Get a Grip on Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused

Get a Grip on Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused

by Kris Spisak

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Just as we should think before we speak, we need to think before we write.

Most of us are not poets or novelists, but we are all writers. We email, text, and post; we craft memos and reports, menus and outdoor signage, birthday cards and sticky notes on the fridge.

Get a Grip on Your Grammar is a grammar book for those who hate grammar books, a writing resource filled with quick answers and a playful style—not endless, indecipherable grammar jargon.

Get a Grip on Your Grammar is The Elements of Style for the Twitter generation. Designed for student, business, and creative-writing audiences alike, its easily digestible, occasionally witty writing tips will finally teach you:

  • The differences between "lay" and "lie."
  • The proper usage of "affect" and "effect."
  • Where to put punctuation around quotation marks.
  • The meaning of "e.g." versus "i.e."
  • The perils of overusing the word "suddenly."
  • That apostrophes should not be thrown about like confetti.
  • And 243 more great tips.

Writers owe it to themselves and to everyone who sees their written words to get it right. With Get a Grip on Your Grammar, they finally can (not "may").

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781632650917
Publisher: Red Wheel/Weiser
Publication date: 04/17/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 559,676
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

With a bachelor of arts from the College of William and Mary and a master of liberal arts from the University of Richmond, Kris Spisak began her career as a college writing instructor. After six years in the classroom, she shifted her work toward professional writing and editing, working with businesses on their communication goals and individuals pursuing their publishing dreams. As a teacher, editor, and speaker, Spisak has helped writers of every level sharpen their writing craft. She is the cofounder of Midlothian Web Solutions, on the board of directors of James River Writers, and an avid writer of fiction. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.

Read an Excerpt


Word Usage

We live in a fast-paced time, but that's no excuse for typing drunkenly across keyboards. Sometimes we know the rules and abandon them; sometimes, we err because we don't know any better. Consider this your call-to-action. No more excuses. Use your words precisely. It's my challenge to you.

What follows in this section is my list of 153 commonly confused words. I may not offer answers to the universe, but I can at least talk you through the differences between "literally" and "figuratively," "lay" and "lie," and "disinterested" and "uninterested." Curious? Read on!

Writing Tip #1: "A" vs. "An"

This one seems so obvious. Why, you might ask, am I even taking the time to talk about something you clearly learned in 1st grade? Well, my friends, the English language is full of exceptions — and many of the "a" vs. "an" exceptions are overlooked time and time again.

When you see a horse with a long horn upon its head, is it "a unicorn" or "an unicorn"? When you make a mistake, do you call it "an honest error" or "a honest error"? First reactions may say that "an" is always the article used before words starting with vowels, and "a" is before words starting with consonants; however, here are those tricky exceptions I was talking about.

Stop thinking purely spelling with the a/an rule. Think about the sound. In most cases, if it sounds like it starts with a vowel, go with the "an"; otherwise, "a" is a likely bet.

You need to use "an" before an unsounded "h," as in "honest," "hour," or "honor." You need to use "a" before words that start with the letter "u," in cases where the sound echoes a "y," as in "unicorn," "union," and "ukulele."

It's a simple rule, but people confuse it all the time.

Writing Tip #2: "Accept" vs. "Except"

The English language is full of exceptions that we have to accept. Should we dub them "acceptions" (exceptions that you have to accept even when they annoy you)? Okay, maybe I made that up, and maybe it's not as clever as it was in my head. Let's stick to basics here. There is a clear difference between "accept" and "except," and it's more than just the first two letters.

• Accept (think "acceptance") is a verb meaning "to consent to receive something" or "to come to see something as suitable, valid, or right."

• Except (think "exception") is a preposition meaning "not including" or "other than," or it's a verb meaning "to exclude" or "to omit."

I'm pretty sure we know the difference and simply write too quickly sometimes. I'm pretty sure. That's what I tell myself anyhow. You surely won't make that mistake anymore, right?

Writing Tip #3: "Adapt" vs. "Adopt"

"Adaptation" and "adoption" are easy enough to tell apart, but when used in their verb forms, "adapt" and "adopt" often become quite confusing. Are you an early adapter or early adopter? Do you adapt to your surroundings by adopting a watch-out-world attitude?

