Category Archives: Grammar

Thoughts On My Complicated Relationship With Grammar

Earlier this week, my coworker Ezekiel wrote a post about the relationship between grammar and colonialism (for the record, I strongly recommend reading Ezekiel’s post, which is very well thought-out in addition to being very right). In my experience as a Writing Center consultant and in my other work, I have also had an immense amount of difficulty with the infamous grammar issue, and I thought I would take this time to weigh in on the issue, which is far too complicated to solve in a few blog posts. I wanted to discuss more of my personal feelings on the matter and my own experiences.

As a future English as a Foreign Language teacher, I have to know a lot about grammar. More than that, I kind of like learning about grammar. I think language is interesting, and I enjoy learning about systems of rules and how they function and change over time.

That being said, I hate our society’s relationship with grammar. As a culture, we seem to have picked one dialect and decided that it is better and more important than all of the other English dialects present. Every dialect follows its own set of internal rules, which are, frankly, completely arbitrary. The vast majority of the time, these differences don’t inhibit clarity, so why do they matter? Elevating one set of rules above all other sets of rules and saying that it is “correct” seems silly at best, harmful at worst.

Picking and choosing which modes of speech are “better” than others is called “prescriptivism”. It is the belief that one vernacular is better than others, and all other systems are “wrong”. In the United States, prescriptivists have selected one dialect, called “Standard American English”, and decided that it is the “best” English, labeling all other dialects, such as African American Vernacular English or Yeshivish, inferior (I can’t help but wonder why it is that this particular dialect is labeled “Standard”. It begs the question posed by Linda Christensen: Standard according to whom?). People who speak other dialects are often labeled as “uneducated”, even though they may have the same educational background as a person who speaks “Standard” English. One dialect is considered “better” than the others, and people who speak that dialect are, sadly, often considered “better” than people who don’t.

I really want to emphasize that grammar is arbitrary. Language changes over time, and different regions or groups develop different systems for speech. These systems are all governed by rules, and they all have internal logic. Again, though, they are arbitrary. As an example, in British English it is common to drop an article before the name of a location, saying, for instance, “I am going to hospital” instead of “I am going to the hospital”. This construction is “incorrect” in “Standard” American English, but “correct” in British English. There is nothing better or worse about the two dialects, as each follows its own logic, even though the rules are different across systems.

So, why, in the United States, do we elevate one vernacular over another? Well, unfortunately, the answer is often rooted in racism and classism. As my coworker Ezekiel recently discussed, prescriptivism has its roots in colonialism. People of different ethnic or socioeconomic groups often have specific dialects of English, including African American Vernacular English, Chicano English, New York Latino English, and Hawaiian Creole English, among others. Because “Standard” English is spoken by the educated, white, upper class, it is considered the “best” form of English. I believe that this is wrong, and it is harmful to anyone who isn’t already privileged by virtue of their race and wealth. As Americans, our relationship with grammar is one that allows for implicit bias, and, ultimately, oppression.

I have worked with a lot of students from a variety of different cultures and classes, and I have personally seen intelligent, hardworking, and diligent people be looked down upon as a result of their “poor” English. This kind of bias is not only emotionally hurtful, it is actually detrimental to people’s potential employment. As an example, because the ACTs are written in “Standard” English, students who may not be as proficient run the risk of getting a poor score, which might limit their college choices and scholarship options. Students who do not wish to attend college may experience difficulty getting a job if their resume is not written in “proper” English. Watching my students suffer these kinds of loss of opportunity is frustrating, sad, and deeply, deeply offensive to me.

All of that being said, I do still teach grammar to my students. I answer grammar questions honestly, and I am willing to help students alter language that does not conform to “Standard” rules. I may not think that some dialects are better than others, but future teachers and future employers might. I want to be sure that my students have the tools necessary to succeed in an environment that I don’t agree with. Working with students who are terrified that their English skills might cost them a job means constantly working to improve their “Standard” English proficiency, regardless of my personal opinions. I might feel icky about it, but not everyone believes that grammar as a system can be oppressive like I do.

Ultimately, I try to tell my students that their languages and dialects are valid; there is nothing wrong with the non-standard vernaculars that many students use. However, learning the rules of “Standard” English can help them succeed, and I want success for them. I hope that some day we, as a culture, will become more accepting of different dialects, but, until then, I teach students the rules even while I teach them why it’s wrong that they have to learn them.

