Basics of writingConfusing wordsGeneral

Miscellaneous writing tips to rack your brain

From Rick:

Last week Scott began a series on grammar checkers using the familiar Microsoft Word as a starting point, and we promised to continue that series. Well, I wasn’t quite ready this week to forge ahead on that, so I thought I’d tie up some other loose ends and fill your brains with some possibly helpful suggestions on basic manuscript formatting.

At the end of December, I did a couple of blogs on homophone confusions, and I left you to look up the various uses of rack, wrack, wreck, and wreak. For clarification, here are the correct uses of various common phrases involving those words:

To rack one’s brain
A nerve-racking experience
Wrack and ruin
To wreak havoc
A total wreck

BUT… in America “nerve-wracking” and “rack and ruin” are relatively common and are sometimes considered acceptable variants. My advice is to stick with the standard ones above to avoid confusion.

Reference: RACK/WRACK from Random House Word of the Day

NOTE: The past tense of “wreak” is “wreaked” not “wrought.” “Wrought” is an alternate past tense of “work.” Thus, the Biblical phrase “What hath God wrought?” refers to God’s work, not to His judgment or destruction, and “wrought iron” means iron that has been “worked.”


I ran across an excellent website that every writer should subscribe to: Daily Writing Tips

While you’re at the site, look up “cannot vs. can not” and “inquire vs. enquire.”

Here are two especially useful links to previous articles there:



While the latter one doesn’t pertain directly to writing, it points out some mispronunciation errors many of us have made and which writers should not make in public if we’re to sound as if we know what we’re doing.

A word I’ve seen misused a fair amount is “barbed wire” (also barbwire). It’s not “barb wire” as some have used it.



Many writers seem to think that these two words are interchangeable, that they are synonyms for one another. They are not.

Before I get into the differences, I want to point out that I’ve seen writers use “that” where they should be using “who.”

He is the one that brought it to my attention.
Jennifer, not me, is the one that broke the window.
This is the man that always wears torn jeans.

He is the one who brought it to my attention.
Jennifer, not me, is the one who broke the window.
This is the man who always wears torn jeans.

RULE: You should use “who” not “that” when referring to people.

While it’s not always incorrect to use “that” instead of “who” in informal settings (or in dialog), make sure that you have justification for breaking the rule. I’ve seen a number of UK authors in particular use “that,” so maybe it’s a regional speech difference, but you should at least be aware of why you’re breaking the rule.

The distinction between “that” and “which” is slightly complicated in that it requires a bit of knowledge of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses to understand it. Rather than try to explain it myself, I found a great reference. Read it over carefully because I’ve seen a LOT of writers mess this up.


But we’re not done with the subject, because “which” occurs in places other than introducing restrictive clauses. Don’t think that you always need a comma before it. In these other cases, “which” is an adjective or a pronoun rather than a conjunction. Some examples will serve to clarify.

(adjective use) I don’t know which (one) I should pick. (adjective)

(pronoun use) I don’t understand that which he is referring to.
That which I said clearly upset her.

In the latter cases, “that which” is rather stilted speech, but it might be used by a more formal speaker (just as would be “whom”). For that last sentence, most of us would probably say “What I said clearly upset her.”

Which is correct here? The gun that/which I killed him with.
It’s easy to decide if you rearrange the sentence so the preposition “with” doesn’t come last (yes, it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition; we’re changing it to make a point here).

So, restructuring the sentence gives us our answer. We should use “which.”
“The gun with which I killed him” vs. “The gun with that I killed him”

For the grammar-philes among you, here’s a nice Wikipedia article into which you can bury yourself. It also gives some exceptions to the “that/who” rule.



NUMBERS in writing–

Should you write out numbers or use numerals? There are two basic schools of thought for numbers between 0 and 100. Our bible, the Chicago Manual of Style says that in nontechnical contexts (which means fiction writing), you should “spell out whole numbers from zero through one hundred and certain round multiples of those numbers. Most of the rest of this chapter deals with exceptions to this rule and special cases.” [CMS 16th ed., chapter 9, page 464]. CMS further states that many publications spell out only single-digit numbers and use numerals for all others.

One notable exception to all of the “rules” is that you should NEVER begin a sentence with a number. Either spell it out or reword the sentence.

Another exception occurs when using many numbers in a paragraph or series of paragraphs. The key is to be consistent. Here’s one example from the CMS to show how you can deal with two categories of numbers, in this case one is the buildings and the other is the number of stories in the buildings.

A mixture of buildings–one of 103 stories, five or more than 50, and a dozen of 3 or 4–has been suggested for the area.

Now, in most cases, you won’t be writing such things in a piece of fiction (except science fiction), but this is how you might handle it if you find yourself in a position of making your writing clear to your reader. However, I highly recommend consulting the CMS when unsure. As an alternative, you can email Scott or me through our websites or through Silver Pen. You have joined Silver Pen, haven’t you?


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