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Dumbledore's Army

Compilation of the “Common Mistakes” Thread at

compiled by Arborealis

Revision date: July 19, 2002

Table of Contents:

Grammar of Hogwarts

Strange constructions especially relevant or unique to the world of J.K. Rowling

  • Capitalization of various terms
  • Strange constructions or confusing grammar elements
  • A few commonly misunderstood “Britishisms” that bear repeating

General “Word” Things

  • Topics relating to lexical choice, confusing words, and common misspellings or errors
  • Mixed up words (than/then, your/you’re, etc.)
  • Confusing pronouns, in depth (that/which/who, etc.)
  • Commonly misspelled words
  • Miscellaneous capitalization, phrases, and other grammar


  • Punctuation. It’s pretty self-explanatory.
  • Apostrophes (possessiveness and plurals)
  • Commas (and the wonders contained therein)
  • Parentheses (all the stuff you thought you knew)
  • Quotation Marks (the nitty gritty on dialogue punctuation)
  • Punctuation Application (a bit of advice on punctuation in context)

General Writing Advice

A compilation of outside sources and Quiller wisdom to help you write better

  • Helpful references
  • General writing/proofreading tips
  • A poem and an anecdote to keep everything in perspective


Archivist’s Note:

Basic formatting is as follows:

Bold Italic Underline indicates the start of one of the major sections.

Bold Italic indicates the start of one of the “chapters within chapters” listed above.

Bold indicates the start of a smaller section.

Italic Underline indicates the start of (yet another) smaller section.

In the interests of clarity and ease of use, I have not directly credited every explanation, misspelling, or example. However, every contribution is cited in some way. Persons contained in parentheses after a title have contributed in a post to the content of that section. If the whole section is a quote from that person, I write their name in the title, or otherwise indicate the fact. While I have modified (often drastically) nearly all the entries for consistency of formatting and style, clarity of examples, grammar and punctuation, etc., I include myself as an author only if I have written a major part of the section.

After the table of contents, tabs and other forms of indentation are only used to demonstrate when an “example” sentence is being used. The word illustrated by appearing in context in the example sentence will be italicized. Other paragraphs are separated by line spacing.


The Grammar of Hogwarts

JKR Constructions (Zsenya, Alanna Granger, Firebolt909, Anne16):

A general rule: Capitalize words that JKR has invented.

Always capitalize:

  • Animagus
  • Apparate
  • Class names (Potions, History of Magic, Transfiguration, Arithmancy)
  • Dark (Mark, Lord, wizard, Arts, Magic)
  • Death Eaters
  • Disapparate
  • Entrance Hall
  • Fat Lady
  • Great Hall
  • House (when at Hogwarts—“Prefects, lead your students to their Houses.”)
  • House names (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Slytherin)
  • Invisibility Cloak
  • Mudblood
  • Muggle
  • Portkey
  • Prefect
  • Quidditch terminology (Snitch, Seeker, Bludger, Beater, Quaffle, etc.)
  • Triwizard Tournament (but not first task, second task, etc.)

Unusual/confusing structures:

  • common room
  • house-elf
  • Floo powder
  • Magical Creatures (but only some of their names: boggarts, Red Caps, hinkypunks, grindylows, Kappas, werewolves, hippogriffs, manticores, flobberworms, Nifflers)
  • Muggle-born
  • “Hogwarts” has no singular, and is almost never used as a possessive. Zsenya suggests using it as an article/adjective (the Hogwarts grounds) or a name (Hogwarts Castle) instead of an object (Hogwarts’ grounds), and hopes that other writers can find a way around it as JKR seems to do.
  • wizard/wizarding


Spells are capitalized

  • Summoning Charm
  • Cheering Charm

Incantations are capitalized and italicized

  • Avada Kedavra
  • Expecto Patronum
  • Riddikulus

Publications are also capitalized and italicized

  • The Daily Prophet
  • Witch Weekly
  • Hogwarts, A History

The word “potion” is usually lowercase, but it is capitalized when part of a proper noun

  • I’m going to make a potion
  • Have you found the recipe for the Polyjuice Potion?

The word “professor” is similar. It is capitalized when coupled with a name or as a form of address, but not as a “general” noun.

  • Professor Snape stalked down the hall
  • “Have you graded my exam, Professor?”
  • The professors went to the dungeon to deal with the troll.

“Madam” is British. “Madame” is French.