Starting a Sentence With Because

I’m going to be honest with you, there are some grammar rules that I really don’t care about. Actually, there’s a lot of them. Really, most of them. That being said, sometimes it’s important to know and follow the rules, because other people care about them no matter how silly they are.

And so, today, we are going to examine one of the sillier rules of grammar: whether you can or cannot start a sentence with “because”. A lot of people will say that you can’t start a sentence with “because” and be using “proper” grammar. While it is true that starting a sentence with “because” is usually “incorrect”, it’s only because it results in an incomplete sentence. Thus, sometimes you can start a sentence with “because” and still be in the clear. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

“Because” is a subordinating conjunction. A subordinating conjunction is a word that joins two clauses, one of which is independent and one of which is dependent. I know that’s a lot of jargon, but basically what we’re looking at is this: we have a sentence with two parts, and “because” joins them together. The two parts have to be in the same sentence for the use of “because” to be “correct”. Otherwise, one of the clauses becomes a sentence fragment, which is a problem.

The reason you can’t usually start a sentence with “because” is because the sentence needs two parts for because to join together. Usually, “because” goes in between the two clauses, so if we start a sentence with “because” there is often only one clause in the sentence. Put simply, if “because” is in a sentence, the sentence needs two parts to be “correct”. Let’s look at an example.

We decided to go to the pool because it was hot outside.

The two clauses we are looking at are “We decided to go to the pool” and “it was hot outside”. “Because” links them together and makes them friends. Let’s look at what would happen if we were to split the sentence up into two.

We decided to go to the pool. Because it was hot outside.

Now that the two clauses are in different sentences, “because” can’t really join them together. The clauses can’t be friends and now they’re lonely, making the second sentence “incorrect.”

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE. Continue reading

The Gender Neutral They

What is the gender neutral they and why does it matter?

In English, the most commonly used pronouns are he, she, they, and it. Although English does not have a designated personal pronoun for a gender-neutral or subject of unknown gender, “they” has long been an English speaker’s go-to for many situations. When “they” is used to signal a single person, this usage isn’t always considered “proper” English grammar since “they” is more frequently used as the plural pronoun.

However, as a Writing Center consultant, I am a big advocate for the gender neutral “they.”

For starters, other substitutes can be clunky and awkward in both speech and text. Substitutes such as “he/she” don’t read easily, but also are limiting. Other substitutes, like mixing the use of “she” and “he” throughout the text can cause confusion and require extra thought to balance out the usage. “They,” despite its grammatical origins, works as an easy-to-read substitute.

However, there are other more pressing reasons to use the gender neutral they.

Using “he/she” or arbitrarily assigning a gender to an individual can be limiting and potentially harmful. Not all individuals identify as male or female, and some may even identify as both or neither. Using “he/she” erases nonbinary gender identities, while using “they” is open and inclusive. When in doubt, I always use they as both a default pronoun and to be more inclusive than the traditional “he/she.” (For further information about gender identities, see this interactive booklet). Continue reading

Affect vs. Effect: When to Use Each

Sometimes, the English language is really silly. There are a lot of words that sound the same but are spelled differently and used differently, for virtually no reason. The words “affect” and “effect” are a classic example of two words that simply do not need to be this confusing.

Luckily, I have sat through enough boring grammar classes to understand the difference and hopefully I can help sort it out a little. Let’s dive right in, shall wee?

Affect:

In general, the word affect is used as a verb. A good way to remember this is that affect is an action. If you’re talking about something that someone does, it’s affect.

Example: The book really affected Sally’s opinion; she had never thought about parenting in that way before.

Because the book is acting upon Sally, we are using the word as an action so we say affect.

Effect:

In contrast, effect is used as a noun. The effect of something is the end-result. If you’re talking about an end product or situation, you’re going to want to use effect.

Example: The trial had a negative effect on the small town.

Because the negative feelings are the end product, we are using effect.

Sound good? Great! Because it’s about to get a little bit more complicated. Continue reading

The Semicolon: Most Feared Punctuation on Earth!

The Oatmeal created one of the greatest posters ever on how to use a semicolon. I sat directly in front of this poster for the entire semester I took WRA 202 (Professional Writing course) and looking at and reading it all semester totally increased my confidence in using the semicolon. I am now a semicolon fanatic! I love the comic style formatting The Oatmeal used to describe appropriate use of “the most feared punctuation on earth”. They documented these rules in a way that is not only interesting to read through, but sticks with the reader in a way they will always remember. So take a look at the poster, and below I’ve highlighted some of the points.

