MC 102 Lecture 02: Grammar and style

Grammar, spelling, punctuation.


• These were all invented by sadistic junior high school English teachers to terrorize students and confuse adults.

• No one can learn all those rules and terms, and besides, it doesn’t do anybody any good anyway.

• I can write. I’m just not very good at grammar and spelling.

• People who know all the rules for using commas are weird — and dorks.


These are a few of the things you hear about grammar, spelling and punctuation. Maybe they even reflect some of your thoughts.

For media writers — people who make their living in this profession, however, the rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation and style are essential. Knowing those rules and being able to apply them consciously to your writing is the mark of a professional. What you don’t know about these things, you should try to learn as quickly as possible.

First a few principles

• The rules of grammar are important. Standardization allows us to communicate more effectively and efficiently.

• Knowledge of those rules makes us a better writer. We have more confidence in the way that we are saying things.

• People who work with the language — people like you — should care about it. They should take an active interest in its development.

• The “rules” — grammar, spelling, punctuation –– are dynamic rather than stagnant. They change often. Knowing grammar is not just knowing a set of rule. Rather, it is understanding how the language works and how it is used.

Media writers must keep up with the language and the way in which people are using it.

Knowledge of the rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling and style are important to your professional reputation

Writing takes place on three levels. Level I is mainly technical — getting words spelled correctly, getting sentences complete, getting commas in the right places, etc. It is simply applying the rules of the road.

There’s not much that is hard about this level except that often we don’t learn these things and apply them very well. Consequently, we get to college and realize that we are deficient in some of our knowledge about these things or that we have not developed good habits in applying them.

Level II has to do with how we use the language and demands an even higher level of expertise. The order in which we put words, the ability to recognize cliches, bad syntax, non-parallel structures — all of these are important for the writer and demonstrate the writer’s ability to use the language.

At Level II we should begin to pay attention to how we are using the language as well as how we apply the technical rules.

Level III is where we make judgments about our use of the language to present information and ideas clearly and efficiently. Here we must pay attention to the concepts of unity, sequence, logic, transitions, voice and development.

Level III makes great demands on our intellect as we write.

But the truth is that when we write, we must think on all three levels simultaneously. Writing is a high order intellectual activity. It is akin to doing a complicated math problem.

The fact remains, however, that no matter how good we are at Levels II and III, we must be perfect at Level I for anyone to pay attention to what we say. You may have important information or profound thoughts, but if you misspell words and get commas in the wrong place when you express them, no one will believe you or respect what you have to say.

Most common Level I errors

Students beginning MC102 make some common Level I errors. These errors can be overcome if they pay attention and apply some basic rules. They need to begin to get out of some of the bad habits they have developed in writing.

Here are some of those errors:

Run-on sentence and commas splice. A run-on sentence connects two complete sentences with no punctuation or coordinating conjunction.

The computer screen began flashing it would not stop.

A comma splice is where the writer might use a comma to separate the two sentences.

The computer screen began flashing, it would not stop.

This sentence is still incorrect. To proper separate two complete sentences within a sentence, you should use a comma AND a coordinating conjunction, such as “and” or “but.”

  • The computer screen began flashing, and it would not stop.

Pronoun-antecedent agreement. This may be the most common error in writing because it is the most common error in our speaking. We often use a plural pronoun to refer to a singular antecedent in our speech. This is acceptable when we speak, but it is not acceptable when we write.

Singular antecedents require singular pronouns.
The Supreme Court announced its decision today.

Not
The Supreme Court announced their decision today.

Essential and non-essential clauses. Look up this entry in your AP Stylebook and study it carefully. Understand how an essential clause differs from a non-essential clause. In many constructions, essential clauses are introduced with the word “that” and are not separated from the rest of the sentence with commas. Non-essential clauses are introduced with the word “which” and are separated from the rest of the sentence with commas.

Its, it’s. Repeat after me:

It is a singular pronoun.
Its is the possessive of it.
It’s is a contraction for “it is.”
Its’ does not exist.

When you think you understand these differences, e-mail the instructor (stovall@jn.ua.edu) the following message:

I have read the lecture notes about it, its and it’s; I understand the distinctions; and I pledge to use these words properly for the rest of my life.

Commas. The comma can be a very powerful instrument for expression.


God save the Queen.
God, save the Queen.
God save the Queen?
God save the Queen!
God. Save the Queen.

There aren’t many rules for using commas, but they are very important.

Pay particular attention when you use a direct quotation and attribution. That’s something we do a lot of in media writing. A comma should be inside the quotation mark to separate the quote from the attribution, as the examples below:

“I ran to the store,” he said.

A period should not be put after the word “store.” It should be a comma. Don’t make the silly mistake of writing:

“I ran to the store.” he said.

In grading midterms, I have seen many students use this construction. Students who do that this semester are likely to fail outright.

Words. Use words precisely – for exactly what they mean.

Don’t use reticient when you mean reluctant,
imply when you mean infer,
don’t shoot off a canon,
don’t sentence someone to be hung for a crime,
and above all,
don’t stand on your principals.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

Mark Twain


Style and the stylebook

All media writing is governed by the rules of a stylebook. The most wide-ranging stylebook is the AP Stylebook and Libel Manual, a book that is required for this course. That’s the stylebook that governs journalism, public relations and much of advertising.

Like grammar, style rules weren’t cooked up just to make life miserable for college freshmen and sophomores. They have some important uses. They:

• help bring a consistency to writing
• help draw attention away from the writing and toward the content
• help make writing easier for the writer

Here are a few basic style rules that may help you learn the stylebook:

Every word has one and only one spelling.
• Check the stylebook first – then a dictionary

• Look up the entry in the stylebook on “spelling”

Avoid unnecessary capitalization.
Proper nouns and names: exceptions: Popular names (South Side, East Tennessee, the Series); Derivatives (English, Christian, but not biblical or french fries)
Learn the difference between capital and Capitol

Avoid excessive abbreviation.
A name and an abbreviation in parentheses immediately after it is usually not necessary.
Memorize abbreviations for months and states.
In most cases, captials and periods are not necessary for an abbreviation.
ABC, not A.B.C.; but always U.S., never US
Some abbreviations are appropriate on all references: FBI for Federal Bureau of Investigation

Punctuate according to generally accepted rules of punctuation.
Major exception:
Items in a series: AP style says not to
put a comma between the next-to-last
item and the conjunction.

The flag is red, white and blue.

In general, spell out zero through nine.
Many exceptions and contingencies to this rule.
Look up “numerals” entry in the stylebook.
Pay attention and memorize.

Knowledge and use of style is a way of showing that you care about your writing and that you have the discipline to improve it. Consistency in writing is almost always a virtue.


The man who won’t read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.
Mark Twain

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