Let’s get real here.
You’re a creative thinker, not a nitpicky English grammar geek.
When you sit down to write you like to write, not dither around with mechanics. You have freelance writing gig to complete, a marketing email to compose, or a term paper to turn in.
So when your powerful words start flowing, you don’t want to get in their way by thinking about all those little details.
Not to mention the time factor. As in you can barely find the bandwidth to write as it is, let alone edit for grammar.
But you also care about being perceived as intelligent and credible. And you’re smart enough to know that for your writing to be taken seriously, it needs to come across as polished and correct.
The problem is, it’s been a long time since Mrs. Pendergast’s sixth-grade English class. And you were pretty hazy on the grammar rules even back then.
Searching the Internet can quickly turn into a dive down a black hole of examples that don’t really fit (“thanks, but I’m not an ESL student trying to learn English”) and barely remembered terminology (“what the heck are dangling participles and question tags?”).
Well, here’s the good news. Language evolves, and as it does, so do our notions about what is “correct.” You might be surprised to learn that some of what Mrs. Pendergast taught you is now considered outmoded.
Of course there are still rules to follow, but read on, and you’ll find they’re no longer quite so intimidating.
And with a little repetition, applying many of them will soon become second nature.
Ready to rock and roll?
Parts of Speech: The Basic Building Blocks of Language
Let’s start with a quick and painless (promise!) grammar lesson by reviewing the parts of speech. Not because you’ll ever need to spot a transitive verb in the present subjunctive at fifty paces, but simply because we need some common terminology for talking about the basic building blocks of language.
Yes, there are subcategories, exceptions, and sometimes even controversies about the parts of speech (you ain’t seen nothin’ until you’ve seen grammarians duking it out over the finer points of language), but for our purposes we’re going to keep this simple.
If you grew up in the United States, you probably remember the old Schoolhouse Rock song: “A noun is a person, place or thing.” Just remember that things can be abstract concepts as well as physical objects, and you’ve got it.
And speaking of lemon-filled objects, there are both direct and indirect objects. “Kevin hates lemons” would be an example of a direct object. “Kevin gave Michelle his lemons” would be an example of an indirect object.
Finally, you have singular and plural nouns, and common and proper nouns.
A singular noun names one object (“I threw a lemon“), whereas a plural noun names several (“I threw many lemons“). A common noun is a generic name for an object (“I threw a lemon at him“), while a proper noun refers to the object by name (“I threw the lemons at Jeff“).
Verbs come in a variety of flavors (phrasal verbs, verb tenses, irregular verbs, auxiliary verbs, modal verbs, intransitive verbs, past tense, simple present, simple past, active and passive voice…), but we’ll keep things super simple:
Verbs are the action words which describe forms of doing and being.
Adjectives “modify” (further describe) nouns.
Adjectives “modify” (further describe) nouns, and they can be comparative or superlative.
Pronouns replace nouns. They come in several varieties (relative pronouns, personal pronouns, demonstrative pronouns), but in basic terms they shorten and simplify sentences that would otherwise be far too long and cumbersome.
A preposition shows the relationship between a noun or pronoun and another element in the sentence.
A conjunction shows the connection between the elements of a sentence structure.
A correlative conjunction connect two grammatical items that are equal. Examples would be either/or and both/and.
Interjections are stand-alone exclamations that act as conversational fillers, often expressing emotion.
Determiners are sometimes considered parts of speech and sometimes not. In either case, they are small words that introduce nouns.
Similar to determiners, quantifiers are words that before nouns. However, instead of introducing them, quantifiers give us an amount.
Punctuation: The Mortar Between the Bricks
When you’re building a house, you don’t just drop one brick on another—you need to cement them together with some mortar. When you’re writing, if the parts of speech are your basic building blocks, then punctuation is that mortar.
See how that’s like just stacking bricks with nothing to connect them? Add some punctuation and the wall is now firmly constructed:Punctuation gradually evolved in different forms across cultures as a way of helping people figure out where to pause, and for how long, when reading out loud. The problem was, everyone did it differently, This was understandable when all writing was done by hand, but once movable type was invented the need for standardized punctuation became clear.
