The English Grammar Guide: Everything Writers Need to Know

The English Grammar Guide: Everything Writers Need to Know

by Michelle Russell


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?”).

A handy writing tool like Grammarly or another grammar checker can certainly help, but you need more. What’s a writer with good intentions but limited time and resources to do?

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.

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Then find a friend to whom life handed a large bottle of vodka, and take your pitcher of lemonade over to her house.

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.

If I just stepped on a corn flake, does that mean I am now a cereal killer?


Adjectives “modify” (further describe) nouns.

I’m an effective worker. In fact, I’m the most productive person I know when it comes to unimportant tasks!


Adverbs “modify” (further describe) adjectives or verbs, and they can be comparative or superlative.

Time is extremely precious, so waste it wisely.


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.

When I want your opinion I will give it to you.

(rather than: When Michelle Russell wants the opinion of the person now reading this article Michelle Russell will give that opinion to the person now reading this article.)


A preposition shows the relationship between a noun or pronoun and another element in the sentence.

The shinbone is a device for finding furniture in a dark room.


A conjunction shows the connection between the elements of a sentence structure.

She bought a new boomerang but couldn’t manage to throw the old one away.

A correlative conjunction connect two grammatical items that are equal. Examples would be either/or and both/and.

He both loved and loathed it in equal measure.


Interjections are stand-alone exclamations that act as conversational fillers, often expressing emotion.

Yes! With sufficient thrust behind them, pigs can fly!


Determiners are sometimes considered parts of speech and sometimes not. In either case, they are small words that introduce nouns.

My mother always told me a bargain is an item you don’t need at a price you can’t resist.


Similar to determiners, quantifiers are words that before nouns. However, instead of introducing them, quantifiers give us an amount.

He ate lots of bacon. Lots and lots of bacon.

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.

Can you imagine reading text without any punctuation at all well in the earliest days of writing that is what it was like you can see how difficult it must have been can’t you

See how that’s like just stacking bricks with nothing to connect them? Add some punctuation and the wall is now firmly constructed:

Can you imagine reading text without any punctuation at all? Well, in the earliest days of writing, that is what it was like. You can see how difficult it must have been, can’t you?
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.

When a sentence contains an introductory phrase, the comma tells us so by separating it.

Any time a brief pause is indicated, in fact, the comma should be used.

A comma will mysteriously appear whenever one main action happens at the beginning of a sentence, and then even more happens after a conjunction like or, and or but.

Commas also cheerfully separate lists of more than two items, such as a bunch of blogs, a parade of posts, a set of sentences and a party of paragraphs.

Of course if you’re using what is known as the serial comma or the Oxford comma, that would read “. . . a set of sentences, and a party of paragraphs.”

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.

Learn how to cut, marinate, and cook friends!

…reads very differently than…

Learn how to cut, marinate, and cook, friends!

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 . . .

There are three types of people in the world:

  1. those who can count
  2. those who can’t
. . . and sometimes it’s a list right there in a sentence.

If you want to make sure you get something done today, try adding these to your to-do list:  wake up, make to-do list, cross off first two items on to-do 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.

Zach was surprised; Tina turned out to be trustworthy after all.

Just don’t overuse semicolons; it will make you look slightly pretentious.


Apostrophes are very often used to indicate the omission of letters.

Dont tell me its already 10 oclock!

(replacing the missing letters from do not, it is, and of the clock)

But the primary use of the apostrophe is to show possession. You already know the basic rule for this—use ’s when the possessor is singular and s’ when the possessor is plural.

the cats toys (the toys that belong to only one cat)

the cats toys (the toys that belong to more than one cat)

However, if the plural form of a noun doesn’t already end in the letter s, you should add ’s rather than s’.

Why did you interrupt the childrens game? (not childrens)

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:

Jamess best friend

James best friend

To show possession by more than one singular person or thing, an ’s on the last one is all you need.

Hey, check out Cheryl and LuAnns new website!

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.

Oranges and lemons – 2 for $1.00

Freshest crabs this side of the Atlantic

Kids eat free all day!

These are all, quite simply, clueless mistakes.

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.

Pages 4345 explain how World War I (19141918) wasn’t actually called that until after World War II (19391945) happened.
And you should use the em dash when you want to indicate a sudden shift in thought or tone, give more information, or lend some extra emphasis.

Dash it all anyway, she thought to herselfhe looked positively dashing!

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:

Fred gave his daughter-in-law a Jack-in-the-box.
Compound adjectives can be trickier. Here’s the rule—when it comes before the noun it modifies, hyphenate it. When it comes after the noun, don’t.

Look how quickly you became a well-known writer!

but . . .

She was well known for her business acumen.

(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.

Don’t be surprised to see a bunch of fat-cat contributors appear around election time. (Without that hyphen, how would we know this sentence wasn’t talking about a group of overweight people who donate felines?)

Quotation Marks

Quotation marks serve a few important functions.

They are used, of course, to show when someone’s words are being directly quoted or spoken . . .

I do not believe so, sir, replied Jeeves.
. . . but they can also indicate technical jargon, slang, or otherwise unfamiliar or non-standard terms.

