ENGLISH 111/009


(c) Dr. Diane Thompson, NVCC

Select and study the entries below on grammar and editing issues as assigned by your instructor, or as you feel the need.


Apostrophes are used to show that a letter or letters have been left out. For example: 


"I am" contracts to "I'm"

"it is" contracts to "it's"

"do not" contracts to "don't."

Apostrophes are also used to show possession.


One dog has one bone: "the dog's bone"

One dog has two bones: "the dog's bones"

Two dogs have one bone: "the dogs' bone"

Two dogs have two bones: "the dogs' bones"

The rule is to put the needed apostrophe before the "s" when a word does not end in "s" already. But if the word does end in "s" or a "z" sound, simply add the apostrophe after the final letter.

Use an apostrophe to show the plural of a number or symbol.


Count by 10's.
I like the sound of r's.

The main problem with apostrophes is that people become confused by seeing them next to an "s" much of the time and decide that whenever a word ends in "s" it is a good idea to stick in an apostrophe, just in case...

Note that the possessive pronouns do not use apostrophes; they are possessive already. So, "its" is the possessive pronoun, while "it's" is the contracted form of "it is."

Checklist for Consistency

Print a copy of your draft to use with this checklist.

AUDIENCE: Who are they, what do they know and need to know? Don't use undefined terms in one part of your writing and defined terms in another. Don't start writing for a stranger and shift to writing for someone who already knows what you've got in mind, such as Aunt Sue.

PERSON: Pick a person and stick to him, her, it, them, whatever. Don't shift around unless the logic of what you are writing requires it.

CITATIONS: If you got an idea from another person, or from a print source, give credit where it is due, no later than the end of the relevant paragraph. Do this each and every time. Anything less is plagiarism.

CONTENT: Plan the whole paper so that each part is fully developed. Don't start with a bang and end with a whimper; don't develop one part in detail and jump briefly over the next, and then conclude as if you've covered both adequately.

EXTRA WORDS: Avoid them. Say what you need to say completely, but in as few words as possible. If a word isn't necessary to the meaning of a sentence, get rid of it.

LOGIC: This is a hard one. Be sure your conclusions are consistent with and relevant to your data. If not, revise your conclusions, not your data.

ORGANIZATION: Your paper should have a plan of organization that leads the reader in a reasonable, consistent fashion from beginning to end.

TENSE: Pick a tense and stick to it; only shift if and when the logic of what you are writing requires it. Tense consistency can be tricky; check an English handbook if you are unsure of a particular tense sequence.

TONE: Do you start out formally and then lapse into buddy buddy slang? Don't.

WORD CHOICE: Don't mix two bit words with ten bit words. If you are writing for a general audience, use ordinary language. The goal is to use exact words, not big ones. Avoid the temptation to use a Thesaurus to find new and unusual words that nobody else knows and that you are not quite sure how to use correctly. Keep your language level reasonably consistent and appropriate for your intended audience.

Checklist for Correctness

Print copy of your draft to use with this checklist.

AGREEMENT: Subjects and their verbs need to agree in number (she says, they say); Nouns and their pronouns need to agree in number and gender (he rides his horse; they ride their horses)

APOSTROPHES: Review these. Do not use apostrophes to show plural!

COMMAS: Review; almost no one uses them accurately, myself included.

CORRECT WORDS: watch out for the tricky words that a spell checker cannot help with, such as "affect" and "effect." (e.g. Salt affects slugs; the effect is to melt them.) The only way to be sure which word is which is to use a dictionary and check the meaning.

FRAGMENTS: If you are not sure what makes a complete sentence, review! Sentence fragments are not acceptable college level English.

HE/SHE: "Their" is plural, so if you are using he/she as an indefinite person, you are stuck with his/her umbrella. It's easier to use the plural, or find a specific guy or gal to write about.

LAYOUT: This should be neat, orderly and attractive throughout the paper.