  • Madam Pince
  • Madam Pomfrey
  • Madame Maxime

Britishisms that bear repeating (Doctor Cornelius, Hallie, Minerva McTabby, Zsenya):


Minerva McTabby reminds the American fic-writers to be careful with the nearly all-purpose word.

"Bugger it!" said Harry crossly. "I'm having bugger all luck catching the Snitch today. I'm completely buggered. Think I'll bugger off and snog with Ginny instead."


"Oh damn!" said Harry crossly. "I'm having no luck at all catching the Snitch today. I'm really tired. Think I'll go away and snog with Ginny instead."

This example could be extended by a few phrases... think of Ron's buggered wand... and the slash writers might need an advanced course in this word [though the “rating” would be a bit high for the SugarQuill...]

Parental Terminology

Mum and Dad. NOT Mom and Dad. It’s fairly simple. “Mam” can also be used for Northerners or Welsh people.


Nutters means crazy. Starkers means naked.

The confusion of these two words can provide for some amusing reading. As Doctor Cornelius explains, “One common HP-specific mistake is for authors to use the term "starkers" when they actually mean "nutters." This is quite incorrect, and can suggest certain possibilities which are very misleading indeed. When Ron said, "I'll go starkers before I put that on," he was not referring merely to the possibility of losing his mind. If that had been the case, Ron's mother would not have had nearly so much reason to suggest that Harry take picture of the scene.”

All (or at least most) Things Words

Commonly Mixed-Up Words (Zsenya, Firebolt909, KarinaLupin, DobbysSocks, GinnyPotter, Jedi Boadicea, Minerva McTabby, Alanna Granger, Jenni Snake, MandaRC, textualsphinx):

“Affect” is a verb, its primary meaning being “to influence.”
“Effect” is (usually) a noun, but when it's (rarely) a verb, it means “to accomplish” or “to bring about.”

It's an understatement to say that the Imperius Curse affects one's judgment.

I have never been so affected by a book as I was by Hogwarts, A History.

Ron's tendency to avoid studying had a negative effect on his marks.
Dumbledore's pronouncement effected an immediate ban on all student traffic on the third-floor corridor on the right-hand side.

Alright/All Right

“All right” is correct.

“Alright” is not, despite the fact that Webster’s Dictionary has adopted it (they’re not infallible).

"I'm sorry," Ron said.
"It's all right," Hermione replied.


“Bare” is a verb meaning “to reveal,” or “to expose.”
“Bear” is either a noun meaning a large mammal, or a verb meaning “to put up with” or “to carry.”

Voldemort had toppled all the trees, and the ground was bare for miles.
At night, Parvati and Lavender giggled and bared all their romantic secrets.

Hagrid sometimes resembled a giant, though kindly, bear.
“Honestly, Ron. Sometimes I just can’t bear it any longer.”
Dumbledore left the Quidditch pitch, bearing Harry on a stretcher before him.

“Bated” is used in conjunction with “breath.”

“Baited” is what you do to a hook.

Ron watched Harry’s dive with bated breath.
Hagrid baited the traps for the blood-sucking bugbear, but caught nothing.

“Here” refers to a location.
“Hear” is a verb, meaning “to listen.”

The phrase “Hear hear!” is used to vocalize agreement. “Here here!” is not a phrase.

“Harry! Quick, come over here!”
“Speak up, Potter. I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

“Sugarquill ROX!”
Hear hear!”


“It’s” is the contraction of “it is.”

“Its” is the possessive form of the pronoun “it.”

It’s not that I didn’t study, Hermione…”
“The Acromantula clicked its pincers menacingly.”


“Loose” is either an adjective meaning “free” or a verb meaning “to free.”

“Lose” is a verb meaning “to misplace.”

With a great flourish, Lockhart set the pixies loose.
Hagrid bent down and loosed the great monster from its hiding place.
“Oh Harry, we hoped we wouldn’t lose you down Knockturn Alley!”


“Pore” means “to study.”

“Pour” means “to dump out.”

Hermione pored over the books, searching for a reference to Flamel.
Ron ­poured pumpkin juice over the books for no particular reason.

“Rain” is water that falls from the sky.
“Reins” are what you use to guide a horse or draft animal. “Free rein” can also describe someone being in control of a situation.

“Reign” is what a King does.

