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Five Quick Grammar Tips to Improve Your Writing – Plus Free Cheat Sheet

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This is a guest contribution from Jim Butcher of Mr and Mrs Romance.

There’s never really such a thing as a perfect blog post, is there? There’s always something else you could have done, something more you could have added. Another, better way you could have phrased a sentence.

And then there’s grammar and punctuation. I was never taught grammar at school further than ‘a verb is a doing word. A noun is a naming word, etc’. It’s no wonder native English speakers make so many simple mistakes.

Spotting these mistakes after you’ve hit ‘publish’ or – even worse – having a reader tell you about them, isn’t a nice thing. In fact it’s downright embarrassing.

The good news is these mistakes are pretty easy to avoid.

Here are my top five grammar focus points for mastering – or at least controlling – the written word!

Apostrophes.

These little things can turn a man’s hair white with fear, but they’re not that bad once you get to know them.

They have a couple of different uses: for contractions, and to show possession.

Contractions

These are the easier ones that most of us know pretty well. If you’re cutting down a word – like we are, you can just say we’re. Easy.

However, I did see this in an application letter for a job teaching English once: learn’t. This candidate was unsuccessful in their application. By the way, you can either use learned or learnt. It’s up to you – just be consistent. Choose one and stick to it.

More commonly, people get confused between you’re and your. And they’re, their and there, and things like that. Make sure you know the difference between these:

You’re = you are: You’re a wonderful person.

Your = something that belongs to someone: I want to hold your hand.

They’re = they are: They’re wonderful people.

Their = something that belongs to them: I want to meet their friends.

There = refers to a place: I dream about walking on the Moon but I don’t think I’ll ever get there.

We can also contract years with apostrophes. For the 1960s it’s always the ‘60s never the 60’s or the 60s.

The same goes for people’s ages. You don’t need an apostrophe to say someone is in his 20s.

Possessive apostrophes

These are the ones that get people confused, but once you get the hang of them, they’re actually quite satisfying to use.

Possessive apostrophes come in two types: singular and plural, but they both do the same thing; they tell the reader who or what owns the object.

Eg: This is Brian’s turkey sub. We know this turkey sub is owned by Brian. Lucky Brian.

So, the shop’s window displays – the window displays belongs to the shop.

In these instances, the apostrophe always goes before the s. That’s because there’s only one Brian and only one shop.

The confusion comes when there is more than one owner. Where does the apostrophe go?

If there are two or more shops, then the apostrophe goes after the s: the shops’ window displays.

These rules work on time periods too. I’ll still be working on my grammar in one year’s time. But I’ll be a grammar guru in two years’ time.

Notice the apostrophe moves to after the s when you’re talking about more than one year.

Sometimes the noun is automatically plural. Women for example already talks about more than one woman. The possessive apostrophe always goes before the s with this type of word. Women’s shoes, children’s books, mice’s food – they are all already plural.

The one exception is it. The only time we use an apostrophe with it is for contractions: it is or it has. It’s a bad day or it’s been a bad day. There is no plural form of it.

If we want to say this thing belongs to it, we simply write this is its thing. No apostrophe. I’ve seen this many times: its’. This makes my head ache trying to make sense of it but there’s no way this is ever possible.

My last point on misused apostrophes is with plurals of acronyms. For example, JB Hi-Fi regularly has signs advertising Cheap CD’s. This is wrong. Cheap CDs or DVDs or even CD-ROMs is what they’re looking for… unless they’re talking about a cheap CD’s case or if a cheap CD’s good.

Every day or everyday?

One of the most common mistakes I see is the confusion between every day and everyday. And I have an internal dialogue every time. It goes like this:

I read: I eat vegetables everyday. 

I mutter like a crazy person: No. No, you don’t. You eat vegetables every day. 

Everyday comes before the noun, and is used to describe something that is commonplace. These are my everyday clothes. I save my best outfits for weddings and funerals.

Every day comes after the noun, is much more common and describes how often you do something. I wear these clothes every day. Yes, I probably should expand my wardrobe.

Everyday comes before the noun you’re describing, every day comes after.

And if you’re still not sure which you should use, try replacing every with each. It’s pretty much the same meaning (though technically each is for two or more items, every is for three or more!).

