Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tip Top Grammar Tips

There are some things I have issues with when I sit down to write. No matter how often I write the word receipt, I have to recite the reminder. "I before E except after C..." So I started making notes in a document called Grammar Tips, and I've amassed quite a few. Here are some of the most helpful for me.

Adjective order determines commas

Number, size, color (Five long red sports cars) needs no commas. Successive adjectives outside this order do. (A long, sporty red car.)

Lie vs Lay

Lie = to recline or rest on a surface.
Lay = to put or place something.
So ask yourself which meaning applies to the sentence. Did Jane put the book on the table or did the book recline or rest on the table?
She lie/lay on the chaise by the poolside.
What is she doing? She's reclining, resting. She lay on the chaise by the poolside.
Why? As I said, she's reclining, but also, lay is the past tense of lie.

For lie

  • Base form: lie
  • Past tense: lay
  • Past participle: lain
  • Present participle: lying

For lay

  • Base: lay
  • Past: laid
  • Past participle: laid
  • Present participle: laying
If confused with a sentence that may use either lay or lie, an alternate method is to choose a different verb such as placed or reclined.

Each die is marked.

Die vs Dice

1 die
2 dice


These change from publisher to publisher, but these fit fairly well:
  • Mouthed dialogue is italicized.
  • Character thoughts are italicized.
  • Foreign or alien words and phrases are italicized only on the first use.
  • Other uses of italics follows conventional rules, such as the names of ships, short story titles, etc.

Less vs Fewer

Less and fewer are easy to mix up. They mean the same thing--the opposite of more--but you use them in different circumstances. The basic rule is that you use less with mass nouns and fewer with count nouns. A count noun is something you can count. I'm looking at my desk and I see books, pens, and M&M's. I can count all those things, so they are count nouns and the right word to use is fewer. I should eat fewer M&M's. Mass nouns are things that you can't count individually. Again, on my desk I see tape and clutter. These things can't be counted individually, so the right word to use is less. If I had less clutter, my desk would be cleaner. Another clue is that you don't make mass nouns plural: I would never say I have clutters on my desk or that I need more tapes to hold my book covers together.

Was vs. Were

On was/were -- "was" is correct for things that could be true. "Were" is correct for things that could never be true or are imaginary, fanciful, or impossible. Since it is possible that he could be perfectly at home there, it is correct to say "as if he was" perfectly at home lolling there. On the other hand, if you said "He leapt across the gully as if he were a winged creature" --  he is not and could never be a winged creature (unless a shapeshifter) -- he can't sprout wings at will -- so "as if he were" is correct. The subjunctive (were) "expresses an action or state as doubtful, imagined, desired, conditional, or otherwise contrary to fact." If none of those fit, "was" is used.


Ellipses do not have a space...between them and the words around them, unless they are at the end of a sentence. Then they have a space afterward.

A while / Awhile

Grammatically, a while is a noun phrase in which "a" is an article and "while" functions as a noun meaning "a short period of time"; awhile is an adverb meaning "for a while." In other words, the meaning is the same, but the structure is different: the word awhile has "for" built into its meaning.

The test of which to use is to consider whether "for a while" may be used in the sentence where we intend to place (or have placed) the word awhile – without changing anything else.


  • "I'll wait here awhile" is correct because we could also say, "I'll wait here for a while."
  • "My mother is staying awhile" is correct because we could also say, "My mother is staying for a while."
  • "I'll wait here for awhile" is not correct because we have actually used the word for twice, given that awhile = for a while: "I'll wait here for for a while."
  • "I'll be there in awhile" is not correct because we would not say, "I'll be there IN FOR a while."
  • "This may take awhile" is not correct because "This may take for a while" is not idiomatic English.
The two-word noun phrase (a while) is probably more often the correct choice than is the one-word adverb (awhile). Certainly, most misuses of a while / awhile involve using awhile where a while is the appropriate construction.

It's vs. its

The cat held its toy.
It's is a contraction for it is. The easiest way to remember this is to picture the apostrophe as the dot over the I which has been deleted. When you're not sure which works, read the sentence with "it is" in place of it's. Does it make sense? If not, the spelling is "its."


The cat held it's toy.
The cat held it is toy. (Incorrect)
The cat held its toy. (Correct)

Dashes Inside or Outside Quotations (Dash = Hyphen)

Dashes "--" should be outside the quotation marks at the end of a sentence that is interrupted by an action and then picked up on the other side of the interruption. Dashes are placed INSIDE the lines when the sentence is interrupted and a new paragraph begins, such as one speaker interrupting the other.

Dashes Em and En (Dash = Hyphen)

LI style is two hyphens vs. en and em dashes.
An em dash is written like this: — and an en dash is – while a regular dash is -.

From Word help:

1.      When you type a space and one or two hyphens between text, Microsoft Word automatically inserts an en dash ( – ).
2.      If you type two hyphens and do not include a space before the hyphens, then an em dash ( — ) is created.
3.      To turn off this feature, use Tools > AutoCorrect Options. Unselect "hyphens with dash" in both Autoformat and Autoformat as you Type.
4.      To turn on this feature, use Tools > AutoCorrect Options. Select "hyphens with dash" in both Autoformat and Autoformat as you Type.

Since we're always looking for timely bits that help us create a correct manuscript, feel free to share any helpful grammar tips you've learned.


Savanna Kougar said...

Excellent, Kayelle. I have to say my mind turns to mush at times over the whole comma and dash thing.

I do put a space when I use ... in blog posts because it looks much better. Of course, in a mss I have to try to remember to leave out the space.

Using the computer was supposed to make writing easier, faster. In some ways that's true... but, in other ways it's a damn headache that eats up time... unless, of course, you're savvy and know how to program it the way you want. I'm not.

Kayelle Allen said...

I hear you Savanna. I've worked with MS Word since 1990. 21 years. Learned a whoooooole bunch of tricks in that amount of time. Could make Word do anything I wanted. Loved it.

WARNING: Rant ahead

Microsoft decided to pitch it in the trash and come up with a completely redesigned format (Word 2007). They threw things on the menus up in the air, and however they landed, that's how they got put on the new "ribbons" -- basically sidways menus. No more File, Edit, View, Insert menus, just little boxes with pictures that take up the upper part of the page. They made the default font "Calibri" - whose bright idea was that? They hid everything I loved about the old version in obscure locations.

So I'm keeping 2003 until it refuses to run on anything anywhere, or they go back to a version that makes sense. This one's nuts. If I used it (poor hubby is stuck with it) I'd spend half the day trying to find things that used to be a button click. If it ain't broken, don't screw with it! Invariably, the people who rave about the new version never used the old one.

Someone will post now and tell me how wrong I am, and how much better the new version is. That's okay. They probably didn't spend 20+ years getting to know a good co-worker they could trust to do what they needed, only to have that co-worker supplanted by an idiotic interface that plays guessing games with you. That dependable co-worker is what Word 2003 is to me. I'm hiding mine until they pry it out of my cold dead keyboard.
****** rant ending ******