Tips on Grammar

This is a collection of tips on how to avoid making the most common grammar/spelling mistakes when editing here.

Your contribution is more important to us than some minor spelling blunder. If you really don't feel like a grammar lesson right now, just click the back button and pretend this never happened. If you're looking to save our resident Grammar Nazis some grief, however, you may want to read the following.

  • Capitalization: the first letter of every new sentence should be a capital letter. A new sentence starts after a . a ? or an !. You should also capitalize people's names (Alice, Bob), movie/book/series titles (Seinfeld, 1984), places which are likely to show up in the Atlas (the Middle East, Paris) and the word I... Although you really shouldn't be using that to begin with.

  • Punctuation: (? ! , . : ; ...)
    • After each punctuation mark there should be a space.
    • We cannot hope to instruct you on when it is appropriate to use a comma. The official rules for this were obviously determined by a bunch of drunk guys playing homebrew Wheel of Fortune. Just imagine yourself saying the sentence out loud, pause considerably with each comma, add/remove commas accordingly whenever the pacing seems off and hope for the best.
      • This is not a hard and fast rule as commas aren't necessarily an indication of pacing. For example: "The cat who hates Jack is looking at me." and "The cat, who hates Jack, is looking at me." can be said exactly the same (possibly with some slight inflection differences, but they mean different things. The first sentence is specifying a cat, whereas in the second, "who hates Jack" is just added detail and not mechanically part of the idea conveyed by the sentence. This is an example of essential clause vs non-essential clause. There are other examples (particularly descriptive ones) where a comma and a pause don't necessarily go hand-in-hand.
      • Further, your speech patterns/rhythm might not be much different between "I go to the mall and like to shop." and "I go to the mall, and I like to shop." But notice that the second requires a comma as the portion of the sentence following the conjunction is an independent clause (it has its own subject, whereas the first sentence does not).
    • ! and ... carry a lot of emotional punch, so use them sparingly. Spamming the ! is reserved for scenes of utmost urgency; spamming the ... is reserved for fleeting streams of consciousness. Neither of these is likely to belong here. In a moment of extreme excitement, one ! is permissible. More than one is unnecessary, unattractive, and ungood.

  • "Was" vs "were": "Was" is used as a singular past tense, while "were" is used for plural past tense. "Were" is also used in imaginary and hypothetical sentences (such as sentences that start with "if", or "I wish"), regardless of it being singular or plural. An exception is made when it is assumed that it might possibly be true and the speaker indicates a statement.
    • Singular example: "The dog I adopted was brown."; not "The dog I adopted were brown."
    • Plural example: "The dogs I adopted were brown."; not "The dogs I adopted was brown."
    • Hypothetical example: "If the dog I adopted were brown, I'd name him Brownie"; not "If the dog I adopted was brown, I'd name him Brownie."
    • Conditional statement example: "If the dog I adopted was brown, I'm naming him Brownie."; not "If the dog I adopted were brown, I'm naming him Brownie."

  • "Who" vs "whom": "Who" acts subjectively like "I", "he", or "she". "Whom" acts like an object , like "me" or "him".
    • Examples: "Who is coming with me?"; "The person is who?"; "To whom should I give the money?" "Whom should I pick?" You would not say "Whom should I say is calling?" as you wouldn't say "I say him is calling." "Whom should I say is calling?" is functionally equivalent to "Whom is calling?", which is clearly wrong.

  • "Whoever" vs "whomever": The choice depends on the function within a clause, not the sentence as a whole. Consider the following subject clauses (with the subject clauses in parentheses for clarity): "(Whoever stole the ball) should return it." and "(Whomever I choose) will get the last dance with me." In the first, "Whoever" is the subject of the subject clause, whereas in the second, "Whomever" is a direct object within a subject clause. "I will give the book to whomever pays me money." would be wrong. While "to whom" is appropriate, the decision is not based on that, but rather on who/whom is paying money ("who" (not "whom") pays money, so it should be "whoever."

  • What goes after "than": Than I? Than me?, Than he? Than him? It depends on what you're saying. Are you comparing the doer of an action? Most likely you want the subject (I, he, etc). Is it a direct object? Than you likely want the object (me, him, her, etc).
    • Example: "Jill likes cookies more than me." means "Jill likes cookies more than she likes me." But "Jill likes cookies more than I." means "Jill likes cookies more than I like cookies."
    • Try to avoid ambiguity when possible. Example: "Jill likes cookies more than Jack." could mean two different things. Make it clear.

  • What goes after "and": Jill and I? Jill and me? It depends on the function of the noun. If it's a subject, predicate nominative, or appositive, used the subjective (I, he, etc). Otherwise (if it's a direct or indirect object or object of a preposition), use the objective (me, him, them, etc). The fact that the word comes after "and" means nothing.
    • Example: "I'm glad that you came to see Jill and I." is wrong.

  • Parallel structure: Make a logical flow, particularly when it comes to lists.
    • Example: "My dog can jump through hoops, ropes, fire, and do flips." is wrong as "flips" is not one of the things through which he can jump. It should be "My dog can jump through hoops, ropes, and fire, and do flips." The list is ended with "fire" due to the first "and".
    • Example: "I either have to go or Jack will die." should be "Either, I have to go, or Jack will die." In the original, "Jack will die" would be one of the options of things "I" could do.

