1. Capital letters
Let’s start with an easy one, shall we? Capital letters go at the start of any sentence, status update, comment or tweet. Also, when you write someone’s name (that’s their first name AND surname) you need to use a capital letter. Same for the name of any town, city or country. Honestly. Most children over the age of five get this right.* What’s your excuse?
(Note: I know a few folk that don’t use capital letters out of principle. They’re archaic, patriarchal. Fine, I can dig that. But whatever your angle, be consistent. You just look like a bit of a twat when you use a capital letter for a random word in the middle of a sentence, but fail to use one for the first person subject pronoun. At least, that’s the way I explain it to the kids.)
2. Full stops
Known in American English as a period, a full stop goes at the end of a sentence. I don’t know how much simpler I can put it. Use them.
3. Single space after a full stop
There was an article on Slate a few years ago about why you should never, ever double-tap the space bar after a period (full stop). You can read it here. Or not. I don’t care. I didn’t write it. Either way, don’t do it. One space is sufficient, whether you’re texting, typing or writing a report on the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb.
By the way: If you’re being spoon-fed your grammar and spelling via a mobile product you won’t even be able to double-space—try creating two spaces in a Facebook status on an iPhone and see what happens. See? If it’s good enough for Jobs…
4. Ellipsis (‘dot-dot-dot’)
I taught this kid a few years back who had more problems than Jay-Z, Walter White and Tony Soprano combined. And yet, somehow, he was able to tell me what an ellipsis was. For those that don’t know, an ellipsis is where a word or words have been deliberately left out (otherwise known as an omission) and it usually appears at the end of a sentence, statement or other utterance. Its purpose is to indicate that the utterance is, for one reason or another, unfinished. More pertinently, that kid in my class also knew that you should only ever use three dots in an ellipsis. No more, no less. Two looks like you just typed a period twice by mistake, while any more than three is just vulgar. Stop doing it.
Apostrophes are tricky. I’ll give you that. But they’re also quite straightforward. The first thing to remember is that you don’t need to use one for plurals. You know, when there’s more than one of something? Ten points, three balls, and ninety-nine problems are all fine without an apostrophe, thank you kindly. I’m not going to get into spelling here, but for words that end in y, you need to drop the y and add ies. As in: strawberries. However, if the final y is preceded by a vowel, just add s. See: monkeys.
Apostrophes are used when a letter or letters have been omitted—as in I’ve or don’t or let’s, all of which are examples of contractions. The other type of apostrophe is an apostrophe of possession. See: Mike’s pen. (The pen belongs to Mike.) See also: The car’s brakes. (The brakes “belong” to the car). The only potential pitfall is with words like its and theirs. If you’re contracting it is or there is, you need an apostrophe. Standard. However, the cat licked its fur does not require an apostrophe, even though the fur belongs to “it” (the cat). What? I told you it was straightforward. Look, the rule is: when you use a possessive pronoun (yours, its, his, hers, ours, theirs) you don’t need to use an apostrophe. Job done. Now, let’s never use the word apostrophe again.
6. Your/you’re; there/they’re/their
I can’t even be bothered with this one. You’re not even still reading this, are you? Besides, if you don’t know the difference between each of these by the age of, like, nine… well. Good luck.
A former colleague of mine had this poster in his class, encouraging children to use all manner of alternative speech verbs to the word said. “Said is dead!” the poster, er, proclaimed. Drivel. When the children in my class write stories and they want to use dialogue, I tell them there’s only one speech verb they really need. Why? Because said does its job and gets the cuss out the way. I occasionally allow asked, shouted, and whispered. But mostly not. And never, ever laughed or sighed. Or proclaimed.
Lists are lazy writing. Don’t do them.
9. Break the rules
Yep. Even the apostrophe one—Hubert Selby Jr didn’t use apostrophes and he was the baddest of the bad-asses. And, as Vanessa Veselka once told me: “In general […] I think every rule is breakable, except, please try your best not to suck, and even that one bends.”
10. Check your work
If you are going to break the rules, fine, but for the love of God, please, please, before you comment, post, publish, or bring your exercise book over to tell me you’ve “finished”, check what you’ve written. It doesn’t take long. Just read it. Does it make sense? Have you missed a word, forgotten to use a capital letter, or added too many dots to your ellipsis? Is there a squiggly red line under one of the words? If the answer to any of those questions is yes, do something about it. Otherwise, get out of my sight.
*Patently not true. But really, is it that hard for you just to hold down the shift key for, like, a microsecond?