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Guest Post: Writing Rules That Matter–And Those That Don’t by Teri M. Brown

by Teri M. Brown

Always. Never. It’s a rule.

Have you noticed that the self-proclaimed grammar police are always quick to point out mistakes in social media posts, emails, and even book manuscripts? I must admit that there are grammar mistakes I find cringeworthy. However, determining the right way to write is not as easy as it seems.

Know Your Audience

Sometimes, I think back to those long-ago days sitting in an English class, learning about punctuation, word usage, and parts of speech. I can hear Mrs. Swift stating unequivocal rules about commas, contractions, and writing a paper. I sometimes wonder how she would feel about my novel with its quirky sentence structures and unusual word choices – which brings me to the most important rule I’ll share today.

Know your audience. When I wrote papers for Mrs. Swift, I followed her rules because she was my audience. If I wanted to do well in her class, then I needed to write something she would want to read. For her, it was formal, grammatically correct, and formulated.

The same holds true for business writers, authors, and even texts. Effective communication begins with knowing your end reader. This will help you determine if you need to be formal or informal, can use technical terms, should add persuasive speech, and more.

For example, it’s perfectly acceptable to use LOL in a text but not when writing a formal letter to a business executive. It’s also fine to start an email to a group of friends with “Hey, guys,” but I wouldn’t recommend doing so when writing an email to a potential publisher.

Where You Live Matters

“Punctuation ALWAYS goes inside the quotes,” stated Mrs. Swift over and over again. She took off a full point whenever someone in class put a period or comma outside the quotation marks. I’ve learned, however, that ‘always’ doesn’t apply outside of the United States.

It’s true! In the UK, the punctuation goes outside the quotes. So, if you are writing for a UK audience, you should keep that in mind. (Remember the first rule – Know Your Audience.)

Writing dates correctly also depends on location. In the United States, one writes January 1, 2022 – the comma goes after the day. Those in the UK write the day before the month and eliminate the comma altogether like this – 1 January 2022.

When a Rule Isn’t a Rule

Mrs. Swift also didn’t let on that some rules change over time or are controversial. Let’s talk for a moment about the Oxford comma. This is the comma placed before the ‘and’ in a list. If I said, “I’m going to the store to buy pens, pencils, paper, and an eraser,” the Oxford comma is the one after ‘paper’ and before ‘and.’

However, some people and organizations, like the Associated Press, no longer require the use of the Oxford comma. The missing Oxford comma has even led to court cases resulting in dairy having to pay their drivers $10 million in overtime pay. To this day, the debate goes on.

Another controversy is whether a sentence can start with a conjunction or not. Mrs. Swift would be resolutely in the ‘no’ camp. However, today’s rules state that you can. And that is the real truth.

Tricks For Deciding

Of course, there are rules that we follow because they have become standard. Yet, some are difficult to remember. To this day, I rearrange a sentence to avoid using lie or lay. Here are a few tricks for helping you decide what to use.

Less/Fewer

Use less when something cannot be counted. Use fewer when something can be counted.

Example:

I wrote less often. (You can’t count often.)
I read fewer words. (You can count words.)

 Who/Whom

Answer the question you are asking with he or him. If you would say ‘him’ with an M, then you would use ‘whom’ with an M.

                Example:

To who/whom will you send a free book? Since you would send it to him, the sentence should have ‘whom.’

Who/whom will read the book? Since he will read it, the sentence should have ‘who.’

I/Me

Should you say, “Bruce and me read a good book” OR “Bruce and I read a good book.” To decide, take out the ‘Bruce and’ and read the sentence again. Obviously, you wouldn’t say “Me read a good book,” so in this case, it should be ‘I.’

What about “She gave the book to Bruce and I” or “She gave the book to Bruce and me?” Once again, take out the ‘Bruce and’ and read the sentence. In this case, use ‘me.’

Lay/Lie

Lie means to be in a recumbent position. Lie has an ‘I’ in it. If you were to lie down flat, your body would have the shape of an ‘I.”

Lay means to place something. Lay has an ‘a’ in it, just like place.

A Few Tidbits for Better Writing

Finally, here are a few things to consider that may make your writing better.

  1. Try to use active voice (subject + verb + object) rather than passive voice (object + verb + subject). ‘Historical fiction is loved by readers’ is not nearly as captivating as ‘Readers love historical fiction.’
  2. Boring sentences start with ‘there is’ and ‘there are.’ Consider starting with a subject instead.
  3. A cliché is an overused expression. Instead of using an overused phrase, create something fresh and exciting.
  4. You have 15 seconds or less to capture the attention of your reader. Make sure your headline, first sentence, and sub-headlines are strong and enticing.

Finally, I always recommend reading what you’ve written out loud. This will help you find the mistake you miss when reading it to yourself. You wouldn’t believe how many repeated words, missing letters, and odd punctuation I have found when doing this.

The bottom line is this: language matters, but language is not static. As the writer, it is up to you to determine which rules matter to your audience.

About the Author

Born in Athens, Greece as an Air Force brat, Teri M Brown graduated from UNC Greensboro. She began her writing career helping small businesses with content creation and published five nonfiction self-help books dealing with real estate and finance, receiving “First Runner Up” in the Eric Hoffman Book Awards for 301 Simple Things You Can Do To Sell Your Home Now, finalist in the USA Best Books Awards for How To Open and Operate a Financially Successful Redesign, Redecorate, and Real Estate Staging Business and for 301 Simple Things You Can Do To Sell Your Home Now, and Honorable Mention in Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award for Private Mortgage Investing. In 2017, after winning the First Annual Anita Bloom Ornoff Award for Inspirational Short Story, she began writing fiction in earnest and recently published Sunflowers Beneath the Snow. Teri is a wife, mother, grandmother, and author who loves word games, reading, bumming on the beach, taking photos, singing in the shower, hunting for bargains, ballroom dancing, playing bridge, and mentoring others. Teri’s debut novel, Sunflowers Beneath the Snow, is a historical fiction set in Ukraine. Learn more at http://www.terimbrown.com.

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