The doctor briefly explained the difference between in vitro and in vivo pregnancies.
Calvin proudly displayed his new transmogrifier to Hobbes.
Quotation marks are used around the titles of short works such as poems, songs, book chapters, articles, short stories, and program or presentation titles (but not long works such as entire books or series, which are italicized).

He could never remember whether In Which Tigger Is Unbounced came before or after In Which Piglet Does a Very Grand Thing in The House at Pooh Corner.

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.

Get over here now! yelled Harriet.


Why not?

I’m tired.

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.

I never said such a thing,” she stated firmly. And you can quote me on that.”
Colons and semicolons go outside the quotes.

That’s the thing about Bohemian Rhapsody”; even if you never want to hear it again, you know that you know all the words by heart.

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.

Don’t come near me!” Becky cried.
Did the customer really ask for a girl cheese sandwich”?
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?

Ellipsis Points

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.

“Yes, it was definitely the ketchup, Your Honor. . . . No, he left the mustard behind.”
And if the missing section occurs mid-sentence, just use the ellipses.

“Over the river . . . through the woods . . . hey, isn’t that Grandma’s house?”

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 (likethis) 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.

See this helpful (but not absolutely necessary) parenthetical phrase?
But where does the punctuation go?

If the parenthetical phrase is in the middle of a sentence (like this), punctuation like that comma goes outside the parentheses because it relates to the sentence as a whole.

If the parenthetical phrase ends the sentence, the punctuation still goes outside the parentheses if it relates to the sentence as a whole (like this).

But If the parenthetical phrase is a sentence all by itself, the ending punctuation goes inside the parentheses. (Like this.)

Sometimes you can have both, which is correct even though it looks pretty weird (like this!).

Parentheses are often used as formatting devices to make information visually clearer.

The ideal person: (a) doesn’t smoke, (b) doesn’t drink, (c) doesn’t do drugs, (d) doesn’t swear, (e) doesn’t get mad, (f) doesn’t exist.
Square brackets are used to show when clarifying information within a quote is not part of the quote itself . . . or around the Latin term sic to show where a mistake really is part of the quote.

“This example [of a blog post] contains no speiling [sic] errors.”
Square brackets have a handful of other specific uses, such as in dictionary definitions, but they can also be utilized as visual or stylistic devices in the same way as parentheses.

What about brackets inside of brackets?

If you need multiple levels of closure [when one enclosed phrase (such as this) is inside another], you should use square brackets on the outside and parentheses on the inside.

Creative Punctuation

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.

You can use ellipsis points to show . . . um, hesitation.

Use long (em) dashes to signal abrupt transitions like this! No this!

“Those dashes are also great for showing when a speaker gets cut off in mid-conver” she said.

Many bloggers (perhaps too many of us) use emoticons made out of punctuation. 😉

You can even invent your own ways to build . . .




you know . . .





Just use creative punctuation like this sparingly. Be sure that it enhances and clarifies your message rather than needlessly muddling it.

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:

If you decide to use periods when abbreviating U.K. (where, incidentally, they refer to periods as “full stops”), be sure you do so when abbreviating E.U. and U.S.A. as well.

If you abbreviate the days of the week, standardize them to three letters each—e.g., Thu. (not Thurs.), Fri. and Sat.

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.

The Hephthalites are known to have practiced polyandry; i.e., the marriage of a woman to two or more men.
E.g. stands for exempli gratia, or “for example.” It’s used to do just that—give one or more examples.

He liked all kinds of leafy green vegetables—e.g., lettuce, spinach and kale.
Here’s a memory aid for recalling when to use each of these two phrases. Instead of worrying about the Latin translations, just remember:

  • 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.

He liked all kinds of leafy green vegetables, e.g., lettuce, spinach and kale.

He liked all kinds of leafy green vegetables; e.g., lettuce, spinach and kale.

He liked all kinds of leafy green vegetables: e.g., lettuce, spinach and kale.

He liked all kinds of leafy green vegetablese.g., lettuce, spinach and kale.

He liked all kinds of leafy green vegetables (e.g., lettuce, spinach and kale).

The only caveat here is that if the text that follows the i.e. or e.g. could stand as an independent sentence:

They did what they always did at wedding receptions; i.e., she got tipsy and he flirted shamelessly with the new bride.
. . . you should not introduce the phrase with a comma—use any of the other punctuation methods. My own personal preference is the semicolon, as above, but any of them except for the comma would fine.

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.

She executed a perfect nikkyo and her attacker instantly dropped to the floor.
Carmen’s schädenfreude as she watched Alonzo writhe in agony was chilling to watch.
But if the word has become a commonly accepted part of English, there’s no need to italicize.

Sorry—can you please read that back to me verbatim?
The company gave its employees carte blanche to wear whatever they wanted to work.
These same guidelines apply to common Latin abbreviations such as etc. and our buddies i.e., and e.g. from just above—they are now so common that they don’t require italics.

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.

Once her blog posts became easier to read, she went from gaining about 3 subscribers a month to a startling 150.
Don’t begin a sentences with a numeral, even if it’s a small number.

Four hours ago I was simply minding my own business when . . .
Numbers in titles are another point of contention. Should your new list post be titled “10 Ways to Be a Kickass Knitter” or “Ten Ways to Be a Kickass Knitter”? Many writers use numbers in headlines because they’re more quickly readable, but it’s up to you.


