My normal advice to young (and not-young) people who want to become better writers is this: Read. Read a lot. The same advice holds for those who want to become better readers — read.
Reading copiously can give you great pleasure, can expand your perspective of the world and can shed light on how your own life relates to that of others. It also can give you an appreciation of language — its style, its powers, its versatility and beauty.
However, keep in mind that words and punctuation in print sometimes … how can I put this nicely? Um, they’re wrong. Yep — books and magazines (even newspapers, on occasion, can you believe it?) make errors. So don’t simply assume that everything in print is correct. Let’s look at some recent examples and play a wee game at the same time. I’ll give you some excerpts from recent newspapers and magazines, and you see if you can spot (and correct!) the errors. To make it more interesting, not all of these examples will have mistakes. Ready?
(1) “The chart below illustrates the number of residents over the age of 25, who are high school graduates and those who have a bachelor’s degree or higher.”
(2) “Pam takes us back in time — with gorgeous photos by her husband Mike — for a leisurely day on the grounds.”
(3) “There’s glacial deposits on top.”
(4) “She was beautiful, the penultimate embodiment of sensuality.”
(5) “[The company called] PrideStaff, has 39 offices.”
(6) “My father left; Mother went too.”
How do you think you did? Was it easy? Let’s look first at the comma challenges, shall we? The first excerpt displays the mistake that many writers make: Being unsure about when to use a comma, they buy a basket of them and then sprinkle them over the paper, letting them fall wherever the breeze blows. See that comma after “25”? Kill it. Now look at #5. There is no reason in the WORLD for the comma in that sentence, except that the wind blew one there.
Next we’ll examine #3. “There’s” means “There is.” Would you say, “There is deposits on top”? I didn’t think so. Number 4 is easy, too. The speaker meant to say that she is the quintessential embodiment. “Penultimate” means next to last.
Now let’s take a deep breath and attack #2. You might have some trouble with this one. Husband Mike is the problem. So many people write about “his wife Kathy” or “her husband Jeff.” Wrong. Try to keep this in mind: If you have more than one of something, then no comma is the correct way to go. But we don’t normally have more than one spouse at a time, do we?
Let’s say you have three sisters — Abby, Betsy and Carla. In that case, it would be correct to write about your sister Abby, your sister Betsy or even your wonderful sister Carla. But here’s the tough part: If you have only one of something — spouses, children, dogs, cats — set it off with commas. Say “His wife, Kathy, left.” Two dogs? “This is my dog Fido.” One dog? “This is my dog, Fang.” It’s not easy, is it? But now you know.
Number 6 has no mistakes. Capitalize Mother and Father as names; lowercase my mother and your father.
Turn to your favorite style guide to find the right way to write, but simply READ to develop a love of language. Start at an early age and read forever.
I returned some library books today at a branch that has a little conveyor belt outside the door. You put your books on it, chided by a harsh recording that commands, “Place the books on the belt ONE AT A TIME!!” I always feel chastised. Anyway, ahead of me were a woman with her two small girls, around the ages of 5 and 9.
The 9-year-old was dutifully placing the books on the moving belt (ONE AT A TIME!), and when she got to the last book she took a slight beat — just enough for her mom and sister to turn and start walking away.
Then, left basically alone, the girl performed one small movement with the final book that I was just able to see. It was a tiny gesture, but extraordinary. She looked at that book’s cover, almost longingly, and right before placing it on the belt, she kissed it.
Ah, I thought, there’s hope.