Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Common Modern Writing Errors And Their Solutions

Many of the writing errors that are legion in electronic forms of communication stem from laziness but not all do.  A heavy reliance on things like autocorrect and spell check features result in numerous typographical errors that could be resolved simply by re-reading the text in question.  Other errors, like deliberate misuse of punctuation, stem either from a blatant disregard for proper grammar and punctuation or, more likely, a lack of proper instruction in said areas of writing.  In the interest of offering something useful to supplement my previous rant, I will point out the most common errors and how they can be rectified.

#1 Overuse of the Ellipsis

One of the most common errors that I see is also one of the most frustrating: the incorrect, improper, over usage of those dreaded triple periods.  The primary purpose that the ellipsis serves in writing is to indicate an omission of a section of text, particularly when it pertains to quotations.  If one wanted to quote Oscar Wilde to imply that sincerity is fatal, one could alter this original quotation, "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal" by utilizing an ellipsis in the middle, thus transforming the quotation into, "A little absolutely fatal."

A secondary usage of the ellipsis is when a writer will end a sentence with one, in which case it can be called a "suspension point" instead of an ellipsis. The writer's intention in so doing is, unsurprisingly, to build tension by effectively trailing off the point, leaving the idea unfinished and/or allowing an implication or inference to be drawn by the reader.

I see an atrocious overuse of the ellipsis on Facebook where people will insert them haphazardly into a wall post.  Here's a fictitious example:

"OMG...I am SO done with that show!!!  They killed off my favorite's can you DO that when he was EVVVVVVVVVERYONE'S favorite!?  It's ridiculous..."

I think the reason that people do this is either because they are attempting to elicit a greater amount of emphasis from what they are saying (implying, therefore, that they are not confident that they have conveyed their true degree of emotion effectively).  It could also be that they are made nervous by the natural space between words or simply by the use of a period.

Another example of the misuse comes from the people who use the ellipsis only once but at the end of every sentence:

"Thanks for the birthday wishes..."  or  "It was great hanging out with you..."  and of course "I love the photo you posted..."

I find this to be far more obnoxious than the "I'm-going-to-insert-it-everywhere-in-the-sentence" person because you can never truly know what the author's intention is.  Is she being sarcastic?  Does she like the photo?  Was it great to be hanging out?  You'll never know.  The same can be said for the person who runs through a sarcastic or passive-aggressive run of text only to end it with a smiley face.  It's the same issue: being non-committal with your emotions.

"Maybe if you work a little harder next time you will actually get the job. :)"

The only solution that can be implemented here is simply to stop using the ellipsis.  Period. (Get it?)  It's only necessary when one removes a portion of a quotation; at any other point, it's merely used for effect.  I say everything is fine in moderation so just stop using it all the time and save it rather for the important points that truly benefit from additional emphasis.

#2 Triple Punctuation

In a way, this is an issue that is analogous to the overuse of the ellipsis (which, ironically, is three periods slung together).  You see it mostly with exclamation points but sometimes with question marks as well (or even a combination of the two, which is its own issue).


Again, the motivation behind this is a lack of confidence that one is effectively conveying the proper amount of emphasis and emotion.  The exclamation point (arguably the most overused punctuation mark in the English arsenal) exists solely for demonstrating a heightened level of excitement--one that a period, alone, cannot display.  Using multiple exclamation points might show that you are really excited about something, but is it truly necessary?  Especially if you're a chronic over-user?  Just stick with one and be done with it!  (See!?)

#3 The Period After The Punctuation Mark

Sticking with the punctuation errors, my mind is perpetually boggled by people who place a period after another punctuation mark.  The purpose of an exclamation point, a question mark, a closing quotation mark or parenthesis is to end a sentence; placing a period after one of these is just wrong.

"Yo bro you wanna go see a Rangers game next week?  They're doing GREAT this season!!!."

I've also seen people who use a semicolon like a period or who treat it like a period and then follow it with a period.  A semicolon is meant to serve as a hybrid between a comma and a period (thus its appearance as such).  Like a comma, it separates two clauses in a sentence but ones that can exist independently and that are indelibly linked by a common thread in the sentence.  Usually, the semicolon is used to draw attention to this connection by way of emphasizing the first half of the sentence through the second.

