Simple grammar tips to help you write like a pro!
Deep breath…I’m about to tackle one of the most controversial topics a copywriter can comment on – grammar.
Why is grammar so controversial? Because there are very different schools of thought on the matter. Some people are absolute sticklers for the grammar rulebook and will throw their toys out of the pram if they spot a compound modifier preceding a noun, without its hyphen (Heaven forbid!). Others threw the rulebook out a long time ago - probably about the same time that they decided their protractor and compass were about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.
Where do I sit on the matter?
I don’t wear a big flashing grammar police badge – but I do admit to having a little one, tucked discretely under my lapel.
I love the English language. I love how it is constantly evolving and I'm certainly not an absolute stickler for the rule book, unless I really have to be. Where grammar plays its part is in ensuring that what is written is easy to read and makes sense.
So, for all those people who are at worst disillusioned and at best confused about the complexities of English grammar, here’s a simple rule to follow…
Don’t make your reader have to work to understand what it is you are trying to say. There are many simple tools in the grammar toolkit that will help you construct easy to read sentences. For example, if you want to describe a man that sells old furniture, call him an ‘old-furniture salesman’, not an ‘old furniture salesman’. The hyphen between 'old' and 'furniture' in the first example shows that you are describing the furniture as old, and not the man, which is how the second example could be read. And by the way, that’s what’s called a ‘compound modifier’!
I saw a glaring example of this in a newsletter recently, where a company announced, "as a result we are able to supply parts to our customers of an extremely high standard". So are they saying they don't supply parts to customers who they view are of a low standard!? Oops!
If you’re in any doubt about how to use grammar correctly, then you have two options. The first is to employ a professional copywriter (ahem...excuse the blatant plug!). The second is to find a way to construct the sentence differently – so call him ‘a man that sells old furniture’, rather than worrying whether you need a hyphen and where it should sit!
Here are my top ten grammar tips
Here are some other basic rules worth putting in your grammar toolkit…
1. Keep sentences short
There are lots of useful grammatical tools you can use to break up long sentences, such as colons, semicolons, hyphens and commas, but if you’re not sure how to use them, simply break up what you are trying to say into short sentences.
2. The simple rule for 'your' and 'you’re'
'You’re' = an abbreviated version of ‘you are’. When you’re abbreviating words, the apostrophe goes where the missing letter is – in this case, where the ‘a’ in ‘are’ should be.
3. Where to put a comma
A good rule of thumb is to read the sentence out loud and put the comma where you automatically pause for breath (unless you've got severe asthma or you've just come back from a run, in which case consult a professional copywriter).
4. Plural names ending in s
If you want to make a name that ends in 's' plural, then another 's' is required after the apostrophe i.e. Chris’s book. This is with the exception of Jesus. He’s a special case and becomes Jesus’.
5. Exclamation marks!
Don’t use exclamation marks too often!!! They’re irritating and could very well put your reader off!!! See what I did there?
6. When to use I and when to use me
If I was to write, ‘Me and Katy went to the pub’ (you probably wouldn’t be surprised), but would you know whether the sentence was grammatically correct? Should it be ‘me and Katy’ or ‘Katy and I’? The correct way to write it is ‘Katy and I went to the pub’. Similarly, if I was to write ‘The dog followed Katy and I to the pub’, would that be right? No. The grammatically correct way to write it is, ‘The dog followed Katy and me to the pub’.
If you’re ever unsure whether to use I or me in a sentence, here’s a really simple rule to ensure that you always get it right…simply take Katy out of the sentence (sorry Katy!), so it’s just you going to the pub, and you being followed by the dog.
You wouldn’t say ‘me went to the pub’, but you would say ‘I went to the pub’. That leaves you with ‘Katy and I went to the pub’ If you were to take Katy out of the dog scenario, it would leave you with ‘the dog followed me to the pub’, so that’s why you don’t write ‘the dog followed Katy and I to the pub’, but instead write ‘the dog followed Katy and me to the pub’.
7. Beginning a sentence with 'and' or 'but'
You CAN begin a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’ if it helps the flow of what you’re writing.
8. How many dots should you use to create a pause in sentence?...
Just three. For some reason that’s another one that people get wrong all the time and it drives me crazy. Crazy enough to whip out my grammar police lapel pin?...Yes!
9. Who gives a monkeys about an Oxford comma?
Funnily enough, I do, and so too does a band called Vampire Weekend, who wrote a song about it. An 'Oxford comma' is the name given to the optional comma before the final ‘and’ at the end of a list. For example, ‘The balloons were red, green, blue, and yellow’. You don't necessarily need the comma before 'and yellow'. Where the Oxford comma does come in useful is when the items in a list are not single words. For example, ‘The stripy ribbons are available in red and white, blue and white, and green and white’. The comma differentiates the pair of colour combinations and shows which is the last pair in the list.
10. Is your company an 'it' or a 'they'?
When you’re writing about a company, refer to the company as you would an inanimate object rather than a person. So use ‘it’ instead of ‘they’ and ‘has’ not ‘have’. For example, "BT has a long standing reputation for...", "As a company it has never...".
Confused? I’d be happy to make sure your messages are put across in plain and simple English. Get in touch today!