School in a Book: Basic Grammar and Punctuation

Some of the rules of grammar and punctuation don’t need to be taught; instead, they’re inbued, like social skills. However, as with social skills, a little direct coaching goes a very long way. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you how much more educated you’ll seem when you don’t make embarrassing writing mistakes.

Basic Punctuation





Double negative

The fourteen punctuation marks: Period, question mark, exclamation point, comma, semicolon, colon, apostrophe, dash/hyphen, en dash, em dash, brackets, braces, parentheses and ellipsis

Comma: Used to separate ideas within a sentence. Sometimes there’s no clear right or wrong way to use a comma. The serial comma is the comma sometimes used right before the “and” in a list, and most writers don’t use it anymore. Do use commas to set off parenthetic expressions and before other independent clauses.

Semicolon: Used to connect separate sentences, the second of which includes a restatement of the first. It is also used to separate words and phrases in long lists that already have commas in them. Example: I was sad; she hurt me on purpose. Example: I own: three black and yellow hats; one long, dark skirt; and one pair of shoes.

Colon: Used to introduce a quotation, explanation, example, or series. It is also used between sentences instead of a period to show that the second explains or adds directly to the first. Finally, colons can be used for emphasis. Example: I have four pairs of boots: one for rain, one for snow and two for fashion. Example: My sister is beautiful: she has dark hair and a great smile. Example: Yes, I have a best friend: my sister.

Dash/hyphen: Used to connect compound phrases. Example: Cold-water fish

En dash: Used to connect dates and more. It is largely a stylistic choice when to use it.

Em dash: Twice as long as an en dash and used in place of commas, colons, or parenthesis.

Brackets, braces and parentheses: Used to contain additional information that isn’t otherwise grammatically connected to the sentence. Example: My dog (who I love) is sweet as heck. Parenthesis are most common. Brackets are used for technical purposes or to clarify a quote. Example: He [Mr. Smith] is my friend. Braces ({}) are used to contain two or more lines of text or listed items to show that they are considered as a unit. Used mostly in mathematics and computer programming. Example: 2{1+[23-3]}=x.

Apostrophe: Used to indicate the omission of a letter or letters from a word, the possessive case, or the plurals of lowercase letters. Examples: I’ve; Sara’s.

Quotation marks: Used around quotations. Single quotation marks are used for quotes within quotes.

Ellipsis: Used to indicate that something is missing, the idea or list continues in the same way, or there was a pause in speech. They’re also used to end a quote if the actual quote did not end at the chosen ending.

Basic Grammar

The eight parts of speech: Noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, and interjection

Noun: A person, place or thing. Proper nouns are capitalized and are the given name of someone or something in particular. Common (generic) nouns are not capitalized.

Pronoun: A small word used in place of a noun: she, he, they, we, them, it, I, you, etc. You may use they, them and their as the indefinite singular pronoun, but try to avoid this pronoun entirely.

Verb: An action word

Adjective: A word that describes a noun, like “pretty” or “smart”

Adverb: A word that describes a verb, like “slowly” or “carefully”

Article: The words a, an, and the. (These are also considered adjectives.)

Preposition: A word placed before a noun to form a phrase that, taken as a whole, modifies another word in the sentence. (This phrase is called the “prepositional phrase.”) The most common are in, with, by, for, at, in, on, out, to, under, within and without. Example: “With my dog as company, I can do anything.” Contrary to popular understanding, it’s okay to end a sentence in a preposition; however, choose the wording that is the most clear. “The building in which I live” and “The building I live in” are both correct, but “The building I live in is brown” is hard to read.

Conjunction: A word that joins words, phrases or clauses but are not part of a clause or prepositional phrase. The most common are and, but, therefore, however, so, for, or, nor, yet, since, while, and because. Coordinating conjunctions connect grammatically equal elements, while subordinating conjunctions connect clauses that are not equal (because, although, while, since, etc.). There are other types of conjunctions as well.Interjection: A word used to express emotion: oh, wow, ah, etc.

Sentence: A unit of writing consisting of a single main subject (someone or something that is doing something) and a single main action. (Caveat: If two complete sentences convey the same idea, a semicolon can be used to separate them and make up a single sentence.) Sentences may also include adverbs, adjectives, small words and clauses. The number of the subject of the sentence (whether it’s singular or plural) determines the number of the verb in the sentence. A clause should be placed directly after the noun or verb to which it refers. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.

Run-on sentence: Two or more sentences joined as one, without a period separating them

Loose sentence: A sentence that connects two different ideas with a conjunction like “and.” These give the paragraph some breathability and flow, but too many in a row are tiresome.

Sentence fragment: A sentence that is missing the subject, the verb, or both. “Aha!” is a sentence fragment, as is “Good question.”

Topic sentence: The sentence at the beginning of a paragraph that includes the main idea of the paragraph

Verb tense: The form of the verb that denotes the time of the action. It’s important to hold to one tense throughout a piece of writing.

The six verb tenses: Past, present, future, past perfect (“has eaten”), present perfect (“has been dancing”, and future perfect (“will have danced”).

Clause: A phrase that as a whole, modifies a verb or noun. Example: Running to meet her, I slipped.

Independent clause: A modifying sentence that, if desired, could stand alone

Helping verb: A verb that helps the main verb express the action. There are 23 or 24 in all: be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being, have, has, had, could, should, must, may, might, must, can, will, would, do, did, does, and (sometimes) having.

Suffix: A word ending that changes the word’s tense or meaning

Prefix: A word beginning that changes the word’s meaning

Grammar Tips

Use the active voice. This just means to avoid “is” and “are” when possible, particularly when doing so creates a needlessly long phrase, as in “is trying to help people figure out” instead of “helps” or “advises.”

Quotes are always stated in the past tense, even if the author still believes what they said.

Use the positive form of the statement, avoiding “do not” or double negatives when possible.

Do not use run-on sentences. One sentence per sentence is enough.

Don’t use a lot of adjectives and adverbs.

Place the words you want to emphasize at the end of the sentence.

Don’t be awkward.

Keep related words together. A clause (a descriptive phrase) should be right next to the person, place or thing that it’s describing.

Pay attention to transitions. When possible, don’t confuse the reader by jumping from one step to the next or one idea to the next without showing (subtly) how they relate.

Intersperse long and short sentences.

Express coordinate ideas in similar form. (For example, when using bullet points, all of the points should be in the same form, same tense, and as parallel in structure as possible.)

Pay attention to rhythm. Read the piece out loud or have someone else read it out loud to you to see if it flows well.

Don’t inject opinion. When using examples or unsupported statements, consider using “may,” “might” or “can” instead of “should” or “will.”

Practice. Revise and rewrite. To become a faster, clearer, more organized writer, practice outlining nonfiction texts (summarizing the main idea and supporting points in a few pages).


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