Good Grammar for Dummies: Quick tips to help you improve your writing anytime, anywhere

When you’re done writing a draft, the task of editing your grammar can be daunting—but it’s still critical! While you may no longer get “points off” for grammar mistakes, poor grammar can make your writing hard, or downright impossible, to understand. It also makes it seem to professors as though you didn’t take the care to edit your work. Unfortunately, many students don’t know all the rules, and it is unrealistic that they will reference a style manual for every sentence. Luckily, there are some useful methods that can help you catch incorrect grammar mistakes and fix them easily!

1. Read your paper out loud. This can help with:

  • Commas: Take note of the places you pause, as those are places where you probably need to put a comma. Use this as a preliminary way to determine comma placement, and then reference your style manual for questions.
  • Repetition: Hearing your work read aloud helps you pick up on repetition of words, expressions, and ideas.
  • Changes in Tense: Reading aloud forces you to pay attention to your writing. If a sentence of a paragraph changes tense partway through, you’ll be much more likely to notice reading aloud than skimming over your paper.
  • Awkward sentences: If you have trouble saying a sentence out loud, it’s often a sign of poor grammar or punctuation. Mark these sentences as ones you need to rework.
    TIP: Reword awkward sentences by saying aloud what you want to write and then writing what you say.

2. Use your computer’s grammar check, but don’t always trust it. Grammar check finds a lot of grammar mistakes, so it can be a good way to find yours. However, there are three problems with relying upon grammar check:

  • It doesn’t know what you intend to convey, so it may make the wrong correction.
  • It sometimes underlines things that aren’t technically wrong. For example, grammar check usually highlights the passive voice. While the passive voice can be clunky at times, it is not technically incorrect.
  • It won’t catch every mistake! It often misses:
    -Punctuation, especially comma placement in run on sentences.
    -Subject/verb agreement when the verb comes before the subject or is separated from the subject by other words.
    -Dangling modifiers (see below).
    When you see that green squiggle appear, investigate, but ultimately rely on your own best judgment.

3. Test sentences by reordering them. Sometimes when you reorder the words of a sentence, the correct grammar is clearer. You don’t have to change the order of the sentence in the paper, just use it as a test. This can help with:

  • Subject/Verb Agreement:
    EXAMPLE: “Here are my ball and glove.” OR “Here is my ball and glove.
    TEST: (place the verb [is/are] AFTER the subject [my ball and glove]):
    My ball and glove are here.” OR “My ball and glove is here.”
    You’d write, “My ball and glove are here,” so, “Here are my ball and glove” is correct.
  • Finding dangling modifiers: Dangling modifiers are often the cause of an awkward sentence. A dangling modifier is basically something that doesn’t describe what you mean it to describe.
    EXAMPLE: “Running for the bus, my lunch fell out of my backpack.”
    TEST: “My lunch fell out of my backpack running for the bus.”
    My lunch isn’t running for the bus! This sentence should be reworked to remove the dangling modifier, “Running for the bus.” I could write, “As I ran for the bus, my lunch fell out of my backpack.” Try switching this around. Does it make sense?
    TIP: If you’re really worried about dangling modifiers, do as English professor Patricia O’Connor at Georgetown University says, “Always suspect an -ing word of dangling if it’s near the front of a sentence; consider it guilty until proved innocent.”

4. Test sentences by removing words. Grammar gets especially confusing when your sentence includes more than just a simple subject and verb, especially when other words and clauses separate the subject from its verb. If you remove some of the words to get back to the base of the sentence, the correct grammar will be more obvious. This can help with:

  • Subject/Verb Agreement:
    EXAMPLE: “The group of men buy ties.” OR “The group of men buys ties.
    TEST (remove “of men”): “The group buy ties.” OR “The group buys ies.
    Because the subject is “group” the verb should be “buys”. Ignoring the phrase “of men” can make this clearer.

Use these tips to locate and solve your simpler grammar questions, but if you’re still unsure, always reference a style manual!

-By Kelsey Tyssowski ’11

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