How To Use Language Properly


According to The Rules and common practice language has only one right way to be used. But is that true? Isn’t it proved by time and experience language is fluid, subject to change to suit the occasion it is used?

Listen to what Stephen Fry has to say on the subject. I think you might agree, even if you are an author and like me want to adhere to the rules and regulations of the current language formalities.

So,what do we do? How do we use this beautiful English Language properly? First of all we need to determinate which spelling we care to use. American or British? Both English but there’s not only a whole ocean dividing the two, there’s a kind of language barrier too.

Take for example the word ‘wilful’. According to my American friends this will be a wrong use of language and  the word should be spelled as following, ‘willful’. There are many more of such examples, which I’m not going to give here.

What I will say on the matter is, be aware of the choice you make. Either use US spelling or UK, don’t mix the two. Of course there will be American readers who will trip over your British spelling and might even mention in a review you don’t know how to spell. But as authors we should know that can happen and move on. Maybe write your next novel according to US spelling rules to show you do know how to spell, or mention in the front matter of your book you write according to British spelling rules because you are a Brit. Problem solved. Of course, this works the other way around too.

The next thing you should take into consideration is what you write. The rules for fiction differ from those for poetry, as those for non-fiction differ from a dissertation, and a blog post differs from a letter to your mom. Unless of course you use your blog to keep your mom in the loop on your life. 🙂 But that is a whole different kind of blog than the common writers blog. What I mean is what Stephen Fry so eloquently put in the video, our language should reflect the occasion, like our behaviour and clothes do. That is the basic rule.

But … Yes, I have a but. Shouldn’t there be room for individuality? What about artistic freedom?

Ha! Yes, we are artists and have a certain idea on how our work should be put into words, but those words have to make sense to the reader. Throw away all the rules and do as you please and you will have no readers for the simple reason your readers will not know what you mean.

It is a fine line we must walk. Write in our own voice. Have the characters speak the way we think they should speak and yet keep it within ‘normal’ range. Keep it eligible to the general public.

If I were to write this:

“I crave to smoke my coffee and dance the words before slipping into that warm canal.”

Would you know I mean the character wants to roast his coffee while he is creating a choreography and thinks on making love to his girlfriend after he is done? Misunderstanding and confusion is what happens if we throw away all conventions and just do as we please.

It doesn’t only applies to the words themselves. Grammar, punctuation, plot, dialogue, it all is language and it all has to adhere to at least the basic rules, no matter which style guide you favour.

So how do we use language properly? By choosing a set of rules from a certain style guide and  stick to them. Be consistent in your choice of spelling and take heed of your audience.

I know it’s not an answer to fit the box, but I guess there is no answer, because let’s face it. In a couple of hundred years our language will have evolved again and the rules as they are today will no longer apply. Like those from Shakespeare’s time no longer apply to the language of today. New words emerge and old ones are forgotten.

So write, write well and honour the language as best you can. When you’ve reached the limit of your ability to know the rules, use that editor to get the last wrongs ‘write’.

How To Use The Hyphen The Right Way

An easy and good rule of thumb would be to check whether or not the compound noun is towards, one word, or hyphenated is to look it up in the dictionary. I do suggest to use a proper dictionary and not some urban online dictionary, although the online Oxford or Cambridge dictionary are very good.

Anyway, if it’s not in there treat it as two words. Simple and can’t really go wrong, but you’d like to know the rules for proper hyphenation, right? Okay, here we go then.

Is there a hyphen between compound verbs?

Those can be hyphenated or appear as one word. If you do not find the verb in the dictionary, hyphenate it. 🙂

What about adjectives?

When they come before a noun and act as a single description they’re actually a compound adjective and should be hyphenated. Treat them as one word, but we need the hyphen to separate the two words while showing we actually want the reader to see they belong together.

Take this example:

The funny-smelling socks of that funny, big man made me gag.
Funny-smelling is a compound adjective in front of a noun, while funny big is just two adjectives.

Don’t mistake adverbs with adjectives. Remember an adjective is a word that describes a noun or pronoun, while an adverb is a modifier for an adjective, verb, and even other adverbs, and will answer the questions how, when, or where. Plus it often can have -ly attached to it.

The slowly walking man went to the baker.
(Slowly is an adverb describing walking, not an adjective.)

