A Crash Course in Grammar and Punctuation

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

When it comes to writing professionally, it's all in the details. Whether you're writing an opus or just sending a publisher query letter, good grammar and punctuation can be the difference between being taken seriously ... and shuffled to the bottom of the pile.

One of the best investments you can make, as an author, is a course in editing and proofreading; one that teaches you the fundamentals of grammar and punctuation. I know--I know--you have all the time in the world, right? Actually, yes, you do! If you're serious about making this writing dream a heartfelt reality.

While you spend time researching and committing to an editing course that will exponentially advance your writing journey, here is my little crash course in grammar and punctuation basics, based on the same old 'mistakes' I see time and again. Presenting your work in a more professional way will seriously up your chances of being taken seriously in this highly-competitive industry.

Remember--excellence all the way!

Pretty much any Grammar Nazi's nightmare, they don't need to be confusing. There are two types of apostrophe. They are:

POSSESSIVE - the apostrophe indicates that something belongs to someone or something. It was Sarah's cake all along.

CONTRACTION - the apostrophe takes the place of a missing letter or letters/numerals. In the following sentence, the apostrophe is replacing the missing 'o' in 'not'. It really wasn't her cake, after all.

The only exception is when it comes to it's/its. Let's examine this!

It's - a contraction for 'it is'. It's going to be a lovely day
Its - possessive for 'it'. The car is going in for its second service next week. You'll notice the car doesn't have a possessive apostrophe because we so commonly use 'it's' as a contraction, and we cannot risk confusing the two.

NEVER, EVER USE AN APOSTROPHE TO INDICATE A PLURAL! Plurals need nothing but an s!!! This mistake is becoming frighteningly common, particularly in American texts. It's photos not photo's. Cars no car's. Bananas not banana's. DVDs not DVD's. 1980s not 1980's. You also don't need to add one before other suffixes like 'ing'. So, it's toing and froing, not to'ing and fro'ing.

On the date thing (this drives me nuts!), the only time 1980's would work is if you wrote a sentence indicating possession, e.g. 1979 is over. It's 1980's turn now. Note that if we are talking about the 1980s as a decade, rather than an actual single year, we would need to write - It's the 1980s' turn now. - because the 1980s is plural, representing 10 years.

Possessive apostrophes with plurals
Plurals take possessive apostrophes AFTER the s. It is the kids' turn (plural) not It is the kid's turn (singular).

Apostrophes with numerals
Similarly, numerals do NOT need apostrophes ever, unless they are involved in a--you guessed it--contraction (i.e. letters or numbers are missing) or need to indicate possession. So, if some numerals are missing, we add an apostrophe to show what's missing. With 1980s, you may want to remove the 19. You would therefore put an apostrophe to show the 19 is missing:


A contraction is when you shorten two or more words to make it into one. Don't. Can't. Shouldn't. That's. Here are some common contraction mistakes and their homophones, which are also often confused:

your you're
Your means belonging to you.
You're is a contraction of 'you are'. The apostrophe replaces the 'a'.

their they're there
Their means belonging to them. 
They're is a contraction of 'they are'. The apostrophe replaces the 'a'. 
There refers to a place or idea. 

its it's
Its is the only possessive noun or pronoun that drops the apostrophe.
It's is a contraction of 'it is'. The apostrophe replaces the 'i'.


Regular comma
Commas effect a 'pause' or 'breath'. They can also indicate a slight change in the direction of the sentence. But for the most part, they are used for comprehension. Consider the following sentence:

Tom and Jane baked very well but one day 
when they failed the oven was to blame.

This is a difficult sentence to read. Immediately, we read that the oven was the direct object of 'failed'. So, essentially, Tom and Jane failed the oven. Adding commas in the right places makes for greater comprehension.

Tom and Jane baked very well, but one day,
when they failed, the oven was to blame.

It's becoming increasingly common for publishers and journals to omit commas in their texts and it's a real bug-bear of mine. It's being done under the guise of being modern, I guess, but I've lost count of the forced sentence-re-read and re-read and re-read, thanks to the comma omission. You may have noticed, yourself, that commas are being released from their 'bondage' in such sentences:

Hello Frank. How are you?
She loved eating cake too. 

After the addition of two wee commas ...
Hello, Frank. How are you?
She loved eating cake, too. 
... ah, now I can breathe.

Oxford comma
Also called the serial comma, this is an American creation and is not used in Australian texts, unless there are a series of 'ands' that compete with each other for comprehension. You can see the Oxford comma in the second sentence, below (just before 'and'). We find this superfluous in British and Australian text, and also misleading because in the sentence below, a pause is not needed before 'and' (in fact, is sounds strange to pause here).

