Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want to Work at Writing

A writing question:

What writing tips would you whisper to those who aren’t aspiring professionals, but would like to write better? If I asked you about losing weight and you said “Diet and Exercise” you’d be a) correct and b) ignored. So no ideas that take work. We want the quick fix! Tips like “Edit your work” aren’t useful. “Gerunds are your friend” are.

So, the task here: Tell y’all how to write better without you actually having to make an effort. Fine. Here’s how I would do it.

(NB: These work pretty well for people who do want to be pro writers, too.)

0. Speak what you write: This is rule zero because all other rules follow on this. Basically: If what you’re writing is hard to speak, what makes you think it’s going to be easy to read? It won’t be. So speak out loud what you write. If you can’t speak it naturally, rewrite it. Simple.

1. Punctuate, damn you: For God’s sake, is it really so hard to know where to put a comma? When people read, even in their brains, there’s usually some part of them that is sounding out the words. Without appropriate punctuation, especially commas, that word-speaking part will eventually choke on the sentence. Having said that, there’s a tendency to over-punctuate as well, particularly with exclamation points. Too little punctuation makes it seem you want to collapse someone’s lung, too much makes it look like you’re a 14-year-old girl writing an IM. You want to avoid both.

Here’s a quick and dirty guide when to use punctuation:

Periods: When you’re writing down a thought and you’re at the end of that thought, put a period.
Commas: When you’re writing down a thought and you want to take a breath, whether mental or physical, put in a comma.
Semi-colon: Put these in your writing in the place where, in conversation, you’d arch your eyebrow or make some other sort of physical gesture signalling that you want to emphasize a point.
Colon: Use when you want to make an example of something: For example, just like this.
Question Mark: Quite obviously, when you have a question.
Exclamation point: When you’re really excited about something. You almost never need to use more than one in a paragraph. Use more than one in a sentence and you damn well better be using it for humorous and/or ironic effect.
Dashes: You can use these when you’ve already used a colon or a semi-colon in a sentence, but be aware that if you have more than one colon or semi-colon in a sentence, you’re probably doing something wrong.

Somewhat related: Use capitals when you should (beginning of sentences, proper nouns), don’t use them when you shouldn’t (pretty much every other time). Lots of people think not using capitals makes them look arty and cool, but generally it just makes the rest of us wonder if you’ve not yet figured out the magical invention known as the shift key. Alternately, the random appearance of capitals in inappropriate places makes us wonder if you don’t secretly wish the Germans won World War II (and even the Germans are cracking down on wanton capitalization these days, so there you are).

2. With sentences, shorter is better than longer: If a sentence you’re writing is longer than it would be comfortable to speak, it’s probably too long. Cut it up. This is one I’m guilty of ignoring; I tend to use semi-colons when I should be using periods. In fact, I’d say the largest single editing task I have after writing a piece is to go in and turn semi-coloned sentences into two sentences (or more, God forgive me).

Shorter is also better with paragraphs, but there’s such a thing as too short: Take a look at a not-particularly-well-edited newspaper and you’ll see a lot of single-sentence paragraphs, generally preceded or followed by other single-sentence paragraphs that should have been compressed into one paragraph. Good rule: One extended idea or discrete event per paragraph.

3. Learn to friggin’ spell: I’m not talking typos here, because everyone makes them, and I make more than most. I mean genuine “gosh I really don’t know how this is spelled” mistakes. This is particularly the case with basic spelling errors like using “your” when you’re supposed to be using “you’re” or “its” for “it’s” (or in both cases, vice-versa). Here’s a good rule of thumb: For every spelling error you make, your apparent IQ drops by 5 points. For every “there, they’re, their” type of mistake you make, your apparent IQ drops by 10 points. Sorry about that, but there it is.

What’s truly appalling is that even people with advanced degrees (I’m looking at you, scientists) screw these particular pooches. I look at some of the writing I see from people with MAs and PhDs after their names and I think no wonder China’s poised to kick our ass.

Look, spelling isn’t hard. Nearly every single computerized writing tool has a built-in spellcheck that will catch 90% of your spelling errors, and as for the rest of them, well, it isn’t too much to ask adults to know the difference between “their” and “there.” It’s really not.

Also, here’s a handy tip for those of you with Internet access (which, by definition, would be all of you reading this on my site). If you have a word, the spelling of which you’re not sure, and you don’t have a dictionary handy (either bound or online), copy the word, paste it into Google’s search engine, and hit “search.” If you’ve spelled it incorrectly, chances are really excellent that when your search results come up, up at the top Google will ask “Did you mean:” and present whatever word it is that you’re failing to spell. There’s no shame in doing this.

Bottom line: Typos aside, there’s no reason not to spell things correctly (and you really should get on those typos, too, although I note that I’m the last person in the world to ride folks on that one).

Related to this:

4. Don’t use words you don’t really know: It’s nice to use impressive words from time to time, but if you use an impressive word incorrectly, everyone who does know what the word means will think of you as a pathetic, insecure dork. I’m just saying. Bear in mind that this is not limited only to “impressive” Latinate words, but also (indeed especially) to slang. Use slang incorrectly — or even use last year’s word — and you’ll look like teh 1am3r. Unless you’re using the slang ironically, in which case you might be able to get away with it.

But generally: stick to words you know you know, or make real good friends with that there dictionary thingie.

5. Grammar matters, but not as much as anal grammar Nazis think it does: The problem with grammar is that here in the US at least, schools do such a horrible job of teaching the subject that most people are entirely out to sea regarding correct usage. It’s the calculus of liberal arts subjects. But grammar need not be stupendously complicated; in the final reduction the point of grammar is to make the language as clear to as many people as possible. Frankly, I think if most non-writers can manage to get agreement between their verb and their subject, I’m willing to spot them the whole “who/whom” conundrum.

Now, obviously, you should know as much grammar as you can; the more grammar you know, the better you can write. But the bottom line is just this: Be as clear as possible. If you’re not confident about the grammar of a sentence, re-write it and strive for clarity. Yes, it’s possible that in doing so the resulting sentence will lack style or something. But it’s better to be plain and understood than to have people admire your style and have not the slightest idea what you’re trying to say.

6. Front-load your point: If you make people wade through seven paragraphs of unrelated anecdotes before you get to what you’re really trying to say, you’ve lost. Yes, Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor pull that stunt all the time. But: Surprise! You’re not them. Also, there were lots of times when Twain just needed to get to the goddamn point, already.

Now, sometimes people write to find out what their point is; I think that’s fine because I do that myself. But most of the time after I’ve figured out my point, I’ll go back and re-write. Because that’s the magic of writing: You can do that. It’s not actually a live medium. No, not even in IM, since you can still re-write before you hit “send.”

This point is more flexible than some of the others; sometimes you want to go the long way around to make your point because doing so makes the point stronger. I took the long way around in my “Being Poor” essay, for example. However, most of the time it’s better to let people know what you’re doing than not, if only because then you have a better chance of them sticking around until the end.

7. Try to write well every single time you write: I have friends who I know can write well who send me the most awful e-mail and IMs because they figure it doesn’t matter how many rules of grammar and spelling they stomp on because it’s just e-mail and IM. But if you actually want to be a better writer, you have to be a better writer every time you write. It won’t kill you to write a complete sentence in IM or e-mail, you know. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it until it will actually be more difficult to write poorly in e-mail and IM than not (mobile text messaging I understand has more limitations. But I tend to look at text messaging as the 21st Century equivalent of semaphore, which is to say, specialized communication for specialized goals).

There really is no excuse for writing poorly in one’s blog. At least with IMs and e-mail your terrifying disembowelment of the language is limited to one observer. But in your blog, you’ll look stupid for the whole world to see, and it will be archived for as long as humanity remembers how to produce electricity. Maybe you don’t think anyone who reads your blog will care. But I read your blog — yes indeed I do — and I care. Madly. Truly. Deeply.

8. Read people who write well: Don’t just read for entertainment, but also look to see how they do their writing — how they craft sentences, use punctuation, break their prose into paragraphs, and so on. Doing so takes no more time than reading what they write anyway, and that’s something you’re doing already. If you can see what they’re doing, you can try to do it too. You probably won’t be able to re-create their style, since that’s something about that particular person. But what you can do is recreate their mechanics. Don’t worry that your own “voice” will get lost. Be readable first and your own style will come later, when you’re comfortable with the nuts and bolts of writing.

9. When in doubt, simplify: Worried you’re not using the right words? Use simpler words. Worried that your sentence isn’t clear? Make a simpler sentence. Worried that people won’t see your point? Make your point simpler. Nearly every writing problem you have can be solved by making things simpler.

This should be obvious, but people don’t like hearing it because there’s the assumption that simple = stupid. But it’s not true; indeed, I find from personal experience that the stupidest writers are the ones whose writing is positively baroque in form. All that compensating, you know. Besides, I’m not telling you to boil everything down to “see spot run” simplicity. I am telling you to make it so people can get what you’re trying to say.

Ultimately, people write to be understood (excepting Gertrude Stein and Tristan Tzara, who were intentionally being difficult). Most people are, in fact, capable of understanding. Therefore, if you can’t make people understand what you write, most of the time it’s not just because the world is filled with morons, it’s also because you are not being clear. Downshift. People will be happy to know what you’re saying.

10. Speak what you write:
Yes, I’ve covered this before. But now after all the other tips you can see why this makes sense. If you can’t make your writing understandable to you, you can’t make it understandable to others.

And now I’m off to speak this to myself. If I can do it with my writing, you can do it with yours.

302 thoughts on “Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want to Work at Writing

  1. Read Stephen King’s _On Writing_, or whatever it’s called. His style is pretty basic, and it’s good to learn to write directly and clearly before trying to put “style” into it. He’ll help teach you how.

    Write. The more you write, the better you get at it. It’s a learnable skill, like many others.

    Most people can use a keyboard. That’s not the same as typing. If you can’t type, it’s a heckuva useful skill to have. Learn to type (or “keyboard”, as some call it nowadays).

  2. Read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Of course, they emphasize a grammar idea that Mr. Scalzi (and many other writers) do not, as it’s more a matter of style than a straight rule: commas after every single clause, even the last one.

    According to them, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” would be incorrect. It should be “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” The first way makes it sound like “the Witch and the Wardrobe” are one clause, as if the witch and the wardrobe are in cahoots, somehow.

  3. As an editor, I’m always interested in seeing what advice writers give, but I’m also often nervous. When I was editing a specialty magazine, there was someone who gave writing workshops and often encouraged people to send their writing to us. I don’t recall ever being able to publish something he sent our way.

    So, a couple of tips about your tips:

    Exclamation points. If a non-writer is looking for writing tips, well, better advice would be “Don’t use them. Just don’t. You’ll be better off for it. It’s always possible to find another way to indicate that you are excited.” If a professional writer is looking for a tip, then I’d say, “Use an exclamation point with an imperative, but not otherwise.”

    Spelling. I totally agree with looking things up. But just Googling isn’t always the best way to do it. At least one dictionary (American Heritage, available online at dictionary.com), gives typos as the plural for typo.

  4. Uh, guys, I suspect that asking people to read an entire book qualifies as work.

    Typoes/typos: I imagine it’s fluid, as I’ve seen both. However, in my experience using Google in this way has been pretty useful.

  5. Bah, Elements of Style is 105 pages (including the index!) and fits quite easily in one’s pocket. It’s a tiny (surprisingly entertaining) read.

    Google is very useful because it’s not a dictionary, it just bases its recommendations on what people are searching for. So, in essence, it’s a better source to find out how people actually write and speak. For instance, it won’t correct you when you search for “alright,” and rightly so, because everyone uses it.

  6. Shky:

    “For instance, it won’t correct you when you search for ‘alright,’ and rightly so, because everyone uses it.”

    I don’t. That’s one of my “you lose 5 apparent IQ points” words. Actually, it should be one of the “10 IQ point” words, because it’s a common enough phrase that there’s no excuse not to spell it correctly, Google notwithstanding. It’s like using “nite” for “night” (which Google doesn’t catch, either — clearly Google should be used for less-common words).

  7. “Everyone,” in this context, would refer to those who do not make their living writing. Us “normies,” as they say.

    I’d like to know why you don’t use it, though. “All right” and “alright” for most people have entirely different meanings. Multiple things that are correct or okay would be “all right,” whereas I am feeling “alright” today.

    And, wacky enough, “typoes” is one of those “you lose 5 apparent IQ points” words for me!

    I kid, of course.

  8. Surprise, surprise, I checked out Elements of Style and it says “properly written as two words.”

    This is me quietly backing away from the issue.

  9. “I don’t. That’s one of my “you lose 5 apparent IQ points” words.”

    Hmmm… I’ve been using that one for years, and it never occurred to me that it might be incorrect. Hey, it’s not like I have the WHOLE dictionary in my head. Although a check at http://www.dictionary.com accorded it as “nonstandard” as opposed to “wrong”, and indicated that it has been used by many authors over the last century.

    Usage is how words eventually become “correct”, after all. If everyone held your attitude, we’d all still be speaking Middle English. In which case complying with your request for everyone to learn to spell would be just that. much. harder. :-)

  10. “It’s nice to use impressive words from time, but”

    …it’s even nicer to use impressive words from space. :)

    (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

  11. Don’t be afraid to

    a) repeat words that really are the words you want to use, rather than using a thesaurus to give your writing ‘variety’.

    b) use ‘said’ without qualification (said viciously, said in a whisper) 3 times out of 4. Or even 7 times out of 8. Or even all the time if you can manage it.

  12. I don’t necessarily deduct IQ points for “alright,” but I wince every time I see it, and I’ve never thought of it as an acceptable alternate spelling. But then, I really don’t see it that much* – certainly not enough to get any sense that it carries different connotations than “all right” (except for the connotations of bad grammar, of course).

    *Maybe it’s a geographical thing?

  13. Completely unverifiable anecdotal evidence (though I assure you that it is true):

    I see ‘alright’ much more than I see ‘all right.’ So much so that I find it jarring when I come across it (much like one is when one sees ‘to’ in place of ‘too’).

  14. May I also add that this page:

    http://www.bartleby.com

    can be a writer’s (or non-writer’s) best friend? It’s a one-stop shop for any reference book you’d need, including dictionaries, usage, and Strunk’s Style. It has saved me many an embarrassing error.

  15. Chagrined to see the alright discussion, as that’s a word in my regular usage vocabulary. Resisting the urge to see if I lost 5 IQ points when I was guest-posting. Oxford American also (or is that “all so”?) calls it a variant.

