Grammatically Correct: The Essential Guide to Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar, and Punctuation

Grammatically Correct: The Essential Guide to Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar, and Punctuation

by Anne Stilman

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How does good writing stand out?

If its purpose is to convey facts, findings, or instructions, it need be read only once for its content to be clear. If its purpose is to entertain or to provoke thought, it makes readers want to come back for more.

Revised and updated, this guide covers four essential aspects of good writing:

  •Individual words - spelling variations, hyphenation, frequently confused homonyms, frequently misused words and phrases, irregular plurals and negatives, and uses of capitalization and type style to add special meanings
  •Punctuation - the role of each mark in achieving clarity and affecting tone, and demonstration of how misuses can lead to ambiguity
  •Syntax and structure - agreement of subject and verb, parallel construction, modifiers, tenses, pronouns, active versus passive voice, and more
  •Style - advice on the less hard-and-fast areas of clarity and tone, including sentence length and order, conciseness, simplification, reading level, jargon and clichés, and subtlety

Filled with self-test exercises and whimsical literary quotations, Grammatically Correct steers clear of academic stuffiness, focusing instead on practical strategies and intuitive explanations.

Discussions are designed to get to the heart of a concept and provide a sufficient sense of when and how to use it, along with examples that show what ambiguities or misinterpretations might result if the rules are not followed. In cases where there is more than one acceptable way to do something, the approach is not to prescribe one over another but simply to describe the options.

Readers of this book will never break the rules of language again - unintentionally.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781582976167
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/07/2010
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 631,717
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Anne Stilman is a scientific/medical writer and editor.

Read an Excerpt


Spelling Issues

TO CALL ENGLISH SPELLING eccentric would be putting it mildly. The Germanic/ Latin/Greek/Scandinavian/French etc. roots don't help, nor does the absence of a central authority to insist on standard form, as L'Académie Française does for French. Some of today's peculiarities lie in the fact that words from centuries ago have kept their original spelling although the pronunciation has moved on (think Monty Python's English kiniggits). For that matter, given the spectrum of accents today, a strong argument against modern attempts to make the written language more phonetic is that no one spelling convention could reflect the variety of English pronunciation that exists around the world. Would a Jamaican and an East Ender be likely to reach consensus? Another argument, of course, is that spelling is often connected to the origins of a word, and these clues to meaning would be lost if the letters signified nothing more than semantic-free sounds.

Free spirits and text messagers aside, most people agree that standardized spelling is a good thing, with teachers and employers being particularly firm on this point. Fortunately for the orthographically challenged, today's technology provides tools that can catch and correct the bloopers before the writer hits "Print" or (worse) "Send."

The problem is, though, bloopers will sometimes still slip through. Relying on spell-checkers exclusively is risky because the English language just has too many twists. Many programs lack the sophistication to detect misuse of homonyms (would yours amend Their maybe moor then won weigh two rite sum words?), and if used unthinkingly can even introduce errors (witness the concert program that promised a performance of Beethoven's Erotica symphony). Some will recognize only one form of a word that can be spelled two ways, and will annoyingly try to "correct" already valid spellings. An overly liberal dictionary may accept spelling variants that many readers would view as barbarisms. And, of course — unthinkable as it may be to some — not all writing is done on a word processor.

Hence the need for basic spelling skills remains. This chapter covers the topic in a broad sense, including aspects such as acceptable variations and appropriate use of hyphenation. The information presented here won't turn a poor speller into a good one, but it can help alert the reasonably competent speller to some common pitfalls. No one is expected to know the spelling of every word, but it is important to have an eye for when something doesn't look quite right and the common sense to check if there's any doubt.

Two of these words use different spellings in Britain and some other Commonwealth countries: haemorrhage and manoeuvre. For more on this, see American/British differences.

The preceding may possibly have taught you some spellings you didn't know, but obviously no such exercise could be comprehensive. Its larger aim is to demonstrate just how capricious and counterintuitive English spelling can be, and thereby drive home the importance of looking things up when necessary rather than trusting your memory or judgment. The words presented here are outright difficult to spell, or — more insidiously — are so frequently misspelled that the wrong version has become almost conventional. There is no shame in having to look up tricky words repeatedly: don't risk leaving in an error just because you're almost sure something is right, and it's too much trouble to check.

The majority of spelling errors fall into predictable categories. Keep these categories in mind as you write so as to be particularly alert for high-risk words.

Interchanging a and e ; particularly-ant/entand-ance/-ence endings

calendar, cemetery, separate

eminent, relevant, respondent, vigilant

occurrence, perseverance

The sounds are the same, and there's no rule that will tell you which letter is correct for a given word. (Some words in fact may go either way: for example, dependant or dependent; descendant or descendent.)

Interchanging-able and-ible endings

accessible, compatible, fallible, permissible

Like -ant and -ent, these sounds are indistinguishable to the ear. The more common ending is able, so writers are more likely to err when the ending should be -ible. (Some words can go either way: for example, extendable and extendible both appear in some dictionaries.)