If each fits just as well as every, you should use two words: every day.

Amazingly, companies have made this mistake. Big companies. Glad’s slogan on their Glad Wrap is ‘Seals in Freshness. Everyday.’ They’ve even trademarked it! The same goes with Officeworks. ‘Lowest prices everyday’ – and they’ve had huge signs with this on.

It’s an easy mistake to make, but it shouldn’t really happen.

Using that, which, and who

We use these words all the time (they’re called relative pronouns, by the way) and they’re very handy. But there are finer points that can make your writing more readable.

We know that which and that are used to talk about things – this is an apple tree, which my grandfather planted. Or, this is the apple tree that my grandfather planted.

If you are using ‘which’, it should come after a comma. You do not need a comma if you are using ‘that’.

When do you use ‘which’? – when you are including extra information. It becomes a non-restrictive clause, because you can leave it out and the sentence will still make sense (“This is an apple tree”). “Which my grandfather planted” is interesting extra information you’re adding, but not vital to the sentence.

You will also use ‘which’ when the clause is descriptive: “an apple tree”.

When do you use ‘that’? – when your piece of information is vital to the sentence. “This is the apple tree that my grandfather planted”. The fact your grandfather planted the tree is the most important part. The clause is also now defining: “the apple tree”, not just any old apple tree.

So who and that are used to talk about people – this is my brother who/that lives in Zimbabwe.

But sometimes, we only want to use these parts of a sentence as an aside – I passed my driving test first time, which was a relief. Or My other brother, who lives in a commune, is a bit strange.

Notice the comma in these last two sentences. They separate the sections that the which and the who command. Notice also that we can’t use that in these types of sentence. It’s just a grammar rule.

How do you know whether to use a comma or not? Read the sentence aloud. If you pause when you come to the which or who, you need commas.

The commas will give your sentence a rhythm that makes it that much friendlier to read.

Commas

When you’re writing directly to someone, don’t forget the commas. Compare these two sentences:

I know Mum. = I know and am aware of this person called Mum and I’m telling someone else this information.

I know, Mum. = I agree with you, my mother. I understand what you’re saying.

While we’re on commas, let’s talk about if sentences – also known as conditional sentences.

You need to separate conditional sentences with a comma if your sentence begins with if or whether or unless or when. Conditional sentences show a cause and an effect. The comma shows where these two elements are in a sentence.

If you don’t use a comma in a conditional sentence, I will release the hounds.

Unless you use a comma here, I’ll start crying.

When I see a conditional sentence without a comma, I dream of owning a nuclear warhead.

However, if you have the if, whether, unless or when words in the middle of the sentence, you don’t need a comma:

I’m so happy when I see a correct sentence like this one.

Capitalisation

In English, we use a capital letter for proper names. Like English. Surprisingly, mum can also be a proper name. This is my mum doesn’t need a capital m. How are you today, Mum? does need a capital.

This is because – in the second sentence – Mum becomes that person’s title. It’s that person’s name now. The first sentence is talking about mums in general. Notice it says my mum.

This rule also applies for things like university. If you’re just talking about studying at university, no capitals required. If you are talking about a specific uni by name, you need a capital letter.

I went to university when I was 14… I’m not a genius I just got lost.

I went to Cambridge University – dressed as Harry Potter. Security didn’t see the funny side of it. Expecto patronum!!

It’s amazing the difference in intimation a little comma can make, isn’t it?

Most of these grammar points will be picked up by Word’s grammar check – the blue squiggly lines. Pay attention to them – they’re not always exactly right, but sometimes they are.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing and want more information on it, I can’t recommend highly enough the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss. It’s quite sardonic at times but it’s a fun way to learn about punctuation and grammar.

To make it simple for you, I’ve also created a downloadable Grammar Cheat Sheet. Get yours: Grammar Cheat Sheet for ProBlogger.net.

Do you have any handy tips for getting tricky grammar points right? Are you a grammar pedant? What mistakes make you cranky?

Jim Butcher runs the lifestyle blog Mr and Mrs Romance with his wife, Christina (of Hair Romance fame). Jim is also an author, freelance journalist and copywriter, and an avid grammar enthusiast.