Even so, we’re still arguing about it. Grammar school might have led you to believe that we’ve successfully standardized things . . . but in a language as fluid as English, there is still a lot of room for interpretation. Let’s go over the main points of confusion, and you’ll see where the hard-and-fast rules are and where you get to decide how you want to punctuate things.
No form of punctuation sparks more controversy than the poor comma.
It’s a horribly overworked symbol to begin with, struggling with a full schedule as a conjunction splitter, quotation clarifier and phrase definer while also moonlighting as a separator of list items. It tries so hard to please everyone, but sadly, we all disagree on its exact job description.
So let’s give the comma a little love here and appreciate it for all that it does.
So should you use the serial comma or not? Either is fine. Just be sure you’re consistent about it one way or the other.
In fact, the best general rule of thumb for commas overall is that there is no general rule of thumb. Even the old grammar guide that says to “use a comma wherever you would pause in speaking” is misleading, because we all speak so differently. (Imagine where the commas would fall, for example, in Morgan Freeman’s speech as opposed to Christopher Walken’s!)
One final note. Don’t overuse commas, but keep in mind that sometimes you really do need them to make your meaning clear.
…reads very differently than…
Just sayin.’ 🙂
Colons and Semicolons
The colon is used to signal that some very specific information is coming—most often a list. Sometimes it’s a bulleted or numbered list . . .
The semicolon indicates a pause that’s a little longer than a comma but not quite as long as an end-of-sentence period. It’s an elegant way of joining two phrases or sentences that might otherwise stand alone. This can be desirable when you’re at the editing stage of a post and you want to vary the pacing between shorter, crisper sentences and longer, flowing ones for the sake of variety and interest.
Just don’t overuse semicolons; it will make you look slightly pretentious.
Apostrophes are very often used to indicate the omission of letters.
However, if the plural form of a noun doesn’t already end in the letter s, you should add ’s rather than s’.
Here’s a common sticking point—what about when the singular form of a noun ends with an s? Editors wielding opposing manuals of style argue about this one all the time.
The truth is, both of the following forms are acceptable, although the first is generally more preferred:
Finally, be careful not to imply possession where there is none.
One of the best examples of this is what Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, famously bemoans as the “greengrocer’s apostrophe” because of its frequent appearance on produce signs—that tiny bit of punctuation which turns simple, unwary nouns into raving mutants of unnecessary possessiveness.
Hyphens and Dashes
The three types of horizontal punctuation marks are:
- the hyphen (the shortest one): –
- the en dash (the middle one): –
- the em dash (the longest one): —
(The en and em dashes are so named because in the days of fixed-type printing presses, they were the width of the capital letter N and the capital letter M, respectively.)
Most people use the hyphen only, and most of the time that’s fine when blogging. However, if you want to be scrupulously correct, you should use the en dash between date ranges and page numbers.
Many writers get confused about when to hyphenate compound words (groups of words that act as a single part of speech) and when not to . . . and why the rules seem to change from one sentence to the next. Let’s take a quick look at that.
When the compound word is a noun, hyphenate it when it’s clearly naming one single thing:
but . . .
(Note the exception that when the first word of a compound adjective ends in “-ly,” no hyphen should be used. So in the sentence “It was a beautifully written poem, ” “beautifully written” would not be hyphenated even though it comes before the noun. Hey, what would English be without annoying exceptions?)
Finally, use a hyphen for clarity when there might otherwise be confusion.
Quotation marks serve a few important functions.
They are used, of course, to show when someone’s words are being directly quoted or spoken . . .
Incidentally, when it comes to dialogue, you should start a new paragraph every time there is a change of speaker—even if the new speaker says only one word. This helps the reader keep track of who is saying what.The biggest confusion about quotation marks is usually over where the punctuation at the end goes—inside or outside?
In the United States, at least, here’s how it works:
Periods and commas go inside the quotes.
Question marks and exclamation points depend on the context. If the question or exclamation is part of the quote itself, it goes inside, but if it relates to the larger sentence, it goes outside.British English is different. Those who “speak American” use double quotation marks, but those who ‘speak British’ use single quotes. British writers also place the comma or period outside the ending quotes rather than inside them.
