Recently I’ve been fairly critical of people who write dissenting
letters to this website and others. Invariably, it seems the person
doing the writing is the least literate of anyone in whatever group he
represents. The problem isn’t intelligence (although you wonder what
kind of logic some of these people use), it’s presentation. You might
have an IQ of 175 and be dead right about what you’re saying, but if you
can’t spell or use proper punctuation, no one is going to take you
It isn’t really fair to criticize people too harshly – grammar and
punctuation are difficult for many people. Like most things, English
grammar is an aptitude. Some people have it, others don’t. So it has
nothing to do with intelligence, it’s just something we had to do in
school that many of us hated and then promptly forgot.
But it comes back to bite you in those critical moments when you have
something to say and want to be heard. At times like that, you find
yourself literally crippled if you can’t remember certain things about
writing. That’s what this article is all about: if you want to write
anything, not just a dissident letter, you need to be able to sound
intelligent. If you don’t sound intelligent, people will assume
that you aren’t.
I’m not actually going to tell you how to write a dissident letter (or
any other kind), I’m just going to give you a few critical do’s and
don’ts. (Some of this will sound distantly familiar, if you’ve been out
of school as long as I have.)
Basic typing rules
The problem with most people, when they sit down to write something
important, is that they don’t have much experience at it. It’s truly
amazing what turns up in articles and emails sometimes. Even the most
rudimentary rules of typing are often ignored. So, at the most basic
level, remember the following:
• Never write anything all in one case. (don’t write everything in lower
case, and DON’T WRITE EVERYTHING IN UPPER CASE.) Capitalize when
appropriate (see below for more on capitalization).
• At the end of a sentence, after the period, hit the space bar twice.
Do not EVER start typing immediately after the period. (Amazing how many
people do this.)
• Break your letter up into paragraphs. It's
intensely disturbing to have to read 2000 words in a single, unbroken
string (and it raises questions about the organization of the mind that
generated it). Organize your thoughts and present them in some
sort of order, and start each successive thought with a new paragraph.
People will appreciate it, and perhaps be more inclined to hear what you
are trying to say.
It can be confusing to know when to capitalize a word. The rules are
• Always capitalize the first word of a sentence.
• Always capitalize proper nouns.
A noun is a person, place, or thing. A proper noun is a person, place,
or thing that has an official name. Example: “house” is a thing, and is
not capitalized, but “White House” is a thing (or place) that has an
official title. The word “bill” is not capitalized if it’s something on
the face of a bird, a ball cap, or a message from your creditor. But if
“Bill” is the name of your neighbor, it gets a capital.
Confusion can set in sometimes. Some words are capitalized based on the
context in which they are used. For example, “president” is not
capitalized if you are speaking of presidents in general (“There have
been 43 presidents”), but when you are speaking of a specific president,
then it becomes “President” (“The President will be coming out
Use the right word
English is replete with words that sound the same but are spelled
differently, and vice versa. It can be confusing for anyone who doesn’t
pay close attention, and I pity the foreigner who tries to learn it from
scratch. Some of the most blatant errors occur in this area. For
example, the following groups of words sound the same, but are used in
• to, too, two
• there, their, they’re
• its, it’s
• lead, lead, led
Many people use these words incorrectly, so don’t feel too badly. But
it’s important to get them right. Use them incorrectly, and when a
person who knows the difference reads what you’ve written, your
credibility drops several degrees.
Let’s break them down, in order:
to, too, two
“to” is a preposition, which requires an object (never mind, just accept
it) – “Let’s go to town”.
“too” is a modifier that adds degree – “That water is too hot”. When
used at the end of a sentence, “too” is a synonym for “also” – “I’d like
to go also”; “I’d like to go too”.
“two” is the number 2.
there, their, they’re
“there” is a place or a direction (“Look over there”). It’s also used to
make a declaration (“There is a tree in Brooklyn”).
“their” is a plural possessive – “It’s their house”.
“they’re” is a contraction meaning “they are”.
This is probably the single most common error of all. People simply
cannot remember the distinction between the two, and it’s because this
is one of those exceptions to the rules. Normally, an apostrophe is used
before the letter S when possession is indicated (“That shoe is
Bill’s”). But in the case of “it”, an exception is made. The reason for
the exception is the contraction “it’s”, which means “it is”. Because
the contraction needs the apostrophe, the possessive of “it” doesn’t get
The proper use is as follows:
its: “Put everything in its proper place.”
it’s: “It’s gonna be hot today.”
lead, lead, led
This one drives me nuts because lately it seems nobody
gets it right. The word "lead" can be pronounced two ways: "leed"
and "led". "Lead" has two meanings (three, actually) -- the
material found in pencils, the material found in bullets, and the act of
helping someone navigate. When speaking of pencils and bullets,
the word "lead" is pronounced "led"; when helping someone navigate the
darkness, it's pronounced "leed".
