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Basic Writing Tips - Some Controversial, All Correct

As a previous article ("Making Better Word Choices - 4 Examples") explained, writers can take steps to prevent simple, and common, errors from degrading their writing. Five areas of writing that cause authors problems are discussed in this article.

Split Infinitives
First let us exam the famously frowned upon split infinitive. Maybe some readers do not know, or do not remember, what a split infinitive is exactly. To understand split infinitives readers must first remember what constitutes an infinitive. An infinitive is a phrase that includes a verb preceded by the word "to, such as, "to play or "to investigate." Now that we know what an infinitive is maybe we remember our English teachers lecturing us against "splitting them. Simply put, a split infinitive is when a writer puts a word between the word "to and the associated verb. Therefore, a split infinitive would look something like the following examples:

He was going to quickly investigate the theft.
Tommy likes to neatly color in his book.

These two examples would be re-written as shown below.

He was going to investigate the theft quickly.
OR
He was quickly going to investigate the theft.

Tommy likes to color neatly in his book.
OR
Tommy likes to color in his book neatly.

Splitting infinitives is not criticized to the degree it has been in the past. As many reputable sources explain, occasionally splitting an infinitive is acceptable. Even some progressive English teachers will agree with this idea. Compact Oxford Online Dictionary explains that the rule for not splitting infinitives was based on an analogy to Latin, a language that writes infinitives as one word, such as bibere "to drink." The decision to argue with an English teacher about the acceptance of splitting infinitives is your decision to make. As Oxford states, "in standard English the use of split infinitives is broadly accepted as both normal and useful.1 If you do decide to argue with an English teacher, feel free to point out that people such as John Donne, William Wordsworth, and Benjamin Franklin split infinitives at will. The larger problem occurs when a writer consistently splits their infinitives. If splitting the infinitive helps with emphasis or the statement flows better go ahead and split the infinitive.

Superlatives and Comparatives
Writers should also strive to use superlatives and comparatives correctly. Some cases of incorrect use may sound okay, but if the author remembers the rules that they learned for using superlatives and comparatives they will realize that they have made the error. For example when a sentence is written as below it sounds correct, but it is not.

One of the most common mistakes a cook makes is not using fresh ingredients.

In this example, the lack of fresh ingredients is either a common mistake or it is the most common mistake; there generally cannot be two, or more, most common mistakes. A case where there can be two "mosts is in an exact tie. For example, if 20 mistakes are made and two of them occur six times each (making up 12 of the 20 mistakes) and the remaining eight mistakes are all different, then the two mistakes that occurred six times each could be labeled as the most common mistakes.

The sentence below shows another way that a comparative can be written incorrectly.

Of the three dogs, the bulldog was the smaller.

To use a comparative there needs to be something compared to something else. The bulldog either was the smallest of the three dogs or was smaller than another dog in the group. Both sentences below are written correctly.

The bulldog was smaller than the German shepherd and the St. Bernard.
The bulldog was the smallest of the three dogs.

A third sentence, shown below would also be correct.

The bulldog was smaller than the other two dogs.

This is written correctly because the bulldog is compared to a pair. It is clear from the sentence that the other two dogs, by being grouped together, are larger than the bulldog.

Comma Use
The use of commas can be confusing for many writers. Three rules for using commas are addressed here. The first rule involves comma use when a series is given, such as in the example below.

I bought carrots, peas, and watermelons.

Some readers may consider this rule controversial; some teachers and editors may say the final comma is not necessary, in my opinion the use of the final comma is more appropriate than not. If, for some reason, your teacher or editor tells you the final comma is unnecessary then ask them to explain why, I do not have an explanation as to why some have a preference for not using the final comma.
Do not use a comma when only two items are in the series, such as in the sentence below.

I saw birds and fish at the pet store.

The second rule for use of commas is to use a comma before the "and when a wholly correct clause is introduced. The way to determine if the clause is wholly correct is to ask if it makes sense on its own, such as having its own subject(s) and verb(s). The example below shows two clauses separated by "and, along with a correctly used comma.

We went to the store, and Joan bought some juice.

The third rule is an extension of the second rule; do not use a comma to separate a sentence from text that could not be a complete clause on its own. The example below shows an incorrect use of a comma in this situation.

We are going home, and sleep.

The ending of the example sentence ("and sleep") is not a complete sentence on its own, therefore, a comma should not be used before "and."

Acronyms and Abbreviations
Completely spell out acronyms and abbreviations the first time they are used. Once a writer decides to use an acronym or abbreviation they should be used throughout the remainder of the text, switching back and forth between the full spelling and the acronym or abbreviation should be avoided.

Using "etc., "i.e., and "e.g."
The final rules discussed in this article involve the use of several common abbreviations. The first abbreviation is "etc." This comes from Latin and is an abbreviation for et cetera, which means "and others." First, make sure that a period is included at the end; second, make sure that the "others have been specified previously. A final note on this abbreviation, if it is used put the letters in the correct order; "ect." is not correct.
The second abbreviation often misused is "i.e." Also from Latin, this is a shortened form of id est which means "that is." When used correctly this abbreviation indicates an alternative way of stating something. The most common error when using "i.e." is not following it with a comma; there should be two periods and a comma in this abbreviation.
The final abbreviation discussed in this article is "e.g." Again, this is an abbreviation for a Latin phrase, "exempla gratia." This is used when the writer means "for example or "for instance." Some people believe that "e.g." stands for example given, this is not true, but it can be a helpful way to remember that it does have something to do with an example. Similar to the use of "i.e." many writers forget to put a comma after the second period in "e.g." Below are three correct examples of these abbreviations.

Bob bought a whole bunch of office supplies, pens, pencils, staples, paper, highlighters, and erasers on his way home. He purchased so many things that when he got home he realized that he had forgotten a bag at the store. He had his pens and pencils, but the staples etc. were still at the store.

John is a big person, i.e., he is over six feet tall.

The black horse is fast, e.g., it has won all of its races.

By using the rules above your writing will make more sense and will be correct. Future articles will address other writing errors and provide additional advice.

1 Compact Oxford Online Dictionary. 25 January 2005. http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/splitinfinitive

About the Author

David is the owner of Blue Arch Consulting, a proofreading and editing business helping clients worldwide to generate English documents of all types. Their website is at http://www.blue-arch.net


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