    My tip: after writing anything longer than one page in length, see if your opening is made clearer by deleting the entire first paragraph. Frequently, I find that I was just clearing my throat and my real first good sentence is in paragraph 2.

  16. [applause] (well, except for the alright thing – some things may be okay to *say* but they look appalling written and that’s one of them…)

    I think that today’s generation, with the whole texting thing, is a lost cause about learning spelling. Who cares about knowing how to spell when you can get away with completely illiterate looking text – but your homies understand, anyway, and who else needs to? It always makes me shudder, personally, but then I’m over forty and officially an old fogey who considers correct spelling (or as much of it as you can manage, anyway) to be not only courtesy but a basic function of literacy. Probably those up-thread who say that making some people actually read a book would be too much like hard work have a point – when you’re surrounded by SMS and texting actually reading *ENGLISH* can be a tad difficult…

  17. “I think that today’s generation, with the whole texting thing, is a lost cause about learning spelling.”

    People keep saying that. I suspect it’s more that IM/email/blogging/etc make the poor grammar of a large segment of the population more evident, not that younger generations are necessarily less literate. Which isn’t to say that literacy levels couldn’t be massively improved, but I haven’t seen any data to convince me things have gotten significantly worse.

    For what it’s worth, I am a member of the younger generation in question, and most of the people in my age-cohort I know online are pretty darned literate. But that doesn’t mean much statistically.

  18. I’m a big fan of googlefight.com. Just type in the two words or phrases you want to compare, and googlefight tells you how many times each is found. For example, it reports 22.2 million hits for typos and 55,800 for typoes (it’s just an example; I don’t have a dog in this fight). Of course, googlefight is no better than Google is, but at least when it misleads you, it does so in a very entertaining way.

  19. It seems I may be a bit late to the party on this one, but I still say, “Amen, brother!” (And, that’s the only exclamation I’ll use.)

    One of my greatest pet peeves is the misuse of “their,” “they’re,” and “there.” Also “to,” “two,” and “too.” The distinction isn’t really that difficult.

    Another one that I’ve seen with reasonable frequency lately is “prolly” in place of “probably.” Seriously. Do those who use “prolly” think that it’s cute, or are they just idiots? Either way, I deduct 50 points for that one.

  20. Good advice, and I’ll try to keep it in mind. English being my second language, I’m sure I will need more work than most native speakers to make it fluid and good, but I’ll get there someday.

  21. Everything follows from experience when it comes to writing. That is, if one understands writing as a process and not as an event; composition is not writing. Rewriting is not writing. These are phases in the process, the most visible even, but not the entire constituency of elements that inform and shape the thing.
    Reading books on writing is a lot like masturbation.
    Know the rules. Know how they work, what they do, what their limits are. Study them until they become first — not second! — nature. Strunk & White is good; WORDS INTO TYPE or THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE is better. Never break the rules until you understand them fully.
    Don’t pontificate in the comments section of someone else’s journal….

  22. The rules are neat. I generally agree with them.

    Anghara:

    I highly doubt bad grammar in email, IM or texting has any effect whatsoever on literacy, since most people have a well-documented ability to code-switch in various situations. The people who can type an email in fluent annoying teen may also be able to write perfectly fine essays in English class, just as many teens (and adults) speak differently with their friends than they would at, for example, a formal dinner.

    When I was teaching creative writing at a high school last year, I did have some students who would write “nite” instead of “night” or “4” instead of “for,” but such instances only tended to occur if A) it was an informal freewriting exercise that I asked them to turn in afterward, or B) the student in question also ignored all the other parameters of the assignment, and had just scrawled a couple paragraphs in pencil during their previous class. The high school where I was teaching had very priveleged students, so I don’t know if this pattern would hold in other environments, but I imagine at my mother’s school, for instance, where a significant portion of the population is ESL, the primary source of grammar issues would be derived from that, rather than vernacular in texting or email.

    Burns!:

    I think prolly is just straight-up slang.

  23. The only way I can get myself to put commas in the right place, is to read my stuff in my head. When I find myself mentally choking, I know it’s time for one. Now, of course, I’m trying really hard to ensure I have them placed properly, as I don’t want to look like a moron. There, that, should, do, it.

  24. Another Google tip: Instead of just typing in the word you’re trying to spellcheck, use ‘define:’ in front of it. This will usually return several definitions of the word from various sites – if it comes back with no hits it’s a good sign you’ve misspelled the word.

    One of the reasons I prefer e-mail to making a phone call is because I can spend a few extra moments proofreading my thoughts before sending them on their way. I only wish more people would consider doing the same. If you can’t understand what you just wrote, how can you expect someone else to have any clue what you’re talking about?

  25. I remember when I used to use ‘prolly’ when I talked to friends online. That was a few years now, I think. On the very rare occassion I use it when I’m speaking.As someone from the younger generation I’m slightly amused at this conversation. Almost all of my friends, both online and offline, are literate. I’ve always wondered if it has to do with the self-esteem issues we all seem to have. After all, the only people I know who use ‘lol’ and such (‘wtf’ not included), are the people who in reality consider themselves to be smarter than the average person.Recently I’ve been wondering if our self esteem issues are WHY we try and have at least decent grammar and spelling abilities. When you look down on yourself, wouldn’t being able to spell make you look at yourself in at least a slightly better light?On the subject of to, two, and too: Every time I see someone use one of them wrong I jump on them and correct them. I’m not a grammar nazi, but seriously. Learn to use two, too, and to correctly! And 2 is NOT a substitute for at least two of them, and in some cases not a substitute for any!And now I end this before I really start to rant (and trust me, I doubt you want to see that!)

  26. And now I think I have just learned the reason for rules 0 and 10. I definitely must start doing that from now on, or at least re-read what I’ve written, to make sure that I haven’t repeated myself. Or made terrible grammar mistakes (which are actually much worse than the repitition).

  27. The fundamental no-work writing tip for the Macintosh: Command-Control-D. It pops up the Oxford American Dictionary on whatever word your cursor happens to be sitting on.

    The same dictionary lives in a Dashboard widget, too. That, the Wikipedia widget, and the calculator are the three I actually use.

  28. Burns!: I use “prolly” on the rare occasion that I’d say it out loud, were I saying what I’m typing out loud.  I’m less strict about pronunciation than I am about spelling, and sometimes I want that to show in my typing.  (Hence why I ever type “Oh ayuh”.)

  29. essential reading for aspiring writers from scalzi

    John Scalzi has a couple of must-read posts for aspiring writers that I meant to link to over the weekend: Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want To Work at Writing filters the best of On Writing through Strunk White,

  30. essential reading for aspiring writers from scalzi

    John Scalzi has a couple of must-read posts for aspiring writers that I meant to link to over the weekend: Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want To Work at Writing filters the best of On Writing through Strunk White,

  31. For what it’s worth: “alright” = 37.5 million Google hits. “all right” = 2.8 billion hits. “allright” = 6.9 million hits, plus a message that says, “Did you mean: alright?” heh…

    That aside, I actually have a question for the group on this topic (as a non-professional writer, I usually just lurk on these topics). I notice that John uses a lot of bold, italics and underlining in his posts, and I find that I do that in a lot of my online writing as well. So much so, in fact, that it has almost become a form of punctuation in and of itself.

    What do folks think? Is it a function of the more modern text-generating devices we all use, or is it just a crutch? As with exclamation points, I think one could say that there’s always another way to show emphasis…

  32. Another Mac tip that relates to 0 & 10 is to have the text to speech tool read it back to you. If you can listen to that voice reading it and not nod off, you have done well at writing it clearly. (Also handy for comparing drafts, and hearing thinkoes like ‘the the’ which the eye will miss).

    On the IM point, I think that the advent of written casual conversation is a big cultural change, and that overall it will improve literacy – though I notice that those decrying a TV culture have switched to decrying an IM one.

  33. When I see a gratuitous exclamation point, I flashback to old comic strips like Nancy! A character would say something mundane followed by a ! and accompanied by astonishment sweat (if you can’t picture it, see Cathy).

    If a sentence is legitimately exciting, I barely notice the exclamation point. If the reader in my head hits the last word hard, the exclamation point is inappropriate. It’s the author’s lazy attempt to add excitement to a sentence that doesn’t deserve it. This is similar to laugh track abuse, where a situation comedy tries to make an unfunny comment funny by following it with guffaws.

  34. How to write better in 10 easy steps

    I just read a blog post by John Scalzi, entitled Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want to Work at Writing. It had some good tips, including the following great rule of thumb:For every spelling error you make, your apparent…

  35. You forgot capitalization. Note the difference between “helping your uncle Jack off a horse” and “helping your uncle jack off a horse”.

  36. Brian Greenberg:
    I notice that John uses a lot of bold, italics and underlining in his posts, and I find that I do that in a lot of my online writing as well. So much so, in fact, that it has almost become a form of punctuation in and of itself.

    So do I. I blame the influence of Tycho from Penny Arcade.

  37. I found that I became more strict about grammar the older I got. I end up using casual grammar deliberately, if I want to sound more bourgeois (thank you dictionary.com). “I need to find someone with whom to go” sounds a bit stuck up when compared to “I need to find someone to go with.” But the important thing, as a writer, is that I choose language deliberately.

    A word on commas: I find that I sometimes over comma. I try to keep as sharp an eye on that as I do parenthasis. Everyone’s got thier Achilles heel, I suppose.

    Finally, I would like to rant for a moment on something I picked up in forums. It’s incredibly irritating when someone states that they are too lazy to look up something. You’re on the Internet, for God’s sake! You are a Google away from knowing the name of a book or the third president or what have you. Don’t say, “You know, President What’s-His-Name…” It doesn’t improve the situation when you say “I’m sure I could look this up somewhere, but…” We got it. You’re lazy. Now write down whatever half-assed thing you wanted to say and save us the trouble of your excuses.

    Whew! Thanks for the rant space. You may return to your regularly scheduled posts.

  38. The “commas between each item in a list, including before the ‘and’ before the last one” rule appears to be a style change in the last 30 or so years. I was very specifically taught in grade school in the 80s that you did not put a comma there. (“Apples, pears and oranges.”) I know I’ve seen style books indicating skipping the last comma as correct. That particular style seems to be on the way out. It’s probably for better; it was inconsistant.

    Good article, thanks for writing it and sharing it with the world for free. I will note a minor typo: your link to “Being Poor” is broken, you’re missing the “http://” in the front. Some browsers may try to autocorrect the mistake, but not all will.

  39. One more tip: don’t ever use the phrase ‘begs the question’, in writing or while speaking. It doesn’t mean what you think it does, so it just makes you look like an idiot.

  40. The serial comma (the comma before the last item in a list) is something I’m always fixing in things I edit. There’s a great story about how the lack of the comma can cause misunderstandings. “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” The meaning of a sentence is sometimes changed by the omission of a serial comma, but it is never changed by including one, so the right thing to do is to always include it so your use will be consistent and thus below the level of conscious thought.

    Putting commas in by where you pause when reading aloud is not a good enough apprximation, because people pause in all sorts of weird places when reading aloud. For example: “The only way I can get myself to put commas in the right place, is to read my stuff in my head.” There’s no need for a comma in that sentence. ;)

    A “drops 10 IQ points” for me is the use of e.g. when i.e. is correct or vice versa. E.g. means “for example” and i.e. means “that is.” You use the former for examples and the latter for clarifications or elaborations. If you don’t know the Latin the abbreviations represent, maybe you shouldn’t use the abbreviations either.

  41. John, may I request you make this article available in two media:

    a) As a freakin’ big poster, for hanging in college dorm rooms and high-school English classes. (Opposed, of course, to high school English classes, which have a slightly different glazed look to them and far more Tostitos crumbs on the floor.)

    b) As a tattoo stencil, for me to use on writers who have been told more than twice not to make one of the above mistakes in material they send me.

    Thank you, sir. Or might I venture a “sir!” there?

  42. Strunk & White is an fine reference for usage questions. I prefer Joseph Williams’s Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace for issues of actual writing style.

  43. Oh, hell yeah, John.

    You touched on every one of my writing pet peeves. I’ve been teaching Communications for years, and I am still stunned at the ridiculous mistakes I keep seeing.

    Thanks for the list. I may quote you.

  44. You said This is particularly the case with basic spelling errors like using “your” when you’re supposed to be using “you’re” or “its” for “it’s” (or in both cases, vice-versa). Here’s a good rule of thumb: For every spelling error you make, your apparent IQ drops by 5 points. For every “there, they’re, their” type of mistake you make, your apparent IQ drops by 10 points. Sorry about that, but there it is.
    That’s priceless. I am a writer too and one of my peeves as detailed on my website is people who don’t know the difference. I feel if you don’t know the difference between you’re and your, you ought not be writing. Dammit, Man.

    Their are four errors in this sentence — if its to hard for you to find them, your an idiot. :)
    (There ya’ go kiddies, have at that sentence)

  45. Alright is alright. If two word are almost always used in succession then, over time, they become one word. It has happened countless times in the English language. Get over it. I’m not trying to be offensive here but it irks me when people are so stubborn about accepting natural language changes. If people like this had control of the language then we’d still be speaking in caveman grunts because they would never have let any evolutions occur. Language is a living thing. If you love it, set it free.

  46. Josh:

    “Alright is alright.”

    No, “Alright” is poor spelling and a sign of ignorance of acceptable usage. As I am an editor from time to time, I get to say that. And if you want to sell your work to me (or indeed any other professional editor I can think of), you should spell “all right” correctly or at the very least be resigned to it being corrected in print before it gets published, because its idiot form is not going to see the light of day. It makes the editor look bad if it does. And we can’t have that.

    Language evolves, yes, but there’s no reason those of us who work with words should allow it to evolve stupidly.

  47. I had no idea “alright” wasn’t a word. None of my english/writing teachers have ever mentioned it. It belongs in the same lesson as “a lot, not alot.” Now I wonder if they even know it’s not a word. Thanks for the tip.

  48. [Completely off-topic, but the Hate Mail Tips link is giving a 404 from the comment thread rules page. I had to find it here at archive.org: http://web.archive.org/web/20040603123539/http://scalzi.com/w020307.htm

    You must NOT allow the Hate Mail Tips page to vanish from all but the Internet Wayback Machine. This is simply unacceptable. How in the world are people to write appropriate flames without that page? You, sir, are damaging society as we know it every second that page remains 404. I beg of you: restore it to its proper place. The world will be better off for it.]

