Good Grammar!

Do you struggle with semicolons? Are you tense about tenses? Get silly about synonyms and apoplectic about apostrophes?

Good Grammar! is here to clear up confusion, break bad habits and help you make a good impression. This occasional series of grammar tips is guaranteed to make you a better writer.

Happy National Punctuation Day!

Posted by on Sep 24, 2012 in Good Grammar | Comments Off on Happy National Punctuation Day!

Little did you know when you awoke this morning that today, September 24, is the ninth annual National Punctuation Day.

This holiday was founded by Jeff Rubin, a speaker, educator and writer and designer of newsletters. He calls this day “a celebration of the lowly comma, correctly used quotation marks, and other proper uses of periods, semi-colons, and the ever-mysterious ellipsis.”

But how to celebrate? Not only is there a list of suggestions on the official website, but there’s also an Official Meatloaf—to be baked in the shape of your favorite punctuation mark (“A fist-sized period makes one serving”).

However you choose to observe it, I wish a most happy National Punctuation Day to all!

The case of the pronoun

Posted by on Sep 17, 2012 in Good Grammar | Comments Off on The case of the pronoun

There should be no mystery to choosing the correct pronoun to use in a sentence; it’s all about the case. Case indicates the pronoun’s relationship to the other words in the sentence, and it’s determined by how the pronoun functions in its own clause.

There are three cases of pronouns:

  1. Nominative (also called subjective): the pronoun is the subject of a verb; it does something (“He suddenly jumped out of his chair.”). I, we, you, he, she, they, who, it.
  2. Objective: the pronoun is the object of a preposition or verb; something is done to it (“The detective stared at him.”). Me, us, you, him, her, them, whom, it.
  3. Possessive: the pronoun modifies a noun (“His eye started to twitch.”). My/mine, our/ours, yours, his, her/hers, their/theirs, whose, its.

Typically, the correct case will be obvious, but if not, you can determine it by isolating the clause and stripping it down to just the subject, verb and object:

  • “The detective pointed at him as he walked out the door.” can be stripped down to: “The detective pointed at him” (object) and “he walked” (subject).

Sometimes, you’ll have to rearrange the words to identify the subject and object:

  • “The only one looking guilty was he.” can be rearranged to read: “He was the only one looking guilty.”

Now, in case you were wondering, there are some tips for a few special circumstances.

When a pronoun follows a verb form of “to be,” it acts like a subject, so use the nominative case (at least in formal writing; most people use the objective case in everyday speech):

  • “Who’s the culprit? It’s I.”

When the pronoun is part of a compound subject or object, identify the case by deleting the other component:

  • “[The detective and] he scuffled.”
  • “We applauded [the detective and] him when the play was over.”

When a pronoun appears after the word “than,” the case depends on the meaning of the sentence:

  • “I like the detective better than [I like] him.”
  • “I like the detective better than he [likes the detective].”

Case closed!

The enemy of grammar?

Posted by on Jul 19, 2012 in Good Grammar | Comments Off on The enemy of grammar?

Lynne Truss, author of the punctuation guidebook Eats, Shoots and Leaves, says the em dash is “seen as the enemy of grammar.” Because it is both easy to use and difficult to use incorrectly, she seems to be saying that the em dash’s innate flexibility encourages people to break rules. She is likely referring to the common habit of sticking dashes wherever there’s a pause in thought. Many writers (even myself on occasion) are guilty, especially in informal writing, such as journals or personal emails.

So that you’re not a rule-breaker when it comes to the em dash, a closer look is in order.

The em dash can indicate an unfinished or interrupted statement in dialog:

  • “Be careful. It’s slip—” he said, before falling into the lake.

It can separate an introductory series from the main part of the sentence:

  • A wet dock, smooth shoes, a lapse in focus—now, there’s a recipe for a sudden splash.

Finally, and most commonly, the em dash sets off a word or phrase in a sentence—an interruption, in other words—in much the same way as do the comma and parentheses. The difference lies in the degree of intensity of the interruption. The comma is the least sudden break, the parentheses are in the middle and the em dash is the most abrupt.