For a quick refresher:

• "Adapt" means to modify or to make suitable for certain conditions.

• "Adopt" means to select or take as one's own, be it an idea or a child.

Although they are indeed quite similar, they come from different Latin roots. "Adapt" comes from adaptare, which translates as "to fit." "Adopt" comes from adoptare, which translates as "to choose." The similarity of these words even in Latin makes me wonder how long people have been confused by them. Did Homer ever slip up? I'll tell myself no, but the world never will know.

If you want to take this a step further, we can even discuss "adept" and "apt," which are often jumbled in this confusing mix.

• "Adept" is an adjective meaning very skilled.

• "Apt" is an adjective meaning either being quick to learn, suited for a purpose, or to be likely to do something.

These A-P-T words will keep you on your toes, for sure.

As for those "early adapters," they probably have set their alarm clocks a few hours ahead of you so that they can have time to spend in their workshop tweaking their inventions. "Early adopters" are the group who are first to embrace a new technology or idea.

Writing Tip #4: "Addition" vs. "Edition"

When a new edition of a book comes out, it might make for an addition to your bookshelves, but the meanings of these words shouldn't be complicated for you. If you think of the word "add," you'll always use the correct word.

• "Addition" is only concerned with adding, whether referring to something being added or the process of adding.

• "Edition" has a few definitions. Bookworms like me automatically think of "editions" of a book or specifically updated versions, often with new or enhanced information; "edition" also means the format in which a work is published or a later version of something.

But, again, this one is simple. As long as you remember "addition" is all about "adding," you'll never go wrong again.

Writing Tip #5: "Adverse" vs. "Averse"

Sometimes a single letter pops up to wreak havoc, and in this case, it's the letter "d." Even if their definitions don't immediately jump to your mind, you know deep down that "adverse" and "averse" are not positive words. Perhaps there's something about them both that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Maybe that's why you never bothered to learn them or their differences.

All together now, let's take a deep breath. There's nothing wrong with learning these definitions correctly.

• "Adverse" means unfavorable, antagonistic, or being in a contrary direction. One of this word's most common usages is "adverse effects."

• "Averse" means to have strong feelings of repugnance or opposition.

I know a lot of people who are averse to using autocorrect on their smartphones because it ends up causing more typos than it saves. Then again, we could talk about the adverse effects of spell-check and auto-correct on a generation's spelling abilities, and oh, the fun we would have. Yes, I said fun. What? Are you averse to this idea?

Writing Tip #6: "Advice" vs. "Advise"

Mark Twain once said, "The dream vocabulary shaves meanings finer and closer than do the world's daytime dictionaries." I love this concept, but then again, some people have nonsensical dreams. It's in the dream vocabulary of these eccentric individuals that word pairings like "adviser" and "advisor" must take their roots.

What's the difference between these two? That's a great question. The answer: there is no difference. Don't you hate that?

• "Adviser" is more commonly used and is listed in most dictionaries as the primary spelling.

• "Advisor" only takes the lead when it comes to official job titles (for example, Senior Advisor to the President).

Those of us who like black and white grammar rules will have to remain bothered. Though perhaps another quote attributed to Mark Twain sums it up best: "I don't give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way." Admittedly, there's a debate whether these words were Twain's, Andrew Jackson's, or someone else's altogether. Whoever it was, though, is perhaps the best adviser of them all.

Writing Tip #7: "Affect" vs. "Effect"

Words that sound similar and look similar are kind of like twins. At first glance, they seem like duplicates, but in the end, a lot of people will be annoyed if you confuse them. Time to stop insulting words, people! Are you using "affect" and "effect" correctly?

• In most situations, "affect" is a verb with "influence" being a close synonym. For example, "Quick communications online have affected people's writing habits."

• In most situations, "effect" is a noun with "result" being a close synonym. For example, "One effect of quick communications online is a proliferation of casual, incorrect writing."

When you affect something, there is an effect.

