Grammar can be quite a sticky and confusing subject. We use it every day when we speak to other people but when confronted with putting our thoughts on paper we often stop and question ourselves about the way we put our sentences together and the words we choose. If you go looking for grammar rules to help you out and give you some guidance you’ll find plenty of contradictions and instructions full of unfamiliar terms.
The most important thing to remember is that grammar doesn’t matter that much as long as your readers understand what you’re trying to tell them. Language is a constantly evolving entity; rules shift and words change meaning. Just think of curse words of the past and today.
That being said, there are some common conventions that you should watch out for. Some mistakes readers will grab onto and use it as an excuse to ignore what you’re trying to say. Here are some simple rules and tips to follow. Not only will they make your writing feel more professional, they help make you’re writing say what you mean to say.
Some Basic Conventions
Commas often are our favorite punctuation but they can cause problems. Use them to break up separate but dependant sections of a sentence, to bracket nonessential phrases or to divide items in a list. Watch out though as commas can easily lead to run on sentences. If each side of the comma can stand on its own as a sentence make them separate sentences. If they’re complete sentences but you really want them to stay together use a semicolon (;) instead of a comma.
Me and I
Sometimes figuring out which to use can be confusing. The easiest way to decide if you should use “me” or “I” is to get rid of the other person. This doesn’t mean you have to leave Jenny, for example, at home when you go to a movie; just pretend like you are. If you do that it’s easy to see that “I am going to the movie” is correct. “Me is going to the movie” just sounds silly. Thus you would use “Jenny and I are going to the movie.”
Parallel structure is fairly easy to understand once you know what it is. Simply put, all things in a list or related somehow should be written in the same way. For example:
“I am going to wash the dishes, mow the lawn and will be doing the laundry.”
Now that may sound okay but it doesn’t follow parallel structure. While it is understandable it is rather awkward. Proper parallel structure would be “I am going to wash the dishes, mow the lawn and do the laundry.” You could also say “I will be washing the dishes, mowing the lawn and doing the laundry.” Just make sure you’re consistent throughout your sentence. An easy way to do this is to consider each item in the list individually when put with the rest of the sentence.
Omit Unnecessary Words
This isn’t so much a convention as a tip. It’s a way to avoid coming up with grammar issues in the first place. Too many words, while they might sound good when you write them, can often cause confusion. If a word isn’t adding anything to what you’re trying to say leave it out. Great works of fiction and poetry may use huge flowery sentences packed with adjectives but these are usually used sparingly for a certain effect. This type of writing rarely has a place in professional or conversational writing unless it is used very carefully.
There, Their and They’re
These are cited as “top grammar mistakes” so often that it’s hard to imagine people actually confusing these. Honestly though, they usually happen as typos. When we get thinking faster than we type it’s easy for our fingers to automatically type the wrong word. This is just a reminder to watch for a mix up. So then: “there” is a place, “their” is possessive and “they’re”’ is the contraction for they are.
Its and It’s
This is another example of a typo beast. Most people know the difference, though it’s a little less clear than the ‘there’ confusion. Apostrophes are normally used to show possession but they are also used to create contractions. You’ll just have to remember that “its” is possessive and “it’s” is “it is.”
Your and You’re
Again we’re looking at a typo. These two work the same way as “its” and “it’s” so if you memorize one you should know the other. “Your” is possessive and “you’re” is you are.
Have and Of
Honestly this is a strange one. It is entirely a result of the way we speak. When you are used to writing a lot you don’t even think of the possibility of swapping have and of but it makes sense when you stop and look at it. Where you see this is phrases like “would of” and “should of.” This shows up occasionally because of the way we pronounce “would’ve” and “should’ve.” These are actually contractions that use “have” but when we say them the end comes out as “of.” This is pretty easy to avoid, just watch for it.
Commonly Confused Words
Then and Than
Words that are spelled almost the same are easy to confuse. “Then” and “than” are a great example of this. “Then” should be used when referencing time or order. “Than” is used to make comparisons between things.
Fewer and Less
These two are even more closely related. “Fewer” is normally used for actual amounts that numbers can be put to while “less” is used for concepts that are less exact. These can be swapped in some cases and the best thing to do is follow this rule unless it just sounds silly.
Affect and Effect
This is probably one of the harder sets of words to keep straight. Affect is a verb where effect is a noun, but that isn’t much help when you’re trying to pick one on the fly. The trick I’ve come up with is that affect is an action. You can also add “the” before the word you’re trying to use. Only effect, being a noun, will work with “the”.
A Final Word
These are some easy things to watch for as you’re writing or editing a piece. Keep in mind though that grammar is partially just opinion and it’s more important to make sure your readers understand you. Break the rules when it makes sense. Just make sure you’re not the only one it makes sense to.
If you get caught up on a sentence you can always rewrite it. If you can’t figure out what is correct just write it in a way that doesn’t include the part you’re having trouble with. Read and write a lot and most of these things will become pretty second nature. Don’t ever let a fear of grammar stop you from writing.
[Image by h3h]