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Introduction How to Use This Book What Does This Book Mean by “Perfect Grammar”?
1.0 GENERAL PRINCIPLES
2.0 COMPOSITION 2.1 A Few Words of Advice 2.2 Getting Started 2.2.1 Write for the Correct Audience 2.2.2 Opening Sentences 2.3 Paragraph Structure 2.3.1 Paragraph Topic 2.3.2 Body and Supporting Sentences 2.3.3 Number of Sentences in a Paragraph 2.3.4 Conclusion 2.4 Example Paragraphs 2.5 The Five-Paragraph Essay 2.6 Transitions and Coherence 2.7 Common Essay Mistakes to Avoid 2.8 Editing
3.0 PARTS OF SPEECH DEFINED
4.0 SPELLING AND FORMATTING 4.1 Improve Your Spelling 4.2 Common Spelling Errors 4.2.1 British Spelling versus American Spelling 4.2.2 Homophone Spelling Errors 4.3 Common Spelling Rules 4.3.1 I before E 4.3.2 Adding a Suffix and Dropping the E 4.3.3 Adding Suffixes to Words Ending in Y 4.3.4 Double the Final Consonant When Adding Suffixes 4.4 Affixes 4.4.1 Inflected Endings 4.4.2 Derivational Suffixes 4.4.3 Infixes 4.4.4 Common Prefixes 4.4.5 Common Suffixes 4.5 Contractions 4.5.1 It’s and It’d 4.5.2 Old-Fashioned Contractions 4.5.3 Y’all 4.5.4 Let’s 4.6 Proper Nouns that End in S 4.7 Common Possessive Mistakes to Avoid 4.7.1 Its versus It’s 4.8 Dates 4.8.1 Date Abbreviations 4.8.2 Decades and Years 4.8.3 Time and the Clock 4.8.4 Idiomatic Time Measurements 4.9 Numbers 4.9.1 Partial Numbers 4.9.2 Writing Numbers 4.9.3 Percentages as Numbers 4.9.4 Numbers that Start Sentences 4.9.5 Place Punctuation in Numbers 4.9.6 Saying Numbers as Words 4.9.7 Zero versus Oh 4.9.8 Saying Phone Numbers 4.9.9 Writing Amounts of Money
5.0 SENTENCE STRUCTURE
5.1 Subjects and Predicates 5.2 Subject-Verb Agreement 5.3 Objects 5.4 Clauses 5.5 Subordinators 5.6 Phrases 5.6.1 Noun Phrases 5.6.2 Verb Phrases 5.6.3 Prepositional Phrases 5.6.4 Absolute Phrases 5.7 Complements
6.0 VERBS 6.1 Person 6.2 Number 6.3 Aspect 6.4 Tense 6.4.1 Past Tense 6.4.2 Present Tense 6.4.3 Future Tense 6.5 Mood 6.6 Voice 6.7 Conjugating Verbs 6.7.1 Now 6.7.2 In the Past 6.7.3 Continuous Action 6.8 Action Verbs 6.9 Linking Verbs 6.10 Auxiliary Verbs 6.11 Modal Verbs 6.11.1 Multiple Modals 6.12 Irregular Verb Inflections 6.13 Lay versus Lie 6.14 Gotten 6.15 Brung 6.16 Writing with Consistent Tenses 6.16.1 Choosing Your Tense 6.17 Phrasal Verbs
8.0 NOUNS 8.1 Compound Nouns 8.2 Possessives 8.3 Collective Nouns 8.3.1 Fun Collective Nouns 8.4 Count Nouns and Non-Count Nouns 8.5 Definite and Indefinite Articles with Nouns 8.5.1 An Historic versus A Historic 8.6 Plurals 8.6.1 Plurals of Some Greek and Latin Words 8.6.2 Words Ending in O 8.6.3 Words with No Singular or No Plural 8.6.4 Words that Look Plural But Aren’t 8.6.5 Apostrophes Don’t Make Words Plural 8.6.6 Plurals of Some Compound Nouns 8.6.7 Common Problems with Plurals 8.6.8 Plural of Data 8.7 Proper Nouns 8.8 Definite Article and Proper Nouns 8.8.1 Common Problems with Proper Nouns 8.9 Nouns into Verbs
9.0 ABBREVIATIONS 9.1 Initialisms 9.2 Acronyms 9.3 Shortening and Clipping 9.4 Blends and Portmanteaus 9.5 Pluralizing Acronyms and Initialisms
10.0 PRONOUNS 10.1 Subject Pronouns 10.2 Object Pronouns 10.3 Possessive Adjectives 10.4 Possessive Pronouns 10.5 Reflexive and Intensive Pronouns 10.5.1 Reflexive Pronouns
10.5.2 Intensive Pronouns 10.6 Relative Pronouns 10.7 Demonstrative Pronouns and Adjectives 10.8 Interrogative Pronouns 10.9 Whom versus Who 10.10 Subject Pronouns versus Object Pronouns in Some Situations 10.11 Pronouns and Indeterminate Gender 10.12 Weather It, Expletive It, and the Dummy Subject
11.0 ADJECTIVES 11.1 Adjective Order 11.2 Comparative and Superlative Adjectives 11.3 Irregular Comparatives and Superlatives 11.4 Proper Adjectives 11.5 Compound Adjectives 11.6 Indefinite Adjectives
12.0 ADVERBS 12.1 Conjunctive Adverbs 12.2 Sentence Adverbs
13.0 PREPOSITIONS 13.1 Common Prepositions
14.0 CONJUNCTIONS 14.1 Coordinating Conjunctions 14.2 Correlative Conjunctions 14.3 Subordinating Conjunctions
15.0 INTERJECTIONS 15.1 Common Interjections
16.0 PUNCTUATION 16.1 Period 16.2 Comma 16.2.1 Commas and Independent Clauses 16.2.2 Commas and Introductory Clauses 16.2.3 Commas and Interjections 16.2.4 Commas and Vocative Uses 16.2.5 Commas and Nonessential Ideas 16.2.6 Commas and Essential Ideas 16.2.7 Commas and Series 16.2.8 Commas and Adjectives 16.2.9 Commas and Descriptions 16.2.10 Commas that Set Off Names and Dates 16.2.11 Commas and Dialog 16.2.12 Common Mistakes with Commas 16.3 Question Mark 16.4 Exclamation Mark 16.5 Colon 16.6 Semicolon 16.7 Hyphen 16.8 Dash 16.8.1 En Dash 16.8.2 Em Dash 16.9 Apostrophe 16.10 Quotation Marks 16.11 Parentheses and Brackets