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.

Their first single hit the airwaves in 1983, followed by two more in 86 and 88.
When referring descriptively to a decade, don’t include an apostrophe between the numbers and the letter s.


He’s a child of the 80s.

She’s a child of the 80s.

He’s a child of the 1980s.


He’s a child of the 80s.

She’s a child of the 80s.

He’s a child of the 1980s.

Century names can either use numerals or be spelled out, but should not be capitalized.

Sometimes I wish I’d lived in the 19th century. (or) Sometimes I wish I’d lived in the nineteenth century.


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.

Number Ranges

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.

Common Pitfalls

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.

Subject/Verb Agreement

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.

You and I are smart.
With the word or, it depends on the actors. If they’re both singular, the verb should be singular.

Goran or Lisa was at the pub every single time I walked in.

But if one is singular and the other is plural, the verb should agree with the one closest to it.

Either a candle or flowers were sitting on the Chens’ mantelpiece at all times.
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.

None of the food is very healthy.

(“food” is a collective noun that stands for one thing, so use the singular verb “is”)

None of them are going to the movie.

(“them” indicates multiple people, so use the plural verb “are”)

Anybody here want seconds?

(“anybody” refers to any one body/person, so it’s singular—use the singular verb “want”)

Most of my guest posts were quickly published.

(“most” refers to a number of individual posts, so use the plural verb “were”)

But amazingly, neither the post about the mating habits of the Brazilian termite nor the one on different types of postage stamp adhesive was accepted anywhere.

(both “neither” and “nor” refer to one single post, so use the singular verb “was”)

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 painter with the big orange pickup truck filled to the brim with buckets, brushes and ladders drives down my street every day.

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.

The map, which they used to drive cross-country, is in the glove compartment.

The map that they used to drive cross-country is in the glove compartment.

Both sentences tell us that the map in question is in the glove compartment, but mean different things.

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:

I haven’t seen the guy who lives down that hallway for weeks.

(because he, not him, lives down that hallway)

The kids, one of whom was fortunately wearing glow-in-the-dark sneakers, were found later that night.

(because one of him, not one of he, was found)

If this is unclear, switch the pieces of the sentence around first and then see which word works better.

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.

Parallel Construction

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?

Persuading others comes from a mixture of thinking through your ideas, thorough organization, and then presenting them clearly,

To persuade others, think through your ideas, organize them thoroughly, and then present them clearly.

It’s the second sentence, of course. Why? The first one uses a mixture of noun forms–gerunds (“persuading,” “thinking” and “presenting”)—in which “-ing” is added to the verb to create a noun—and “organization,” a more regular, though abstract, noun. You can follow the sentence, but you have to work a little too hard at it. The parallel verb forms in the second sentence (“persuade,” “think,” “organize” and “present”) make it much easier to comprehend quickly.

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).

Sentence Fragments

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.


Run-On Sentences

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.

Dangling Modifiers

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:

Driving past the graveyard late last night, the twisted old tree frightened me.

(I’d love to know where that tree got its driver’s license.)

She wore a bright red baseball cap on her head, which was obviously much too small.

(Yeah—her head was so tiny the cap came all the way down to her shoulders.)

The distraught young man was comforted by the psychologist who had just taken an overdose of sleeping pills.

(I bet that was a real consolation to the young man.)

Here are some much clearer re-writes (though not the only possible fixes for them):

As I drove past the graveyard late last night, I saw a twisted old tree that frightened me.
That bright red baseball cap on her head was obviously much too small.
After he took an overdose of sleeping pills, the distraught young man was comforted by the psychologist.

Split Infinitives

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?

Carl’s nasty old landlord threatened to double the rent, plus even more of an increase on top of that, if Carl went to the rent board about the broken washing machine.

Carl’s nasty old landlord threatened to more than double the rent if Carl went to the rent board about the broken washing machine.

You’ll be glad to know it’s finally considered okay for you to boldly go and split some infinitives, too.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell (who spontaneously learned to read before she was four and hasn’t stopped since) has been a freelance proofreader, copy editor, and general wordsmith for over two decades. Say hello to Michelle on Facebook.


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Photo of author

Written by Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell (who spontaneously learned to read before she was four and hasn’t stopped since) has been a freelance proofreader, copy editor, and general wordsmith for over two decades. Say hello to Michelle on Facebook.

121 thoughts on “The English Grammar Guide: Everything Writers Need to Know”

  1. Hi Michelle,

    Great post here on BBT.

    The thing I struggle with the most out of all this is the semicolon. I just never know where to properly insert it and eventually never, or hardly, use it.

    I didn’t even know there were 3 types of horizontal punctuation marks either. Still trying to figure out how to use it properly but you gave some great examples to help with that.

    Also, I didn’t know that for the ellipsis points either? I use to just use those dots randomly whenever I felt like it. Not knowing they truly had a purpose or meaning.
    Hmm. Interesting.

    Thanks for this grammar lesson. Now if I can only know when to properly use “affect” vs. “effect” all the time. lol.

    Great stuff.

    – Andrew

    • Hi Andrew! Congratulations for being the first to make it all the way through this marathon post and leave a comment. 😉

      Hmm…how about this for “affect” and “effect”?