However, the English language is never that simple — if you even call this description simple. Affect and effect also have other forms, which add confusion. Nine times out of 10, though, follow this guide, and you'll be all set.

Here's where the inquisitive read on. More power to you, grammar-curious friends!

• "Affect" can also be a verb meaning "to make a display of" or "to deliberately cultivate." In addition, "affect" can be a noun (egads!) used by psychiatrists and other social scientists referring to "emotion," but unless you fall into a discipline familiar with this use, I wouldn't recommend it.

• "Effect" has its own complications. It can be a noun of different meanings when discussing your "personal effects" or "sound effects." "Effect" can also be defined as a verb meaning "to create," such as in the sentence, "Grammarians of the world effect change for the better."

Oh, and now I have you staring at word-twins again trying to figure out the difference. Remember the simple definitions first. Subtleties can come later for the brave and/or scientifically minded.

Writing Tip #8: "Aisle" vs. "Isle"

Maybe you've been asked what you'd take along with you to a desert isle. Maybe if they were confused about their spelling, they might have asked you about your choices for a dessert aisle. As for me, I think I'd choose dark chocolate. It answers both questions, really.


• An "isle" is an island, sometimes considered to be a small island.

• An "aisle" is a walkway between sections of seats or shelves, such as in a plane, a church, a grocery store, or a movie theatre.

Their origins are as different as their definitions, with "isle" coming from the Latin insula and "aisle" coming from the Latin ala, so make sure your spelling is accurate — unless you're grocery shopping with Gilligan, that is. The Professor and Mr. Howell might want to be precise, but if you're a grocery shopping castaway, I think even I will give you some leniency.

Writing Tip #9: "A Long" vs. "Along"

When I think of a long tale, I can't help but think of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, where the Dormouse tells a story that is recorded on the page in the shape of a long tail. Sure, there's another word confusion at the root of this reference, but it does indeed depict a long tale in the shape of a long tail, which runs along the page.

Note, as I'm explaining this to you, you have no trouble understanding that "long" is an adjective describing length, and that "a" is simply an article that precedes it. Then why is it that "along" and "a long" are so often confused?

"Along," as you well know, is a preposition, meaning on the course of or over a path or specific direction.

While Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum were telling Alice about Walruses and Carpenters, for example, all Alice wanted to do was to continue along after the white rabbit. The cards who painted the roses red must have used a long ladder.

And as wild as that story is, I enjoy Alice every time. Don't you?

Writing Tip #10: "All Ready" vs. "Already"

All right, already. Are you all ready to discuss the differences between these two words? Much like the eternal squishing of "all right" into "alright," "all ready" is often forgotten in lieu of "already." The problem is, though, that these are not alternate spellings of the same idea. "All ready" and "already" don't honestly have much to do with each other.

• "All ready" is pretty self-explanatory if you take a moment to think about it. Are you a little bit ready, or are you all ready? Is just one of you ready, or are you all ready? Do you see the slight variations in these two sentences? In short, "all ready" can mean either totally prepared or that a group is prepared.

• "Already," on the other hand, means before this moment or before another specific moment. You already knew this, though, didn't you?

Squeezing "all ready" into "already" is not an acceptable contraction, so stop doing it already. Got it?

Writing Tip #11: "Allude" vs. "Refer"

Some people are direct in their conversation. Other people are more subtle. Some people will give you a list of exactly what they want for their birthday. Other people prefer to drop hints. When you think of "allude" and "refer," think of these different types of people. It will help explain their differences.

Contrary to what you may think, to "allude" to something is different from "referring" to it.

• "To allude" means to hint or indirectly suggest to something.

• "To refer" means to make a direct reference to or point about something.

"Refer" is the friend who emails you a hyperlink to an item and a coupon code that expires in the next few days. There is no question about what he wants or how quickly you should act. "Allude" is a bit more circumspect. She might circle something in a catalog and leave it out where others can see or remark how great something is without directly saying she wants it. Whether "refer" is rude or straight-to-the-point or whether "allude" is tactful or too subtle to be understood is beyond the point. The key is seeing their differences and understanding that each have their ways.