17.0 MORE USAGE AND STYLE 17.1 Avoiding Adverbs 17.2 Bored Of versus Bored By versus Bored With 17.3 Can versus May 17.4 Capital Letters 17.5 Clichés
17.6 Conjunctions at the Beginning of a Sentence 17.7 Dangling Modifiers 17.8 Double Negatives 17.9 Funner and Funnest 17.10 Go Missing 17.11 Misplaced Modifiers 17.12 On Accident versus By Accident 17.13 Or and Nor 17.14 Repetition 17.15 Shall versus Will 17.16 Spaces after a Period 17.17 That versus Which 17.18 There Is versus There Are 17.19 Well versus Good 17.20 Wordiness 17.21 Y’all, You Guys, and Genderless Guy
Glossary Further Reading About the Author
COLOR KEY: PRINCIPLES COMPOSITION STRUCTURE WORDS PUNCTUATION USAGE AND STYLE
Igrew up in rural Missouri. My father was a cop. My mother was an Avon lady. They raised five kids to be clean, be quiet, and be good (with mixed results for “quiet” and “good”). Education was mostly left to the schools. There were no tutors, no college prep, no books on how to help children succeed at life. It worked out for me somehow: I became a constant reader, and with the help of libraries, I added to my learning. But nobody emphasized for me that writing and speaking well were important until I was in my twenties. In grade school and high school—where I felt I excelled at composition and literature analysis—everything seemed fine. It was about overall literacy, the broad strokes of language. I listened, I did the work, and I passed the tests. But in college, that wasn’t enough. Others noticed I used too many commas. Professors left embarrassing remarks about my writing on my essays. The student newspaper editors cut my wordiness to tight journalistic paragraphs that I couldn’t seem to come up with on my own. Clearly, there was a higher level of attention I could pay to my writing and speaking. So, I set out to fix my language. There was so much I didn’t know. It turned out to be so interesting I dived in deep and eventually became a lexicographer—someone who compiles and edits dictionaries—especially dictionaries for people learning English through classwork rather than by being born into it. Later, I became the co-host of a public radio show about words and language now heard by more than 500,000 people a week around the world. Now, I give speeches, I talk to the press about language (especially about new words and slang), and, as you can see, I write books about it. I want others to see what I see: with a little bit of help, anyone can improve their communication. Since you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you or someone you know needs help with their language. To help as many people as possible, I’ve written this book to be useful for a wide range of readers, writers, and learners: junior
this book to be useful for a wide range of readers, writers, and learners: junior high, high school, and college students; graduate students who speak English as a second (or even third) language; or business professionals and community leaders who need a refresher on grammar points they last thought about decades ago. This book does not cover all of English grammar. Instead, it contains frequently asked questions I’ve encountered from writers, speechmakers, and language learners of all ages and kinds. It also includes facts that were eyeopeners for me when I first started on my journey of communicating better. I hope this book will be your trusted companion as you express all that you have to say.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
First, browse the book to familiarize yourself with its contents. Then, when questions come up, use the table of contents to find answers. Each entry has an index number. Related subjects appear near each other or are mentioned in a cross-reference like this: see section 8.0, Nouns. I know many readers like to dip and skim for pleasure, so I’ve written this book so you can open to any page, read for a few minutes, and go away with a little nugget of information. Of course, you can read the whole thing straight through, too, if that’s your style. I don’t judge. To make everything easier to understand, I’ve included example sentences, lists and charts, and a glossary explaining some of the specialized language of grammar and linguistics.
WHAT DOES THIS BOOK MEAN BY “PERFECT GRAMMAR”?