    It is, of course, important to be on-topic. Thus, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for assisting me in my pursuit of being able to write more gooderer. :-)

    MV

  49. [Completely off-topic, but the Hate Mail Tips link is giving a 404 from the comment thread rules page. I had to find it here at archive.org: http://web.archive.org/web/20040603123539/http://scalzi.com/w020307.htm

    You must NOT allow the Hate Mail Tips page to vanish from all but the Internet Wayback Machine. This is simply unacceptable. How in the world are people to write appropriate flames without that page? You, sir, are damaging society as we know it every second that page remains 404. I beg of you: restore it to its proper place. The world will be better off for it.]

    It is, of course, important to be on-topic. Thus, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for assisting me in my pursuit of being able to write more gooderer. :-)

    MV

  50. The hate mail entries are now here. Also, of course, they are in my upcoming book Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded. So rather than disappearing down the hole of the Internet Archive, they will disappear down the hole of the Library of Congress.

  51. The hate mail entries are now here. Also, of course, they are in my upcoming book Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded. So rather than disappearing down the hole of the Internet Archive, they will disappear down the hole of the Library of Congress.

  52. A few thoughts from CS Lewis:

    First this:
    1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
    2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
    3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
    4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me.’

    And then this:
    – Turn off the Radio.
    – Read all the good books you can, and avoid nearly all magazines.
    -Always write (and read) with the ear, not the eye. You should hear every sentence you write as if it was being read aloud or spoken. If it does not sound nice, try again.
    -When you give up a bit of work don’t (unless it is hopelessly bad) throw it away. Put it in a drawer. It may come in useful later. Much of my best work, or what I think my best, is the re-writing of things begun and abandoned years earlier.
    -) Don’t use a typewriter. The noise will destroy your sense of rhythm, which still needs years of training.

  53. “Language evolves, yes, but there’s no reason those of us who work with words should allow it to evolve stupidly.”

    Then here’s an interesting question for you. Would you accept the word allright? What is your criteria for when a new usage becomes acceptable?

  54. “Language evolves, yes, but there’s no reason those of us who work with words should allow it to evolve stupidly.”

    Then here’s an interesting question for you. Would you accept the word allright? What is your criteria for when a new usage becomes acceptable?

  55. Josh:

    “Would you accept the word allright? What is your criteria for when a new usage becomes acceptable?”

    No, “allright” doesn’t look good to me either.

    I think new usage becomes acceptable because it offers a better use of a phrase or word or offers a vital new spin on the word. As an example, I wouldn’t object to the neologism “phat,” because it differs from its lexical parent in useful and significant ways: “phat beats” are different from “fat beats.”

    “Alright” (or “allright”) offers no real improvement or variance from “all right”, and arose out banal illiteracy rather than a need to jam some new life into the phrase. All it offers is fewer letters/spaces, and that’s not enough to recommend it.

  56. On the IM point, I think that the advent of written casual conversation is a big cultural change, and that overall it will improve literacy – though I notice that those decrying a TV culture have switched to decrying an IM one.

    If, and only counterfactually if, anybody bothers to write correctly in IMs. John advocates it. I tend to do it… but I think that a lot of IMing and blogging has degraded writing correctness. Because people tend to read and write in those media in small, discrete, like-minded groups.

    Language is fairly contagious for a lot of people. They pick up word-uses and dialects from exposure. Similarly, they pick up bad habits.If I spend too long in semiliterate places on the internet, I find myself typing horribly semiliterate things… most of the time I can fix them before they escape into the wild.
    “UR Hawt, snd pics plz.” “U” as “you” is a contagious festering wound on English.
    Pretty much the only time I’m likely to excuse that sort of broken “internet speak” is in real-time multiplayer games, where typing extra words and proof-reading can cost you.

    My personal writing demon is the ellipsis. I am a devotee of writing as if I were speaking, and the ellipsis describes a certain sort of pause, without the grammatical weight of a comma. In the last year or so I’ve been doing a much better job of just deleting them from things I’ve written. It seems that the words are relatively clear without them. I still end up with ellipsis riddled IM-logs though. Because it’s very hard to tell jokes without some indicators of timing.

  57. Why is that your criteria? “Can not” is no different than “cannot,” “everywhere” is no different than “every where,” and there are many more examples that could be cited. To me, as a layman, the criteria is a simple matter of numbers. If a word is used frequently enough, by enough people, for a long enough period of time, then it has automatically been voted an acceptable usage. You don’t have to like the word and you don’t have to like the criteria, but that is what truly makes a word acceptable. If you don’t agree with that criteria it doesn’t matter because as soon as you aren’t around anymore, you objection will have been silenced. In fact I just stumbled upon another example, “anymore” is no different than “any more.”

  58. Why is that your criteria? “Can not” is no different than “cannot,” “everywhere” is no different than “every where,” and there are many more examples that could be cited. To me, as a layman, the criteria is a simple matter of numbers. If a word is used frequently enough, by enough people, for a long enough period of time, then it has automatically been voted an acceptable usage. You don’t have to like the word and you don’t have to like the criteria, but that is what truly makes a word acceptable. If you don’t agree with that criteria it doesn’t matter because as soon as you aren’t around anymore, you objection will have been silenced. In fact I just stumbled upon another example, “anymore” is no different than “any more.”

  59. My pet peeve lately is the dropped ‘of’ after the word ‘couple’. “I only dropped a couple IQ points,” he said.

  60. I have another point I would like to raise. Language has different functions in different settings. For instance, when IMing, the main function of the written word is to act as a stand in for the spoken word. Most people talk many more words per second then they could type while maintaining the same relaxed state of mind they would have in a spoken conversation. That is why, in my opinion, almost every type of variance is allowed in IM speech. Additionally, during a spoken conversation between friends there will be massive amounts of non spoken communication such as facial expressions, hand gestures and slaps on the back. Since IMing is designed to be similar to having a conversation between friends, then doing fun things with the written word is the means of replacing the communication that is missing by just having a written exchange. Different styles of communication are correct for different situations. It’s like saying that all spoken words should follow the same rules all the time, everywhere. If you are at a construction site then you would totally be in the wrong if you always went around saying things like “Excuse me, may I please have a wrench” because the primary function of language at a construction site is conveying meaning as quickly as possible, which means the most appropriate way to say the same thing at a construction site is to reach out your hand and say “Wrench!” A good example of what I mean is exemplified in what I am writing right now, at this moment. The primary function of the written language in an online forum post is to express one’s ideas in a timely fashion. The longer you take to post, the more likely your post will never be seen. The online post is meant to be relaxed, like a friendly conversation. Writing a response in this particular forum is much more taxing than in any other forum because I’m trying not to break any style rules too egregiously. It slows my whole post down and makes the process much less fun. To sum up, different situations make different types of communication styles not only allowed, but preferred.

  61. Josh:

    “If a word is used frequently enough, by enough people, for a long enough period of time, then it has automatically been voted an acceptable usage.”

    There’s lots of “acceptable usage” that ain’t got no place in good writing, Josh. Don’t bother me none if you can’t tell no difference. I just won’t buy anything from you, and I doubt any other editor would, either. And as editors tend to train other editors, blithely assuming “all right” is going the way of the dodo isn’t going to work.

    Neither, for that matter, is comparing the usage of “alright” to the usage of “anymore,” which has been in usage since at least the 14th century (i.e., before English had a largely standardized grammar, as it does now). Not to mention “everywhere” (13th century) and “cannot” (15th century). “Alright” didn’t show up until 1887, decades after “all right” was adjudged the acceptable usage and the English language as a whole was given a generally accepted vocabulary and grammar (all dates courtesy Merriam-Webster).

    (The one place where it is generally acceptable in writing to use “alright” is when one is writing dialect or regionalisms in fiction, but that’s a specialized case, not a general one.)

    That “alright” has been grammatically incorrect for 119 years rather undercuts your theory that it’s just a matter of time before the stuffy types die out and the word takes its rightful place in the pantheon of words by the acclamation of the masses.

    As to your post following the one I responded to above: Well, Josh. If you intentionally make your writing difficult to read (say, by not inserting paragraph breaks in their logical places) you will naturally not be read. Clear writing is good writing.

    As for “the longer you take to post, the more likely your post will never been seen,” you’ll need to back that up with some proof. Anecdotally I disagree; I have entries here that are still active — and still gaining comments — years after they were originally posted. Writing is asynchronous, as noted in the original post.

    Josh, you’ll forgive me if I say that it seems you’re making an argument for bad writing simply because it’s easy and everyone is doing it. Well, bullshit on that.

  62. The first thing that programers need to realize is that they are not like their endusers. This is an adage that’s been around the programmer community that really should see wider acceptance. If you are comparing the writing that happens in this forum with the writing that happens in 99% of other forums on the net then your world is sadly insular. I am not a regular visitor to this site and I doubt I will be here again once this thread is concluded, but I think that’s why my voice is especially important. I represent the “user,” the person who is not an editor or a writer but rather I am the person that much writing is written for. I am intelligent, college educated, and interested in the world. I read a lot, usually non fiction, and I represent the educated layman. My opinion, if you want to be a better writer or editor, should be listened to and seriously considered, not just shunned out of hand. You don’t have to think about the things I say, but you are really only hurting yourself.

  63. The first thing that programers need to realize is that they are not like their endusers. This is an adage that’s been around the programmer community that really should see wider acceptance. If you are comparing the writing that happens in this forum with the writing that happens in 99% of other forums on the net then your world is sadly insular. I am not a regular visitor to this site and I doubt I will be here again once this thread is concluded, but I think that’s why my voice is especially important. I represent the “user,” the person who is not an editor or a writer but rather I am the person that much writing is written for. I am intelligent, college educated, and interested in the world. I read a lot, usually non fiction, and I represent the educated layman. My opinion, if you want to be a better writer or editor, should be listened to and seriously considered, not just shunned out of hand. You don’t have to think about the things I say, but you are really only hurting yourself.

  64. “As for “the longer you take to post, the more likely your post will never been seen,” you’ll need to back that up with some proof. Anecdotally I disagree; I have entries here that are still active — and still gaining comments — years after they were originally posted. Writing is asynchronous, as noted in the original post.”

    Okay, then how about this. The vast majority of people don’t enjoy thinking about correct style usage or proofreading. In an informal setting like a forum, most people are there to enjoy themselves or to learn about a particular topic. In either case, the more time spent thinking about whether what they’ve written is stylistically correct, they less time they have to enjoy themselves or to learn about their topic of interest. That alone is reason enough for forum posts to automatically fall into (not in to) a different much more relaxed style class. Listen, I don’t want to argue with you. I’m just here to tell you how the real world works as I see it. I could be wrong, but then again, so could you.

  65. I agree with the point in the original post about writing well, always. Blogging is my main outlet for writing more and better, but I’ve even been known to look up words for use in IM conversations.

    Scott: I definitely suffer from ellipsis-itis as well. It’s so tempting to throw it on the end of any old sentence, especially those ending paragraphs. (Even worse is the trailing thought in parenthesis…)

  66. On Alright
    Here it is again:
    http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?alright

    John, why don’t you admit that you just don’t like the word and fall back on your, “I don’t have to have a good reason because this is my Web site” defense?

    P.S. – Insert “trope” or “meme” in the previous sentence if you like those better.

    P.P.S. – “Phat Beat” is a pretty weak example, and alright carries the connotation of “ok”, as opposed to “all right”, which of course literally means completely right.

  67. I’m also getting a good laugh picturing John arguing usage with Gertrude Stein. “But I’m an *Editor*!” heh-heh-heh

  68. I came over from Wil Wheaton’s blog to read this post and your agent FAQ post and found them both very interesting and helpful. Thanks for taking the time to write them. One of the main reasons I had to leave a comment though was to tell you how much I love the photos you have posted on your sidebar. They are just gorgeous!

  69. Stephen, you couldn’t be more right about the word alright. Its meaning is totally different than “all right.” It is most often used to mean good but not great, as in “The movie wasn’t great, but it was alright.”

  70. “The vast majority of people don’t enjoy thinking about correct style usage or proofreading. In an informal setting like a forum, most people are there to enjoy themselves or to learn about a particular topic. In either case, the more time spent thinking about whether what they’ve written is stylistically correct, they less time they have to enjoy themselves or to learn about their topic of interest.”

    Actually, I believe it’s the opposite. When I’m in a forum I enjoy myself less when what I’m reading is filled with improper grammar and spelling. And I know that it’s the same for all of my friends, online or off.

    Why? Because reading a post where you have to decipher what is written is time consuming and more than a little painful. I cringe every single time I see someone use ‘u’ instead of ‘you’, or ‘2’ instead of ‘to’ or ‘too’. When I see someone writing like that their perceived intelligence drops significantly.

    Of course, this isn’t to say that I can’t understand when sometimes typing in shorthand can be useful, like in MMORPGs when you’re pressed for time, or when someone is joking around. But in casual IMs and (God forbid) forum posts?

    If someone can’t take the time to write out a word, then I honestly don’t see why I should be conversing with said person. I don’t want my IQ to suffer, after all.

  71. No, I read them (although perhaps not thouroughly enough, since your lack of paragraph breaks hurts my head). And actually I agree, I’m not most people. Far from it actually.

    However, I actually happen to be an active member in perhaps one of the largest forums on the net to date, Gaia Online. It’s a community geared towards anime and video game fans. At this moment it has over 3.25 million users, about 40 thousand of which are actually active or not simply mule accounts.

    Guess what? The majority of the site is literate. I frequent at least a third of the forums on the site and in most of them it’s actually considered stupid to post using shorthand and 1337. Most users who do post as such get shunted to the Chatterbox which is composed almost completely of spam.

    Oh, I can’t say that everyone outside of the Chatterbox has proper grammar (General Discussion can get pretty bad sometimes), but the majority of places do. On Gaia you usually get ignored you don’t speak properly.

    In fact, I’d say about 70% of the users are literate. That’s 28,000 people.

  72. I don’t know where you got the impression that I was specifically talking about 1337. I dismiss everything written in 1337 and don’t even bother reading it. In my opinion the only two places 1337 is acceptable is during live video game chats and mobile to mobile messaging because the settings there are as informal as humanly possible. No, I’m talking about people worrying about proper apostrophe use, the word “alright”, the your-you’re and their-there-they’re types, and if a person splits an infinitive or even down right misspells a simple word. The point is that in informal settings it is totally acceptable to use informal writing and the more informal the setting, the more informal the writing is allowed to be.

