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 The Write Way 

Friday 28 January 2000

Up a Tree ...



 So, did you get your man safely down from his tree after throwing stones at him last week? It's quite a good little plan for writing, isn't it? At least it gives you somewhere to start when you have so many ideas whirling around.

This is the time of year when universities in many countries are gearing up for a new academic year. If you're applying for entrance to a graduate school and you need help with your application, let me write it for you. I've helped prepare student applications for Ph D and other post-graduate courses at major universities. I can proof-read your application for spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors; edit your work so that it answers the questions in the required word limit, or you can send me the 'raw material' for the questions and I'll compose your response.

It may be that you're applying for a new job, rather than entrance to university - let me help you with your presentation. These days, many employers use Selection Criteria as the basis for short-listing applicants. If you're unsure about how to word your responses, I can help.

Click here for my Fee Schedule and then contact me with details of your needs and I'll send you a firm quote.

If you do have a major writing project coming up and you need a refresher on the basics - read on ...

Its the little things that count

Hand up if you spotted the mistake in the heading above.

That's right - there should be an apostrophe in It's because it's a contraction of two separate words: it and is.

Grammar and punctuation are a bit like riding a bike - once you know how to do it, it's easy, and you never forget. The trouble is that many people went through the education system when the trend was to let children learn to write by "doing". The theory was that they'd pick up the rules later.

Hmmm - another fine theory from the experts.

(I recently came across one of those little comments that express how we feel about some of these experts: "The Ark was built by amateurs; experts built the Titanic.")

Here are some of the 'little things' that often cause problems for writers (yes, I know I've already discussed these before, but some things bear repeating!):

The apostrophe

It only has TWO functions to perform and they're both very straightforward:

1. We've already looked at the first function - to show the omission of letters in a contraction: What's a nice kid like me doing in place like this?

You're going to be sorry that you forgot your credit card.

Note: you're is the contraction of you and are; your is the possessive pronoun - it shows ownership (He's your son when he misbehaves.)

So, in future whenever you see an apostrophe, ask yourself if a letter has been left out and make a conscious effort to work out what the original word was before the letter was omitted. (Sometimes - as in the case of could've [could HAVE, not could of] more than one letter has been omitted.)

This will establish good habits and alert you to the role of the apostrophe.

2. The second function of the apostrophe is to show POSSESSION.

We went to Marmaduke's restaurant for dinner. (Marmaduke owns the restaurant; it is the 'restaurant of Marmaduke'.)

At the zoo, the children were most interested in seeing the lions' den.

More than one lion owns the den, so the apostrophe comes after the 's' (it's the den of the lions).

So, the general rule is:

    • if there's ONE owner - add an apostrophe and an 's'
    • if there are TWO OR MORE owners, add 's' then an apostrophe

However, there are exceptions to this general rule.

For words which form their plural by changing internal letters (instead of by adding 's'), the apostrophe comes before the 's'.

It was the children's turn to wash up.

'Children' is already a plural word, so you don't need to make it doubly plural by adding 's' apostrophe; however, you do need to indicate the idea of ownership, so use apostrophe 's'.

BUT you do NOT use the apostrophe with possessive pronouns:

After dinner at Marmaduke's restaurant, we went back to his place for coffee. (No apostrophe in his.)

The bird's feathers were ruffled. (The bird owns the feathers.)

The bird ruffled its feathers.( The bird owns the feathers, but the pronoun is being used instead of the noun, so there is NO apostrophe.)

You will see its and it's used incorrectly nearly every day and in places where it should never happen. An easy way to make sure you NEVER confuse the two is to ask yourself if the words 'it is' can be substituted in the sentence - if the answer is 'yes', then whack in the old apostrophe.

If the answer is 'no', then sit on your hands so that you won't be tempted!

The bird ruffled its (it is) feathers. NO!

It's (it is) a lovely day. YES!

Whose and who's

These two words are frequently used incorrectly (which is why they get their own heading). It's the same basic rule governing the use of the apostrophe: who's is a contraction of two words - who and is: Who's that knocking at my door? Or who and has: Who's been eating my porridge?

Whose is a pronoun: Whose house is this?

The electrician, whose ticket won Lotto, was shocked.

Past Participles and Past Tense

A common problem occurs when the past TENSE is confused with the past PARTICIPLE. Most English verbs have the same form for the Past Tense and Past Participle, but there are some exceptions (now why aren't you surprised?) ...

To work out which form of the verb to use, put the word "have" in front of the verb (do this quietly so you don't upset your companions). If it sounds "right" then the verb form you want is a Past Participle and it needs an AUXILIARY; if it doesn't sound right, you need the Past Tense and it SHOULD NOT have an auxiliary.

I have broke the cup.

Nope, that doesn't sound right, so you need the Past Participle to go with the auxiliary "have".

I have broken the cup.

Aah! Much better.

They have went home. - NO

They have gone home. - YES

She has ran along the beach. - NO

She has run along the beach. - YES


Less and Fewer

How many times have you popped into the supermarket for a litre of milk (and come out with something for the cat, and one of those nice rockmelons and ... but that's another story ) and then rushed to the checkout marked "8 items or less"?


