9 words you’ve been using wrong this whole time

No matter how advanced a grammarian you are, it’s helpful to revisit the rules. Check out these 9 grammar rules you may not be using.

“Only the writer whose ear is reliable is in a position to use bad grammar deliberately.”

Strunk and White 77

Whether you’re an advanced content strategist or fledgling word nerd, it’s easy to forget about one of the primary building blocks of our craft: grammar. I recently re-read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and was surprised at how many grammar and style rules I broke on a daily basis.

While I’m working on cleaning up my style in the background, here’s 9 words that are commonly misused in modern writing.

1. And/Or

I am guilty of using this in nearly 80% of my work emails. It (seemed to) function so nicely as a catch-all for situations where things could include or exclude certain variables. But as Strunk and White point out, it’s a sloppy shortcut that damages the clarity of the sentence. Does it include both? Or one or the other? Pick and or or (say that 3x fast) and leave the backslash in the editing trash.

Original: The party may include wine and/or whiskey.

Improved: The party may include wine or whiskey or both.

Also improved: The party may include wine and whiskey.

2. Among vs. Between

It had never occurred to me that these two words weren’t interchangeable. Instead I relied on my ear to determine which one I would use when indicating how people or things were involved with one another. However, it turns out there is a difference!

Among is used when describing the connection of two or more persons or things. E.g., the coffee cups were divided amongst the four baristas.

Between is used when describing the connection of just two persons or things. E.g., the macchiato was split between the husband and wife.

3. Comprise

The definition of comprise is “to contain or include”. So it’s imperative that you pay attention to how it affects the noun before it. A coffee shop is comprised of (includes) writers but writers do not comprise (contain) a coffee shop.

4. Disinterested  

Okay, this one in particular jumped out at me because, ladies and gents, I’ve been using it incorrectly for years! Disinterested means impartial or unbiased. But in everyday speech we tend to use it to mean “uninterested”. It makes sense–the prefix dis- is means “not”. Dislike=don’t like. Discontent=not content.

But this is not the case and you should only use disinterested when you want to say impartial or unbiased.

5. Flammable vs. Inflammable

Here’s a curveball for you–these are synonyms. That’s right! Flammable and inflammable both mean “to catch on fire.” It gets confusing because the prefix in– typically means “in, on, or not”. However, the word inflammable doesn’t use this prefix. It derives from the Latin word inflammare–to flame. If you’re a word nerd like me, you can read more about the history of the word on Merriam-Webster.

Regardless of your word nerd status, if you’re trying to say “can’t easily catch on fire” try incombustible or nonflammable.

6. Less

Very similar to the above note on Among vs. Between, less is more precise than just “not as many as before”. You should use the word less when referring to quantity and use the word fewer when referring to a specific number.  Here’s an example for each:

Less: There were less doughnuts than last time.

Fewer: There were three fewer doughnuts than last time.

7. Nauseous. Nauseated. Nausea.

You may have heard this one before–it’s one of those grammar rules that gets touted as an example of how much everyday language can deviate from a strict definition. Whether you’re on #teamcolloquialism or #teamformal, it’s important (and interesting!) to know the difference. So let’s break it down:

Nauseous→ causing nausea or disgust

Nauseated→ to become affected with nausea  

Nausea→ a stomach distress with an urge to vomit

So when we say, “I’m nauseous” we’re actually saying “I’m causing nausea or repulsion”. Doesn’t quite work right? Unless you are in fact doing something to cause repulsion. Instead say or write, “I’m nauseated” or “I have nausea”.

8. One

This one is perhaps antiquated, however it does pop up every so often. When using the word one to mean “a person” don’t follow up with a pronoun. Instead substitute the pronoun for one again. Here’s an example to clarify:

Typical sentence: One must always order their coffee black

Better sentence: One must always order one’s coffee black

Best sentence: You should always order your coffee black

Side note: the best sentence in that set of examples is so named because it uses an active voice and is more direct.

9. People

As people, we use this word almost every day. But did you know it also has a more precise meaning than just “several humans”? The word people means a collection of humans typically bound by a common interest. In most cases it has political connotations such as The People’s Republic of China.

