Grammar and Punctuation
Upon completing this chapter, you should be able to
- rewrite grammatically incorrect sentences to clarify the meaning of messages,
- explain different ways that grammar might influence the meaning or reception of written workplace communications,
- demonstrate when to use different but appropriate punctuation marks in writing,
- explain the impact of using incorrect punctuation in workplace communication,
- rewrite sentences correcting punctuation errors, and
- apply proper punctuation to communicate the true meaning of messages.
To ensure you are able to craft your messages clearly and correctly, you have the option of refreshing and practising your grammar and punctuation.
If you are already a grammar guru (or, if you have become one since using the optional grammar package), you can immediately dive into the next chapter to learn about five common workplace documents: standard business letters, fax cover sheets, memos, short reports, and emails.
Chances are, if you have ever read or commented about anything in an online comments section, you have probably encountered the “grammar police.” These are the folks who are quick to ignore the meaning of what you said and focus exclusively on whether or not you have done so in a grammatically correct way. For our purposes, the definition of grammar is “a set of actual or presumed prescriptive notions about correct use of a language.”
People whose native language is English may make grammatical errors all the time. Often, conventions of speech do not adhere to grammar rules. As long as everyone else around them makes the same mistake, it does not sound wrong, and there is no problem until they encounter people who have learned otherwise. From region to region, and even from workplace to workplace, there may be small but perceptible differences in how people use grammar, as the English language continues to evolve. Generally speaking, the rules of grammar serve to help us all understand how to use the English language correctly. As irritating or pedantic as learning and implementing grammar may seem, grammatical norms are important for effective and clear communication.
Similarly, punctuation is defined as “the marks, such as period, comma, and parentheses, used in writing to separate sentences and their elements and to clarify meaning.” Punctuation is sometimes taken for granted or used incorrectly, particularly in digital communication like text messaging and social media.
As a writer and communicator who intends to be clear and accurate, you may find a refresher on grammar and punctuation to be helpful, which is what this section will give you.
Grammatical errors can disrupt an audience’s ability to understand your message clearly, or can simply distract from your message. Further, grammatical missteps can often weaken the writer’s credibility, potentially causing your audience to not take your message seriously.
In this section we will give an overview of the parts of speech, types of sentences, and modifier errors. As a refresher, here are some basics about grammar:
Parts of Speech
“Parts of speech” are the basic types of words in the English language. Most grammar books say that there are eight parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections. We will add one more type: articles.
It is important to be able to recognize and identify the different types of words in English so that you can understand grammar explanations and use the right word form in the right place. Here is a brief explanation of the parts of speech:
If you would like to practise identifying the various parts of speech, you can try this interactive exercise:
Types of Sentences
When we refer to grammar, we are generally speaking about how language is formed at the sentence level. Words are the foundation of sentences, and in the previous section we learned about what types of words make up the main part of speech. Here we focus on how we put those words together to try to create meaning. In future chapters we will keep building on this to learn about paragraphs and how we then use those in various formats like letters, memos, and reports.
The first part of this review will focus on the three main types of sentences: simple, compound, and complex sentences.
Simple sentences contain one subject–verb pair and express a complete thought. They may contain more than one subject, as in the following example:
My wife and I got married in Japan.
Simple sentences may also contain more than one verb, as in the next example:
He cut the grass and put away the lawnmower.
Here are some other examples of simple sentences and their subject–verb patterns:
The movie wasn’t very interesting. (subject, verb)
My friends and I disliked the movie. (subject, subject, verb)
My friends and I cooked and ate the meal together. (subject, subject, verb, verb)
I might watch TV or read a book after dinner. (subject, verb, verb)
The second type of sentence, the compound sentence, consists of two simple sentences joined by a coordinating conjunction.
There are seven coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. A comma precedes a coordinating conjunction, which joins two simple sentences.
Do not be confused between a coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence and a compound verb in a simple sentence. Study the following examples carefully.
My friend plays the guitar and writes music.
This is a simple sentence containing a subject (friend) and a compound verb (plays/ writes).
My friend plays the guitar, and he writes music.
This is a compound sentence—two simple sentences joined by a comma and a coordinating conjunction. The subject of the first simple sentence is friend, and the verb is plays. The subject of the second simple sentence is he, and the verb is writes.
Clauses are groups of words that contain subjects and verbs. There are two types: independent (main) clauses and dependent (subordinate) clauses. An independent clause, in addition to containing a subject and verb, expresses a complete thought and can stand alone as a simple sentence. A dependent clause on its own is just part of a sentence or fragment. It must be joined to an independent clause for it to make sense and present a complete thought to the reader.
There are three types of dependent clauses: adjective clauses, adverb clauses, and noun clauses. When you join dependent and independent clauses together, you create complex sentences. Study the examples below.
Complex sentence using a dependent adjective clause:
|Vancouver has many interesting places to shop.||independent clause or simple sentence|
|which is the largest city in British Columbia||dependent adjective clause|
|Vancouver, which is the largest city in British
Columbia, has many interesting places to shop.
Complex sentence using a dependent adverb clause of time:
|I will tell her the news.||independent clause or simple sentence|
|as soon as I see her||dependent adverb clause of time|
|As soon as I see her, I will tell her the news.||complex sentence|
Complex sentence using a dependent adverb clause of reason:
|I went to bed early.||independent clause or simple sentence|
|because I was tired||dependent adverb clause of reason|
|I went to bed early because I was tired.||complex sentence|
Complex sentence using a dependent noun clause:
|I already know.||independent clause or simple sentence|
|what you said||dependent noun clause|
|I already know what you said.||complex sentence|
Comma with dependent adverb clause
If a dependent adverb clause is before an independent clause in a sentence, the two are separated by a comma. However, if the dependent adverb clause follows the independent (main) clause, no comma is used.
