Related FAQs -- 11 Rules of Writing

  • 1. I have always had difficulties with proper English grammar and have decided that it is time to rectify this situation. How should I start?

    Since you've found this site, you've already started. This site may not be the ideal place to begin though; if it seems somewhat too advanced and/or limited, then I would suggest using a writing textbook or workbook. This option will only work for students with a high level of self-motivation (if you are not this type of student, skip to the next paragraph). My favorite book is Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition. This is a very thorough book and includes short exercises. If you tried going through a section or two every week, I’m sure you would start to feel more comfortable with grammar in no time. If you feel relatively comfortable with the subject covered in this website, then try Strunk’s Elements of Style. It is more advanced than Warriner's book and less like a textbook, but it does a great job showing the difference between good and great writing. Even better, head over to a Borders or a Barnes and Noble (go to the actual store, not the website) and spend 20 minutes looking through their writing section. You should easily be able to find a workbook that suits your needs. You might also check out some ESL (English as a second language) books, because they will go in depth into typical problem subjects including tenses and irregularities.

    If you are really intimidated by learning grammar or know that you are not disciplined and self-motivated enough to work from a book, then consider taking a basic class at a local school, or, if you'd like to go at it in private, contact a private tutor.

    You can support this site by purchasing the books above by clicking these links:

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  • 2. When indicating possession, should an apostrophe come before or after the "s"?

    This rule varies a bit. Any possessive singular noun takes “ ’s ”, even if the noun ends in “s”. (ex. Carlos's, Louis’s) Any possessive plural nouns takes " s' " (ex. the various activists' suggestions). However, Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition adds that singular words of more than one syllable that end in “s” are sometimes given just an apostrophe (not " 's ") to avoid too many “s” sounds.

    An exception to this rule is the possessive form of "it", which takes only an "s" with no apostrophe. See below for more info.

    Here's a difficult side-issue: What about a name like "Louis"? This name may be pronounced “Loo-is” or “Loo-ie”. In the first case, I’d go with Louis’s, and in the second I’d go with Louis’. The apostrophe rule is not as unambiguous as we might like in this case, but I doubt that either approach would lead a reader into confusion.

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  • 3. How many spaces go after a period?

    The current opinion is that one space should be typed after any punctuation. Many of us learned in typing class that two spaces should be typed after a period. This convention was used because of nature of the fixed font of typewriters. Computers, however, usually use proportional fonts and justification, which create the proper white space between sentences automatically when one space is typed.
    For more information, visit the following pages:
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  • 4. What are the proper uses of "its" and "it's" ?

    "it's" is a contraction meaning "it is". (i.e. It's so hard to understand this!)
    "its" is the possessive form of "it". (i.e. The dog ate its food.)
    These rules are often confused, even though they are clear and consistent.
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  • 5. What are the proper uses of "your" and "you're" ?

    "your" is the possessive form of "you". (i.e. Your hair looks great!)
    "you're" is a contraction meaning "you are". (i.e. You're looking beautiful tonight.)
    Just like "its" and "it's" above, these rules are often confused, even though they are clear and consistent.
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  • 6. If punctuation marks always go inside quotation marks, then why is the period outside the quotation marks in Rule 5?

    The period is placed outside the quotation marks in that sentence because I did not want to imply that possession is indicated by an apostrophe followed by an "s" and then a period (i.e. "John's. books"). I think that my intentional disregard of the standard practice of including punctuation within quotations helps to avoid confusion in this case, without adding any ambiguity or awkwardness. In fact, I've always thought that the standard practice in this case can lead to confusion in many, many sentences, especially in direct quotes taken from the middle of a sentence. Putting a period within the quotation marks just because a "rule" tells us to can in certain situations imply that the original author of the sentence had a period in that spot too. I think that EVERYTHING (except ellipses) within a direct quotation should be identical to original author's text. That said, ALL grammarians that I have encountered have supported the rule that ALL PUNCTUATION GOES INSIDE QUOTATION MARKS. It's one of those rules where there seems to be practically no ambiguity and no exception, and therefore I might be doing us all a disservice in questioning it at all. Oh well. I intentionally violate the rule in feeble protest, but would not encourage my students to do so (unless they were also knowingly involving myself in my little rebellion), nor would I violate the rule if submitting a document for professional purposes where my rebellion would not be seen as thought provoking, but simply as just plain wrong.
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  • 7. What is the difference between "that" and "which"?

    "That" precedes only restrictive phrases, while "which" usually precedes nonrestrictive phrases (see Rule 2 and Rule 3).
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  • 8. Do I need a comma before the "and" (the conjunction) in a list of items?

