As an undergraduate, I had an English professor that insisted that grammar was critical to content. He didn’t care how great an idea or concept in a paper was if the grammar was off. “People notice the details,” he said. “You wouldn’t wear an impeccable suit and not comb your hair.” So I suppose that’s when my commitment to grammar commenced.
I’ve tried to keep my grammar mania undercover, but apparently my secret is out. This semester my Advanced Composition students joked that I must start convulsing outside of class if a friend, colleague, or worse yet – a publication—commits grammar blunders. The truth is that the grammar tidbits that you didn’t learn properly in grade school can and will come back to haunt you. So in honor of all of us who aspire to get this grammar stuff right, here goes—my guide to common grammar crimes and tips to solve them.
Semicolons are not quite periods, but they require a bit more of a pause than a comma. Stylistically, semicolons may be used in place of a period if the writer wishes to link two sentences or independent clauses that are closely related.
Today I will learn grammar; I need to learn how to use semicolons!
Semicolons also link clauses connected by conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases (however, although, therefore, furthermore, consequently, hence, instead, nevertheless, thus, etc.).
You can pretend you know how to use a semicolon; however, if you get it wrong, the grammar police will get you.
Generally, when using a semicolon be sure that what comes before the semicolon and what comes after it is a complete thought. For the bulk of us who fear the semicolon, keep it simple—use semicolons to link related sentences that are complete thoughts independently.
A colon is sort of like a semi colon, only it’s not. You use a colon to introduce a series of items.
At the store, I will buy the following: almonds, walnuts, and apples.
You do not need to capitalize the first word after the colon unless it’s a proper noun.
You can also use a colon between independent clauses when the second sentence explains, illustrates, paraphrases, or expands on the first sentence.
She was a hard worker: she deserved the promotion.
A semicolon may also be used in the prior sentence, but a colon is the best choice as the second half of the sentence exemplifies the first part.
You may also use a colon rather than a comma to follow a salutation in a business letter. For an informal letter, a comma is generally used after the salutation.
Dear Ms. Weiss: (formal)
Dear Ms. Weiss, (informal)
I am committed to the Oxford comma, which means that I opt for the extra comma in a list. So when it comes to apples, oranges, and bananas, I am not stingy in adding in adding the comma after oranges. Why? For one, that was the way I was taught when I was in grade school. Then there’s the other reason: I love my pets, Madonna and Paris. Without the Oxford comma, you may interpret that my pets are Madonna and Paris. But if I add the Oxford comma, you will see that’s not the case: I love my pets, Madonna, and Paris.
Aside from that, when do you use commas?
- To separate items in a lost. We went to the store and bought pens, paper, erasers, and a computer.
- To set off parenthetical elements: Today, Tuesday, I plan to learn how to use commas correctly. (Note that without the word within the commas, the sentence still makes sense and is complete.)
- After an introductory clause: In the morning, I will learn grammar.
- Prior to or after quotation marks: He exclaimed, “Wow, who knew using commas was so easy!” or “I am going to get grammar right,” she said.
- Prior to a conjunction: (and, but, for, or, so, yet) I know all there is to know about grammar, so I don’t need to read this.
We use double quotation marks when we are using someone else’s language verbatim, and in writing dialogue.
According to Smith, “everything counts when you are writing an article.”
“We should learn how to do this grammar stuff correctly,” he said.
“Yes, we should,” she said.
Note that periods, commas, question marks, and exclamation points always go inside of the quotation marks. Quotations should NOT look as if the grammar is trying to run off to the next sentence: “According to Smith, “everything counts”. (This is wrong!)
Quotation marks are also used to highlight chapter titles in a book, episodes of a television show, songs, or the title of an article, essay, or short story. Single quotation marks (‘like this’) are used when something is quoted within a quote.
Other basics: if a quotation is over ten lines, after introducing it, offset each sentence of it from the margin by about ten spaces. When the quotation concludes, move back out to the margin.
While it has become trendy to use ellipsis to signify a trailing off in a sentence…in reality, these little dots serve a purpose. Three dots signify that you have intentionally omitted words within a sentence from a quotation, paraphrase, or discussion without altering its original meaning. Similarly, four dots signify that you are omitting whole sentences from a quotation, paraphrase, or conversation.
Aposiopesis is the term for when a sentence is deliberately left unfinished, to allow the reader to use his/her imagination to fill in what comes next. In the instance of aposiopesis, you may use an em dash (He left the building and—) or ellipsis to illustrate this intentional cliff hanger (He left the building and…).
Hyphen versus em dash
A hyphen is used to join words. Generally, hyphens are used to join compound adjectives, which is when two or more words precede and modify a noun. For example: he acts like he’s 20, but he is really a nine-year old boy. Hyphenate all compound numbers from twenty-one through ninety-nine. And always opt to add a hyphen if it adds clarity.
A double dash, better known as the em dash, is an extremely versatile writing tool. It may be used in place of commas, colons, or parenthesis. Stylistically, em dashes tend to accentuate language.
She ran to the store—it was still there, after all of those years—and searched for her father.
To create an em dash – type two hyphens and it will automatically occur in most Word programs.
Contractions are formed when two words are joined and an apostrophe is added to replace the omitted letters: cannot becomes can’t; have not becomes haven’t, and so on. You will always be grammatically correct if you use the full version of a word. However, sometimes contractions are best in terms of style. For example, contractions make your writing seem friendlier and accessible. Contractions are also helpful when writing dialogue – they may help to portray how a character speaks.
Frequently confused words
It’s versus it is
- It’s = it is or it has
- Its = possessive pronoun. It modifies a noun and is used to show ownership. (Grammar has a mind of its own.)
Too versus to
- To = location (to the store)
- Too = quantity (too much); too = also (he is going to the party, too)
Their, there, they’re
- Their = possession (their book, their car)
- There = location (put the book over there)
- They’re = they are (they’re a good group)
Blue or red squiggly lines are not decorations in your documents. They are Word’s way of telling you that there’s a mistake. That a word is likely misspelt or that you have violated a grammar rule. Or, in the case of your using a word that may not be in Microsoft Word’s vocabulary, it is Word letting you know that it notices your intrusion. Always use spellcheck—and use it more than once during your writing/editing journey—but also remember not to let spellcheck change proper names or such that may not exist in the spell-check dictionary.
Print to proofread
While it may be more convenient to proofread your letters, reports, documents on a computer, it’s easy to miss errors while you are staring at a screen. Do not trust your computer eyes: they play tricks on you. It is always best to print out sections of your document to review and to insert edits on the paper copy, which you will later transfer to the electronic copy.
Finally, in this world of fast, get it done, and hurry up, strive to communicate clearly and effectively. Take the time to write letters, emails, and notes in full sentences – avoid acronyms and other short cuts. Make the time to re-read your emails. Do they communicate in a way so that your reader will understand exactly what you are saying or asking? Are they specific? Did you highlight deliverables or next steps so that your reader is clear? Never assume when it comes to communication. Put yourself in the reader’s seat. How will your reader interpret what you have written? Remember that everything that you put out into this world is a reflection of you!