Use a comma when the dependent clause is first:
While we were eating dinner, someone rang the doorbell.
Do not use a comma when the main clause comes first:
Someone rang the doorbell while we were eating dinner.
When you are sure that you understand the lesson, you can continue with this exercise:
Agreement and Parallelism
You probably have a fairly well-developed sense of whether a sentence sounds right. In fact, that is one of the main reasons why you should get into the habit of reading your drafts aloud before you submit them for peer or instructor review. Or better yet, ask a friend to read your draft back to you. You will be surprised how many careless errors you catch just from hearing them.
One key aspect that can make a sentence sound incorrect is if the subject and verb do not agree. In properly written sentences, the subjects and verbs must agree in number and person. Agreeing in number means that a plural subject is matched up with the plural form of the verb. Although the plural of a noun often ends in -s, it is the singular of a verb that usually ends in -s.
The rabbit hops all around the cage. (singular subject and verb)
The rabbits hop all around the cage. (plural subject and verb)
Agreement in person means, for example, a third-person noun must be matched with the proper third-person verb. This chart shows first, second, and third person for a few present-tense verbs. As you can see, most of the verbs are the same in all columns except for the third-person singular. The verb to be at the bottom also varies in the first-person singular column. So to match subjects and verbs by person, you could choose, for example, to say “I am,” but not “I are.”
|1st Person Singular: I||1st Person Plural: We||2nd Person Singular: You||2nd Person Plural: You||3rd Person Singular: He, She, It||3rd Person Plural: They|
It rattles when the wind blows. (third-person subject and verb)
I think I am a funny person. (first-person subject and verb)
Each of the following sentences represents a common type of agreement error. An explanation and a correction of the error follow each example:
Pete and Tara is siblings.
Explanation: A subject that includes the word “and” usually takes a plural verb even if the two nouns are singular.
Correction: Pete and Tara are siblings.
Biscuits and gravy are my favourite breakfast.
Explanation: Sometimes the word “and” connects two words that form a subject and are actually one thing. In this case, “biscuits and gravy” is one dish. So even though there are two nouns connected by the word “and,” it is a singular subject and should take a singular verb.
Correction: Biscuits and gravy is my favorite breakfast.
The women who works here are treated well.
Explanation: Relative pronouns (that, who, and which) can be singular or plural, depending on their antecedents (the words they stand for). The pronoun has the same number as the antecedent. In this case, “who” stands for “women” and “women” is plural, so the verb should be plural.
Correction: The women who work here are treated well.
One of the girls sing in the chorus.
Explanation: A singular subject is separated by a phrase that ends with a plural noun. This pattern leads people to think that the plural noun (“girls,” in this case) is the subject to which they should match the verb. But in reality, the verb (“sing”) must match the singular subject (“one”).
Correction: One of the girls sings in the chorus.
The data is unclear.
Explanation: The words “data” and “media” are both considered plural at all times when used in academic writing. In more casual writing, some people use a singular version of the two words.
Correction: The data are unclear.
The basketball players with the most press this month is the college men playing in the Final Four tournament.
Explanation: In some sentences, like this one, the verb comes before the subject. The word order can cause confusion, so you have to find the subject and verb and make sure they match.
Correction: The basketball players with the most press this month are the college men playing in the Final Four tournament.
I is ready to go.
Explanation: A subject and verb must agree in person. In this case, “I” is a first-person noun, but “is” is a third-person verb.
Correction: I am ready to go.
What we think are that Clyde Delber should resign immediately.
Explanation: Words that begin with “what” can take either a singular or a plural verb depending on whether “what” is understood as singular or plural. In this case, “we” collectively think one thing, so the verb should be singular even though “we” is plural.
Correction: What we think is that Clyde Delber should resign immediately.
Either the dog or the cats spends time on this window seat when I’m gone.
Explanation: The word “or” usually indicates a singular subject even though you see two nouns. This sentence is an exception to this guideline because at least one of the subjects is plural. When this happens, the verb should agree with the subject to which it is closest.
Correction: Either the dog or the cats spend time on this window seat when I’m gone.
Molly or Huck keep the books for the club, so one of them will know.
Explanation: The word “or” usually indicates a singular subject even though you see two nouns. An exception to this guideline is that if one of the subjects is plural, the verb should agree with the subject to which it is closest.
Correction: Molly or Huck keeps the books for the club, so one of them will know.
The wilderness scare me when I think of going out alone.
Explanation: When a singular noun ends with an -s, you might get confused and think it is a plural noun.
Correction: The wilderness scares me when I think of going out alone.
Each of the girls are happy to be here.
Explanation: Indefinite pronouns (anyone, each, either, everybody, and everyone) are always singular. So they have to always be used with singular verbs.
Correction: Each of the girls is happy to be here.
Pronoun agreement is another important aspect when composing sentences. Matching a pronoun with its antecedent in terms of number (singular or plural) can be tricky, as evidenced in sentences like this one:
Each student should do their own work.* (please see explanation on pg 19.)
Since student is singular, a singular pronoun must match with it. A correct, but rather clunky, version of the sentence is the following:
Each student should do his or her own work.
To avoid pronoun and antecedent problems, you should take three steps:
Identify the antecedent.
Determine if the antecedent is singular or plural.
Make sure the antecedent and pronoun match, preferably by making both plural if possible.
