My rough n' ready writing rules AKA grammar for the lazy

I’m no grammarian, in fact I suck at it. I scored in the tippy tip top on my Verbal SATs back in the mid 70’s and still failed my College English 101 grammar proficiency test, which stunned my grad student teacher. I just barely passed on the second try. I have a reasonable vocabulary, and I can usually tell if something “sounds right” in context. Mangled grammar tends to usually (but not always) sound a bit “off”.

So anyway, I am a grammar tard. I have accepted this fact about myself and over the years I have developed a few rough and ready rules I’ve picked up here and there to get by. I am curious, however, just how applicable these rules really are, and if any need updating. I’d also like to know if any other grammar impaired dopers have little grammar and writing tricks of their own I can steal.

This is NOT a thread for some well meaning grammarian to tell me to please, pretty please read some lovely grammar book that they just *know *will make me write all better. It’s not going to happen. Gerunds and I will never be friends.

Here is list of my grammar tard ritin’ rules. What are yours?

1: Try to put a comma where there is a natural (even slight) conversational pause in the sentence.

2: Put a comma between sequential items in a list: i.e. bread, cheese, milk, eggs etc.

3: Stay away from semicolons, too tricky. When in doubt use colons.

4: Use an apostrophe for conjoined words, i.e. were are = we’re.

5: Use an apostrophe where you are expressing that the things described somehow belong contextually to the person or concept being apostrophized, i.e. “cat’s kittens” or “train’s passengers”.

6: If you’ve unsure about comma usage fall back on parentheses to make a parenthetical comment. You can’t (usually) go wrong with a good set of parentheses.

7: Always use double quote marks. If you find you need to quote inside a quote re-write the sentence.

8: If you are unsure about capitalizing certain words in titles and intros just uses the “drop capitals” font and cap the whole thing.

9: Two spaces after a period to start a new sentence. I know this is considered an old “typewriter era” rule, but I still use it.

10: Put commas before and after "however’ when it is used to move from one idea to the other and has a lengthy pause associated with it (see second paragraph of this OP).

As far as punctuation goes, my tip is: When in doubt, leave it out. It’s sort of an err on the side of caution dealie.

I don’t understand your fear of semicolons; I find them rather easy to use.

Also, it’s very hard to use a dash improperly.

Don’t use two spaces after a period. That practice was designed to overcome a flaw in typewriters, and it’s really no longer necessary.

Also, outside of newspapers and a few odd books that used them for the first few words of a paragraph, I’ve never seen anybody use small caps. (Well, Terry Pratchett uses that for DEATH’s voice, but that’s not the same thing.)

Ditto the commas. You might have one in there unnecessarily, but in my experience it’s much easier to parse a sentence that has a comma that shouldn’t be there than one that needs one and doesn’t have it.

I’d rethink this stance. It leads inevitably to comma splices, which you have in your first sentence there. It’s easy enough to learn to use semicolons: if you can replace it with a period, you’re good.

The first sentence oughta be: I’m no grammarian; in fact, I suck at it.

And I’d put a colon in the first sentence of the quoted rule: Stay away from semicolons: too tricky.

As for my own rules of writing:

  1. Read what you wrote to make sure it doesn’t suck.
  2. If it does, rewrite it.

I routinely violate these rules.

How about an easy rule for adverbs? Are they supposed to be before or after the verb? "She went quickly . . . " "She quickly went . . . " ??

And what’s a “split infinitive” anyway? And a “dangling modifier?”

This one is my bane. It works well enough if you’re creating a new piece of writing and reading it to yourself mentally, but I have transcriptionists who apply it to the dialog they’re transcribing. Natural speech is rife with hesitations and false starts that can show up at any time, and so I get transcripts where, commas are put in the most unlikely, places.

A split infinitive is putting an adverb in between the word “to” and a verb. A good example is “…to boldly go”.

And a split infinitive is one of those rules, like not ending a sentence with a preposition, that exists because it’s not possible to do these things in Latin.

A dangling modifier is a modifier, often put at the beginning of a sentence, that does not modify the subject of the sentence. “Walking down the street, the house seemed very dark and scary.” The house is not walking down the street. (Or maybe it is. That WOULD be scary.)

Then there’s a misplaced modifier: the green lady’s umbrella.

So split infinitives aren’t against the rules? Boldly go or go boldly – either one is okay?

Another one that trips me up is was and were, in sentences like “If I were a rich man”. Why not “If I was a rich man”? Is it “were” when the subject/condition/event is impossible or unlikely?

Write largely as you would talk.
Old words are good.
Small old words are better.
Few old small words are best.
Break any rule to ensure understanding.

Ultimately, the only rule of grammar and usage I follow is “Clarity first, eloquence second, and anything else a poor third.” Sticking to traditional usage does tend to help with that first bit, though. :slight_smile:

Only annoying prescriptivists who want to impose Latin grammar on English would argue against split infinitives. Generally speaking, if a sentence looks or sounds better with a split infinitive, go for it. Of course, if you’re writing professionally, and your employer has a style guide written by one of those annoying prescriptivists, you’re out of luck.