“Oh, if only it would stop raining!”
“Harry pulled on the reins, but Buckbeak did not respond.”
“I’ve always given you free rein here, Dumbledore…”
“May you have a long and prosperous reign, your Majesty!”


“Real” is, basically, an adjective.

“Really” is, basically, an adverb.

“I don’t think he’s real, Hermione.”
“Oh Harry, you flew really well today!”


“Than” is a comparative word.

“Then” is used in a sequence of events.

Harry’s Firebolt was even faster than his Nimbus 2000.
Ron smiled, but then he glared as he saw Crookshanks creep in.


"Their" is a plural possessive pronoun.

"There" is a directional word indicating the location of something.
"They're" is a contraction meaning "they are.”

What Harry liked most about the Weasleys was their closeness as a family.
“Harry! The Snitch! It’s right there beside you!”
“Oh Harry, they’re coming! Hurry up!”


“To” is usually a preposition. It can also be used in front of an infinitive.

“Too” is either used as an adverb meaning “excessively,” or as a synonym for “also.”

“Two” is a number. (It may or may not have brought you this episode of Sesame Street.)

Ron seemed to enjoy teasing her. He often tried to see how far he could go.
Third years are allowed to go to Hogsmeade.

“I love Quidditch! Me too!”
Harry sometimes wondered if Hermione studied a bit too much.

“Harry, only two days left till the 24th! Have you figured out that egg yet?”

“Weather” is rain, snow, sun, or other general atmospheric conditions.
“Whether” is used to present a difference between two options.

The weather was perfect for the Gryffindor/Slytherin match.
However, it depended on whether or not McGonagall would allow them to play.

“Wear” is what one generally does with clothing.

“Where” refers to a location.

With a look of utter disgust, Ron finally agreed to wear the horrible dress robes.
“All right, Harry. Where do we go to find our dates?”

"Who's" is a contraction for "who is."

"Whose" is a possessive or relative pronoun. It's the possessive form of "who" or "which."

"Who's going to the Quidditch game, Harry?" asked Ron.

"Whose book is this?" asked Professor Flitwick.
"Harry, whose green eyes match his mother's, wore green robes to the Yule Ball."

"Your" is a possessive pronoun - it refers to something belonging to someone.

"You're" is a contraction meaning "you are."

“Watch out for your little ‘friends,’ Potter,” sneered Malfoy.

“You have no idea what you’re talking about, Malfoy,” said Harry calmly.

Confusing Pronouns

Picking between “that,” “which,” “who,” and “whom” can be rather complicated. To make it easier on the reader, this guide contains two levels of explanation for them. The first level is a “quick and dirty” guide. It consists of brief quick-references, similar to those in the “Commonly Mixed-Up Words” section. The second level is a detailed summary courtesy of Doctor Cornelius and his dictionary, and it has beautiful examples and thorough descriptions of the words.

That/Which/Who/Whom, The Basics (BBennett, Silver Arrow, textualsphinx, Manda RC, Arborealis, and mostly Doctor Cornelius):


“Who” does something.

“Whom” has something done to them.

“Harry, look who’s coming! It’s Snuffles!”
Who dropped the Dungbomb in Mr. Longbottom’s cauldron?”

“To whom are you referring, Minister? I do not understand.”


“Who” is used when talking about a specific character/person.
“That” is used when talking about an inanimate object or more “ambiguous” person.

Harry looked over at Ron, who was eating breakfast.
There was a pumpkin by Hagrid’s cabin that was growing very fast!

If a person is described in terms that leave doubt as to who the specific person is, you can still use "that.”

The Seeker that catches the Snitch gains 150 points for his or her team.

There can also be some cases, although unusual, when you would use "that" with a personal name, if there are several people with the same name; you could, for example, speak of "the Mr. Crouch that worked for the Ministry," as opposed to "the Mr. Crouch that disguised himself as Mad-Eye Moody.”


“That” is used for restrictive phrases.

“Which” is used for descriptive phrases.

A general trend: “Which” requires a comma, “that” does not.

You would say,

“The team that won the Quidditch Cup in Harry's third year,”

because there are several teams that you could have been talking about, and you used the phrase to cut the possible meanings of "the team" down to one. On the other hand, you would also say,

“The Gryffindor team, which won the Quidditch Cup in Harry's third year,”

because the reader already knows which team you are talking about it, and the phrase is only giving the reader additional information about the Gryffindor team.


