My university thesis supervisor once admonished me for using a ‘split infinitive’. I nodded my head, feigned surprise that I would make such a glaring error, and told him that I would fix it up.
Later, I looked up ‘split infinitive’ in the dictionary because I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. I discovered that it’s when you split an ‘infinitive’ (?) with an adverb – eg. ‘to boldly go’, where the adverb ‘boldly’ splits the infinitive ‘to go’. It’s apparently one of the more heinous grammatical crimes.
These days, I’m prone to mete out my own grammatical advice to those who unknowingly butcher the English language. I’ve turned into one of those nit-picking people who go out of their way to correct other people’s emails. Most people find it less than endearing, but I can’t help myself. It’s like picking a scab.
My biggest pet hates: people who use ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’, as in ‘you’re welcome‘, closely followed by the use of an apostrophe to denote a plural (eg. Apostrophe’s are confusing). Aaargghhhhh!
For all the language butchers out there, here are ten simple writing tips that I find useful:
1. Keep it short.
Short sentences and short paragraphs are best to combat short attention spans. ‘Nuff said.
2. Use Grammarly, your personal grammar checker.
Grammarly is a great little Chrome extension that monitors your typing for spelling and grammatical errors. Whether you’re writing emails, essays, or social media posts, Grammarly has your back. It’s free to download and I find it extremely useful, particularly for those inadvertent misspellings.
3. Use active voice, not passive.
That means using ‘subject’-‘verb’-‘object’ in that order, rather than demoting (or even obscuring) the person or thing that is undertaking the action. Active voice is clean and simple, passive voice is messy. For example:
Alex posted the video on Facebook. (active)
The video was posted on Facebook (by Alex). (passive)
4. Get rid of the word ‘that’
I’m guilty of this one. Remove ‘that’ for a stronger sentence: ‘You say that blue is the best’ becomes ‘You say blue is the best‘.
5. Use the first and second person
Don’t be afraid to use I, me, my, we, our, you and your in your writing. Your crusty old English teacher will tell you that it’s informal, but it’s the best way to establish a relationship between you and the reader. My thesis supervisor used to tell me to ‘write it like you say it’ which I reckon was good advice.
6. Get rid of words ending in ‘-ing’
Many -ing words can be replaced with the base verb for a sharper and more focused sentence:
‘The experiences we’re seeking end up being underwhelming and even disappointing.’ becomes ‘The experiences we seek often underwhelm and disappoint.’
7. Kill weasel words
These are words that ‘water down’ your statements and make you sound like you’re sitting on the fence. Remove adverbs that weaken the statement, such as ‘often’, ‘probably’ and ‘generally’ and remove numerically vague expressions, such as ‘most’, ‘many’ and ‘the vast majority’.