A bit barmy, eh, mate?
These are the three spaced dots or periods used to show that something has been omitted from a quotation. (They are sometimes also used in a creative sense—but that’s a different story.)
The formal rules can get pretty technical, but unless you’re blogging in the legal or literary field, just remember this. If the part just before the omitted section is the end of a sentence, you should use a period as usual, then the ellipses.
Note the spaces between the ellipsis points—this is technically the right way to do it (and if you were being excruciatingly proper you’d use something even thinner called a “hair space”), but it’s also fine to run them together instead (like…this) as long as you’re consistent about doing it all the time.
Parentheses and Brackets
Parentheses tell us that something helpful but not absolutely necessary is being added.
What about brackets inside of brackets?
If you’re a blogger, you are freer than writers in the more traditional forms of media to have a little fun with punctuation.
So don’t be afraid to use it in creative ways that lend flavor and tone.
Abbreviations: Handy Linguistic Shortcuts
Abbreviations are useful (and sometimes colorful) devices for shortening common words and phrases, but using them correctly can be a bit confusing.
Do you abbreviate the United States of America as USA or U.S.A.? (I strongly favor the latter, but different strokes for different folks.)
Should you start a sentence with an abbreviation like FYI? (In formal writing this is traditionally frowned upon, but in a blog post it’s usually fine unless it looks clunky.)
What does FUBAR stand for, anyway, and should you spell the whole thing out? (I’m certainly not telling you here, and it entirely depends on your audience.)
If you start blogging for an organization that has a style guide, go with whatever it says. If not, look up the abbreviation in the dictionary for guidance on how to spell and use it properly.
If you’re still in doubt after that, it probably doesn’t matter too much anyway (depending, of course, on your audience). Just pick one way and use it consistently. For example:
i.e. vs. e.g.
While we’re on the topic of abbreviations, let’s talk about these two Latin terms. They are very often used interchangeably, but they actually mean two different things.
I.e. stands for id est, or “that is.” It’s used to further explain or restate something in different words.
- i.e. = in other words (both start with i) or In essence
- e.g. = example given
Also note that a comma is used after the final period in each of these abbreviations.
To introduce the abbreviation, in most cases you can use either a comma, a semicolon, a colon, an em dash, or a set of parentheses. Again, just be sure you’re consistent in whatever choice you make.
Foreign Terms: Exotic Expressions
Foreign words are another bone of contention among editors and other professional wordsmiths. The general consensus, though, is that if a term is likely to be unfamiliar to your readers, italicize it.
But expect to run into people who will argue that ad nauseam.
Numbers: A Source of “Total” Confusion
Ah, numbers. So many questions about them, and so many ways to be inconsistent. Let’s take a look.
Spelled Out vs. Numerals
Opinions on this differ widely. In general, spelling out numbers comes across as more formal, but possibly a little bit snooty. Of course, depending on the context (She lived at Eighty-Eight Kensington Road, where she routinely inspected the brass railings for dust using her spotless white gloves), that may be exactly what you want.
One common convention is to spell out any numbers from zero through ten and numerals for 11 and higher. But visual consistency should override this, so make exceptions where numbers are close together.
Format dates however you like, but be consistent about it. If you start off writing 8/16/99, don’t switch to 06/23/72 later on. If you spell out January 1 when blogging about your New Year’s resolution, don’t update your readers later in the year by sticking letters at the end of the date on May 31st.
Years should be written in numerals, and when they’re abbreviated, the point of the single apostrophe should face left.
The rule here is pretty much “no rules.” It doesn’t matter if you write 6:30 am, 6:30am, 6:30 AM, 6:30AM, 6:30 a.m., 6:30a.m., 6:30 A.M. or 6:30A.M., as long as you do it the same way everywhere.
(In some countries a period is used in clock times rather than a colon—e.g., 6.30 A.M.)
It’s better to write “noon” and “midnight” rather than “12:00 p.m.” and “12:00 a.m.” (which make people have to think too hard.)