How often do you have to stop yourself reaching for a red pen to correct the glaring error?

Hmm ...

LESS refers to QUANTITY (a mass of something):

There is LESS water in the dam now.

FEWER refers to NUMBER (something that can be counted ... yes, I know it's obvious... now).

There are FEWER apples on the tree this year. (Because you can count them)

OR ... yes, you guessed it ...

8 Items or FEWER.

Redundant Prepositions

There's been much publicity given to redundancies in the workplace recently - one day you're a rooster, the next a feather duster ... but this refers to those words which have meanings which include a direction:

He returned BACK home. WRONG.

"Return" means "to go BACK."

She ascended up the hill. WRONG.

"Ascended" means "to go UP."

And & But

You can't get much "littler" than these two words - but they're two which are often misused:

You use and when you are writing about two connected ideas.

The officer chased the thieves and arrested them.

( Not: The officer chased the thieves but arrested them.)

You use but to distinguish between dissimilar ideas.

She should have phoned earlier but she forgot.

(Not: She should have phoned earlier and she forgot.)

Pay attention to the little things and your writing will be all the better for it.

Last week's challenge elicited this response from Mugley: "There are no comparative terms for men. We are perfect!"

Hmm ...

And Leo (obviously in an attempt to make up for last week's effort), sent this:

A fairy tale for the healthy woman of the 90s

Once upon a time, in a land far away, a beautiful, independent, self assured princess, happened upon a frog as she sat contemplating ecological issues on the shores of an unpolluted pond in a verdant meadow near her castle.

The frog hopped into the Princess' lap and said:" Elegant Lady, I was once a handsome Prince, until an evil witch cast a spell upon me. One kiss from you, however, and I will turn back into the dapper, young Prince that I am and then, my sweet, we can marry and setup housekeeping in yon castle with my Mother, where you can prepare my meals, clean my clothes, bear my children, and forever feel grateful and happy doing so."

That night, on a repast of lightly sautéed frogs legs seasoned in a white wine and onion cream sauce, she chuckled to herself and thought, " I don't bloody think so!"

If you'd like to know a little about who is sending you these missives each week, click here. In the Olden Days, I called this page "About Us" because I thought I had to pretend to have a huge corporation behind me ... now I'm happy to admit it's just "About Me" (and occasionally the cat and my husband making all those, "are-you-STILL-on-that-computer-type" comments).

Speaking of Olden Days ... if you've been to cast your vote in that terribly important Poll (no, not the US Republican and Democrat nominations ...), the Lone Ranger Poll ... you may be wondering just what the point of it was. You can read all about it on the Lone Ranger page

This week marks the anniversary of the first radio broadcast of The Lone Ranger on 30 January 1933, so I thought I'd celebrate this momentous occasion by putting up some new pages.

OK. I have to 'fess up ... I was looking for a "hook" to send out a press release about my site and came across this bit of trivia about the Lone Ranger and thought "aha, that's it!" ... Well, there's not all that much you can 'release' about a site devoted to writing ...

You can even read the release ... if you really want to, that is.

Last week's quiz:

Write one word for each of these expressions (the first letter of the word is given):

1. a piece of music played as an introduction to an opera (o) OVERTURE

2. a change from one condition to another (t) TRANSITION

3. admits light but cannot be seen through (t) TRANSLUSCENT

4. a statement seemingly contradictory, but really true (p) PARADOX

5. full of self-importance (p) POMPOUS

6. bitter regret for wrong-doing (r) REMORSE

7. to seize as by authority (c) COERCE

8. to charge with a crime (i) INDICT

9. having a worn and tired look (h) HAGGARD

10.used in common speech (c) COLLOQUIAL

This week's quiz:

Prepositions often cause problems for some people; add the correct preposition for each of the following:

1. Your hat is similar .... mine.

2. That house is different .... our home.

3. The judge gave credence .... his story.

4. The accused repented .... his evil acts.

5. Everyone is liable .... error.

6. The campaign will culminate .... a parade.

7. The poem is representative .... her best work.

8. The guide prevailed .... me to accompany him.

9. His remark was tantamount .... a threat.

10.He is often inconsistent .... his beliefs.


Here are some Random Thoughts, sent to me by Steve:

To be intoxicated is to feel sophisticated
but not be able to say it.

The older you get, the better you realize you were.

I doubt, therefore I might be.

Age is a very high price to pay for maturity.

Women like silent men,
they think they're listening.

And another that I heard many years ago, reportedly uttered by a little old lady during a US political campaign: "I never vote; it only encourages them!" We have compulsory voting out here, so we don't have the luxury of not encouraging them ;)

TAUTOLOGY OF THE WEEK: "Let me recapitulate back to what happened previously."

I can see you visibly wilt as you start to understand the basic fundamentals of repeating the same thing twice.

And another all-purpose Latin phrase:

Mihi ignosce. Cum homine de cane debeo congredi. (Excuse me. I've got to see a man about a dog.)





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