General Writing FAQs
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about writing.
Am I writing with too many apostrophes?
Apostrophe overload is one of the most common punctuation errors, and one that is easy to fix if you know the difference between plural and possessive. Just driving around, we see many expensive trucks, billboards, and store signs lettered with that extra apostrophe thrown in, such as “The best plumber’s in the business,” or, “Our haircut’s are tops!” These should be plural (more than one plumber, more than one haircut), not possessive—ownership is not involved in either of these sentences.
How can you avoid going overboard with apostrophes? Know the difference between plural and possessive! Plural means more than one, which requires adding only an “s” at the end of most words. Example: snake becomes snakes (more than one snake). There is no apostrophe here.
Possessive means ownership, which requires inserting an apostrophe before the “s.” Example: snake’s tongue. Here, you are not indicating more than one snake, but showing the snake owns the tongue.
Plural possessive means more than one AND ownership. In this case, handle the plural first, then the possessive. For many words, the plural already ends in “s,” so just add an apostrophe by itself after the “s.” Example: snakes’ tongues. Here, you have many snakes that own tongues.
Is my writing offensive?
It is essential to use politically correct language to avoid offending your audience; failing to do so can be devastating professionally and personally—even if unintentional. As we see frequently in the media, writing or speaking without politically correct or inclusive language can have a lasting negative impact that proves impossible to retract, especially in today’s age of social media and online content sharing.
When writing or speaking, it is important to consider that today’s audiences span a diverse blend of nationalities, ages, ethnicities, family statuses, religions, political views, gender identities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. When speaking or writing, all members of the audience should be included and addressed using inclusive language, and it is not safe to assume that you know the background, identity, lifestyle, and beliefs of every audience member.
Politically correct means expressing yourself using neutral, unbiased, and inoffensive language that does not demean, demoralize, marginalize, or discriminate against another person or group. Inclusive language considers all perspectives without exclusion, inferiority, or stereotyping.
To write and speak without offending your recipients, AVOID the following: stereotypes (No: Jared ran fast for a white boy. Yes: Jared ran fast), male-only pronouns (No: The athlete selected for the scholarship will have to arrive early for his award. Yes: The athlete selected for the scholarship will have to arrive early for his/her award. Or, make the noun plural and use third-person pronouns without gender: The athletes selected for the scholarships will arrive early for their awards.), male-only titles (No: How many students want to be firemen? Yes: How many students want to be firefighters?), male-only terms (No: The manmade material caused me to itch. Yes: The synthetic material caused me to itch.), victimization (No: The victims of Hurricane Sandy lost everything. Yes: During Hurricane Sandy, residents lost everything), and putting the disability before the person (No: With an elevator, the building is accessible to disabled people. Yes: With an elevator, the building is accessible to people with disabilities.)
Also, AVOID hyphenating nationalities (No: Asian-Americans come from many different countries of origin. Yes: Asian Americans come from many different countries of origin.), negative descriptions (No: On the test, non-Whites expressed that they could not identify with the reading passage. Yes: On the test, African Americans expressed that they could not identify with the reading passage.), and excluding all sexual orientations (No: A woman should call her husband when she has trouble with their kids. Yes: A woman should call her partner when she has trouble with their kids.)
Should I put a comma before the last listing in a series (the Oxford comma)?
As with many English grammar rules, the use of the Oxford comma (also called the serial comma) is widely debated. The Oxford comma appears before the coordinating conjunctions “and” and “or” in a list of three or more items. For example, “I enjoy coffee, tea, and hot cocoa.”
While some commonly used style guides (MLA and APA) require the use of the serial comma for clarity, other writing experts consider the serial comma unnecessary. After all, with the popularity of Tweets, emails, and texts, the more streamlined the writing, the better, right?
However, proponents of the serial comma use it to avoid ambiguous situations. For example, “At the movies, I sat next to my cousins, Sarah and Ashley.” In this example, there is confusion as to whether my cousins are Sarah and Ashley, or if I sat next to my cousins, in addition to Sarah and Ashley.
Another example is, “My favorite ice creams are vanilla, caramel and chocolate and cherry.” Here, in addition to vanilla ice cream, do I like caramel-chocolate ice cream and cherry ice cream or caramel ice cream and chocolate-cherry ice cream?
Whether you decide to use or eliminate the Oxford comma, be consistent throughout your writing so as not to confuse the reader.
How can I quickly proofread my writing?
Use this “proofreading pointers” checklist for impressive writing in no time flat!
Do subjects and verbs agree in number (singular vs. plural)?
Do verb tenses correctly indicate timing and completion of actions?
Do pronouns and the nouns they replace (antecedents) agree in number (singular vs. plural)?
Do pronouns reflect the right gender and form (subjective vs. objective vs. possessive)?
Do independent clauses (have a subject and a verb) join together correctly (period vs. comma and conjunction vs. semi-colon vs. colon)?
Do transition words connect sentences and paragraphs for flow?
Do punctuation and spelling look error-free?
When do I use "whom" instead of "who"?
"Who” is a 1st-person subjective pronoun that completes/does the action. “Whom” is a 3rd-person objective pronoun that is the object of the verb (action) or preposition.
Here is a quick trick to use when figuring out whether to use “who” or “whom”: If you can substitute “he” (another 1st-person pronoun), then use “who,” and if you can substitute “him” (another 3rd-person pronoun), then use “whom.” For example, “Who holds the key?” (doing the action) versus “Give the key to whom?” (receiving the action). Although “whom” sometimes sounds awkward when speaking, it should be used properly when writing.
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