Three Easy Grammar Rules to Improve Professionalism

In the middle of a semester, you can easily find me at my kitchen table at 1:30 in the morning, promising to myself that if one more student's paper demonstrates a total disregard for the particular comma rule I just taught them, I will never teach grammar again. Of course, the next paper usually will ignore the same comma rule, and I will not follow through with my promise. I love students too much to quit trying to teach them something they greatly need just because many of them find it boring. I also, oddly enough, love grammar too much to let it go. Thing is, these are not stupid kids, nor are they in middle or even high school. They are in a freshman-level composition course at a university. You would think that I would not be the first one to teach them where commas go.

Unfortunately, many times I am. I have had very bright students not know the difference between active and passive voice, not know where the apostrophe goes in "its," and confuse "their" for "there."

So, grammar nerd that I am, I thought I would list the three most common grammar errors that I find in students' writing because I often see them in other professional avenues as well.

Are you a writer? Looking to make your manuscript or proposal sound more professional? Keep these rules in mind when reviewing your work. I find myself making these errors all the time.

1) Pronouns must agree in both number and gender with their antecedents. People like to avoid gender-biased language, which is good, but then they often replace it with another grammar error (a pronoun number problem).

Example (Wrong): Each student must study their books for the final exam.
What is wrong with this sentence? "Each" is a singular pronoun, but "their" and "books" are plural. We have to switch things around so that the number matches.

Correct: Each student must study his or her book for the final exam.


Correct: All students must study their books for the final exam.

2) Use a comma after an introductory element in a sentence (usually they begin with the words "however," "because," "for," "so," "once," etc.). An introductory element is just what it sounds like: words that introduce the rest of your sentence. The element can be a single word like "so," or it can be a group of words.

Example (Wrong): For the time being I will watch LOST.
The reader gets confused by the lack of necessary punctuation.

Correct: For the time being, I will watch LOST.

Another example:
(Wrong): Because has so many vintage items many people buy 1950's style dresses from the website.

Correct: Because has so many vintage items, many people buy 1950's style dresses from the website.
You can see how the incorrect example is difficult to understand because the reader does not know where to pause the initial thought of the sentence, whereas the comma adds clarity.

3) Avoid run-ons and comma splices by using correct punctuation between two complete thoughts in a sentence. Comma splices and run-ons are essentially the same thing: trying to jam too much information into one sentence without the proper punctuation. Any time that you have two complete thoughts in a sentence, meaning that you could break the sentence into two separate sentences and they would both make complete sense, you can't just put a comma in between the complete thoughts. Commas are just not strong enough to handle such a tough job.

You either to need to use
a) a comma with a coordination conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, yet)
b) a semicolon
c) or just break the two thoughts into two sentences.

*Remember that both parts of the sentence must express complete thoughts, meaning they both must contain a subject and a verb, in order for this rule to apply.

Example (Wrong): She burnt my chocolate chip cookies and she thinks it's funny.
Here we have the word "and" trying to join the two thoughts all by its lonesome self. It needs to help of my friend, the comma.

Correct: She burnt my chocolate chip cookies, and she thinks it's funny.

Another example:
(Wrong): The act of writing is a process, the journey is never finished.
Here, on the other hand, we have the opposite problem: a comma is desperately in need of a coordinating conjunction to keep it company. We could also use a semicolon for extra style points.

Correct: The act of writing is a process; the journey is never finished.

*Also, note that this rule goes both ways: don't use a comma with a coordinating conjunction if you do not have two complete thoughts in the sentence, unless the sentence needs the comma for clarity purposes. (An example would be my previous sentence.)

Example (Wrong): She loves dogs, and is thinking about rescuing one from the Humane Society.
We don't need the comma after "dogs" because the second half of the sentence could not stand by itself ("is thinking about rescuing one from the Humane Society).

Correct: She loves dogs and is thinking about rescuing one from the Humane Society.

Any questions about these three rules? How does catching grammar errors affect your impression of an organization or individual's professionalism?

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