  73. I don’t know where you got the impression that I was specifically talking about 1337. I dismiss everything written in 1337 and don’t even bother reading it. In my opinion the only two places 1337 is acceptable is during live video game chats and mobile to mobile messaging because the settings there are as informal as humanly possible. No, I’m talking about people worrying about proper apostrophe use, the word “alright”, the your-you’re and their-there-they’re types, and if a person splits an infinitive or even down right misspells a simple word. The point is that in informal settings it is totally acceptable to use informal writing and the more informal the setting, the more informal the writing is allowed to be.

  74. Also, don’t blame me for your poor reading comprehension. What I wrote regarding the population in this forum could not have been written more explicitly and my paragraph usage is fine. Stop looking for excuses. Your lack of reading comprehension has revealed your true IQ, which should be especially embarrassing for you since that is what people in this forum like to judge themselves by. Don’t attack if you don’t want to be attacked.

  75. Also, don’t blame me for your poor reading comprehension. What I wrote regarding the population in this forum could not have been written more explicitly and my paragraph usage is fine. Stop looking for excuses. Your lack of reading comprehension has revealed your true IQ, which should be especially embarrassing for you since that is what people in this forum like to judge themselves by. Don’t attack if you don’t want to be attacked.

  76. “If you are comparing the writing that happens in this forum with the writing that happens in 99% of other forums on the net then your world is sadly insular.”
    No offence, Josh, but 99% of the net contains really bad writing.
    As for alright/all right: Good writing is always situationally appropriate writing (as Rachel pointed out previously). So if editors don’t want you to use ‘alright’, then don’t use it. It doesn’t mean that ‘all right’ is correct and ‘alright’ is wrong; it just means that ‘alright’ is inappropriate when submitting work to an editor.

  77. Josh, your defensiveness is getting more troll-like by the minute. Please take your tone down a couple of notches and keep it civil.

    First off, I don’t think you have grasped of the difference between formal and informal writing. Traditionally, informal writing simply allows for a more casual and familiar tone and the use of slang. Sentence and paragraph structure may be looser, but the rules of grammar and proper spelling still apply. No one is going to have a hissy fit over the occasional typo; this isn’t for peer review, after all. But informal writing is not a licence for lazy writing.

    When I’m reading forum discussions, I usually skip comments that are riddled with spelling and grammar errors, or long diatribes that have not been broken down into paragraphs. My feeling is that if you can’t be bothered to properly organize your thoughts, you probably didn’t have much to contribute to the discussion anyway. I’m not going to waste my time trying to parse what you meant to say. I afford your writing the same respect that you give to it.

    Ah, but then it turns out you do have some standards after all. Their/they’re/there and your/you’re distinctions are a waste of time. Apostophe cops can go to hell. Spelling is for chumps.

    But 1337 is beyond the pale.

    What happened to your arguments for the natural evolution of language? Haven’t the blessed masses spoken? Or are your “rules” of informal writing only tailored to your weaknesses?

  78. Josh, your defensiveness is getting more troll-like by the minute. Please take your tone down a couple of notches and keep it civil.

    First off, I don’t think you have grasped of the difference between formal and informal writing. Traditionally, informal writing simply allows for a more casual and familiar tone and the use of slang. Sentence and paragraph structure may be looser, but the rules of grammar and proper spelling still apply. No one is going to have a hissy fit over the occasional typo; this isn’t for peer review, after all. But informal writing is not a licence for lazy writing.

    When I’m reading forum discussions, I usually skip comments that are riddled with spelling and grammar errors, or long diatribes that have not been broken down into paragraphs. My feeling is that if you can’t be bothered to properly organize your thoughts, you probably didn’t have much to contribute to the discussion anyway. I’m not going to waste my time trying to parse what you meant to say. I afford your writing the same respect that you give to it.

    Ah, but then it turns out you do have some standards after all. Their/they’re/there and your/you’re distinctions are a waste of time. Apostophe cops can go to hell. Spelling is for chumps.

    But 1337 is beyond the pale.

    What happened to your arguments for the natural evolution of language? Haven’t the blessed masses spoken? Or are your “rules” of informal writing only tailored to your weaknesses?

  79. Well then we agree on certain points, which is good, but we still disagree on others. To me, informal means all the language rules are relaxed, not some of them. In answer to your argument my response is that if 1337 were every to meet the criteria that I set forth, then I would accept it as part of the evolution of the language. 1337 is light years from crossing that threshold.

    You don’t have to worry about me trolling. I am not a regular here and will probably not be back after this thread is concluded.

  80. Nothing stirs up a discussion forum like an argument over grammar, spelling or punctuation. I’ve seen this on mailing lists that I’m a member of, and it probably flares up about once a year and then goes away after everyone has had their say, until someone’s tolerance threshold is reached again.

    I agree with a point made earlier that I start to skip over posts from people who consistently fail to punctuate, capitalise and/or make the effort to spell properly. Of course we all make typos from time to time, but it’s obvious when somebody has tried to get things right.

    A pet hate of mine (and I was disappointed to see the wrong winner on googlefight) is people writing “would of” when they mean “would have”. Also, don’t get me started on the ubiquitous misuse of the poor old apostrophe.

  81. Nothing stirs up a discussion forum like an argument over grammar, spelling or punctuation. I’ve seen this on mailing lists that I’m a member of, and it probably flares up about once a year and then goes away after everyone has had their say, until someone’s tolerance threshold is reached again.

    I agree with a point made earlier that I start to skip over posts from people who consistently fail to punctuate, capitalise and/or make the effort to spell properly. Of course we all make typos from time to time, but it’s obvious when somebody has tried to get things right.

    A pet hate of mine (and I was disappointed to see the wrong winner on googlefight) is people writing “would of” when they mean “would have”. Also, don’t get me started on the ubiquitous misuse of the poor old apostrophe.

  82. Colin, if you actually put in the quotes, “would have” beats out “would of” in the Googlefight (216 million to 3.38 million). So you can rest easy that Livejournal hasn’t destroyed the english language YET. :)

    I, too, have a tendency to skip over forum posts/blog comments/etc from folk that don’t punctuate, spell, or paragraphate (is there a word for splitting into paragraphs? Is it just “to paragraph”?) correctly.

    And Josh, sorry, but at LEAST one of your comments fits into the “break that up into multiple paragraphs, for the love of god” category (the one at 9:57 on the 13th).

  83. Yes, it’s true, I tried to put in paragraphs with the return key and I did not notice that they were not being registered in the preview. However, the post that had the comment in question is an acceptable, if not great, use of paragraph.

  84. Yes, it’s true, I tried to put in paragraphs with the return key and I did not notice that they were not being registered in the preview. However, the post that had the comment in question is an acceptable, if not great, use of paragraph.

  85. Ryan, thanks for pointing out my mistake when using Googlefight. I had seen “would of” and “should of” in so many places that I took the depressing results at face value. You have restored (a little of) my faith in my fellow humans’ ability to know what’s right and what’s plainly wrong.

  86. Ryan, thanks for pointing out my mistake when using Googlefight. I had seen “would of” and “should of” in so many places that I took the depressing results at face value. You have restored (a little of) my faith in my fellow humans’ ability to know what’s right and what’s plainly wrong.

  87. Josh:

    “My opinion, if you want to be a better writer or editor, should be listened to and seriously considered, not just shunned out of hand.”

    No, not really, as what you appear to be arguing for is that the stewardship of the language rests entirely on the masses, which is false on its face. English (thankfully) does not have an official academy, like French and German, but it does have a predominant class of users (primarily, writers and editors) who have given it a certain amount of structure and consistency over time. Of course the language changes, both in popular and in “official” usage, but the changes generally have to justify themselves in terms of practical usage. Most editors don’t seem to approve of “alright” — I don’t — so its status seems unlikely to improve any time soon.

    Josh, your arguments boil down to “50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong.” Well, actually, they can. 50 million people spelling “all right” as “alright” can be spelling it poorly, when it comes from the perspective of writing well.

    As it happens, the entry to which these comments are appended is about what it takes to write well (while still not doing all that much work), and since I have 15 years of combined professional writing and editing experience and you apparently don’t, I have more credibility than you when discussing whether “alright” is all right. Perhaps you think that’s not quite fair, but I’m hardly concerned about that.

    Now, if you want to continue to use “alright,” don’t let me stop you. I’m not your dad. But I don’t suggest anyone else use it when they’re trying to write well, because it’s wrong.

    Stephen:

    “John, why don’t you admit that you just don’t like the word and fall back on your, ‘I don’t have to have a good reason because this is my Web site’ defense?”

    Well, you know. Just because a word is in the dictionary doesn’t mean it’s acceptable usage. “Ain’t” is in the dictionary too, and outside specialized uses (similar to “alright”) you don’t see it in well-written English either.

    As for “alright” being regularly used in edited publications, as the m-w suggests, I haven’t seen it. “All right” is standard in both AP and Chicago style guides, which the vast majority of professional copy editors use (and off which other style guides are spun off). I’d believe it was used by the Chicago Tribune in its “simplified English” days, but those days are long gone.

    So, no, in fact, it’s not that I just don’t like it. Chicago and AP don’t like it either, and I’m following their lead. Take it up with them; if you can convince them, maybe I’ll listen.

  88. Josh:

    “My opinion, if you want to be a better writer or editor, should be listened to and seriously considered, not just shunned out of hand.”

    No, not really, as what you appear to be arguing for is that the stewardship of the language rests entirely on the masses, which is false on its face. English (thankfully) does not have an official academy, like French and German, but it does have a predominant class of users (primarily, writers and editors) who have given it a certain amount of structure and consistency over time. Of course the language changes, both in popular and in “official” usage, but the changes generally have to justify themselves in terms of practical usage. Most editors don’t seem to approve of “alright” — I don’t — so its status seems unlikely to improve any time soon.

    Josh, your arguments boil down to “50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong.” Well, actually, they can. 50 million people spelling “all right” as “alright” can be spelling it poorly, when it comes from the perspective of writing well.

    As it happens, the entry to which these comments are appended is about what it takes to write well (while still not doing all that much work), and since I have 15 years of combined professional writing and editing experience and you apparently don’t, I have more credibility than you when discussing whether “alright” is all right. Perhaps you think that’s not quite fair, but I’m hardly concerned about that.

    Now, if you want to continue to use “alright,” don’t let me stop you. I’m not your dad. But I don’t suggest anyone else use it when they’re trying to write well, because it’s wrong.

    Stephen:

    “John, why don’t you admit that you just don’t like the word and fall back on your, ‘I don’t have to have a good reason because this is my Web site’ defense?”

    Well, you know. Just because a word is in the dictionary doesn’t mean it’s acceptable usage. “Ain’t” is in the dictionary too, and outside specialized uses (similar to “alright”) you don’t see it in well-written English either.

    As for “alright” being regularly used in edited publications, as the m-w suggests, I haven’t seen it. “All right” is standard in both AP and Chicago style guides, which the vast majority of professional copy editors use (and off which other style guides are spun off). I’d believe it was used by the Chicago Tribune in its “simplified English” days, but those days are long gone.

    So, no, in fact, it’s not that I just don’t like it. Chicago and AP don’t like it either, and I’m following their lead. Take it up with them; if you can convince them, maybe I’ll listen.

  89. Josh asks why “alright” (or “allright”) is considered unacceptable when “cannot” and “everywhere” are fine. The answer is “because English isn’t consistent.” Any argument after that point is pissing into the wind. I’ll also note that “every where” is never used, and most style guides prefer “cannot” to “can not.”

    Josh, your point about “any more” and “anymore” is particularly poor — they don’t mean the same thing at all. You cannot exchange them in the sentences “No, thank you, I don’t want any more Brussels sprouts” and “Why don’t people eat Brussels sprouts anymore?”

    Finally, you keep ranting about how most people can’t keep all the rules straight. Go look at the title of this post; it’s not MEANT for most people. It’s meant for writers and those who want to be writers. John’s advice is utterly correct, because I don’t know a single editor (and I know many) who would allow “alright” to stand in a manuscript for publication.

  90. Josh asks why “alright” (or “allright”) is considered unacceptable when “cannot” and “everywhere” are fine. The answer is “because English isn’t consistent.” Any argument after that point is pissing into the wind. I’ll also note that “every where” is never used, and most style guides prefer “cannot” to “can not.”

    Josh, your point about “any more” and “anymore” is particularly poor — they don’t mean the same thing at all. You cannot exchange them in the sentences “No, thank you, I don’t want any more Brussels sprouts” and “Why don’t people eat Brussels sprouts anymore?”

    Finally, you keep ranting about how most people can’t keep all the rules straight. Go look at the title of this post; it’s not MEANT for most people. It’s meant for writers and those who want to be writers. John’s advice is utterly correct, because I don’t know a single editor (and I know many) who would allow “alright” to stand in a manuscript for publication.

  91. Josh, I fully accept the argument that in informal writing the rules of grammar can be relaxed.

    However I thought that ‘there’, ‘their’, and ‘they’re’ are different words, like three and free. Sure they sound similar, but they have different meanings and so are not so much a ‘grammatical mistake’ as simply ‘a mistake’.

    Eaun’s comment about the word ‘alright’ is spot on. The whole argument was much ado about nothing.

  92. Andrew Hackard:

    “It’s meant for writers and those who want to be writers.”

    Er, well, it’s actually specifically for non-writers who want to write well. But the point stands — it’s aimed at people who want their writing to look good. If you don’t particularly care if your writing approaches a professional standard, you don’t have to follow any of it. The world will not collapse if you don’t follow my advice. Although I will be very, very disappointed.

    Agreed that the “alright/all right” argument has gone about as far as it’s going to go in terms of being useful.

  93. Try reading “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” by Lynne Truss. It’s been helpful and entertaining to my husband who is hard at work on his first book.

  94. As someone who writes for a living and for fun, I’ve found that reading other writers is essential to developing a personal style and for growth as a writer.
    As for grammar texts and how-to’s, I’ve found that the time to read them is not when you need them (although when you need them — read them). Thus, I suggest looking for texts that make decent bathroom reading. Strunk and White is good for this as are Karen Gordon’s The New Well-Tempered Sentence and The Deluxe Transitive Vampire.
    For those for whom English is a second language, I suggest Samuel Johnson’s Grammar of the English Tongue. This is available for free at Project Gutenberg. It may be 200 years old or so, but it’s still useful even for native English speakers.
    http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/15097

  95. I would like to interject a small note about the word “alright,” if I may.

    I use the word, myself. I have never considered it to be improperly spelled. I do consider it to be a colloquialism, much like the word “okay,” and would not use it in formal writing.

