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5 Grammar Rules to Adopt

We see it all the time at Mighty Citizen: The quality of the words on your website can make a significant difference in your traffic, bounce rate, length-per-visit, etc. Great content — i.e., “sticky” content — can be a secret weapon in your battle for more visitors.

Here are a few grammar rules to keep in mind the next time you’re writing a blog post, product description, or social media post…

Rule 1: Use “only” only where it belongs.

Let’s consider the difference between these two sentences:

1: My son and I only play golf on Sundays. 2: My son and I play golf only on Sundays.

Same exact words, but with different implications. Sentence #1 is how most of us would say it aloud, but pay attention to what we’d actually be saying: the only thing my son and I do on Sundays is play golf. We don’t eat, sleep, talk, or laugh — we play golf, that’s all.

Meanwhile, the second sentence nails the meaning precisely: The only day on which my son and I golf is Sunday.

We don’t notice the misplacement of “only” in everyday speech because it’s easy to grasp the gist of what the person means. But with the written word, we can take the time to say exactly what we mean.

The next time you see the word “only” written somewhere, ask yourself if it’s in front of the word it’s actually meant to modify. I’ll bet you $1 it isn’t. (Unless it’s something you wrote, in which case, of course it’ll be perfect!)

Rule 2: “Fewer” is for countable items. “Less” is for everything else.

My writing mentor is a man named John Trimble, a former English professor at The University of Texas at Austin. He wrote an excellent book about stylish writing called, believe it or not, Writing With Style.

So imagine my horror when, in my first essay for his class, I wrote the following dumb sentence:

“I have less ideas than I used to.”

Trimble’s beef with that sentence, which he scrawled in blue pencil, wasn’t that it ended in a preposition. (After all, that antiquated rule has been mostly–and rightly–abandoned.) His comment was on my use of “less.”

He pointed out that “less” should be reserved for quantity, not numbers. Because ideas can be counted, I should’ve written:

“I have fewer ideas than I used to.”

You’ll see the less vs. fewer rule flaunted all over the place. Most supermarkets still have the “10 Items or Less” line. (Big ups to Central Market in Austin for correctly using “fewer.”)

In short, as grammatical masters Strunk and White explain in this post, “‘Less’ refers to quantity, ‘fewer’ to numbers.”

Rule 3: Know what not to capitalize.

When capitalizing titles – blog articles, webpages, memos, etc – it’s helpful to know which words you shouldn’t capitalize.

In short, capitalize every word in a title except:

  • Articles: a, an, the
  • Prepositions under 4-5 letters – e.g., to, by, with, etc.
  • Conjunctions – e.g., or, for, but, and

One additional exception is that you should always capitalize the first and last words of a title, even if you wouldn’t capitalize them elsewhere.

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Rule 4: Know i.e. vs. e.g.

These two understandably get mixed up all the time.

  • i.e. – from the Latin id est, meaning “it is.” In modern English, “i.e.” translates as “that is.”
  • e.g. – from the Latin exampli gratie, meaning “for the sake of example.” In modern English, it’s used as “for example.”

These two have similar but distinct meanings. I think of “i.e.” as a way of helping the reader understand something they might not already know:

“At my cousin’s wedding this weekend, I plan on twerking – i.e., shaking my rear-end wildly.”

Meanwhile, “e.g.” is just a simple way of providing examples:

“As a foodie, I frequent many of Austin’s world-class restaurants – e.g. Burger King, Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, etc.”

One last thing: The “e.g.” is not meant to provide an exhaustive list of examples, just the three or four most common ones often followed by an “etc.”

Rule 5: The plural of “ninja” is “ninja.”

In the West, it’s very common — and thus, acceptable — to pluralize “ninja” thusly:

“Those ninjas snuck into our dojo and ate all of our nectarines.”

But I’m here to spread some great news: “Ninja” is a perfectly acceptable – and technically correct – pluralization. It’s like “geese” or “moose” — i.e., the same word for a single individual or a thousand.

Of course, it would be helpful when reporting your stolen nectarines that you tell the police how many ninja there were, exactly.

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