Grammar Guide

Grammar Guide

Nothing can cause you to lose credibility faster, or make you look sillier than having your writing riddled with all kinds of grammatical errors. I mean, if you don't know enough to spell something properly, why should anyone trust a word you're saying? There are some commonly made mistakes created by essay writing experts that are easy for most to spot, and some other not so easily spotted mistakes that'll just make you look like a linguistic genius when you get them right.

Their/There/They're

One of the most commonly seen errors is the misuse of they're, their and there. Yes, they all sound the same, and yes, they'll all come up correct on a spell checker. But, context is everything. Use the wrong one, and you've changed what you're trying to say entirely – it likely doesn't even make sense anymore. Look at all three in action here: They're looking for their car that was parked over there.

Keep it simple by remembering:

Grammar Guide Their/There/They're

You're/Your

Talk about confusing – substitute the wrong one, and you're changing the meaning of your entire sentence. In most cases, what you're saying will be very confusing, if it makes sense at all. You're house makes absolutely no sense – unless, of course, you're talking to someone named 'house' or perhaps talking directly to a house? It's actually pretty easy to keep straight:

Grammar Guide You're/Your

It's/Its

Following the same rules above, remember that the apostrophe in it's means it's a contraction – either of it is or it has. But, its is a possessive pronoun. If you're still confused on where to use each, just say your sentence out loud with 'it is' in place and see if it makes sense. Did the dog catch it's ball or its ball? Throw 'it is' in place, and you'll quickly see that the dog did not catch it is ball!

Grammar Guide It's/Its

Don't let your participles dangle

It just doesn't sound right, sometimes when you read a sentence – like the one you just read. If you've ordered your sentence in a confusing way, it may take a few re-reads for your readers to piece together what you're trying to say. But, if we rearrange what we're saying, and instead say, "Sometimes when you read a sentence, it just doesn't sound right," it's much easier to understand. Same words, different order, big difference. Using the wrong order could also send mixed messages about what you're saying. Look at the difference between these sentences:

Grammar Guide Don't let your participles dangle

In the first example, it seems as though Julie watched the syrup as she, herself, oozed across the floor. In the second sentence, it's clear that it was the syrup doing the oozing, while Julie watched.

Try not to be so literal

If you're writing something that you'll want taken seriously, use caution with your use of the word 'literal.' Remember that literally means exactly what you're saying is true – so, even though when you crawl out of bed in the morning, you think you're literally going to die if you don't get coffee immediately, chances are you'll be just fine. Most people don't literally walk on eggshells around their babies, or literally run around in circles at their new job.

Apostrophes can be tricky little things

One of the trickiest things for many to figure out is when and where to use that teeny tiny little punctuation mark that can entirely make or break the meaning of your sentence. There are a few simple rules for apostrophe use that'll make it easier to know if you've got it right.

  1. 1. To indicate possessive nouns = Mike's car is blue.
  2. 2. To replace missing letters in a contraction = It's going to be sunny today.
  3. 3. In special cases, to indicate plural possessive nouns:
    • a. For single lowercase letters – Jeffrey spells his name with two f's.
    • b. For abbreviations that have interior periods – Mary worked hard to earn her two M.A.'s.
    • c. For abbreviations that combine upper and lowercase letters – Jason completed two PhD's.

Acronyms are great, but let us know what they mean first

If you're going to be referring to something in your writing frequently that's got a lengthy name or that can be shortened to an acronym, that's great. But, before you go ahead and start using a potentially confusing cluster of random letters, you'll need to let your readers know what that cluster refers to. When you don't want to type out Los Angeles Police Department each time you make reference to it, just follow it with the acronym the first time you use it, then you'll be able to substitute it in its place going forward.

Grammar Guide Acronyms

Don't be a passive speaker – take action

When writing, you'll always want the subject of the sentence to be the one carrying out the action, rather than being the subject the action is happening to. One of the easiest ways to figure out if you're speaking in a passive or active voice is to add 'by gremlins' to the end of your sentence. If you can do it, then you've got a passive sentence. Check it out:

Grammar Guide Passive/Active

Capital offenses

Knowing when to use a capital letter may not make or break the overall meaning of your sentence, but it will show that you've got a good grasp on the rules of grammar, giving you a little added credibility.

Always use capitals to:

  1. 1. Capitalize proper nouns: When they're directly referred to, proper nouns should be capitalized. If they're indirectly being referred to, no capital is needed. The Toronto District School Board hired 500 new teachers. Bob has been working with the school board for 12 years.
  2. 2. Formal titles and family names: If the title is listed before the name, it gets a capital, simple as that. Listed before: They welcomed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the stage. Listed after: Justin Trudeau is the prime minister of Canada.
  3. 3. Capitalize if you're referring to a geographic area, but not when using cardinal directions. Geographic area: She traveled to the Far East last year. Cardinal: If you drive east of here, you'll reach your destination.
  4. 4. Days, months and holidays get a capital, but seasons don't. The coldest month of winter is February.
  5. 5. If you're adding a quote to your writing, the first letter of the quote gets a capital. Margaret said, "When it starts raining, we'll go inside."
  6. 6. Abbreviations and acronyms based on proper nouns get capitals – basically, if you'd capitalize it when you write it out in full, it still gets capitals when abbreviated. The FBI was looking for the fugitive.

The English language can be a confusing beast to conquer. And, sometimes, the more you learn, the more you realize how much you still don't understand. Getting a better grasp of the rules of grammar can elevate your writing to a whole new level and give you added credibility. After all, if you can't properly understand the language you're writing in, how can anyone trust that you understand what you're writing about? 

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