      “Affect,” which (almost always, except in psychology, where it is a specialized term) means “to influence.” (E.g., “What I post on my blog will eventually affect many people.”) It’s a verb, and verbs are action words. So A = Action = Affect.

      “Effect” is almost always (again, except for very rare cases) used as a noun, meaning “result.” (E.g., “Your words had a profound effect on me.”) A result is a kind of event. E = Event = Effect.

      Follow this memory aid and, barring those rare cases, you’ll be right just about all the time. 🙂

      • Love the memory aid, but “affect” can definitely be a noun. “He shows very little affect.” I use it all the time like that.

      • “Effect” can also be a verb meaning “to put into action, e.g., “The legislature effected new laws in their last session.”

  2. Hi Michelle,

    Wow, it’s like being in school again!

    The “that vs which” dilemma is one which has repeatedly plagued me over the years. Thanks for the tip (“If the answer is yes, use which. If the answer is no, use that.”) That will come in very handy. 😉

    This is a very thorough post, and I’m sure I’ll be checking it again and again in the future. Kudos on getting published at BBT, Michelle. You did a wonderful job!


  3. Hi
    Great resource for us creative thinkers. Its such a handy guide. I am sure it will help a lot of people. Already tweeted it. Keep on posting such wonderful stuff 🙂


  4. This article is right on time. I plan on blogging this year and most of this I forgot about. You lose it if you don’t use it.

  5. Nice post. (Quick note though: “schadenfreude” doesn’t take an umlaut. :))

    I love the example of “Learn how to cut, marinate, and cook friends!” Very funny!

    What style guide to you normally use? I use the Canadian Style and the Chicago Manual of Style. I don’t see the recommendation of using a colon to introduce “e.g.” so that’s a new one for me (as the colon pretty much means “e.g.”).

    Good round-up!

    • Hi Amy!

      I can’t remember offhand which online dictionary I used to double-check “schadenfreude,” but bad me for not checking multiple sources. Good catch. 🙂

      I mainly use the Chicago Manual of Style, too, but I’ve used others, ranging from the AP Stylebook to the Bluebook (both rarely, thank goodness), to alternate-usage style guides (I’ve done a lot of work for Australians, for instance) to proprietary in-house style guides and style sheets provided by the client.

      One of the things I love about editing is that it’s such a mixed bag and–contrary to what most people probably imagine–always a different challenge. 🙂

      • Well, I’m sure you had more pressing things to think about than diacritical marks, what with a mega-post like this :). CMOS rules! Glad I’ve never had to use AP either, thank goodness. Very true about the mixed bag: I’m a translator as well as an editor, and my French clients always think that English style is as codified as French is. “How do you write the time in English?” they ask me. “How would you like to write it?” I answer. Which boggles their minds a bit! I think I’ll send them to this post now. 🙂

      • “How do you write the time in English?” they ask me. “How would you like to write it?” I answer.

        Hah! I love it. 🙂

  6. Wow Michelle, what a guide! Yes, definitely bookmarking and coming back to this for sure.
    As a blogger and academic student, this will be a real time saver to look up those confusing little bits I usually mix up!
    Well done for posting here btw 🙂


  7. Hi Michelle and Jon,

    Awesome post indeed 🙂

    It reminded me of my English lessons at school, which one tends to forget as one blogs! Lol…yes, there are many things I need to brush up, so this was surely a post that I am going to bookmark straight away and refer to often.

    Thanks so much for sharing it with us – loved it! I can just about imagine the time it would have taken you to write it all down for us – appreciate it. Wishing you and yours a Happy New Year as well, both of you 🙂

  8. Michelle, This is excellent. You answer so many of my every day questions while writing and even editing. I am definitely bookmarking this post!
    Thank you!

  9. Michelle,

    Great post! I saved it in my Evernote.

    I too cringe when a writer or speaker uses “that” to refer to a person.

    Another pet peeve of mine is the use of quote marks. 🙂 I’m glad you included an explanation in your guide.

    “Life itself is a quotation.” –Jorge Luis Borges

    • Ah, someone else in my “cringe camp.” Good to know I’m not alone in thinking of people as people, not things. Thanks for the comment, Amandah!

      • You can definitely add me to THAT cringe camp as well! I’m just grateful there’s still no rule AGAINST consistently using “who” for people; let’s all be positive influences there!

    • Hi Raspal–funny, but I’d actually linked to that post (and another of Shane’s, and another of Glen Long’s) in my initial draft of this post, but it was ultimately decided that this post was long enough as it was, and those links were deleted.

      But I would HIGHLY recommend searching BBT for posts by Shane Arthur and Glen Long, for more fantastic advice on writing well. And the one you just linked to, Raspal, is a great start. Very visual and easy to see why the edits are improvements.

      • Yes, I’ll search for Shane’s and Glen’s posts. Thank you. I use Evernote Clearly, to clear the page and then make it into a PDF for printing later.

    • Thanks, Shane–coming from you, that’s a compliment indeed. And I can’t say that I’m the first to use color-coded examples here on BBT . . . (did you PLAN to comment immediately after someone linked to your own wonderful post?) Heh. 🙂

  10. Michelle, this is a fantastic and thorough post. I shared it on Twitter in the hope that more online writers use it! 😉 As a fellow writer and editor, I cringe the most at apostrophe errors in words that are merely plural. And it’s/its errors are rampant, too.