The bear likes apples, pears, bananas and oranges.
The bear likes apples, pears, bananas, and oranges.

The exception is below, when a series of clauses (words joined with 'and'--I've coloured-coded each clause) can become confusing if not separated by commas:

The bear likes apples with honey and cinnamon, pears topped with cream and a cherry, bananas in pies and cakes, and oranges with syrup.

A good way to remember this: does the sentence need a slight pause or breath? If yes, it usually means a comma is required. When we say 'bears like apples, pears, bananas and oranges', we do NOT need to take breath or pause between 'bananas and oranges' (which is why the Oxford comma continues to perplex me). We DO need a breath or slight pause, however, at the end of the second more complex sentence, above. And we also need it for comprehension clarification ... if we didn't have a comma after 'cakes', the reader might think the bear likes his bananas inside pies, cakes and oranges with syrup.


Speech Marks
In Australia, speech marks (inverted commas) are singular ('), not double ("). When you move to the US, you can use double, but in the meantime, your dialogue should read like this:

‘What on earth are we going to do about this?’ Horatio 
tugged at his curling moustache.

Speech marks are always the outer-most placement of any sentence, punctuation-wise. They cuddle the speech and accompanying punctuation marks within. For example:

'Can you pass the salt?'
'Can you pass the salt'?

'I told you not to do that!'
'I told you not to do that'!

'I would like some more,' said Oliver.
'I would like some more', said Oliver.

If a sentence finishes within the dialogue, it ends with a full stop:

‘Don’t worry, Cartie. Mum will like it. It has sequins.

... unless it's followed by an indicator of who's speaking. This is when you use a comma.

‘Don’t worry, Cartie. Mum will like it. It has sequins,’ said Edie. 

You'll notice, above, there is a full stop after 'Edie'. This is because she's stopped speaking. If Edie was continuing the sentence, it would be appear like this, with a comma after Edie:

‘Don’t worry, Cartie. Mum will like it. It has sequins,’ said Edie, 'and she loves sequins.' 

When using quote marks, use single inverted commas.

Cartie, who had already began plucking black 'stars' from 
the floor, stood and stared. 

This is also the case within dialogue.

‘No one can know. No one will 'believe' us. They’ll think we’re fools.’

Unlike speech marks, quote marks (in Australia) do not have to be placed at the outer-most part of a sentence. In fact, they are always cloistered inside the sentence, sitting snugly around the actual word, with no punctuation breaking that snug connection. This is the opposite in the States, which uses the second example (again, confounding to my eyes!).

‘No one can know. No one will believe us. They’ll think we’re 'fools'.’
 ‘No one can know. No one will believe us. They’ll think we’re 'fools.'

Please, please, please don't type an ellipsis like this ..... this .................. or, God forbid, this:


Ellipses consist of THREE full stops only, and they always have a space either side of the text*. For example:

The great cake sailed up, paused for 
a moment ... and began to fall. 
He can be a little bit strange ...

*Organisations, publications and publishers have what's known as a 'Style Guide' that are used consistently. Sometimes, small things like ellipses can differ slightly from what's considered standard (i.e. as per the Australian Style Guide). Some publishers, for example, have their ellipses sitting flushing against the last word, like this...

Ah, the dreaded dash. There are pretty much three types:

hyphen -
en dash (so-called because it has the width of a regular n)
em dash (so-called because it has the width of a regular m)

hyphens -
In general, you use hyphens between words/numerals to create ONE word or numeral, so there should never be a space either side of them. It's easy to remember them because they essentially glue words together, and indeed, a hyphenated word counts as one word in your text word count (nice!). They are call 'compound adjectives'.


Written numbers from 21 to 99 are always hyphenated. These are called 'compound numbers'. Numbers below 21 or higher than 99 do not need hyphens.


When it comes to even larger numbers, again, no hyphens are needed, unless the number stated is between 21 and 99.

six thousand, nine hundred and eighty-seven
thirty-four thousand, three hundred and fourteen
twenty-nine hundred 

One common mistake with hyphens is in regard to age. Here are the correct ways to punctuate someone's age.

the six-year-old girl
the girl is six years old

We only use hyphens when we need to pull several adjectives into one--to essentially make them one word (compound adjective). When reading 'six-year-old girl', those three hyphenated words become one. They are a descriptor for the girl (the adjectives come together to modify the noun.) We can't say 'six girl' or 'year girl'--none of these words on their own make sense, so those three words combine as a set of words to create one meaning - six-year-old.

