You’ve made good progress in developing your essay. You’re headed up the ladder, and your goal is in sight. On some steps, though, you might accidentally stumble over some debris. When the path is cluttered with problems in punctuation and grammar, the message becomes diluted. This chapter takes a brief look at spelling, punctuation, and grammar and at how some simple rules can ensure your sentences are written correctly.

Covered in This Chapter

  • Spelling. Includes a few tips to ensure accurate spelling.
  • Key punctuation. Shows the correct use of apostrophes, commas, and semicolons.
  • More on punctuation. Provides further instruction on the correct use of colons, em dashes, hyphens, and quotation marks.
  • Grammar. Includes a reminder on the importance of usage conventions such as proper verb agreement.


Accurate spelling is extremely important. This book will not discuss all the spelling rules, but you might find the list of Words Most Often Misspelled in Appendix C, Useful Word Lists, helpful. To correct misspellings, you need to read your work carefully and find errors. The problem is that, often, you don’t recognize the error. Having someone else read your essay can help.

If you are unsure of the spelling of a word or name, never assume it’s correct because you think you know how it’s spelled or you found it in a print or online resource. Take the time to look it up. You might think, “I can use spell-check and that will take care of letting me know what is misspelled. Not so! Spell-check would see nothing wrong with the following sentence. When we saw there knew hose, we liked the floor pan but we’re knot impressed with the decorations.

As a spelling aid, buy a small address book. When you misspell a word or are unsure of the spelling of a word, enter that word in the alpha- betical portion of the address book. You can then look it up later and be aware of words you, personally, tend to misspell – and you have your own private spelling book!

Key Punctuation

The major problems with punctuation come from misuse of apostrophes, commas, and semicolons. Knowledge of how to effectively use these punctuation marks will make your writing clearer and stronger. After we look closely at these three, we will review some of the other marks that might give you trouble.


Apostrophes serve two functions:

  • To show ownership
  • To form contractions

Ownership. To indicate that something belongs to John, we use an apostrophe:

John’s dog
The boy’s coat

What if there is more than one owner? Then we show it this way:

The children’s dog
The boys’ coats (several boys have coats)

Contractions. When you leave out a letter or letters, use an apostrophe to show where the letters are missing.

I’d (I would) have gone, but I didn’t (did not) have time.
The first ebook reader was released in the ’90s.

Exception: Only one word changes spelling completely with an apostrophe. There’s no logical reason why will not does not become willn’t, but it doesn’t. It changes to won’t.Four sets of words give most people trouble when it comes to apostrophes. To help you remember these easily, we’ve developed a little chart we call the WITY words.

WITY Words


Who’s (Who is) ——> Whose
It’s (It is) ————-> Its
They’re (They are) –> Their
You’re (You are) —-> Your

These sentences might make it easier to remember the WITY Words.

Who’s coming to dinner and whose book is that?
It’s late, but the parrot needs its supper.
They’re late, but that is generally their habit.
You’re right, but your manner is offensive.


The comma serves as a great clarifier. It separates elements in a sentence to help the reader make sense of what is written. It is used in several ways:

  • To separate items in a series
  • To indicate a natural pause
  • To set off extra information
  • To separate introductory material

Items in a Series. If you jumble everything together, the reader will get lost. The series comma helps.

For breakfast I usually have yogurt with bananas, papaya, kiwi, and bran cereal.

The commas show that the writer adds four things to the yogurt. Otherwise, you might indicate you had a banana-papaya in your yogurt. There is some controversy about whether you need the comma before “and,” but go with the style your teacher wants or that you choose—just remember to be con- sistent in whichever style you choose.

A Natural Pause. At times you want your reader to stop and consider what you said. Since a comma indicates a pause, you can use it to intensify your message.

Yes, indeed, I will stop for pizza on the way home.

The commas here show how delighted you will be to pick up the pizza.

To Set Off Extra Information. When you add explanatory information, if it all runs together, the reader will get lost. These sections, set off by com- mas, can be lifted out of the sentence and the sentence will still make sense:

Harry, after doing his homework, went to the movies with his friends.

To Separate Introductory Material. Sentences introduced by words such as after, although, because, since, when, then, and while need a comma after the introductory word or phrase:

When I got my Kindle, I started reading more. Although she studied hard, she only made a B on the test.


Although not used often, semicolons serve an important purpose. When you have two complete thoughts, you can use a semicolon rather than a FAN- BOYS to provide the proper separation.

I went to the club early last night; Kathy wasn’t there yet.

A comma can never separate two complete thoughts; use a semicolon instead.You also use a semicolon in a series where commas are a part of the list:

She has lived in Moscow, Russia; Venice, Italy; Madrid, Spain; and now lives in Lima, Peru.

More on Punctuation

Following are brief guidelines on a few more punctuation marks you will find useful.


Colons are used to introduce a thought or list that follows:

Three things will make you successful: reading, listening, and asking for help.

Em dash

The em dash is used to signal a dramatic break in thoughts and often as a replacement for the colon. On computers, with the default settings, an em dash is created automatically when you type two hyphens.

I arrived in Hawaii – the land of gentle breezes and sunshine – and it was raining.

I packed and made sure I had everything – shoes, purses, dresses, and swimwear.