  11. Great post! I was cured of dangling modifiers by a great high school English teacher who gave us a handout of hilarious ones. My faves were “Creamed and boiled I like my onions,” and “Running down the hall, my jacket caught on a locker.” Still see that ghostly jacket running down the hall by itself…

    • Thanks, Carol! And yes, I had a similarly great high school English teacher. You may see a ghostly jacket running down a hall, but I see a similarly phantasmal church running down a street. 😉

  12. Michelle,
    There I was, clutching a fistful of apostrophes like a comfort blanket, suddenly realising that I didn’t even know that there exists such an exotic creature as a dangling modifier!
    I thank you for your and guidance but will have to write freely first (and undoubtedly ungrammatically) and then scrutinize and correct my efforts.
    And just when I thought I was bumbling along OK – must do better, obviously.
    Thank you for your clarity and your expertise. Please accept my kindest regards.

    • Thanks, Zaranya! “Clutching a fistful of apostrophes” . . . what a great mental image! 🙂

      I agree–you should NEVER worry about grammar or mechanics when you’re writing a first draft. That’s tough enough as it is, at least for most of us. Editing for correctness comes later, once you’ve coaxed your ideas onto the page or screen.

  13. Hi Michelle,

    What a fantastic resource for everyone. This is required reading, if only to sort out as many grammar nazis as it creates. {grin}.

    Thank you for providing such a concise and very readable tutorial and extracting the punk from punctuation.


    Steven Lucas

  14. I usually agree to everything I read on Boost Blog Traffic. Not this time. Let me explain why.

    If your grammar is not correct (that’s my case too), there is another way to do. Spent $5 on Fiveer, and someone will proofread your text while you will go to the beach.

    I am not a programmer. When I need something complicated on my site, I pay one specialist. I do the same with all the design stuffs.

    A day is only 24 h long, and blogging could be very time consuming. I prefer to spend my time on finding ideas, and creating content. Because this brings value.

    I prefer investing money than time to solve my weak points. That’s why even if this post is clear and rich, I will not try to improve my grammar. I will pay one specialist to solve this for me.

    • Hi Andre!

      If you’ve got the money to spend on a proofreader or editor, more power to you. (As a professional freelancer myself, I could hardly quibble with that!)

      However, I’ll toss out two points here in response.

      First of all, you tend to get what you pay for. Maybe you’ll get lucky with who you find on Fiverr (and I hope you do!), but for the most part, anyone who is skilled enough to proofread or edit professionally will be looking to charge more than $5 for this.

      Secondly, many bloggers either simply don’t have the money to invest in professional editing, or aren’t yet at the point with their blogs where such an investment is justified. I wrote this post for them. 🙂

      Thanks, for your comment, though!

  15. This is an awesome post Michelle. It’s especially helpful for ma as I’m not a native English speaking person. Grammar is something I’m in conflict all the times and luckily there are some tools to straighten it out. But it’s always better when you improve your skills.

  16. Thanks for the great guide!

    As an editor, I often explain a lot of these rules to my writers and having them all together in one detailed guide is super handy. I’ll share this with them and hopefully they’ll have as much fun reading it as I did!

    And great explanation of who vs. whom. I guess I missed the part in elementary school when the teacher explained, and I’m finally catching up.

    PS: Totally agree about who vs. that…

    • Thanks, Anna! Good to see yet another editor here . . . and to have someone else in our “who vs. that” camp. Wave hello to Amandah up above. 😉

  17. One word: Superb.

    Well, I could probably think of others, but this is the Holy Grail of what I was looking for.

    Thank you so, so much for this post. Bookmarked and will be referenced often 🙂

  18. Hi Michelle

    Very informative post and almost a complete guide to write English free of grammatical errors.

    Broadly there are two types of English writers in the world. One is native English writers and other one is obviously non-natives.

    First type expresses its thoughts with approproate words but doesn’t take much care of rules of grammar.

    The second type learn a lot about grammar rules and religiously follow them but can’t express fluently because of not thinking directly in English but in its mother tongue and then translates it into English.

    So two types of English is being written all over the world. One is with appropriate words and quite easy to understand but has some grammatical errors while other one is greatly free from grammar errors but not much fluent because of its thoughts being translated from the first language of its thinker.

    Thanks to online world where communication of message is more important rather than diving into the debate of what is correct English and what is not. But basic rules of grammar must be followed here also; if they are not then no one can understand its English properly.

    So it is must to learn the basics of grammar and avoid common mistake to enjoy writing for online world where verbosity and philosophical way of writing is not encouraged.

    For this purpose this post is complete guide for those who want to write English without any big mistake.

    Thanks a lot for sharing this wonderful post of huge value.

    • Hi Mi,

      What an interesting point about the two types of English writers!

      Admittedly, this post is aimed at those who are fluent enough in English to express themselves adequately in it, and who just need to know the rules and guidelines for polishing up what they’ve written.

      Non-native English speakers do indeed have the major stumbling block of first having to translate their thoughts from their native languages into English. And it’s been said–only half in jest–that in English, every rule has an exception. (Personally, I’d say that every rule has at least three!)