Interchanging soft c and s, and soft g and j

consensus, concise, ecstasy, idiosyncrasy, congested

Watch out for these identical-sounding letters. (A few words can go either way: for example, supercede or supersede, offence or offense, defence or defense, jibe or gibe.)

An international note here: U.S. dictionaries may Consider practice/practise and licence/license to be simple variants, but in U.K. style these spellings indicate different functions, with s used for the verb and c for the noun. Thus, to practise medicine but open a medical practice; to license someone but issue a licence. For more on this topic, see American/British differences.

Omitting a silent letter

abscess, acquisition, diaphragm, Fahrenheit, February, handkerchief, hemorrhage (or haemorrhage), parliament, raspberry, silhouette, vengeance

Often a letter whose omission wouldn't change the pronunciation is mistakenly left out. (Note that it is certainly correct to pronounce the r in February, but most speakers do not, and many dictionaries accept the r -less pronunciation as an alternative.)

Misapplying double consonants

accommodate, commitment, embarrassment, jackknifed, millennium, necessary, threshold

Words with double consonants are often troublesome. Errors include doubling the wrong letter, wrongly doubling more than one, and doubling just one letter when the word contains two sets of doubles. Another common mistake is to drop a repeated letter if the word is a compound in which the last letter of the first part and the first letter of the second part happen to be the same (jackknifed, misspelling). Conversely, writers sometimes mistake a word for a compound, and double a letter that they shouldn't (threshold is not a combination of thresh and hold).

Spelling words the way they're (mis)pronounced

asterisk, auxiliary, barbiturate, boundary, diphtheria, government, hierarchical, infinitesimal, miniature, mischievous, ophthalmologist, paraphernalia, pejorative, prerogative, temperamental

It must be admitted that some of these words, if not precisely tongue-twisters, do not trip off the tongue. Errors in speech can range from minor slips in enunciation to outright gaffes. Writers may then spell these words the way they say them, not realizing that both are wrong.

Spelling a derivative the same as its root word

disastrous, explanation, maintenance, pronunciation

When one word derives from another, it's often the case that the spelling of the root word still holds — but not always. Be aware of the exceptions. (Incidentally, ever notice how many speakers mispronounce the word pronunciation?)

Keeping — or not keeping — the final -e of a root word

desirable, forgivable, knowledgeable, loathsome, noticeable

For some words, the final -e is kept and for some it isn't — and writers often guess wrong. Note in the discussion onAmerican/British differences how some words can go either way.

Giving an unfamiliar word the spelling of a more familiar one

bellwether, guttural, pastime, playwright, sacrilegious, simpatico

When a relatively uncommon word sounds like a better-known one (weather, gutter, pass, write, religious, sympathy), the spelling of the more familiar word may be mistakenly adopted.

Not recognizing exceptions to familiar letter sequences

controversial, epitome, fuchsia, genealogy, inoculate, overlaid, quadruped, underlie, weird

The prefixes in contradictory and contraindication may contain an a, those in quadriceps and quadrilateral an i, and the suffixes in mythology and ethnology an o — but some words do things a little differently. School and schooner contain an sch sequence, while chs doesn't come up very often. Most words that end with an e or an i sound take a y, so exceptions such as epitome and underlie often get overlooked. Familiar words such as innocuous, innocent, and innovate contain a double n, so inoculate often picks up an extra one. Since the past tense form of most words ends in ed, exceptions such as laid are often missed. And "i before e, except after c" usually holds true — but not always.

Confusion over unusual letter sequences

conscience, fluorescent, languor, liaison, maneuver (or manoeuvre)

Writers can be understandably thrown by words that contain uo or ae sequences instead of the more familiar ou and ea. And some words just seem like phonetic outliers — three vowels in a row in liaison, or con and science coming together in a perplexing way to form conscience.


Before leaving the topic of misspellings, a word on typos, defined as spelling errors that result from an accidental slip of the finger on the keyboard rather than ignorance of the correct form. Some words are more susceptible to being accidentally mis-typed than others, so when proofing your work, be extra alert for the following:

Transposition of letters to create a similar word Watch out for scared cows, audit trials, casual factors, martial harmony, complaint pupils and the like — words that differ from another only by two transposed letters. Note that such errors are often not picked up by a spell-checker!

Omission of one occurrence of a repeated letter

A number of challenging activites have been planned for the day.

Graphic design, typsetting, and proofreading services offered at a reasonable price.

Did you spot the errors in activities and typesetting? They are easy to miss on a quick read, because the missing letters (i and e, respectively) are present in another position in the word. Doublecheck any such words very carefully.

"Word stutter"

A common type of slip to to make when typing is to repeat short words such as the or is.