ONE: A clumsy person word. "One should know better than to carry one's umbrella only when the sun shines." Try to find another way to write about indefinite people. Try "People should know better than to carry their umbrellas..." Or there's always, "We should know better than to carry our umbrellas..."

PREPOSITIONS: I'm seeing a lot of misused prepositions these days. Try to be careful to select the correct one for each phrase, and if you are not sure which one that is, get a Dictionary of American Usage and look it up.

PRONOUN REFERENCE: Be sure your reader knows who "she" is, and who "her" refers to, as in "Sally had a horse; Suzy rode her horse; she was teaching her how to jump." Is the horse Sally's or Suzy's? Is "she" Sally or Suzy? Is "her" Sally or Suzy or the horse?

RUN-ONS: If you are not sure how to combine two complete sentences into one without a comma splice, review!

-S & -D: If you (or your folks) come from certain parts of the USA, you may not pronounce some final consonants, such as "s" and "d." This creates problems that look like agreement problems, but are rooted in pronunciation and the odd nature of English. The following simple rules may help.


s shows singular for verbs (he goes), but plural for nouns (the ducks)

d shows past tense for many verbs: she talked; they walked

SPELLING: Use a spellchecker, and then double check to be sure that you don't have the wrong word, spelled correctly.

Common Sense and Commas

The rules for using commas have been changing since I was a child and was taught to put a comma anywhere my voice would drop slightly in a sentence. This resulted in lines full of tiny fishhooks, and over the years people grew tired of so many marks of punctuation and began eliminating them.

Depending on your age and where you went to school, you will feel comfortable with more (if you're older) or fewer (if you're younger) commas. What kind of a rule is that? A poor one, but grammar is basically a DESCRIPTION of how people speak and write, not a set of rules which people learn and obey like traffic signals.

The most basic rule of thumb for using commas is, "when in doubt, leave it out." Beyond this most basic rule, there are a few guidelines for the use of commas. However, using these guidelines requires a clear understanding of independent clauses.

The independent clause is the most basic sentence unit. It must have a subject and a verb, and it must not be introduced by what are called dependent or subordinating words. Let's start with the idea of the verb--here is a simple trick that works every time. Start with any sentence:

John sat at the table until ten o'clock.

Put that sentence into the present tense:

John sits at the table until ten o'clock.

Put that sentence into the future tense:

John will sit at the table until ten o'clock.

Look at the part that you changed in order to change the time or tense of the sentence:

will sit

The part that changes when you change the tense of a sentence is the VERB.

OK. You've found the verb. Now, look for whatever does the verb. Who sits? John sits. Whatever does the verb is its SUBJECT. That's all there is to it.

However, there are many groups of words that include a verb, and a subject, but fail to make the grade as independent clauses. That's because they are introduced by a special kind of word called a SUBORDINATOR, or a DEPENDENT WORD. Here is a list of some of these words so you'll get a clear idea of what kind of words they are, and why they interfere with a clause's independence:

after, although, as, as if, because, before, even if, even though, ever since, how, if, in order that, since, so, so that, than that, though, unless, until, what, whatever, when, whenever, where, whereas, wherever, whether, which, whichever, while, who, whom, whose, why

These subordinating words all make you expect something more in the sentence; they lead you to ask, what about that?

As John sat at the table doing his homework.

Well, what about it? What happened as John sat there?

Incidentally, my last sentence starts with one of those subordinating words, yet it is a complete sentence, or independent clause, because it is a QUESTION. When one of these subordinating words introduces a question, it does not interfere with the group of words being an independent clause so long as the standard requirements of verb and subject are met.

And, finally, notice that I said "complete sentence or independent clause." Are they the same? Yes, except for one detail: the independent clause is part of a larger sentence, while the identical group of words becomes a sentence if you start it with a capital letter and end it with a period.

For example:

John sat at the table.

John sat at the table while Mary sang.

The first group of words is a complete sentence; the second group of words INCLUDES the first group of words, but then adds some more words, so we then call "John sat at the table" an INDEPENDENT CLAUSE.


