Many literary professors will tell you that the best way to write correctly is to write as though you were speaking. But if you sometimes utter sentences like, “Get me them sausages on that there counter over yonder,” then you might have some trouble when constructing a formal paragraph.
American English has become so diluted with slang and incorrect speech that many people – students, especially – are lost when it comes to correct grammar. If you say it one way, and write it another, then how can you possibly not be confused? Incorrect sentences often sound correct to the ear, but when written on paper, the mistakes are glaringly obvious from the page.
If you are in need of a quick grammatical tutorial, but don’t want to go to the trouble of reading an entire MLA handbook, then you will benefit from this article. Even those who think that they are on top of their grammatical errors might find something of interest, as the rules of American English are seemingly endless.
Parts of Speech
This is the easy part, but I thought that it should be included because it is the foundation for proper english. If you don’t know the parts of speech, then you cannot possibly string together a coherent sentence without making a few mistakes along the way.
Noun – This used to be classified as a person, place or thing, but ‘quality’ and ‘act’ have recently been included. EX: Alex (person), Boston (place), table (thing), kinship (quality) and execution (act).
Verb – A word or phrase that expresses action, existence, or occurences is a verb. EX: go, be, toss, came, hurtled, ran, left
Adjective – An adjective is defined as anything that describes a noun. EX: ugly, intelligent, peaceful, abundant)
Adverb – Similar to an adjective, an adverb describes (or modifies) a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Contrary to popular opinion, every adverb does not end in ly. EX: slowly, carefully, often, much)
Interjection – An interjection is any word, phrase, or sound description that is exclamatory and makes sense when used by itself. EX: Oh! ; Shoot! ; No way!
Conjunction – A word that is used to connect two other words or phrases is called a conjunction. EX: and, or, but, because
Preposition – This is a word that illustrates the association of a noun with a verb, an adjective, or another noun. EX: to, from, with, at, by
Article – One of three words used to signal the presence of a noun. EX: The (definite), a (indefinite), an (indefinite)
Pronoun – A word used in place of a noun that refers to a person, place, thing, idea, quality, or act. EX: she, the, it, they, them
Now that we understand the parts of a sentence, we can begin to create them. There are four main types of sentences:
1. Statements – Sentences that explain an action as a fact. EX: Sally went to the park.
2. Questions – Sentences that request information. EX: Did Sally go to the park?
3. Exclamations – Sentences that express surprise or indignation. EX: I can’t believe that Sally went to the park!
4. Commands – Sentences that solicit that actions of others, or demand that something happen. EX: Sally, don’t you dare go to the park.
When you create a sentence, you must be certain that the noun agrees with the verb, and that the entire sentence is written in the same tense.
Subject-Verb Agreement & Tense
Subject-verb agreement has to do with the placement of the verb and how it interacts with the noun. For example, the verb and the subject must agree in number if the verb illustrates a quantitative amount. You wouldn’t say that Fred are going to the store; you would say that Fred is going to the store. Similarly, they were leaving the store and Fred was leaving the store. You use different forms of the verb depending on whether one or many people were leaving the store.
This might seem rather simple, but there are several actions which are often misused in written English. For instance, neither is often thought of as a plural subject, but it should always be used with a singular verb: Neither of us is up to the task. The same is true for either. Another example is pair. The word sounds plural because it refers to two things, but together those objects make a pair, so you would say a pair of shoes is missing from my closet.
Tense refers to when an action too place: in the present (we walk); in the past (we walked); or the future (we will walk).
Modifiers can be adjectives, adverbs, nouns, or prepositions. There are two different types: words and phrases.
Adjectives are often used to define the object they modify. They are typically used directly before the noun, and serve to characterize or define it. For example, in the sentence You are a wonderful actor, ‘wonderful‘ is used to modify ‘actor.‘
Nouns can be used to modify other nouns, and are commonly overlooked because they seem to be part of the original noun. They also appear immediately before the noun, and are used to further define it. If you say I need to use the telephone booth, you are using ‘telephone’ to modify the word ‘booth.’ Since they are both nouns, you don’t necessarily think of one as the modifier of the other.
If two or more adjectives are used to modify a noun, they are separated by commas, such as in the sentence She had a cute, happy dog. If, however, both a noun and an adjective modify another noun, no comma is necessary. You would say That is a sturdy dog house when you are using both ‘sturdy‘ and ‘dog‘ to modify the word ‘house.’