“Who” refers to specific.

“Which” refers to objects.

Who’s cuter, Hermione, Harry or Ron?”
Martin Miggs or Magical Me—which one would you rather read?”
Professor McGonagall did her best to determine which student was the culprit.

That/Which/Who/Whom, Advanced. Posted by Doctor Cornelius, 8/3/01:

“That, which, and who (whom) are the most commonly employed relative pronouns (those used to introduce clauses). That refers to persons, animals, and things; which, usually only to animals and things; and who (whom), to persons. Only which and whom are possible following prepositions. Otherwise, the choice between that and which (involving things) and between that and who or whom (involving persons) is influenced by the functions of the clauses these relative pronouns introduce.

That is now largely confined to restrictive clauses, or clauses that define and limit the antecedent by providing information necessary for full comprehension of the sentence: A law that is not supported by the public cannot be enforced. Such clauses are never set off by commas, and sometimes the relative pronoun is not expressed or can be dropped: a law not supported by.... Contrary to popular misconception, that is not an informal or imprecise pronoun.

Which, who, and whom are particularly appropriate for introducing nonrestrictive (nondefining) clauses, or those that provide incidental or nonessential information: The law, which was enacted in 1867, soon came under challenge in the courts. Such clauses are usually set off by commas and in theory are capable of being enclosed within parentheses.”

-- American Heritage Dictionary, (c) Houghton Mifflin 1979, page 1333.

Following a preposition:

Impersonal: which. "The Gryffindor Quidditch team, of which Harry was a member, won the Cup in his third year."

Personal: whom. "Harry's teammates, of whom Fred and George were the funniest, celebrated their victory with a round of Butterbeer."

Not following a preposition:

Restrictive: that. "Oliver, however, was the teammate that seemed the most emotionally affected by the victory."

Non-restrictive, impersonal: which. "The victory, which was their second in three matches that year, concluded with Harry beating Draco to the Snitch once again."

Non-restrictive, personal, subjective: who. "Draco, who had previously kept Harry from the Snitch by grabbing the tail of his Firebolt, was unable to beat Harry this time."

Non-restrictive, personal, objective: whom. "But Harry, whom Draco had always considered beneath contempt, considered it a poetically just conclusion to the Quidditch season."

Other Pronouns (Manda RC):

An increasingly common mistake is the misuse of a certain set of pronouns such as “himself” and “myself.” These are used when a person or item is both the subject and object (direct or indirect) of the action. People often use "myself" when they should just use "me," probably thinking it sounds more formal. Examples:

"I appointed Professor Sprout, Madame Pomfrey, Percy Weasley and myself to the committee."
"Professor Dumbledore appointed Professor Sprout, Madame Pomfrey, Percy Weasley and me to the committee."

Commonly Misspelled Words (GinnyPotter, Penpusher Esq):

So far we include only two, but they are among the most commonly misspelled words in the English language.

A lot

Spelling it “alot” is incorrect. It irritates everyone. A lot.


There is only one way to spell it. “DefinAtely” is not a word.

“Defiantly” is an adverb which means something else entirely.

Voldemort is definitely evil.
“Definately” is definitely not a word.
Ron stood defiantly in front of Sirius Black.

Miscellaneous Grammar (i.e. It Didn’t Fit Anywhere Else):

GinnyPotter’s lesson on I vs. Me

I've seen Hermione correct Ron's grammar when Ron actually had it right in the first place.

"That evil git gave Harry and me detention," said Ron.
"Ron," Hermione corrected, "that should be Harry and I."

Nope, sorry Hermione; Ron was right. The detention was given to Ron. Ron was not the one granting the detention (i.e., Ron and Harry were objects in that sentence as opposed to subjects.) People tend to automatically believe that it should be [insert name here] and I. Take out the proper name and it's easier to see which pronoun should be used.

"That evil git gave me detention."

"That evil git gave I detention."

See, the choice is now clear, isn't it?

Amelia E Bott’s Pet Peeve:

One error that makes me shudder is the use of "try AND (do something)". The proper usage is "try TO do something".

RIGHT: "I think we should all try to read our Potions textbooks for tomorrow's class," Hermione suggested to a less than enthusiastic audience.

WRONG: "I think we should all try and read our Potions textbooks for tomorrow's class," Hermione suggested to a less than enthusiastic audience.