If you have a sentence which consists of two independent clauses, joined by a conjunction (and, yet, but, or, so), you MUST place a comma BEFORE the conjunction.


Jimmy ran to the store, and Jane rode her bike.

Spot ran in circles, but Edgar merely sat still and howled.

I sat down, so the people behind me could see.

If your sentence starts with an introductory group of words BEFORE the main sentence, separate this group of words from the body of the sentence with a comma.


Although it was very late, I simply could not sleep.

During the interminable lecture, I fell asleep.

While Jack went to fetch a pail of water, Jill fell down and broke her crown.

If your sentence includes a group of words that are really EXTRA, that is, a group of words that could be removed from the sentence without really changing the meaning of the whole sentence, then set this group of words off with commas:


At six am, before sunrise, I walk the dog.

The words, "before sunrise," could be removed from the sentence without much loss of meaning. So, they are an "extra" group of words, and as such, set off with commas.

Single words used for emphasis, especially at the beginning of a sentence, are often set off by a comma.


Shockingly, the dog ate cat food for breakfast every morning.
Incidentally, I would prefer an armadillo to a cat.

Commas are used in writing dates and addresses, although even these uses are changing.


January 10, 1942 or 10 January 1942
1313 Vest-pocket Drive, Fairfax, VA 220006 or

1313 Vest-pocket Drive, Fairfax VA 220006

If you have a series of words, such as apples, oranges, grapes and pears, you must set these words off with commas, except the word just before the "and." Here, it is a matter of choice.


I like apples, oranges, grapes and pears.


I like apples, oranges, grapes, and pears.

As with so many aspects of English (or any language), taste, fad and purpose have a lot to do with these conventions.

When NOT to use commas: the worst error you can make with a comma is the COMMA FAULT, or COMMA SPLICE. A comma fault occurs when you join two independent clauses with a comma and NO CONJUNCTION. It can be a serious problem, because at times it can distort the meaning of what you are trying to say. However, you will notice, if you read the newspapers, magazines and books, that many professional writers use comma faults. The secret lies in knowing when it is ok, and recognizing when it will distort the meaning of your sentence or seem ungrammatical to your reader. 

Jimmy went to the store, Susan went to the movies.

Oscar dug the trench, Janine set up the tent.

While these sentences are clear enough, and the meaning is not lost or distorted, they are considered bad form, so avoid them.


The basic rule for documentation is: if you didn't know it before you read it, then you must use a parenthetic note to show where you read (or heard) it. The basic purpose of documentation is to allow your reader to go back to your sources to double check the information you present and discover more about it.

You MUST use a parenthetic note for each idea or piece of information that you present, showing where you found it. Never go beyond the end of the paragraph before noting the source(s) for the information in that paragraph. If you use the same source in more than one paragraph, you still must cite it by the end of each paragraph.

Each note should indicate the last name of the author and either the date of the publication (Hubbard, 1996) or, for a "direct quote," the author and page number (Hubbard, p. 407). If no author is mentioned, use a short form of the title ("Cupboard," 1996). If you use more than one work by an author, indicate that by numbering or dating the entries (Hubbard, 1996; Hubbard, 1997) or (Hubbard 1, 1996; Hubbard 2, 1996).

The purpose of the parenthetic note is to allow your reader to find the cited article in your "List of Works Cited." This list goes at the end of your paper, and it is where you include the entire bibliographic reference for each source.


Paragraphs are a relatively new invention (17th century). Printers started using paragraph divisions to give the reader's eyes a break. Paragraphs give the reader's mind a break, as well. I like to think of them this way: an essay is all about one topic; its paragraphs are about subtopics of that main topic. Each time the (sub) topic shifts, it is time to start a new paragraph. This helps to rest the readers' eyes and guide their minds. 

