Guide To Grammar and Punctuation (With 20 Resources To Help You Hone Your Skill)
Regardless of your field of study, communication skills are one of the most important determinants of college success. Without them, your best ideas and intentions remain unknown or, worse, mistaken.
Many of us are blessed with good oral skills but flounder when it comes to putting those words on paper. Even if for the simple fact that professors grade your writing performance first and your class participation second, the ultimate secret weapon you can wield in class is—drumroll, please— a solid grasp of grammar.
Cue the rim shot.
The truth is, you don’t have to know what a phrasal verb or a dangling modifier is to understand English grammar. In fact, the way most of us were introduced to grammar and mechanics in school—as another list of boring rules and words to memorize—should never have survived education reform this long, and needs to change.
Grammar requires logic, not knowledge. It requires an ear for rhythm and emphasis, not a bag of tricks. As Joan Didion wrote in Essays & Conversations, “Grammar is a piano I play by ear.”
For the sake of comprehensiveness, I will include an index of the basic parts of speech and the fundamental units of the sentence at the end of this article. You can refer to it along the way if you don’t understand a term, but I don’t want to bog you down with labels right now, since they don’t really help anyway.
What follows is a compilation of some of the most common mistakes people make every day when it comes to English mechanics, along with some tips for getting it right.
Table of Content
- Common Grammar Mistakes
- Common Punctuation Mistakes
- Glossary of Parts of Speech
- Glossary of Part of The Sentence
- More Grammar and Punctuation Resources
Common Grammar Mistakes
1. Past Tense vs. Past Perfect:
Which sentence is correct?
“Kayla changed her address twice before.”
“Kayla had changed her address twice before.”
When you are writing in the past tense already, and you mention something that happened even further in the past, you use had (the past perfect).
Imagine this is the context of the situation:
“Kayla couldn’t remember how to change her address although she had changed it twice before.”
The sentence is already in past tense (couldn’t), so when it mentions something that happened even further in the past (the fact that Kayla changed her address two different times before), you use had.
2. Comparative Adjectives: fewer, greater, busiest, worst, etc.
You might be tempted to write, “Morton delivered less packages than Avery.”
The correct way to put it is, “Morton delivered fewer packages than Avery.”
Similarly, you may think there’s nothing wrong with, “Of all of John’s victims, Max is the most angry.”
However, “angriest” is a word.
3. Different Than vs. Different From
All the time, you see people writing or saying that one thing is different than another. But since “than” is a term used to compare one thing to another, and difference in itself is not a comparative measurement, it doesn’t make sense to say one thing is different than another thing.
You could say that one thing is more different than another or less different than another, but if you are simply trying to communicate that two things are different, say they are “different from each other.”
4. “Me” vs. “I”
This one is easy to get tripped up on, especially for people who are trying too hard to speak properly. Just remember that if you are talking about yourself and someone else, the sentence should still be grammatically correct if you take out the other person.
“Jenny and I went out to dinner last weekend.”
Take out Jenny and you still have a grammatically correct sentence:
“I went out to dinner last weekend.”
“The house belongs to Miguel and I.”
Take out Miguel and you have this:
“The house belongs to I.”
That means the correct sentence is, “The house belongs to Miguel and me.”
And yes, you always put the other person first, whether you refer to yourself as “I” or “me.”
5. Subject-Verb Agreement
Have you ever heard someone say, “There’s tons of… (geese, people, trees)”?
Technically, since “tons” is plural, it should be, “There are tons of… (geese, people, trees).”
This is subject-verb agreement at its most fundamental. Although it’s become acceptable to say, “There’s tons” (mostly because it rolls off the tongue easier), if you want to be grammatically correct, pay attention to your subjects and verbs.
6. Who vs. Whom
The general rule for who vs. whom is this: If it is followed by a pronoun, use “whom”; if not, use “who.”
“Mrs. Casker, whom we met at the farmer’s market, was a nice old dame.”
