As copywriters and editors, we often come across the same grammar and punctuation mistakes in online and written copy. In a perfect world you would have someone on hand to proofread and correct all of your copy. But alas, that is rarely the case. Having said that, your written communications set the tone for who you are as an individual and/or company, and it’s vitally important to make a good impression. This starts with avoiding some common mistakes – let’s visit a few.
“An” instead of “a”
Most of us are pretty familiar with the general guideline that an is used before words that begin with a vowel. That is true, but there is a further distinction – the actual rule is that you use a before words that start with a consonant sound, and an before words that start with a vowel sound. He is an honorary fellow. Although the word honorary starts with a consonant it is really a vowel sound, hence the use of an instead of a. Similarly, “This is a one-time occurrence” uses a because one-time starts with a w or consonant sound.
“I.e.” and “e.g.” mean the same thing
Well, not exactly because e.g. means “for example” and i.e. means “that is.” Here’s a good way to remember it from Grammar Girl (one of our favorite online grammar resources): “From now on, i.e., which starts with i, means ‘in other words,’ and e.g., which starts with e, means ‘for example.’ I = in other words. E= example.”
The correct way to use e.g. is when you are providing just a few examples of something: I like trees (e.g., oaks and elms). But if you want to provide a conclusive list you would use i.e. I like trees (i.e., live oaks, weeping willows, maples and elms). The use of i.e. means you’ve provided a complete list of the trees that you like, not just a few examples.
Also, as a rule of thumb you do not italicize e.g. or i.e., and a comma does go after them even though your spell checker will more than likely want you to take it out.
“Like” versus “such as”
People often get confused about when to use like instead of such as and use the terms interchangeably. There is a difference between the two however. Like suggests a comparison while such as denotes an inclusive list of items. Shelby enjoys salty snacks like potato chips. The use of like means she enjoys salty snacks similar to, but not necessarily including potato chips. But if you wanted to list the snacks she actually likes, you would use such as. Shelby enjoys salty snacks such as popcorn and pretzels.
It’s easy to get confused about where to appropriately place an apostrophe. Let’s start with one of the most common ones – it’s versus its.
It’s is a contraction of “it is” or “it has.” It’s been really cold today. Its indicates possession, meaning that something belongs to someone or something. The cat lost its hat. Seems obvious, right? But this often gets missed, especially because most nouns show possession with an apostrophe (e.g., Sophia’s hair), so it seems right to do the same with it. But that won’t earn you a gold star.
A good way to check if you’re using the right version is see if it is or it has fits the sentence. It’s been a bad day. The peacock is known for its beautiful plumage. In the first sentence, it has makes complete sense. In the second one it wouldn’t and its is showing that the plumage belongs to the peacock. By the way, you’re and your, and they’re versus their fall into this exact same category.
There is one more clarification on their – we also see it substituted for there. More than likely this is just an oversight as it’s pretty clear that there is all about where something is instead of indicating possession.
Punctuation with quotation marks
Does punctuation go inside or outside quotation marks? Well Virginia, the general rule is that commas and periods do indeed go inside them. The teacher told me, “Sam was a very good boy today.” But, colons and semi-colons do not. Forrest often said that “life is like a box of chocolates”; however, I’m not sure he always believed that.
Question and exclamation marks are a little trickier – they go inside the quotation marks if they belong to the content being quoted, but not if the whole sentence is a question. The teacher told me, “Sam was a good boy today!” Do you agree with me that Sam was a “good boy”? But, if both the quoted content and the sentence are questions or emphasized, then you just use one question or exclamation mark and put it outside the quotation marks. Did Shelby say, “Can I go home now”?
There is also some debate about whether it is proper to use double or single quotation marks. Joe said the seminar was “awesome” versus Joe said the seminar was ‘awesome.’ Both styles are acceptable, although double quotation marks are more widely used in the U.S. But, we often find it’s easiest to stick with double quotation marks, especially to maintain consistency. You may have scenarios where a quote is embedded within a quote and you need to use both single and double quotation marks. For example, quoting an excerpt requires both: “Conrad’s book states, ‘agile development is the bomb,’ but I don’t know if that is always true.”
Proper spacing between sentences
The right number of spaces between sentences seems to be an ongoing debate, but there really are a correct number of spaces to put between sentences, and it’s only one. For the longest time, the norm was to put two spaces between every sentence. This was a holdover from the typewriter days when all of the characters were monospaced – that is each letter took up the exact amount of space no matter how wide it was so extra spacing was necessary to ensure things didn’t appear to run together. Today, however, computer type is proportional so each character uses only the space it needs. For example, the letter i takes up about one-fifth of the space that m does. So you don’t need two spaces after each sentence to separate one from another. And, this one space rule does apply to all punctuation including colons, semi-colons, quotation marks, etc.
Last, but not least
Despite these few reminders of common grammar and punctuation mistakes, it’s always a good idea to have a few solid reference books on hand. Here are a few of our favorites:
- The Chicago Manual of Style
- Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (Mignon Fogarty)
- AP Style Guide
- Punctuate It Right (Harry Shaw)
Need help with your written communications? Turn to Launch Marketing for all your copy needs.
Want more grammar tips? Read part 2 of this article here.
Graphic Source: http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/05/grammar-snobbery/