    I will, however, use it in everyday speech and writing. It is a part of my writing voice, and it does have a distict character apart from the meaning of the words “all right.”

    Alright?

  96. Die, infidel Michael Hopwood, die!

    Certainly, I think colloquial use is fine; Lord knows I have colloquialisms I use as well, which I wouldn’t use in more formal writing. I think it is useful to make the distinction as to when it’s appropriate to use.

  97. Die, infidel Michael Hopwood, die!

    Certainly, I think colloquial use is fine; Lord knows I have colloquialisms I use as well, which I wouldn’t use in more formal writing. I think it is useful to make the distinction as to when it’s appropriate to use.

  98. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post! I am an English tutor, and was having this exact conversation with two of my SAT students yesterday. They are struggling with grammar rules, and since usage has now been put on the SAT, they (and I) wish that school teachers emphasized grammar rules more. One girl’s teacher never corrected her incorrect use of who/whom, or substituting “their” for “his.” The majority of my students have no idea how to tackle the usage section due to lack of grammar lessons in schools. It rests on my shoulders, and those of my colleagues, to get our students a good score. I’m starting early with my elementary-school-aged students.

    My three biggest pet peeves in writing: the aforementioned use of “their” instead of “his,” even for the purposes of political correctness (“their” is plural,” “his” is singular!!!); the addition of apostrophes where they don’t belong (see: “CD’s for Sale!”); and “could of/should/of/would of.” The latter is a definite 10-point IQ dropper.

    I’m printing this list out, enlarging it, and pinning it to my wall.

    And a side note: Besides Strunk and White, I refer to “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” for some punctuation rules; it’s British grammar (hence the omission of the comma before “and”), but most of the rules hold up. And it’s fun to read.

  99. Jenn:

    “My three biggest pet peeves in writing: the aforementioned use of “their” instead of “his,” even for the purposes of political correctness (“their” is plural,” “his” is singular!!!)”

    Ironically, this is one I would like to see change, for reasons I note here. However, I note there that I don’t take the battle to the poor copyeditor who is required to follow a particular style guide; I simply use it in places where I am writing in an informal sense (for example, I’ll use it here at the Whatever from time to time). But I don’t suggest it’s currently accepted usage.

  100. Jenn:

    “My three biggest pet peeves in writing: the aforementioned use of “their” instead of “his,” even for the purposes of political correctness (“their” is plural,” “his” is singular!!!)”

    Ironically, this is one I would like to see change, for reasons I note here. However, I note there that I don’t take the battle to the poor copyeditor who is required to follow a particular style guide; I simply use it in places where I am writing in an informal sense (for example, I’ll use it here at the Whatever from time to time). But I don’t suggest it’s currently accepted usage.

  101. Um, I haven’t come across a single legitimate American English dictionary yet that has “typoes” as the plural for “typo”. Including Google’s built-in dictionary/encyclopedia – that’s the “definition” link on the far upper right. In fact, that’s a good way to find out if you’ve misspelled a word – if it’s a common word and it doesn’t have a “definition” link, it’s likely misspelled. For example, if you enter “typos” in Google, you’ll see a “definition” link. If you enter “typoes”, you will not.

  102. Um, I haven’t come across a single legitimate American English dictionary yet that has “typoes” as the plural for “typo”. Including Google’s built-in dictionary/encyclopedia – that’s the “definition” link on the far upper right. In fact, that’s a good way to find out if you’ve misspelled a word – if it’s a common word and it doesn’t have a “definition” link, it’s likely misspelled. For example, if you enter “typos” in Google, you’ll see a “definition” link. If you enter “typoes”, you will not.

  103. On “Alright.”

    Here’s why it doesn’t look right: You shouldn’t be using it. Not ever. Don’t say “alright,” or “all right,” or even “allright.” (And don’t get me started on “aiight.)

    “Alright” is the written equivalent of clearing your throat. You use it at the beginning of a sentence when you’re not quite sure how you want to start. And you use it as a question at the end of a paragraph when what you mean to say is a rhetorical (and completely unnecessary) “Is that fine with you?”

    There is no sentence to which “alright” has added anything positive. Stop using it.

    K

  104. Seeking to communicate clearly may not include seeking to sell same. Commercial postures are for whores, proper postures are for idiots ;)

  105. Seeking to communicate clearly may not include seeking to sell same. Commercial postures are for whores, proper postures are for idiots ;)

  106. Reg Aubrey:

    “Um, I haven’t come across a single legitimate American English dictionary yet that has ‘typoes’ as the plural for ‘typo’.”

    Hush, Reg.

    I’ve seen both used, but notes I’m getting from real live copyeditors tell me that “typos” is the more common way to spell it. I’ve made the correction.

  107. My biggest pet peeve is when I see someone use ‘s at the end of a word for a plural. Example: The three boy’s ran to the house. Instead of: The three boys ran to the house.
    Lately that seems to be more and more common.

    I also wish that people would sound out a word as they write it. They might make fewer mistakes. Quiet/quite/quit, Calvary/cavalry, etc.

  108. My biggest pet peeve is when I see someone use ‘s at the end of a word for a plural. Example: The three boy’s ran to the house. Instead of: The three boys ran to the house.
    Lately that seems to be more and more common.

    I also wish that people would sound out a word as they write it. They might make fewer mistakes. Quiet/quite/quit, Calvary/cavalry, etc.

  109. Speaking as a copyeditor, I’d like to suggest something. People who think the distinction between “alright” and “all right” is completely arbitrary are, at bottom, absolutely correct. It is completely arbitrary. I must say that all the twisting and turning in the above posts that try to prove — through utilitarian and historical arguments — that “alright” is somehow an inherently inferior spelling ring a little false, even to my ears.

    Still: the fact that it’s arbitrary doesn’t mean that any professional editor is going to let you get away with using it. In every culture, in every language, there’s some hierarchy — however arbitrary — making all kinds of decisions about “proper” speech, behavior, dress, etc. Pointing at it and yelling, “But it’s arbitrary!” doesn’t fix it. It just means that you, the guy speaking nonstandard grammar and wearing his pants on his head, are going to have a really hard time getting anyone to take you seriously.

    I also disagree with the usage guide for commas in the beginning of the post, but that’s another subject for another time.

  110. Speaking as a copyeditor, I’d like to suggest something. People who think the distinction between “alright” and “all right” is completely arbitrary are, at bottom, absolutely correct. It is completely arbitrary. I must say that all the twisting and turning in the above posts that try to prove — through utilitarian and historical arguments — that “alright” is somehow an inherently inferior spelling ring a little false, even to my ears.

    Still: the fact that it’s arbitrary doesn’t mean that any professional editor is going to let you get away with using it. In every culture, in every language, there’s some hierarchy — however arbitrary — making all kinds of decisions about “proper” speech, behavior, dress, etc. Pointing at it and yelling, “But it’s arbitrary!” doesn’t fix it. It just means that you, the guy speaking nonstandard grammar and wearing his pants on his head, are going to have a really hard time getting anyone to take you seriously.

    I also disagree with the usage guide for commas in the beginning of the post, but that’s another subject for another time.

  111. I must say that all the twisting and turning in the above posts that try to prove — through utilitarian and historical arguments — that “alright” is somehow an inherently inferior spelling ring a little false, even to my ears.

    Naturally, the moment you mention you’re a copyeditor, you make a totally embarrassing boner in the next sentence. Please replace “ring” with “rings.” Subject/verb agreement. Ouch.

  112. I must say that all the twisting and turning in the above posts that try to prove — through utilitarian and historical arguments — that “alright” is somehow an inherently inferior spelling ring a little false, even to my ears.

    Naturally, the moment you mention you’re a copyeditor, you make a totally embarrassing boner in the next sentence. Please replace “ring” with “rings.” Subject/verb agreement. Ouch.

  113. I must say that all the twisting and turning in the above posts that try to prove — through utilitarian and historical arguments — that “alright” is somehow an inherently inferior spelling ring a little false, even to my ears.

    Naturally, the moment you mention you’re a copyeditor, you make a totally embarrassing boner in the next sentence. Please replace “ring” with “rings.” Subject/verb agreement. Ouch.

  114. > My three biggest pet peeves in writing: the aforementioned use of “their” instead of “his,” even for the purposes of political correctness (“their” is plural,” “his” is singular!!!);

    People – including some very famous writers – have been using them/their/they as a non-gender-specific third-person singular pronoun for quite some time, actually. See this link: .

    Of course, several centuries of this usage doesn’t necessarily make it *right*, but the lack of a good non-gender-specific third-person singular pronoun in English really gets annoying sometimes.

  115. (Wishing I could edit that comment): Whoops, that link should be to here: http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/austheir.html.

    Upon re-reading that page on singular ‘they’ and remembering some of the details of it all, I’m inclined to think that several centuries of such usage *does* in fact make it okay. It’s only that those bloody prescriptive grammarians from a couple of centuries ago that came along and decided that English should be Latin.

    (I’m thinking I really should re-read some things before I post links to them.)

  116. Wow. Active discussion.

    My biggest peeve: quote marks for emphasis. Every time I see a sign that says BIG “SALE” I ask the manager if that means that the prices are actually the same and he’s just kidding us.

    I personally do think that there’s a time and place to use “their” for “his”, and that’s because I talk to many people who think the word herstory is proper usage. In the absence of a gender-neutral pronoun, I think it’s appropriate to grab for the closest one available. My personal theory is that “his” *is* a gender-neutral pronoun (and that mankind and humankind are synonymous), but if I’m talking to or writing for an audience that’s going to get stuck on those words, I adjust to suit.

    Agreed with Brian Greenberg (for once) about text formatting being a new kind of punctuation. There’s a simple reason for this — electronic communications have always tracked more closely to verbal than written English in their style. So we adopt tools to add vocal inflections to online speech, such as text formats and emoticons. I have a rule that whenever I’m inclined to add a smiley, it’s a reminder that I *know* that the sentence isn’t written well enough to stand on its own, and I’ll fix or not depending on the formality of my relationship with the recipient. Likewise, I use text formatting far more often when blogging than print writing, mainly because it’s faster to write that way.

    Tip for people using Mac Text to Speech — assign a keyboard equivalent in the (Tiger 10.4) System Preferences. I have Command-( and Command-) set to Start and Stop Speaking, and I use it to proof everything I write.

    Finally, re typewriter noise, I have a Mac utility here called Typewriter Keyboard which adds Underwood sounds to everything typed on the keyboard. Sometimes it helps to have the audio feedback to help maintain a rhythm.

    http://alphaomega.software.free.fr/typewriterkeyboard/Typewriter%20Keyboard.html

  117. There IS a single non-specific gender third person pronoun. It’s called ‘one.’ Such as:

    “If one has the slightest bit of respect, one doesn’t smoke outsde the entrances to hospitals.”

    Granted, it sounds vaguely scornful of the the intelligence of the intended recipient in the dialogue in some cases, but you get used to it.

    Of course, I personally love being a snarky bitch (SLANG! Ha haaa!), so I don’t care. :)

  118. Your list works well as good Java programming advice too. To wit:
    0. write only just enough code to cover the requirements — do the simplest thing that can possibly work
    1. adhere to coding standards, like the sun coding standards for java, so that other people can read your work
    2. with classes and methods, shorter is better than longer
    3. learn how to do a effective object-oriented design — classes should be nouns, methods should be verbs, things should be as simple as possible with a minimum of inheritence
    4. don’t use APIs you’re not familiar with — fully understand every API you use
    5. design matters, but not as much as anal software architects think it does — in the end, customers are paying you to deliver running software to solve business problems, not sexy designs
    6. front-load delivery: get something, anything running asap, and put it in front of a customer to get feedback
    7. try to code well every time you code — never code anything you wouldn’t want to show another developer
    8. read code by people who code well — if possible, get on their projects so you can code together
    9. when in doubt, simplify — if the code is too complex, refactor ruthlessly; you can do this if you have unit tests in place, so always write unit tests for your code, even if you don’t know you need them yet
    10. review your code with your peers — everyone has blind spots, so leverage the expertise of other coders

  119. I swear to Koresh (thanks, Bartcop) that in all my years of schooling, I was never taught that ‘alright’ was unacceptable. I had some real sticklers for English teachers, too (for which I am thankful).

    There was a concern raised above about the use of apostrophes in terms such as “CD’s”/”CDs”. My understanding is that the apostrophe is used in this case to indicate an abbreviation’s missing letters; since you’re not writing “compact discs” in full, the “‘” is necessary. “CDs” (note missing “‘”) means “compact disc single”, which is a CD with only a few tracks and based around a lead song, to most music collectors.

    Great post, Mr. Scalzi.

  120. For the sake of being annoying I shall now prostrate myself to you and thank you while kissing your shoes for granting us this article in which you have imprinted your thoughts to guide us mere mortals (also known as non-writers) in coping with the challenges and obstacles that one faces when he tries to write well and… hey, one long sentence! I wonder if it’s grammatically correct.

    I’ll be sure to forward this article to my other friends.

  121. Great piece, though I think “typos” wins out over :”typoes”–lol.

    Your point about sloppy e-mails is well-taken. I always proofread and/or edit everything I write, whether it be a greeting card, e-mail, post, or article.

    I have a theory about the sloppy e-mail etiquette however, especially in the case of editors and other higher-ups. I think this is their way of conveying to the recipient that they are just too busy and important to correct their typos or write a complete sentence. I had an esteemed editor–a real curmudgeon–who had a reputation for lacerating writers but who could manage to work five typos into a two-word e-mail response.

    Thanks again for this–I agree with all your points absolutely.

  122. I love it! I will be referring others to this for sure.
    One thing though (from #9):

    “…indeed, I find from personal experience that the stupidest writers are the ones whose writing is postively baroque in form.”

    I’m thinking that’s supposed to be ‘positively.’
    It jumped up at me and wouldn’t let me go.
    This comment doesn’t have to be posted- I just wanted to let you know.