      It goes both ways, of course. Personally, I can’t even imagine trying to get the grammar and mechanics correct if I were to try to express myself in either Urdu or Sindhi, for example. 😉

      Love your insightful comment–thanks!

      • Hi Michelle

        My goodness. Never had an idea of your that much indepth knowledge of even unknown languages of the world. 🙂

        My mother tongue is Urdu and the official language of the state (province of Sindh) in Pakistan where I live is Sindhi.

        Much amazed to hear their names here at a blog being managed and run thousands and thousands of miles away from the place of origins of both the languages.

        As far writing English with correct grammar by non-native writers is concerned, actually medium of education in most of the non-English countries is English from the basic level and they are fully taught each and every rule of grammar in an attempt to make them write correctly.

        Once again I appreciate your vast knowledge of different languages so happy to read their names in your reply. Thanks a lot

  19. Brilliant! I’m a member of the “apostrophe” police and my eraser is at-the-ready every moment!
    How about a few words on “all right” vs. “alright” please.
    Jann Seal

    • Hi, Jann!

      As far as I’ve always known, “alright” isn’t a real word–the correct way to spell it is the two-word “all right.” But then again, “ain’t” is in the dictionary these days . . .

    • Hello Jann

      This point came up a couple of times in my editing this week. I have written an explanation, if you are interested. Feel free to share.
      It’s here:

  20. Wow Michelle. This is amazing. It’s incredible how easy it is to forget those grammar lessons as time goes by. I’m definitely bookmarking this.
    Being educated in the UK (could be U.K) and now living in the States, I often find myself caught up in two different styles. Hopefully, I don’t mix them in my posts!

  21. Great article! I have struggled with showing posession of Goddess. Is it Goddess’s or Goddesses? Or have I still got it completely wrong?
    I see your FUBAR and raise you a FUBARBUNDY. (I have a friend who worked at a hospital who gave me the meaning ages ago)

    • Hey, Caitlin!

      Well, according to what I wrote above, if you’re talking about a single Goddess (I assume you’re using it singularly as the feminine form of God), then the possessive would be Goddess’s.

      Now if you’re talking about goddesses in general (e.g., the goddesses of the Greek pantheon), then the possessive would be goddesses’ because it’s a plural noun.

      I had to look up FUBARBUNDY–ouch! I hope I’m never in a position where I need to say that about anyone! 🙂

  22. I usually use the Blue Book Grammar but most of the times I follow my instincts, if it sounds good then it’s good but when in doubt that’s the time I open a book.

    This article summarizes everything, thank you for the hard work in putting all these up and for sharing it with us.

  23. As an editor, I welcome this as a great way to help bloggers avoid the more common mistakes. It certainly makes proofreading a little easier.

    One point, though:

    Your explanation for using “Anybody here want seconds?” needs clarification.
    Yes, it’s true that “Anybody” refers to any one body/person, so indeed it is singular, but there is an implied “Does” at the beginning of the question. This is, in fact, the singular verb, and it operates as a kind of auxiliary verb, as in “John does want seconds”.
    The word “want”, in this case, is neither singular nor plural.

    • Hi, TighterWriter–thanks for that alternate explanation. It’s tough, when trying to be comprehensive but also brief enough to provide a visually scannable resource like this, to know how far to go with each explanation. I opted for the briefer version, but yours goes even deeper.

      The editing rabbit hole can almost *always* go deeper, I find. 🙂

  24. I can’t believe how much I enjoyed reading a long post about grammar. Masterfully and stylishly written Michelle. And of course so informative. Thank you.

    I do remember learning that a preposition is something you should never end a sentence with. Ha Ha. And actually it is my preference not to, but apparently I’m a bit old fashioned in that way. Wonder what you think?

    • Thanks, Jacqueline!

      The “never end a sentence with a preposition” rule is now pretty much considered a myth . . . even though I learned it, too, and internalized it to the point where I still kind of flinch when I come across it and have to remind myself NOT to “fix” it when it sounds just fine.

      Because “fixing” this mistake often sounds overly formal. In normal conversation, I wouldn’t ask you to whom you were talking–that sounds strained and overly formal. I’d ask you who you were talking to.

      This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about grammar, attributed to Winston Churchill. Apparently his English was badly hyper-corrected by an overzealous editor, and he responded, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put!”

  25. Hi Michelle,

    This article is outstanding! I especially appreciate your examples; they are well-chosen to illustrate the point while also being humorous.

    On the question of whether to spell numbers out or write them as numerals, I recently heard someone say that ages should always written as numerals. Is this correct? Do you agree?

    My second-biggest pet peeve (after the use of apostrophe-s to indicate plural) is people who use quotation marks for emphasis. For example,

    Don’t miss this “important” announcement!

    What this says to me is that the announcement is of questionable importance.

    Again, thanks for this essential writing guide!

    • Hey, Dave–

      If you mean ages of people, I don’t know of a rule about that offhand, but yeah, my instinct would be to use numbers. Although it wouldn’t be wrong to spell out the numbers, either. That one is a judgment call depending on the context and the audience.

      I share your pet peeve–and apparently so do a lot of other people. Have you ever seen The Blog of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks? 🙂

  26. This is an amazing first post of the year, breathtaking! There is no way on earth how I can ras this once and move on. So am book marking and coming back to it. I think it is very for me as a blogger to learn how to write for international audience, giving consideration to my grammar and punctuation.

