Take a moment to consider this question: “Aren’t I meeting your parents tomorrow night?”

We certainly would never say “are I not?” We would say “am I not?” It seems to follow, then, that we should say “amn’t I?” as a contraction. Why do we not? The answer appears to be simple: because it sounds bad. A word with two consecutive nasal consonants does not exactly roll off the tongue. Remember, languages evolve organically to suit their speakers.

“Ain’t” seems like a compromise between the two camps and is used by a great number of English speakers (principally North American) today. Curiously, the largely forgotten “amn’t” still has sticklers among the Irish. Yet “aren’t” is the most universally accepted contraction, grammatically peculiar though it may be.

As an English teacher, one is often asked about the conditional mood. My answer is to like to this article, which explains first, second and third conditional well enough to require no further elaboration. There is one conditional, however, that the article does not cover: zero conditional.

Zero conditional, which takes the form of declarative statements in the form "if X, then Y", is used to describe known cause-and-effect relationships. Examples include "if water is heated to 100 degrees Celcius, it boils" and "if people do not have access to clean water, they become sick". It is distinguished from other conditionals by both verbs being in the present simple tense.

"Unique" may be the most misused adjective in the English language (except "ironic" - you could probably write a book on that topic). People often recommend something that was "quite" or "very" unique, much to the consternation of professional pedants like us. Uniqueness is an absolute quantity, that of having no equal. Another perspective is that everything is unique, because nothing shares all of its qualities (including physical location) with something else. Therefore, even correct use of the word may be meaningless.

We humbly suggest alternatives. "Unusual" and "distinctive" are words with a similar meaning, but they allow for comparison. Additionally, you may want to consider emphasising some aspect other than the peculiarity of the thing you want to praise - after all, something could be unique and wholly unpleasant. In this case, "wonderful" or "marvellous" might be better suited.

Our blog posts are generally about the art of writing, but it would be remiss not to write anything about the necessary discipline. Part of it is routine: if you can run to a schedule, so much the better. The topic of this post, however, is how to use whatever time you do set aside effectively.

1. Be prepared

Before you start writing, whether you intend to write an essay or a book, you should have a plan. If you need to include a bibliography, create one at the onset - while you will need to update it as your range of sources expands, you can at least save yourself some distraction over the course of writing your non-fiction piece if you compile as many relevant sources as you can, with full bibliographic details, before you start writing.

2. Make yourself comfortable

You can save yourself a lot of discomfort, short- and long-term, by sitting as straight as possible. For this reason, I tend to advise against office chairs in favour of simple wooden ones, but I leave this to personal preference. Opt for a desk with a roll-out tray for your keyboard, so that your shoulders can be relaxed as you work. Keep a jug of water handy, and maybe a cup of tea or coffee. Stretch regularly - which brings us to our next point. 

3. Take hourly breaks

If you work for hours at a time, you are likely to see diminishing returns on your effort and mounting discomfort. If time constraints allow, I recommend dividing each hour into 50 minutes of work and a 10 minute break. This will enable you to stretch, refill your drinks, and let ideas percolate.

We do, actually.

An Oxford comma (or serial comma) is one placed before the coordinating conjunction (e.g. and) at the end of list. This was among the topics in the humorous Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The comma in the title, though not an Oxford comma, indicates how much a comma can affect the meaning of a phrase.

 

Consider this (probably apocryphal) book dedication:

"To my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

It is ambiguous, suggesting that Ayn Rand and God may be the author's parents. The addition of an Oxford comma removes this ambiguity.

"To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God."

This example illustrates clearly that the Oxford comma does have its rightful place. I will stress at this point, however, that not every list needs one. Indeed, some are better off without it. The mark of a skilled writer is to know when to include it and when to omit it.

 

Imagine that the author in question was not on speaking terms with her father and had omitted him from her dedication. It may have read as such:

"To my mother, Ayn Rand and God."

This is unambiguous, unless the reader assumes that the author's mother is both Ayn Rand and God. How would it look with an Oxford comma?

"To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God."

In this case, the addition of a comma adds ambiguity.

 

In summary, the Oxford comma is to be used with discretion, and ignored at your peril. The latter point is illustrated in a vivid and memorable (albeit risque) way in this article.