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Comments

  1. Ravi Chahar says:

    Hi Stacey,

    It is always important for all bloggers to learn about their mistakes. There are many common mistakes done by bloggers. Specially beginners, they don’t concentrate at their grammatical mistakes which will look them foolish in front of readers. You’re and your, both have different approach but still people don’t focus on them. Using their in place there is also a common mistake. Actually there are many other silly mistakes at which bloggers don’t focus.

    To become a successful blogger bloggers need to learn about these mistakes and should avoid repeating them again. It is necessary for a blogger to improve writing skills.

    Thanks for the post.
    ~Ravi

  2. I have been discussing with my wife, who is learning French at university, how hard English must be to learn. This article just proves it. I’ve been using English for 40+ years and still can get these things wrong. I would have no hope of trying to explain them to someone who was trying to learn English.

    I’ll be going back over the article again. I’m sure I’ve probably made a mistake in these few sentences.

  3. I am not native in English and it is a bit tougher for me. I know these, I have study English more than 20 years, though my grammar would never be perfect. Actually, I found out that leaving the article for few hours and using speach generators, help me to make improve the quality of articles as well as grammar.

    • Hi Kaloyan. Thanks for commenting and thanks for your tips too. They’re really useful! What speech generators do you use?
      Cheers – Jim

      • Jim says:

        Perhaps I’m showing my age here, but shouldn’t the number agree, that is noun to pronoun? I struggle, obviously, with English grammar and am by no means am I an expert. In your second sentence of the second paragraph under Contractions you wrote, “This candidate was unsuccessful in their application”. I believe I was taught that “this candidate” was singular while “their” is plural and “application” returns to singular. Or is this one of those times that old-school rules have been rewritten for a more modern attempt at being non-sexist.

        Wasn’t the old rule to say “his application” or “her application”? If the sex wasn’t know I was ordered to use the masculine or get my knuckles rapped with a ruler. If I may, a pet peeve of mine is when I hear or read the incorrect usage of “I” and “me”, that is the incorrect placement of the personal pronoun in a sentence. “Me and Sarah are going to the mall”, is to me like fingernails on a blackboard. “Dad drove Sarah and I to the mall”, please shoot me now. And it’s being reinforced on television, radio and film!

  4. Jim, just a simple re-read and tuning into your tips makes all the difference in the world. Thanks for the helpful share!

  5. Janet Huey says:

    The misuse of pronouns is one of my sticklers; “me and her” is a teeth grinder! A local radio show host continues to say “Email Dale and I”
    after being corrected by several people.
    Thanks for keeping up the fight. I’m afraid the importance of good punctuation and grammar
    is going the way of the rotary dial phone.

  6. OracleMan Consulting says:

    I read an article on LinkedIn from a person who said he was ‘one of the most famous HR experts in the world’ (no kidding). The author then went on to give advice and comment on how things are in now in business and HR. It was a hard read, and it felt odd, then I noticed – there are all these ‘twitter’ type words in the article. We see them so often now, we do not “see them” any more. The “almost-words”, Facebook-like-adverbs, etc. So I took the time to find and copy 5 of these in my reply and said, basically “my own counsel will I take because this HR expert cannot even write a grammatically correct article”. Later, as I prepared for the under 40 crowd to give me grief, I found instead, it was mostly positive comments. So, there is hope. But everyone (myself included) needs to know, your prose is being read and criticized by ‘the net’ so re-read twice, then hit [POST COMMENT] once.

  7. As a former English major and a former web editor, grammar and punctuation errors really bother me. I’m always amazed at how many people just don’t know the basics. For some unknown reason, apostrophe errors really get to me. I don’t get too hung up on the that/which/who distinction, but everything you’ve pointed out here is really valuable.

    I always recommend Grammar Girl (http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl). She’s a great writer, and provides a lot of grammar and usage advice that people need to know. The Most Popular Tips section on her homepage is really good, too.

    Thanks for writing up an article like this—there are thousands of people who really need to hear it!

  8. Miguel says:

    Hello,
    I am learning Blogging and English. I am native Spanish so this kind of post are wonderful to me. I admit that I am a little surprise to see this post because I thought that native English generaly write properly.
    In Spanish blogs are not usually make many grammar mistakes. Only latinamericans have a lot of problems with Z and S. But we usually make a lot of mistakes with commas and Capitalisation too.

