Sharpened Pencils

By Nikki Corbett

1. Awhile=adverb: She stopped there awhile. A while=noun phrase that follows for: He thought for a while before answering.

2. Nouns can sometimes function as an adjective when modifying another noun (e.g., bank receipt, bus trip, town meeting).

3. Already vs. All ready: Already refers to time. (The play already ended.) All ready refers to degree of preparation. (The students are all ready.)

4. Use italics only occasionally for emphasis. Overuse loses effect. And never italicize an entire passage.

5. Who(ever) vs. Whom(ever): Use who/whoever as a subject ‘Who broke it?” Use whom/whomever as an object “You called whom?”

6. Use a semicolon before adverbs like however, indeed, therefore, thus, hence, besides, accordingly & sometimes then.

7. Noun or verb, the plural of court-martial is courts-martial, not court-martials b/c martial acts as an adjective.

8. Italicize a letter when used in text as a letter: capital T. Use Roman if used in a common phrase: Getting from a to b.

9. Plural Letters: Use an (‘) with lowercase letters: There are 2 i‘s in finish. But no (‘) with a capital: He got straight As.

10. Assault: a threat/fear of violence (no touching). Battery: violent or unwanted intentional physical contact.

11. Adjectives precede a modified word (green grass), but can follow for emphasis (lessons aplenty) or as standard (court-martial).

12. When referring to a Univ w/more than 1 campus, use an en dash, not a hyphen: University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

13. A colon is preceded by a complete sentence. A semicolon contains a complete sentence on both sides.

14. ‘Close proximity’ is redundant. Use either ‘close’ or ‘in proximity.’

15. An apostrophe is formed by a right single quotation mark ( ‘ ), never a left single quotation mark ( ‘ ).

16. Quotation marks not needed for common phrases/figures of speech. Use mainly for quotes/borrowed phrases.

17. Offset names/words used in direct address with commas: Yes, Mr. Smith. In formal writing, use a colon.

18. Set off intro adverbial phrases w/a comma. Short adv. phrases may not need a comma unless confusion likely.

19. Inc., Ltd. & similar need not be preceded by a comma as part of a company name.

20. Addicted refers to a physical need, while dependent refers to a psychological need.

21. Phrasal verbs are not hyphenated (e.g., amped up the excitement VS amped-up excitement).

22. Avoid the use of phrasal verbs if the verb itself will suffice (e.g., jumped up vs. jumped).

23. Use periods with abbreviations that end in lowercase: a.m., p.m., etc., e.g., i.e., a.k.a., et al., vol., pg., p., Dr., Mrs.

24. Use periods w/o a space for initials (e.g., J.K. Rowling) but no periods if initials replace a name (e.g., JFK).

25. Use no periods in general abbreviations (e.g., TX, NY, UK, CEO, VP, PhD).

26. Consequent vs. Subsequent: both refer to events that follow another event. A subsequent event is not necessarily a consequence of the 1st.

27. Close proximity’ is redundant. Use either ‘in proximity’ or ‘close.’

28. Use ellipses (3 dots, never 4 or 2) to denote missing text in incomplete quotes.

29. The 1st word after an ellipses can be capitalized if it starts a new sentence.

30. Can vs. May: Can refers to physical/mental ability or request for permission. May suggests possibility/permission.

31. Don’t confuse these: Insure means to provide or arrange insurance. Ensure means to make certain.

32. Use commas to offset a ‘not’ phrase if clarifying a noun. It was my partner, not me, who solved the crime.

33. Month-day-year dates, offset year w/comma. Day-month-year dates (British & European), no comma necessary.

34. Articles don’t need repeating w/a series of coordinate nouns (the first and second place winners, the car and driver)

35. When referring to family, ‘step’ is always closed except w/’grand’ & ‘great’ (e.g., stepsister, step-granddaughter).

36. Capitalize ‘greater’ when used with a city name (Greater Greensboro, BUT the greater Greensboro area).

37. Onto vs. On to:’Onto’ implies physical action while ‘on to’ implies a continuation.

38. et al. means ‘and others,’ and refers to people (not things). ‘al.’ is an abbr. of ‘alii’ & requires a period.

39. Italicize titles of books, periodicals & plays/productions. Titles of stories, articles & speeches appear in quotations.

40. Use farther to denote distance: She drove farther west. Use further to denote figurative distance: Look no further.

41. Italicize titles of artwork, photographs, sculptures, paintings & other works of art. If artist unknown, use roman.

42. Italicize titles of regularly appearing cartoons or comic strips.

43. Capitalize-but don’t italicize-names of large-scale exhibitions/world fairs. Italicize names of smaller exhibits/fairs.
Nikki Corbett
Nikki Corbett is a U.S.-based copywriter, proofreader, and copy editor, and is the owner of Precise Proofing. Precise Proofing offers a range of B2B and B2C services reaching small businesses, nonprofits, students, and writers. Services include copy writing, press releases, blog editing, marketing copy, manuscript critiques, thesis paper editing/proofreading, article writing, and more. For more great articles, visit