“Mrs. Casker, who owned that silver Buick, was a nice old dame.”
Whenever you see this in a quote, usually in reference to what appears to be an error, it is a note from the writer letting his reader know that the quotation has been transcribed exactly as found in the original source, complete with any erroneous spelling or other nonstandard presentation.
8. Brackets within quotes
If you see brackets within a quote, usually surrounding a word or phrase, it means the writer added what’s inside of them for the sake of clarity.
Take the following quote, for example:
“As far as I know, [Mr. Parks] was a highly respected member of the community.”
The fact that the writer added [Mr. Parks] means that the person she quoted didn’t actually call Mr. Parks “Mr. Parks” but rather something the writer didn’t want to include in the story, like his first name or nickname. By placing brackets around the name, the writer is letting us know that she altered the original quote to fit her needs in a way that was neutral, not manipulative or biased.
9. Block Quotations
- Block quotations start on their own line.
- The entire block quotation is indented .5 inches, the same as the indentation for a new paragraph, and is double spaced.
- Block quotations are not surrounded by any quotation marks.
- The punctuation at the end of the block quotation goes before the citation.
- The ending citation is included on the last line off the block quotation.
- The text after the block quotation begins on its own line, with no indentation.
Today, digital cameras have practically taken over photography. As Johnson (2010) explained:
Digital cameras now make up 90% of all camera sales at the leading electronic stores. This increase in sales can be partially attributed to the widespread use of email and social networking, which has encouraged the sharing of digital photos. Now, many people, from students to grandparents, prefer to take pictures digitally so they can upload and share those photos. (p. 23)
Along with the use of email and social networking, phones and iPods that have cameras have also replaced regular, film photography.
10. Multiple-Paragraph Quotations
If you are including a quote that lasts more than one paragraph, end the first paragraph without a quotation mark and begin the second paragraph with a quotation mark. Don’t include the closing quotation mark until you’ve reached the end of the quote.
“Although it is too soon to analyze the policy’s effects on students’ ultimate educational attainment and labor-market success,” West says, “this new evidence suggests that policies encouraging the retention and remediation of struggling readers can be a useful complement to broader efforts to reduce the number of students reading below grade level.
“One of the dirty secrets of American education is that teachers who are ineffective in grades three through eight get moved to kindergarten through second grade where there are no accountability systems in place.”
11. Passive Voice
When a sentence is written in the passive voice, it is usually expressed as the action being done by the subject, rather than the subject doing the action. All it does is switch the emphasis of the sentence, really, but most English teachers urge their students to avoid it.
Active: “Steve loves Amy.”
Passive: “Amy is loved by Steve.”
In most cases, the active sentence is better because it’s more efficient: It allows the reader to get to the subject and the verb before the object. The passive voice runs counter to efficiency: It makes the reader wait to discover the subject and verb.
Passive: “Once upon a time, as a walk through the woods was taking place on the part of Little Red Riding Hood, the Wolf’s jump out from behind a tree occurred, causing her fright.”
Active: “Once upon a time, Little Red Riding Hood was walking through the woods, when the Wolf jumped out from behind a tree and frightened her.”
12. Parallel Structure
On the sentence level, parallel structure means using the same pattern of words to show that two or more ideas have the same level of importance.
The teacher said that he was a poor student because he waited until the last minute to study for the exam, completed his lab problems in a careless manner, and his motivation was low.
The teacher said that he was a poor student because he waited until the last minute to study for the exam, completed his lab problems in a careless manner, and lacked motivation.
The dictionary can be used to find these: word meanings (noun), pronunciations (noun), correct spellings (noun), and looking up irregular verbs (action).
The dictionary can be used to find these: word meanings (noun), pronunciations (noun), correct spellings (noun), and irregular verbs (noun).