  123. Its ["alright"'s] meaning is totally different than “all right.”

    Well, in the sense that it makes you look slightly illiterate, yeah, it’s “totally different from” (not “different than”) “all right.” Otherwise, “all right” can be used in all the same places people use “alright.” “Don’t worry, everything is going to be all right” is fine, and has the added benefit of not making one look slightly illiterate.

    That said, given the precedents of words like “already” and “altogether,” this is probably a losing battle. It seems a number of people have developed some sense that “all right” and “alright” have different meanings, and eventually one of them will write a dictionary.

    (As an aside, I once had a disagreement with someone who argued that “different than” was perfectly correct and had a slightly different meaning from “different from.” “Different from,” he argued, holds one thing up to be the standard and compares the other two it. With “different than,” the two things being compared are more equal. This is a novel idea and may prove useful eventually, but expecting your reader to know a distinction that exists only in your head may be a little… optimistic.)

    “CD’s”/”CDs”. My understanding is that the apostrophe is used in this case to indicate an abbreviation’s missing letters

    Apostrophes are in fact used to indicate omitted letters in contractions, but that would make it C’D’s, with two apostrophes since there are two sets of missing letters, and nobody writes it like that. It would also mean that the abbreviation would be pronounced something like “cuds”, which it is not. No, the correct plural of “CD” is “CDs”. There is no circumstance under which one creates a plural by adding apostrophe-s.

    I cringe every single time I see someone use ‘u’ instead of ‘you’

    I like to mock these people by reading their messages aloud where they can hear them, if at all possible. I pronounce “U” as “oo” — “Would oo like to go to the store?” — and “UR” as “ur” — “What is ur name?” Unfortunately, it is rarely possible to do this within earshot…

  124. “Different from,” he argued, holds one thing up to be the standard and compares the other two it.

    “Two” was intentional there. Just keeping you on your toes. Yeah, that’s it. ;)

  125. “Different from,” he argued, holds one thing up to be the standard and compares the other two it.

    “Two” was intentional there. Just keeping you on your toes. Yeah, that’s it. ;)

  126. Great article, and terrific discussions following.

    My own pet peeve? The rarely made distinction between “use” and “mention”. If a word is used directly in a sentence, then it should occur without modification. However, if a word is being mentioned in a sentence, that is, at some meta-level of discussion, it should be within quotation marks. For example, the difference between the following two sentences:

    ‘I have a nice umbrella’

    I think that “umbrella” is my favourite word’

    Also, hyphenation. An ice-cream sandwich must be hyphenated to indicate that “ice” modifies “cream”, to give us the ice cream that we know and love, versus a sandwich made with ice and cream.

  127. Regarding The Elements of Style: in AP English and as a Writing major I had to internalize it just like everyone else, but lately I’ve come to think of it as a great way to make anybody’s work sound like it was written by two Dead White Guys.

  128. Nice article. I have been trying to become a better writer for the last year or so now. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, but I can tell that the daily practice is making a difference.

    I have found dictionary.com to be a great resource if I’m reading or writing.

  129. Nice article. I have been trying to become a better writer for the last year or so now. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, but I can tell that the daily practice is making a difference.

    I have found dictionary.com to be a great resource if I’m reading or writing.

  130. To solve the entire “alright/all right/allright” debate, I would like to take the opportunity to agree with Paul (who commented up there somewhere) and submit that the entire problem can be easily avoided by the simple use of “a’ight.”

    If anyone (particularly your doctoral dissertation advisor or publisher) should dare to argue with your usage, simply look them straight in the eye, tilt your nose up, pause for a single dramatic moment, and say forcefully, “That’s all YOU know.”

    No, no. Don’t bother to thank me.

    I’m just doing my linguistic duty.

    MV

  131. Multiple things that are correct or okay would be “all right,” whereas I am feeling “alright” today

    For what is worth, the Mac OS X 10.4.5 dictionary (based on Oxford’s Dictionary) says:

    alright |ôlˈrīt|:
    Variant spelling of all right .

    USAGE: The merging of all and right to form the one-word spelling alright is first recorded toward the end of the 19th century (unlike other similar merged spellings such as altogether and already, which date from much earlier). There is no logical reason for insisting that all right be two words when other single-word forms such as altogether have long been accepted. Nevertheless, although found widely, alright remains nonstandard.

  132. Multiple things that are correct or okay would be “all right,” whereas I am feeling “alright” today

    For what is worth, the Mac OS X 10.4.5 dictionary (based on Oxford’s Dictionary) says:

    alright |ôlˈrīt|:
    Variant spelling of all right .

    USAGE: The merging of all and right to form the one-word spelling alright is first recorded toward the end of the 19th century (unlike other similar merged spellings such as altogether and already, which date from much earlier). There is no logical reason for insisting that all right be two words when other single-word forms such as altogether have long been accepted. Nevertheless, although found widely, alright remains nonstandard.

  133. Word of caution about using google search for spell checking. It does not use a spell checker, it checks previous seaches and if people had not selected items for the word searched for, but had searched for a new topic and then selected one of thoses. If enough people entered the second search word then those search items are the ones shown to you.

    As previously mentioned instead put define: in front of the word and read the definitions to see if it is the proper word.

  134. Word of caution about using google search for spell checking. It does not use a spell checker, it checks previous seaches and if people had not selected items for the word searched for, but had searched for a new topic and then selected one of thoses. If enough people entered the second search word then those search items are the ones shown to you.

    As previously mentioned instead put define: in front of the word and read the definitions to see if it is the proper word.

  135. A useful essay. Thank you. As I was reading some of the comments, a simile occurred to me; overuse of exclamation points is the equivalent of playing a piano sonata without ever taking one’s foot off the sustain pedal.

  136. overuse of exclamation points is the equivalent of playing a piano sonata without ever taking one’s foot off the sustain pedal

    Never explained better… ;)

  137. overuse of exclamation points is the equivalent of playing a piano sonata without ever taking one’s foot off the sustain pedal

    Never explained better… ;)

  138. Brad Root:

    “A stodgy know it all writing instructor tore you down, Scalzi.”

    Yep; I saw it and responded over there.

  139. These are Web Logs – don’t get your “panties in a bunch” – have fun – lighten up. Read what you want to read – proof of better grammar is NOT a requirement.

    We all find what we want to read and we all have our own reasons to read it! If your reasons are perfect grammar or perfect writing – things could become boring for you from time to time.

    Grammar rules only need apply if you are “selling” something. When a person pays for something – they expect that product to be better than what they themselves could produce at to expense.

    In your case – Check this post: http://bamapachyderm.com/archives/2006/02/15/someones-done-my-work-for-me/

    And we all wonder why people never bother to comment as they pass through the “gauntlet!” There are fewer and fewer “real” comments landing every day. Having to meet everyone else’s standards puts a wrench in the “Freedom” cookie! ;-D

  140. These are Web Logs – don’t get your “panties in a bunch” – have fun – lighten up. Read what you want to read – proof of better grammar is NOT a requirement.

    We all find what we want to read and we all have our own reasons to read it! If your reasons are perfect grammar or perfect writing – things could become boring for you from time to time.

    Grammar rules only need apply if you are “selling” something. When a person pays for something – they expect that product to be better than what they themselves could produce at to expense.

    In your case – Check this post: http://bamapachyderm.com/archives/2006/02/15/someones-done-my-work-for-me/

    And we all wonder why people never bother to comment as they pass through the “gauntlet!” There are fewer and fewer “real” comments landing every day. Having to meet everyone else’s standards puts a wrench in the “Freedom” cookie! ;-D

  141. Dina:

    “Grammar rules only need apply if you are ‘selling’ something.”

    Well, actually, grammar rules apply if you want to be understood. As noted before, I’m not anal about these things, but at the same time, aggressively poor grammar calls attention away from what someone is saying to how they are saying it, and that’s no good.

  142. Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want to Work at Writing

    Occasionally, articles on writing come up on the del.icio.us popular page and/or digg. I try to read one whenever I see it. Today, the article linked below showed up on both:

    Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want to Work at Writing

    It’s a go

  143. Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want to Work at Writing

    Occasionally, articles on writing come up on the del.icio.us popular page and/or digg. I try to read one whenever I see it. Today, the article linked below showed up on both:

    Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want to Work at Writing

    It’s a go

  144. Sounds like the things I’ve been trying to tell people for years, only more gently. Not that I haven’t wanted to yell, “Spellcheck is your friend!” or “Stop using textspeak, for pity’s sake!” I get so irritated with “wut do u think?” (followed by five emoticons) kinds of post on boards where text-message-speak isn’t used by anyone else. It’s rather like the people who type in all caps because they’ve seen all caps messages still lingering in Michael Crichton novels and think they’re supposed to post that way. Do they not observe the posts that others have left? Or are they thinking something like, “Gee, look at all those people who don’t know how to ‘do computers'”?

  145. Me a copy editor, too! And was once a teacher. I feel the same way about writers/students who use alright as I do about people who use alot.

    Aight? Aight.

  146. I can’t believe we are all debating the acceptable spellings of “all right” underneath a post claiming that one should put commas where one would take a breath.

    You’ve got to be kidding me. I was told this in first grade because I was too young to understand what clauses are. The “where you take a breath” rule was quickly debunked in 3rd grade.

    And don’t even get me started on semicolons used for emphasis…

  147. Also, the subject of serial commas brings up a teaching point. I think there should be a comma before the and. Red, white, and blue. But I work for a company that uses AP style, which forbids the use of that last comma. Therefore, at work, I don’t use it. But, boy-howdy, when I get home, the commas just fly all over. I had to unlearn a lot of MLA when I started out in AP business. The boss is the boss.

    Also, regarding “Eats, Shoots, Leaves,” keep in mind that English style guides are country-specific. You could pick up all kinds of bad British habits that are unacceptable in U.S. English from that book.

  148. Tips for the Non-Writer

    Not being much of a writer myself (I’m learning and practicing) I’ve always looked up to those who could put words to paper in a meaningful and interesting way.  I think though, that if I spent the time to really work at it, I could be a d…

  149. Jordan:

    “I can’t believe we are all debating the acceptable spellings of ‘all right’ underneath a post claiming that one should put commas where one would take a breath.”

    And yet, here we are. Funny about that.

  150. My pet peeves

    That exclamation point suggestion is totally true. I’m that college student that ends up correcting everyone else’s papers. And exclamation points are one of my biggest pet peeves. It seems like people like to drop exclamation point in when they say anything that they want to be read differently than as a simple comment. They’ll use it to indicate excitement, happiness, sedation, sadness, anger, perseverence, resoluteness, and any other sort of emotion. Not only that, I see college students writing papers in which they use exclamation points as though they were writing an instant message. You know: I’m so angry!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I guess the multiple exclamations is supposed to make the reader think that what was just said was supposed to be read uber excitedly. I always tell the student’s whose paper’s I correct, “when you use an exclamation point, it makes me, as the reader, yell the sentence in my head. So if that’s now how you want me reading this sentence, I’d probably consider ending it in a period.”

    Another pet peeve of mine is when students overuse the semicolon. What the heck! Students are told by their high school english teacher that no one knows how to use the semicolon. High school teachers tell their students that college professors will be very impressed at a correcetly used semicolon. Especially freshman seem to be relentless in their semicolon usage. They are often so proud of correcetly employing its use fifteen times or more in one paragraph that they are rarely willing to have the ugly things edited out. Funny thing…they rarely use the semicolon correctly.

    Another big pet peeve of mine is when students write a paper that reads more like a thesaurus. They go out of their way to write something with the biggest words they can find. It ends up being a paper with a lot of stops. You can’t read it easily. Often the paper will read really easily, and then they throw in some sort of huge out-of-place word. It’s as though you are driving through an area of town with a stop light every block. You curse every time you get to a red one, stop, and then go again hoping that the next one is green. But as I’m sure you all know, the next one is never green. It never fails, if there’s a stop light, it will be red. You will have to stop, and you will be annoyed. And I’ll tell you this much, getting the city to remove those lights is nearly impossible. But (and this may be the only time I ever make this claim) in my opinion, it’s easier to work with the city to get the lights removed than it is to convince a student to remove the big words from their paper.

  151. My pet peeves

    That exclamation point suggestion is totally true. I’m that college student that ends up correcting everyone else’s papers. And exclamation points are one of my biggest pet peeves. It seems like people like to drop exclamation point in when they say anything that they want to be read differently than as a simple comment. They’ll use it to indicate excitement, happiness, sedation, sadness, anger, perseverence, resoluteness, and any other sort of emotion. Not only that, I see college students writing papers in which they use exclamation points as though they were writing an instant message. You know: I’m so angry!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I guess the multiple exclamations is supposed to make the reader think that what was just said was supposed to be read uber excitedly. I always tell the student’s whose paper’s I correct, “when you use an exclamation point, it makes me, as the reader, yell the sentence in my head. So if that’s now how you want me reading this sentence, I’d probably consider ending it in a period.”

    Another pet peeve of mine is when students overuse the semicolon. What the heck! Students are told by their high school english teacher that no one knows how to use the semicolon. High school teachers tell their students that college professors will be very impressed at a correcetly used semicolon. Especially freshman seem to be relentless in their semicolon usage. They are often so proud of correcetly employing its use fifteen times or more in one paragraph that they are rarely willing to have the ugly things edited out. Funny thing…they rarely use the semicolon correctly.

    Another big pet peeve of mine is when students write a paper that reads more like a thesaurus. They go out of their way to write something with the biggest words they can find. It ends up being a paper with a lot of stops. You can’t read it easily. Often the paper will read really easily, and then they throw in some sort of huge out-of-place word. It’s as though you are driving through an area of town with a stop light every block. You curse every time you get to a red one, stop, and then go again hoping that the next one is green. But as I’m sure you all know, the next one is never green. It never fails, if there’s a stop light, it will be red. You will have to stop, and you will be annoyed. And I’ll tell you this much, getting the city to remove those lights is nearly impossible. But (and this may be the only time I ever make this claim) in my opinion, it’s easier to work with the city to get the lights removed than it is to convince a student to remove the big words from their paper.

  152. Bravo, especially the bit about people with a string of letters following their names. It drives me insane when I see supposedly educated folks muck up stuff I had thoroughly drummed into my brain by Sister Carmelita of the Bloody Ruler before I’d cleared fourth grade.

    Whenever someone asks me about writing, I point them at Strunk and tell them, “Nouns and verbs, baby, just stick to nouns and verbs and you probably won’t sound like an idiot.”

    Of course, I don’t tell any of my clients that; they just get treated to “the blue pen from hell.”

