Tips and Tricks for Writing Fluidly
No, we're not fixing up your brother's car. Mechanics are the little technical bits in your writing; punctuation, spacing, spelling, capitalisation, et cetera. We'll start there.
Different languages have different rules for what should be capitalised. If you speak English, you'd capitalise "I" and leave your dog lowercase. You may find it interesting that German is a bit backwards. If you're German, you'd capitalise "Hund" and leave "ich" lowercase. Why am I telling you this? Because it's simple little things like this that have the potential to give your reader the wrong impression of you. If they think that English is not your first language, they may structure a critique differently than if they knew that you were born and raised in New York.
So, when do you capitalise something?
° At the beginnings of sentences.
The dog is in the park.
° In certain instances when it's a proper noun (not all of them are, but a fair amount of them should be).
We went to the White House last week.
° When it's a name (people, books, movies, companies; a name is a name and they are all capitalised).
Did you hear Sally got her driving license last week?
° When it begins a quotation.
Janet laughed and said, "You can't be serious."
(We'll talk a lot about quotations in a bit, actually.)
- When it is an initialism.
The NYPD police commissioner is giving a speech today.
There is a difference between an "initialism" and an "acronym." An acronym is when you take the first letters of a bunch of words, and make them into something shorter that's easier to say.
Self-contained underwater breathing apparatus: scuba = acronym. These are not capitalised, except when at the beginning of a sentence.
South San Francisco Police Department: SSFPD = initialism. These are capitalised, and if you tried to say it as written, you'd sound a bit mental.
This is something that not only changes from language to language, but also region to region. We'll be talking about that a lot, actually, especially in spelling and grammar.
Hard stop, or period: Used at the end of a sentence, except in certain circumstances when used in a quotation. Those are in a bit. With the hard stops, some people choose to put two spaces after, but in the age of the internet, that seems to be slowly fading out.
°The sky is blue.
Commas: Used to separate clauses, and at both ends of most quotations.
° You know, that doesn't seem entirely wise.
Also used to separate out list items.
He placed his hands on the cold, smooth steel wall.
Also used in parenthetical phrases.
The sea, it would seem/B, just isn't the right shade of pink.
They should also be used before or after you address someone specifically. Simply put, Commas save lives, and are the difference between:
Let's eat Grandpa!
Let's eat, Grandpa!
Some people hate it; journalists, mostly. Other people think that it's a crime to not use it. The Oxford Comma (it has another name, but I can't remember it) is the comma in a list of items that comes before the and or but before the last item.
She went to the shop for milk, eggs, and bread.
I prefer it, though I don't necessarily think you should be caned if you omit it.
Apostrophe: Used in a contraction of two words, or to shorten some words.
° Do not = don't
° Cannot = can't
° Should have = should've (don't ever spell it "should'uv." That doesn't even make any sense)
Also used to show ownership:
° Tom' s baseball
° The girl's puppy
Unlike the Oxford Comma, this one is wrong ALL THE TIME. It's the apostrophe that people inexplicably use on a plural noun. Note that this generally only applies to the English language, and that some languages do, in fact, use an apostrophe in plurals. But in English, it's wrong.
Bad Examples (DON'T DO IT)
° Those dog's over there.
° She grabbed her shoe's.
° How many pen's do you have?
Again, DON'T DO THIS. Please. It's a rage button for a lot of people.
Possessive use on names ending in S
Depending on which set of rules you follow, if you have a name ending in S (James, Nicholas), it's acceptable to omit an additional S if you have a possessive.
° Nicholas' pen
° James' hat
Near as I can tell, it's a US/UK thing, but even people within the two regions seem to be divided. Aesthetically, I prefer to omit the second S. I find that that Nicholas's just looks chunky. Even my spell check says that it's wrong.
Semicolon: Used to combine two separate thoughts.
° Can't you see what you're doing to him; what you're doing to us?
Semicolons are not interchangeable with hard stops or commas. Generally, if you can put a hard stop where you put your semicolon, then just put the hard stop.
Question mark: used when a question is asked.
° What time is it?
° I know there's a word for it, but what's it called when you do something to this effect, and then this, that, and the other thing happens?
Quotation Marks – How they work alone, and with other punctuation
Quotation marks are arguably the most confusing of all punctuation out there. Where do they go? How do you punctuate them? How are they formatted? We'll start slowly, with the quotation marks, themselves.
Where to put them?