The use of the singular they/their is widely contested, and many writing style guides now consider it acceptable. The English language is always evolving, and we think that it’s worth pointing out that this construction, though not parallel or grammatically correct from a traditional perspective (pronoun agreement), is arguably more efficient than using traditional gendered constructions of he or she and his or her. Sometimes context will dictate what is more preferable to work with. In this particular module, we use singular they/their because the context causes us to refer to general designations of people, such as boss, employer, employee, student, teacher, writer, reader, etc.; using the traditional singular pronouns every time in sentences such as “Your boss may ask you to write a letter on his or her behalf” would have resulted in a tedious eText! So sometimes your writing context will affect the norms, conventions, and rules you adhere to—or bend!
The antecedent is the noun that the pronoun represents in a sentence. When you see a pronoun, you should be able to understand its meaning by looking at the rest of the sentence. Look at the following sentence:
- The Smiths picked apples for hours, and they put them in large boxes.
- The antecedent for “they” is “the Smiths.” The antecedent for “them” is “apples.”
Read each of the following sentences and note the antecedent for each pronoun.
- Beth fell on the floor and found out it was harder than she thought.
- it—floor; she—Beth
- The women chatted as they jogged along with their pets.
- they—the women; their—the women’s
- When Abe lost his gloves, he backtracked looking for them.
- his—Abe’s; he—Abe; them—gloves
As sentences become more complicated or whole paragraphs are involved, identifying pronoun antecedents might also become more complicated. As long as pronouns and antecedents are used properly, however, you should be able to find the antecedent for each pronoun. Read the following sentences and note the antecedent for each pronoun.
Original: The ancient Mayans targeted December 12, 2012, as a momentous day that marks the end of a 5,126-year era. Today scholars speculate about what the Mayans expected to happen on that day and if they saw it as a time for celebration or fear. Some say that the end of an era would have been a cause for celebration. Others view it as an impending ominous situation because of its unknown nature. At any rate, you can rest assured that many scholars will be paying attention as the upcoming date draws near.
With explanation: The ancient Mayans targeted December 12, 2012, as a momentous day that marks the end of a 5,126-year era. Today scholars speculate about what the Mayans expected to happen on that day and if they (the Mayans) saw it (December 12, 2012) as a time for celebration or fear. Some say that the end of an era would have been a cause for celebration. Others view it (December 12, 2012) as an impending ominous situation because of its (December 12, 2012’s) unknown nature. At any rate, you (the reader) can rest assured that many scholars will be paying attention as the upcoming date draws near.
Singular versus Plural Antecedents
When you are writing and using pronouns and antecedents, begin by identifying whether the antecedent is singular or plural. As you can see by looking at the following table, making this determination is sometimes not as easy as it might seem.
|Antecedent||Singular or Plural?||Explanation|
|dog||Singular||Common singular nouns function as singular antecedents.|
|singers||Plural||Common plural nouns function as plural antecedents.|
|everybody||Singular||Indefinite pronouns sometimes function as antecedents. Since they refer to nonspecific things or people, their number can be ambiguous. To solve this problem, indefinite pronouns are treated as singular. Other indefinite pronouns include anyone, each, everyone, someone, nobody, no one, something, and nothing.|
|team||Singular||Words that stand for one group are singular even though the group includes plural members.|
|team members||Plural||By very definition, the members in a group number more than one, so the term is plural.|
|coat and hat||Plural||When two or more nouns are joined by “and,” they create a plural entity.|
|coat or hat||Singular||When two or more nouns are joined by “or,” the singular or plural determination of such an antecedent is based on the last-mentioned noun. In this case, “hat” is mentioned last and is singular. So the antecedent is singular.|
|coat or hats||Plural||Since the last-mentioned noun in this set is plural, as an antecedent this set would be plural.|
|coats or hat||Singular||Since the last-mentioned noun in this set is singular, as an antecedent this set would be singular, even though the set includes a plural noun. (Note: as a matter of style, try to avoid this arrangement by using the “[singular] or [plural]” sequence for your antecedents.)|
Antecedent and Pronoun Matches
Antecedents and pronouns need to match in terms of number (singular or plural) and gender. For purposes of clarity, try to keep a pronoun relatively close to its antecedent. When the antecedent is not immediately clear, make a change such as rearranging the words, changing from singular to plural, or replacing the pronoun with a noun. Each of the following sentences has an antecedent–pronoun matching problem. Read each sentence and think about the problem. Then check below each example for a correction and an explanation.
The singer kept a bottle of water under their stool.
Explanation: Since “singer” is singular, the pronoun must be singular. In this situation, to say “his or her” sounds odd, so the best choice would be to revise the sentence to clarify the gender of the singer.
Correction: Angela, the singer, kept a bottle of water under her stool.
Each student should complete their registration for next semester by October 5.* (please also see explanation on pg. 19)
Explanation: Often, as in this situation, the best solution is to switch the subject from singular to plural so you can avoid having to use “his or her.”
Correction: Students should complete their registration for next semester by October 5.
Everyone should do what they think is best.
Explanation: Indefinite pronouns are treated as singular in the English language even when they have an intended plural meaning. You have to either use a singular pronoun or revise the sentence to eliminate the indefinite pronoun as the antecedent.
Correction: Everyone should do what he or she thinks is best.
OR All employees should do what they think is best.
To compete in the holiday tournament, the team took their first airline flight as a group.
Explanation: Collective nouns are singular since they represent, for example, one team, one crowd, or one family. Although the pronoun “it” is used for nonhuman reference, it can also be used to reference a singular collective noun that involves humans.