Penpusher Esq and Plurals:

Greek or Latin words such as “phenomenon” or "forum" often have incorrect plurals.

The plural of “phenomenon” is “phenomena,” not “phenomenons.” Other examples are “forum” (“fora”) and “dictum” (“dicta”).

There is also a problem with “dice.” “Dice” is a plural. The singular is “die.” You only “throw the dice” if there are more than one in your hand.

Zsenya teaches Parental Capitalization:

If you are using "Mum" or "Dad" as a form of address, or as a name substitute, then it is capitalized.

"Mum! I'm going outside"
"Well, you don't think Dad's serious, do you?"

However, if you are talking about parents in a general sense, they are lowercase.

"I'll have to ask my mum for permission."
"If your dad hears about this, you will be in so much trouble!”

The wonders of punctuation

Apostrophes (Zsenya, Alanna Granger, Arborealis):


In general, apostrophes are used to show that something is possessed by something else.

Mr. Ollivander gaped at Harry’s wand.

Harry could feel the shop’s gloom.

Hagrid waved Hedwig’s cage at him from outside the window.

Fred and George’s pranks often exceeded even Peeves’.

They are not used when something is merely plural.

Hermione staggered under the weight of her books.

Professor McGonagall glared at the Gryffindors.

The cakes were delicious—Dobby had outdone himself.

Possession can get complicated when it involves a potential “double-s.” Depending on the edition, JKR has it both ways in the books, and both are grammatically correct. Pick the one you like, and be consistent.

Sirius’s eyes were haunted as he gazed at Harry.

James’ wife smiled at him and cuddled their newborn son.

When referring to a family, the plural has no apostrophe.

The Dursleys lived at Number four, Privet Drive.

The Weasleys were Harry’s favorite family in the world.

The apostrophe comes before the s when one family member possesses something, and after the s when they all possess it.

Vernon Dursley’s job often left him tired and cranky.
Mr. and Mrs.Weasley’s house was messy but comfortable.

The Dursleys’ food was never as delicious as the cuisine at Hogwarts.
The Potters’ son had his father’s hair, but his mother’s eyes.


Apostrophes are also used as a contraction of “(noun) is.”

Harry’s going to get himself killed!”
“That Bludger’s flying right at him!”

For the oft-misunderstood difference between “it’s” and “its,” see the “Commonly Mixed-Up Words” section.

Commas (Jenni Snake, MandaRC):

To separate adjectives

Put commas between adjectives if there is more than one leading up to the noun, but not after the adjective immediately preceeding the noun.

Harry was the youngest, fastest Seeker Hogwarts had seen in a very long time.

Put commas between multiple adjectives if they can be reversed and still sound correct.

Harry was the youngest, fastest Seeker Hogwarts had seen in a very long time. Harry was the fastest, youngest Seeker Hogwarts had seen in a very long time.

By contrast,


Ron was really a sweet young man
Ron was really a young, sweet man.


As the second phrase does not really make sense (and consequently would never be written out), the first does not require the use of commas.

To separate clauses

Commas are also used to "set off a non-restrictive clause (one that if eliminated would not change the meaning of the sentence)":

The green book, the one that Harry had been trying to find for the last two hours, was covered with ancient library dust.

The comma should not be used when the phrase is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

The green book that Harry had been trying to find for the last two hours was covered with ancient library dust.

The first sentence could become “The green book was covered with ancient library dust,” and one could add in a subsequent sentence, “Harry had been trying to find it for the last two hours.” As Jenni Snake says, “[It just gives a] different emphasis…that’s what style’s all about, in my mind!”

Parentheses (Ashavah, Manda RC, Jenni Snake):

If the words inside the parentheses are a part of the sentence, the punctuation goes outside the parentheses.

Lily scrambled to find a seat, and saw Remus (who had returned to class the previous day) and Peter high up in the stands, saving one for her.

However, if the words inside the parentheses are a complete sentence, then the punctuation also goes inside the parentheses.

Lily just gazed at him, dumbfounded. (After all, what good would speaking to him do?)

If there should be punctuation after the word before the parentheses, it goes after the parentheses.

James did not complain; he merely picked up the book he was reading, and, rolling his eyes skywards (which Sirius noticed and laughed at), retreated to the second year boys' dorm.

If it weren't for the parentheses, this sentence would be:


James did not complain; he merely picked up the book he was reading, and, rolling his eyes skywards, retreated to the second year boys' dorm.

