Tips for Writers: Are You Sure?

Many years ago, I participated in a workshop at a writers’ conference. My workshop instructor was pretty famous and I was a little intimidated by him. But the workshop went very well and the instructor turned out to be very nice, so it was overall a pleasant experience. When we had our one-on-one session at the end of the conference, however, I was horrified to have this important writer point out a grammatical error I had made repeatedly in the story I submitted for the workshop. I pride myself on correct grammar, punctuation, and usage, but he taught me a hyphenation rule I did not know. (At least I understood the need to hyphenate phrasal adjectives, which many writers seem to overlook.)

Here’s the rule I didn’t know, as quoted from Garner’s Modern American Usage: “When a phrasal adjective begins with an adverb ending in –ly, the convention is to drop the hyphen.” (So, instead of “hotly-contested race,” the phrase should be “hotly contested race.”)

More recently I was corrected on the placement of punctuation inside quotation marks. For reasons I no longer remember, I had believed there was an exception to the rule that (in American English) periods and commas always goes inside the quotation marks, such that when words are referred to as words, and therefore quoted, the punctuation would be placed outside. But either that exception has disappeared or I was hallucinating. In any event, it doesn’t apply now. As in: It’s easy to remember how to spell “Mississippi.” (Previously, I would have placed that period outside the quotation marks. I would have been wrong.)

Yesterday, a friend asked the question, “What is the correct past tense of “to weave”? [Note that the question mark is outside the quotation marks because the convention is that question marks and exclamation marks go outside the quotation marks unless they are part of the quoted material.] My friend first wrote “weaved,” then changed it to “wove,” and then changed it back again to “weaved.” I thought I knew the answer, but I might have followed my friend’s pattern and gone back and forth to get to the same place he did. In the context, “wove” didn’t sound right. Here’s what Garner has to say on the subject: “Weaved is correct only in the sense ‘moved in a winding or zigzag way.’” Otherwise it would be “wove.” In the way my friend was using it, then, “weaved” was correct: “He weaved in and out of traffic while she wove her scarf.”

My point here is that you may think you know grammar, punctuation, and usage well, but if there is the slightest bit of doubt—or even if you’re certain but someone else questions you—it pays to look things up. Keep a usage manual handy. And use it.

[I highly recommend Garner’s Modern American Usage.]

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