Good use of grammar, spelling and punctuation is the foundation of a well-constructed piece. To achieve this, you need to focus on getting the basics right and avoid being too clever or getting bogged down in the detail.
Think about the easiest way you can write a sentence to make your point. Leave out words that don’t add any detail to your piece.
Starting with the grammar: avoid turning nouns into verbs, which just ends up sounding like boring corporate speak. The words ‘access’, ‘resource’ and ‘impact’ are prime examples.
Remember that singular nouns (eg Government, politics and the United States of America) use the singular verb ‘is’ and collective nouns (eg companies, families and employees) use the plural verb ‘are’. For your purposes, the simple rule of thumb is that ‘is’ is used as the verb for what a business does.
Don’t use the word ‘whom’: it is only correct in certain contexts. Use ‘who’ instead. Likewise, avoid using the word ‘as’: as one of my editors at The Sunday Times said to me, it is lazy grammar used to join two statements together.
The word ‘think’ in reported speech is another redundant word. After all, everyone ‘thinks’ before they say something. Similarly, ‘literally’ adds nothing new to a sentence, other than an extra word.
Other words that are often misused are fewer and less. Fewer is used where items can be counted, such as oranges. Less is used where an item can’t be counted, such as orange juice.
As far as punctuation is concerned, don’t use an adjective where you don’t have to: over-description is lost on your audience. Instead, use a strong metaphor or simile to make your point.
Use a full stop after each point you have made. If you are unsure about whether to use a semi-colon, don’t.
Also, use commas sparingly – only for clauses in the middle of a sentence – and where possible break down the sentence with full stops after each point. A comma used in the wrong place can change the whole meaning of a sentence.
Where the word ‘however’ is used at the start of a sentence, add a comma after it. However, if it is used in the middle, put commas either side of it.
Use apostrophes to shorten your sentence. As a rule of thumb, it is ’s when you are writing in the singular possessive and s’ if it is plural (eg my cat’s friendly; her six cats’ shrieks drive me crazy). Or it is used to signify where a letter or word is missing, often combining two words (eg wouldn’t, you’ve etc).
Only use quote marks for direct speech. Finish every quote with a quotation mark. Everyone has different house styles, but most people use double quote marks in the main piece and single quotes in the headline and/ or sub-heading. Whichever style you use, be consistent.
Wherever possible, use an active voice in the present tense to add power to your sentence, but in some cases, where it’s more appropriate, you may have to use the passive. People are much more interested in the here and now.
Don’t get hung up on split infinitives either – where a word is inserted between the word ‘to’ and the verb – but try to avoid them if you can. Also, it is fine to finish a sentence with a preposition – a word or phrase which connects a noun or pronoun with a verb or adjective. Likewise, there is no rule to say you can’t start a sentence with the word ‘because’.
Lastly, pay careful attention to spell checks, particularly if you are using an American English version. They are not always right. Always go back and edit your piece and also ask a qualified person such as an editor to review it afterwards.
Above all, don’t overthink it; just write. It is better to have a story that flows well before bringing in the grammar police.
For more on how to improve your grammar, spelling and punctuation, pick up a copy of my book Every Word Counts – The Easy Way To Win More Customers Online here.
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