Overcoming Grammatical Errors and Punctuation Problems

All the fine organization and careful thinking in the world cannot overshadow poor grammar or confusing punctuation. Poor grammar will undermine your credibility as a writer more swiftly than any other single problem. Punctuation that misleads the reader can actually interfere with communication. Both can be caught and corrected through the all?important process of revision.

I. Below are sentences that represent some of the more common grammatical problems. Not all of them are wrong. Identify those which are wrong, and explain why.
1._____ A defense attorney has the responsibility of deciding whether or not his client should take the witness stand.
2. _____ I want to drum some statistics into your heads which are concrete.
3. _____ Because Biff now loved Susie better than Alice, he made her return her souvenir faceguard.
4. _____ The peanut jars were empty, but Bobo was tired of nibbling them anyway.
5. _____ Making children more responsive with severe handicaps takes exceptional patience.
6. _____ Hull House was the center of Jane Addams's work which she founded in 1889 in Chicago.
7. _____ Running down the window pane, the raindrops looked sad.
8. _____ Running down the window pane, I saw the sad drizzle.
9. _____ Stanley writes leaflets, makes underground broadcasts, tape recordings and paints warnings on police station walls.
10. _____ Melody was both habitually late to work and a sound sleeper on the job.
11._____ Fido's whole ambition in life was to eat, to play, and to sleep.
12._____ Only one of the thousands of hairs on his head is grey.
13. _____

Baseball, along with all other sports, strike Priscilla as utterly meaningless.

14. _____ Tom or Jean need to speak with you today.
15. _____ Each of them are equally certain of being right.


The Answers and The Rules



RULE: Pronouns and antecedents must agree in form: in person (first, second, third person), number (singular or plural), and gender (male or female).

RULE: A pronoun must refer to a specific antecedent.

2. __I__
3. __I__
4. __I__
5. __I__

RULE: Modifying words, phrases, or clauses should usually be placed next to or very close to words they modify.

RULE: A modifying phrase must clearly qualify the meaning of a particular word in the sentence.

6. __I__
8. __I__
9. __I__

RULE: Sentence elements in a series should take the same grammatical form.

10. __I__
Numbers 12-15 involve SUBJECT-VERB AGREEMENT.

RULE: A verb must agree in number with its subject.

EachEither, and Neither are considered singular subjects.

If you are using OrEither . . . OrNeither . . . nor make the verb
agree with the subject nearest to the verb.

13. __I__
14. __I__
15. __I__


II. Improving Punctuation

Why do we need punctuation? Are commas and colons required only to give new writers a hard time? Punctuation allows us to clarify the meaning of words when voice or "body language" cues are removed. Punctuation tells the reader how to make sense of words alone. Poorly or wrongly used punctuation contributes to awkward writing and reader confusion.

For example, how would you speak these words:

I'm sorry I still love you

Notice the difference punctuation makes:

I'm sorry. I still love you.

I'm sorry I still love you!

When we speak, we emphasize certain words to make our meaning clear. When we write, however, we confuse the reader if we don't punctuate well.

A. END PUNCTUATION (Period, question mark, exclamation points, and ellipsis)

Periods (.): Ordinary sentences end with periods.

Question Marks (?): Don't forget to use a question mark when your sentence asks a question. Do you understand?

Exclamation Points (!): Reserve exclamation points for direct orders and commands, and for genuine exclamations. Use only one at a time!


(Comma, Semicolon, Colon, and Dash)

When we start joining sentences--or parts of sentences--together, we need punctuation to insure smooth splicing.


Betty loves bologna. + Bob won't eat meat.

Betty loves bologna, but Bob won't eat any meat.

1. The COMMA as a sentence joiner. A comma can join two simple sentences ONLY WHEN IT IS ACCOMPANIED BY A SIMPLE CONJUNCTION. These are joining words, such as:

or but yet nor

Example: Either you get this right, or you'll be bathing in red ink all semester.

--COMMA SPLICE: one kind of run-on sentence.

If you SPLICE two sentences together with a comma and no conjunction, you've created a COMMA SPLICE.

COMMA SPLICE: We all go to violent movies now and then, not everyone tries to shoot the President.

COMMA SPLICE: Betsy likes roast beef, Bob won't eat any meat.

COMMA SPLICES ARE EASY TO AVOID: simply put a CONJUNCTION after the comma, or else use a SEMICOLON without a conjunction ?? see below for a discussion of the semicolon.


Betsy loves salami, but Bob eats only lettuce and rice.

Betsy loves salami; Bob eats only lettuce and rice.

