Thursday, March 28, 2013

Good Writing Mechanics

I could literally write an entire blog about good writing mechanics. (Oh wait, I do.) So this is just a sampling of good advice regarding how to make sure your reader is reading what you mean to be saying. In other words: how to clarify. (See what I did there?)


I can hear the groans from here. "Punctuation is boring." "Punctuation isn't really that important; people know what I mean." "Punctuation is hard." Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

Punctuation party!
I could spend hours teaching you about punctuation, but because we don't want all of our readers to leave the blog, I won't.

Most people use periods, question marks, and exclamation points properly (when they're actually trying). Some people tend to overuse ellipsis marks (the "dot dot dot" or "...") and parentheses (myself sometimes included, like now) but that's usually more of a style issue than a real mechanics problem. The trickier ones are commas, apostrophes, colons and semicolons, and quotation marks.

You can read The Oatmeal's comic on the appropriate use of apostrophes HERE, or semicolons HERE. They're very thorough and he does a great job of explaining them (while being pretty funny).

Quotation marks are easy when you're doing dialogue or actually quoting something. It should look like this:

Alex said, "Punctuation is fun!"
"Quotation marks are easy," she continued.
"They're not so bad," she assured us, "once you get the hang of it."
She told us, "Punctuation is important," before walking away into the sunset.

Those are the three ways you can use quotation marks in dialogue. Put the quote at the end of the sentence, the beginning, both, or in the middle. Just pay attention to where the rest of the punctuation is (and the capitalization).

Commas have a lot of rules, but a lot of them are similar. Whenever I'm not sure, I use THIS PAGE from the OWL (Online Writing Lab) at Purdue (unless I have a Strunk & White or MLA guide on hand). No matter what your K-12 teachers said, it is not correct writing to insert a comma wherever you pause to take a breath in a sentence. Don't do that. It hurts puppies. Cute ones.

This one.
I wrote a post HERE about the raging debate about the use of the serial comma (also known as the Oxford or Harvard comma). It helps with clarification as well, when used in lists.


Again with the groaning; stop that. I'm sorry, but I don't have tips and tricks for spelling. I don't recall learning how to spell, I just... spelled.

It does help to know other languages, particularly Greek and Latin, because they you're better with roots and prefixes and suffixes and whatnot.

But unless you feel like investing in Rosetta Stone or Mango for very little payoff, I would just recommend, you know... using a dictionary.

You know, one of these things.
There are several reliable online dictionaries. If you have access to it, I would highly recommend using the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) online, but most people don't. (The college I work for subscribes to it, so I can use it at work.) Otherwise, (and its affiliate, works fine. A lot of people also like The Free Dictionary. Whichever one you use, just use one.

The Oatmeal comes to the rescue again with some common spelling errors and how to avoid them, HERE.

Sometimes you might use a word that you're pretty sure is saying what you want it to say, but you could be way off. You could have been using that word incorrectly your entire life. If there's even a shadow of a doubt, look it up. You will probably be very glad you did later on.


Like I said, this is really just a brief guide about things to remember while writing. Other people have discussed these topics at great length, and more eloquently than I can:

This one is my favorite go-to website for any questions about grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It was published by a professor at Washington State University, and is very thorough.

Grammarly is a grammar checker. Computers aren't perfect (yet) so it won't catch every single grammar or comprehension mistake, but it catches a lot of them.

You've probably seen Eats, Shoots and Leaves in bookstores. It's a great, humorous book about the importance of commas. ("Let's eat, Grandma!" versus "Let's eat Grandma!" Commas really do save lives.)

The blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks is funny, too, sharing instances of incorrectly used quotation marks on signs, menus, and more. (Hint: They are not intended for emphasis, kids.)

Where do you go for grammar/spelling/punctuation help and/or humor?


  1. LOL, I was thinking about the "Lets Eat Grandma" as soon as I saw this. Yes commas save lives. Spelling can be just as bad, one letter can change the way a sentence is read.

    I keep a copy of Strunk and White personally. I invested in a pocket copy last year as a gift to myself. No special occasion. It was one of those 'just because' plus everybody needs one (not just writers).

    1. I love Strunk and White. I got a copy before I went to college, and it served me well.

      I also love the Simon & Schuster Handbook for Writers. We used an older copy when I was in freshman English, and it was amazing. Now I use the new version on an almost daily basis with students in the library, particularly for MLA citation style.