Tag Archives | spelling

A question of grammar

Correcting the grammar on a poster

Yesterday, as I was getting ready for work, I heard a news story about a business bemoaning the poor grammar skills of their recent graduates. It seems bosses at Leeds Building Society are so concerned about workers’ written English that they have hired a teacher to give them grammar lessons.

As I arrived at the office I spotted a prominent poster with an  error that would no doubt have irritated one of their senior executives. The poster exclaimed ‘Its here’. The standard form of punctuation in this context is:  ‘It’s here’ – with it’s being a shortened form of it is.

Does grammar, spelling  and punctuation matter?

In the case of the poster, the message can be understood, so you could argue that it’s irrelevant. But as in the argument about the building society employees, does an inattention to detail here mean sloppiness elsewhere?

As a writer I have a foot on both sides of the fence. As someone who works with words every day and who has a good understanding of the conventions of spelling, grammar and punctuation, something inside me screams out, “But it’s wrong”.

I’m aware that people can get very passionate about what’s ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ when it comes to grammar. But as a writer, I’m also aware that language changes. It evolves. Words, sentence structure and punctuation that were perfectly acceptable to a writer like Charles Dickens,  would seem rather formal and verbose if I were to use them today.

We often talk about the ‘rules of grammar’ – but what are they? Where is the book that tells me what they are? The truth is, there isn’t one.

There are grammatical conventions that help us understand, for example, that although there, their and they’re sound the same, they have different spellings to help us understand that they have different meanings.

But discussions about grammar rules often lead to misconceptions, like “You can’t start a sentence with and or but”. Yes you can. And I often do. In fact I’ve done it in this paragraph.

I was lucky to have good teachers, plenty of encouragement at home and a certain amount of natural interest and aptitude for written English and I work with words every day, so I keep my skills fresh. That’s not true for everyone.

So is it fair to recruit a sales person, for example, to test them at interview on how they handle a telephone call and whether they’ll fit with your team and then criticise them when they write a customer email littered with grammatical mistakes?

Even if you were taught well, how much do you remember from your school days? If you asked me to add up a string of figures or work out a percentage, I’d be a bit stuck without a calculator. That’s partly because I prefer words to numbers, but mostly because I’m a lot out of practice.

So while it’s true that most of us use the English language every day, many of us don’t have to write it down. And just criticising someone for making a mistake, or thinking they’re stupid because they got something ‘wrong’ doesn’t help either.

If you can understand the message, does it matter? It does to me. But what about you?

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This made me smile…alot

We all make mistakes. And it’s easy to make them when you’re writing. The English language has some rather unusual spellings and lots of words sound the same, but have different spellings e.g. write, right, wright. They’re called homophones by the way.

So when someone sent me this link, it made me chuckle:
http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/04/alot-is-better-than-you-at-everything.html
It’s a light hearted look at a common error in writing.

I have to confess, it’s the kind of error that would normally make me tut and roll my eyes. But now, if I see it, I’ll smile and point the perpetrator to this post to help them remember the correct way to write ‘a lot’.

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A copywriter’s top spelling and grammar tips

I really enjoy my job as a creative copywriter. I spend most of my days reading and writing things. Sometimes I’m coming up with new ideas, other times I’m just helping other people get their message across. It also means I get to see a lot of things that often confuse us when we’re writing (even me). So here’s my quick guide to some of the things I see every day that cause the most head scratching:

The apostrophe
The apostrophe ’ often seems to cause confusion. It appears where it’s not needed and goes AWOL when it is.

The apostrophe has two main uses:
1) To show something belongs to someone or something.
2) To show there’s a letter or letters missing from a word.

1) Using the apostrophe to show ownership or belonging

The client’s software (one client)
Doris’ business (in this example Doris’s is also correct, but we prefer the less cluttered punctuation)
The children’s father
My clients’ business
(more than one client)

But AVOID the green grocer’s apostrophe e.g.
The apple’s, the cauliflower’s, the carrot’s

When I see examples like this I always want to ask, ‘The apple’s, cauliflower’s, carrot’s, what?’

Note Possessive pronouns like yours, his, hers, ours, its and theirs are not followed by the apostrophe.

2) Using the apostrophe to show there’s something missing

There are lots of examples of this. Some we use everyday without really thinking about them:

I’m; you’re; we’re – I am; you are; we are
Don’t, won’t, haven’t, isn’t – do not; will not, have not, is not

Others sometimes seem to cause confusion:
Let’s for let us

Common mistakes
There are four common cases where it is easy to get confused.

It’s has an apostrophe when it means it is. When you want to show possession, the correct form is its.
It’s a long way to Tipperary.
Every business has its challenges.

Who’s stands for who is or who has. When you want to show possession, the correct form is whose.
Who’s running the company?
The manager, whose business was doing well, booked a well-deserved holiday.

If you can replace the word with “you are”, then the word you’re looking for is you’re. If you want to indicate that something belongs to someone, you need your.

You’re going to have a busy month.
Is this your tax return?

They’re stands for they are. The possessive is their.

They’re the people who bought our business.
It’s their business now.

If you want to show where something is, the correct form is there.

The business is over there.

Still confused? Check out this humorous, comic style guide to how to use an apostrophe.

Words that sound similar but are spelt differently

license (v) / licence (n)

practise (v) / practice (n)

advise (v) / advice (n)

To get these right, you basically have to know your nouns from your verbs. Remember from your English lessons, a noun refers to a thing and a verb is a ‘doing word’. Then use this sentence to help you choose the right spelling:

Stop the crocodile.

Any time you want the verb, use ‘s’ – like you do when you say ‘stop’. If you want the noun, it’s a ‘c’, as in crocodile.

license and licence:

He may be licensed to kill, but James Bond was still booked for driving without his driving licence.

practise and practice:

Mr Jones likes to practise his juggling at his accountant’s practice.

advise and advice:

You can advise people as much as you like but you can’t get them to listen to your advice.

Words that sound similar but mean different things

compliment / complement

A compliment is a nice thing said about someone. So if you say, “I like your new dress”, you’re paying someone a compliment. Something that’s given away free is also complimentary.

Complimentary drinks with every meal.

Complement has a number of meanings associated with matching or completing.

If you’re ordering business cards, why not choose some complementary letterheads?

stationery / stationary

It’s easy to remember the difference between these two. Just remember ‘e’ is for envelope and ‘a’ is for ‘at a standstill’.

affect / effect

To affect something is to change or influence it.

The computer failure affected her business.

Effect has a lot of subtle meanings as a noun, but it mostly refers to something that’s happens as a result of something else.

The new layout had a positive effect on the magazine’s circulation.

Effect is also a rather formal way of saying to make it happen.

The Government has effected a change in policy.

Most of the time affect is a verb and effect is a noun.

Some other places to go to if you get stuck
Online dictionaries
www.askoxford.com/?view=uk
(check out their better writing section too)
http://dictionary.cambridge.org/

Online thesaurus (for when you’re short of an alternative word)
http://thesaurus.reference.com/
(watch out for US spellings though)

More grammar resources and style guides:
Daily Writing Tips
Economist styleguide
Guardian styleguide

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