The subjunctive trips up a lot of people, if only because it normally looks just like the indicative; the only verb that takes a different form in the subjunctive is “were”. It shows up when discussing unlikely or impossible hypothetical situations or conditions, which chiefly involve “if” clauses. In essence, if you’re talking about a condition that isn’t really in effect, or that you don’t believe to be in effect, you use “were”.


“If Lily is coming, she will be here soon.”
You make no assumption about Lily’s actions; you only indicate her likely arrival time if the assumption is true. You’re talking about a condition that may or may not be true.

"If Lily were coming, she would already be here.
Lily is late, therefore you assume that she is not coming. You’re talking about a condition that does not appear to be true, and indicating that her arrival time would have been in the past if the condition were true.
The subjunctive sometimes appears without an “if”, too.


Suppose Adam were to win the match, who would he face in the next round?
You consider Adam’s victory unlikely, but you want someone to speculate on the possible result of an upset. (This particular construction seems awkward to me, and I would probably rewrite to avoid it.)
It’s also customary to avoid the subjunctive following verbs like “ask” and “wonder”, since they indicate that you’re not making any assumptions about whether or not the hypothetical case is in effect.

Josh wondered if the store was still open.

I think the split infinitive is not being clung to as tenaciously as the preposition rule. “To boldly go where no man has gone before” is very close to iambic pentameter. Change it to “To go boldly…” and the meter is clunky.

I just bought a birthday card that has a photo of two women on the front. One is saying, “Where’s your birthday party at?” The other is saying, “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” On the inside, same photo, and the first woman is saying, “Where’s your birthday party at, bitch?” :wink:

And as far as “If I were a rich man” goes, your sense of it is right on the money, AuntiePam. Here’s Wiki’s entry on the subjunctive mood.

ETA: What Balance said!

Careful there, whippersnapper. I’ll give up that second space when you pry it out of my cold, dead thumbs! Having learned to keyboard before there was anything called a keyboard (outside of a piano, anyway), the only way I can not put that space in is to program my expander to replace the twp spaces with one. Fortunately the medical world is a little slow to change, and all of my clients still require the second space.

My one “off the books” grammar rule is, “Only use half as many words as you think you need.”

Thanks, you two. I wanted to look it up but I didn’t know what it was called. I figured googling “was or were” wouldn’t get me very far.

Me too, on two spaces after a period. I had no idea that wasn’t done anymore, but I don’t intend to change now.

I’m happy to note that the subjunctive mood has long outlasted the phrase ‘kicking against the pricks’ (deleted in the Wiki article) in common usage.

The sentence has two commas, and three parts. What are the parts called? If you left out the middle part would you still put a comma after “rules”? If so, how come?

Should it be, “As I was walking down the street,…” or what?

Have mercy on a poor engineer guy,(should this comma be here?) whose secretary usually corrects my grim grammar.

I don’t even fight with my transcriptionists on this one. I just tell them “Use one or use two, but be consistent throughout the document.” Then when I get the transcript, I run my formatting macros (we work in Word) which sets all instances of two spaces to one. :smiley: Everyone’s happy.

Law enforcement, too. There’s a couple clients of ours that insist on two spaces and will angrily point out mistakes to us. Once again macros save the day.

I’ll leave the first and third part names, because I don’t know.

The middle part is a parenthetical phrase and can be taken out with both its commas, leaving the sentence as: And a split infinitive is one of those rules that exists because it’s not possible to do these things in Latin.

The dangling modifier (Walking) implies the ‘As I was’ since walking probably doesn’t relate to the house. If you wrote, ‘As I was -’ before walking, then the modifier would no longer dangle.

I use two spaces as well, a carryover from using typewriters and 8-bit computers early and often in my life. I still have yet to get dinged on using them, even after taking multiple composition (and other writing-intensive) classes at my university, where every other quirk or error got me raked over the coals. When using proportional fonts, the addition of a second space isn’t really noticeable, and when using fixed-width fonts, two spaces still seems to be preferred (for the same reason the two-space arose for typewriters). Web browsers and the like ignore extraneous spaces, too, so I don’t look archaic to MySpace kids.

Is there a truly compelling reason to require people to switch to one-space only, or is it just considered a harmless archaism? (I suppose if we were all using 110 baud modems still that the minor bandwidth savings would be worthwhile…)

Now, one early typing habit I happily gave up was paragraph indentation. Woo!

Or “Use half the words you think you need.” :wink:

In fact, always remember to edit down, never up.

I really don’t know any strict grammar rules, and I’m a writer. As others have said, clarity and brevity are your best guides.

My biggest tip? Read lots and lots of good prose. It’s all about rhythm, as least as much as poetry, and you pick it up by seeing it in use.