10 Easy Ways to Look Smarter. Right Now.

This post is written by my fabulous design associate, Irene Hill who has decided that it’s an emergency that I correct the little mistakes I make when writing blog posts. Who knew she was this funny. . . 

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When I first met Maria and started reading her blog, I thought, “This woman is one smart cookie!” Of course I was right about that but, in her writing she has moments that cause me to laugh out loud. Or groan quietly. And it has to do with her grammar and punctuation.

She’s obviously brilliant, but I’ve come to realise that she makes up her own rules to support how she punctuates.

I grew up in a family with no television and bi-weekly trips to the library for stacks of books, so I instinctively know how to write and what works and doesn’t work in regards to sentence structure and punctuation.

But back to Maria. I would read one of her posts and ask her why she punctuated a title or a sentence in a certain way and she would come up with the most interesting of answers. Not the right answer, mind you, but truly fascinating.

So she asked me to write her a list of guidelines to help her with her punctuation. I’m a little on the anal side so I happily wrote a list of rules, printed and laminated it and stuck it right by her computer. So she could see it every day.

You may not have noticed an improvement in her punctuation, but that’s mostly because the list doesn’t actually get consulted. She asked me to write the list in a post – maybe then she’ll have time to read it.

1. Blog Post Titles

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Have you noticed that Maria takes a very willy-nilly approach to which words in her blog post titles are capitalized? Some days the word “You” will be capitalized in her title, some days it’s not so lucky. Here’s a few good rules to follow for titles:

a. The first word always gets a capital. No matter what.

b. Don’t capitalize articles – the, a, an, etc (unless it’s the first word).

c. Don’t capitalize prepositions – on, over, for, from, etc or conjunctions – “won’t, don’t, can’t, etc (unless it’s the first word).

d. Don’t capitalize particles –to, so, as, etc (unless it’s the first word).

e. Capitalize everything else.

2. Book or Article Titles within a Sentence

This is a fairly new version of an older rule. Remember when you used to put titles within quotation marks? Don’t do it any more or you’ll look dated. This punctuation rule has moved with the trends.

“The best-selling work of author and stylist Maria Killam, How to Choose Paint Colours – It’s All in the Undertones, showcases her remarkable understanding of how to go beyond simply looking at colour to really seeing what makes a colour work or not work in any given space.” (Haha, thanks Irene for the plug 🙂

3. The Rule of Numbers

This one is so easy anyone can do it. And, I’m glad to say this is a rule that has stuck in Maria’s mind.

a. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight and nine = use letters.

b. 10, 11, 12 to infinity = use digits.

4. Quotation Marks

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Maria is very fond of quotation marks and her posts will sometimes be liberally sprinkled with them. Remember Joey from Friends? He had the same love of quotation marks as Maria and would use them to emphasize his favourite words. Like “sandwich.” Now a sandwich is just a sandwich unless you’re talking about something altogether different. If the word you’re using means what the dictionary says it means, it doesn’t need quotation marks. If you’re using it as a “euphemism,” then fill your boots. Oh, and “euphemism” in the previous sentence is just euphemism. Not something different.

5. Quotation Marks within Quotation Marks

Maria is a very fair-minded person. I once asked her why she chose to use single quotations rather than double, she replied, “Oh, I thought I should just use the single quotations every once in a while as they don’t get as much print space as the double quotations.” Interesting and kind, but the actual rule goes like this:

Maria said, “I love Dr Seuss, and so do my nephews. Here’s an excerpt from one of their favourite stories, ‘Mr Bird was happy. He was so happy he had to sing. This was Mr Bird’s song: “I love my house. I love my nest. In all the world, my nest is best!”’ My nephews can listen to this story all day long!”

First time you quote = use a double quotation mark

If you quote within that quote = use a single quotation mark

If you quote within that quote = use a double quotation mark

Basically, if you are going to use quotes within a quote; alternate double and single quotation marks. I know some styles of writing start with a single quotation mark. That’s fine, just remember to alternate.

6. And One More Thing About Quotation Marks

When you are using quotation marks, please put your comma, period, question mark or any other mark, inside the quotes. I don’t know why this seems hard for some people to remember, but it’s like having your skirt tucked into your pantyhose. Please? Like this:

“To have what you want in life takes commitment. And as I wrote in this post, the definition of commitment is, ‘Everything I’m doing is leading towards the fulfillment of X.’ And if you want to know what you’re committed to, take a look at how your life looks right now. That’s how you know.”

