Plus, a couple punctuation guidelines for good measure
Unlike the rules of time travel, sometimes it’s okay to bend the rules of grammar. After all, you’re not going to bump into your past self and wind up marrying your mom.
But break the wrong rules and you might start looking ill-informed or just plain out of it. Who wants that?
The following are some general punctuation and grammar rules that you may not know but probably should. They not only help clarify meaning and intent in your writing but make you seem like you know what you’re doing. And we can all use a little more of that most days.
Order of quotation and punctuation marks
This one can mess people up because things change depending on the punctuation mark used. Commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks. Dashes, semicolons and colons almost always go outside. Exclamation and question marks can do either, depending on the context:
“Mom, did you fart?” “No, it was the dog!”
Do people seriously still sing “I’m a Survivor”? It’s way cooler to sing “Run the World”!
How to use a semicolon
Despite what many high school English students think, a semicolon has two uses. One use is to separate two complete clauses. Essentially it is a fancy period because a complete clause has a subject and verb and could stand on its own as a sentence, e.g., I gave her a call; she didn’t answer.
Its other use is to separate listed items that contain punctuation, e.g., The bus stopped at Vancouver, B.C.; Seattle, Washington; and Portland, Oregon.
A modifier (word or phrase that describes something else) goes next to what it modifies
As fun as misplaced modifiers are to run across, you don’t want to be the one making the goof up. Misplacing or dangling a modifier can result in confusion when it’s separated from the word being described.
I found a gold woman’s brooch should be I found a woman’s gold brooch.
I drank the martini that she brought slowly should be I slowly drank the martini that she brought.
The boy returned the shirt to the man that was well soiled should be The boy returned the shirt that was well soiled to the man.
The subject of the sentence determines if a verb form is singular or plural
Subject-verb agreement seems easy enough but can get tricky. If a subject is singular, so is the verb: The dog is hungry. And for plural, same thing: The dogs are hungry.
But when prepositional phrases start modifying the subject, things can get confusing. Should “a surplus of foreign cars” take a singular or plural verb? Even though it sounds plural, the subject is “surplus” not “cars,” so the verb form should be singular. Likewise, when a compound subject expresses a single idea, the verb should be singular. Thus, “The business’ bread and butter is writing,” as opposed to “The bread and butter are in the cupboard.”
Subjects that stand for definable units of money, measurement, time, organization, food and medical problems always take singular verbs. Six months is enough, but five hundred dollars isn’t. And a singular subject followed by phrases “such as,” “together with” and “as well as” takes a singular verb. The real estate tax, together with its conditions, is going to be problematic.
These pronouns always take a singular verb: another, anybody, anyone, anything, either, neither, every, everybody, everything, something, much, each.
Correlative conjunctions (either/or, not only/but also, both/and) require parallel structure
The structure of both parts of a phrase joined by a correlative conjunction need to be the same. For example, if you included an article (a, the) in one part, you need it for the other part.
Correct: Either the dog is scared or the cat is crazy.
Incorrect: Both the dog and cat are smelly.
Verb forms also need to be parallel, for example:
I’m not only seeing your bet, but also raise it by $10 is incorrect; raise should be raising.
Good and confused? Well, if you run into trouble, chances are you can Google it – or maybe just call an editor!