What to watch out for when writing in English

In English writing, there are a number of common pitfalls which can be confusing, even though they concern points of grammar and spelling familiar to us since our schooldays.

The Hyphen

A prime example of this is the hyphen, joining two words together to make one compound word combining two disparate elements.

Generally speaking, use of the hyphen in modern English is decreasing. It has been largely dropped from adjectives like ‘mouthwatering’ and ‘breathtaking’, and nouns such as ‘wellbeing’ and ‘website’. Other terms, such as ‘web page’, are usually written as two distinct words. In many cases, however, conflicting opinions still exist as to when a hyphen is required.

Three Rules for the Use of Hyphens

  1. Make sure that the meaning is clear.
  2. Check spellings in a modern dictionary.
  3. Above all, be consistent. Fix on one spelling and stick to it.

Avoid ambiguities. The hyphen can clarify meaning, preventing comical blunders:

“Baby-faced burglar in town!” “Baby faced burglar in town!”
“Man-eating shark creates panic!” “Man eating shark creates panic!”

Dictionary spellings of a word with/without a hyphen may also vary. You might find ‘copywriter’, ‘copy-writer’ or ‘copy writer’. Just choose one, and keep a record of your choice.

Hyphens You Can Rely on

Some words are always hyphenated, e.g.:

computer-aided all-inclusive pre-existing, and ‘it pre-dates’
user-generated far-reaching post-war
custom-built non-negotiable 20th-century

A Before-and-after Story

Hyphenated forms are more frequently used when they precede what they describe.

  1. Adjectives beginning with ‘well-’ or ‘ill-’:

    “This is a well-known product. The brand is well known to us all.”

    “This was an ill-thought-out, ill-fated scheme. It was appallingly ill thought out.”

  2. Other hyphenated adjectives:

    “We will make an up-to-date assessment. It will be up to date in all respects.”

    “The factory has an on-site restaurant. All our facilities are on site.”

    “The 50-year-old building still used equipment that actually was 50 years old.”

  3. ‘Build-up’ is hyphenated as a noun, but not as a verb:

    “There was a build-up of tension. What caused such tensions to build up?”

No Hyphens Here! In general, word combinations starting with an adverb are not hyphenated, e.g.:

a beautifully presented piece of work

a broadly based theme

a succinctly written essay

Finally, a hyphen is also used if there is a need to break a word at the end of a line. This should be done without splitting a syllable:

...prefer-ential... prefe-rential...
...except-ionally... ...exce-ptionally...

The Apostrophe

This is another frequent bugbear, both under- and overused. Worth recapping from first principles, it has two types of correct usage:

  1. It is inserted to show that a letter (or number) has been missed out:

    Im sure

    theyll see

    you cant

    it isnt

  2. It is added, plus a letter -s, to the end of the noun stating the ‘possessor’:

    Einstein’s theory

    the teacher’s comments

    the article’s effect

    the children’s stories

Where this noun already ends in -s, typically for plurals, just the apostrophe is added:

all the teachers’ comments

the articles’ combined effect

parents’ responsibilities

Three Rules about Using Apostrophes

  1. The word its, as a possessive like my/his/her/etc., contains no apostrophe.
  2. Words ending in -s simply because they are plural contain no apostrophe.
  3. The placing of an apostrophe follows strict rules involving no guesswork.

In this comment, only the possessives have been highlighted:

“It’s a promising essay, but its presentation is poor and its use of grammar unsatisfactory.”

Use of contracted forms: it’s/there’s/aren’t/couldn’t etc.

These may be used wherever a conversational tone is appropriate, including in messages to colleagues. They are, as a rule, considered unsuitable for theses, dissertations, or any work demanding a degree of formality. However, they are not in themselves ungrammatical, and may be just right for a text that seeks to convey its content in an informal and friendly way. This could include business texts such as marketing material. We could sum it up as:

Here’s something important that you’ll need to remember: there’s a time for writing something that’s a bit informal, and a time when it is not appropriate.”

Inverted Commas, also called Quotation Marks

When do we use single inverted commas, and when double? Direct quotes, along with all representation of direct speech, are generally contained within inverted commas. Frequently, double inverted commas are used for the quote itself, and single ones for any quoted words within that quote, as in the example below (although the reverse of this system is also common):

To cite the manager’s report: “The customer was able to follow the instructions up to Section Four, which he said ‘clearly demanded a degree in electronics’. He is now asking for a full refund on his purchase.”

In British English, single inverted commas are also used to pick out odd words, drawing special attention to them:

His behaviour was viewed as being somewhat unusual by the other students, who tended to find him rather ‘quirky’.

Where to Put the Full Stop When Quoting

If the quote comprises a full sentence, it will naturally end with a full stop, included inside the quotation marks. However, if the quote forms only part of the sentence, the full stop remains outside:

The Guardian critic adjudged the novel “a complete success.”

How to Split a Quotation

The insertion of a ‘reporting clause’ is delineated by the use of commas:

“I hope”, writes the reviewer, “that many more readers will discover this great work.”

The insertion requires commas as shown. In this case the original sentence began “I hope that” (no comma). The comma after “I hope” is therefore excluded from the quote.

While these points may seem relatively minor compared with the text’s content, they are extremely important in producing work of a high professional or academic standard.

“But I’m sure that’s not what I was told!”

It must be said that style guides do not necessarily agree on every detail of punctuation rules. You may find some variation. If you have been advised to follow a particular manual, it is important to consult it on the detail, and also to make any proof-reader aware of which guidelines to follow. Above all, it is vital to be consistent, to give your work that expert touch.

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