    Sorry for my English, I am studying.

  9. Jeff Maatman says:

    Great article. I get to be a stickler on punctuation, also.

    I had to reread the second sentence of the third paragraph under “Capitalism” a couple of times. I would have put an apostrophe in the word “capitals” so the the sentence read “If you’re just talking about studying at university, no capital is required.”

    I also didn’t understand why the sentence “It’s amazing the difference in intimation a little comma can make, isn’t it?” popped up in the middle of the discussion about “Capitalism”. (Is the last period in the correct place?)

    Thanks for the grammar lesson.

  10. Jeff Maatman says:

    Maybe I should have really paid attention and referred to the section as “Capitalisation” instead of “Capitalism”. Totally different discussions.

    • SM says:

      Thanks for Grammar tips! Please correct spelling of Capitalization (not Capitalisation…).

      We can always learn. Having someone to help edit and spell check-also helpful… :)

  11. Charles Tassell says:

    Very helpful, thanks.
    Btw, in your Cheat Sheet you’ve got a Brain instead of a Brian :-)

  12. Karan Rawat says:

    Hello,
    How are you today, Stacy? You’re a wonderful person. It’s really a good day. I read your posts every day. I agree with your views, Stacy Roberts. I understand what you’re saying.
    Thanks
    Karan

  13. Barry says:

    I appreciate the refresher. My problem is often with “,” and “;”. Right now, I am addressing my problem with proofreading. Would a Firefox extension like Google’s Im Translator help in this department? It does have a Text to Speech function and it helped spot a missing word.

    I am no copy editor and I am trying to build a strategy for better proofreading my blog posts before I publish. I’m already looking into PaperRater and use JetPack with WordPress 3.9. Any ideas?

  14. Great tips, Jim. Your examples are hilarious. One of the most common mistakes I come across online (maybe it’s just a pet peeve of mine) is the comma splice. People can’t seem to get that one straight!

  15. Michelle says:

    Hi Jim

    I always wait for such helpful guides from problogger and this one ranks with the best. Thank you for such an wonderful post by you.

    Michelle

  16. Simon says:

    Very interesting article. I am a non-native English writing in English and as I try to improve every single day I’m often surprised when I read the mentioned grammar mistakes by people from the UK, the USA, Canada or Australia. Oddly enough, possibly because I strive to write in the best possible style, I rarely do this kind of mistakes (certainly others, though), because they are the basics of English learning at school, something teachers made me exercise on over and over again.

  17. anna maria says:

    Thanks a lot for the helpful advice, I made ​​a website, I have a lot of grammatical mistakes,You will help me to correct them. greetings

  18. Jordyn says:

    Question:

    It is written in the possessive apostrophes section of the article, “…the shop’s window displays – the window displays belongs to the shop.”

    I naturally want to think that the world “belongs” should actually be “belong” because the displays are displays (plural) not just one display. So I was thinking it should be either one of these two:

    “the shop’s window display – the window display belongs to the shop.”

    or

    “the shop’s window displays – the window displays belong to the shop.”

    I don’t know if either of those are correct but would appreciate if any person could shed some like on the matter. Thanks!

  19. Adam says:

    Thanks for the lesson. Very useful.

    As a not native English speaker (or writer) it is sometimes difficult to understand why the use of contractions.

    They do not make it the easier to write a text, and they do not make it easier to understand the text, specially for people that use English as a second language. I do not use them to avoid mistakes, and to make my text easier to understand to not native English readers, which are the most people on the Internet.

    Greetings,
    A.

  20. Peter Carter says:

    This is great! I LOVE good grammar and punctuation. One thing that always baffles me is why entrepreneurs pronounce ‘niches’ as ‘nitches’ – LOL! AdmittedlyI still do get some things wrongs. In to and into and who’s/whose.

    The cheat sheet is great! Did you just think of all the common ones that came to mind?

    Cheers,
    Peter

  21. Jany says:

    Hello
    As I am not a native English speaker or writer, so it is really hard for me to avoid mistakes.Some times they might happens and I doesn’t know about them. Nice post for all bloggers like us.

  22. Francesco says:

    Thanks, I find the difference between “that” and “which” to be useful