The rules of the English language are more than just a set of dos and don’ts, even though that’s probably how you learned it at school. From style guides to active voice, punctuation to homophones, consider this your go-to guide for being consistent in your writing and editing.
Rule #1: Consistency!
The first rule of grammar club: you do not talk about rules in grammar club.
Well, kind of. When we say grammar and punctuation rules, we’re really referring to structure. Is your sentence made up of the right elements? Are they in the right place? There are particular language rules around things like clauses and modifiers, but there are other decisions that are more about style.
Many people mistake style decisions as rules. For instance, your school teacher may have told you to never start a sentence with a conjunction—and, but, or. But you can. This stuff sticks, but it’s important to get a sense for decisions that are stylistic and those that aren’t.
This is why a style guide comes in handy
A style guide sets out standards for writing, formatting and design. At FYA, we take the lead from the Australian Government. The ABC and The Guardian are also great resources. Guides are the best way to make judgement calls and keep things consistent for your readers.
Rule #2: Write in the active voice
The way you structure your sentence defines whether you’re speaking in the passive or active voice.
The passive voice isn’t necessarily incorrect, it just isn’t the best way to phrase meaning. Sometimes it’s vague and wordy, so you can sharpen your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentences. Search engines love active sentences too.
So what is it? In an active sentence, the subject is doing the action. For example, in the sentence “FYA backs young people,” FYA is the subject, and it is doing the action. It backs young people, with young people being the object of the sentence and so they’re the target of the action.
A passive sentence is when the object or target of the action comes first, taking the prime position of the subject. So instead of saying “FYA backs young people”, the passive voice would say, “Young people are backed by FYA.”
There are some instances where passive writing is suitable, like when the subject is unknown or when you’re writing fiction. For the most part, it’s good practice to make sure it’s the subject in your sentence that’s leading the action.
Rule #3: Know your punctuation marks
These little marks can have big consequences for meaning. Unfortunately, punctuation use is far more nuanced than the sayings your school teacher may have made you memorise. Keep these refreshers handy.
Commas (,) are pauses. They separate ideas in sentences, words in lists, and much more. Grammarly has a great guide for mastering the little curlers.
Colons (:) are big flashing arrows for the information that proceeds them. It’s like saying ‘as follows’, ‘which is/are’ or ‘thus’, according to this guide by Grammarly.
Hyphens (-) are the shortest of the strokes. They join words or parts of words. Grammarly has the details. And contrary to popular belief, hyphens can’t be used interchangeably for their close cousin, the dashes, of which there are three—en dash, em dash, and the double hyphen— with three different uses.
Tip: A great way to remember the difference between the en and em dash is to picture the en dash as the width of the letter N and the em dash as the width of the letter M. N is shorter, M is longer.
Rule #4: Hone your homophones
Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings. There, their and they’re are common threats. So why are homophones on our list of golden grammar rules? Because some are more complicated and can fly under the radar of even the most scrupulous of editors—humans and bots alike!
Spell-check doesn’t always pick up misuse, so here’s a few to keep your eye on.
• Affect and effect: A verb or a noun? Use the acronym R.A.V.E.N. to help: Remember, Affect Verb, Effect Noun.
• Aid and aide: To help or someone who helps?
• Compliment and complement: Saying something nice or enhancing another thing?
• Cue and queue: A signal for action or a line of people waiting?
• Elicit and illicit: To evoke/draw out or something that’s forbidden?
• Pare, pair and pear: To peel, two, or a fruit?
Do you know the correct meanings? Keep homophone.com close for the next time you’re second-guessing your word choice.