A perfect example of parallel structure in a practical setting can be found in your Sunday crossword puzzle. When the clue says, “IRE” you know the answer has something to do with being angry. But writing “ANGRY” would not be parallel, because “IRE” is a noun and “ANGRY” is an adjective. The answer must be “ANGER,” then, which is a noun.
Common Punctuation Mistakes
The Comma vs. the Semi-Colon
Perhaps the most commonly misused punctuation mark is the semi-colon. The important thing to remember about the semi-colon is that it is stronger than a comma and weaker than a colon (hence, “semi”). Its symbol literally reflects its function: half comma, half colon.
Sometimes you wonder whether you should use it in a sentence like this:
“The last thing I want to do is learn a bunch of rules; but I have to do it to pass the class.”
Why would you need a semi-colon here if a comma will do the job? Commas are meant to join independent clauses (or parts of a sentence that could stand alone as their own sentences). In this case, the clause “The last thing I want to do is learn a bunch of rules” and “I have to do it to pass the class” are joined by a conjunction (“but”) and what should be a comma:
“The last thing I want to do is learn a bunch of rules, but I have to do it to pass the class.”
Conjunctions almost never follow semi-colons. To follow a semi-colon with a conjunction would be like building a brick wall where there should be a swinging gate.
An exception is in lists like this one:
“Marianne went to the hardware store for a hammer, nails, and glue; the grocery store for eggs, milk, and sugar; and the nursery for fertilizer, moss, and mulch.”
The Semi-Colon vs. the Period
It’s up to you— since semi-colons usually separate two parts of a sentence that could stand alone as their own sentences, they could just as easily be two sentences, separated by a period. The deciding factor is if you think the second part is relevant enough to the first part to include in the same sentence.
Today will be sunny; tomorrow’s another story.
Today will be sunny. Tomorrow’s another story.
I would choose the first option. Neither are incorrect, but the first one is better because “tomorrow’s another story” comments on “today will be sunny” and thus CAN be part of the same sentence since it’s relevant enough. But does it deserve to stand on its own? Probably not. Unless these are the last two lines of a story/poem, and you want to slow the reader down with a period for dramatic effect, it’s probably wiser to combine the two lines.
On a cognitive level, you don’t want the reader to have to slow down unless it’s necessary. Every time you stop a sentence with a period and start a new one, your reader has to stop and start her attention. It subjects your reader to more mental effort because she has to end one context and begin another. Using a semi-colon says, “You don’t have to take a breath yet because this next part is still relevant.” It makes for more efficient reading and writing.
The Semi-Colon vs. the Colon
So, can you write, “Today will be sunny: tomorrow’s another story”?
Remember, a colon is stronger than a semi-colon. Like a semi-colon, it says, This next part is relevant. But unlike a semi-colon, it also says, This next part elaborates upon this first part.
If you were to write, “Today will be sunny: warm, brilliant, soul-soothing, cathartic,” then it would work.
We all know that it’s okay to use colons when we’re composing lists. Technically, whatever comes before a colon is supposed to be a complete sentence, but we’ve sort of squandered that rule, and it doesn’t really matter anymore.
The Dash vs. the Colon
You can use two dashes in the middle of a sentence for anecdotal or parenthetical purposes, which I will address later, but you can also use a single dash in a similar way to how you would use a colon:
“The parakeets had gotten loose and were trashing Sharon’s house—that is, until the cat wandered in.”
“The parakeets wore beautiful shades of green, yellow, and blue—nothing like the boring brown coats of her last birds.”
The function of a single dash near the end of the sentence is to add information without having to worry that it will be lost among the commas or overemphasized by a colon. A dash is a nice happy medium—kind of like a pair of boots you can dress up or down.
Compare the following two sentences:
“It’s the last two books in the series—The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle—that I like best.”
“It’s the last two books in the series that I like best: The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle.”
The first sentence compels us to read to the end because we want to know what the speaker is going to say about these books. The second puts too much emphasis on the names of the books themselves.
