I’ve learned a few things about grammar over the years, and I often forget them. I made this as a reminder of some grammar pointers and tips. Please bear in mind that I am not an expert on the English language, I just found these on my travels and have adopted them in my writing (where I remember!).
With grammar, it’s tempting to say “I’m right, you’re wrong,” and be righteously indignant should anyone choose to challenge your view. I think that a more tolerant approach is better. As an example:
In the tech industry, you may hear this a lot: “This data is huge”. Since “data” is the plural of “datum”, this should really be “These data are huge”. But that may not always be correct. If you choose the former, what you’re probably trying to say is that there are a lot of items in a set of data. If you say the latter, you may actually be understood to mean “each of the items in the data set is huge”. This is a case where going with the norm is probably sensible.
If you are going to be pedantic about grammar, you’d best be consistent. It’s all very well adopting your own style, but it should be something you own. If you insist on swimming upstream, you have to keep swimming upstream (thanks Dory).
Wikipedia has a nice article on infinitives which explains what an infinitive is. I’ll explain it by way of example here. You’ve probably heard the famous saying from Star Trek: “to boldly go”. You may also have heard that it’s grammatically incorrect. The infinitive here is “to go”. By placing the adverb “boldly” in between “to” and “go”, we’re splitting the infinitive. It should really be “to go boldly”.
A preposition indicates the position of an object: on, in, under, and so on. Though it’s not a hard rule (see tip number 1), it’s better not to end a sentence with a preposition. So instead of “the box I sat on”, you can write “the box upon which I sat.” and instead of “the person I was talking with”, write “the person with whom I was talking”. Sometimes moving sentences around like this can result in a silly-sounding sentence, so use your discretion.
Often in email and technical writing, we use lists to get our message across more quickly. Personally, I love bulleted lists – they help me be more succinct and get to the point quicker. But lists are so often mistreated. The rule is simple: either you treat the list as part of a larger sentence or you treat the list as a set of individual sentences.
The following is an example of a list of items.
- Each item in the list is a sentence, so start with a uppercase letter and end with a full-stop (or period if you’re American).
- See, this item is also its own sentence.
- Lastly, this is also a sentence.
Or you could do it this way:
- where each item in the list is part of the larger sentence;
- each item ends with a semi-colon;
- the preceding sentence ends in a colon;
- and there’s no need to start each item with an uppercase letter;
- your penultimate list item should have “and” after the semicolon; and
- you must finish the last item (and hence the bigger sentence) with a full-stop (or period if you’re American).
This is not the right way:
- This looks like a sentence
- But there is no punctuation
- And there uppercase letters in the wrong place
Usually, when you use an apostrophe, you use it in one of two situations:
- to indicate ownership: for instance “Dan’s handwriting is terrible”; or
- to indicate contraction: for instance “don’t try to make sense of that handwriting”.
Of course there are exceptions, and the definite article “it” is one exception.
- Its means “it owns”. “Its car” means “the car belonging to it”.
- It’s means “it is”. “It’s a car” means “It is a car”.