Correction: To compete in the holiday tournament, the team took its first airline flight as a group.
Neither Cathy nor the Petersons wanted to give up her place in line.
Explanation: In situations involving “or” or “nor,” the antecedent must match the noun closest to the pronoun, which in this case is Petersons. Since Petersons is plural, the pronoun must be plural.
Correction: Neither Cathy nor the Petersons wanted to give up their place in line.
The dogs and the cat ate all its food immediately.
Explanation: When joined by “and,” compound antecedents are plural and, therefore, take a plural pronoun.
Correction: The dogs and the cat ate all their food immediately.
Each member is responsible for his own dues and registration.
Explanation: Using “he,” “his,” or “him” as a universal singular pronoun is no longer acceptable. Either use both a masculine and a feminine pronoun as in the first revision or change the noun to plural and use a plural pronoun as in the second revision. Stylistically, pluralizing is preferable.
Correction: Each member is responsible for his or her own dues and registration. OR Members are responsible for their own dues and registration.
Parallelism is the presentation of ideas of equal weight in the same grammatical fashion. This writing principle falls under the umbrella of grammar, style, rhetoric, and content. Parallelism is important in various types of sentences.
You may not realize it, but when we write, we often include lists. Lists need to be parallel in order for the sentence to be grammatically correct and for the reader to enjoy reading it. All the items in a list should be grammatically parallel. For instance, if your sentence lists a series of activities, all the items need to begin with verbs of the same tense and case.
After work, Logan bought groceries, made dinner, and watched TV.
Bought, made, and watched are all perfect past-tense verbs, resulting in a parallel list.
Remember, too, that when you join even two items with a conjunction, those two items need to be parallel. Parallel lists are especially important in well-written résumes. When you list your work duties under an employment entry, make sure that each item in your list begins with words that are parallel in part of speech, tense, and, if applicable, case.
However, achieving parallelism goes beyond the technicalities of a simple list. That congruence is something to keep in mind when your writing deals with deeper subjects or is designed to persuade an audience. Used well, parallelism can enhance your readers’ (and even your own) understanding and appreciation of a topic. The most famous line from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address provides another example (a specific kind of reversal of phrasing known as antimetabole): “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” You’ll encounter parallelism not only in politics but also in advertising, religion, and poetry as well:
- “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.”
- “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
- “Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice.”
Parallelism is essential to well thought-out, well constructed, and easy-to-read sentences and paragraphs.
Check Your Understanding
Indicate if the following sentences are parallel. In cases where they are not parallel, rewrite the sentence to make it parallel.
- You may respond to our survey on the phone, visit any one of our 10 locations, or write an email.
- This position is a fast-paced, challenge, dynamic, and customer-focused opportunity.
- The problem was in production, not in planning.
- Jeremy is receiving employee of the month because he is intelligent, cares, honest, and works hard.
Prepositions and Conjunctions
Prepositions are words that show the relationships between two or more other words. Choosing correct prepositions can be challenging, but the following examples will help clarify how to use some of the most common prepositions.
|Types of Prepositions||Examples of Prepositions||How to Use||Prepositions Used in Sentences|
|Time||at||Use with hours of the day and these words that indicate time of day: dawn, midnight, night, and noon.||We will eat at 11:30.
We will eat at noon.
|by||Use with time words to indicate a particular time.||I’ll be there by 5:00.
I’ll be finished by October.
|in||Use with the and these time-of-day words:afternoon, evening, and morning.
Use on its own with months, seasons, and years.
We’ll start in the morning.
The rainy season starts in June.
|on||Use with days of the week.||I’ll see you on Friday.|
|Location||at||Use to indicate a particular place.||I’ll stop at the dry cleaners.|
|in||Use when indicating that an item or person is within given boundaries.||My ticket is in my pocket.|
|by||Use to mean “near a particular place.”||My desk is by the back door.|
|on||Use when indicating a surface or site on which something rests or is located.||Place it on the table, please.
My office is on Lincoln Boulevard.
||of||Use to indicate part of a whole.
Use to indicate contents or makeup.
|I ate half of the sandwich.
I brought a bag of chips.
|for||Use to show purpose.||Jake uses his apron for grilling.|
|State of being||in||Use to indicate a state of being.||I am afraid that I’m in trouble.|
Conjunctions are known as “joiner” words. They join two words, phrases, or sentences together. This classic video illustrates the function of conjunctions, which are either coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet) or correlative conjunctions (both…and, either…or, just as…so, neither…nor, not…but, not only…but also, whether…or).
Check Your Understanding
Modifier Errors and Split Infinitives
Consider this sentence: “For her birthday, Megan received an attractive woman’s briefcase.” The modifier “attractive” is in an awkward position. The person who wrote this sentence most likely intended to suggest that the briefcase was attractive. However, people reading it or listening to it might easily assume that the briefcase was intended for (or already belonged to) an attractive woman.
Three categories of modifier problems include misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers, and split infinitives. These three categories, explained in the following subsections, are all similar because they all involve misplacing words or phrases. Understanding the differences between these categories should help you be on the lookout for such mistakes in your writing and that of your peers.
The easiest way to clarify which word is being modified in a sentence is to place the modifier close to the word it modifies. Whenever possible, it is best to place a modifier immediately before or after the modified word.
Read the following example of a misplaced modifier, note the point of confusion, and review the correction.
The malfunctioning student’s phone beeped during class.
Misplaced modifier: “malfunctioning”
Modifying: “phone” (not “student”)
Point of confusion: The writer wants to say that the student had a malfunctioning phone that beeped during class, not that the student was malfunctioning.
