Last time, we looked at the first two parts of PUGS, Punctuation and Usage. Today we’ll look at the others.
In common speech, we often use “grammar” to encompass all parts of writing, including spelling and punctuation. But grammar really refers specifically to the way we assemble words into sentences.
English grammar is very complex, and has multiple registers, or degrees of formality. Many college instructors require the most formal register, so that’s what many businesspeople use. At its most extreme, this register eliminates both first and second-person pronouns, leading to unnatural constructions like “this researcher has found” and “one may notice” instead of “I’ve found” and “you may notice.” In standard writing, there is no proscription against these forms. So you can choose whatever level of formality you’re comfortable with. In a blog, you can be very casual.
You are, however, going to have to proofread your own grammar, or have someone else do it. Microsoft’s grammar checker is frequently wrong. If grammar is not your strong suit, you can outsource it to someone like me, or you can enlist a friend who’s strong in grammar and in exchange offer to help them in some way that suits your skill set.
For further reading on grammar, I recommend The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Straus as an accessible text that provides the fundamentals most writers need. If you want a more in-depth text, try Oxford Modern English Grammar by Bas Aarts. The latter is a highly technical academic text, so it’s probably overkill for most of us. While you’re at Amazon, download the Kindle preview of A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum (you can read on your computer if you don’t have a Kindle device). It’s even more technical and densely written than the Oxford, but it’s got a great introduction that explains the differences between standard and nonstandard English, formal and informal style, and descriptive and prescriptive approaches to grammar.
Spell check will flag blatant misspellings, so it is not quite as useless as the grammar checker. But spell check will not save you if you add an h to the last name of Florida politician Charlie Crist. Yeah, I did that once. Spell check can’t help if you type manger instead of manager. It just has no sense of context. So proofread backward. That will force you to examine each word in turn without running them together into sentences.
Many people, including copyeditors, wrestle with when to include hyphens. You may think of that as punctuation, but truly hyphenation is usually a spelling issue. There are pages of charts in the Chicago manual—10 pages—explaining when to use and not use hyphens, and they still don’t cover all circumstances.
The trend in American English is to eliminate hyphens unless confusion will result. That said, check your dictionary, because some compounds are always hyphenated, such as well-being and cross-eyed, while some are open in one form but not in another. For example, long term is open as a noun (e.g., he’s in it for the long term) but hyphenated as an adjective (this is a long-term assignment). A good dictionary will help with usage and spelling, including, in many cases, hyphenation.
The Chicago Manual of Style editors recommend Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. If you often write for periodicals, you may be more familiar with Associated Press Style, which calls for Webster’s New World College Dictionary.
For her book Your Own Words, Barbara Walraff surveyed dictionaries and found the one that’s built into MS Word is sufficient for most writers. If you’re a Mac user, you have the Dictionary app, which includes the New Oxford American Dictionary, which Walraff also rates highly.
The website OneLook is an excellent resource for word nerds, since it searches multiple dictionaries at once, including slang dictionaries like Wordnik and the not-safe-for-work Urban Dictionary.
Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, has a great article about hyphens. Here’s another good article, at AP vs. Chicago: “Compounds Ending with a Preposition or Adverb: Open, Hyphenated, or Solid.”
Just to confuse matters, sometimes spelling is dependent upon your style book of choice. More on that next time.