Chapter 20 – Miscellaneous Gunk – Repost

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on August 26, 2012 0 Comments

[Editorial Note: This is an update in which I made a few corrections as well as included a new section of personal things that bug me. To the owners of moderated groups: I know some of you don’t like reposts and, if you choose not to accept this, I understand.]


Chapter 20

Miscellaneous Gunk

I’m going to close out the book with a chapter that might create some controversy because I’m going to be presenting many arguments about word usage and, I’ll be sticking in my own opinion about what I think you should do. Some of my opinions are supported by style guides and some are not. I don’t care if I’m right or wrong, these are my thoughts on these final issues.

Oh, okay, here’s a list of what I’m going to be discussing.

A Historic or an Historic Event?
A Unique or an Unique
Am I Sick?
Could of/Should of/Would of/Might of
Shall I Do this or Will I Do This?
Beginning a Sentence with a Conjunction
Delete Every -ly Word
Toward/Towards — Backward/Backwards — Forward/Forwards – Afterward/Afterwards
Then and Than
Either/Neither — Or/Nor
Personal Things
The Final Thought

* * *

A Historic or an Historic Event?

There’s a really long, convoluted explanation of this that deals with pronunciation of multisyllabic words and the aspiration of the “h” at the beginning of the word.

I’ll make it easy: American writers use a historic and British writers use an historic.


A Unique or An Unique

This is similar to the historic discussion. When you look at the pronunciation, you have to figure out how the initial “u” is pronounced. If it has a you sound, then it’s treated as a consonant and has “a” for the article. I carry an umbrella on an unusually wet day when I go to a university for a usual class.

Beyond that, let me point out that unique means something that is only one of a kind. Because of that, you can’t write that something is almost unique, really unique, somewhat unique, or (any other adverb) unique.


Am I Sick?

Which of the following two sentences is correct?

I feel bad.
I feel badly.

The answer is that both are correct depending on what you’re trying to express. In the first example, bad is an adjective and is used as a predicate adjective; thus, explaining something about the subject (I). The meaning of the sentence is that your overall feeling of health is not good. In other words, when you’re sniffling and sneezing and someone asks how you are, you want to say, “I feel bad.”

In the second example, badly is an adverb modifying the verb, feel. The sentence implies that your sense of touch is not working well.


Could of/Should of/Would of/Might of

Two things here. Do not use “of” with any of those words. You want to write:

I could have done that.
I should have done that.
I would have done that.
I might have done that.

Beyond that, you want to consider that all of those words (along with can and may) express some sense of uncertainty. Reserve their use for the times when your character is really uncertain about the outcome.


Shall I Do this or Will I Do This?

Which one you use will depend on the type of writing you’re doing. In formal writing, the future tense requires that you use shall for the first person and will for the second and third person.

I shall do this.
We shall do this.
You will do this.
He/she/it will do this.
They will do this.

In creative writing you can use shall/will to express the difference between a belief in what will happen and a determination to make something happen.

I shall date that woman.
I will date that woman.

The first is your belief in what will happen in the future. The second is you expressing your determination to make it happen.

Me? I use will in creative writing so I don’t have to figure out the difference. Your call!



Since drives editors crazy because dictionaries continue to show it as an alternative for because. Once again we get into the argument of whether a word should be used just because it appears in the dictionary. It is never correct to write something such as this:

Since Sam is an idiot, we don’t believe him.

Whether it’s used as an adverb, conjunction, or preposition, since refers to time in some manner.

We’ve been doing this since 1965.
Since the early days, math has been the same.
Ever since Sam came out of the closet, things have been different.

The word while does a bunch of things that have nothing to do with because or since.

As a transitive verb, we regularly while away the time.
Don’t use it as a preposition because it equates to until and that is a British thing.
As a noun, it’s worth your while to stay here for a while.
It’s most commonly used as a conjunction to refer to some timeframe during which you’re doing something: I slept while the fire raged.


Beginning a Sentence with a Coordinating Conjunction

Two schools of thought on this one: don’t ever do it and go ahead and do it. My opinion is that it’s fine as long as you don’t overdo it.

Keep in mind that a coordinating conjunction is supposed to connect two independent clauses so, when you’re writing that second independent clause, could it be connected to the first one?

Another consideration is the punctuation in that short, independent clause. Look at these two sentences introduced with a conjunction.

But, Sam said it would work.
But Sam said it would work.

Which one do you write? In the chapter on comma usage I mentioned that we use a comma to make our reader pause while reading the line. Thus, the first sentence would be read as:

But [pause] Sam said it would work.

Another thought is that, if you’re using Word, it will want to substitute nevertheless or however for but. Whether you go along with that recommendation depends on what you’re trying to say in the sentence.

The most important thing to remember is that introducing a sentence with a conjunction draws attention to it. If you’re going to do that, make sure that the sentence is important and actually deserves to have attention drawn to it.


Delete Every -ly Word

This is one of those cases where somebody is trying to change the writing world. Words ending in -ly are, typically, adverbs. For some reason, there are teachers and editors who don’t like adverbs and want to eliminate them from our writing. However, adverbs are needed now and then. Um, they’re actually needed quite frequently.

I don’t have a problem with eliminating unnecessary words, but did Sam actually say that, or really say that, or softly say that? If the answer is yes then you need those -ly words.

Here’s one of those opinion things. To all of you who want to eliminate ALL adverbs, I’ll tell you that your writing is going to be extremely boring!