Correction: The student’s malfunctioning phone beeped during class.
Often a dangling modifier modifies the subject of a sentence, but the placement of the modifier makes it seem as though it modifies another noun in the sentence. Other times, a dangling modifier actually modifies someone or something other than the subject of the sentence, but the wording makes it appear as though the dangling modifier modifies the subject. The resulting image conveyed can often be rather confusing, humorous, or just embarrassing.
Read the following examples of dangling modifiers, note the point of confusion in each case, and review the possible corrections. Note that there is often more than one correct way to rewrite each sentence.
The child was climbing the fence that always seemed adventuresome.
Misplaced modifier: “that always seemed adventuresome”
Modifying: “child” (not “fence”)
Point of confusion: The wording makes it sound as if the fence is adventuresome, not the child.
Correction: The child, who always seemed adventuresome, was climbing the fence. OR The adventuresome child was climbing the fence.
Reading in the porch swing, giant mosquitoes attacked me.
Misplaced modifier: “Reading in the porch swing”
Modifying: Implicit “I” (not “mosquitoes”)
Point of confusion: The wording makes the sentence sound as if the mosquitoes are reading on the porch swing, not the speaker.
Correction: While I was reading on the porch swing, giant mosquitoes attacked me. OR Giant mosquitoes attacked me while I was reading on the porch swing.
After being found in the washing machine, the dog eagerly played with his favourite chew toy.
Misplaced modifier: “After being found in the washing machine”
Modifying: “toy” (not “dog”)
Point of confusion: This sentence is supposed to say that the toy, not the dog, was found in the washing machine.
Correction: After the dog’s favourite chew toy was found in the washing machine, he eagerly played with it. OR The dog eagerly played with his favourite chew toy after it was found in the washing machine.
Splitting infinitives refers to placing a word between “to” and a verb, as in “Miss Clark set out to clearly define the problem.” Technically, you should not place the word “clearly” between “to” and “define.” This grammar rule came about in the eighteenth century when people held Latin up as the language standard. Since Latin did not have two-word infinitives, such as “to define,” grammarians wanted to preserve the unity of the two-word infinitives in an effort to make English more Latin-like. The use of split infinitives, however, has become increasingly common over the decades (e.g., “to boldly go where no man has gone before”—Star Trek, 1966). In fact, split infinitives are gaining acceptance in professional and academic writing as well. For your purposes, knowing what split infinitives are will help you know your options as a writer.
I’m going to quickly run to the store so I’ll be back when you get home.
Infinitive link: “to run”
Splitter link: “quickly”
Correction: I’m going to run to the store quickly so I’ll be back when you get home.
Helen thought Mr. Beed said to loudly sing, but he actually said to proudly sing.
Infinitive link: “to sing” (twice)
Splitter link: “loudly”; “proudly”
Correction: Helen thought Mr. Beed said to sing loudly, but he actually said to sing proudly.
Check Your Understanding
Suppose you are presenting a speech. If you speak too quickly, your audience will not understand what you are saying. To avoid this, you stop and take a breath a few times as you read. But how do you know where to pause, where to change your voice, and where to stop? Punctuation, of course!
The concert begins in two hours.
Watch for oncoming traffic.
The question mark (?) is used at the end of an interrogative sentence, indicating that the sentence is a question.
Is it snowing?
The exclamation mark (!) is used at the end of an exclamatory sentence, indicating that the sentence is an exclamation. The mark could also be used at the end of an imperative sentence to indicate a command.
This is the best day of my life!
Stop what you’re doing right now!
One of the punctuation clues to reading you may encounter is the comma (,). The comma indicates a pause in a sentence or a separation of things in a list. There are many ways to use a comma. Here are a few:
- Introductory word (such as a sentence adverb): Personally, I think the practice is helpful.
- Lists: The barn, the tool shed, and the back porch were destroyed by the wind.
- Coordinating adjectives: He was tired, hungry, and late.
- Conjunctions in compound sentences: The bedroom door was closed, so the children knew their mother was asleep.
- Interrupting words: I knew where it was hidden, of course, but I wanted them to find it themselves.
- Dates, addresses, greetings, and letters: The letter was postmarked December 8, 1945.
Commas after an Introductory Word or Phrase
This comma lets the reader know where the introductory word or phrase ends and the main sentence begins.
Without spoiling the surprise, we need to tell her to save the date
In this sentence, “without spoiling the surprise” is an introductory phrase, while “we need to tell her to save the date” is the main sentence.
Commas in a List of Items
When you want to list several nouns in a sentence, separate each word with a comma. This allows the reader to identify which words are included in the grouping. When you list items in a sentence, put a comma after each noun, then add and before the last item.
The pizza will be topped with olives, peppers, and pineapple chunks.
Commas and Coordinating Adjectives
You can use commas to list both adjectives and nouns. A string of adjectives that describe a noun are called coordinating adjectives. These come before the noun they modify and are separated by commas. Unlike with a list of nouns, the word and does not always need to be before the last adjective.
It was a bright, windy, clear day.
Commas before Conjunctions in Compound Sentences
Commas are sometimes used to separate two independent clauses. The comma comes after the first independent clause and is followed by a conjunction, such as for, and, or but.
He missed class today, and he thinks he will be out tomorrow, too.
Commas before and after Interrupting Words
In conversations, you might interrupt your train of thought to give more details. In a sentence, you might interrupt your train of thought with interrupting words. These can come at the beginning or middle of a sentence. When the interrupting words appear at the beginning of the sentence, a comma appears after the word or phrase.