  153. Guidelines for the (rather difficult) craft of writing

    John Scalzi, who appears to be a rather credentialed writer (however dubious his credentials as a contributor may be), recently blogged about improving one’s writing: Specifically for “non-writers who don’t want to work at writing.&#8…

  154. Guidelines for the (rather difficult) craft of writing

    John Scalzi, who appears to be a rather credentialed writer (however dubious his credentials as a contributor may be), recently blogged about improving one’s writing: Specifically for “non-writers who don’t want to work at writing.&#8…

  155. “www.dictionary.com accorded it as “nonstandard” as opposed to “wrong”
    wrong = mistake a few people make
    non-standard = a mistake so many people make that the dictionary is trying not to embarrass the whole world by mentioning it.
    Yeah, yeah, language evolves, yadda yadda yadda. It’s ‘all right’…all right? :)

    “I suspect it’s more that IM/email/blogging/etc make the poor grammar of a large segment of the population more evident, not that younger generations are necessarily less literate…”

    I heartily disagree. IM inherently encourages people to abbreviate every word possible and cut out any grammar not needed to get across the intended meaning (and that can be a lot if the receiver already understands the context).(Ooh, ooh, please note people – that’s ‘a lot, not ‘alot’.) This is rife on chat, but even more prevalent on mobile phones. It basically turns everything into a telegram. If kids do more IM/texting than homework, trust me, they become less literate. Of course that’s understandable. If everything you write shuns the rules of spelling and grammar, you are going to become less familiar with them and make more mistakes.

  156. “www.dictionary.com accorded it as “nonstandard” as opposed to “wrong”
    wrong = mistake a few people make
    non-standard = a mistake so many people make that the dictionary is trying not to embarrass the whole world by mentioning it.
    Yeah, yeah, language evolves, yadda yadda yadda. It’s ‘all right’…all right? :)

    “I suspect it’s more that IM/email/blogging/etc make the poor grammar of a large segment of the population more evident, not that younger generations are necessarily less literate…”

    I heartily disagree. IM inherently encourages people to abbreviate every word possible and cut out any grammar not needed to get across the intended meaning (and that can be a lot if the receiver already understands the context).(Ooh, ooh, please note people – that’s ‘a lot, not ‘alot’.) This is rife on chat, but even more prevalent on mobile phones. It basically turns everything into a telegram. If kids do more IM/texting than homework, trust me, they become less literate. Of course that’s understandable. If everything you write shuns the rules of spelling and grammar, you are going to become less familiar with them and make more mistakes.

  157. Josh: You’re right that it takes more time and effort to write carefully or proofread/edit a post, but it’s worth the extra time. Generally speaking on a discussion board, all the means you have to understand what someone thinks is in the words in front of you. I can’t count how many times I’ve disagreed with someone or asked them to account for something they’ve written, only to have them write back that “that wasn’t what I meant”. Well you know what? They should take enough care in the first place so that what they end up writing is what they meant to write. I shouldn’t have to tackle their lazy writing skills as well as their actual argument.

    There are posts on subject important to me that have taken me hours to write, because I know they were going to be read by argumentative people with opinions that are bipolarly opposite to mine. They had to be clear, logical, as brief as possible, and to the point. And after a lot of editing, they were. But they are also the posts that I have seen linked by people months afterward. The time is worth spending.

    The same goes for my blog. I don’t want people to read it and just think, ‘gosh she rambles’. Just because it’s my private internet wall space to grafitti as I choose doesn’t mean that I can expect people to turn up there every day to read crap.

    P.S. Bob, I love no.4 in that CS Lewis list! Kristy, I am about to read your LJ just based on how loud I laughed at that comment. Nice one!

  158. Josh: You’re right that it takes more time and effort to write carefully or proofread/edit a post, but it’s worth the extra time. Generally speaking on a discussion board, all the means you have to understand what someone thinks is in the words in front of you. I can’t count how many times I’ve disagreed with someone or asked them to account for something they’ve written, only to have them write back that “that wasn’t what I meant”. Well you know what? They should take enough care in the first place so that what they end up writing is what they meant to write. I shouldn’t have to tackle their lazy writing skills as well as their actual argument.

    There are posts on subject important to me that have taken me hours to write, because I know they were going to be read by argumentative people with opinions that are bipolarly opposite to mine. They had to be clear, logical, as brief as possible, and to the point. And after a lot of editing, they were. But they are also the posts that I have seen linked by people months afterward. The time is worth spending.

    The same goes for my blog. I don’t want people to read it and just think, ‘gosh she rambles’. Just because it’s my private internet wall space to grafitti as I choose doesn’t mean that I can expect people to turn up there every day to read crap.

    P.S. Bob, I love no.4 in that CS Lewis list! Kristy, I am about to read your LJ just based on how loud I laughed at that comment. Nice one!

  159. A few more commonly-seen abuses of the English language, if I may:

    The use of “wait on” instead of “wait for”. Waiters wait on customers. People wait for trains.

    Similar words being mixed up: specialty/speciality, or coherent/cohesive, for example.

    Congradulations.

    There are many more; those are just a few that came to mind immediately.

    I’m another who assumes a lesser intelligence when I read shoddy writing. If the purpose of writing is communication, accuracy and clarity are necessary, not optional.

  160. A few more commonly-seen abuses of the English language, if I may:

    The use of “wait on” instead of “wait for”. Waiters wait on customers. People wait for trains.

    Similar words being mixed up: specialty/speciality, or coherent/cohesive, for example.

    Congradulations.

    There are many more; those are just a few that came to mind immediately.

    I’m another who assumes a lesser intelligence when I read shoddy writing. If the purpose of writing is communication, accuracy and clarity are necessary, not optional.

  161. I was just going to comment on my enjoyment of your essay, and found myself drowning in pedantic nitpicking over the word “alright.”

  162. Writing is such a great topic to think about. The evolution of language is one that interests me as well. It seems that I recently read about an anniversary of an individual that pretty much made the American English language distinct. Does anyone know about this? Could it possibly be a person that made one of the first American dictionaries?
    My point is that many of America’s fore fathers all wrote and spoke differently from the individuals “educated” in Europe. Our language evolved from Europe and is still evolving today, even if it upsets the norm.
    I often run into people from different parts of the country that think they have the correct vernacular and writing. I guess I like to think of America as a place with sub-dialects, much like sub-species. We are evolving our language from slang and other languages. If we kept to a strict language base, we would not have many of the languages we have today. There are many words in one language that do not occur in another. Therefore, we must sometimes take from other languages to express ourselves. Slang may be very similar to this concept. We do not spell behavior as behaviour unless we are in Europe or writing for Europeans. Although, many years ago, it would have been incorrect to spell it as Americans do today. Maybe Snoop-Dog has something good. It takes variation to evolve, even if some of it does not make the populace happy.
    Maybe writing correctly depends on the particular audience? This could be the best measure of “correct” writing after all. Sorry, I personally despise snobbish, regionally deficient writers and thinkers.

  163. Writing is such a great topic to think about. The evolution of language is one that interests me as well. It seems that I recently read about an anniversary of an individual that pretty much made the American English language distinct. Does anyone know about this? Could it possibly be a person that made one of the first American dictionaries?
    My point is that many of America’s fore fathers all wrote and spoke differently from the individuals “educated” in Europe. Our language evolved from Europe and is still evolving today, even if it upsets the norm.
    I often run into people from different parts of the country that think they have the correct vernacular and writing. I guess I like to think of America as a place with sub-dialects, much like sub-species. We are evolving our language from slang and other languages. If we kept to a strict language base, we would not have many of the languages we have today. There are many words in one language that do not occur in another. Therefore, we must sometimes take from other languages to express ourselves. Slang may be very similar to this concept. We do not spell behavior as behaviour unless we are in Europe or writing for Europeans. Although, many years ago, it would have been incorrect to spell it as Americans do today. Maybe Snoop-Dog has something good. It takes variation to evolve, even if some of it does not make the populace happy.
    Maybe writing correctly depends on the particular audience? This could be the best measure of “correct” writing after all. Sorry, I personally despise snobbish, regionally deficient writers and thinkers.

  164. What Writing and Programming Have in Common

    I find inspiration in the oddest of places. I follow Garr Reynolds blog, and he recently posted about writing the supporting documents for your presentations He quoted John Scalzi . I have no idea who this is, but I loved the quote. Here it is for

  165. Sigh. First, I really didn’t misspell my last name – I had it right the first time. Second, my whole point about citing American (as someone pointed out, you want to make sure to make clear whether you’re discussing American English or otherwise) dictionaries is this: it doesn’t much matter whether you’ve seen it both ways – or any number of ways – and it doesn’t matter how many copyeditors (been there, done that) weigh in to give advice…because the whole point of having reference documents is so that we may refer to them. Simply put, “typo” is a non-controversial word in the English language, and to find information concerning its usage, we have merely to refer to a dictionary. Granted, there ARE many words in English – American and otherwise – with much discussion and controversy over their usage, but “typo” is not one of them. Take your pick of prescriptive or descriptive dictionaries, find the most up-to-date versions, and look up “typo”. You’ll find there IS no debate, and no alternate spellings.

  166. Sigh. First, I really didn’t misspell my last name – I had it right the first time. Second, my whole point about citing American (as someone pointed out, you want to make sure to make clear whether you’re discussing American English or otherwise) dictionaries is this: it doesn’t much matter whether you’ve seen it both ways – or any number of ways – and it doesn’t matter how many copyeditors (been there, done that) weigh in to give advice…because the whole point of having reference documents is so that we may refer to them. Simply put, “typo” is a non-controversial word in the English language, and to find information concerning its usage, we have merely to refer to a dictionary. Granted, there ARE many words in English – American and otherwise – with much discussion and controversy over their usage, but “typo” is not one of them. Take your pick of prescriptive or descriptive dictionaries, find the most up-to-date versions, and look up “typo”. You’ll find there IS no debate, and no alternate spellings.

  167. Further on point 4 (Don’t use words you don’t really know) I would add: Don’t use words or acronyms your audience wont understand.

  168. The New York Times Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words (Amazon link) lists 14,000 words that are often misused or mispronounced. It has obvious words like nuclear (noo-clee-yar) and also obscure words like politesse. The book sits next to my Strunk & White.

  169. The New York Times Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words (Amazon link) lists 14,000 words that are often misused or mispronounced. It has obvious words like nuclear (noo-clee-yar) and also obscure words like politesse. The book sits next to my Strunk & White.

  170. I think these are very helpful tips. I’m going to recommend this page to people who ask me about writing for non-writers. I’ll probably blog about it. In the meantime, in an effor to contribute to the wealth of useful comments, check out my recent blog “short words are best”: http://www.badlanguage.net/?p=44

    Cheers, Matthew

  171. Please add the use of the word “loose” when “lose” is appropriate to the list of pet peeves. This is one that seems to be growing.

    Great article. I’ve bookmarked it. The one problem I see is relying on speaking what you write. Have you heard how folks talk nowadays?

    HH

  172. Please add the use of the word “loose” when “lose” is appropriate to the list of pet peeves. This is one that seems to be growing.

    Great article. I’ve bookmarked it. The one problem I see is relying on speaking what you write. Have you heard how folks talk nowadays?

    HH

  173. Well, I was going to ask permission to link to this article from my own blog, but I suppose permission isn’t necessary. Or is it?

    I enjoyed the article as I am a budding blogger. I have my own fairly well established peeves when it comes to reading someone’s writing, and Mr. Scalzi touched on a couple of them. I think my most peevish is when writers leave the “r” off “your”.

  174. You might want to tell folks about the heathy meals they are eating. They aren’t healthy. Everything on the plate is dead, and dead is not a healthy state.

  175. Essential Writing Tips for Non-Writers

    Came across this while reading Presentation Zen last night. This is a MUST read for a lot of bloggers I know, myself included. The suggestions really make a lot of sense, and I think they’ll improve our writing tremendously.

  176. Wonderfully written! *grin* No, seriously, great stuff. I am curious though, who do consider you a great writer to read? Contemporary, I mean. I’ve read ‘Atlas Shrugged’ a couple of times (not bragging, I just found it fascinating), so please feel free to direct me to current writers.

    I’m also in college and spend most of my time reading for classes. I thought you made a very good point about writing well in email and IM. Isn’t it funny how writers (from all walks of life) will pay absolutely NO attention to the working of (in particular) emails? I know I’ve been guilty of dashing off a note…without checking it. And boy, doesn’t it hurt when you receive a reply and there’s a big ole typo? I just cringe. UGH. (IM..well, brevity I think works well there…sorry.)

    Anyway, a friend ran across your blog and sent me the link and I enjoyed reading it tremendously. I’ll be back. (writer says in her best ‘Terminator/Arnold’ imitation voice.)

    *grin*

    Have a lovely day.

    Paula

    PS I’m dashing off to school…hope there are no demmed typos.

  177. I’m finding the discussion about alright/all right interesting. I think “alright” has become the standard spelling in Hiberno-English (i.e. English as it is spoken and written in Ireland) for the meaning “ok”, “so-so” or “not bad”. “They were alright” answers the question “How were they?” whereas “They were all right” answers the question “Which ones were right?”

    Google seems to support me on this: try searching for ‘site:.ie “alright”‘ versus ‘site:.ie “all right”‘. The second search, which will also match text like “see them all right away”, gets less hits than the first.

    The presciptivists will now tell us that the Irish are illiterate.

  178. I’m finding the discussion about alright/all right interesting. I think “alright” has become the standard spelling in Hiberno-English (i.e. English as it is spoken and written in Ireland) for the meaning “ok”, “so-so” or “not bad”. “They were alright” answers the question “How were they?” whereas “They were all right” answers the question “Which ones were right?”

    Google seems to support me on this: try searching for ‘site:.ie “alright”‘ versus ‘site:.ie “all right”‘. The second search, which will also match text like “see them all right away”, gets less hits than the first.

    The presciptivists will now tell us that the Irish are illiterate.

  179. How to write

    Thanks to Freddie Daniells for drawing my attention to John Scalzi’s tips for good writing. It’s pretty good advice, although it is missing my current bugbear; APOSTROPHES!! Luckily one of the comments to John’s post gives the hyperlink to Bob’s…

  180. How to write

    Thanks to Freddie Daniells for drawing my attention to John Scalzi’s tips for good writing. It’s pretty good advice, although it is missing my current bugbear; APOSTROPHES!! Luckily one of the comments to John’s post gives the hyperlink to Bob’s…

  181. Oh man, I think you just gave me a hernia. The whole of paragraph numero uno is brilliant in it’s cutting TRUTH! No lung collapsing unless you subscribe to Just Seventeen magazine (yeh, ‘Just Seventeen’ of it’s subscribers are over fifteen…) and haven’t left middle school.