The hyphen has many uses:

Before a noun, with two or more words that describe it (a well-traveled highway, a strong-willed woman)

  • Where misreading is possible (re-creation versus recreation, small-business owner versus small business owner)
  • With“self ”and“ex”(self-confident,ex-senator)
  • In two-word spelled-out numbers (thirty-one, fifty-five)
  • In most terms that have three or more parts (sister-in-law)

Quotation Marks

Quotation marks are also needed in different circumstances:

  • When quoting from another source (Gertrude Stein is famous for saying, “A rose is a rose is a rose.”)
  • To show someone is speaking (The teacher said, again, “The test will be tomorrow.”)
  • When you’re using a word or phrase in a special, often sarcastic, context (When asked how he liked the movie he said it was “nice.”)
  • To signify titles of short works, songs, poems, or plays (In the book O’Henry Stories, “The Gift of the Magi” is one of my favorites. Place quotation marks in the following manner:)
  • Outside commas and periods (He said, “I’d love to live in Boston.”)
  • Inside colons and semicolons (She commented, “He’s late again”; I just can’t stand it.)
  • Inside dashes, question marks, and exclamation points when referring to quoted material and outside when they refer to the rest of the sentence

(Kevin asked, “Are you sure you want to go there?” How could she answer anything but, “I certainly do”?)

These rules for where to place quotation marks are correct for American usage. British usage rules place the quotation marks inside commas and periods. (He said, “I’d love to live in Boston”.)

Single quotation marks are used in only one situation—when quoting within a quote. (He announced, “I go by the name ‘the Avenger’ to my friends.”) British practice, on the other hand, allows the reverse use of double and single quotation marks in such instances.


Clear communication matters. People have agreed to stick to certain conventions so that they all speak the same language and understand each other. You need to use the language in a way that your readers will understand. There are a number of excellent grammar books to guide you through proper usage.

Though we are not covering grammar in-depth here, there is one area that seems to be the most problematic for people – agreement, especially with subjects and verbs, pronouns, and tense. Following are some helpful hints on how to handle agreement correctly.


All parts of a sentence should agree. In general, if the subject is singular, the verb should be singular. If the subject is plural, the verb should be plural.

Each of the boys has his own locker.

Both of the boys have their own lockers.

The following words are singular and take a singular verb:

one, anyone ,someone ,everyone, nobody, anybody, somebody, everybody , each ,either, neither

One of my friends is a rapper.
Each of the students is responsible for one report.
Either of the girls is a good choice.

The following “group” words take a singular verb if you are referring to the group as a whole, but they take a plural verb if you are referring to the individuals in the group:

group, family, kind ,audience ,committee ,class ,number ,team ,dozen, public

My family is on my side.
A dozen is enough.

My family are all scientists.
A dozen are going.

Not only should subject and verb agree. A pronoun, too, should agree with the word it refers to. If that word is singular, the pronoun should be singular. If that word is plural, the pronoun should be plural.

Each of the boys has his own locker.
Both of the boys have their own lockers.

If you have trouble deciding whether a verb should be singular or plural, put he or they in front of it. For example, if you are wondering whether to write my teachers agree or my teachers agrees, try putting he or they in front of the verb.

he agrees
they agree

Thus you will know that my teachers agree is correct. Modern usage allows some exceptions to the rules for agreement, especially in conversation. Sometimes, for example, the verb and the pronoun may agree with the intent of the subject rather than with its grammatical form.Everybody took off their hats as the parade went by. (The intent of the sentence is to show that all the people took off their hats, and therefore a plural pronoun is used.)

Today many people write he or she and him or her in an attempt to avoid sex bias, but such writing can be awkward and wordy. To avoid such wordiness, the pronouns they, them, and their are frequently used, particularly in conversation. A better way to avoid the awkward he or she and him or her is to make the words plural. Instead of writing “Each of the students was in his or her place,” write “All of the students were in their places,” thus avoiding sex bias and still having a grammatically correct sentence. Although nonstandard forms are acceptable in conversation, they are not acceptable in formal writing. For your school writing, therefore, stick with the strict grammatical rules.

Practice Agreement

Accurate agreement is important not only to follow the rules but also to help the reader clearly understand your intended message. In each of the first set of sentences here, choose which underlined word accurately fits the sentence. Notice how lack of agreement can make the sentence confusing – and sometimes actually incorrect.

1. Caleb is one of those people who enjoy/enjoys reading.

2. Completing/Having completed the tournament, Barbara took the next flight.

3. As the cells divide, a series of events is/are set into motion.

4. Coffee and milk is/are best with breakfast.

5. Neither the prices nor the quality has/have changed.

Now correct the following sentences so all elements are in agreement.

1. Continuous improvement means studying, practicing, and a commitment of time to your goal.

2. If you had asked me how I painted, I would say with bright and bold colors.

3. She sang louder than him.

Extra Help with Verbs

Verbs can be troublesome because they have many forms and must agree with both the subject and the tense (past, present, future, and then there’s the past participle). The one rule that gives people a lot of trouble is that third person singular, present tense, takes an “s” on the verb. But what does that mean? Let’s break this down:

  • First person is I.
  • Second person is you.
  • Third person is all other nouns.
  • Singular means one.
  • Present tense means happening now.

Look at these examples:

I take Spanish.

You take Spanish.

Mary takes Spanish classes on Monday.

We usually think of using s to indicate plural, but in this cases means singular.

Next Steps

This chapter has discussed the importance of accurate spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Proper use will make your writing clearer and more coherent and leave your readers informed and satisfied. Now we’ll move to the third valuable tool in your writer’s toolbox – style.