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Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar

WritersServices Factsheet 6 by Michael Legat

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Spelling, punctuation and grammar are just as much tools of the writer’s trade as are paper and a pen or typewriter or pc.

If you cannot spell, the spellchecker on a computer will probably help you, but you must be aware that it will only signal a necessary change of spelling if the word concerned does not appear in its lexicon. For instance, if you put “practice” (a noun) in mistake for “practise”(a verb), the spellchecker will not query the wrong word because both of them are in its dictionary. If you are really hopeless at spelling, you should try to find a friends who will go through your material and make any necessary changes of that kind.

It is useful to make for reference a correctly spelt list of any words which are likely to appear often in whatever piece you are writing.

Many authors find it difficult to know when to use a comma and when a full stop. It may help to read your work aloud, listening to the natural pauses which you make. Short pauses usually need commas, and longer pauses full stops.

The biggest problem in regard to punctuation is the use of the apostrophe. The apostrophe is usually used to indicate that a letter has been dropped. And the worst difficulty with the apostrophe is not the greengrocer’s notice saying “carrot’s” or “orange’s” – those apostrophes have been put into simple plurals from which no letters are missing – but the difference between “its”, which is the possessive form of “it”, and “it’s”, which is short for “it is” or “it has”. So: “the dog has got its collar on, because it’s going for a walk now that it’s stopped raining”.

In dialogue punctuation should appear within inverted commas. So: “Now that it’s stopped raining,” she said, “I’ll take the dog out.”

Paragraphs usually consist of a number of sentences which are linked by a common theme. In dialogue it is best to start a new paragraph for each speaker.

Especially when writing fiction or non-fiction of book length, indent each paragraph a few spaces, and do not put a blank line between paragraphs. Blank lines should be used only to indicate a change of time, place, character or subject.

The commonest mistake in grammar concerns sentences which contain the words “my wife and I” or “my friend and I”. It is often incorrect to use “I” in such phrases. One way of checking is to leave out the other person in the phrase. So if the sentence is “they gave my wife and I a present”, leave out “my wife” and you are left with “they gave I a present”, and you wouldn’t say that, so in that context “I” is wrong, and the sentence should read “they gave my wife and me a present”. On the other hand, if you leave out “my wife” in a sentence such as “my wife and I went to the meeting” you are left with “I went to the meeting”, which sounds all right and is correct. Some writers try to get themselves out of the difficulty by the use of “myself”, which usually sounds clumsy.

You will be wrong if you think that mistakes in your spelling, punctuation and grammar will be corrected by a copy editor. Copy editors are not used as widely as in the past. You should learn to correct your own work.

This factsheet links to The Nuts and Bolts of Writing

© Michael Legat 2001