You’ve read through grammar tutorials and you’ve even dusted off those English books from your school days. You are a veritable grammar king! Or are you? Do you really have that black belt? Can you string two subordinate clauses together with a chain and use them as lethal weapons like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon? And if so, do you make the same noises as he did.
Let’s hope not, especially if you type up your SIMs in a public library…
There are many pitfalls and stumbling blocks that are easily avoided by familiarising yourself with certain rules, examples of which are provided below. Some may look finicky (come on, you know you love finicky) but when they’re the difference between entering a writing challenge or the top SIMs competition and walking away with a victory under your belt, you’ll be glad that you took the time to brush up!
Sci-fi writing creates a range of difficulties when it comes to choosing whether or not to start a word with a capital. You have ‘Bajoran’, ‘Engineering’, ‘Commanding Officer’ and a variety of other things that are just waiting to throw a hyperspanner in the works. Fortunately, there are some handy conventions that can help you to keep your nose clean. Take a look below!
Whenever you refer to a member of an alien race, use the same rules as you would for nationality, which requires a capital letter. If someone hailed from Germany you would say:-
“He is German.”
It’s the same deal if someone mistakenly thinks you’re drinking plome’ek soup when in fact your evening meal hails from a different Federation founder world‘s culture:-
“It’s actually Tellarite cuisine.”
Always use a capital! Of course, with rules come exceptions and this rule is no exception to the, er… rule. If you’re talking about Terrans, use a capital, but humans? Always lower case.
“Commander, I’ll be in Engineering.”
You will! ‘Engineering’ is a proper noun in this case, the name of the ship’s engine room. Notice it’s not the name of the ship’s Engine Room. If you’re using the title of a place name, such as ‘Ops’, ‘Engineering’, ‘Sickbay’ or ‘Ten Forward’ then you use a capital. If your location needs ‘the’ before it then you don’t in most cases, such as ‘the bridge’, ‘the observation lounge’, ‘the transporter room’. If you can put a ‘my’ in front of it then you’re also likely to be looking at lower case: ‘my quarters’.
Ranks and Duty Posts
Here’s where it gets a little more complicated. If you’re talking about ‘lieutenants’ and ‘chief engineers’ then you sometimes capitalise and you sometimes don’t! How can you tell? Well, this is the exact same rule as when to use, or not use, a capital letter for ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’!
If you’re addressing someone by their title or rank, or stating your rank as if it’s a name, use a capital:-
“I think I’ve found something, Captain.”
“You should probably ask Lieutenant Johnson.”
“I’m Kathryn Janeway, Commanding Officer of the USS Voyager.”
“I’m going to tell Mom!”
In all other cases, use a lower case letter. In some cases you might be using ‘the’, ‘my’ or ‘a’, which will give you a heads up:-
“I think I’ve found the captain.”
“You should probably ask the lieutenant.”
“Kathryn Janeway is the commanding officer of the USS Voyager.”
“I’m going to tell my mom.”
“How many ensigns does it take to change a light bulb?”
Using Commas for Subordinate Clauses
There aren’t many hard and fast rules for using commas by themselves and it can often come down to a matter of style. However, subordinate clauses need to be marked off with commas if you want your sentence to be understood the way you intended. Sometimes the meaning can be changed by omitting commas, or it can become ambiguous, or it can just look difficult to read. Here’s an example:-
He walked out into the snow although it was cold enough to numb his feet to collect his mail from the mailbox.
Without punctuation, that reads as a little stilted and it’s difficult to process. Some people might have to read that twice to get the sense behind it. With commas it becomes much easier.
He walked out into the snow, although it was cold enough to numb his feet, to collect his mail from the mailbox.
What we did there was mark off a subordinate clause, which is a part of a sentence that could be removed entirely without compromising the sense of what we’re trying to say, with commas. I did it again in the previous sentence! Suddenly this is everywhere! Below, so that you can see I’m not just making this up, is the example sentence with that whole clause removed (yes, I did just do it again!):-
He walked out into the snow to collect his mail from the mailbox.
Correctly marking off these subordinate clauses is what enables you to accurately write complex sentences, so it’s worth giving it a try!
The Dreaded Semicolon
The dreaded semicolon is a piece of punctuation often avoided because quite frankly what is it for? The answer is that it exists purely to save you time! This helpful and good natured little beastie can be deployed to join together two sentences that directly relate to one another (one might be explaining why something’s true in the other, for example), or it can join together two sentence fragments that would normally be linked by ‘but’ or ‘and’, or something similar. Here are some handy examples:-
He listened intently but there was nothing to be heard.
He listened intently; there was nothing to be heard.
Several members of the coalition decided to set a reverse course and head home in the knowledge that they were heavily outgunned and regrouping was the better option.
Several members of the coalition decided to set a reverse course and head home; they were heavily outgunned and regrouping was the better option.