2. The SEMICOLON alone (that is, without the help of a conjunction) can join two simple sentences into a compound sentence.

Example: One of my teachers must come to class hungry; most of his examples seem to involve food.

[Notice that each half of this sentence could stand on its own as an independent sentence. The SEMICOLON simply joins the two independent sentences together.]

--CONJUNCTIVE ADVERBS: Some words often follow semicolons when they join sentences together.

Some examples: 
in fact
for example

Don't confuse these with simple conjunctions, which are used with commas.



He receives the Star every morning, however, he uses it only in his hamster's cage.

He receives the Star every morning; however, he uses it only in his hamster's cage.

3. Any SERIES can be joined together with COMMAS to form a sentence or part of a sentence.

Example: He likes to run. He likes to jump. He likes to pretend he's Superman.

SERIES: He likes to run, he likes to jump, and he likes to pretend he's Superman.

SERIES: He likes to run, jump, and pretend he's Superman.

Notice that in the first series example, simple sentences are joined with commas. The series rule overrides the joining rule.

4. A LIST or ADDED INFORMATION can be joined into a sentence with a COLON or a DASH. The colon is more formal.


He ate his usual dinner: hot dogs, creamed corn, pancakes, and melted marshmallows.

Dear Jane Doe: (Opening a formal letter)

He was that kind of guy--good-looking and fine.

[By the way, when typing a dash, hit the hyphen key twice.]

Both the COLON and the DASH depart from the original stem of the sentence, but a second dash permits you to return to the original flow.

He was that kind of guy--good-looking and fine--but inside he was eaten up with insecurity.

DON'T USE COLONS where they don't belong:

--After TO BE verbs like IS or ARE

Bad: His problems were: poverty, hunger, and disease.

(The IS or ARE itself provides all the introduction you need.)

--After prepositions:

Bad: He is a follower of : Marx, Lenin, and Jefferson.

--After words which require no pause:

Bad: I like: bananas. .

FINALLY: Don't confuse COLONS and SEMICOLONS. COLONS indicate that you should PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT FOLLOWS. SEMICOLONS usually act more like PERIODS; they STOP whatever thought is in progress.


A simple sentence can be extended by introductory and concluding phrases and clauses. Usually if the introductory phrase is long or if an introductory clause is used, a comma is needed. The comma helps the reader find the beginning of the core sentence.

1. Simple sentence: We danced the night away.
2. With introductory clause added:

Because there was a strike at the bowling alley, WE DANCED THE NIGHT AWAY until we had no energy to spare.

Notice that concluding clauses normally aren't separated from the sentence with a comma.


1. Punctuation around quotation marks.

a. PERIODS AND COMMAS always go INSIDE the final quotation, whether or not they are part of the quoted segment.

The Dixie Hummingbirds sing "Another Day." 
"Wah, wah, wah," he sang.

b. COLONS AND SEMICOLONS go OUTSIDE quotation marks.

"A man, a plan, a canal": palindromes are fun.

"Madam, I'm Adam": actually, he was australopithicous.

c. The placement of other punctuation depends on whether the punctuation mark is part of the quoted passage.

I heard him say, "Do you love me?"

Did he sing, "Norwegian Wood"?

NOTE: When a quoted passage ends with a question mark ( . . .?") the whole sentence does not take an additional period, even if it is a statement.


Bad: He asked, "Are you happy?". .

Good: He asked, "Are you happy?"

2. Don't forget the apostrophe for possessives and contractions.


Don't forget to bring your friend's book.

III. Miscellaneous Matters

Students frequently misuse these words. In their own small way, however, these individual words also contribute to awkward writing and can confuse the reader.

Tricky Words

x "alot" a lot (2 separate words)
x "eventhough" even though (2 separate words)
affect The failing grade didn't affect me in the least. (Usually a verb)
effect The effect of too many automobiles is pollution. (Usually a noun)
accept I accept your proposal. (agree to)
except The movie was terrific, except for the ending. (excluding)
already The dog already ate the Kitten Chow.
all ready The dogs were all ready to go into the show ring.
its The cat was returned to its owner. (possessive)
it's It's a shame you don't love grammar reviews. (contraction of it is)
their The dog scraped their Porsche. (possessive)
there There isn't any question (expletive)
It's over there by the door. (indication of location)

They're getting rid of the Porsche, not dear Rex. (contraction of they are)

to I'll have to return it to Sears (an infinitive or a preposition)

It's too late to study. (intensifier)


Who's in the movie? (contraction of who is)


Whose turtle is this, anyway? (possessive)

passed We must have passed their house. (past participle of "to pass")
past This bill is past due.
I often think of the past.