A misplaced modifier happens when you use an adjective to modify the incorrect noun. For example, in the sentence Jessica was eating her lunch with a blue bracelet, the phrase ‘with a blue bracelet’ is modifying the word ‘lunch,‘ when it is indended to modify ‘Jessica‘. It should read Jessica was wearing a blue bracelet and eating her lunch.
Dangling modifiers are very similar, except that they misconstrue the meaning of a sentence rather than the subjects. If you say He nearly ate a whole plate of food, you are implying that he didn’t eat anything at all, but that he almost tackled that big plate of food. Instead, it should read He ate nearly a whole plate of food.
Terminating Punctuation refers to marks that end or complete a sentence. There are four types: periods, question marks, exclamation points, and ellipese.
A period (.) is the conclusion to a statement that does not ask a question or sound exclamatory. EX: Amy finished her homework.
A question mark (?) appears at the end of a sentence that asks a question. EX: Did Amy finish her homework?
An exclamation point (!) belongs at the end of a sentence that should convey excitement or indignation. EX: I can’t believe Amy hasn’t finished her homework!
An ellipsis (..) indicates that one or more words are missing from the end of a sentence, or that a character’s words have trailed off. EX: I wanted to finish my homework, butÃ¢Â?Â¦
Pause Punctuation refers to marks that are used to indicate a pause in a sentence.
A comma (,) is used to separate two clauses in a sentence. EX: I wanted to go to the park, but I didn’t have time.
A semicolon is used to separate two complete sentences that rely on one another for explanation or definition. EX: I wanted to go to the park this afternoon; I hate being cooped up inside all day.
A colon represents the beginning of a list or explanation of the previous sentence. It isn’t typically considered “correct” in formal writing, but it is being used more and more often. EX: Molly wanted two things from her day off from work: a trip to the park and a nice long nap.
An ellipsis can also be used in pause punctuation to simulate the faltering or stuttering of dialogue. EX: I wantedÃ¢Â?Â¦but I couldn’tÃ¢Â?Â¦I didn’t have timeÃ¢Â?Â¦
Apostrophes and Quotation Marks
These are some of the most commonly misused forms of punctuation, mostly because the proper methods are not taught exclusively.
Apostrophes are used in both contractions and to show possession. If you want to shorten two words to make one word – as would not becomes wouldn’t – use an apostrophe to signal the contraction. If you need to show possession of a singular subject, add an ‘s to the end of the word. For example, Mr. Crawford‘s students would not settle down. To show plural possession, simply add an apostrophe: The horses‘ manes were gorgeous.
Single quotation marks should be used to indicate dialogue within dialogue. For instance, if your character is talking about what someone said to her, it might look like this:
Marcie was absolutely giddy with excitement. “I went downstairs to talk to Mom, and she said ‘yes’!”
Marcie’s words are in double quotation marks, while her mother’s words are in single quotation marks.
Now that you know a little bit more about grammar, we can move on to the actual typing of your paper, report, article, or story.
Depending on what you are writing, you will use different methods of structure. A letter to a friend will probably be written differently than a memo to your boss, just as a personal journal entry will look different than a professional article.
When writing in a professional capacity, these are the basic rules to follow:
If you are writing a short story or a novel, or even a letter to a friend or aquaintance, it is acceptable to use the indentation method. Each time you begin a new paragraph, start the first sentence on a new line and indent the first word 4-6 spaces. Make sure that each paragraph is indented the same number of spaces, and that the next line begins at the far left margine.
Professional letters, articles, and other publications should be written using block paragraphs. There are no indentions in any part of the paper, and paragraphs are separated by an extra blank line.
Sentences should always begin with a capital letter, and should begin one space after the terminating punctuation of the previous sentence. In other words, you should tape the spacebar once after entering your period, question mark, exclamation point, or ellipsis. Several years ago, it was expected that two spaces indicate the beginning of a new sentence, but that is not expected anymore.
If you need to reference a single line from another text, it is acceptable to do so in the same paragraph with the rest of your content. If, however, you need to reference more than two sentences, you should begin the reference two lines below your original paragraph, and indent it 1-2 inches on both sides.
4. Italics and Underlines
If you are quoting the title of an article, a short story, a poem, a song, or a one-act play, the title of the reference should be in italics. If you are writing longhand, then the title should be in “double quotations.”
If you are quoting the title of a book, a magazine, a newspaper, a full-length play, an epic poem, or an album, you need to underline the title.
Both italics and underlines are also used to emphasize a particular word or phrase. It is up to you which you would prefer to use, though the professional world is leaning toward italics.
This should answer many of your questions about common grammar. If you have any problems, or if you need more information, try one of the references I’ve listed along with this article.