Here, I am shifting the topic from the background of paragraphs to the various ways people actually use them, so I have started a new paragraph. Newspaper writers often use very short paragraphs, partly because the text is presented in narrow columns, and the paragraph divisions break the columns up into chunks. Wider columns, of course, could use longer paragraphs and get the same visual effect. However, perhaps unfortunately, news is also presented in short bits. On TV, we call them "sound bits." Let's call the written version, "eye bits." These eye bits are the paragraphs that you see in a newspaper. 

In a college essay, readers expect somewhat meatier chunks than the very short paragraphs of a newspaper article. Here is a good rule of thumb for writing essays: if you find yourself writing very long paragraphs, ask if the topic is shifting, and if the answer is yes, start a new paragraph. On the other hand, if you find that you are writing a series of very short paragraphs, ask yourself if you can develop your ideas in more detail--that is the key to making more substantial paragraphs.

Passive Voice

Passive voice presents the object as the subject of an action. Think of the basic English sentence thus: Subject-verb-object. I threw the ball. Passive would be: The ball was thrown by me, which turns the object (ball) into the subject of the sentence. In this case the subject is acted upon instead of acting--thus it is passive, not active.

Good contemporary American writing style avoids the passive as much as possible, because the passive is wordy and indirect and not as easy for a reader to absorb. We prefer

I read the book (active).

John threw the ball (active).


The book was read by me (passive).
The ball was thrown by John (passive).

Sometimes the passive voice allows the writer to focus the reader's attention. For example

New Orleans was devastated by Katrina (passive).

By making New Orleans (the object of the destruction) into the subject of the sentence, the reader's attention will be drawn to the city instead of to the hurricane. Some ideas are difficult to express except by using passive voice, such as the previous one about the reader's attention. And some scientific and technical ideas really need the passive voice or expressing them gets too weird, but the general idea is to avoid the passive voice as much as possible.


Written English uses some conventions that are different than spoken English. One of these is the convention of not shifting person. In speech, people tend to shift easily from "I" to "you" to "he" and so on as they talk. Neither listeners nor speakers even notice.

However, in Standard Written English (the English of school essays and such), the rule is that we should select a person and pretty much stick to him, her or it throughout, unless the logic of what you are saying forces you to change. For example, I have just shifted from "we" to "you," and then to "I."

More correctly, the above sentences could be written:

However, in Standard Written English (the English of school essays and such), the rule is to select a person and pretty much stick to him, her or it throughout, unless the logic of what is being said requires a change. For example, the above sentence has just shifted...

Quotations and Paraphrases

The most familiar use of quotation marks is to show that someone is speaking. This kind of quoting is seen everywhere from novels to newspaper articles. A few quotes can add a nice touch to a research paper or essay; however, too many quotes break up the flow of writing and should be avoided. Not more than five percent of an essay should be in quotes. Put the rest in your own words and just cite the source each time you use it (see below).

When writing about research, you need to show where you found your information by either quoting or paraphrasing it. For example, if you read "Mary had a little lamb" and were writing an essay about the whiteness of the lamb's fleece, you could either quote, "its fleece was white as snow," (Smith, 103) or paraphrase, explaining in your own words that the narrator of the poem claimed that Mary's lamb had snow-white wool (Smith, 103).

A quote must exactly reproduce what was written or said.


Use quotation marks for the title of any short piece, such as an article, chapter, story or poem that is generally printed along with other short works in a larger book, magazine, scholarly journal or newspaper. Use quotation marks when you reproduce a segment taken from your reading, exactly as printed in the text. The one exception is a long quote (more than three or four sentences). In that case, set the quoted material apart, indenting it, like the following:

This is a long quote from somebody's book. I really could have paraphrased and avoided this jarring intrusion into my own style of writing, but I was a tad lazy and just stuck it in anyway. I hope you don't find it too irritating. (Thompson, 1997)

Of course, if you are reproducing (e.g. "quoting") a graph or other visual, such as a diagram of how a cookie cutter works, you would inset it and cite the source at the end of it, as I've done above with my own long quote.

