Grammar

How to Improve Your Writing Style

Q: How can I improve my writing style? —Lily S. A: Read, read, read and practice, practice, practice. When taking in a good book or article, home in on what resonates with you and then underline those parts. Ask yourself, What made that such a great read? Our style is generally...

Lead, Lead or Led?

Q: What’s the difference between “lead” and “led”?—Jake S. A: “Lead” has two specific meanings. As a noun, lead (pronounced like “bread”) is a metallic element. It’s labeled on the periodic table as “Pb” and sometimes found in really old paint. The U.S. government banned lead paint in 1978. Lead pencils...

Can You Start a Sentence with "Because"?

Q: My grammar school teachers always told me that it was wrong to start a sentence with the word “because,” but I commonly see it in books today. What’s the rule?—Roger Allen A: Grammar teachers across the U.S., please don’t hate me, as I’m about to expose the awful truth you’ve...

Subjunctive vs. Indicative Mood ("If I Was" or "If I Were"?)

Q: Could you explain the difference between the indicative mood and the subjunctive mood, and when to use the subjunctive mood? It’s so seldom used correctly that it leaves me scratching my head. When in doubt, should I err with “If I was” or “If I were”?—Lori McRae A: Statements of...

Bi-annual vs. Biennial

Q: What’s the difference between bi-annual and biennial?—Anonymous A: I see these words treated as if they were interchangeable—most often by marketing departments—but they aren’t. And marketing departments should be extra cautious, as misusing these two words could cost them quite a bit of money. “Bi-annual” means twice a year, or...

Dos and Don'ts

Q: When writing about a list of “dos and don’ts” do you punctuate it like I just did, or does “do’s” need an apostrophe. I know it’s plural, but it looks odd to spell it “dos.” –Heidi Thomas A: Funny you ask, as this recently came up during an editorial meeting...

Don't Use "Exact Same"

Q: Is the term “exact same” correct? As in: “The sisters were raised in the exact same environment?”—Judy R. A: No, the term “exact same” isn’t correct. Why? For the same reason “end result,” “unexpected surprise” and “basic fundamentals” are wrong—they’re redundant. While all these expressions have sneaked into daily conversations...

Complement vs. Compliment

Q: I’m always getting the words “complement” and “compliment” confused. Can you set me straight once and for all?—Adam P. A: These two words used to give me a hard time, too, but with a little trick that I learned I was able to set it straight once and for all—and,...

Should I Use The Chicago Manual of Style for my Book?

Q: In my writing I strictly follow the rules in The Chicago Manual of Style. For example, in a sentence joined with an “and,” I place a comma after the last word before the “and” when the first part of the sentence is a complete sentence. I have received a rejection...

When to Use a Semicolon

Q: I would like some help on the use of the semicolon in sentences. —Roger L. A: The semicolon is a tricky beast, but it does serve specific purposes in sentence structure. Before getting to its uses, it’s best to understand what the semicolon really is. The semicolon is a hybrid...

Begging The Question: How To Use It Correctly

Q: I’ve been told that I often misuse the phrase “begs the question” in my writing. Can you explain to me how to use this phrase correctly and give me an example? Thanks. —Anonymous A: “Begging the question” is a phrase that’s commonly misused. In fact, even I misused it once...

Allude vs. Elude

Q: What’s the difference between “allude” and “elude”? Are they interchangeable? —Anonymous A: “Allude” and “elude” are frequently misused in place of each other, even though they’re about as different as broccoli and ice cream. “Allude” means to refer to something in a casual or indirect way. Michelle alluded to my...

Quotes Within Quotes

Q: When should I use single quotes instead of double quotes?—John Batson A: Double quotation marks signify the exact words of someone else speaking in your writing. Single quotation marks come into play when the person you’re quoting quotes someone or something else. Look at this example: “I’m irritated with Dad...

The A's and An's of Grammar

Q: I know “a” goes before words beginning with a consonant and “an” before words that start with a vowel. But it seems like lately it’s become fashionable in print to use “an” with any word beginning with the letter “h.” Try to say “an half an hour”: You’ll wind up...

i.e. vs. e.g.

Q: What’s the difference between “i.e.” and “e.g.”? I thought they were interchangeable, but I was told that this isn’t the case. Can you please explain?—Claire Collord A: I used to have the most difficult time remembering this rule. After all, both of these terms are derived from Latin and I...

Can I Use Contractions in my Writing?

Q: I know that grammatically we shouldn’t use contractions at all unless it’s‑in speech, but I see that many nonfiction bestselling authors use them. What are the current guidelines for their use?—Henry A: Contractions aren’t wrong—they’re just less formal than the expanded forms. Using them depends on your audience. They’re far...