Tyrone Couch is guest blogger of Common Grammar Mistakes II. At the time of writing this post, Tyrone was a Queensland University of Technology student completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts, majoring in Creative Writing. Early in 2021, Tyrone undertook a 100-hour internship with Gail Tagarro
Welcome back to the latest edition of Common Grammar Mistakes, where we take a deep dive into the ocean of grammar in search of pearls of wisdom.
Last time, we tackled some hard and fast rules with i.e. versus e.g. and Misplacement of Apostrophe in Possessive Nouns. We also ventured out a little further into the depths of subjectivity with Passive Voice. If you have yet to find your sea legs on the first article in this series, you can read it here.
On this next expedition, we explore another mixture of concrete rules and less definitive guidelines, the latter demanding some discretion on the author’s part to determine whether (and where) they have a place in their body of work.
To ease us into the journey ahead, let’s start small with incomplete comparisons. An incomplete comparison is when you make a comparative assertion without identifying a second subject to measure the assertion against:
The bacon is better at Angry Mac’s.
The question remains: better than where? McRonald’s? Incomplete comparisons are impossible to refute, and therefore popular in advertising. Though they may be a useful marketing tactic, they are much less effective in prose. Take this statement for example:
I need to be more active.
We know that the subject needs to be more active, but it is unclear when, what, or whom they need to be more active than. To complete the comparison, we must specify the object of comparison, like so:
I need to be more active than I was last week.
I need to be more active than a potato.
I need to be more active than my rival if I want to win.
You can easily avoid incomplete comparisons. To do so, just make sure that whenever you make a comparison, you specify what you are comparing the subject against.
En dash versus Em dash
Dashes are a little more complicated (than incomplete comparisons, of course!). Of the two types of dash, the En dash is shorter (–), where the Em dash is significantly longer (—). People frequently use them interchangeably, but as with i.e. and e.g., each has its specific purpose for which it is uniquely suited. Many of us also refer to the humble hyphen (-) as a dash, but this is not strictly the case. Correct hyphen usage is a complicated issue and we'll cover it in a future article—for now, let’s look at some examples of each dash in action.
The 2018–2019 financial year was especially difficult for the company.
Jeanette’s hours were reduced until she was only working from 10am–2pm.
The classifieds spanned pages 80–87, but none of the jobs was suitable.
Simply put, the En dash (used above) indicates ‘to’ or ‘through,’ and could effectively be substituted for either of these words. The Em dash has a different function entirely:
Roger tried everything to ease her mind—took her out for dinner, reassured her, gave her suggestions—but she was too afraid of what the future held.
She smiled through it all—or tried to—but the smile never reached her eyes.
She knew it was only a matter of time—the business would go under, she would be made redundant, and she would lose the house.
In the first two sentences above, the Em dash is used in pairs to isolate information that is not necessary to make sense of the sentence (i.e. you could remove it entirely without breaking its structure), but it adds colour and depth through detail. The third sentence employs the Em dash in much the same way as a semicolon, creating emphasis and indicating a shift in tone. In short, the Em dash is used as a means of marking a break or beat in a sentence.
Note that excessive use of the Em dash can undermine its ability to make emphasis and quickly overwhelm a piece—so use it carefully.
Use of Semicolons
The primary function of a semicolon (;) is to link two independent clauses in a sentence that are strongly related. Writers often use semicolons in error where a comma is required (and vice versa):
Correct: I swam with a dolphin, and it was magical.
In this example, ‘and it was magical’ is not an independent clause because it depends on ‘I swam with a dolphin’ to make sense. You need to use a comma instead.
Incorrect: I swam with a shark, it was terrifying.
Correct: I swam with a shark; it was terrifying.
In the above case, both clauses are independent—they can stand alone. You can either link them with a semicolon or make them separate sentences. Linking independent clauses by a comma is called a comma splice, and it is the enemy of editors everywhere.
To borrow from the previous section, let’s replace the usage in the final example of an Em dash with a semicolon and see what happens:
She knew it was only a matter of time; the business would go under and she would be made redundant.
As you can see, the semicolon performs essentially the same function as the Em dash when used in this way. The clauses before and after the semicolon are both capable of standing alone in their own sentences, but you can link them because of their close relation to the same subject. As with the Em dash, it is all too easy to overuse the semicolon—thus, alternate it with a variety of other style marks and sentence structures to avoid repetition.
That brings us to the end of Common Grammar Mistakes II. In Part III, we will step boldly into the wilderness once more to overcome such adversaries as:
’til we meet again!
I hope you’ve enjoyed Ty’s humour in this post, Common Grammar Mistakes II, and that you take some of these learnings into your writing.
The Australian Editing Handbook, Third Edition, 2014, by Elizabeth Flann, Beryl Hill and Lan Wang. Wiley, Qld.
The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell audiobook