The Dash vs. Parentheses
Simply put, anything between dashes in the middle of a sentence is more important than anything between parentheses. Both are important enough and short enough to include in the sentence (as opposed to footnotes, which are not), but if you put something between dashes, you definitely want the reader to see it.
Em Dash vs. En Dash
An Em Dash is what we’ve been talking about so far. It is the longer one. The shorter one, which is also called a hyphen, usually appears between two words, as in “hyper-active.”
The Single QM vs. the Double QM
It’s the convention in certain disciplines such as philosophy, theology, and linguistics to highlight words with special meaning by using single quotation marks instead of double quotation marks, but most of the time single quotation marks need only be used within double quotation marks (as a quote within a quote).
Although styles vary, in general it is best to use double QMs around words, phrases, or longer passages.
The Apostrophe and the “S”
The shape of the apostrophe is curiously reflective of its function. Think of it as a tiny hook, like a hook on a fishing pole, snagging everything that comes before it.
The only time an apostrophe belongs after an “s” at the end of a word is when you’re talking about more than one person:
The Johnsons’ vacation home
Think of the possessive apostrophe as a little hook. Who does that vacation home belong to? The Johnsons.
But if Wes Johnson owns his own vacation home, and doesn’t share with his family, it’s Wes’s vacation home. Wes is only one person. Place the hook where the individual ends.
How would you talk about the life of Jesus?
Well, who are we talking about? One person, Jesus. It’s his life. So, it’s Jesus’s life (note that the hook stops where the individual does). If Jesus were a last name and Johnson were the son of God, it would be the Jesus’ vacation home. But if we’re just talking numbers here, and not possession, it’s most appropriate to write, “many Jesuses.”
The only time this rule doesn’t apply is when we’re talking about “its” versus “it’s.” In this case, you have to remember that “it’s” is always short for “it is.” Never use an apostrophe here unless you mean “it is.” When something belongs to “it,” use “its.” In this case, think of the apostrophe as a flag separating two territories, not a hook.
Generally, it’s not advisable to use ellipses within the body of your text. Within a quote, ellipses are used to indicate that a part of the original quote has been left out, usually due to irrelevance. At the end of a sentence, a series of three ellipses can have a foreshadowing effect, but it’s best to use them sparingly.
Glossary of the Parts of Speech
Noun: a word used to name a person, animal, place, thing, or concept
Verb: a word that represents an action
Adjective: a word that describes a noun
Comparative Adjectives: a word that describes a noun by comparing it to another noun and usually ends in “-er” or “-ier”. Example: happier, bigger, clearer, better, worse
Pronoun: a word used instead of a name to make a sentence less repetitive. Examples: he, she, you, it, they
Preposition: a word that indicates the temporal, spatial, or logical relationship of its object to the rest of the sentence. Examples: on, in, under, over, beneath, around, beside, against
Article: an, a, the
Conjunction: a word used to link words, phrases, or clauses
Co-coordinating: and, but, or, so, for, yet, nor
Subordinating: after, although, because, as, before, since, until, when, where, whether, while
Correlative: (pairs) If… then, either…or, neither…nor, both…and, not only…but also, whether…or
Adverb: an adjective that describes a verb and usually ends in “-ly”. Examples: ran speedily, shouted loudly, sang beautifully
Irregular Verb: In English, regular verbs consist of three main parts: the root form (present), the (simple) past, and the past participle. Regular verbs have an -ed ending added to the root verb for both the simple past and past participle. Irregular verbs do not follow this pattern, and instead take on an alternative pattern. Unfortunately for all of us, these irregularities must simply be memorized. Examples: be/was/been; drink/drank/drunk; eat/ate/eaten
Phrasal Verb: A phrasal verb is a verb that comprises more than one word, often a verb and a preposition. Examples: back off; hold up; to give up; to break down; to run out of
Modal Verbs: verbs used to indicate the likelihood that something will happen. Examples: could, should, will, won’t, may, must
Interjection: An interjection is a word added to a sentence to convey emotion, and is not grammatically related to any other part of the sentence. Often followed by an exclamation point. Example: Ouch!; Hey!; Oh no; eh?
