professional credibility, and also for its own sake. What I find hilarious are people who attempt to be deep and meaningful with incorrect grammar – it sort of undermines your credibility when you don’t know what you’re saying. I think it would be plagiarism for me to go linking funny grammar fail photos, so I’ll let you guys Google them yourselves. I also don’t want to offend my Facebook friends by using theirs. Suffice to say, in a world comprised mostly of idiots, it’s nice to be able to stand out by using proper English. By the way, for those who don’t know, in linguistics, syntax is the study of the principles and processes of constructing sentences. I use the word syntax because I don’t want to be incorrect by calling something a grammar mistake when it’s actually spelling, punctuation or diction, for example (so yes, the term Grammar Nazi is actually a misnomer, which I find ironic). Syntax sort of encompasses all of that.

Ok, I ramble a lot; my posts are way too long. If you avoid all of these errors, your English is passable and you should be left alone by all but the most seasoned of Grammar Nazis. These are off the top of my head so I may miss some conditions. Here’s the list:

10 Common English mistakes:

  1. You’re means “you are”. Your means something belongs to or is associated with you. (You’re always late to your classes.)
  2. An apostrophe followed by the letter “s” ( ‘s ) is used to indicate possession, except for the word “it’s” which means “it is”. I find this one particularly amusing because people often say “Grammar Nazi’s” to indicate plural, which is incorrect. To indicate the possessive of a plural, you put the apostrophe after the “s”. However, if it’s a name ending with “s”, you still put an apostrophe with an “s” after the name. (Jess’s grammar is horrible. It’s quite obvious that she never paid attention in school; the teacher claims that she always got on the other students’ nerves.) Edit: Actually, there’s some debate over whether you need to add the apostrophe “s” after a name ending with “s”. My academic view is that you should, but it would take up too much space to support that argument here. Suffice to say, just make sure you’re consistent in your own writing.
  3. To indicate the plural of a word, generally you add an “s” to the end. If the word ends with the letter “y”, you change the “y” into an “ie” and then put the “s” on the end (-ies). Some exceptions include the plural form of “he” and “she”, “that” and “this” (they, those and these, respectively). (The baby’s eyes glared sinisterly at the other babies. They stared back with equal menace.)
  4. Words should be capitalised at the beginning of every sentence and after ever period/full-stop. Names and significant terms should also be capitalised (which is why Grammar Nazi should be capitalised, as it is an established term used to name somebody who corrects other peoples’ grammar). This should be pretty obvious so I’m not going to give an example. If you can’t do this correctly, I honestly think you need to go back to primary school – and I say that without any hint of insult intended. Also, capitalising randomly in the middle of your words and sentences makes you look like a douche.
  5. Then is used to indicate the next event after a certain time. Than is used to compare things. (He read the poorly constructed comment, then realised that he was far more educated than the other guy.)
  6. A liar is somebody who lies. I have no freaking clue what a lier or a lyer is. The act of committing a lie is lying. 
  7. Affect is a verb; it is the action of causing an effect, which is a noun. (His atrocious grammar affected the Grammar Nazis’ sensibilities to good effect.)
  8. Farther is used to indicate a measurable distance. Further is used for abstract distances, such as time or events. (He ran farther ahead but could predict no further catastrophes).
  9. Multiple negatives can be used for dramatic effect, but most of the time people use them incorrectly. If you use more than one negative in a sentence, you’re complicating things and you’re cancelling out the effect of your negatives. “He hasn’t never done nothing wrong” actually means he always does things wrong. See how confusing and stupid that is? If you want to say “He’s never done anything wrong” then just freaking say it normally.
  10. I’m not actually sure what the proper name for this error is but please, never say “more better” or anything along those lines. More is an adjective. Adjectives are used to describe nouns and pronouns only. Better is an adverb. You do not use adjectives in front of adverbs. Just say “better”, it already has the meaning of “more” incorporated into it.

Obviously, there’s many more mistakes that people make, but if you can manage to avoid these then congratulations! You are now the top 10% (a statistic that I can’t back up with any sources, but seriously, you’re now special because you’re no longer just another incoherent writer whose comments speak poorly of your education).

As a reward, here are some cool words (in my opinion) that you can try using to make yourself sound even more awesome.

  1. Ubiquitous – Omnipresent; found everywhere
  2. Pulchritudinous – Physically pretty; appealing to look at
  3. Paradigm – A set of forms and processes that is used as a model or example
  4. Paramount – Of great importance or impact
  5. Tantamount – Equivalent; equal to
  6. Guile – Cunning; deceitful
  7. Machiavellian – Characterised by the traits of deceit, manipulation and cunning
  8. Effervescent – Bubbly; lively
  9. Comeuppance – A consequence that one has earned, usually negative
  10. Enthrall – To captivate; to hold power over

With great grammar comes great responsibility. Enjoy your newfound power and may it help you in your social life, academic life and professional life (and it probably will if you used to tork lyke dis).

To start with, here’s a funny picture I noticed at one of the beauty/cosmetic stores in the city. Some of you may already be chuckling to yourself, but I’ll work under the assumption that not everyone can see what’s wrong with this advertising poster.

“Beauty is never closer”.

That’s a very unfortunate description for a store that supposedly sells products to make the consumer more beautiful. I think what they were going for was something along the lines of “Beauty has never been closer”. What their little slogan means is that no matter what you do, you will never get closer to beauty – as in you will never be beautiful. “Here, buy these beauty products! They will never make you beautiful though. Thank you for your purchase, these products won’t make you any prettier. Hope to see you again.”

Not that I’m on a particularly zealous English literacy crusade or anything, but it sort of undermines your professional integrity when your advertisement completely contradicts the purpose of your business’s existence. It would be nice to see an increase in appreciation for quality writing though. I kind of feel as though the literary arts are dying, especially with the recent popularity of mediocre to appalling texts lately – but that’s a whole different rant.

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