If you can believe it, people once thought the sun and planets orbited around Earth.
When interrupting words come in the middle of a sentence, they are separated from the rest of the sentence by commas. You can determine where the commas should go by looking for the part of the sentence that is not essential.
An Italian astronomer, Galileo, proved that Earth orbited the sun.
Commas in Dates, Addresses, and the Greetings and Closings of Letters
You also use commas when you write the date, such as in cover letters and emails. Commas are used when you write the date, when you include an address, and when you greet someone.
If you are writing out the full date, add a comma after the day and before the year. You do not need to add a comma when you write the month and day or when you write the month and the year. If you need to continue the sentence after you add a date that includes the day and year, add a comma after the end of the date.
The letter is postmarked May 4, 2001.
Her birthday is May 5.
I registered for the conference on March 7, 2010, so we should be getting our tickets soon.
You also use commas when you include addresses and locations. When you include an address in a sentence, be sure to place a comma after the street and after the city. Do not place a comma between the province and the postal code. Like a date, if you need to continue the sentence after adding the address, simply add a comma after the address.
We moved to 4542 Boxcutter Lane, Ottawa, Ontario K1R 6H2.
After moving to Ottawa, Ontario, Eric used public transportation to get to work.
Greetings are also separated by commas. When you write an email or a letter, you add a comma after the greeting word or the person’s name. You also need to include a comma after the closing, which is the word or phrase you put before your signature.
I would like more information about your job posting.
Another punctuation mark that you will encounter is the semicolon (;). The semicolon indicates a break in the flow of a sentence, but functions differently than a period or a comma. When you encounter a semicolon while reading aloud, this indicates a place to pause and take a breath.
Semicolons to Join Two Independent Clauses
Use a semicolon to combine two closely related independent clauses when relying on a period to separate them into two shorter sentences would make your writing choppy, and using a comma would create a comma splice, or run-on sentence (joining two independent clauses with merely a comma is an error).
Incorrect: Be sure to wear clean, well-pressed clothes to the interview, appearances are important. (incorrect because of comma splice/run-on-sentence)
Choppy: Be sure to wear clean, well-pressed clothes to the interview. Appearances are important.
Correct: Be sure to wear clean, well-pressed clothes to the interview; appearances are important.
Here, writing the independent clauses as two sentences separated by a period is correct. However, using a semicolon to combine the clauses can make your writing more interesting by creating a variety of sentence lengths and structures while preserving the flow of ideas.
Semicolons to Join Items in a List
You can also use a semicolon to join items in a list when the items in the list already have their own commas (called “internal punctuation”—at least one of the items is itself its own list). Semicolons help the reader distinguish between the groupings of items.
Incorrect: The colour combinations we can choose from are black, white, and grey, green, brown, and black, or red, green, and brown.
Correct: The colour combinations we can choose from are black, white, and grey; green, brown, and black; or red, green, and brown.
The colon (:) is used to introduce lists, quotations, examples, and explanations. You can also use a colon after the greeting in business letters and memos.
Dear Hiring Manager:
To: Human Resources
From: Deanna Dean
Colons to Introduce a List
Use a colon to introduce a list of items. Introduce the list with an independent clause.
The team will tour three states: New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
I have to take four classes this semester: Composition, Statistics, Ethics, and Italian.
Colons to Introduce a Quotation
You can use a colon to introduce a quotation.
Mark Twain said it best: “When in doubt, tell the truth.”
If a quote is longer than 40 words, skip a line after the colon and indent the left margin of the quote by five spaces. Because quotations longer than 40 words use line spacing and indentation to indicate a quote, quotation marks are not necessary.
My father always loved Mark Twain’s words:
There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and
people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.
Colons to Introduce Examples or Explanations
Use a colon to introduce an example or to further explain an idea presented in the first part of a sentence. The first part of the sentence must always be an independent clause; that is, it must stand alone as a complete thought with a subject and verb. Do not use a colon after phrases like such as or for example.
Incorrect: Our company offers many publishing services, such as: writing, editing, and reviewing.
Correct: Our company offers many publishing services: writing, editing, and reviewing.
Proper noun: We visited three countries: Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Beginning of a quote: My mother loved this line from Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.”
Two independent clauses: There are drawbacks to modern technology: My brother’s cell phone died and he lost a lot of phone numbers.
Incorrect: The recipe is simple: Tomato, basil, and avocado.
Check Your Understanding
Quotation marks (“ ”) set off a group of words from the rest of the text. Use them to indicate direct quotations or to indicate a title. Quotation marks always appear in pairs.
A direct quotation is an exact account of what someone said or wrote. To include a direct quotation in your writing, enclose the words in quotation marks. An indirect quotation is a restatement of what someone said or wrote and does not use the person’s exact words. You do not need to use quotation marks for indirect quotations.
Direct quotation: Carly said, “I’m not ever going back there again.”
Indirect quotation: Carly said that she would never go back there.
Writing in the Workplace
Most word processing software is designed to catch errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. While this tool can be useful, it has major limitations. Being well acquainted with the rules of punctuation is far better than leaving the thinking to the computer. Properly punctuated writing will convey your meaning clearly. Consider the subtle shifts in meaning in the following sentences:
The client said he thought our manuscript was garbage.
The client said, “He thought our manuscript was garbage.
The first sentence reads as an indirect quote in which the client does not like the manuscript. But did he actually use the word “garbage,” or has the speaker paraphrased (and exaggerated) the client’s words?
The second sentence reads as a direct quote from the client. But who is “he” in this sentence? Is it a third party?
