Category: Grammar

Grammar Adventures: Escape from Homophone Horror

Bottles of Beer 1

First, an introduction. Maria Rainier, a fellow blogger and writer, recently offered to write a guest post here on Crayon Writer. Having looked at some of her other work, I easily accepted. Maria chose the topic to write about, and I didn’t edit her work in any way (it was wonderful “as is.”) So take some time to read her informative and fun lesson about confusing homophones. And check out the blog about online degrees that Maria co-authors. Enjoy!

These aren’t your kindergartener’s homophones. You know the difference between “their” and “there” and you’ve even got “they’re” down as a contraction that shouldn’t be confusing at all. But there are some other homophones lurking in your vocabulary that just might trip you up if you’re not careful. I know one of these tricky word pairs caught me off-guard, and I like to think that I’m a decent writer. So even if you’re sure that you know your homophones, check out these definitions so you can avoid any potential mix-ups.

Affect vs. Effect

Some people explain this one in terms of verbs and adjectives, but both of these words can be verbs. “Affect” is more commonly used as a verb than is “effect,” but the verb rule won’t always help you out. For example, the sentence “Global warming effected climate change” is correct in the sense that climate change was a product of global warming. When used as a verb, the word “effect” most often means “to produce as an effect,” which is a good way to remember this tricky homophone. Replacing the verb “effect” with this phrase will help you determine whether or not you’re using the correct word. The following example illustrates this trick:

“Her food allergies effected her performance.”

“Her food allergies produced her performance as an effect.”

In this case, it’s obvious that the correct word would be “affect” because the second sentence makes no sense.

Another helpful tip is to remember that “affect” is never an adjective, only a noun or verb. So if you need an adjective and you’re trying to decide between “affect” and “effect,” the latter is your answer.

Discrete vs. Discreet

These two adjectives can be confusing, but don’t let them fool you. “Discrete” refers to individual parts or something that has them. We also have “discrete” mathematics, but that’s enough confusion for a barrel of monkeys – suffice it to say that math is never “discreet” unless it somehow becomes a person or object. “Discreet” refers to someone who shows prudence or is judicious in conduct; a sensitive person with lots of tact would be “discreet.” When referring to an object, it means unobtrusive and typically describes something tasteful and understated.

Pour vs. Pore

To be honest, this one is a pet peeve because I noticed that the word “pour” was used in the capacity of “pore” in a textbook when I was in the sixth grade. I pointed it out to the teacher, who said it was correct. I argued and got out the dictionary, but I still took a trip to the principal’s office. So, to exonerate my sixth-grade self, here’s the breakdown:

You don’t “pour over” something – that particular usage is reserved for “pore,” which is also a component of our skin’s ventilation system. Rock surfaces can also have pores or be porous. And that’s the extent of the word “pore.” Unless you’re pondering, studying, reading attentively, or talking about skin or rock surfaces, you shouldn’t use the word “pore” (and “pour” should never creep into any of “pore’s” territory).

So, now that you’ve read about three sneaky sets of homophones, do you have any to share? Let us know in the comments.

Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education, where recently she’s been researching different online social work degrees and blogging about student life. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

Should grammar and spelling count?

Right or wrong?

Are correct grammar and spelling relics of a happier, gentler time? It seems that with texting and online social media, grammar and spelling have gone the way of the dinosaurs. Everything is shortened, misspellings are acceptable (even celebrated), and no one seems to bother with sentences anymore.

I recently had a discussion with some teacher certification classmates. We were debating whether or not students’ grades should be based, in part, on their use of correct English. I argued that content was more important. For instance, if a student is taking a science or history course, it’s more important that they show their understanding of the topic, despite how they write (unless they’re misspelling “mitochondria” or “civil war”). A classmate argued that if he were doing the grading, he would grade the subject matter separately, and then decrease the grade by a minus “point” if the writing were terrible.

I’m not so sure. I think grading based on the correct usage of English puts some students at an unfair advantage. In my certification program, because it’s an online course, we are graded solely on what we write and submit to our professor. As a professional writer and editor, my submissions are easily “A” work, yet I don’t have to break a sweat. Other people may actually be working much, much harder. They may be taking an hour to write what only took me five minutes (I can also type fast). Is that fair? While I’m glad that I don’t have to work so hard, I realize that others my actually have a better understanding of the subject. But there’s no way for them to show it.

On the other hand, I find it disturbing that many bad writers don’t even know that they’re writing incorrectly. They use “their,” “there,” and “they’re” interchangeably, they misspell common phrases like “hear, hear,” and they couldn’t tell you the difference between an adjective and an adverb (and thus, they would use them incorrectly). It’s one thing to misspell on purpose for the sake of writing a text or a Tweet, but is it okay that so many have no clue?

What do you think? How important is grammar and spelling in a world where it doesn’t seem to matter?

Teaching prepositional phrases

books of owl

I just finished my first semester in my teaching certification program, and I got the chance to teach a group of sixth graders the joys of prepositional phrases. What was interesting is that, though sixth graders have learned basic grammar in early elementary, they really don’t “get” it. I literally had to go back to nouns, verbs, and adjectives before I could really discuss prepositional phrases with them.