How did the man walk? Right! Slowly, and there is your adverb.

But when adverbs not ending in -ly are used as compound words in front of a noun you have to hyphenate. While when the combination of words is used after the noun we do not hyphenate. Well, that should be enough to confuse you. 🙂 But it’s not, is it?

Look at this example and I’m sure you know what I mean.
The well-known author hoped to finally win that award.
Known is a descriptive word well is an adverb describing known. They combine to form one idea in front of the noun ‘author’.

But! Yes, a but, because when the compound description follows the noun it describes, so no hyphen is used.

The author who wished to win the award was well known.

A long-anticipated decision was finally made.

The decision they made was long anticipated.
He got a much-needed haircut yesterday.
His haircut was much needed.

And where there’s one, there’s another exception.

When you could have used and between two adjectives you have to use a comma, not a hyphen, between the two.
The author has a long, secret manuscript.

If you want to know more about hyphens hop on over to my site where soon there will be more on the subject.

How To Use Adverbs and Adjectives

Adverbs, let’s look at them and determine what they are and if we really need them.

From the Oxford Dictionary:



  • a word or phrase that modifies the meaning of an adjective, verb, or other adverb, expressing manner, place, time, or degree (e.g.gentlyherenowvery). Some adverbs, for example sentence adverbs, can also be used to modify whole sentences.


late Middle English: from Latin adverbium, from ad- ‘to’ (expressing addition) + verbum ‘word, verb’

And let’s also look at Adjectives, the words we need to set the scene.

Again from the Oxford Dictionary:



  • a word naming an attribute of a noun, such as sweetred, or technical.

Let’s start with looking at the real troublemakers among the adverbs,  those that answer the question how.


Generally speaking, if a word answers the question how, it is an adverb. If it can have an -ly added to it, place it there. But do you, as an author, really want to use the adverb when you can describe a scene instead? Isn’t using the adverb the easy way out?

Ask yourself this, “If I use an adverb for every ‘how’, would my story not be filled with -ly words?” The answer is yes. The next question, “Should you use a description/show for every ‘how’ instead of using an adverb?” The answer is no. You must find the right moment to use an adverb and the right moment to set the scene, because some ‘how’ moments require a show while others can do with an adverb. And that’s when your craft/writing skill is needed, because it all depends on how well you have already established the character’s traits and mannerisms to be able to use an adverb for example or if you are still building your character. Or still are setting a scene. An adverb is often an easy way out for those who forget they can use more words to show.


He quickly walked past her nervously rubbing his palms on his trousers.


He walked–almost ran–past her, eyes cast down, rubbing his sweaty palms on his trousers.

In the first sentence there are two adverbs which could have easily been left out to create a more descriptive sentence to present the reader with more of a picture. i.e. you show instead of tell in the second sentence.

His sweaty (adjective to show he is nervous and eliminating the need for that adverb) palms show what you told the readers in the first example.

So where an adverb can cripple your story the adjectives can give it colour and flavour, if used in moderation.

minion What

Which leads us to adjectives and when to use them, or how much of them we need.

The first thing we need to know is if that detail which is revealed by the adjective is really necessary for the reader to know now or later on in the story.


The woman had dark brown, big, almond-shaped eyes.

Do we need to know her eyes are big, or almond-shaped? Does the colour matter? Or is it all just filler?

Another one:

The blood red, frayed velvet curtains framing the stained windows didn’t block out all the light, but still the room darkened enough when I closed them to lure the creature out of the closet.

The adjectives used here show us the house we are in is in kind of a decrepit state.

Ergo, adjectives are very useful, if used when they are needed and not just to add more words to your story. Remember, it is always better to show than tell.


But then again, there are writers who have a flowery, over-descriptive style and get away with it, because they write such great stories we gobble up everything they have ever written.

Mary Poppins baffled

Who do you think writes stories with an abundance of adjectives and gets away with it? And how do you feel about the use of adverbs?

If you want to discover more about the rules concerning adverbs click here and read up on the matter.


Capitalisation – The Small Matter of the Big Letter

When to capitalise, or not  

The small matter of the big letter

By Lucy Pireel

“I know when to use capitals.” I bet you’re thinking that, but you would be surprised by how much goes wrong with capitals. Besides the obvious, there are more rules on when, or when not, to use them.