  182. Thanks for the discussion. One topic I’ve seen running through the thread but never emphasized is the need to edit. Don’t just dash off whatever is running through your head. It’s okay to write that way initially but go back and reread it. Then edit your writing so that your spelling and grammar are correct. Then reread it a second time to make sure that your ideas are presented clearly and concisely. On the third rereading you can adjust your writing to your own style.

    I write poetry for my own pleasure and have had a few published. Contrary to popular opinion, the poetry muse doesn’t take over and move the hand of the poet as in some divine intervention. The muse may give the idea, but I have to work out how to express it. That means edit, edit, edit.

    Finally, I would add one more rule to good writing. One of my favorite sitcom lines of all time is from Cheers. Kramer, the erudite but clueless shrink, is being made fun of by the other regulars as usual. Then he says, “Oh I get it. You think I’m being redundant. That I’m repeating myself. That I’m saying the same thing over and over in a slightly different way!” In other words: please please please don’t be redundant.

    Hawki

  183. Thanks for the discussion. One topic I’ve seen running through the thread but never emphasized is the need to edit. Don’t just dash off whatever is running through your head. It’s okay to write that way initially but go back and reread it. Then edit your writing so that your spelling and grammar are correct. Then reread it a second time to make sure that your ideas are presented clearly and concisely. On the third rereading you can adjust your writing to your own style.

    I write poetry for my own pleasure and have had a few published. Contrary to popular opinion, the poetry muse doesn’t take over and move the hand of the poet as in some divine intervention. The muse may give the idea, but I have to work out how to express it. That means edit, edit, edit.

    Finally, I would add one more rule to good writing. One of my favorite sitcom lines of all time is from Cheers. Kramer, the erudite but clueless shrink, is being made fun of by the other regulars as usual. Then he says, “Oh I get it. You think I’m being redundant. That I’m repeating myself. That I’m saying the same thing over and over in a slightly different way!” In other words: please please please don’t be redundant.

    Hawki

  184. Why I Tend to Ignore Certain People…

    This relates to my last post, but I wanted to make this as a seperate point. This helps to explain why there are certain people who I have to make a serious effort not to ignore when they are writing. In particular, the last point he makes.
    From: Wr…

  185. Baghdad Link Madness

    I didn’t want to write about all the stuff going on in Baghdad today because frankly most of the news sites have a line on the violence. So instead, I will do a link post. Since most of the packing…

  186. John – great post!

    I’ll be using your tips in a panel I’m moderating this Sunday (3/5) at ConDor in San Diego. The panel title: The Aspiring Writer’s Toolkit: Beta readers, Clarion, writer’s workshops, and more.

    Great timing!

  187. Right on! Does that work as an acceptable substitute for alright? This is a great article to remind professional writers of their lapses.

    As a technical communicator, I work hard at crafting even my emails. And, like John, I tend to get too involved in long sentences — although I break things up with dashes rather than semi-colons.

    Thank you!

    By the way, I was led to this discussion from an email posted to an active discussion list of Indian Technical Writers – words get around!

  188. Right on! Does that work as an acceptable substitute for alright? This is a great article to remind professional writers of their lapses.

    As a technical communicator, I work hard at crafting even my emails. And, like John, I tend to get too involved in long sentences — although I break things up with dashes rather than semi-colons.

    Thank you!

    By the way, I was led to this discussion from an email posted to an active discussion list of Indian Technical Writers – words get around!

  189. I got to this blog from the Indian forum of Technical writers. What a simple, helpful way to punctuate! I remember hating grammar in school, for having to remember when to comma or semi-colon. Even now, I take longer to check the punctuation.

    The semi-colon continues to slow me down while writing. More tips would help.

    Thanks John for a great blog

  190. Perhaps you should rename this article “Writing for Meaningful Publication” with the subhead “All the Nits Fit to Pick” … Just a suggestion! (I’ve limited myself to one exclamation point)

  191. I’d be grateful if you cold answer Hawki’s question – What does teh 1am3r mean (

    I’ve been using this post with my students, and it’s great but nobody can translate this.

    Rob

  192. It means “the lamer” — i.e., a lame person. This is “lame” in the sense of “loser,” not “have trouble walking.”

  193. It means “the lamer” — i.e., a lame person. This is “lame” in the sense of “loser,” not “have trouble walking.”

  194. thanks for your sharing your thoughts on good writing. BUT: refering to Nazis when talking about (english) grammar isn’t what I would call good writing style. You might want to look up what “Nazi” originally means (“Don’t use words you don’t really know”)…

  195. I like what was said in the previous post although the Nazi Lover does not use capital letters correctly. What a douche bag.

  196. metapha:

    “You might want to look up what ‘Nazi’ originally means (‘Don’t use words you don’t really know’).”

    I’m quite aware of what “Nazi” means in its historical context. I’m also aware of how it is used colloquially in current time. I’m also intelligent enough to know which aspect of the word I’m using and why, and I suspect most people who read this site do too.

    In other words, metapha, don’t be a Nazi nazi.

  197. metapha:

    “You might want to look up what ‘Nazi’ originally means (‘Don’t use words you don’t really know’).”

    I’m quite aware of what “Nazi” means in its historical context. I’m also aware of how it is used colloquially in current time. I’m also intelligent enough to know which aspect of the word I’m using and why, and I suspect most people who read this site do too.

    In other words, metapha, don’t be a Nazi nazi.

  198. Firstly: great thread! And in no particular order:

    I agree with the entire list, and many of the ones that have been added, but I’d also like to say that I only became (I hope) good at writing when I threw some of them out of the window. Pre-enjoyment of writing, I’d be stressing too much about where to put the punctuation, and whether a word was appropriate, so much so that I lost the flow of writing and ended up with a stilted piece of prose that held no interest for anyone.

    Back onto the other side of the argument, I’m a student, and the amount of grammatical/punctuation/spelling errors I see in the “clever” (read: people with Phd’s/MA’s/a whole pile more qualifications than I have) lecturers notes etc , drives me beyond insane. I spend half my time in the lectures going through and correcting them, rather than listening to the guys talk.

    “Alright vs All right”
    “Some people think the one-word spelling is justified by the analogy of already and altogether, and that it is sometimes useful to be able to distinguish between all right and alright (just like altogether and all together): The answers were alright (= satisfactory).The answers were all right (= all correct). Though alright is generally considered nonstandard it is often used in informal writing.
    Encarta ® World English Dictionary © & (P) 1998-2004 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.”

    “Alright”, for me, does have a different meaning to “all right”, but I have noticed a regional difference. Books by Austrailian authors often use “all right”, whereas English authors tend to use “alright”. As an Englishwoman I use “alright”, and care little for any drop in apparent IQ. Of course I’m not published yet, and I’m now hoping this has nothing to do with it … *goes off to check if “alright” appears in the first thirty pages of anything submitted*

    “Any more” is different to “anymore”. “He doesn’t go there anymore”, means he doesn’t frequent that place now–he has stopped going. “He doesn’t go there any more”, means he doesn’t go there more often than he did before, he goes the same amount of times or less.

    Commas: I’m pretty sure I use too many. I spend most of my editing time removing them and juggling senctences so that I have less. I just searched my 117,000 word book and came up with 7420 commas. Interesting (to me).

    Stephen: “Josh, you’ll forgive me if I say that it seems you’re making an argument for bad writing simply because it’s easy and everyone is doing it. Well, bullshit on that.”

    Better to argue for bad writing, than resort to using language like that in an open forum.

    I tend to skip over posts where the typing is all in capitals, the text in pink and punctuated after every senctence with exclamation points!!!!! In the multiple!!!! I also get annoyed when people don’t leave spaces after their full stops!!!It looks like the whole text is one long line of words!!!!!! Unfortunately many of my friends, while completely literate, are over enthusiastic, or complete dunces when it comes to typing!!!!!

    I try to proofread what I write only if it’s going to someone who cares. If I’m emailing my friends, or IM someone, they won’t care in the slightest how bad my grammar/typing/phrasing is because theirs is a million times worse than mine. However, when I’m sending an email query to a literary agent, I check and check, and re-check many times to make sure I don’t look like a complete fool. If I’m on a writer’s forum, I tend to be more careful than if I’m on a Harry Potter-related forum, because the former care and the latter don’t. It’s all a matter of how formal the situation is.

    Literacy is decreased in children who text message more than they write. I myself, embarrassingly, have slipped into writing “2” or “U”, but then I’ve also written “frere” and “par example” by accident instead of “brother” and “for example”. If you get used to writing one particualr style (or even language) for a time, you are liable to slip into it unintentionally. It’s sad, but true. On the other hand, at least these kids are getting out there on the internet and writing something.

    I would however, after all my arguing, like to point out that I have never been taught grammar, or anything else relating to the English language, in a classroom situation. I had the worst teachers possible, for the most part, and so everything I know about this kind of stuff comes straight from published writers, the best source I know.

  199. Yes, Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor pull that stunt all the time. But: Surprise! You’re not them. Also, there were lots of times when Twain just needed to get to the goddamn point, already.

    Mr. Twain had this to say about his own style: “I do not claim that I can tell a story as it ought to be told. I only claim to know how a story ought to be told.”

    (From “How to Tell a Story”, at Project Gutenberg.)

    My own tip for people who do not wish to do a lot of editing; do a lot of preparation. But I fear that those who do not wish to do a lot of editing, simply do not wish to do a lot of anything.

  200. Yes, Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor pull that stunt all the time. But: Surprise! You’re not them. Also, there were lots of times when Twain just needed to get to the goddamn point, already.

    Mr. Twain had this to say about his own style: “I do not claim that I can tell a story as it ought to be told. I only claim to know how a story ought to be told.”

    (From “How to Tell a Story”, at Project Gutenberg.)

    My own tip for people who do not wish to do a lot of editing; do a lot of preparation. But I fear that those who do not wish to do a lot of editing, simply do not wish to do a lot of anything.

  201. What is this word signalling which is not in any dictionary? Should it not be signaling with only one ‘L’?

    Very well done I think I will pass it on to some people I know. damn University students who know not how to write a proper essay, or anything else for that matter. Especially the individuals in predominately writting courses… Why oh why would they be looking to students in science focuses to edit their writtings?

    -Sean

  202. I find it funny that no one knew “the lamer,” or in leet-speak, “teh 1am3r.” I don’t mean to rag on anyone. I guess we can’t all be techno-savvy nerds.

  203. I find it funny that no one knew “the lamer,” or in leet-speak, “teh 1am3r.” I don’t mean to rag on anyone. I guess we can’t all be techno-savvy nerds.

  204. This is a very nice thread, useful too. However, some of the words being “misused” today, may well become standardized in the near future. Think of a 16th Century teacher despairing of his students ever understanding the proper use of “ye”. Persistent misuse or misspelling of a word inevitably leads to such becoming standard usage in a language. I predict that, within 50 years, neither “too” nor “their” will be seen except in old documents. To actually use these words will be looked upon as affected. Consider what happened to the exclamation “O”. It has, through misspelling, changed completely to “Oh”. Other examples abound.

  205. This is a very nice thread, useful too. However, some of the words being “misused” today, may well become standardized in the near future. Think of a 16th Century teacher despairing of his students ever understanding the proper use of “ye”. Persistent misuse or misspelling of a word inevitably leads to such becoming standard usage in a language. I predict that, within 50 years, neither “too” nor “their” will be seen except in old documents. To actually use these words will be looked upon as affected. Consider what happened to the exclamation “O”. It has, through misspelling, changed completely to “Oh”. Other examples abound.

  206. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed your article about “Writing tips for non writers”. It covered several pet peeves of mine. One unacceptable offender has to be some of the online news URLs. I have commented to the writers on many occasions and was either given some lame excuse or utterly ignored (shame on them, I have a wife and kids for that).
    I must also say that English as a language has been progressivly assaulted by Webster (of american dictionary fame) Since he bears sole responsibility for changing the way that several words are spelled in the US. I live in Canada and since we are bombarded by american media, proper english is in dire shape. Only the few traditionalists here are doing what we can to ensure that there is a true english language in this millenium.

  207. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed your article about “Writing tips for non writers”. It covered several pet peeves of mine. One unacceptable offender has to be some of the online news URLs. I have commented to the writers on many occasions and was either given some lame excuse or utterly ignored (shame on them, I have a wife and kids for that).
    I must also say that English as a language has been progressivly assaulted by Webster (of american dictionary fame) Since he bears sole responsibility for changing the way that several words are spelled in the US. I live in Canada and since we are bombarded by american media, proper english is in dire shape. Only the few traditionalists here are doing what we can to ensure that there is a true english language in this millenium.

  208. complete this sentences using the suitable phrases 1the policeman let the man go although….. 2)I want you to blow this whistle as soon as……3)It looks as if it will be a poor harvest unless…..4)Jan knew that she would have finished painting if….5)The postman stoped me to ask me whether….

  209. a note on the serial comma: it’s preferred in great britain to omit the comma before the conjunction. i’ve also seen it in a few american newspapers…

  210. I’m a writer and everything, but I’ve always been confused as to when you use its’. Is is the same thing as it’s (used in the possesive form), or is it used differently?

  211. I’m a writer and everything, but I’ve always been confused as to when you use its’. Is is the same thing as it’s (used in the possesive form), or is it used differently?

  212. Billy:

    As a former newspaper editor, I think I can help. There is no such thing as “its’.” When something belongs to “it,” think of it like “his and hers.” No apostrophe.

    “It’s” is ALWAYS short for “it is.” No matter what you see on signs, TV, e-mail and on and on.

    And NEVER use an apostrophe to make a plural (it’s “the 90s,” not “the 90’s.”)

    Go forth and sin not.

  213. The title of this page, “Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want to Work at Writing”, absolutely infuriates me. No matter what, writing requires work. Writing is work. Writing is hard work, especially if you want to write well. It is an insult to say that even casual writing can be completely effortless: anything worth the time it takes to write it requires attention. It requires revision. It requires time.
    Writing requires work.

  214. Ainsley:

    “The title of this page, ‘Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want to Work at Writing,’ absolutely infuriates me.”

    Get over it.

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