Use the percent sign (27%) or spell it out (27 percent)—either is fine. Pick one way and use it.
The main mistake writers make here is doubling up the currency symbol and the word. If you write $1 dollar it’s like saying “One dollar dollar.” A simple $1 (or 1 dollar or one dollar) is the correct way to go.
Same thing with larger ranges. If someone is already a millionaire, don’t inflate their wealth even further by giving them $10 million dollars. Either $10 million or 10 million dollars is just fine, thank you very much.
In general, any number range, whether dates (1785–1802), pages (pp. 23–38), or some other type, gets that medium-length dash, the en dash, between its numbers.
When giving number ranges within text, don’t mix up words and symbols. People often make this mistake by writing things like They were married from 1975–2010 instead of They were married from 1975 to 2010.
Now let’s move into some of the typical areas where writers get confused. You know the ones I’m talking about—those tricky cases where you just know there’s a rule, but you can never remember what it is.
The “subject” of a sentence is whatever person or thing is doing the main action—what you might call the primary noun (or nouns). The subject should “agree” with the verb about whether they should both be singular or plural.
To mix them just sounds wrong. If I were to write “You and I is smart,” you’d know that one of us wasn’t.
But subject/verb agreement gets trickier with vague-sounding pronouns and more complex sentences.
The word and makes a subject plural (i.e., there is more than one main actor), so the verb should be plural too.
But if one is singular and the other is plural, the verb should agree with the one closest to it. In the case of “indefinite pronouns” (so called because they refer to somewhat vague numbers of things), you should determine whether the noun the pronoun refers to is singular or plural. Don’t get confused by interrupting phrases and relative clauses. Like newly infatuated lovers, the subject and verb will always agree with each other no matter what comes between them.
That vs. Which
This is an old problem with a surprisingly easy solution. Look at the phrase or clause you’re considering and ask yourself, “If I take it out, will the sentence still have the same basic meaning?”
If the answer is yes, use which.
If the answer is no, use that.
Another way of looking at it is to consider whether the clause is, or could go, inside a pair of commas. If so, use which. If not, use that.
In the first sentence, what the people used the map for is incidental. It’s as though the writer is saying, “The map is in the glove compartment. Oh, yeah—by the way, they used it to drive cross-country.”
The second sentence, on the other hand, refers to the specific map they used. (There could be other maps, too.) “Where is the map they used to drive cross-country? It’s in the glove compartment.”
First case, extra information. Second case, central to the plot.
See the difference?
Who vs. Whom
Running a close second behind “that vs. which” in the confusion competition is the “who vs. whom” conundrum. This is another tricky dilemma with a simple solution.
If you could substitute “he or “she,” use who.
If you could substitute “him” or “her,” use whom.
For example, is “Who do you think will win?” correct, or should it be “whom”?
- First switch the sentence so that it reads “Do you think WHO will win?”
- Now do the substitution both ways. Which sounds right, “Do you think HE will win?” or “Do you think HIM will win?”
- Obviously it’s the first one, so “Who do you think will win?” is correct.
What about this one? “I wonder who I’ll be paired up with for the scavenger hunt.”
- First switch the sentence around: “I wonder I’ll be paired up with WHO for the scavenger hunt.” (I know that sentence is awkward and incorrect, but it’s just for the sake of figuring this out.)
- Now which is right—“I wonder I’ll be paired up with SHE for the scavenger hunt” or “I wonder I’ll be paired up with HER for the scavenger hunt”?
- HER sounds correct, so the original sentence should read, “I wonder whom I’ll be paired up with for the scavenger hunt.”
In casual conversation, though, sometimes whom sounds a bit stilted. “Whom should I cheer for?” (or, for complete sticklers, “For whom should I cheer?”) is technically correct, but the people next to you at the big game may look at you strangely, and not just because you don’t know which side you’re on.
So when it comes to your blog, know which way is correct, but don’t be afraid to bend the rules a bit here for the sake of sounding more conversational.
Who vs. That
I’ve saved this one for last because, frankly, I don’t agree with the rule.