Although this book features the word grammar in the title, it also pays a lot of attention to things that aren’t strictly grammar (at least in the academic linguistic sense of the word). You’ll find information on writing well, spelling, style, usage, and more. Grammar does not exist alone: it is just one of the complex ways we communicate with each other. So, this book will also motivate you to improve
communicate with each other. So, this book will also motivate you to improve your communication by using correct basic grammar as a framework around finding your own voice, which, in short, is about figuring out who you are, what you want to say, who you want to say it to, and how best to do it. “Perfect” is what we shoot for but never achieve. It’s a shorthand for constantly working to improve your writing and speech while acknowledging that perfection is subjective. Try for perfect communication, but give yourself a break if you’re not there yet. I encourage you to think about the contents not as “grammar rules” but as “grammar guidelines.” My goal is to help you make the best choice for your situation without having to fear somebody will hunt you down and make fun of you because you did it your way instead of their way. In fact, if you try to follow all the rules or guidelines exactly, you will likely make a mess of your writing. There are few unassailable rules—you just have to become experienced enough to know when to challenge them. I also encourage you to work on developing your speaker’s intuition. This is a fancy way of saying “your natural understanding of what is acceptable in English.” This is done by making it a daily habit to read and listen to many different writers and speakers who are a little more advanced than you are, and by consulting this book (and books like it) whenever you are in doubt. If, after using this book for a while, you feel as though you’ve learned everything it has to teach you, go on to the books mentioned in the Further Reading section here. They’re works I know, by authors I trust, that offer practical advice anyone can use, even if you’re not a professional grammarian. Grant Barrett SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA | 2016
These guidelines should help you make the most of this book as you work toward becoming a better writer. 1. Consistency matters. When you make a style choice, stick with it throughout your project. When you choose a tense (see section 6.4), person (see section 6.1), or tone, think twice before switching to a new one. 2. English offers many options. There may be more than one acceptable choice. There isn’t necessarily just one answer for every language dilemma. 3. Words can have more than one meaning and more than one use. Be wary. 4. English is illogical in places. Trying to make it logical is a mistake. Instead, bend to it. 5. There is a variety of linguistic terms for the same features of English. It is more important to understand the concepts than to know all the terms. 6. Write for your audience (see section 2.2.1) rather than for yourself. Write appropriately for the situation. 7. Write to be understood. Don’t let anyone’s rules get in the way of good communication. 8. Avoid doing things differently than everyone else. It can distract from your message. This especially applies to beginning or nonfluent writers, as they often reach beyond their abilities. 9. Avoid the urge to put writerly tricks to work unless they come naturally to you. Simple does it. Before literary writers could do clever things with their work, they had to understand the ordinary ways of language. Basic language rules underlie everything they write. 10. Use a thesaurus only to remind yourself of words you already know. Don’t use a thesaurus to find new words for your writing. You are very likely to misuse new words, because a thesaurus does not always indicate which words are appropriate for which contexts. 11. Throughout this book, I recommend consulting a dictionary. Consider using two dictionaries from different publishers. Each dictionary has its own strengths. Be sure to use dictionaries from wellknown publishers, as off-brand dictionaries tend to be out-of-date and less thorough. See my recommendations in the Further Reading section (here). 12. Use the style guide preferred by your organization, school, teacher, or industry and stick with it. Well-known style guides sometimes
or industry and stick with it. Well-known style guides sometimes disagree on specifics. In this book, I give guidelines that will, generally, work for everyday writing for school and work. 13. Use the table of contents and the glossary. This is not only a browsable book, but also one that can be used for easy lookups.