When you’re trying to express a certain number of humans, it’s best to use persons. Here’s a good visual from Strunk and White:

“If of ‘six people’ five went away, how many people are left? Answer: one people.”  (Strunk and White 56)

No matter how advanced a grammarian you are, it’s helpful to revisit the rules. Because sometimes our ears and common sense deceive us. And the above is not an exhaustive list. Grab Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and you’ll see the above is the only start. Happy writing!

Citation: Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style with Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing. Longman, 2000.

Carried Away: Stream of Consciousness

Quick guide on using stream of consciousness in your writing.

Definition

noun; A literary style or technique in which a character’s thoughts are presented in a continuous manner uninterrupted by other characters, dialogue, or omnipotent observations. Typically devoid of standard punctuation.

Photo by Vishal Banik on Unsplash
Photo by Vishal Banik on Unsplash

Example

So they will have told you doubtless already how I told that Jones to take that mule which was not his around to the barn and harness it to our buggy while I put on my hat and shawl and locked the house. That was all I needed to do since they will have told you doubtless that I would have had no need for either trunk or bag since what clothing I possessed, now that the garments which I had been fortunate enough to inherit from my aunt’s kindness or haste or oversight were long since worn out, consisted of the ones which Ellen had remembered from time to time to give me and now Ellen these two years dead; that I had only to lock the house and take my place in the buggy and traverse those twelve miles which I had not done since Ellen died, beside that brute who until Ellen died was not even permitted to approach the house from the front…

–Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner

Pros vs. Cons

One very big pro of this style is to give insight to the inner psyche of your character. By giving them free reign of the narrative you convey how their inner mind works and allow the reader to draw connections between seemingly insignificant events and content to form a more developed picture. For instance, does your character’s overuse of the word “fabulous” reveal a superficiality about the things/events they find “fabulous”? Great way to subtly splice open your character and lay their bones and nerves on the table for the reader.

Major con to this style is that it’s straight up difficult. Difficult to craft and difficult to control. It’s easy to get carried down the stream without any real content. Just because your character has the ability to say or think anything, doesn’t mean they should be allowed to. Your job as a writer is to choose what’s most important. Cut the rest.

Tips

If you’re exploring this style, try free writing for  a set amount of time (20-60 minutes will do it). Don’t censor yourself during this time–go with the flow. At the end of your set time, go back to the beginning and read. I recommend reading the whole piece through once (without editing), then answer these questions:

  • What’s the overall theme and feel to the piece? Is your character reflecting on a tragic/happy event? Are they worried, angry, nervous, exuberant, in love, etc.?
  • Next, what is the purpose of this section? What does it do for your story? Does it progress the action? Or provide necessary character insight?

With your questions answered, go back through a second time and start cutting anything that doesn’t fit the above answers. If your character is in love and reflecting on their current love triangle, it’s probably not the best time to mention how much they hate their neighbor for not sorting their recycling.

When in doubt as to whether or not something should stay, cut it. If you don’t immediately love it or feel like it fits, it has no place in your writing. Cut it. If you have a crush on it, save it for another piece. But if there’s no love it doesn’t belong. Better to have a succinct piece than something that causes your reader’s eyes to glaze over.

The Masters

The best way to learn anything is to study those who have perfected the skill. If you’re looking for inspiration or guidance, pick up one of these for your next read:

  • The Autumn of the Patriarch; Gabriel García Màrquez
  • The Sound and the Fury; William Faulkner
  • Wide Sargasso Sea; Jean Rhys
  • Mrs. Dalloway; Virginia Woolf
  • Ulysses; James Joyce
  • On the Road; Jack Kerouac

Bibliography

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

The Great Oxford Comma Debate

Give me ALL the Oxford Commas

One time, my friend messaged me to ask if she should use an Oxford comma when listing out projects on a resume. As a student of journalism, she came of age in AP Style and that comma before the conjunction was a big faux pas. I spent the next 26 minutes composing a verbose, but well-meaning pontification on how an Oxford or serial comma should always be used. No matter what. A month later she got me this →

Which leads us to the question: is an Oxford comma necessary? Or was my spiel a little too extra?

If you’re new to the Oxford comma debate, an Oxford comma or serial comma is that final comma in a list right before the conjunction. Example:

I like coffee, yorkies, murder mysteries, and tacos.