Word processing software would not catch or flag this, because the sentences are not grammatically incorrect. However, the meanings of the sentences are not the same, but grammar-check software cannot discern whether the words on the screen convey intended meaning. When you understand punctuation, you can write what you mean, and, in this case, save a lot of confusion around the office.
Punctuating Direct Quotations
Quotation marks show readers another person’s exact words. Often, you will want to identify who is speaking. You can do this at the beginning, middle, or end of the quote. Notice the use of commas and capitalized words.
Beginning: Madison said, “Let’s stop at the farmers’ market to buy some fresh vegetables for dinner.”
Middle: “Let’s stop at the farmers’ market,” Madison said, “to buy some fresh vegetables for dinner.”
End: “Let’s stop at the farmers’ market to buy some fresh vegetables for dinner,” Madison said.
Speaker not identified: “Let’s stop at the farmers’ market to buy some fresh vegetables for dinner.”
Always capitalize the first letter of a quotation that is a complete sentence, even if that first word is not the first word of the original sentence. When using your own clarifying words in the middle of the quote, the beginning of the second part of the quote does not need to be capitalized.
“Regular exercise,” he added, “boosts your energy levels and improves your overall mood.” (Identifying words break up the quotation.)
“You should start reading simple books to your child as early on as possible—preferably during infancy,” the psychologist instructed, adding, “long before your child comprehends or speaks the language!”
When the quotation plays a grammatical role within the sentence (i.e., it is part of the grammatical structure of the rest of the sentence), the quoted part should begin with a lowercase letter. In other words, when the quoted material completes the grammatical makeup of the entire statement, including your own identifying or reporting words, do not capitalize that first letter. In most cases, that kind of quoted material is a sentence fragment (not a complete sentence).
My friend said, “Luigi’s serves the best lasagna in the whole city.” (Quoted material is a full sentence and does not play a grammatical role.)
My friend said that Luigi’s “serves the best lasagna in the whole city.” (Quoted material is not a complete sentence but is essential to completing the grammatical structure of the rest of the sentence.)
He told her, “Practise more, because practice makes perfect.” (Quoted material does not contribute to the grammatical structure of the whole sentence.)
He told her to “practise more, because practice makes perfect.” (Quoted material completes the grammatical structure of the rest of the sentence.)
Use commas between identifying words and quotes. Quotation marks must be placed after commas and periods. Place quotation marks after question marks and exclamation points only if the question or exclamation is part of the quoted text.
Question is part of quoted text: The new employee asked, “When is lunch?”
Question is not part of quoted text: Did you hear her say you were “the next Picasso”?
Exclamation is part of quoted text: My supervisor beamed, “Thanks for all of your hard work!”
Exclamation is not part of quoted text: He said I “single-handedly saved the company thousands of dollars”!
Quotations within Quotations
Use single quotation marks (‘ ’) to show a quotation within in a quotation.
Theresa said, “I wanted to take my dog to the festival, but the man at the gate said, ‘No dogs allowed.’”
“When you say, ‘I can’t help it,’ what exactly does that mean?”
“The instructions say, ‘Tighten the screws one at a time.’”
Use quotation marks around titles of short works of writing, such as essays, articles, individual blog post titles, songs, poems, short stories, and chapters in books. Usually, titles of longer works, such as books, magazines, albums, newspapers, and novels, as well as titles of websites, are italicized.
“Annabelle Lee” is one of my favourite romantic poems.
The New York Times has been in publication since 1851.
Writing in the Workplace
In many businesses, the difference between exact wording and a paraphrase is extremely important. For legal purposes, or for the purposes of doing a job correctly, it is important to know exactly what the client, customer, or supervisor said. Sometimes, details can be lost when instructions are paraphrased. Use quotes to indicate exact words where needed, and let your coworkers know the source of the quotation (client, customer, peer, etc.).
Check Your Understanding
An apostrophe (’) is a punctuation mark that is used with a noun to show possession or to indicate where a letter has been left out to form a contraction.
An apostrophe and the letter s indicate who or what owns something. To show possession with a singular noun, add ’s.
Jen’s dance routine mesmerized everyone in the room.
The dog’s leash is hanging on the hook beside the door.
Jess’s sister is also coming to the party.
Notice that singular nouns that end in s still take the apostrophe s (’s) ending to show possession.
To show possession with a plural noun that ends in s, just add an apostrophe (’). If the plural noun does not end in s, add an apostrophe and an s (’s).
Plural noun that ends in s: The drummers’ sticks all moved in the same rhythm, like a machine.
Plural noun that does not end in s: The people’s votes clearly showed that no one supported the management decision
A contraction is a word that is formed by combining two words. In a contraction, an apostrophe shows where one or more letters have been left out. Contractions are commonly used in informal writing but not in formal writing.
I do not like ice cream.
I don’t like ice cream.
Notice how the words do and not have been combined to form the contraction don’t. The apostrophe shows where the o in not has been left out.
We will see you later.
We’ll see you later.
Look at the chart for some examples of commonly used contractions.
|it’s||it is, it has|
|she’s||she is, she has|
|there’s||there is, there has|
|who’s||who is, who has|
Be careful not to confuse it’s with its. It’s is a contraction of the words it and is. Its is a possessive pronoun.
It’s cold and rainy outside. (It is cold and rainy outside.)
The cat was chasing its tail. (Shows that the tail belongs to the cat.)
When in doubt, substitute the words it is in a sentence. If sentence still makes sense, use the contraction it’s.
Check Your Understanding
Parentheses ( ) are punctuation marks that are always used in pairs and contain material that is secondary to the meaning of a sentence. Parentheses must never contain the subject or verb of a sentence. A sentence should still make sense if you delete any text within parentheses and the parentheses.