So, the parentheses are just stuck between the word in front of them and the punctuation for that word. Basically, you should be able to remove a parenthetical clause from a sentence and have it make sense and be grammatically correct, even if it sounds strange.

The Snitch (and both Bludgers!) was flying directly at Harry.

Because of this, you have to be careful that parts of a phrase are all included either in or out of the parentheses.

At the World Cup, Percy met (and embarrassed himself in front of) the Minister of Magic."

Quotation Marks (Doctor Cornelius, Alanna Granger):

Punctuation “Hierarchy”

Commas, periods, and exclamation points always go inside the ending quotation marks:

"I hardly think," he said, "that this rule makes sense."
“Oh look,” cried Ron, “Harry got the Snitch!”

Colons and semicolons always go outside ending quotation marks:

They call themselves the "BADKATS": Jane, "Alphie," and "GinnyPotter"; however, they relentlessly deny my interpretation of their acronym.

Other punctuation marks are placed inside the ending quotation mark if the punctuation is actually part of the quotation, and outside if it is not:

She said, "YOU ARE NOT OLD!!!" But did she actually mean to say that I looked like I was "13"?

General Dialogue Mechanics

When a person is quoting another person, use a single quote: '

"And do you know what Sirius said?" Ron asked excitedly. "He said, 'I didn't betray James. That was Peter Pettigrew!' Can you believe it?"

When you have a multi-paragraph quote, put a " mark at the start of each new paragraph.

"I would like to remind all students that the Forbidden Forest is completely off-limits," Dumbledore said. "This is for your own safety. I trust no one will be foolish enough to venture off into its unknown depths.

"By the way, did you notice that Mars is very bright tonight?"

When a quote is broken up within a sentence, don’t put a period until the sentence contained within the quotes is over. Use commas instead. Do not capitalize the next letter if it doesn’t begin a new sentence:

"That," said Hermione, "is why Madam Pomfrey should always fix your broken bones."

"But Harry," Wood exclaimed worriedly, "the team can't win without you!"

Even Professor McGonagall seemed worried. "Harry," she said severely, "this is all your fault."

However, if a complete sentence is contained in the first part of the quote, use a period before the second set of quotes start. Capitalize the first letter contained therein.


“Broken bones are easy to fix,” clucked Madam Pomfrey. “Regrowing them, however, is an entirely different matter.”

Punctuation Application (Zsenya):

When you use an exclamation point in dialogue, bear in mind what that means. Look at this sentence...

"OUCH!" Harry said.

Harry didn't say that. He yelled it. Or exclaimed it, or shouted it. Likewise, watch out for this...

"I'm not going," Harry exclaimed.

Here, he didn't exclaim it (note the comma usage) - he said it. If you want him to exclaim it, use the exclamation point! Keep context in mind when punctuating dialogue for your characters.

General Writing Advice

Helpful outside resources (Zsenya, VirginDestiny, Arborealis):

For writing style, use Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It is available as a book or online. To use it on the web, go to, and select “Strunk’s style” from the pull-down menu.

Grammar, punctuation, mechanics, citations, and useful terms are also available in the wonderful A Pocket Style Manual written by Diana Hacker.

Also, don't forget to check all of the helpful links on the Floo Network page.

And if you’re interested in a radio program (and interesting online archives) by a man who fights against the daily abuses of the English language (and who also appreciates its sublime ridiculousness) check out

A Few Quick Writing Tips:

A basic tactic for comprehensibility (Gracie Kat, Ryncar):

Always try to have someone else read over your work, or read it aloud. Since you're the one writing the story, it's easy to automatically fix missing works and spellings in your head (because, hey! you know what you meant!) But by reading the story aloud you are forcing yourself to actually read the story carefully, and this will help you spot some of the errors that you might otherwise skip over.

This is especially good for catching comma splices, fused sentences, and fragments. If you're out of breath at the end of a sentence, consider reorganizing the sentence.

Believable, accessible writing (Gracie Kat, Alanna Granger):
~There’s a lot of truth in the ancient mantra “Show, don’t tell.

Instead of saying,

"Sally May was a remarkably clever girl, and she always had to have the last word,"

show her clever personality through examples, anecdotes, or even other characters’ observations..

~Try not to be TOO politically correct. It can get annoying when a person constantly refers to garbage collectors as "sanitation workers." Avoid euphemisms, except in speech, and if it's too hoity-toity, leave them out there, too.