Even a sharp eye can easily miss the typo in the above sentence. Spell-checkers are usually programmed to pick up on repeated words, a useful feature (although slightly annoying when it flags valid combinations such as had had or that that).

On a final note, when you are proofing your work, check to see if you have left any extra spaces between words or omitted the space between sentences. Such typos are not spelling mistakes, but nonetheless need to be rectified. A grammar checker should pick up this type of error.


The Russian Revolution ... simmered for years and suddenly erupted when the serfs finally realized that the Czar and the Tsar were the same person.

— Woody Allen, A Brief, Yet Helpful, Guide to Civil Disobedience

To the exasperation of copy editors, English contains many words that can be correctly spelled more than one way. Two dictionaries may present the same word differently, and the same dictionary may present alternatives. The main reasons for this, discussed below, are national variations and the degree to which a dictionary is either prescriptive (prescribing how to properly spell the word) or descriptive (describing how the word is commonly spelled). When alternative spellings exist, sometimes the choice is up to the individual, other times not. It is important to have a solid awareness of spelling variations for the following reasons:

• If you are contracted or employed to write some sort of commercial publication, such as a technical manual for a software producer, marketing material for a bank, or an informational brochure for a government office, you are usually expected to abide by a particular style guide. Organizations generally want their publications to have a uniform look and feel, which includes words always being spelled the same way. For example, a U.S.-based multinational corporation with a branch in the United Kingdom might specify that all printed materials that go to the public — including those materials produced by British writers — follow the conventions of American spelling.

• If your writing is your own — that is, something you are doing not for an employer or client but as a personal project that will bear your name — you will still be expected to abide by the style guide of the publishing house that is producing your work. Not all publishers require that writers go with a particular dictionary, but many do. If you disregard their specifications, it may well mean seeing your text come back heavily revised by the copy editor.

• Just because a variant spelling appears in a dictionary doesn't necessarily mean it's appropriate. If the dictionary you are using allows for unconventional spellings, consider what effect these might have on the tone of your writing. Some dictionaries endorse spellings that would send most copy editors lunging for their virtual red pencils. More on this below.

American/British differences

Some of the variant spellings in the English language are due to the differing styles of the United States and Britain. For staunch upholders of one tradition or the other, the "right" way to spell something will be unambiguous; however, in many parts of the world the path is murkier. (Canadians in particular, with geographical proximity to one country and historical ties to the other, have a hybrid style that borrows from both.)

The following describes several categories of differences between American and British spellings. In general — there are many exceptions — American style is to remove letters not necessary for pronunciation, while British style is to retain traditional spellings, which are often less phonetic. Note that spell-checkers can be set to a specific national style of English, so that any word that does not match that style — even if spelled correctly for another country — will be flagged as an error.

Ending some words in or versus our: American style is or, British style is our.

humor /humour honor / honour endeavor / endeavour

Note that even with British style, certain derivative words such as humorous, honorarium, and laborious do not take the u.

Ending some words in er versus re : American style is er, British style is re.

center / center fiber / fibre theater / theatre

Ending some words in ize versus ise: American style is ize (or yze), British style is ise (or yse).

analyze / analyse organize / organize

paralyze / paralyse realize / realise

Creating past tense with ed versus t: There are a few past-tense constructions that take the standard ed in American style but take t in British style.

burned / burnt dreamed / dreamt

learned / learnt spoiled / spoilt

Using single versus double consonants in derivatives: For some words whose roots end in l, p, s, or t, American style leaves the consonant single before the suffix; British style doubles it.

benefited / benefited focusing / focussing

canceled / cancelled grueling / gruelling

kidnaped / kidnapped worshiping / worshipping

counselor / counselor traveler / traveller

Dropping versus retaining the e of a root Word: For some words whose roots end in e, American style is to drop the e before a suffix; British style is to retain it.

acknowledgment / acknowledgement aging / ageing

usable / useable judgment / judgement

Using ae or oe versus [e: American style is to drop the extra vowel; British style is to keep it.

anesthetic / anaesthetic estrogen / oestrogen

encyclopedia / encyclopaedia fetus / foetus

medieval / mediaeval maneuver / manoeuvre

Using more phonetic versus more traditional spellings: American style is often to simplify spelling, whether by dropping silent endings or by using more phonetic constructions; British style is to retain traditional spellings.


Excerpted from "Grammatically Correct"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Anne Stilman.
Excerpted by permission of F+W Media, Inc..
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

Spelling Issues,
Vocabulary Quirks and Challenges,
Using Type Style for Effect,
Basic Sentence Structure,
Question Mark,
Exclamation Point,
En Dash,
Em Dash,
2-Em and 3-Em Dashes,
Quotation Marks,
Agreement Between Subject and Verb,
Parallel Structure,
Positioning of Modifiers,
Tense and Mood,
Active Versus Passive Voice,
Grammar Grab-bag: Miscellaneous Problem Areas,
Part 4: STYLE,
Suggestions for Self-Improvement,

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