Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Writing Tools Part 1: Oh Ye of Gargantuan Vocabulary and Flawless Grammar

Every endeavor requires tools. Writing is no different. In fact, Stephen King suggests in On Writing that our writing toolbox have roughly four shelves and that it must be portable. I'm a big fan of tools, myself. I have some tools in my garage, but never the right one. I want to start working on a project only to find that I don't have the necessary tools to complete the job. Writing can be the same way, especially if your toolbox is short a few sockets or missing a hammer.

There are many different types of writing tools, but I want to concentrate on a few that are extremely important.

The first tool that you need to have in your toolbox is vocabulary. Much like a hammer, vocabulary is a tool that you will use constantly to pound your point home. Be wise in your use of vocabulary, though. For instance, using capacious and convoluted words may cause discomfort to your reader. My last sentence is a prime example of this. It's much better, as Twain said, to get right to the point. If you can use a nickel word to describe a dollar thought, do it. So, point one, Don't hesitate to enhance your vocabulary, but be careful in your use of big and complicated words in your writing.

One other comment on vocabulary. Don't be embarrassed about the size of your vocabulary. There's a boatload of excellent writers who use single syllable words in the majority of their writing. Hemingway was one of them. For example:

"Now is the time to think of only one thing. That which I was born for." -Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Vocabulary doesn't have to be huge to be powerful.

The second tool that you need to have in your toolbox is grammar. Like it or not, if vocabulary is your hammer, grammar is your duct tape. Quality grammar holds your vocabulary together. Much like oxygen is required for us to live, grammar is required for your writing to live. Obviously, I'm not going to cover all of the aspects of grammar in this blog post. However, I want to point out a few things that you need to understand.

This is only my opinion, but I believe you need to build sentences in such a manner that they are structurally stable. Word placement and punctuation are extremely important. The point is, poor grammar causes confusion. I'm not going to go into detail on sentence structure or what parts of a sentence are what. You either understand how to write a sentence or you don't. In my experience, though, I've found that there are a couple of things that people who know how to write decent sentences struggle with. The first is the comma and the second is the apostrophe.

I'm not going to go into all of the rules that govern comma usage, but there are a couple of instances where you absolutely should know how to use a comma. The first is in a sentence that begins with an introductory clause.

For example:

All things considered, the event went as planned.

"All things considered" is the introductory clause and "the event went as planned" is an independent clause.

The way that I remember this has nothing to do with knowing the type of clause. I simply look at the sentence and figure out if there is a complete sentence that has been added to a partial sentence. You wouldn't want to write "All things considered." as a complete sentence, however, "The event went as planned." can be used as a complete sentence.

In my opinion, the second most important use of the comma is when separating two independent clauses when they are joined by a coordinating conjunction.

John was sunburnt to a crisp, but Jan had used sunblock and was as cool as a cucumber.

"John was sunburnt to a crisp." is a complete sentence, as is "Jan had used sunblock and was cool as a cucumber." I don't want to separate them, though, because they are both sentences that share a relationship with each other.

The third most important area of comma usage, for me, is when I need to offset clauses, phrases or words that aren't important to the sentence. The test for this is whether or not the sentence works without the words, phrases or clauses that are offset.

For example: Yesterday, which happened to be February 29, John slipped on the ice.

If I remove the words that I've offset with the pair of commas, there should still be an independent clause left.

"Yesterday, John slipped on the ice."

As you can see, there is. Notice also that "Yesterday" plays the role of an introductory clause. If I were editing and following the rules of my previous post about Mark Twain's writing rules, I would take away the offset words and the introductory clause and be left with the sentence, "John slipped on the ice."

The third and final area of importance (and yes, there are more, but we're not going to cover them here) is when separating a group of three or more words in your sentence.

For example: John's wife asked him to purchase butter, cereal and milk.

You can also write the sentence using the "Oxford comma", which is an optional comma that is placed before the word "and".

For example: John's wife asked him to purchase butter, cereal, and milk.

My own preference is to skip the Oxford comma, but you may certainly use it if you like.

There are a lot of other rules about commas, but in my experience, those are the most common. If you're able to master those three comma rules, you'll be well on your way to excellent comma usage.

The other important piece of punctuation I want to cover is the apostrophe. Apostrophes can be tricky. Let's take a quick look at some important rules governing the use of apostrophes. Basically, there are three times when you use apostrophes. First, if you need the possessive form of a noun. Secondly, if you omit letters and thirdly, if you're showing certain plurals of lowercase letters.

Possessive nouns tend to be where things get confusing. The reason for this is because of plural possessives and how the apostrophe functions with all of those cranky "s's." Let's take a look at some examples.

Add 's to a word in its singular form even if it ends with an s.

For example: Neal's house.

I simply added an apostrophe and an s to my name. A singular word that ends in s always seems to trip people up, though. The name "James" is a prime example. Sometimes people get confused and want to add the apostrophe between the e and s. This would be wrong. It gets even more confusing. Adding an apostrophe to the word James without an additional s is also acceptable.

To form the possessive of the word James, you add an apostrophe and an s or just an apostrophe.

For Example: James's and James'

Plural forms of words that do not end in s need an apostrophe and s as well.

Examples: mice's, people's, men's, women's, feet's

Plural nouns that end in s simply need an apostrophe added to the end of the word.

Examples: dogs', does', friends'

Compound words need an apostrophe and s to show possession.

Examples: mother-in-law's

An apostrophe and s should be added to the last noun in a sentence when there are two nouns that share joint possession.

Example: John and Rudy's science project was the envy of the sixth grade class.

When you're taking letters out of words, as in contractions, you need to use an apostrophe.

Examples: would not = wouldn't, could have = could've, she will = she'll

Other examples of omitting letters: '69 = 1969, Bitchin' = Bitching

The final area where you use apostrophes is when you need to create plural forms of lowercase letters.

Example: When he was on Wheel of Fortune, John purchased a vowel and received three o's.

I don't have any tried and true method of remembering how to use apostrophes. As a child, I was forced into using quality grammar by my father. My best advice is to look over these rules and try to memorize them. If you get stuck, simply refer back to them or use Google to search for "apostrophes."

I do want to add one caveat before I end this post. There are several occasions where you don't use apostrophes. Any time you have a possessive pronoun, a noun plural or the relative pronoun "who."

First of all, possessive pronouns are already possessive, you don't need an apostrophe.

Examples: ours, yours, my, its, her, his.

You should also remember that its and it's are two completely different beasts. "Its" is a possessive pronoun. "It's" is a contraction of "it is."

The relative pronoun "who" confuses people because of the similarity of the phonetics of "Who's" and "Whose." Who's is the contraction of "who is" and "whose" shows possession.

Example 1 "Who's": Who's the cute girl out on the football field playing quarterback?
Example 2 "Whose": Whose brother is in the boyscouts?

I'm going to go ahead and end this post, now. There will be at least one more part, possibly two depending on how deeply I dig into the writer's toolbox. Please understand that I'm not an English major and I do not, repeat, do not have a complete understanding of the complexity of English grammar. For the most part, I simply try to write sentences that reflect how I speak and sound right when I read them. It's sort of a mixture of following the rules and doing what I think is right. So, if you find mistakes that I've made in this post, please don't skewer me. Shoot me an e-mail and I'll do my best to correct my error.

That's all for now.

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