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October 2009
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Elementary Rules of Usage

You need to write well to be able to write creatively. Writing well means that you need to know the rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation and style. One of the best books available to teach you the important aspects of usage and composition is “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. Here are 11 rules of usage that you should master and use in your writing:

1. Form the possessive singular of a noun by adding ‘s. Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Examples:

  • Mr. Smiths’s poetry
  • Steve’s beer
  • Patrick’s book

A common mistake is to write “its” for “it’s”. The word “it’s” is a contraction, whereas the word “its” is a possessive.

2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. Example: The writer wrote, edited, and proofread his work.

3. Enclose parenthetical expressions between commas. Example: Charles Simic, a well-known poet, has published another book of poems.

4. Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause. Example: He wrote short stories, and he wrote personal essays and articles.

5. Don’t join independent clauses with a comma. Instead, use a semicolon or rewrite them as independent sentences. Example: Dave writes poetry; He has published two books of poetry.

6. Don’t break sentences into two. In other words, don’t use periods for commas. This often results in a sentence fragment. Wrong: He edited the book with the laptop. Writing for 6 months.

7. Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list, an appositive, amplification, illustration, or long quotation. Example: A writer needs the following tools:

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
  • Book of Quotations Pen and paper
  • Internet connection
  • Laptop computer

8. Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interpretation, and to announce a long appositive or summary. Example: A writer requires certain resources—a computer, dictionary, and thesaurus—to write a novel.

9. The number of the subject determines the number of the verb. In others, if your subject is singular, use a singular verb; If your subject is plural, use a plural verb. Example: He purchased a book of poetry. Both Charles Simic and Kate Ryan are popular poets.

10. Use the proper case of pronoun. In other words, know the subjective case, objective case, and possessive case of pronouns.

11. A participle phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to its grammatical subject. Wrong: Jotting down the ingredients, the pen ran out of ink. Correct: Jotting down the ingredients, he had to stop because the pen ran out of ink.

For more information, you can read “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. If you don’t have a copy, you should purchase one. It is one of the best resources. As well, my mastering the rules in “The Elements of Style”, you will become a competent writer.

Next, I will write about the “Principles of Composition.”


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