Quotation marks go around two types of phrases. Most obviously, they go around quotes, but they can also go around words which need to stand out.
They do not replace bolding, italics, underlines, or anything like that. This page sums it up rather nicely, I think. So does this. There are "irony quotes" (this is an example of when something should be wrapped in quotations for emphasis, because I've just made up that term for the quotes which I'm about to talk about. Also, see the capitalisation lesson for examples of single-word quotes) where the phrase in question may be in quotation marks because it's pointing out something which may be incorrect.
° We were discussing the "accident" earlier today with Andrew.
Word-for-word quotes. These are most common in works of fiction, or when quoting something that someone said.
° "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country." - John F. Kennedy
The quotes we'll most be focusing on are the narrative sorts; the quotation marks you'd find if you opened up any novel. We'll start with the quote, followed by the tag. The quote is what the character is saying, and the tag tells you which character said it. In this case, the quote ends with a comma. The comma goes inside the quotation mark, and a hard stop goes after the tag. Always. No exceptions. Ever. Or I'll come round to your house and kick your knees.
° "Bring me that file after lunch," Nicholas said.
If he asks a question, the comma would be replaced with a question mark.
° "Could you bring me that file after lunch?" Nicholas asked.
Since you don't say a question, the tag changed a little bit. He asked a question.
Reversing the format – putting the tag first.
The tag doesn't always have to go at the end. Sometimes, they can go at the beginning. Then, and only then, can a hard stop finish the quote. The hard stop still lives inside the quotation mark, and there is a comma following the tag, and before the quote starts. The comma lets us know that the narrative is stopping, and the character is going to start to talk. You do not use a comma for the types of quotations we talked about earlier.
° Jayne said, "I'll be in my bunk."
The tags don't just have to be two words, either. That's a bit boring. Let's fix that up a bit, shall we?
° Jayne rolled his eyes and said, "I'll be in my bunk."
Nothing mechanically changed in that sentence. It's still exactly the same on that front.
Split quotes – Putting the tag in the middle.
Yes, the tag doesn't even have to round out the quote. It can go right in the middle. This is usually done for pacing. Sometimes, there is a hard stop after the tag. This is done when the quote is two separate sentences, and there would be a hard stop at the end of the first one normally.
° "I can't believe you did that," Tony said. "How are we going to replace it now?"
Sometimes, there is a comma after the tag. This is done when the tag interrupts the quote for whatever reason. The second quote is therefore not capitalised, since it wouldn't be normally.
° "Please," Carolyn said, motioning toward the chair, "have a seat."
Quotes within quotes
Sometimes, a character may find themselves quoting another character. In this case, it's standard practise to use apostrophes in place of the quotes. It sounds tricky, but it's not.
° "I don't know," Arthur said. "All he said was, 'what's done is done'."
The comma still goes before Arthur's quote, but since he's still talking, and he started the quote mid-sentence, the bit that he's quoting isn't capitalised. That stays lowercase. The little apostrophe quotes end after he's done quoting whomever he's quoting, and then the hard stop, and then the main quotation marks. Some people may choose to put the hard stop inside of Arthur's mini-quote, and not in between the two, and to be honest, I'm not sure there's much of a difference. This way just seems to look a bit better.
Spelling – a quick note
I can only offer so much advice on spelling. There will be a confused words lesson in the future, but this section is just on how to spell words.
° Get a spell check
Microsoft Word is expensive. I'll agree to that. But if you use a word processor with a spell check, your brain will recognise words that you misspell, and you'll start to learn how to correctly spell them. Here's what I'd suggest:
OpenOffice. It works a lot like MS Word, and is even compatible with it. And the best part, it's free!
Google Docs. If you don't want to install anything, then you'll love this. It works right in your browser, and saves everything to Google's servers. It's compatible with MS Word and OpenOffice, plus you have the convenience of having your documents available from any internet-ready computer.
Regional differences in spelling
Did you know that Americans are the only English-speaking country to pronounce Z as "zee"? Everyone else calls it "zed". Similarly, the American dialect puts Z into a lot of words that the rest of the English language would spell with an S.
° Realise – Realize
° Capitalise – Capitalize
° Socialise – Socialize
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Neither is wrong, and this is an important thing to keep in mind. The Z vs S spelling difference is one of the main ones, as well as some C vs S differences. So, if you're critiquing someone else's work, be careful about calling them out on a misspelling, unless they've completely buggered it up and spelt it "definetly".