Glossary of Parts of the Sentence
All complete sentences include a subject and a verb. Without these two parts of speech, the sentence is considered a fragment. Fragments have their place, but only if you know when it is appropriate to use them.
Subject: what (or who) the sentence is talking about. Example: John
Predicate: tells something about the subject. Example: John met
Object: secondary to the subject but helps complete the verb’s meaning. Example: John met Bill
Adjunct: peripheral information that is not essential for the sentence to function. Example: John met Bill in Central Park on Sunday.
Clause: a phrase; part of a sentence. Independent clause: a clause that can stand alone as its own sentence
Dependent clause: a clause that cannot stand alone as its own sentence; a fragment
Adjective clause: a dependent clause that contains a subject and a verb; begins with a relative pronoun (who, whom, which, etc.) or a relative adverb (when, where, why); and functions as an adjective, answering the questions, “What kind?” “How many?” or “Which one?”. Example: …whose big, brown eyes pleaded for another cookie
Adverb clause: a clause that contains a subject, verb, and subordinate conjunction, and answers one of these three adverb questions: “How?” “When?” “Why?”. Example: Tommy scrubbed the bathroom tile until his arms ached.
Noun clause: any clause that functions as a noun. Example: You really do not want to know the ingredients in Aunt Nancy’s stew.
Ingredients = noun.
If we replace the noun ingredients with a clause, we have a noun clause:
You really do not want to know what Aunt Nancy adds to her stew.
What Aunt Nancy adds to her stew = noun clause.
The Imperative: used to express a command or to make a declarative statement
The Conditional: used in combination with “if” and an imperative. Examples: If I see him, I will tell him. (declarative sentence, condition first)
I will tell him if I see him. (declarative sentence, condition second)
If you saw him, would you tell him? (interrogative sentence, condition first)
Would you tell him if you saw him? (interrogative sentence, condition second)
If you see it, photograph it. (imperative sentence, condition first)
Photograph it if you see it. (imperative sentence, condition second)
The Subjunctive: particular verb forms that are used in certain clauses, chiefly dependent clauses, to express necessity, desire, purpose, suggestion, or a counterfactual condition.
Past: Jake recommended that Susan be hired immediately.
Present: Don insists that you join the committee.
The Predicative: an element of the predicate of a sentence which supplements the subject or object by means of the verb. Examples: He seems nice; Bob is a postman; We painted the door white.
Modifier: A modifier can be an adjective, an adverb, or a phrase or clause acting as an adjective or adverb. In every case, the basic principle is the same: the modifier adds information to another element in the sentence. Example: “When we discovered the earth was no the center of the universe, it changed our understanding of who we are, an understanding changed again by Darwin, again by Freud, and again by Einstein.”
More Resources To Help Hone Your Skills
- Grammar Girl
- The Elements of Style, Strunk & White
- A Grammar Book for You and I… Oops, Me, C. Edward Good
- Purdue OWL: Writing Lab
- Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
- The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation
- The Writer’s Handbook – University of Wisconsin (Madison)
- Dumb Little Man’s 40+ Tips To Improve Grammar and Punctuation
- Test Yourself: Grammar Quiz by The Guardian
- Grammarly – Automatic proofreader
- Grammar For Kids
- More Common Grammar Problems – NuWrite – Northwestern University
- Hit Parade of Errors in Grammar, Punctuation and Style – University of Toronto
- Grammar and Punctuation Worksheets – Sinclair Community College
- Punctuation Worksheets – K12 Reader
- Internet Grammar For English
- Spelling It Right – Free Printable Worksheets
- Grammar Exercises
- English Grammar For Academic Writing – La Trobe University
- Grammar Lesson Plans
- Grammar and More