Grammar and Spelling Resources

Last time, we looked at the first two parts of PUGS, Punctuation and Usage. Today we’ll look at the others.


In common speech, we often use “grammar” to encompass all parts of writing, including spelling and punctuation. But grammar really refers specifically to the way we assemble words into sentences.

English grammar is very complex, and has multiple registers, or degrees of formality. Many college instructors require the most formal register, so that’s what many businesspeople use. At its most extreme, this register eliminates both first and second-person pronouns, leading to unnatural constructions like “this researcher has found” and “one may notice” instead of “I’ve found” and “you may notice.” In standard writing, there is no proscription against these forms. So you can choose whatever level of formality you’re comfortable with. In a blog, you can be very casual. Continue reading

Beware the nonrules

Last time I noted that there are lots of misconceptions about what constitutes “grammar.” There are also lots of misconceptions about what constitutes “rules” of writing.

Adverbs modify verbs is a rule. Don’t use adverbs is a nonrule. You may use adverbs, as long as you do so judiciously.

split infinitives

Black Chalkboard illustration by jaylopez •

Continue reading

Get your grammar in line

Most writers are, by nature, very good about their grammar. But there are lots of misconceptions.

Grammatical errors have been eliminated.

Grammar, contrary to popular belief, does not include punctuation or spelling, as we often see on lists of “common grammatical errors,” which usually contain things like misplaced commas (punctuation) the confusion of affect for effect (usage) or misuse of apostrophes, such as it’s for its (spelling*).

Grammar concerns only the parts of speech (such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives) and how they combine to form sentences. Continue reading

Why second person doesn’t work in fiction

Last time we talked about first versus third person in light of this item on our checklist:

The chosen grammatical person is suitable to the story and the POV characters.

I glossed over second person, in which the reader is addressed as “you,” noting only that it is Not Recommended.

One type of fiction in which second person does work is children’s fiction, especially the “choose your own adventure” book. Back in the day, this type of book would have a scene that ended with something like this: “You reach a fork in the road. Which way will you choose? If right, turn to page 63. If left, turn to page 67.” New stories of this type are put in e-book form with hyperlinks, and can be very effective, especially when the book is carefully aimed at a market that’s eager to fill the shoes of the story’s protagonist.

Second person works less well in traditional novel-length narrative fiction. Continue reading

Can a person be a “that?”

© Igarts -

© Igarts –

Ever had critique partners question a sentence like this?

The waiter that spilled coffee on my new dress offered to pay the dry-cleaning bill.

Some will say you shouldn’t use “that” for a person. But Garner’s Modern American Usage and other expert sources say it’s acceptable.

Are your critique partners wrong?

That depends. Continue reading

Cheat Sheet: Lay and Lie

Lay, lie, and the other lie seem designed to cause trouble. Two are homonyms, and the present tense of one is the same as the past tense of another.

Mix-ups usually come when we mistake the intransitive lie—she was lying on the floor—with the transitive lay. If she was laying on the floor, she needs an object—she was laying her yoga mat on the floor. But most of us usually use the simple past tense. She laid her yoga mat on the floor, and then she lay down on it. When asked her age, she lied. Continue reading

When to use who or whom

English is complicated and can confuse the best of us. Many editors have dog-eared grammar manuals and style books with Post-It notes on the sections we have to double-check every time. One fine point that even experienced editors find hard to memorize is the distinction between who and whom.

The short answer to the who or whom question is that who is for subjects and whom is for objects. Only it isn’t that simple, or why would we all keep asking one another, “Is this right?” Continue reading

When passive voice is permissible

Writers and editors often pass on things they’ve learned — usually at the knee of some mentor they highly respect — in the form of seemingly inviolable rules: As it was said to me, I say to you, Thou shalt not use the passive voice.

break editor's pencil

magdaloubser •

I am not saying “you have to know the rules before you can break them.” I’m heartily sick of that old bromide. I am saying you have to know the difference between a real rule and a non-rule. Continue reading