If you grew up in the United States, chances are you’ve been speaking the English language since you were a tot. Yet, the majority of the population unknowingly flubs it, particularly in writing. Here are some easy-to-remember tips that can help you polish your prose and boost your credibility.
1. Avoid Exclamation Points
Overusing them is disingenuous. In fact, writer Elmore Leonard believed a person should never use more than two or three exclamation points per 100,000 words. And never use more than one at a time. One will suffice if you reserve an exclamation point for times of genuine excitement.
2. Think About Capitalization
In my experience, people tend to over-capitalize. In addition to the first letter of a sentence, capital letters should be used for proper nouns—specific people, places, organizations or things—such as “Barack Obama,” “Delaware,” or “Seattle Seahawks.” Something like “bachelor’s degree” does not qualify. In truth, the rules are a little more complicated (check here for help). Just be careful about capitalizing things without a reason.
3. Understand the Reasons to Use an Apostrophe
These little guys are ubiquitously misused. Apostrophes indicate one of two things: Possession or letters missing, as in “Sara’s iPad” and “it’s” for “it is” (second “i” missing). They don’t belong on plurals. “FAQs,” for example, should not have an apostrophe. Also, people often make a mistake with their own last name. If you want to refer to your family but don’t want to list everyone’s first name write “The Johnsons” not “The Johnson’s.” Another big one: Years should not have apostrophes. For example, “1980s” is correct but “1980’s” is not.
4. Make Sure Your Subjects and Pronouns Agree
Take the sentence, “A person who smokes is damaging their lungs.” See anything wrong there? You should. “A person” is—obviously—one person. But “their” is a word you would use if you were referring to more than one person. Correct sentences could either read:
“People who smoke are damaging their lungs.”
“A person who smokes is damaging his or her lungs.”
In the first bullet “people” is more than one person and now agrees with “their.” Note, however, that messing around with pronouns affects verbs, as well. In this instance “is” had to change to “are.”
In the second bullet, the use of “his or her” can be awkward, so you can also just pick one or the other as long as you’re sensitive to any gender issues a reader might raise.
5. Know How to Refer to Yourself
The question of how to refer to yourself along with other people is commonly misunderstood. Most people know to say the other person’s name first when it happens at the beginning of the sentence; “David and I went to the meeting.” But when this same phrase happens at the end of a sentence people get confused, often thinking the same usage of “I” is appropriate, which it isn’t.
Instead, it should be “The CEO met with David and me.” The easy way to remember this one is to imagine removing the other person’s name. It would sound weird to say “The CEO met with I,” right?
6. Limit Prepositions When Possible
If you don't remember what they are, here's a list and primer. When overused, prepositions weaken writing and contribute to wordiness. For example: "The meeting on December 1 about the budget" is sharper when written "The December 1 budget meeting." Also watch out for prepositions following a verb, such as "come up with" or "find out." Instead, you could use "generate" or "determine," respectively.
7. Read Your Writing Out Loud
Many people can read something a dozen times and still miss a typo. Speaking the words forces you to slow down and pay attention.
8. Print Your Writing and Have Someone Else Read It
In my opinion, a proofreader will take more time and pay better attention if whatever you’re writing is in hand, as opposed to on a screen. Plus, this is a good practice for outing awkwardness. You may be surprised how often other people will choose different wording and achieve better flow. I usually hand an important composition and a pen to my husband or one of my teenagers and say, “Circle anything that looks weird or doesn’t read well.”
9. When in Doubt, Go for Brevity
Like it or not, the world has accelerated to the point where many people have lost the ability to pay attention. Making an important point does not necessitate a greater number of words. Your reader is more likely to get something out of your writing if you value her time.
10. Get Your Idioms Straight
Check out “20 Embarrassing Phrases Even Smart People Misuse.” This insanely popular story features the top phrases people use all the time, but incorrectly.
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