The first word of a sentence

“Duh, I know that.” But do you know that when the sentence starts after a colon, you do not capitalise? There is, of course, an exception to that rule. When two or more sentences follow the colon, we do capitalise the first word of all sentences following it. Although there are certain style guides that say, “When the sentence is an independent clause, even if it’s only one, you do capitalise its first word.” Which basically means that it’s a style choice you need to make for yourself and stick to it throughout the entire piece you’re writing.

Quotes are sentences, and as such, the first word is capitalised, even if the quote is only one word.

“No,” she said.

Likewise when that quote comes at the end of the narrative sentence. She said, “No.”

But not when the quote is interrupted speech. “Hey,” she said, “will you listen to me for once?”

How about when there’s an independent question in a sentence? Then its first word needs a capital. Like in this following example: Some people have trouble with capitals, Did you know that?

This might look funny, or even wrong, but it is a seldom used–even obscure–rule, or style choice, and maybe forgotten by most.

Proper nouns

All proper nouns and words derived from proper nouns should be capitalised. But, where there’s a rule, there’s an exception. When those words are used in a non-unique way, use lowercase. Just think of the Roman Empire (there’s only one of those) but roman numerals (take your pick, there’s so many of them). Or Hershey Kisses as opposed to regular kisses. Remember that a proper noun is still a noun, but a noun is common, while a proper noun refers to a unique entity.

Having trouble distinguishing nouns from proper nouns? Take, for example, cookies (noun), but only when I write Oreos (proper noun) you’ll know I’m talking about chocolate cookies. Or the Eiffel Tower (proper noun) as opposed to the tower (noun) Job built. Which takes us to the next rule.


Easy? Maybe not. Even names have their difficulties. For example, federal or state in the names of official agencies. When they represent an official name, capitalise, but if used in general, don’t.

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigates.”

“I will visit three states.”

The names of specific course titles are always capitalised. Meaning Algebra (specific) is capitalised as is English (derived from a proper noun) but not history (could be any kind of history). However, when you refer to algebra in a common way, it should be lowercase. “I love algebra, except when I have an Algebra II exam.”

We capitalise the points of the compass, but only when they refer to a specific region.

“We live in the South.”

But not, “It should be in the southeast section of town.” Because southeast is an adjective here.

Are you dazzled already? Names are easy, aren’t they? Well there’s one more rule, or rather an exception to the rule.

Never, ever capitalise the names of seasons, except when that name is the first word of a sentence, or part of a proper noun, then it is personalised. “The girl, Summer, qualified for the Winter Olympics.”

Kinship names

Those are names and should be capitalised when used alone or when they immediately precede the name of the person.

“It’s true that Mom bakes a better cake than Aunt Bessie.”

But do not capitalise when it’s describing the name or follows the name. Sounds more difficult than it is. “My aunt’s cake is not as nice as Jacob’s mom’s.”


Whether it’s a publication’s or a person’s, all titles are capitalised. Except … Yes, this rule has its exceptions too, like all.

The complete title of a publication is capitalised, except for the little words such as: a, an, but, and, if, or, nor, etc., or prepositions, no matter what their length. On the subject of prepositions there are two opinions among the stylists, because it’s also said that when a preposition has four or more letters it should be capitalised. In this case, the rule of thumb is: Pick your choice of style and stick to it. Be consistent, and you’ll be in style.

A person’s title is capitalised when it’s used as a direct address or precedes the name, but not when it follows the name, except when it’s on the address or signature line.

“Good afternoon, Doctor.”

“Doctor Frankenstein created a lovely monster.”

“The monster was created by Frankenstein, the doctor.”

“Sincerely yours,

Frankenstein, Doctor.”

And last, but certainly not least, the titles of high-ranking officials. Those types who reside in capitals, but only when the title is used before their names.

“The president (not followed by his name) will address Congress (name of an official body).”


“It was when President Obama met the senators that Lieutenant Governor Smith dropped the ball.”

And now to end with one that confuses almost everybody.


It’s not that difficult. When it’s an outline, each item is capitalised.

This is what I need to do, Get gear, Book a trip, Find a Guide, Climb that mountain, Don’t die trying.

But not when a list of items follow a colon.