Toward/Towards — Backward/Backwards — Forward/Forwards — Afterward/Afterwards

Once again we get to the difference between dictionaries and style guides. All of those words are shown in the dictionary as being acceptable. But… the words ending in “s” are shown as alternates — that means we, as writers, DON’T USE THEM. We walk toward the sun either forward or backward and, afterward, we go have a beer.


Then and Than

I’ve had several people ask me to discuss these two words. Similar to “it’s” and “its” they want some kind of memory trick to remember which should be used where and when. Sorry, I ain’t got one for you.

We use than to compare things.

Miss Piggy was more feminine than Kermit.
Kermit was greener than Miss Piggy.

I’m not too sure about that first sample but, as an aside, I’ll point out that if you use different in that first sample, you don’t use than.

Wrong:  Miss Piggy was different than Kermit.
Right:  Miss Piggy was different from Kermit.

Maybe one way to remember the difference is that we frequently write and then even though the and is not always necessary, but it might help you figure out the difference between then and than. Another thing is that then can be moved around in a sentence and than can’t.

He then went to the store.
Then he went to the store.
He went to the store then.


Either/Neither — Or/Nor

I’ll give a longer discussion later, but there are four things to remember when using these words.

1.         Never use either with nor.
2.         Never use neither with or.
3.         Both either and neither are used as comparatives between only two things.

Right:  Either this or that.
Right:  Neither this nor that.

You can’t use them when you have more than two things.

Wrong:  Either this, that, or the other thing.
Wrong:  Neither this, that, nor the other thing.

4.         All four words can be used independently.

That last one screws up writers frequently because they don’t think about what they’re writing. Consider the four following sentences that are all grammatically correct.

Either one could have done it.
If you do this or do that, you might be wrong.
Sam didn’t go nor did Sue follow.
Neither of us wants to see that happen.

That last sample brings up the verb/subject agreement thing. Think back to your days of learning grammar. At some point, your teacher discussed compound subjects: two nouns connected with a conjunction. Not a problem when the conjunction is and.

Sam and Sue want bananas.

The conjunction makes the overall subject plural so the verb has to be plural. But what about when you use a conjunction such as or?

Sam or Sue wants bananas.

In this case, we’re saying that one or the other wants bananas so the verb is singular. How about when one of the two subjects is a plural?

Sam or Sue’s friends want bananas.
Sue’s friends or Sam wants bananas.

Here we have both a singular subject and a plural subject. The verb usage depends on which subject is closer to the verb. All that just to explain the verb usage with either.

Either Sam or Sue’s friends want bananas.
Either Sue’s friends or Sam wants bananas.

Oh, neither works the same way.

Neither Sam nor Sue’s friends want bananas.
Neither Sue’s friends nor Sam wants bananas.


Personal Things

There are a few words that irritate me when a writer uses them improperly. I think what irritates me the most is that, because of their continued improper usage, they’ll become standards in the future.

First is healthy and healthful. If you have a green salad, is it healthy? NO! It stopped being healthy the moment the ingredients were picked because they started dying right then. It is healthful for you though and eating it might make you healthy.

All right and alright. Some guides show alright as acceptable in business and journalism. I found a few guides that said it was all right in fictional dialogue. I don’t write in the business or journalism worlds, so alright is not all right for me, even in fictional dialogue.

Dialogue. This one is really petty. As writers, we include dialogue in our stories. We do not write dialog!

Can and may. My father cured me of making a mistake between these two words when I was about six years old. I’d say something such as, “Dad, can I go to the park?” He would respond with something such as, “I don’t know, can you?” He told me — one time — that can referred to whether I was able to do something and may referred to whether I was allowed to do something. Any time after that, if I asked, “Can I go to the park,” he’d respond and then wait for me to figure out how to ask the question properly.

OK. No, I’m not talking about the state of Oklahoma, which is what OK stands for. I’m talking about using OK/O.K./ok/o.k./okay in your writing. I keep harping on the difference between dictionaries and style/writing guides. I use the Merriam-Webster dictionary and it shows OK as the proper form and okay as an alternate. The problem, for a writer, is when you come to the inflected forms. If you choose to use OK then you have to use OK’d and OK’ing and they just look klutzy. My preference is okay, okayed, and okaying. Your choice. Oh, O.K., ok, and o.k. are never correct.

Care less. The proper usage is “I couldn’t care less.” Note that this is something you’ll use in dialogue, but not in normal writing. Wherever you use it, don’t ever write, “I could care less” unless you want to show someone trying to make a subtle point.

Irregardless. There’s no such word. Okay, there is, but it’s not used in writing. Speakers use it, but writers don’t. The proper word is regardless when we’re writing.

Sneaked or snuck. This one irritates me more than others because snuck is already in the dictionary as an alternative. You sneaked into the theater; don’t say you snuck into the theater.

There, I’ve got those things off my chest and can now wrap up things.


The Final Thought

I had so many questions regarding things that would have required many pages to explain and I wanted to keep this short. I know, it’s already not short, but I didn’t want to go into a discussion of metaphors, analogies, allegories, clichés, and whatever else.

This started out as a simple tutorial on punctuation in and around dialogue and was meant as a self-serving post. I’m an editor and I thought I might be able to reduce my workload if I posted something outlining certain rules so writers wouldn’t make stupid mistakes.

I’ll close by repeating that this is not meant as a basic grammar/English/writing course but more of a reminder of what you probably learned years ago and have forgotten.

Good writing!

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