~Wordiness and repetitiveness is a common mistake. For example:

The Headmaster's impassioned speech allowed for truly different reactions among the students as they listened to Dumbledore.

Try instead:

While listening to Dumbledore's speech, the students displayed varied reactions.

Little shorter, little sweeter, little more coherent. And then, of course, you would explain what those reactions were (showing, not telling).

Dialogue (ChibiKei, MandaRC):

While proper grammar is important when writing descriptions and anything else that isn't dialogue, it's perfectly acceptable to play around with grammar when writing dialogue.

Think about it. How many of us, even English majors, use completely proper grammar when speaking? Interesting word choices and how much a character pays attention to grammar in their speech can be a great characterization tool.

Spelling is, of course, nonnegotiable. No matter how much a character butchers grammar when they speak, their words should still be spelled properly. Dialects like Hagrid's are an exception to this rule, but should be used with caution.

A good tactic is to go through your writing, read the dialogue out loud, and try to imagine the character saying it. For instance, Professors Snape and McGonagall are not likely to use teenage slang or grammar, unless they're doing so to prove a point. Conversely, students are not likely to speak like English professors.

Things to keep in mind

Spell-Check is NOT ENOUGH

Your spell-checker, while important, is not infallible. Homonyms (two words that sound the same but are spelled differently) are the bane of many writers’ lives. To emphasize the importance of another pair of eyes (or at least the extremely careful work of your own), Jenni Snake submitted a poem which illustrates spell-check-reliance gone awry.


I have a spelling checker
It came with my PC
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot see

Eye ran this poem right threw it
Your sure leigh glad two no
Its very polished in its weigh
My chequer tolled me sew

To rite with care is quite a feet
Of witch won should be proud
And wee mussed dew the best wee can
Sew flaws are knot aloud.

Author Unknown

And sometimes, you can let it slide

Textualsphinx wrote an interesting anecdote about the use of “they” as a singular pronoun (extremely common, especially in America) versus the technically correct “he” or the politically correct “he/she.” It illustrates how, sometimes, it’s OK not to be completely “technically correct,” but only as long as you know what you’re doing (posted8/3/01):

The Usage versus Million Commandments of Grammar issue is very difficult. Grammarians themselves never agree. For instance, a disastrous imposition of ‘correct’ grammar over customary usage took place in England in the mid 19th Century. It had been perfectly acceptable to use the personal pronoun ‘they’ in the singular to denote ‘he or she’:

“If a pauper steals, they should be punished.”

At this time, a new class of public-school-educated men were forming a hegemony and taking over Parliament. Their education had made them worship Latin as the Absolute in all things grammatical. Apparently (I didn’t study Latin so I can’t be 100% sure) this use of ‘they’ was a complete no-no, and a law was passed (!) enforcing the use of ‘he’ as the default 3rd person singular pronoun.

A century and a half down the line, this gave my A level English examinees a problem. Most of my students would write ‘he or she’, ‘(s)he’ or ‘s/he’ rather than ‘he’ unless they were definitely referring to a male. This had been common practice since the mid-eighties. One year, the exam board’s guide for teachers banned the use of ‘s/he’ etc on the grounds that it wasn’t elegant. This was perfectly true, but the majority of people found the ‘default masculine’ option politically offensive. There had even been attempts in some circles to make up a new ungendered 3rd person singular pronoun (‘pe’ was one, oh dear) or simply reverse everything to ‘default female’. (The principal of the college did that when I was a student there – in the very early eighties – and girl did that cause a riot). “It” was out of the question, being used to denote things rather than people.

When I found out that the perfect solution had been sitting there waiting for us for a hundred and fifty years (and indeed could still be found in intermittent use) I wrote to the exam board and asked if we could use ‘they’ as the 3rd Person singular. I always use it myself now. The exam board never got back to me, but some of my students adopted the practice – and passed their exams. I’ve noticed the singular ‘they’ on many occasions. There was no conscious campaign, but it seems to be catching on.

On the other hand, there are things that the Million Commandments will not tolerate.

‘Disinterested’ is not interchangeable with ‘uninterested’, and we should not, repeat not, be encouraged boldly to split infinitives where infinitives have never split before.

(I made the last clause active not passive just so we could have the word-play on ‘split’, USA usage. My, isn’t grammar fun?)

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