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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Paulson

Cook your dragon cutlets, not your children.

English is a very scary language. We authors are incredibly brave to take on its wild spellings, confusing commas and crazy rules. None of us is perfect. All of us have brain farts. Complicating matters, some of us speak more than one language or write for different markets with varying rules of usage.

For these reasons, all of us need editors or at least a few sets of fresh eyes on our amazing works. That being said, we can manage most of our gibbles and gabbles by employing mnemonics, tricks and (sorry) our memories. Sometimes, we just have to remember this stuff. English is like that.

The following bits of editing, writing, spelling and grammatical advice are based on feedback from authors both novice and expert. Everyone has little monsters. Maybe I’ve beaten back one or a few of them. I hope so.

If you think this is wierd . . . you're right.

You’ve probably heard this little poem: “I before E, except after C, or when sounded as A, as in neighbour and weigh.”

But what about neither, foreign, leisure, seize, forfeit, height, protein, caffeine and heifer? And, of course, there is also weird, in which the vowel sound is identical to that in receive, for heaven’s sake.

Not to mention efficient, ancient, and conscience.

Sooo . . . unfortunately, ie and ei words are just hard. In the case of the last three (above), words with “cien” in them are indeed spelled with the ie, in complete contravention of the General Global Agreement on English Spelling. If in doubt, it’s dictionary time. Yes, I know. That was not much help.

Then vs than

Then is used when referring to a time. Than is a comparative word.

“He’s much uglier then me.” Nope. “He’s much uglier than I.”

It’s less common to see errors the other way around, but let’s try one. “He than went to the store.” It just doesn’t work, right?

Which leads me to . . .

You and me and You and I

You and me = object. You and I = subject.

If you would use the word “us” in a sentence, it’s you and me. If you would use “we,” it’s you and I.

“He’s better looking than either you or I.” Mentally replace “you and I” with “we,” add the verb, and you’ve got it: “He’s better looking than we are.”

Contrariwise: “The dog barked at Jim and me.” (Not at “me and Jim.” Remember to be courteous.) When in doubt, take out the other dude — in this case, “Jim” — and your sentence becomes, correctly, “The dog barked at me.” You wouldn’t say the dog, which is the subject, barked at I. That would be weird.

Comma ça va?

A comma tells the reader to pause, take a breath and read on. Comma overuse, though, can be very, very, very annoying, and break up the smooth, flowing prose of your wonderful, genius, brilliant work.

But commas are excruciatingly important. I’m sure you’ve seen many memes illustrating their necessity. And let’s be clear: clarity always comes first, even if you’re breaking a rule or two.

For example:

“Let’s eat kids” versus “Let’s eat, kids.”


“Cheryl likes baking her family and her dog” versus “Cheryl likes baking, her family and her dog.” That depends, of course, on whether Cheryl is the modern female version of Sweeney Todd.

1. Got a dialogue tag? USE THE COMMA unless you’ve ended the quote with an exclamation point or question mark, the former of which should be used sparingly. The pronoun (she, he) remains in lower case.

“I’m just breading the dragon cutlets,” she said.

“I can’t eat dragon cutlets!” he said. (And rightly so.)

2. Don’t use a comma after “yet” or “but” at the beginning of a sentence and use them sparingly. (However, however needs a comma). In the middle of a sentence, we’ll need one before these words.

“Yet it continued to rain after the sun came out.”

“The sun came out, yet it continued to rain.”

3. Here’s a thorny one I see all the time. Commas around names should be used when listing folks or things.

“Jan, Jen and Jo declined the dragon cutlets.” (And rightly so.) If you’re an Oxford comma lover, add one after Jen.

“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared a moratorium on hunting dragons in his daily press conference today.” There should not be commas after Prime Minister nor Justin Trudeau. Prime Minister is used directly as a title in this sentence, essentially becoming part of the name.


“The prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, remained in quarantine for two weeks.”

Here we are identifying the people by title first, not as direct modifiers. So yes, commas!

4. Gently use commas around subsidiary phrases.

“Cheryl decided to bake the dragon cutlets, which seemed disgustingly tough, instead of frying them.”

Overused words

Was. That. Had. Just. AUGH!

We must simply write around these overused words. We must find new ways of creating sentences, showing more and telling less — although telling is still crucial in moving a story along. Let’s not go too far.

But instead of “It was a dark and stormy night,” you know, we can write “The lightning flashed as the rain pelted down.” VERBS! USE VERBS! VERBS ARE THE BEST!

As a side note, I’m sure I murdered eighty ‘justs’ in my first manuscript. How? The fundamental “find” tool in Microsoft Word. Some of them stayed, but not many. You know which words you overuse. Find them, kill them, replace them, write around them.


Could you repeat that again?

Thanks, I will. Tautology. It’s troublesome. Tautologies — which use words with similar meanings — are redundant and in some cases annoying. “Could you repeat that?” is quite sufficient without the “again.”

However, tautologies can also be used to create a dramatic or humorous effect: consider the great Yogi Berra’s comment, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” See? That’s funny. “You’re completely devoid of humour” is not. Devoid means “completely empty.” Delete completely.

Speaking of effect . . .

Effect and affect drive many of us bats.

Ninety per cent of the time, effect is a noun. “The dragon cutlets had a nasty effect on my stomach.”

Ninety per cent of the time, affect is a verb. “The dragon cutlets affected my stomach in an unpleasant way.”

There are, as always, exceptions (sigh). When someone goes to jail or dies, “personal effects” must be dealt with. Some people are accused of displaying “affected behaviour.” That’s just the way it is.

Verb tenses

Verb tenses that do not agree or change within sentences, paragraphs or even chapters drive me slightly crazy. Wildly changing your tenses is a great way to confuse the reader. It must occasionally be done, such as when someone is ruminating about a previous event or considering the immediate future. Generally, if you’re writing in the present or past tense, stay there.

An exception, for example: Adam chewed manfully through the sinewy dragon cutlet. (Past tense.) I will have chewed this revolting meat eighty times before swallowing it, he thought. (Future perfect.) But don’t leave Adam in the future. Bring him back to the past immediately.

A few more nasties

Definitely. Not definately.

Separate. Not seperate.

Independent. Not independant.

Lay versus lie. Human beings lie down. They also may lay books upon your lap.

Lie is used when someone or something is flattening itself on a surface. Lay requires an object for the verb to act upon. We lie down but we lay a thing down.

Confusion reigns in part because of the past tense of lie, which is laid. If your boss had to lay you off, you are laid off.

Hyphen versus em dash. Hyphens connect words. Use them, for example, in compound adjectives (in most cases). “Adam finally spat out the thoroughly-chewed cutlet.” Use the long or em dash — dramatically — to create effects or break out parenthetical information (without using parentheses).

Practise versus practice. Practise is a verb. Practice is a noun. However, I often see practice used in all cases, particularly in American English.

“The basketball team practised dribbling all afternoon.”

“The newly-graduated lawyer set up her own practice.”

I hope some of this has been slightly useful. The main takeaway might be to cook your dragon cutlets and not your children.

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