    Commas should be used to separate items in a list. A comma should be placed after each item in the list except the final item, which follows the conjunction (i.e. the item that comes after the "and" or "or"). Therefore, a comma should go between the second to last item and the conjunction (i.e. "and" or "or").

    example 1: My favorite types of sandwiches are peanut butter and jelly, cream cheese, roast beef, and turkey club.

    However, some writers find it acceptable to omit the comma before the conjunction.

    example 2: My favorite types of sandwiches are peanut butter and jelly, cream cheese, roast beef and turkey club.

    Therefore, both examples can be considered acceptable. Many teachers and grammar guides instruct that the inclusion of the second comma is optional. However, in the interest of consistency, it seems logical to make a habit of including that final comma in all cases. This approach is efficient in that the INCLUSION of the final comma will never increase ambiguity in a sentence, while the EXCLUSION of the comma sometimes will. Likewise, the EXCLUSION of the comma will never increase the effectiveness of a sentence, while INCLUSION often will.

    For example, the second example above might seem somewhat awkward because the omission of the comma might suggest that the club sandwich contains both roast beef and turkey. Here's an even better example:

    example 3: My favorite types of sandwiches are roast beef, turkey club, peanut butter and jelly and cream cheese.

    Does this writer enjoy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cream cheese sandwiches, or is it peanut butter sandwiches and jelly and cream cheese sandwiches that cause the writer to salivate? Adhering to the practice of including that final comma would clarify the issue completely. I have not yet seen an example where INCLUSION of the final comma would create confusion (so feel free to submit one).

    This issue generates many questions, so the practice of including the comma should be promoted. I would discourage the notion that the final comma is optional.
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  • 9. When should a number be written out, and when should a numeral be used?

    Generally, numbers should be written as numerals (i.e. 8, 45, 1001), especially in writing where numbers frequently occur. Exceptions do occur; numbers spelled as one or two words and numbers at the beginning of a sentence may be spelled out. In addition, numbers like "second" and "tenth" should be spelled out. Be consistent within a passage, and for more detailed information consult a grammar guide.
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  • 10. I remember being taught that the article "a" is placed before a consonant and "an" before a vowel in the following noun. This does not always sound right - for example "an University". What should I do when an article does not sound right?

    A better guideline is to put "a" before a consonant sound and "an" before a vowel sound. This practice exists because it is difficult to say two vowel sounds in a row: try "a eyeball" or "a altimeter". The "n" sound in "an" allows the mouth to move to the next sound more fluidly. The letter "u" can be pronounced in several ways, including "uh" and "you". The first pronunciation is a vowel sound and takes "an" ("an uncle"). The second is a consonant sound and takes "a" ("a university", "a ukelele"). As with many issues in writing and grammar, let your ear be your guide.
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  • 11. How does one know when to use "good" and "well" in a sentence? I know to use "good" as an adjective (i.e. "I am having a good day"). Also, I know to use "well" as an adverb (i.e. "She paints well"). What are some other rules or circumstances when deciding to use "good" and "well"?

    According to Warriner's English Grammar and Composition, "good" is always used as an adjective, so it can only be used to modify a noun. "Well" is used as an adverb meaning "capably". Additionally, "well" may be used as an adjective meaning "in good health", "well-groomed", "well-dressed", or "satisfactory". In practice, the decision of which word to use can be difficult because a linking verb can cause the subject complement that follows it to look like an adverb although the subject complement actually modifies the subject, not the verb. For example, in "She feels well", the word "well" is a subject complement (or adjective) modifying "she", not an adverb modifying "feels". Thus, we can use "good" in the place of "well", though with a slightly different meaning. To simplify this, use "well" only when you mean "capably" or when you specifically mean one of the four adjectives listed above. Otherwise use "good". Good luck.
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  • 12. What is the best way to take book and class notes?

