Don’t Make these Grammar Mistakes (Part II): Nebulosity Sucks

256px-Inverted_question_mark_alternate.svgSo, on Tuesday, I started this series because I’d been accepting/rejecting edits and thought I’d throw out some mistakes I’d made, in case you were making them too.

Today, we’re finishing up (read Part I). I called today’s post nebulosity sucks because I wanted to use the word nebulosity. (I mean, really, how often do you see that word?) This entire post is not about being nebulous. One of writing coaches I had at the Kansas City Star would have called this a misleading headline, for which my reader would be angry at me. Dear reader, are you angry? If so, I apologise (in a British accent, which is why I used the British spelling. I use the accent because people speaking with British accents are so much easier to forgive).

Now that I’ve apologised for being a bad blogger and you’ve accepted my apology (you have, haven’t you?), let’s get on with it. Some things to watch out for when doing your edits:

  • Wordiness. Because I mentioned things being nebulous up top, we’ll start with wordiness. Everyone has it, and sometimes it’s hard to see. Try to keep writing tight. Unfortunately, after you’ve read a weirdly constructed sentence 10 times, it makes total sense to you, so you really need another eye, sometimes to catch word vomits. At best, wordiness elongates sentences unnecessarily. At worst, it introduces confusion (the writer’s worst enemy).
  • Two words or compound word? I don’t know if readers get heatedly angry about this or not, but I had several instances where I wrote out two words, but what I was trying to convey was really a compound word, or vice versa. Some of the examples:

over achiever (wrong)  vs. overachiever  (right)

goodnight (wrong) vs. good night (right)

home town vs hometown (right, according to m-w.com; though I saw a couple of online listings that suggest you use home town as a noun and hometown as an adjective)

key hole (wrong) vs. keyhole (right)

treeline (wrong) vs. tree line (right)

seatbelt (wrong) vs. seat belt (right)

dealmaker  vs. deal maker  (American Heritage and Merriam Webster’s disagree; with one calling it a compound word and another listing it as two words).

Again, I don’t know if this is the worst thing in the world or not, especially when you find different listings in different dictionaries. Definitely something to watch out for.

  • Trade names. Decide if you want to use trade names or the generic. Styrofoam is a trademark, as are Kleenex and Xerox. In my opinion, it is best to use the generic names instead of trademarks if you can. Say, “he picked up a tissue” or “she photocopied the papers” instead of “he picked up a Kleenx” or “she Xeroxed papers.”  However, you also have to be practical. I’m not sure most people know what polystyrene is (the non-trade name for the Styrofoam). In that instance, I might go ahead and use the trademark.   If you plan to disparage the product — “that piece of s*** polystyrene cup melted and hot coffee burned me,” definitely use the generic name, not a specific company’s brand. My editor flagged spandex, but that is now considered the generic name (it’s an anagram of expands; bet you didn’t know that, huh?). If I’d said Lycra, I would have changed it, because Lycra is a trademark. One last note on trademarks — companies are very particular about them because they can lose their trademark protection if their term becomes generic (everyone uses it to identify a category of products, not a specific product). Both zipper and spandex started off as trademarks, but lost their protection because the terms became generic. This legal site has more on genericization, if you’re interested.
  • Hyphens. Sometimes you’ll need to throw a hyphen in between two words that normally aren’t hyphenated, because the two words are acting together as an adjective to modify a noun. For example, “grown up” is two words, but “grown-up daughter” requires a hyphen. Similarly, African American is two words without a hyphen, but African-American woman is hyphenated. Because you only need to use it in some instances, it’s easy to overlook a missed hyphen. If it makes you feel better, Grammar Girl is fairly forgiving with hyphens.
  • Extra commas. Commas represent a pause in thought, so sometimes when I’m writing and pause in thought, I’ll actually stroke a comma on the keyboard. This can leave me with commas in weird place.  I try to get rid of extraneous commas, but you need an extra set of eyes to get them all.
  • Wary vs. weary. This is fairly specific item, but I realized I was using the two interchangeably when they’re not interchangeable. The Grammarist explains that weary is a synonym for tired, and means mental or physical fatigue. Wary, however, means you’re on guard. The Grammarist offers some practical examples,  if you’re interested.
  • That is he, your honor! He stole my purse. That, my friends, is grammatically correct. I wouldn’t ever have one of my characters say it (unless the character was a prissy SOB with a stick up his you-know-what). I wouldn’t even have my omniscient narrator say it (because she is not a prissy SOB with a stick up her you-know-what).  Everyone normal says, “That’s him, your honor. That’s the thief.” Him is an object pronoun, and with any other verb would be considered the object. However, rules old English dictate you don’t use an object pronoun when you have a  “to be” verb.  You may get some old school complaints if you choose not to go with today’s norm, but consider risking it, as I think this rule sucks (and there’s no nebulosity in that statement). Several blogs chime in on this topic, including Daily Writing Tips,  Grammarphobia (blogger is author of Woe is I) , and  Grammar Girl.

Well, that’s all she wrote. (Is it OK to refer to myself in the third person? It’s gonna have to be, ‘cause I did).  I hope you had fun this week. I know I had a blast.

Did I miss anything major? If so, what things would you stick on your list of things to look for when you’re editing?

About RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist who now writes fiction. She's reported for the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, as well as the smaller publications Education Technology News and Campus Crime. She has two published novels, Life First and Second Life and blogs for Indies Unlimited and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. For exclusive content and first looks at her new work, sign up for the newsletter at http://rjcrayton.com/subscribe.
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