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 Self-Edit Your Work

I recently read an article claiming you can learn how to self-edit your work. All I could think was …are you kiddingI mean, that just doesn’t work. You might have been an honour roll student and have a degree in English and whatnot–taken courses on how to edit–but none can ever edit ones own work. Our brain is hard-wired to make the eyes see what we think we have written, thus overseeing the most obvious typos and whatever other SPaG we have sprinkled across our manuscript. Not to mention the fact that our story line works for us, but may not be clear to a reader. An editor will see the holes and continuity problems and point them out. As well as other ‘craft’ issues. (Bad foreshadowing, tell instead of show, stilted dialogue, etc.)

Really, it doesn’t work, and anyone who says you can and did should have their work been edited by a real editor whose work it is to read and fish out errors. You will be surprised to find how many things are found by that stranger who has no bond whatsoever with you, or your work. They will have a fresh eye and know what proper prose should look like, sentence structure, grammar, or even to the basic level of spelling.

Take me for example, I will always type teh instead of the. Over the course of time I’ve learned I do that and often know I do, to correct while typing, but more often I just simply miss those little buggers and the editor finds them where I would have missed it for the simple reason I would have thought I got them all.

Or the use of filler words such as that. Don’t we all have those words we are overly fond of and don’t even know we have used that particular word a gazillion times in a 50K word document? You might think it is that one word is a great word to use, but the reality of the fact is that a reader, any reader, will pick up on them and after teh (oops there I go again) 50th time a particular word is used it becomes an annoyance. So while you are all over the moon with your work, that reader will feel they want to …

minion knuckleAnd the damage is done.

Now you might think …

Don't careBut really, be honest, if you read a book that has bad sentence structure, has typos–which you no doubt spot in other books–and plot holes, don’t you secretly think that the author should have done a better job editing?

Maybe they edited their own work, three times or even more, but it still will never be good enough. Had they hired an editor those flukes would have been spotted by the editor, and corrected by the author. Because no self-respecting editor would let an author publish work that isn’t ready for it and if they insist, the editor would not want their name connected to that work.

Of course the author has the final say, but I’m just saying don’t rely on your degree in English, or the one of your best friend because they edit your work for free, or against a very low rate. Hire a professional who knows what they are doing! No budget for an editor? Then don’t publish, simple as that.

How to find one? Well, that’s easy enough. Go to Amazon and find books that are perfect and see who edited that, ask their rate and a sample (every pro will give you a sample piece of their work on your manuscript before you commission them)

So tell me, do you think you can self-edit your work and publish without an editor?

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)