Attack of the Killer Potatoes has to be the worst movie I have seen (so far).
Your spinach and garlic salad is one of the most delicious (and nutritious) foods I have ever tasted!
An em-dash (—) is a punctuation mark used to set off information in a sentence for emphasis. You can enclose text between two dashes, or use just one dash. To create a dash in Microsoft Word, type two hyphens together, and the program automatically converts them into a dash. Do not put a space between dashes and text.
Arrive to the interview early—but not too early.
Any of the suits—except for the purple one—should be fine to wear.
An en-dash (–) is used to separate items in a range. These could be ranges of numbers, ranges of dates or ranges of school grades (e.g., Grades 4–7). You would also use an en-dash when displaying scores (e.g., a 5–0 win), comparisons or between two elements that have a relationship (U.S.–Canada relations).
A hyphen (-) looks similar to a dash but is shorter and used in a different way.
Hyphens between Two Adjectives That Work as One
Use a hyphen to combine words that work together to form a single description.
The 55-year-old athlete was just as qualified for the marathon as his younger opponents.
My doctor recommended against taking any habit-forming medication.
My study group focused on preparing for the mid-year review.
*Note: Did you know that a noun+participle adjective before the noun it modifies should be hyphenated but should be left “open” if it comes after the noun? Examples: The medication is habit forming.
The habit-forming medication is too strong for over-the-counter use.
My doctor advised against taking taking medication that could be habit forming.
Hyphens When a Word Breaks at the End of a Line
Use a hyphen to divide a word across two lines of text. You may notice that most word-processing programs will do this for you. If you have to manually insert a hyphen, place the hyphen between two syllables. If you are unsure of where to place the hyphen, consult a dictionary or move the entire word to the next line.
My supervisor was concerned that the team meet-
ing would conflict with the client meeting.
In this section you went back to basics with grammar and punctuation.
In the grammar section you reviewed the types of sentences, such as simple and complex sentences. You went on to look at things like subject–verb agreement and parallelism. You then reviewed prepositions and conjunctions and finished off the section with modifier errors and split infinitives.
The punctuation section first reviewed some of the more common and correctly used punctuation marks like periods, question marks, exclamation marks, and commas. Then you delved a bit deeper into more challenging punctuation marks like semicolons, colons, quotation marks, apostrophes, parentheses, dashes, and hyphens.
Strengthening any weak areas in grammar or punctuation will put you on the path to becoming a better writer and communicator.
- Match pronouns and antecedents by number (singular or plural) and gender.
- Collective nouns and indefinite pronouns are both considered singular even when they appear to refer to multiple members or components.
- Turning a singular subject into a plural subject is often the best way to handle a number problem between a subject and a pronoun.
- Misplaced modifiers can cloud the meaning of a sentence due to poor placement of key phrases within the sentence.
- Dangling modifiers attribute a description to the wrong noun because of being placed in the wrong place in a sentence.
- Split infinitives are acceptable in many writing situations, but you should understand them so you can avoid them when you need to.
Check Your Understanding
Further Reading and Links
If you would like to read more about grammar and punctuation, see the following site:
Grammar. (n.d.) In Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/grammar
Attribution Statement (Grammar and Punctuation)
This chapter is a remix containing content from a variety of sources published under a variety of open licenses, including the following:
Original content contributed by the Olds College OER Development Team, of Olds College to Professional Communications Open Curriculum under a CC-BY 4.0 license
Parts of Speech, by Study Zone, English Language Centre, University of Victoria published at http://web2.uvcs.uvic.ca/elc/studyzone/330/grammar/parts.htm under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license
Review of Sentence Types, by Study Zone, English Language Centre, University of Victoria published at http://web2.uvcs.uvic.ca/courses/elc/studyzone/490/grammar/review-of-sentence-types.htm under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International license
Content created by Anonymous for Making Sure Subjects and Verbs Agree; in Writers’ Handbook, published at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/writers-handbook/s19-03-making-sure-subjects-and-verbs.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license
Content created by Anonymous for Connecting Pronouns and Antecedents Clearly; in Writers’ Handbook, published at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/writers-handbook/s19-06-connecting-pronouns-and-antece.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license
Content created by Anonymous for Paralellism; in Writers’ Handbook, published at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/writers-handbook/s20-04-using-parallelism.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license
Content created by Anonymous for Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases; in Writers’ Handbook, published at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/writers-handbook/s25-17-prepositions-and-prepositional.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license
Content created by Anonymous for Modifier Errors and Split Infinitives; in Writers’ Handbook, published at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/writers-handbook/s19-04-avoiding-misplaced-modifiers-d.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license
Content created by Anonymous for Punctuation in Writers’ Handbook; in Writers’ Handbook, published at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/english-for-business-success/s06-punctuation.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license
Check Your Understandings
Original assessment items contributed by the Olds College OER Development Team, of Olds College to Professional Communications Open Curriculum under a CC-BY 4.0 license
Adapted quotation exercises created by Anonymous for Quotes; in Writers’ Handbook, published at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/english-for-business-success/s06-04-quotes.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.
Adapted parentheses exercises created by Anonymous for Parentheses; in Writers’ Handbook, published at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/successful-writing/s07-06-parentheses.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.
Adapted punctuation exercises created by Anonymous for Punctuation: End-of-Chapter Exercises; in Writers’ Handbook, published at http://2012books.lardbucket.org/books/successful-writing/s07-09-punctuation-end-of-chapter-exe.html under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.