Grammar has regrettably but understandably fallen by the wayside for a generation of Web 2.0 students. Casual web repartee in posts, tumbles and tweets has encouraged sloppy style and poor grammar among the younger set. Phrases and words that feel right are often wrong, according to the old school grammar practiced by teachers and prospective employers. Use this guide as a launching point to refresh your grammar with a brief, but focused, session.
Inconsistent or Improper Verb Tense
A verb’s tense refers to time, whether something happened in the past, present or future. For example:
Past: Ben fought with Mike.
Present: Ben fights with Mike.
Future: Ben will fight with Mike.
Typically, the verb tense within a sentence should be consistent – either all past, present or future. For example:
Ben fought with Mike, and then he fought with Jim.
There are exceptions, such as when referring to universal truths. For example:
Lao-Tse said life is sweet.
There are three simple rules of thumb for tenses that, if followed, should keep you out of trouble:
1. For ongoing events, use present tense.
2. For events that are completed, use past tense.
3. If at all possible, avoid changing tenses in mid-sentence.
The verb must agree with its subject’s person and number. Recall that “person” in grammar is either first (I), second (you) or third (she), and the number is either singular (I, you, he) or plural (we, you, they).
Typically, add an “s” to present tense verbs when the subject is third-person singular, and remove it otherwise. For example:
I sing badly. (1st person singular)
You sing badly. (2nd person singular)
He sings badly. (3rd person singular)
We sing badly. (1st person plural)
You sing badly. (2nd person plural)
They sing badly. (3rd person plural)
Many of today’s students have forgotten common capitalization rules:
1. Do not capitalize seasons, including financial and academic. For example:
Our first-quarter earnings were down.
I typically do better fall semester.
I love sleeping late in the summer.
2. Do capitalize family designations when they substitute for a proper noun, but not when they come after a possessive. For example:
We’re so sorry, Uncle Albert.
Mother, should I build the wall?
My grandma, she’s 92. She loves to sing, and dance some, too.
3. Do not capitalize a compass direction unless it refers to a specific place. For example:
The Midwest farmers’ daughters really make you feel all right.
Go west, young man!
4. Do capitalize races, languages and nationalities. For example:
I studied the French language.
Did you know Mike Myers is Canadian?
Margaret Cho is of Asian ancestry.
Latino is not a race; it is an ethnic classification.
5. Do capitalize course titles, but not fields of study. For example:
Although he took World History 306, he was not very good at history, generally.
Commas, semi-colons and apostrophes are dangerous mistresses that will stab you in the back if given the chance. Don’t let them by remembering these simple rules:
1. If you’re using commas to separate two sentences, you will also need to use a conjunction like “and” or “but.” For example:
Correct: Jeff made a pizza, and he shared it with Jack.
Incorrect: Jeff made a pizza, he shared it with Jack.
2. If you have an introductory phrase, place a comma before the rest of the sentence. Another example:
Before he left the house, Felipe put on a clean shirt.
3. Semicolons separate two distinct sentences and should not be used like commas. For example:
Correct: Jack is playing quietly; he is drawing in his journal.
Correct: Jack is playing quietly, but I am sure he will become hyper soon.
Incorrect: Jack is playing quietly; but I am sure he will become hyper soon.
There are three common mistakes students make with apostrophes. Follow these rules, and you should avoid them:
1. Be wary of homophones (words that sound alike but are spelled differently) of contractions and possessives. Remember that you’re means “you are,” and your is the possessive, just as it’s means “it is” and its is the possessive.
2. Do not use apostrophes to make something plural. Simply add an “s.” For example:
ABCs not ABC’s
123s not 123’s
3. Add an apostrophe and “s” to singular nouns to make them possessive, unless they end in “s,” in which case the apostrophe goes after the “s.” For example:
Correct: That tree’s leaves are red.
Correct: The bus’ tire exploded.
Incorrect: The fans’s rally was rained out.
Best Online Grammar Guides
Dr. Charles Darling’s Guide to Grammar & Writing provides lessons from basic grammar to writing research papers. Addressing everything from run-on sentences to APA style, Dr. Darling’s site is a great resource, particularly for intermediate writers.
Purdue Online Writing Lab is a free resource offering a variety of writing assistance. The lab provides a grammar guide, advice for writing specific assignments like creative or technical writing, and tips for resumes and cover letters. There are even online tutors available who will answer short writing-related questions.
The University of Illinois’ Center for Writing Studies provides a free online comprehensive grammar guide. Organized by subjects such as parts of speech and sentence elements, this easy-to-use resource is an excellent reference for refreshing grammar skills.
In putting the unique qualities of texts, posts, tweets and emails to best use, young writers have created a new online language. While appropriate when it comes to communicating with friends, this new language should not be used with teachers and prospective employers. Savvy students must maintain their proper grammar skills so they can write formally when the occasion demands it.