The first day I tried to teach them, I made the mistake of using a lecture-based method. Despite what I’d learned in my textbooks about effective teaching methods, it was all too easy to fall back on how I was taught most recently (at the college level). Needless to say, the kids didn’t understand most of what I tried to teach them.

The second (and final) day, I wised up. I spent a couple of minutes modeling a few prepositional phrases. For instance, “under the bridge” or “between the pages”. Then I had groups of kids work on making their own phrases to eventually share with the class.

Next, I showed the class how to build sentences around their phrases, and I let them work together again to create their masterpieces.

A little more difficult, I asked them to identify whether their prepositional phrase was acting as an adjective or an adverb.

Finally, I tried to get them to a very difficult level. Similar to the game LinguiSHTIK, I wrote a few nouns on the board and had students use them as objects in prepositional phrases. From there, they had to create sentences using the newly formed phrases, but they had to use the phrase a certain way (I told them whether to use the phrase as an adjective or an adverb).

Even though the last task was tough, it helped wrap things up for those kids who were getting it, and it helped others realize they still had work to do.

I love prepositional phrases, and I have a new-found respect for how hard it is to teach the intricacies and complexities of grammar. If I get around to it, I will definitely try to form an Academic Games league out here in Tucson.

My favorite form of punctuation…

I love ellipses, so much so that my 3-year-old recognizes and gleefully exclaims, “Ellipses!” whenever she sees the delightful series of dots. I actually overuse them, and sometimes I use them incorrectly, but ellipsis points are fun!

But, like most everything else in the world of grammar and punctuation, there are some rules to follow. Granted, ellipses are basically a style issue, so you can exercise a little creativity with them.

According to the Harbrace College Handbook:

“Use ellipsis points sparingly to mark a reflective pause or hestitation.”

For example, “Love, like other emotions, has causes…and consequences.”

According to the Chicago Manual of Style:

“Ellipsis points suggest faltering or fragmented speech accompanied by confusion, insecurity, distress, or uncertainty.”

For example, “The ship…oh my God!…it’s sinking!”

The most important thing is there are always three dots. Not two, and certainly not 5 or 6. That’s one of the biggest mistakes I see in people’s writing.

Also notice that it’s correct to put punctuation before the ellipses, as in the example above. Likewise, it’s not wrong to put punctuation after them when necessary (like a period, so there are 4 dots). Just watch out for those commas (tricky little devils, I know).

For example (also from the Chicago Manual of Style):

“But…but…,” said Tom.

(The only reason Tom got that comma was because it was at the end of speech.)

On the other hand, you don’t want to say,

“Well…, I plan to do some shopping…, if that’s okay with you…?”

(The commas here are unnecessary and incorrect.)

See why I love ellipses? There aren’t that many rules, and you kind of pick and choose when you want to use them. Of course, I’m not talking about using ellipses when omitting text from quotes (then there are a whole other set of rules).

So have fun using those 3 cute dots whenever you feel it’s appropriate. Just don’t go overboard….

Have you forgotten how to spell?

With today’s technology, it seems like things should be easier and easier, right?

Maybe.

I’m a pretty darn good speller, but I’m finding myself getting worse as time goes on. I blame it on spellcheck, lazy typing (who needs to type well when you have a backspace key), instant messaging (IMing), and text messaging.

Here are some ideas for fixing this growing problem:

1. Spend at least half an hour each week typing without using the backspace key. Force yourself to spell things right the first time. If you make a mistake, leave it.

2. Go back over your typing and circle all the mistakes you made. Write that (likely huge) number in red ink, and make it big, on your paper.

3. Now that you feel bad, promise yourself that that number will decrease each time you practice.

4. When you IM or text message, spell out the words as often as possible. I know it takes more time, but practice makes perfect.

I haven’t tried this method yet, but as I type this I’m finding myself backspacing a little less often than usual. Next time I’ll do better.

What about you? Have you forgotten how to spell or type too? Any tips for the rest of us?

Copywriting tips of the week

110101_please_tip_your_server.jpg

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of the same types of writing mistakes across the blogosphere.

I’m sure most of the bloggers know the correct words to use and the proper grammatical techniques. Writing online kind of makes us lazy, so we bend the rules a little (some writers seem to just throw them out completely).

This past week I decided to take note of some of the common offenders. And as I explore the blogosphere, I’ll be writing a “writing tips of the week” post from time to time.

On to the writing tips for this week!

1. Complimenting someone is saying something nice about them. Complementing, though, is when two or more items go well together.

2. When you write pretty long sentences, try saying them out loud. Even though commas don’t always go at a “natural breath” point, chances are you do have to pause at some point during the sentence. So be sure to use a comma somewhere. But be careful. I don’t know which is worse; using commas all over the place or not using any at all. Watch those commas!

3. Try not to overuse certain words in a post, unless you’re trying to use a keyword on purpose to boost your SEO. Use your thesaurus, or just go back and check to see if a certain word is repeated 5, 10, or even 15 times in a 100-word post. Nothing’s more annoying that the annoying habit of using a word that becomes annoying after a while.

Who or Whom?

