by Sandra Glahn

Try to limit yourself to a maximum of two commas per sentence. After that, it gets confusing. Limiting the number of commas keeps you from saying too many things at one time. It also prevents overuse of adjectives. (Editors loathe overuse of adjectives and adverbs.)

The period goes inside the quotes, even if it’s just one word, yea—even one letter: Roll it and pat it and mark it with a “b.” Perhaps it looks awkward to you, but it is correct—that is, unless you are publishing in England.

The most common error a person makes while using the English language is when they use a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent. (In case you didn’t notice, this sentence structure is incorrect, as are some that follow. However, what it says is true.)

A preposition is a bad thing to end a sentence with—unless to make it perfect sounds too pedantic. Churchill is often quoted as saying this was something “up with which I will not put.” (Prepositions are words such as at, in, under, over, above, around, through, with.) Try to limit yourself to one prepositional phrase per sentence (over the river, through the woods, to Grandmother’s house).

Try to never split infinitives. (Keep the infinitive “to” with the verb. Don’t put the modifier between the “to” and the verb as it appears here. This should have read “try never to split infinitives.” There are exceptions, but in general follow the rule.

When dangling, watch your participles. When you have a participle (-ing word) followed by a comma as a phrase (dependent clause), the word following the comma should be the one that the phrase modifies. Blowing outside, I shuddered when I heard the wind. Blowing outside, the wind made us shudder. Which makes more sense to you, following the comma?

I turn white as a sheet and my skin crawls and it’s just not my cup of tea when I hear someone use a cliché, perish the thought.

Use semi-colons; they separate independent clauses. This is correct. An independent clause is a sentence with both a subject and a verb that can stand alone as a sentence. Here’s the test of whether you are using a semi-colon properly: can each side of it stand alone as a complete sentence? If it can’t, is it an item in a series? If it’s neither of these, nix it.

Be sure to connect “them” and “they” with plural antecedents, such as people. Sometimes you can eliminate gender altogether (If someone smiles, return the greeting). Try to avoid using the male singular if it could be male or female. This is no longer a “feminist deal.” Students raised on gender-inclusive textbooks notice it and feel you are discriminating if you continue to refer to both men and women as “him” or “he.”

You can say it is incumbent upon personnel at all levels to help in the conserving of energy. Or you can simply say that it’s everybody’s job to help conserve energy. The second is much better, no matter how technical the journal.

Using two spaces after punctuation was for typewriters. If you use a computer (and if you’re reading this, you must have one!), hit that space bar only once. Also, never underline when you can italicize. The reason for underlining was that typewriters didn’t have the capability to do italics.

Now that you know the rules, you may break them. But if you decide to break rules, know why and do so intelligently.

©Sandra Glahn, 2005