Learning how to write is a cornerstone of our educational experience. But learning how to write well? It appears most of you must have skipped that class.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about grammar and writing, it’s this: you’ll always get it wrong. In that sentence alone, there exists an unwelcome plethora of what pedantic publishers would consider sins of style:
- “If there’s one thing I’ve learnt” – an overused figure of speech, to be avoided by any serious writer – or anyone trying to make a point online.
- “Learnt” – Learned is much more common in American English. Considering the internet is traditionally an American-English domain, avoid the orthodox British spelling when your audience reach is international.
That’s only two. Fortunately, both of the above are simply choices of style. I use idioms and colloquialisms because they personalise the reader base. I use learnt – and any British/Australian spelling wherever necessary – because I believe it to be proper.
Learning how to write well is not the art form it once was. Most people are content with their elementary-level language and grammar skills. I need only point to any post on Facebook that has a generous serving of comments and discussion – attroshus spelling, unnecessary ellipses… AND GRIEVOUS USE OF CAPS LOCK TO PROVE A POINT. Unfortunately, I wasn’t around when the letter was the preferred method of communication. Long distance romances have gone from beautifully crafted love notes to Tinder messages asking: “u up?” We never learn how to write well, because we simply don’t need to. As the great Robin Williams once said, in Dead Poets Society:
‘So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very lazy, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavour, laziness will not do.’
While I don’t believe that language is only good for ‘wooing women‘ (it’s made for winning arguments online), I do believe that learning how to write well is an essential ally in the fight against the average and mundane. Consider this article the call to take up your swords (dictionary) and guns (thesaurus) and be that change. Here are some common writing sins that you can address immediately.
You’re vs. Your
The most capital of literary crimes. This epidemic has plagued the internet for years, and I fear it will continue to do so unless we learn how to write well. It doesn’t matter if you’re Antonio Guterres, leader of the UN, discussing climate change and the impending doom of the Earth, or if you’re Craig from the local footy club: if you get your/you’re wrong, your argument is immediately deemed invalid. I’ve seen many great arguments shot down by some stranger across the world simply commenting “your*” in response to an array of valid and reasonable points.
- You’re: The contraction of you are – “You’re looking splendid today, Margaret!”
- Your: Denotes another’s ownership – “Your dress is simply dashing, Margaret!”
Note: any use of the term ‘you’s’ should be punishable by the courts of that land in which the offence takes place.
The Serial Comma
A lesser-known grammar offence, but one I still consider to be of the utmost importance when learning how to write well. The serial comma will save you on a lot of confusion from shocked readers.
- Right: “For breakfast, I had toast, coffee, and cereal.” – Sounds nice, if not boring.
- Wrong: “For breakfast, I had toast, coffee and cereal.” – ‘Coffee’ and ‘cereal’ subjects are linked by ‘and’. I don’t know about you but Blend 43 mixed with any cereal is not how I would like to start my day.
They’re vs. Their vs. There
Guilty. You’re guilty, I’m guilty. We’ve all messed this one up on countless occasions. Just like the serial comma, the misuse of these three stooges can lead to some unfortunate imagery. And just like the undying fight between your and you’re, the incorrect placing of they’re, their, or there, will ruin your credibility as a professional troll or food blogger.
- They’re: Contraction of they are – “They’re making quite a mess with that small elephant.”
- Their: the possessive of they – “Their small elephant is making a big mess.”
- There: Suggests direction of space – “Yes officer, the small elephant escaped over there.”
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Me vs. I
A classic. You’ve most likely had this correction drilled into the far corners of your mind from your mother when you were initially learning how to write well. However, just in case it isn’t quite clear yet:
- Right: “Jack and I are heading to the shops.”
- Wrong: “Me and Jack are heading to the shops.”
Where does your point end? Where does the next one start? Does your comma key, full stop key, or even question-mark key work? Take a breath. A short sentence is a good sentence. Very good.
- Right: “I’m sorry, I can’t agree with you. The points you made were invalid. Furthermore, you had no supporting evidence.”
- Wrong: “I’m sorry I can’t agree with you the points you made were invalid furthermore you had no supporting evidence and who do you even think you are and where do you get the audacity to make such preposterous claims I would sue you if I knew or could afford a lawyer you absolute classless buffoon”
Which of the above is clearer? Ok, the second example may be a touch extreme, but exaggeration is sometimes necessary when trying to prove a point.
Like I said, your writing will never be perfect, and there will always be room for correction. I majored in writing at university and do it for a living – I make the above mistakes daily. Shucks, this article is probably rife with mistakes. Whether you’re courting strangers on the internet or abusing a coworker via email, I encourage you to be more vigilant in your writing and your grammar in general. Learn how to write well and communicating your argument will become a metaphorical walk in the park.
Practice and precision make perfect. The culture is counting on you.
For an in-depth legacy of arguably the greatest writer of all time, read ‘History’s Finest: The Legacy Of J.R.R. Tolkien.’