Writing well is one of the most crucial tools of the modern person. It is a skill required by nearly every profession, and one that allows you to get your work done, help others, and leave behind a legacy of your thoughts and actions so you may be remembered long after you are gone.
2.1 A Few Words of Advice Think of words as bricks and boards, sentences as walls and windows, paragraphs as houses, and essays, stories, and articles as neighborhoods. Your writing is a little world for your readers, which you furnish in a way that, you hope, delights them. Writing is a learned process that doesn’t come naturally to anyone. We all must be taught it. Don’t fret if you think you’re behind where you should be. You can learn it, just as many millions of people have before you. Hang in there. Writing has different rules than speaking does. What naturally comes out of our mouths may seem fine to us, but if we write it down exactly as we speak it, other people—who can’t see our memories, emotions, knowledge, and ideas— will get only vague, misshapen impressions of what we mean. We must write differently than we speak. Writing is messy. I know many authors and writers, and none of them writes anything meaningful without planning, revising, and editing. There is a myth of the genius writer who can do it all perfectly in one try. Do not think you’re failing if you can’t do that. Also, everybody needs a good editor. Everybody! It’s easy to lose sight of what is important. You focus on word count rather than results. You lose track of your good idea because you’re worried about margins or type size. You’re concerned about the introduction but haven’t given a thought to the conclusion. You’re so worried about your deadline it distracts you from doing the work. Many writers go through this! You are not alone. To focus on what is important, look at the finished, published writing around you and think, “If they did it, so can I.” Format at the end. Things like bolding, italicizing, and setting margins can be distractions from what matters most. You’ll end up having to redo a lot of the formatting, anyway. Writing well isn’t magic. Even large parts of the most superb award-winning books have been perfunctory or even mechanical. Sometimes simply following the steps will get you to the end. You don’t always need inspiration. Sometimes you simply need to sit down, do it, and stop worrying.
2.2 Getting Started For some people, the hardest part of writing is the blank page, that looming, scary place where nothing seems to be happening, and nothing in your head seems good enough to put down.
2.2.1 WRITE FOR THE CORRECT AUDIENCE I once worked with a young person who couldn’t write light, fun emails for clients because he was still stuck in the university essay mode. Everything came out in a formal tone. I’ve also seen new students who should know better send very casual emails to their professors, completely lacking in even the simplest of composition niceties, such as capital letters, punctuation, or even “please” and “thank you.” Don’t be the person who doesn’t recognize when it is the right time for formal versus informal language! Match the tone and register of your audience.
2.2.2 OPENING SENTENCES CAN BE HARD, BUT THEY DON’T HAVE TO BE If you’re having trouble putting down your first words, try these ideas. They can also break up writers’ block. Build a structure first. Plan. Use a spreadsheet, outline, or graph paper. You’d be surprised how many writers of all kinds—speechwriters, newspaper reporters, novelists, screenplay writers, and so on—first sketch out their ideas in a structured form. Some use a slideshow program’s outline view to build a structure on which they can hang all their ideas, and t...