    Often, I gt confused on whether to write in American style or British, reaaokn being that, Americans are more conversational, compared to Britons. What’s your opinion on this?

  27. Hi Michelle, dropping by to tell you that I loved your post AND momentarily felt the fear of the Comma return from my school days. 🙂 Fortunately my English teacher was very specific about Grammar, just like Dr Henry Higgins and she managed to embed it into our heads. Love her dearly (now friends with her on Facebook). Thank you for not mentioning Parsing (unless I blind-sighted it). Happy Friday.

    PS. I’m going to HAVE to share this post!

    • Vatsala–Parsing–hah! No, I did not mention it . . . possibly because I’m still suppressing my own traumatic memories of diagramming all those sentences in my own English classes!

  28. When I arrived to the body of your article, Michelle, I realized how many things I was missing. The quick introduction to nouns, verbs, adjectives, until how to correctly use punctuation. Honestly saying, I had several “A-ha” down the road.

    Being a non English native speaker I’m thankful for giving a lesson on English grammar in the modern blogging world.

  29. Michelle, you covered a LOT of ground with this post. Very helpful. I’m keeping this for students in my writing classes. AND suggesting your book too! I like the idea of my own personal style sheet. Thanks so much!

  30. Thanks for an excellent post. I always hated grammar in high school but then was constantly frustrated by not being able to express my thoughts on paper.

    I got better. However, one point that got me a B instead of an A in Technical Writing at college was my adamant refusal to write “he or she”, “he/she” or “s/he” or any of the other monstrous contortions of English just to be Politically Correct. There was even a movement during the last millennium to come up with a genderless pronoun. Fortunately it died silently.

    Now, and I have no idea where I read this, it is acceptable to use the plural pronoun where the sex is ambiguous.

    “The user may select Help if they need more information.”

    Is this a recent adaptation or was it always thus, just revived when someone finally got sick and tired of the “he/she” nonsense?

    Now if only people would stop using “gender” as a synonym for “sex.”

    • Tomm, good question. My somewhat old-fashioned editorial instincts do still rebel when I see the plural pronoun used that way, and if a good option exists for correcting it easily, I’ll generally do it (for instance, I might re-cast your example as “Users may select Help if they need more information” so that the plural “they” agrees with the plural “users).

      But sometimes editing like this mangles the meaning, or doesn’t fit with the surrounding text, in which case I sigh and leave it alone. I don’t like it, but I think you’re right that in the absence of a workable gender-neutral pronoun, it’s often more preferable than the clunky “he or she” variants.

      And on your “gender is not synonymous with sex” point, I always chuckle when I see that someone has filled in a form by writing “YES” in the field marked “Sex.” 😉

    • Stubborn traditionalist that I am, if the gender of a person is unknown, the correct words are he, him, and his. That little piece was taught in the first grade when I went to school! I am also dead set against political correctness. It dilutes conversation, and makes liars out of the most honorably intentioned people.

      • I don’t care that much for political correctness myself, but when it comes to personal preference on gender pronouns that mean “whomever this situation applies to,” I’ll take “one is as good as the other” and write “everyone must find her own path” as easily as “his own.” Sure, some people go overboard on giving both equal time, and write such sentences as “if a student forgets his homework, she will be docked two points”; but no one has to be told the futility of trying to please everybody–let’s also remember the futility of trying to bully others into agreeing with us.

  31. Three cheers for including the “noon” and “midnight” point!–one of my personal pet peeves. (“Twelve a.m.” for midnight isn’t even factually correct, as “a.m.” stands for “after midnight.”)

  32. Wow! Excellent post! You’ve created quite a valuable resource here by putting all the what-do-I-do-here questions and answers into one document. I’m bookmarking this and sharing all over the place!

    Thank you so much for this, Michelle!

  33. What a wonderful post you’ve written! I volunteer to teach/tutor at-risk teens on how to improve their reading and writing skills. I hope you don’t mind…I plan to share it with them. Thank you for writing such a complete post that concisely gets the basics across. Kudos! ;0)

  34. Wonderful post, Michelle!

    Love the idea of creating my own style sheet (shamelessly pilfering all the hard to remember bits from your complete-yet-concise work).

    Thanks for taking us back to fifth grade. I now have a sudden longing to go find a chalkboard and diagram a few sentences:-).

    • Hi Penny,
      Although I was once excellent at diagramming sentences, I have no need to recreate that today. I do wish it was taught in school once again for in completing that exercise, one must master the structure of a sentence. In doing so, you learn to write a sentence. This is a great resource and I am very thankful to have it!
      God bless you!

      • I took regular English classes all the way up to bachelor’s degree and sentence diagramming was never covered–and I don’t feel I missed a thing. I’ve had hundreds of writing projects published in public venues, a sizable percentage for pay, without knowing a thing about sentence diagramming and not much more about “standard” proofreading symbols, writing and editing my own work solely on the basis of what “feels right.” Though I will admit to being blessed with a natural instinct for understanding grammatical arrangements; I learned to read by casual leisure-time exposure to books before I was four years old, and haven’t stopped since.