"Allude" and "refer" are not synonyms. Please stop using them as such.

Writing Tip #12: "All Together" vs. "Altogether"

All together now, say it with me: "all together" and "altogether" are two different words. I know some of you prefer one or the other, but it's time to focus hard and get this right.

I suppose I shouldn't be altogether shocked at this confusion — I remember the day I learned this one myself — but let's break it down once and for all.

When you learned to spell "together," did you learn to spell it by remembering the breakdown of "to get her"? I always thought it was a bit menacing, but maybe that's why it stuck in my head. Let's use the same logic when remembering "all together."

If we're all going to get her, we need to go all together.


• "All together" means to be collected as a group.

• "Altogether" is an adverb that means entirely or on the whole.

Meanwhile, I'm altogether disturbed by this threatening writing tip, so I want to end with a casual reminder to give your mom, sister, grandma, or best gal pal a call. Maybe even buy her flowers or tickets to a baseball game just because. (Yes, I said a baseball game. Who doesn't love peanuts and Cracker Jacks?)

Writing Tip #13: "Allusion" vs. "Illusion" vs. "Elusion"

Most people feel pretty comfortable around the word illusion. Whether it makes them think of David Copperfield or Edward Norton is up to the individual. I think the word "allusion" reminds a lot of people of their high school English classes and the subtleties of texts they may or may not have ever read. The word "allusion" often brings to mind pop quizzes and red pens, and I think that needs to end now.

• An "allusion" alludes. In case that isn't helpful, either refer to the difference between "refer" and "allude" in Writing Tip #11 or let me explain further. If you've ever read between the lines, you've picked up on an allusion or a subtle reference.

• An "illusion," of course, is something that isn't perceived correctly by the senses. Sometimes, it's a trick of the eyes (that is, an optical illusion), a thrown voice, or a rabbit pulled out of a hat. An illusion can also be something false or deceptive.

• Just to keep you on your toes, an "elusion" is an act of evading or avoiding capture.

These words make me think of "The Name Game" gone awry. Fee-fi-fo-fusion. Allusion. But however you think of them, be sure to think of them correctly.

Writing Tip #14: "Alot" vs. "A Lot" vs. "Allot"

"Alot" isn't a word, people. Save your writing dignity (and the headaches of the grammar-picky) and add a space in there. It's not that hard. Look, I just did it. There, I did it a few more times. Wow, I'm awesome at this. Okay, I digress.

• If you like something bunches, you like it a lot. Two words. A lot.

• Allot is indeed a word, meaning "to give or to allocate a share of something," but I'm pretty sure that's not the one you're misspelling.

Unless it's a hashtag, put that space in there. We'll all be the better for it. #Grammarrocks #alot

Writing Tip #15: "Alter" vs. "Altar"

If you're going to the chapel to get married and you're thinking about either "alter" or "altar," I hope for the sake of your marriage that you're thinking of the holy structure at the front of the church. If, by chance, you're thinking about the other form of the word, the form that is connected to "alternative" and "alteration," I wonder if that walk down the aisle is the best choice for you at the moment.

One little vowel can make all the difference in writing these words correctly. Remember:

• "Alter" means change.

• "Altar" means the holy structure upon which offerings are presented. They are commonly found in churches, shrines, temples, and other places of worship.

If you've ever made this mistake, you wouldn't be the first. In fact, the word "altar" is derived from the Middle English word alter and the Old English altar, which was derived from the Latin altare, meaning a place to sacrifice to the gods. Its roots are also related to the Latin word altus, which means high.

"Alter," alternatively, comes from the French word alterer, which was derived from the Medieval Latin word alterare, both of which mean to change.

In other words, the spelling difference between these two words has been causing some confusion for some time. I just hope that confusion isn't happening at the front of a church. And if it is, good luck with that.


Excerpted from "Get a Grip on Your Grammar"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Kris Spisak.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 11

Section I Word Usage 13

Section II Punctuation 125

Section III Idioms 143

Section IV Business Writing and Etiquette 155

Section V Creative Writing and Storytelling 187

Conclusion 213

Documentation 215

Index 219

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