The confusion comes in because of the material found in
pencils and bullets -- most people seem to think that, because pencil
and bullet material is pronounced "led", when speaking of helping
someone navigate in the past tense, the verb is spelled "lead".
"Lead" is a verb. The past tense of the verb
"lead" is "led". It sounds exactly like the material in pencils
and bullets, but is spelled differently. For example:
"Mr. Armstrong lead the church for 50 years".
"Mr. Armstrong led the church for 50 years."
correct (grammatically, anyway)
Apostrophes and Contractions
We already touched on this in the section above, but there’s more. Some
people use an apostrophe every time they end a word with the letter S.
Incorrect. Apostrophes generally have two uses: they denote possession,
and they denote contractions.
When denoting possession, you generally place an apostrophe before the
final S. Example: “That shoe is Bill’s.” (But remember, there are a few
exceptions, and “its” is one of them.)
Contractions are words that are run together for ease of speech. We use
them all the time: don’t (do not), can’t (can not), doesn’t (does not),
isn't (is not) etc. In some cases, if a letter is duplicated, it gets
dropped in the contraction (“can not” becomes “can’t”); in every case I
can think of, the vowel also gets dropped (“do not” becomes “don’t”);
the apostrophe is used to replace the missing vowel.
I’ve seen some people do the following: “did’nt”. That’s incorrect. The
apostrophe does not point to where the two words are joined, it just
replaces the missing vowel.
Except when using foreign words, which have their own rules, these are
the only times we generally use the apostrophe.
Subject nouns, Object nouns
One of the most annoying things I hear all the time is something like
this: “Just between you and I”. I’m willing to wager that perhaps 75% of
the American public says something like that. I’ve even heard
newscasters say it! And it’s absolutely wrong. (I actually heard a
newscaster the other day say that an award had been given "to he and his
Why is it wrong? Here’s a better example: “Dad gave the money to Jim and
It’s wrong because you would never say “Dad gave the money to I”.
I think the confusion arises because, when we were in the fifth grade,
they taught us to say “Jim and I went to town” instead of saying “Me and
Jim went to town”. What many people never caught on to was that “Jim and
I” are subject nouns in that example. But when “Dad gave the money to
Jim and I”, “Jim and I” are object nouns. We are not initiating the
action, we are on the receiving end of it. We don’t have a problem when
the noun is singular (“Dad gave the money to me”), but when the nouns
are compound, we slip back into subject noun rules (“Dad gave the money
to Jim and I”).
Subject nouns are different than object nouns. It’s easy to remember:
“I went to town” instead of “me went to town”.
“Dad gave the money to him” instead of “Dad gave the money to he”.
Why, then, is it so hard to remember that the same rules apply when
there two object nouns? If you find it confusing, just drop one of the
nouns and see how it sounds. “Dad gave the money to I”, or “Dad gave the
money to me”? Once you figure that out, it’s easy. You can slide Jim
back into the sentence and get it right: “Dad gave the money to Jim and
Without going into a full-blown grammar text, those are the main kinds
of problems I see in poorly-written letters of all kinds. A few other
odds and ends turn up now and then, and when they do it’s like finding a
nail in a pancake.
“I have three brother-in-laws”.
No, you don’t. You don’t have any kind of “laws”. What you have is
And this gem: “Church of gods”.
No. Sorry. “Churches of god”.
Spelling and punctuation
I’m not going to spend much time on this one. The sad, simple truth is
that more than half the people in North America can’t spell. This is
more a reflection on the educational system than anything else. All I
can say is, use the spell checker. If you aren’t sure, check a
dictionary. If you still aren’t sure, signal that you at least tried by
inserting “(sp?)” after the word in question. Then you at least appear
As for the proper use of the comma, many people differ on this, and
although there are official rules, they get ignored by almost everyone.
Commas are generally used to break up the flow of a sentence. Don’t
overuse them and you should be fine most of the time. Periods go at the
end of a sentence and at the end of most abbreviations (“Mr.”, “Mrs.”,
“Dr.”, etc.) Semicolons are used less frequently, and signal a
significant pause in a sentence. Colons are used as a launching point:
you want to point out something and you stop to do so.
When you’re all done with your letter, go back over it before you send
it. Make sure you didn’t leave unnecessary words in there if you did
some revising. Read it out loud, see how it sounds. You can find most
errors simply by doing this. Have someone else look at it. And if you
were angry when you wrote it, wait until you’ve cooled down. Then ask
yourself if you still want to send it. If you do, let ‘er rip. If not,
at least you got it off your chest.
Now you have no excuse. The next time you write to this site, you should
sound at least 50% more intelligent than before.
Don’t make me say [sic]!