"Jimmy suffers from voice immodulation; he is one of the loudest guys on the team."

You cannot use the semicolon purely as a period because it doesn't separate two sentences but rather links them.  That is why this would be incorrect:

"I love going to Clove Lakes Park; Tomorrow is Eleanor's birthday."

You would never capitalize the first letter of the first word following the semicolon much like you wouldn't if it was following a comma.

The reason people place a period after another mark of punctuation is simply a lack of understanding of grammar and punctuation.  The solution is just to pick one and to stick with it.  In fact, the only time you would even consider adding a punctuation mark is when you are attempting to state a question emphatically via an exclamation point and a question mark, though it would still be advisable not to pair them as such.

#4 Split Infinitives

This one drives me absolutely bat shit crazy when I see it in a professionally published article, or even in one that is affiliated with a major website like IGN or ESPN.  The infinitive verb tense is simply the root verb preceded by the word "to."  Some examples are, "To be; to run; to fall; to swim."  A split infinitive occurs when the infinitive verb form is invoked and then broken apart by another word, most often an adverb meant to enhance the verb.  Here are some examples:

"He wanted to quickly run to the store."

"She tried to not be upset when she heard the news."

The reason people write like this is because they speak like this.  I hear "to not be" spoken very often and yet it's utterly incorrect.  An easy way to understand why is that in these instances the infinitive verb form is being used.  Again, that is the word "to" followed by the verb itself.  Since the words "quickly" and "not" are not verbs, it is impossible to use them that way in a sentence.  You cannot not much like you cannot quickly; you'll never see someone notting or quicklying.

The easiest way to fix this from a writing perspective is simply to re-read one's writing and to keep a close eye on one's use of the infinitive form.  The more effective way is to stop speaking that way as well.  It's lazy and improper so why not just make the adjustment?  To, then the verb, then the adverb.

#5 Only / Just

These are two of the most incorrectly used words in the English language.  People understand their purpose (to imply an instance in which there is one and only one set of circumstances) but not their implementation.  Here are some examples:

"I only want to go to see Kelly Clarkson to pick up chicks at the show."

"I want to just curl up in a ball and die I am SOOOOOOOO tired!!!"

"Don't you just want to punch him for being such an asshole with all of this writing correction bullshit!?!?"

Both words modify the word that comes immediately after them.  Therefore, if you want to say that the reason for going to see Kelly Clarkson is to pick up women, you would write it as such:

"I want to go see Kelly Clarkson only to pick up chicks at the show."

The way it is written in the first instance implies that you only want to go to see Kelly Clarkson.  You don't want to swim to go to see Kelly Clarkson nor do you want to cook to go to see Kelly Clarkson.  In that first example, the verb "want" is being modified and thus makes absolutely no sense.  When the word "only" migrates to its proper position, it becomes obvious that the only reason this person is going to the show is "to pick up chicks."

The same issue occurs with the next two instances.  In the first (second, chronologically), the split infinitive results in a misplacement of the word just.  Since it is impossible to "just," the proper placement would be before the word "to," thus rendering the sentence, "I want just to curl up in a ball..."  This person wants only one thing: to curl up into a ball.  Therefore, the word just must appear precisely before this action.

The third example is yet another iteration of this problem.  You can't "just want" because that doesn't make any sense.  What does make sense is saying that you want just to punch him by writing it as, "Don't you want just to punch him..."

The reason these errors happen is mostly because it is a common and commonly accepted speech error that is reflected in one's writing.  The easiest way to emend this is to look at what comes immediately after the word "only" or "just."  If it's a verb, is it in the correct form?  If it's a noun, is it where it should be?

"I only want a new bike for my birthday and nothing else."

Really?  You only want a new bike?  You don't bake a new bike or recite a new bike?  In this case, the verb is "want" and it is being modified incorrectly. 

"I want only a new bike for my birthday and nothing else."

You want only a new bike for your birthday?  You don't want an iPod or a tablet?  No, only a new bike.

Usually, the solution involves only moving the word one or two positions forward or back in the sentence; just try to be careful in the future.