Common Grammar Mistakes III

Guest blogger of Common Grammar Mistakes III, Tyrone Couch, is a Queensland University of Technology student. He’s completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts, majoring in Creative Writing. Tyrone is currently undertaking a 100-hour internship with Gail Tagarro

fur cloak helmet and sword for common grammar mistakes III

Grammar Knights, assemble! Common Grammar Mistakes III marks the beginning of our third incursion into this territory, where we ride into battle with highlighters held high to rout the forces of editorial evil.

Our quest for peace in the Grammar Kingdom has taken us far and wide, and many of the enemy’s forces have already fallen to the might of our unrelenting red pen. Should you wish to review our previous campaigns, you can witness the aftermath of the first skirmish here and the second encounter here.

Today, we set our sights on a remote outpost in the Writer’s Wilds, where scouts have confirmed the presence of several of the enemy’s generals. To battle!

Unnecessary Capitalisation

Writers often make the mistake of capitalising for emphasis, capitalising nouns, or capitalising unnamed events:

            Incorrect: I treated Judith to a Sweet, Juicy Lobster for her Birthday Lunch.

            Correct: I treated Judith to a sweet, juicy lobster for her birthday lunch.

No matter how sweet or juicy the lobster may have been, sweet and juicy are merely adjectives and should not be capitalised. However, if Dapper Dave’s Seafood listed its Sweet, Juicy Lobster as a trademarked menu item, then it would be appropriate to capitalise it. The word lobster is but a humble noun. As a rule of thumb, the only nouns that warrant capitalisation are proper nouns, e.g. names, cities, and companies.

Capitalising events appropriately can be a little tricky. Birthdays (and birthday lunches) are indeed events, but capitalisation is generally reserved for events with proper names or titles, such as time periods (e.g. The Bronze Age) or historic events (e.g. The Great Depression). If the birthday lunch had been named Judy’s Birthday Bonanza, this too would have fit the bill (but it would’ve been terribly gauche).

Titles, such as those of books or movies, are another common source of confusion. Words that should be capitalised in a title are the first word, nouns, proper nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Conjunctions, articles, and prepositions should all remain lowercase.

            Incorrect: Gone With The Wind

            Correct: Gone with the Wind

This also applies to job titles and other such decorations:

            Incorrect: Director Of Media And Advertising

            Correct: Director of Media and Advertising

Hyphenation Errors

Correct hyphenation is one of the top contenders for the Most Rules with Most Exceptions award. Here are some of the most common hyphenation errors, as well as some exceptions to the rules that govern them:

  • Absence of hyphens in compound modifiers

A compound modifier, also known as a phrasal adjective, is a series of words that comes together to modify a noun, essentially functioning as an adjective (e.g. full-time employee, one-year term, last-minute decision). As a general rule, when the words that precede a noun only make sense in the context of coming together to modify that noun, hyphenate them. Notable exceptions include compound nouns and instances where: the phrasal adjective contains -ly; the modifying word is most, least, very, or less; the modifier follows the noun; or the phrase contains a proper noun.

  • Use of hyphens in adverbial phrases

It is common for writers to use a hyphen to link adverbs and adjectives when modifying a noun, but it is incorrect:

            Incorrect: The gradually-setting sun seemed to sink into the ocean.

            Correct: The gradually setting sun seemed to sink into the ocean.

  • Use of hyphens in prepositional phrases

Similarly, hyphens are often used erroneously in prepositional phrases:

            Incorrect: I made it just in-time.

            Correct: I made it just in time.

            Simply put—don’t do it!

  • Incorrect assignment of hyphens in compound words

There are three forms of compound words: open (e.g. high school), closed (e.g. skateboard), and hyphenated (e.g. self-assured). Determining which of the three forms is appropriate can be challenging, as there is a tendency for hyphenated compounds to become closed compounds over time. Also, certain style guides advocate the use of one form over another. It is best to refer to a dictionary to determine which form is appropriate.

Ambiguous Modifiers

A modifier is considered ambiguous when it is placed between two separate phrases. It is therefore unclear which of the phrases it is intended to modify:

            Visiting my mother often results in stress.

The placement of the modifier ‘often’ here makes it unclear whether visiting her generally or visiting her often (regularly) results in stress for the subject:

            Visiting my mother often results in stress.

            Visiting my mother often results in stress.

It is entirely possible that both of these statements are true, but it’s important to clarify! If any of these appear in your work, try to reword them in a way that makes it clear exactly what you are trying to communicate.

As the dust settles on The Battle of Writer’s Wilds, I bid you a fond farewell and eagerly await the day we are brothers-and-sisters-in-arms once more.

Join us next time for more grammatical goodness!

Let us know what you think about Common Grammar Mistakes III by posting your comments below. What did you learn from this?

Some Resources

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

The Australian Editing Handbook, Third Edition, 2014, by Elizabeth Flann, Beryl Hill and Lan Wang. Wiley, Qld.

Gail Tagarro Book Writing Coach logo for common grammar mistakes III

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