  35. Having all of these reminders together in one guide is a great resource! And I totally enjoyed your witty examples. Bookmarked it is! Thanks much,

  36. It’s English 101!! Thank God we are not asked, as bloggers, to diagram sentences.
    Charles Haanel states in his book, The Master Keys, that ‘accuracy in building words and sentences is the highest form of architecture in civilization and is a passport to success.” Thank you for doing your part to have passports issuable to more people!
    God bless you!

  37. Many thanks for this very informative post. I have bookmarked it and saved it in Evernote. One question- I am looking for the en-dash and the em-dash on my laptop keyboard. Any clues or shortcuts? Thanks again.

    • Hi Susan–they’re not on your keyboard, so how you get to them depends on what word-processing software you use. In Word, you go to Insert –> Symbol, then just be sure the font you have selected is “Symbol.” You’ll find them there.

      • You don’t even have to take that many steps: Word’s default formatting will automatically convert two adjacent hyphens to an em dash if there are no spaces on either side. And if your keyboard has a “numerical” section, you can make an en dash by hitting Control-minus.

  38. Excellent! Think I’m going to keep this. As some others have said, I did not know there were different sizes of the horizontal dash.

    I am surprised you didn’t mention the “I” or “me” proper uses. This is the grammar mistake I’ve seen most often (almost always) by well educated & intelligent people.

    Never change the “I” or “me” in a sentence when adding one or more additional people (or nouns).

    Ie: John is going to the park with me.
    John is going to the park with Mary and me. (not Mary and I!)
    Why don’t you join John and me (not I)at the park later.

    But anyway…..thank you!

  39. Hey Michelle,

    Thanks for writing this. For starters, I am no God or excellent in these thingy you have written above. And yes, I bookmarked this for future reading.

    After reading this, I was like “omg” I am so toost! Haha.

    I am going to re-read this weekly and get them all right! You just opened like a zillion of ideas for me and thank you for that!

    Top notch writing. Cheers!

  40. Excellent tips I’ll be sharing indefinitely. I have already saved the url to our collective blogger resources Trello board. There is one thing I didn’t see mentioned (perhaps I missed it) is something that jars me every time I see it. Sentences and especially titles that end with the prepositions to, from, with, at, about, or for. Is it just me? Why does that sound so wrong?

  41. I beg to differ on “None of them” being regarded as plural. Granted, use of “none of …” suggests that not even two or more are whatever … however – personal preference dictates that I continue to “hear” the word none in it’s extended form: i.e., not one.

  42. There is another level of vigilance in writing, and that is one of word grouping. What I call redundant word grouping—one word repeating the meaning of the other(s) as if either were not meaningful enough alone—is everywhere weighing our prose down: dead corpse, round circle, first introduction, I personally, free gift, etc.

    I have been blogging about redundant word groupings for some time now at I collect redundant groupings—such as “more preferred” found in the article above. “More preferred” will make it into my next word usage post. If you have “favorite” redundancies, please send them to me for my blog.

    Redundant word grouping finds its way into otherwise excellent writing such as the post above.

  43. How about the long-widely-used “consensus of opinion”?

    Funny how redundant word grouping–and other use of unnecessary words–is still so common in the sound-bites age. To paraphrase a classic saying, few people seem to have time to make their writing shorter.

  44. Michelle, you solved my biggest problem in just 20 minutes.

    Grammar is something which always frighten us (Indians) and we always try to use as simple language as we can.

    These complete set of rules made me confident about writing my next article. 🙂

    Thanks for putting everything together and teaching us something very much valuable in such an easy way.

  45. Michelle,

    Really appreciate for writing such a wonderful guide on grammar lessons. I felt like I was in school. Bookmarked this post!

    Will be checking your post again when I’ll start writing on my blog.


  46. This is splendid information! I learned more in reading this than I learned in all those years of high school and college put together. Thank you for sharing!

  47. You really covered a lot of ground in this post. You answered a lot of questions that pop in my head while writing that I always forget to go look up, so thank you! Every aspiring writer should read through this before getting started.

  48. Great post – especially helpfull for the people who do not have english as their first language
    I had a friend reffered to this and he litteraly quit his english grammar coaching classes.
    Thankyou for thIs amazing article- Michelle ! . Cheers for boostblogtraffic to making this possible.

  49. Great job! You’ve covered everything important.

    I also love your approach – you’ve explained it all simply, and yet there’s so much information in it. Plus your opinion, funny comments and good examples.

    By the way, I’m blogging in English, but it’s my second language. And just wanted to let you know that the post is absolutely helpful to foreign fellow bloggers too.

    I’ll make a summary of the things I usually dwell on, and will have it printed.


    Best wishes,

  50. Hi MICHELLE,

    This has to be the most important blog post about writing blog posts that I’ve read. I had signed up for a few English writing courses in the past but none of them cover any of the above-mentioned points.

    I always find myself searching for proper words and fluctuations.

    Thanks a lot for this.


  51. Hey Michelle,
    It is almost dawn here when I have finished your great work wholeheartedly sitting in a beautiful country named Bangladesh.
    But one thing doubts me on the example given at the sub verb agreement section where you said anybody refers to a singular meaning so it demands a singular verb. Then why it takes verb want instead of wants. Your interpretation will be highly regarded.
    Shah Alam


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