Now, MLA, Chicago, Strunk and White, and various government and academic publications demand its use. On the flip side, AP and The New York Times oppose use of that last comma. The arguments for and against usually go like this:

#TeamOxfordComma#TeamNoOxfordComma
Promotes clarityUnnecessary if conjunctions are used properly
Offers efficiency in reading Takes up valuable space
Reaffirms the last two items in a list are separate entities Pretentious (i.e., too academic and not colloquial)

So to comma or not to comma? The answer is: it’s a stylistic preference. If you’re copywriter or a ghost writer, it’s important to stick to your employer’s preferred style guide to maintain brand consistency. If you’re writing for a personal project or your employer has no preference, the decision is all yours.

My take: if it’s within your discretion, you should always use an Oxford comma. Besides the reasons in the above #TeamOxfordComma column, an Oxford comma also promotes visual consistency and modernity.

As writers, we’re often more concerned with how a sentence sounds and communicates rather than how it looks. But in an age where Instagram and video rule the internet sphere, it’s important to have visually appealing work. A list without that last comma is unbalanced and distracting. Like an unresolved melody. Place that last comma my friend and resolve it.

Additionally, most writers, government agencies, academic institutions, and public in general support the use of an Oxford comma. Conformity in political and societal affairs = trouble. Conformity in spelling and grammar = understanding. If you want to connect with the general public, get with the times and add that comma!

At the end of the sentence, there’s no right or wrong way to use an Oxford comma. Language is a living breathing organism and “rules” are seldom hard and fast. It’s up to the brand, your employer, or your preference. Whichever way you swing, make sure you’re consistent in usage and everything will be just fine.

How do you feel about an Oxford comma? Pretentious? Necessary? Beautiful? Let it all out below!

Are You For Real? Magical Realism

Style guide on how to use magical realism in your writing

Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

Definition

noun; A literary technique in which realistic narration is interwoven with elements of magic, fantasy, or surrealism.

Example

Prudencio Aguilar did not go away, nor did José Arcadio Buendía dare throw the spear. He never slept well after that. He was tormented by the immense desolation with which the dead man had looked at him through the rain, his deep nostalgia as he yearned for living people, the anxiety with which he searched through the house looking for some water with which to soak his esparto plug. “He must be suffering a great deal,” he said to Úrsula. “You can see that he’s so very lonely.” She was so moved that the next time she saw the dead man uncovering the pots on the stove she understood what he was looking for, and from then on she placed water jugs all about the house.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Màrquez

Pros vs Cons

This is a great technique if you’re looking to add surrealism or fantasy without placing your characters in a make-believe world. I.e., you’re trying to set your character in the real world while still incorporating a little magic. You’re not interested in creating a whole new world, society,etc. You just want something out of the ordinary. Culturally, this technique is prominent in Latin American and Caribbean literature where voodoo, curses, zombies, and lengthy sleeping sicknesses are interwoven into everyday routines and consciousnesses.

A drawback to this technique is that if not done properly, you could set up your character or story to be unreliable or too far fetched. (Of course, this is only a problem if you’re not intending to intimate that your character or story is unreliable or crazy.)

Tips

Magical realism takes a subtle hand. You can’t blow pixie dust in the face of your reader. You need to slowly incorporate it into their food until they build a tolerance and accept your magic. A great way to get your reader to accept your magic as ordinary, is to have your characters accept it. Gabriel García Màrquez is a master at this magical subtly. His characters accept magic and surrealism as part of their everyday. No one questions that a certain cousin was born with a pig’s tail. No one freaks out that the ghost of murdered cockfighter comes to haunt them. No one finds the plagues of insomnia an unexplainable medical condition. Everything is taken as a fact of life.

Another good example is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In which the protagonist ages backwards (i.e., as an infant he looks like an old man, and as an old man he looks like an infant). The story is written so convincingly that the search term “Benjamin Button Disease Real?” pops up automatically in Google. Write so convincingly that your readers will need Google to discern facts from fiction.

The Masters

The best way to learn anything is to study those who have perfected the skill. If you’re looking for inspiration or guidance, pick up one of these for your next read:

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude; Gabriel García Màrquez
  • Wide Sargasso Sea; Jean Rhys
  • The Kingdom of this World; Alejo Carpentier
  • Winter’s Tale; Mark Helprin
  • Beloved; Toni Morrison
  • Chocolat; Joanne Harris
  • St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves; Karen Russell