7. Possessive and Plural Rule: This is an easy rule to get confused but a relatively simple one to fix. 

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a. If the word you’re using belongs to someone or something else: your client…, my sister…, use apostrophe + s. For example: your client’s house, my sister’s sons, etc.

b. If the word you are using is more than one: shoes, cars, don’t use an apostrophe, just add the s. The biggest example I see of this is when referring to decades: 1960s, 1970s, 1980s. It’s tempting to make the decade possessive, but entirely unnecessary. When you refer to a decade, it’s simply plural.

8. Colons versus Semi-Colons

There’s more to this rule than I’m going to say here, but the basic difference between the use of a colon and a semi-colon is this:

  1. When writing a sentence and the meaning is closely connected, use semi-colons to link two ideas together. For example, “Maria’s favourite colour is yellow; Irene’s favourite colour is blue.” Could you have made these into two sentences? Yes, you could and that’s how you know you could plug them together into one longer sentence.
  2. When setting up a list or statement of fact, use a colon:
    1. List – “The good news is that there is a limit to how many undertones neutrals can have: pink-beige, yellow-beige, green-beige, etc.”
    2. Statement of Fact – “Vancouver Interior Designer Says: White Kitchens are Timeless.”

9. To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate

There are two times when it’s right and fitting to put a hyphen between two words.

a. When you’ve got two words that belong together to create one word. Maria lives in a world where she’s constantly referring to pink-beige, yellow-beige, green-gray, blue-gray, etc. Sometimes they’re joined by a hyphen, sometimes they’re not. Just so you know, they should be.

b. When you put two words together to describe another word.  Like this, “Internationally sought-after colour expert, Maria Killam is known for her no-nonsense colour style and her brilliant prose.”

10. Be Consistent. Pick a Lane and Stick to it.

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Beyond all this, did you know that rules of grammar and punctuation evolve? They, along with everything else in the world, change and morph into a new expression of what’s acceptable and admirable. And of course, it matters where you live. Canadian rules of grammar and punctuation are closer (but not identical) to British rules of grammar and punctuation. American’s have differences in how they chose to write and punctuate. Close, but not the same.

Thanks Irene for entertaining and enlightening us all!

Related posts:

8 Reasons Not to Miss out on Pinterest

What It’s Like to be The Boss of a New York Magazine

Why Your Designer Should be a Blogger

If you would like your home to fill you with happiness every time you walk in, contact me.

Download my eBook, How to Choose Paint Colours: It’s All in the Undertones to learn how to get colour to do what you want.

To make sure the undertones in your home are right, get some large samples!

If you would like to learn to how choose the right colours for your home or for your clients, become a True Colour Expert.

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  1. So encouraging to see that some people are still aware of correct grammar and punctuation (although the blog format is more forgiving because posts are similar to conversation). Just a couple of comments about the rules. In number six, I realize that opinion has shifted regarding the placement of punctuation entirely within quotation marks, but there are times when doing so does not make sense. For example (please pardon the horrid sentence): Would you rather be considered a “hottie” or a “dog”?

    Second, one further clarification about hyphens (number nine). Copy editors everywhere these days are hyphenating improperly, like this: “Maria is one of the most-charming people I know.” “Most” is an adverb modifying the adjective “charming,” and adverbs are never joined by hyphens to the adjectives they modify. You know “most” is being used as an adverb because it could not possibly be used in that sentence to modify “people.” You would never say, “Maria is one of the most people I know.” A hyphen is properly used to separate two adjectives modifying a noun when the two words function as one word, as in the number nine examples. If the adjectives could be independently used to modify a noun without affecting the meaning of the sentence (e.g., I was attacked by a large gray dog), no hyphen. If you can sensibly put “and” between the adjectives, no hyphen. A “gray and green” carpet is a very different thing from a “gray-green” carpet. Hope this clarifies instead of adding to the confusion!

  2. Great recap of the rules that will keep the reading flowing along and information precise.

    You are no doubt cringing about “American’s” already; no need to point it out.

    Next: em dashes (–) vs three dots (…).

    And maybe after that: single vs double spaces between sentences.

    Fun discussion.

  3. I laughed when I read this post. I too notice grammatical errors and punctuation errors. I make mistakes too, but I do have a love of the language and it certainly helps to grasp the meaning when the punctuation is properly in place. I enjoyed the comments as well. I love the content of your blog, Maria. However, I must admit, I sometimes have to reread a comment or paragraph to figure out exactly what you meant. I think letting Irene edit your blog before posting it would be the best solution. Sounds like she would enjoy doing it and it takes you off the hook to just write freely.