  • My uncle, who’s known for being clumsy, made quite a splash at the lakeside party.
  • My uncle (who regularly embarrasses himself) made quite a splash at the lakeside party.
  • My uncle—who’s kind of a jerk—made quite a splash at the lakeside party.

Ultimately, the choice will be a matter of your judgment and instinct, but if there is an element of surprise or a sharp change in thought, the em dash will convey just the right level of intensity.

When you do use the em dash, follow these guidelines:

  • do not put a space either before or after the em dash
  • avoid using more than one pair of dashes in a sentence

The em dash can be a wonderfully expressive tool. It conveys that break in thought, that surprising change in direction, like no other punctuation mark. Far from being the enemy of grammar, the em dash (used judiciously) can be a writer’s dear, dashing friend.

Dash away, dash away, dash away all

Posted by on Jun 15, 2012 in Good Grammar | Comments Off on Dash away, dash away, dash away all

Those little horizontal lines between words and numbers—em dashes, en dashes and hyphens—sure can cause a lot of confusion. They come in small (hyphen), medium (en dash) and large (em dash), but they don’t come with instructions. Consider this your cheat sheet.


  • joins compound words that act as an adjective before a noun
  • divides words between syllables at the ends of lines
  • connects digits of a telephone or other non-sequential number

En dash

  • connects sequential or continuing numbers

Em dash

  • sets off a word or phrase that emphasizes or defines a phrase in a sentence’s main clause
  • sets off a series that contains commas
  • shows an abrupt change in sentence structure or sudden break in thought

Now that you know which bit of punctuation to use, you should know how to type it. The hyphen has an established home on the keyboard, but not the em or en dash.

To type an em dash:

Windows: Alt + 151
Mac: Shift + Option + Minus

To type an en dash:

Windows: Alt + 150
Mac: Option + Minus

(Why are they called em and en, anyway? Because of the horizontal space occupied by the dash—the width of the letters m and n, respectively.)

Now, dash away!

Who’s who(se)

Posted by on Apr 20, 2012 in Good Grammar | Comments Off on Who’s who(se)

The apostrophe is a talented little critter. Typically, adding an apostrophe and the letter “s” to a word makes it possessive. But an apostrophe can also indicate that letters have been omitted in a contraction. This dual purpose sometimes leads to confusion, and the who’s/whose conundrum is one example of this.

  • Who’s: “who is,” or occasionally, “who has”
  • Whose: possessive of the pronoun “who”

The confusion crops up because we don’t form the possessive of most personal pronouns (such as it, she, they and who) by adding an apostrophe and “s.” Instead, we use its, her, their and whose.

The easy way to determine whether to use who’s or whose is to see if you can substitute “who is.” If you can, use who’s (the contraction), but if it just doesn’t make sense, use whose (the possessive).

Now who’s right? You are.

That’s all well and good

Posted by on Mar 18, 2012 in Good Grammar | Comments Off on That’s all well and good

How are you feeling? Good? Or well? Or both?

To answer this correctly, you have to know what’s really being asked. Am I interested in your condition or mood? That calls for an adjective, so the answer would be “good.” Am I interested in how you are performing an activity, in this case feeling (an object)? The correct response would be the adverb “well.”

This becomes clearer if you substitute another set of words for good and well, for example, happy (adjective) and happily (adverb).

Let’s ask the question again: how are you feeling? If you say “happy,” that’s an adjective (like good) and it makes sense. But if you say “happily,” that’s an adverb (like well) and it only makes sense if you are happily feeling an object, such as your dog’s ears.

So, generally speaking, James Brown had it right. You’re almost never going to answer “How are you feeling” with “well”—except in one situation: when I ask about your health. In addition to its most common role as an adverb, well can also function as an adjective meaning “healthy” (the opposite of “ill”). So, if I ask specifically about your health, go ahead and answer “well”—even if you aren’t running your fingers over Bosco’s ears.

Why you’ll never starve at the beach

Posted by on Feb 27, 2012 in Good Grammar | Comments Off on Why you’ll never starve at the beach

It’s all due to a certain type of adjectival clause, or a clause that modifies a noun, such as “my tanning butter, which has sand in it,” or “the merman that got away.” (If this sounds like a dry topic, well, we are talking about the beach.)