810896_fomenteu_la_lectura.jpg

Who knows when to use who, and for whom is this post?

The objective case is very confusing to many, and the who/whom question is at the top of the list.

My first piece of advice is easy, even if it’s technically incorrect:

  • Just don’t use the word whom. It’s often used incorrectly, and it’s all but obsolete.

So I say pretend whom doesn’t exist. Just use the word who all the time.

If you insist, though, use it the right way. Here’s a quick lesson:

  • Whom is an object, so it comes after a preposition most of the time.

“To whom do I give this book?” “I should give this book to whom?”

  • The word who is always the subject.

“Who gets this book?”

So, just remember those simple rules, or, to avoid confusion and complicated decisions, just use who.

Check out this article for a more in-depth discussion, and read my earlier post about the objective case (where I discuss using I and me).

Copywriting tips

Trash

If you are a blogger, you’re a published writer. But that doesn’t mean you’re a good writer.

But what is good writing?

Courtney Tuttle wrote a funny post today about how not to write a blog post. A lot of his points focused on readability online.

Good writing, online at least, includes how the copy looks, not just the grammar or spelling. Perfect textbook writing that is unappealing to readers’ eyes may as well be written by a two-year-old.

Take a look at his post for some humorous, absolutely accurate points about writing for blogs.

You and I. You and me. What’s the problem?

Right or wrong?

One of my biggest grammatical pet peeves is the misuse of the objective case. Here is one of the main offenders that makes me cringe like fingernails just scratched a blackboard.

So many people use “and I” because they think it’s proper English.

I know.  I know. We were taught in grade school to say, “Jane and I are best friends,” instead of, “Me and Jane are best friends.”

Were we told wrong?

No. But we weren’t told enough. So now, perfectly sane adults run around saying, “So-and-so and I” in very insane sentences.

The rule is very simple. You only use “I” when that’s the subject of the sentence. “Jane and I are going to the store.” “Jane and I were given free candy.”

Test this by taking Jane out of the sentence (and adjust the verb of course).

” I was given free candy.” “I am going to the store.” Perfect!

But here’s where it gets crazy.

You hear it all the time.

“Let’s keep this between you and I.” (Aack!)

“The lawyer told my husband and I exactly how to proceed.” (Oh no!)

What’s the problem, you ask? The problem is that “I” is actually the object of those sentences. Whenever something comes after a preposition (in most cases), it is the object of that preposition. And whenever something is done to something or someone, it is safe to assume it is the object.

Have you ever taken Spanish or French in school? Remember the verb conjugation chart? English has one too. And the word “me” is to be used in the objective case.

So let’s not keep this between you and me. My teacher told my friend and me that it’s okay to say “me” instead of “I”. It’s up to you and me to spread the word. “Me” is our friend. Don’t be afraid to use it.

In fact, if you find yourself using “and I” extensively, you probably should be saying “and me” in most of those cases.

Stay tuned for a couple more of my grammatical pet peeves.

Lesson 2: When you write, commas are your friends

Let’s begin Lesson 2 of our series on commas. If you missed Lesson 1, you can find it here.

Lesson 2 

When you want to introduce a sentence, commas are there to help you do it right!

A Few Definitions 

I know I said we weren’t going to focus on labels. But it will make this easier to follow.

You remember from grade school that

an adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adjective, or other adverbs (and other things, but we’ll worry about that if we have to). Basically, adverbs tell when, where, and how something happened.

Commas and Adverb Clauses 

Isn’t it cool that

a whole clause (subject and verb) can serve as an adverb?

That’s what we’re dealing with here. Clauses that are adverbs. They’re called, ironically, adverb clauses.

Introducing the Comma 

When an adverb clause begins (introduces) a sentence, and the second part of the sentence is a clause that can stand alone (independent clause), a comma comes after the adverb clause.

Just like the title of this article.

When you write, commas are your friends.”

Notice how the second part of the sentence is complete without the introductory adverb clause. That’s why we call it an independent clause. And notice how the introductory part tells us when commas are our friends.

The Exceptions 

There are exceptions, of course. That’s why commas are so tricky. It seems like every rule can be broken!

You don’t have to use a comma if the clause is short.

Put yourself in your readers’ shoes, though. If they might stumble or have to think too hard, you might want to go ahead and use the comma.

When deciding whether or not to monetize his brand new blog, he spent countless hours poring over dozens of other sites.”

Notice how unsightly it would be to omit the comma. Reading should be easy. Careful use of punctuation helps things move smoothly.

If you look inward you may find the answer is simple.”

Omitting the comma here is no problem, but you can add it after “If you look inward” if you feel like it.

Adverb Clauses at the End of the Sentence

Sometimes an adverb clause may conclude a sentence when you’re writing it.”

You don’t usually need a comma after the independent clause, though.

Just like in the first sentence of this paragraph.

Notice how “when” affects the meaning of “Sometimes an adverb clause may conclude a sentence.”

But:

My daughter is growing up in uncertain times, when violence and global warming seem to increasingly worrisome.”

Here, the adverb clause doesn’t change the meaning of the first part. So a comma works (if you want it).

That’s the end of Lesson 2. Please let me know what you think so far! Many more to come.