This is what I need to bring: shoes, rope, carabiners, and a helmet.

I hope this small piece about the big letter helps you to avoid that capital mistake when writing about Capitol Hill.

Words Often Confused

There are words that are simple–or sometimes obscure–and yet we sometimes have trouble using them properly. When writing, we make mistakes and only find them after proofreading, or not, which leaves us embarrassed. To prevent this from happening in future, I’d like to take a stroll down a wordy lane with you.

A or An?

That one’s easy. At least that’s what you would think. When the first letter of the word following has the sound of a consonant, we should use “a” and when that following word starts with a letter that sounds like a vowel, we use “an.”

Difficulties arise when using abbreviations. Let’s look at “FAQ.” Pronounced as a word, “fak” would become “a FAQ,” because the first letter of FAQ is not only a consonant, but also sounds like one. Spelled out, the first letter transforms from a consonant to a vowel, leaving us with “an eff-a-q.”

The difference a letter makes.

Swap an “s” for a “c” in advice and you get advise. Now, that’s one easily made mistake that changes everything about the word.

Advice is a noun meaning recommendation, while advise (verb) is the giving of a recommendation.

What if you substitute the ‘e’ for an ‘i’ in ‘complement’? That would turn the addition which serves to form a whole into a compliment, i.e. praise (verb or noun when it’s used as an expression of admiration).

To separate or stick together?

Then we have those words people are inclined to glue together, or not when they should.

“All together now,” said the conductor to the choir as one singer was out of tune.

“It wasn’t all together his fault.” But this is a fault, because he was alone, so he couldn’t be “all together.” Here it should read: “It wasn’t entirely his fault,” or rather: “It wasn’t altogether his fault.”

And what to think of “any more” versus “anymore”? Remember not to make any more (additional) mistakes after reading this, because you don’t need to anymore (nowadays).

Oh, those look-a-likes!

What to think of those words that sound the same, but mean completely different things? They are even written almost the same.

Allude, elude and illude, what to use when? If you refer indirectly to something, you allude, but if you avoid being captured, you elude, and when you mislead, you illude.

Not so difficult after all, just a thing to remember.

But what about ‘effect’ and ‘affect,’ which to use when? Put the pair in one sentence and their difference shows immediately. “The effect of her actions affected me.” Or in other words, “Her actions caused an emotional response,” i.e. influenced me.

That just about sums up the big difference between those two small words.

And then there is that elusive trio: lie, lay, and lie. Who doesn’t mistake one for the other at times?

“I will not lie, not down and not to you.” As you can see that one word—lie—has two meanings in this one sentence. They sound the same, are written the same, and only context reveals the meaning of the word. First one, to recline, and the second one, to tell a falsehood. Laying something down changes how the word is written, because a thing is inherently inert and cannot recline on its own volition. It needs to be laid.

“I like to lie about when I lie down for a nap, while I lay a book over my eyes.” All three possibilities of the trio in Present Tense. As you can hear—and see—the two things done by a human are written the same, while the one concerning an object is once again written differently. A good clue to keep in mind: When in doubt, if an object is in play, use lay. But remember that goes for Present Tense.

“I laid a book over my eyes as I lay down for a nap, but I lied about it.” All in Past Tense. As you can see the ‘rule’ given one paragraph up doesn’t work in past tense.

Basically with the verbs lie and lay, you just need to memorise their proper use. Just remember “to lie” is a thing humans do with their body, while “to lay” is something a person does with a thing.

Often, or rather mostly, we rely on the spellchecker to find our typos. What if we scramble our word into another also existing one and the spellchecker doesn’t catch it because it’s switched off, or the word just isn’t in its dictionary? “The tied came rolling in.” All perfectly proper English words, but one is wrong. Not the word itself, just which word is used. It should read: “The tide came rolling in.”

And that’s why I can’t stress it enough: Do not rely on the machine to check for typos, but read and re-read and then proofread and have it proofread, before you send something off into the world and to your readers.

This is certainly not a complete list; there’s much to be mistaken about and you wouldn’t be the first to make such mistakes, or the last. Keep in mind to proofread and don’t wail like a whale when you’ve fallen for the wile of words while you weren’t paying attention.

(Originally published in The Writers Beat Quarterly Issue #36)