Frequently, an adjectival clause begins with either that or which, and quite often, people use which simply because it sounds better. The choice actually depends upon whether the adjectival clause is restrictive or nonrestrictive.

A restrictive clause is needed to define the noun, while a nonrestrictive clause adds information that’s nice to know but not necessary. If you can delete the clause without changing the meaning of the sentence, then it’s nonrestrictive. Restrictive clauses begin with that. Nonrestrictive ones begin with which.

Look at these examples:

  • I lost the beach towel that my mother gave me.
  • I lost the beach towel, which my mother gave me.

In the first sentence, there’s more than one towel and the adjectival clause is needed to tell you which towel we’re talking about. In the second sentence, however, there’s only one towel and the clause merely adds some nice-to-know information. In other words, which is nice to know, but that is essential.

Naturally, there’s a rule about using commas with that and which.

  • A restrictive clause (beginning with that) requires no comma.
  • A nonrestrictive clause (beginning with which) is always set off by a comma or commas.

Now, about that beach. Why is it you can never starve at the beach? Because you can always eat the sand, which is there.

“i before e” and “e before g”

Posted by on Feb 14, 2012 in Good Grammar | Comments Off on “i before e” and “e before g”

These handy Latin abbreviations—i.e. and e.g.—are frequently misused. Either the wrong one is chosen, or the right one is used but is not formatted correctly. These guidelines will help you abbreviate with confidence.

  • i.e. is the abbreviation for “id est” or “that is.”
  • e.g. is the abbreviation for “exempli gratia” or “for example.”

Use i.e. when you want to define a word or phrase; think of it as a substitute for “in other words.” Use e.g. to give one or more examples of a word or phrase.

  • He went to the store for provisions, i.e., supplies.
  • He went to the store for provisions, e.g., food, water and M&Ms.

Remember three things when you use these abbreviations:

  1. They are indeed abbreviations. Put a period after each letter.
  2. They are not proper nouns or titles. Use lower case.
  3. Place commas (or em dashes or parentheses, if appropriate) before and after the phrase that contains the abbreviation.

And, as they said in Rome, id est id.*

*That made a nice ending until I checked Google translate. Apparently the correct phrase is quod est quod. Darned dead languages.

Special effects

Posted by on Jan 15, 2012 in Good Grammar | Comments Off on Special effects

If you are unsure about whether to use affect or effect in a sentence, there’s a simple way to decide. It’s not foolproof, but in most cases, affect is used as a verb (to influence or make a change in), while effect is a noun (a result—think “special effects”).

But this being the English language, there are exceptions. Affect (with the accent on the first syllable) can be used as a noun (display of emotion), but this is rare and typically found only in discussions of psychology. More commonly, effect can be used as a verb (to achieve or bring about, as a change).

Still, in most instances, you can be confident you’re using the correct word by thinking of a short sentence: “You affect something to produce an effect.” Remember to keep affect and effect in alphabetical order—”a before e,” in other words—and your writing will suffer no ill effects.

For who the bell tolls

Posted by on Dec 13, 2011 in Good Grammar | Comments Off on For who the bell tolls

For who the bell tolls? It just doesn’t have the right ring to it, does it?

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne had it right when he wrote these lines in 1624. Today, in everyday conversation, even I often say “who” when I mean “whom:” “Who is this for?” But when you write, you still need to make the distinction between who and whom. The choice comes down to a matter of case, and case is determined by how a word functions in your sentence.

  • Who is in the subjective case, meaning it is the actor. Who does something.
  • Whom is in the objective case, meaning it is the object of the action. Something is done to whom.

Take a look at your sentence. Is who/whom doing something? Can you substitute “he”? Then use who. Or is who/whom having something done to/with/for it? Can you substitute “him”? Then use whom.

In other words, who can toll the bell, but the bell tolls for whom.

Sometimes you have to remove extra words from your sentence to clearly see the basic clause (subject, verb and object). “I like people (who/whom) amuse me.”  In this example, who is doing the action: “who amuse me.”

Other times it helps to rearrange the words to more easily identify the subject and object. “I like people (who/whom) I can amuse.” This time, I am doing the action and whom is being acted upon, which becomes obvious once you pull out the clause and rearrange it to read, “… I can amuse whom.”

Must go—someone’s ringing my bell!