When we say 'the girl is six years old', however, we are not modifying the subject with an adjective, so we just say 'six years old'--no hyphens. I always remember this rule by the 's'. If there's an s involved (six years), I know there are no hyphens. If we want to say That's a twenty-year-old house, we need to add hyphens as these adjectives have become a singular descriptor to modify the noun 'house'.

Another hyphen rule is to add the hyphen to a set of words that would have normally been hyphenated, but you'd prefer not to laboriously write the full adjective out each time. Note, below, that I have added a hyphen to six and seven, with no need to add year-olds after each one.

In our class, we have six-, seven- and eight-year-olds.

en dashes –
An en dash essentially means 'to'. So:

from October–December 
from 59–100

Some publications/journals put spaces either side of an en dash, so either is correct (again, publishers, magazines, newspapers, have their in-house Style Guide, which may sometimes stray from the standard Australian Style Guide, but not often). I prefer to put a space, personally, because the en dash can sometimes look like a hyphen, depending on the typeface:

from October – December
from 59 – 100

em dashes —
An em dash typically indicates a break in a sentence to indicate pause, further thought or even a change in thought/sentence direction—though the latter can sometimes be represented by a semi colon (;). Em dashes can also be used in place—as I have done right here—of brackets (which can become tiresome and addling if used repeatedly).

There is no space either side of an em dash.

As mentioned above, semi-colons are often used when a change in direction is needed in a sentence, or additional information is added that doesn't flow well in a grammatical sense.

They can also be used to separate a series of longer clauses or sentence fragments, to help with reader comprehension. This is especially so if the clauses contain multiple use of the word 'and', though do note that this form of punctuation is outdated (often used in text books) and a regular comma is pretty much always used in modern texts:

The ship carried a multitude of supplies including food that was high in nutrition and water for prisoners and crew; livestock and relevant foodstuffs to keep the livestock in good condition for arrival; botanical samples from the various ports and islands along the route; and a series of lovely beads to gift to local natives.

In modern texts, semi-colons are not used to separate lists of items.

The ship carried food, water, livestock, botanical samples and beads.
The ship carried food; water; livestock; botanical samples and beads.

Although this rule can vary between publications and publishers, the Australian Style Guide rule, when it comes to journalism, is to write numbers from one to nine, then from 10 upwards, we use numerals. In novels, however, this rule changes, and you'll regularly see the use of eighty-six and twenty-four, etc. Writing out the numbers looks less like a magazine or newspaper and more 'novel-like'.

In Australia, we have pretty much stopped using full stops to indicate initials and acronyms, along with the commas on numerals (2000 as opposed to 2,000), though they still do it in the States. Commas are sometimes added to longer numbers, just for comprehension, but more often than not, these are being replaced with gaps.

100 000 000

Dr Seuss
Dr. Seuss


Michael J Fox
Michael J. Fox

Frank Jr
Frank Jr.

Mrs Jones
Mrs. Jones

The general rule is this:

THAT is used for an object. This is the book that changed my life.
WHO is used for a person or people. She is the woman who hired me. They are the people who changed the world.

Regarding animals ... there's an unwritten rule that it's okay to use 'who' so long as the animal is known to you/has a name. For example:

There is the dog that bit me!
This is my dog, Russell, who happens to be the love of my life.

So many thats! A personal bugbear of mine and it's so common! Be wary of using too many—it's clumsy and superfluous, and sucks the flow, meaning and comprehension out of sentences.

I think that the world is moving so fast that we find that we are missing out on the things that matter most; things that we will pine for when all is said and done.

How much better without all the thats ...

I think the world is moving so fast, we find we are missing out on the things that matter most; things we will pine for when all is said and done.

In regard to this issue ...
With regard to that issue ...
Regarding those issues ...
These never take an s!!

Only exception:
As regards the following issues ... (this is old-fashioned, formal speak)AND
Please send him my regards. (greetings)

Green means yes, baby! Read means no! no! no! stop it immediately!

all right alright
divine devine
lose loose (when something is lost)
definitely definately
a lot alot
mothers-in-law mother-in-laws
weird wierd

I hope this helps you with your grammar/punctuation-wrangling!

Want even more? Also see My Grammar Rant. And I highly recommend The Oatmeal and quick and dirty grammar tips by Mignon Fogarty.

Leave a comment with your own bugbears, if you like!

1 comment:

Debra tidball said...

Wow, thanks Tania. Very timely reminders. Thanks for the work you put into this!

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