  4. Well, since we’re nit-picking…it’s Americans, in the plural… not “American’s” (possessive).

    And there is no such thing as instinctively knowing how to write properly due to lack of TV or frequency of library book checking out! WOW! One works at it…it’s not being fussy, or old-fashioned, it’s being CLEAR.

    Cheers,
    An American Friend 😉

  5. Thanks for the tips Irene. I’ve never noticed that Maria makes grammar errors because I’m so caught up in what she has to say. I do get irritated with other bloggers and find myself correcting their spelling and grammar.

  6. I’m showing this to my children. They have to study grammar b/c I’m a homeschooling mom. They see it as a pointless endeavour. I don’t!

  7. So who keeps up with the changing rules of grammar? Do they have grammar week in New York and Milan like they do fashion week? Let’s not stifle creativity by shaming the sentence structure. That’s what editors are for!

  8. Unless it’s interfering with the audience’s interpretation of the meaning, who cares about “errors?” I don’t want Maria to change a thing. Her focus is right where it needs to be.

    All the research shows that when people pay attention to grammar and spelling their *content quality* noticeably declines, because the cognitive bandwidth of humans can only compute so much at one time. The only empirically proven way of improving grammar is to read. This is why we don’t teach grammar anymore.

    Maria’s not a writer publishing in oxford university press, she’s a designer who writes a blog. Don’t ask her to waste her talent and time on something as useless as writing conventions.

    -university writing instructor

  9. LOL! Everyone is an editor. And there are so many style manuals with absolute rules. Period inside or outside quotes is an opportunity for a rip roaring debate on who is right.

    Even editors screw up sometimes, and get royal heck from their readers.

    Maria, rock on! How you write is how you speak and it’s beautiful 🙂

  10. I am laughing at all the responders pointing out everyone’s errors. The dangerous thing about writing an article on punctuation and grammar is that you will be jumped on if you make any errors, and yes there were a few. Even funnier, is when a response from a blog reader commenting on one of those errors contains a different error.

    I’m not going to point out any of the errors I noticed if you don’t point out mine! 🙂

    • Shawna, you are spot on! A teacher wrote an email reminding the students at my school to use correct grammar when they posted an email for all to see. You guessed it. He had a glaring grammatical error! So much is simply not proofing our own writing. Has anyone noticed that writing on an iPad can be precarious? It changes words and punctuation if I don’t proof carefully. Dear Muffy can become Dear Muddy. Yikes!

  11. Great post Irene, you guys compliment each other so well. My poor grammar speaks for itself but I try…really I do.
    My MIL is a stickler regarding the rules noted, she has a great time every morning reading the paper followed by correcting the grammar and punctuation of each report written…yup….every one of them.
    I would love a copy of your list and I look forward to her reaction when she see’s it above my computer….she will probably want your address to send you a thank you card!! Have a wonderful week ladies, I no I’m guna……..heha

  12. Irene, I grew up in a family whose idea of fun was to edit every form of written word that passed through our home. My father and I spent Sunday afternoons laughing our way through the Sunday paper at all the errors we found.

    Later, I remember being incensed that my daughter’s honors history teacher could barely compose an intelligible note to parents.

    Much of my career involved working for company presidents and executive vice presidents who couldn’t spell, couldn’t write a proper sentence, and made 10 times more salary than I did. They were the idea guys. I handled the day to day operations. Of course I always corrected everything they wrote before it left our office.

    Since I retired, it’s become a world that drives us eagle eyed grammar freaks bonkers.

    I am glad you’re trying to clean up Maria’s posts. Like another reader, often they confuse me because of the sentence structure, I suspect. And I want to be clear about what she’s saying. A writer’s/speaker’s obligation is to make sure his/her audience can understand him/her. I think Maria will never excel at grammar, she’s of the creative world. It just isn’t important to her. I would love for you to proof her post before it is published (with a considerable salary increase). Maria and you are a great team. She needs you for this. If someone like me (and I would assume the other readers who admitted confusion reading Maria’s posts) who isn’t a dense person cannot keep up or figure what the heck Maria just wrote, then Maria might want to consider the value of that. I have noticed myself becoming more annoyed lately at some of the more undecypherable posts, where I had to just guess about the intent, and still was confuse. And annoyance in me leads to moving on. Yet I don’t want to, but I’ve been feeling it coming. I bet I’m not the only one. Convince Maria the importance of being clear, which is where you come in, and therefore the importance the importance of YOU, which translates to salary to you. Otherwise lower readership translates to lower income for Maria.
    My two cents.

  13. Kind of like design isn’t it? We should at least know the rules first, and THEN where appropriate, break them as our creativity sees fit :).