  • Proper use of gerunds: A verb form ending in "-ing" that is used as a noun (the shelling of the town, the suffering of the people) should be possessed when appropriate.
    • Example: "We lost because of you kicking to the left." is wrong. It should be "We lost because of youR kicking to the left."
    • Example: "His buying of the property will help our community." It is essentially equivalent to "His purchase of the property...."

  • Avoiding dangling prepositions: Do not end a CLAUSE with a preposition. "The table I got on is very strong." is still wrong as the noun clause "the table I got on" still ends with a preposition. It should be "The table on which I got is very strong." It is okay if a sentence ends with a preposition if the preposition is actually an adverb, if it has a phantom direct object, or is simply the result of a Yoda-speak type inversion.
    • Examples where it's okay: "I would like to get waited on." (adverb); "I saw the room and walked in [the room]." (phantom); "The table, I got on." (inversion; if that were part of a sentence however (and minus the comma) (see above), that would be wrong.)

  • Avoiding dangling modifiers: Make sense a subject-less phrase used to describe what is going on matches the subject if necessary.
    • Example: "Running down the stairs, the kitchen started to catch on fire." should be something like "While I was running down the stairs, the kitchen started to catch on fire." or "Running down the stairs, I saw that the kitchen started to catch on fire."
    • Example: "As a doctor, what is my prognosis?" or ever "As a doctor, what would you say is my prognosis?" are also both wrong, even though the latter may be considered acceptable as it contains "you" even though "what" is technically the subject.
    • A specific type of dangling modifier is a dangling participle. "Robbed of my wallet, the man decided to lend me some money." would mean the man, not I, was robbed.

Warning- incoming Wall of Text. Don't despair! You can do it!

This little thing here → ' (the apostrophe) causes a lot of trouble. Probably most of the trouble. Some tips on its use:

  • One burrito, many burritos- not burrito's. If the S were just added to make a plural, don't use an '.
  • A lot of words are actually two words crammed into one, with letters lost on the way: do not → don't, they have → they've, we are → we're, it is → it's, and many others (Gotta Catch 'em All!). The ' in this case means "some letters used to be here". If you can recognize a word as one of these, an ' should go where the missing letters used to be.
  • Julia's eyes, Joe's burrito. When a Y belongs to X, you can say it is X's Y, with an '.
    • The rules for making nouns possessive are simpler than most people realize:
      • If the noun is singular, add 's. Yes, even if the noun itself ends in s. A fox's tail, the quiz's answers, Jesus's disciples, even my boss's desk.
      • If the noun is plural and ends in s (as most do), add an apostrophe: my sisters' birthdays, the unicorns' horns.
      • If the noun is plural and does not end in s, add 's: the children's books, the geese's wings.

EXCEPTION: pronouns (I, you, he, she, we, they, who, it). These guys are allergic to this use of 's, so they behave completely differently. Most of them even have two different words for "X's Y" and "The Y is X's", just to be confusing.
  • Imy burrito, the burrito is mine
  • Youyour burrito, the burrito is yours (you're means you are. Your's is not a word.)
  • Hehis burrito, the burrito is his (he's means he is or he has)
  • Sheher burrito, the burrito is hers
  • Weour burrito, the burrito is ours (our's is not a word)
  • Theytheir burrito, the burrito is theirs (they're means they are. Their's is not a word. There usually means a place.)
  • Whowhose burrito is it? Again I ask - the burrito is whose? (Who's means who is or who has)
  • Itits burrito, the burrito is its. (This one is a very common pitfall, because its and it's sound exactly the same. As long as you remember that it's is always short for it is or it has, you'll be fine.)

There do exist circumstances where pronouns can legitimately end up next to apostrophes:
  • Contracted verbs - "Your hat's lilac. Mine's magenta. See the difference?"
  • The pronoun is part of a relative clause - "Mary bought all that cat John gave her's siblings, she liked it so much," or even "No child of ours's house will ever have mice."
    • The sentence involving "Mary" isn't really clear. It would be clearer if it were written "Since she liked it so much, Mary bought all (of) that cat (that) John gave her's siblings." In the sentence, "Mary" is the subject, "bought" is the predicate, and the rest of the sentence is a direct object, where "siblings" is the main direct object possesesed by "that cat", which itself is descibed by "John gave her".
However, the first is pretty much restricted to dialogue, and the second, while technically grammatical, is clunky so is best used only when there's absolutely no alternative. For general prose, avoid both.

When in doubt, leave the apostrophe out.

The easiest way to get it right is to remember an apostrophe is to show something has been LEFT OUT. For example, nothing has been left out of the word:


But "The boy, his book" (original correct medieval usage)

has been reduced to:

"The boy's book."

However when "it" owns something, the apostrophe is NOT used: For example, if a wheel came off your bike, you could correctly write:

It's horrible. My bike lost its wheel.

Some tropers confuse "would have" for "would of", probably because of the similarity in pronunciation. You can say: I would have said it better, but not I would of said it better. In the same vein, don't say "alot". It isn't a word. Just remember that "a lot" is the opposite of "a few", and the "a" isn't part of the word "lot". There is a word "allot", but it has nothing to do with "a lot".

For more sesquipedalian details on this, see Wanton Cruelty to the Common Comma, The Big List of Booboos and Blunders.