Do not use quotation marks for the title of an entire book or other long work that is generally printed by itself. Do not use quotation marks if you are paraphrasing what someone else said or wrote (but be sure to give them credit with a parenthetic note).


Any quote must fit into the syntax of your own sentence. For example, "everywhere that Mary went," (Smith, 103). The preceding group of words is not a sentence, because I did not fit the quote into my own set of words to make a single complete sentence. However, I can revise it.

An example of fitting a quote into the syntax of your own sentence would be to insert "everywhere that Mary went" (Smith, 103) into your sentence like this, so that it helped to complete your sentence.


If the text you are quoting is already in quotation marks, the rule is to use "double quotes" for your whole quote and 'single quotes' for the part that is quoted in the text. For example, look again at "Mary Had Little Lamb," especially where "Mary said, 'its fleece is white as snow'" (Smith, 103). Note that I've also put the title of the poem into quotes.


Whether your information is quoted or paraphrased, you MUST use a parenthetic note for each idea or piece of information that you present, showing where you found it. Never go for more than one paragraph before noting the source(s) for the information in that paragraph. Each parenthetic documentation should indicate the last name of the author and either the date of the publication (Smith, 1996) or, for a direct quote, the author and page number (Smith, 103). The entire reference for each source will be in your List of Works Cited at the end of your paper.

Tense Consistency

Another convention of Standard Written English is to select a primary tense for an essay and then stick to it unless the logic of what is being said requires a shift. In spoken English, people tend to use tense at least part of the time to indicate intensity rather than time. That is, they speak of an event that occurred yesterday, use the past tense until they get to the really exciting part, and then shift into the present tense:

"The car was going seventy miles an hour and all of a sudden there's a train coming across the road and I slam on the brakes, but they just go through the floor..."

This really should be kept in the past tense in Standard Written English, and would look like this:

"The car was going seventy miles an hour and all of a sudden there was a train coming across the road, and I slammed on the brakes, but they just went through the floor..."

Tense Sequence

The basic rule is to use tenses that reflect the time order of events.  


If an event happens before the present, it is put into the simple past; if it happens before the simple past, it is put into the past perfect, or past past.

Present  Today, Sharon runs to the store. 
Simple past  Yesterday, Sharon ran to the store.
Past past    The day before yesterday, Sharon had run to the store, but she ran there again yesterday.

Note that the past past (or past perfect) uses a helping verb in the simple past, had, plus a past participle, run.


If an event happens after the present, it is put into the future.

Present Today, Sharon runs to the store.
Future Tomorrow, Sharon will run to the store

Note that the future uses a helping verb, will, plus a present participle, run.

They is Plural

Writers have a problem these days getting subject-pronoun agreement, because ever since the women's movement in the seventies, it has been considered bad form to use "he" as the basic pronoun. In the bad old days, one would write:

A person must be careful to do whatever he thinks is right.

But, nowadays, that would be considered sexist language, since the general word "person" might refer to either a man or a woman. So, one might write:

A person must be careful to do whatever he/she thinks is right.

This is correct, because it is non-sexist, but it is mighty awkward. The easiest way to deal with the problem is to make the subject plural:

People must be careful to do whatever they think is right.

But that is not always convenient. Another solution sometimes used is to switch between "he" and "she" throughout the paper, but that is awkward too.

Writers often try to solve this problem by using "they" as the pronoun for a singular subject, but that is NOT CORRECT. An example of this common error is:

A person must be careful to do whatever they think is right.

NO. NO. NO. They is plural; person is singular--not a match!

Frankly, there is no easy solution; you will have to work each writing out for yourself so that the subjects and their pronouns agree in number without being sexist. I think that eventually "they" will be declared either singular or plural, but that won't happen in my lifetime, and probably not in yours either, so learn to avoid this numerically incorrect solution.

(c) Diane Thompson: 11/7/1998; updated: 10/03/2006