I strongly feel that writers should always refer to people as “who” rather than “that.” However, my research indicates that my strong opinion on the matter has become outdated.
I flinch whenever I read (or hear) sentences like “Kobe Bryant is the athlete that inspired me to play basketball.” Not that Kobe needs my help, but to my ear, referring to him as “that” instead of “who” dehumanizes him.
Apparently, I’m old-fashioned in believing that people are people, not things. But for the record, it is now apparently permissible to refer to people as either “the folks who” or “the folks that.” (Ew.)
I’m pleased to say, though, that a thing is still always a “that.”
You can’t say “the company who patented the Giant Gizmo” because a company (the opinions of corporate lawyers notwithstanding) is not a person. It’s a non-living entity (the opinions of some science fiction writers notwithstanding). So you need to say “the company that patented the Giant Gizmo.”
More Tricks (& Traps) of the Writing Trade
We writers are living in tough linguistic times. The lines between formal written language and the more casual spoken word have blurred tremendously with the explosion of personal computers, e-mail, and the Internet.
So how do you successfully walk those lines? How do you ensure that your posts are conversational yet correct, compelling yet credible?
To return to our “building blocks” metaphor from earlier in the post, you need to take a step back from the level of the individual bricks (what we’ve been discussing up until this point) and consider the overall construction of your building.
Your goal as a writer isn’t to simply heap up ramshackle stacks of words. You want to move people. Inspire them. Educate them. Persuade them to think differently. To take action.
To do that, you need to look at the larger issues. Are your walls straight and attractively laid out? Does your building look inviting? Can you construct its rooms so that visitors are naturally led from one to the other in the sequence you’ve designed?
Much of this ability comes with the study and practice of effective writing techniques, and is outside the scope of a single post on grammar, no matter how long. What I can show you today, though, are some of the common ways writers leave stumbling blocks scattered around the floors of their word-rooms.
Clean those up, and you’ve gone a long way toward leaving a clear path through your writing.
Humans love patterns. We key into them to help us make sense of the world . . . and you can use them to help your readers make sense of your writing.
I’m not saying you should make your writing so robotically regular that it becomes predictable and monotonous.
But if you want your readers to roll smoothly along from one idea of yours to the next, using parallel structure is like laying parallel train tracks.
Both of the following sentences essentially say the same thing. Which is easier to read? Which packs a stronger punch?
Note that you could also re-cast the sentence this way: “Persuading others comes from a mixture of thinking through your ideas, organizing them thoroughly, and then presenting them clearly” (using gerunds throughout). In general, though, simpler verb forms result in clearer writing.
Bonus credit if you realized you could make the structure even more parallel by adding an adverb (such as “carefully”) after the word “ideas”! It would then have the form “. . . (VERB) through your ideas (ADVERB), (VERB) them (ADVERB), and then (VERB) them (ADVERB).
Here’s a so-called grammar rule that seems pretty basic on the surface—every sentence should be complete. Meaning, traditionally, that it should have a subject (the main actor/actors), verb (the main action) and, if applicable, an object (what the action happens to).
Anything less is called a sentence fragment.
Except . . .
Remember earlier, when I told you that some of what Mrs. Pendergast taught you back in English class is now considered outdated?
This is one example. Unless the context in which you’re writing is very formal (sorry, corporate and legal bloggers), sentence fragments are perfectly fine in blogs—and a lot of other writing—these days.
With one caveat.
Your meaning must be clear.
See what I did above with except . . . and with one caveat? You understood what I meant because the text flowed. So what if they were technically fragments?
In fact, as a blogger you should probably make it a point to introduce sentence fragments every now and then, depending on your personal style (sorry, Mrs. Pendergast). They let you spice up your writing by playing with pace, tension and emotion.
One more caveat. Fragments? Use them sparingly. Like a condiment. Even though they’re legit. Because why? Using lots of them feels choppy. Not wrong, precisely. Just hard to read.
The opposite of a fragment is a run-on sentence, in which you will find more than one complete thought, each of which really deserves its own sentence, but there’s just too much going on at once and it gets really hard to keep track of all the players, which happens a lot when a writer gets really excited about her subject matter and goes on at length without adding a period for quite a long time and the sentence ends up sounding quite flustered and out of breath.