    My primary advice is that, no matter how hard it may seem, you just keep taking notes during lectures and reading. By urging yourself to practice note-taking at all times, your skills will develop naturally and will become habit. I am not formally a student anymore, but often when I sit down to read or watch something educational on TV, I have the urge to grab my notebook and start jotting down the information that interests me. You should start by bringing a notebook to every class. Practice following the lecture closely (usually the most difficult part of taking notes). A good first step is to jot down any definitions that the instructor gives. Also practice trying to summarize the main idea of the lecture and jot that down at the top of the page. Don't just copy down whatever the instuctor writes on the board or the overhead projector - this is not really note-taking - although if you find that's all you do for a while, be satisfied that at least you're writing. Feel free to use a lot of paper, to draw arrows, to record your feelings about the lecture, and especially to draw stars or question marks by things that you really agree with or don't understand. When you draw a question mark, raise your hand and ask the question if it is appropriate. Always take notes while reading. I consider any reading done without a pen or pencil in hand to be wasted time. Highlighters are also a waste of time. As you read, make an outline of the author's main points and the ideas that strike you as the most interesting. This will force you to follow the progress of the discussion and will make the reading much more interesting. By the end of the essay or chapter, you should have a summary of the whole reading. In theory and hopefully in practice, you should be able to study for an exam entirely from your notes, without having to pick up the text at all. If you know that you will have a paper or essay assignment that deals with the text, write down quotations that you find interesting (word for word, in quotations, with a page number) so that you can throw the quote directly into your paper. Those are some basics. You'll be stumbling around in the dark for a semester or two, but after a couple of papers and exams, take some time to reflect upon how you used your notes to study. If you didn't use them at all, go get some help from a tutor or teacher. If you used some notes but not others, then think about altering your note-taking style to cut out the useless notetaking. In some of my less interactive classes, I found that I didn't need to take class notes at all and could just take book notes (which I did diligently for every chapter - several hours for each chapter, but VERY effective). In other classes, I needed to write as fast as I could for 90 minutes as the instructor rattled off facts and diagrams (the 90 minutes would fly by, but my hand would actually hurt). I only used the text to review and reinforce his ideas and did not take book notes. You often won't know what method to use until after the first exam. The bottom line is to get into the habit of taking notes ALL THE TIME. At first it might seem tough and somewhat wasteful, but if you keep at it, you will see your grades go up and will find the material less boring. You will also get faster and faster at taking notes. Finally, keep looking on the internet for other note-taking suggestions. Many university websites have essays on the topic.
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  • 13. Which is the proper verb (singular/plural) to use when the noun is a fraction -- i.e., two-thirds of the audience has left or have left?

    According to Warriner's English Grammar and Composition: "Expressions stating amount (time, money, measurement, weight, volume, fractions) are usually singular when the amount is considered as a unit... however, when the amount is considered as a number as separate units, a plural verb is used." So, in your example, the singular should be used.
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  • 14. When the Brown family sends a greeting card, I was taught they should sign it "The Browns" and not "The Brown's" as it would imply that it came from some possession of the Browns. What's with this rule?

    That is correct, although to avoid this problem completely, they could use "The Brown Family". An apostrophe always shows possession, except in the case of a contraction like "it's" (meaning "it is") and when making the plural of a letter or numeral ("three 8's" or "two L's").
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  • 15. Can you begin a sentence with "and"?

    I'm currently looking for a good (read "reputably published") answer to this question - feel free to send suggestions or references. My answer is an unequivocal "yes," although it seems that most of us were taught that a sentence should never begin with a conjunction. My theory is that many teachers want their aspiring writers to avoid the all too common tendency to write in fragments, and they know that "and" at the beginning of a sentence is usually a harbinger of an incomplete sentence. When used purposefully and appropriately, starting a sentence with a conjunction can be a powerful rhetorical or stylistic tool. But only an experienced writer should attempt such a feat.
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  • 16. When should one use "I" versus "me"?

    This issue causes a great deal of confusion, but the answer is rather simple. "I" is a subject pronoun, while "me" is an object pronoun. Remember that a subject is the noun/pronoun that performs the action of the verb to which it is linked, while an object is a noun/pronoun that receives the action of the subject-verb pair.

    I threw the ball to you.
    You threw the ball to me.

    A common mistake is to use these pronouns incorrectly when creating a compound subject or object such as "you and I" or "Tom and me".

    Correct examples:
    Tom and I went to see the movie.
    You should come with Tom and me.

    It seems to me that we all remember being corrected when as children we improperly made statements such as "Grandpa and me went to the park yesterday." "Grandpa and I," we are told by our parents and teachers (who thought it futile to tell us that we must use the SUBJECT pronoun in this case). Eventually we self-consciously remember that the proper way to speak is "grandpa and I", "you and I", "Tom and I". Then, as educated speakers, we proudly and unconsciously make the mistake of saying "You should come out to dinner with Tom and I." Sorry, smartypants - the proper statement here is "Tom and me" because the OBJECT pronoun needs to be used in this case. It's frustrating, but that's the way it is. A simple way to determine which pronoun to use in such cases is to eliminate the other person and the "and". Think to yourself: which is correct, "I/me went to the park"? and "You should come out to dinner with I/me"?

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