Unless you’re deliberately using a run-on sentence for dramatic or illustrative purposes, like I just did, don’t use them.
One way of avoiding them is to read your posts out loud as part of your editing process. If you find yourself literally running out of breath before running out of sentence, look for ways to break the run-on sentence into more than one.
It’s all about developing a listening ear with regard to your own writing. And about keeping things clear and simple for your readers.
Misplaced modifiers—often called “dangling modifiers” because of the way they just sort of hang there, not being clear about what they’re modifying—are some of the most amusing mistakes in all of Grammaria.
Check these out:
Here’s another area in which you can gleefully waggle your finger at old Mrs. Pendergast and say, “You were wrong!”
An infinitive is the form of any verb which starts with the word “to”—to go, to dance, to have written, etc.
It is supposedly a grammar faux pas to split an infinitive by sticking extra words between the “to” and the rest of the verb. However, this is now considered outmoded thinking . . . and it certainly never stopped Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise from heading out into space, to boldly go where no man had gone before.
In fact, the split infinitive is often clearer than the alternative. Which of these sounds better to you?
The Golden Grammar Rule for Busy Writers: Create a Style Sheet
We’ve covered a lot of ground here—thank you for sticking with me! Clearly, you are a tenacious soul. 🙂
I’d like to leave you with one closing thought.
One word, really.
We are a pattern-seeking species—something that is hard-wired into us for basic survival reasons. Our nervous systems are keenly attuned to inconsistencies in our environment.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s the subtle striping of a tiger through the bushes or a set of square brackets instead of the usual curved parentheses—our primitive brains don’t register relative importance, only difference. They simply flash the signal, “Something is wrong here.”
Whether this response is conscious or unconscious, that is not the feeling you want your readers to have.
That’s why I’ve stressed consistency throughout this post, and why you should aim for it in your writing. Here’s one great way to ensure it.
Ever wonder how professional copy editors can catch a misspelled name on page 549 of a manuscript when it hasn’t appeared since page 23? They use a nifty little device called a style sheet.
I suggest you do the same.
A style sheet is a quick-and-dirty list of your key editorial decisions, all in one place so that you can check it easily. Whenever you reach a new decision about how to handle something, it gets added to the list. This personal set of editorial standards helps you write more consistently over time.
- Does that author you refer to all the time spell her name Catherine or Katherine?
- Do you vacillate between writing email and e-mail?
- Have you decided to call your webinar series “Best-Kept Secrets of Highly Amazing People” or “The Best-Kept Secrets of Highly Amazing People”?
- Do you have a hard time remembering that decades should be referred to as the ’60s and ’80s rather than the 60’s and 80’s?
Jot it down or type it into a running document. When you need to check because you’ve pulled another all-nighter and you can’t see straight, let alone remember such mind-numbing little details, they will be there for you.
No Need to Take an American English Course. You’re Ready to Banish Your Grammar Gremlins for Good!
Your time is your most valuable resource. It’s the only thing you have that can’t be renewed.
Obviously this means you want to spend as much of it as you can on high-level activities, creating and sharing the things that only you, of all the people in this world, can contribute.
But you also want to be sure that you’re doing that clearly and convincingly through each and every blog post you publish. And that means a certain amount of time spent on grammar. It’s simply a part of crafting your message.
But now you can minimize the time you spend on this in two ways:
- Bookmark this post. The more you refer back to it, the more quickly you’ll find what you need. And the more often you use it, the better you’ll internalize the information, so that over time you’ll automatically remember more and more of the rules and guidelines on your own.
- Start your own style sheet. (See the section just above.) Take the extra moment to record each editorial decision you make. A few minutes here and there, in the beginning, will pay off hugely as a time- and stress-saver down the road once you have a nicely comprehensive list of “how you do things” when you edit your own posts.
Both of these resources will help you become a faster and more efficient self-editor, freeing up more time for the creative work that is at the heart of what you blog about . . . and why you blog in the first place.
Go get ‘em, you creative thinker, you.