Oatmeal Semicolon

The most common way to utilize the semicolon is to connect two independent clauses. The two statements read aloud with a period have a greater break between them – one would take a breath between the two if this were the case, but would not if the a semicolon was substituted for the period.

  • If you have two independent clauses, meaning each could stand alone as their own sentences, it is then, okay , to use a semicolon.
  • You should use a semicolon when you want to form a bond between two statements, typically when they are related to or in contrast with one another.
  • DON’T use a semicolon with conjunctions. (Conjunctions are words like: and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet.) Commas are used in these situations.
  • Pause factor: Comma – brief pause, Semicolon – moderate pause, Period – complete stop.
  • Use a semicolon to connect sentences that contain internal punctuation.
  • Use a semicolon as a super-comma: if you need to make a list of items that are separated with a comma. Often occurs when listing names, dates, and descriptions.

Check out the poster for memorable examples of these key concepts to remember when using the semicolon. The Oatmeal really did a solid job when explaining when to use and not use the semicolon.

How to Fix Comma Splices

You know when your friend is typing you a Facebook message and they run all their sentences together, you can kind of figure out what they’re saying, but it sounds like they’re talking really fast, you’re just like dude BREATHE!

I hate to break it to you, but your friend is suffering from a case of the comma splices.

What’s a comma splice? you ask. How can I save my friend from a slow, painful grammatical death and imminent doom?

A comma splice is when you combine two complete sentences with a comma. Here are a few examples:

I love comma splices, aren’t they so fun?

I ran into my friend in the Sny-Phi caf, we hung out for three hours and I got absolutely no homework done.

My best friend’s name is Sarah, she’s my cousin.

Well, you say, those sentences make perfect sense to me, so what’s the problem? The problem is that commas aren’t meant to join complete sentences. They have a million other ways they can be used, but joining full sentences isn’t one of them.

Here are some alternatives that won’t cause comma splices.

1. Use a period instead

Take this sentence again:

I love comma splices, aren’t they so fun?

The chunks on each side of the comma are complete sentences on their own, so unless you’re joining them with a word like and, but, or or, they have to end with terminal punctuation (a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point). So we can just replace that comma with a period:

I love comma splices. Aren’t they so fun?

Boom, done, easy!

2. Use a semicolon instead

Take a look at this sentence again:

I ran into my friend in the Sny-Phi caf, we hung out for three hours and I got absolutely no homework done.

Again, both sides of the comma are complete sentences. We could replace that comma with a period again and it would totally work. But sometimes it’s more fun to use a semicolon.

A semicolon joins two complete sentences that are related idea-wise. So in this sentence, hanging out for three hours and getting no homework done occur as a result of running into your friend in the caf. It’s a cause-effect relationship:

I ran into my friend in the Sny-Phi caf; we hung out for three hours and I got absolutely no homework done.

3. Add a coordinating conjunction

Coordinating conjunctions are words like and, but, and or. They can join together two complete sentences, and you add them after the comma. So this sentence:

My best friend’s name is Sarah, she’s my cousin.

becomes this:

My best friend’s name is Sarah, and she’s my cousin.

So, now you know how to save your friend from the wrath of the angry comma-splice monsters.

Check out the following resources for more info about fixing comma splices:

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Comma Splices

Purdue Owl’s tips on comma splices

Capital Community College’s guide to comma splices and run-on sentences

When Not Keeping it Oxford Goes Wrong

The serial comma, more commonly referred to as the Oxford comma, has been recognized as the standard for descriptive sentence structure in English writing. Despite this acceptance, some critics claim it still holds a potential of introducing unnecessary ambiguity in certain contexts. These critics fail to realize that sometimes a little ambiguity is far better than complete and total miscommunication.

For instance, take this classic example of when foregoing the oxford comma goes terribly wrong:

‘Here we see the hookers, Hitler and Kennedy.’

Wait, since when have Hitler and Kennedy been prostitutes? First Washington’s wooden teeth, and now this?! What else have my history professors been lying to me about?! Next you’ll tell me most of the founding fathers were slave owning plantation owners. Blasphemy!

There is a glitch in the Matrix, people; this world’s not real, and it’s all because someone didn’t use the oxford comma when they really, really should have. Now let’s see how the sentence reads when we include the oxford comma:

‘Here we see the hookers, Hitler, and Kennedy.’

Wow! Much better! Instead of introducing a strange alternate universe wherein two of the most charismatic political leaders of the 20th century have resorted to selling their historically topical bodies for cash, we are relieved to see that the patriarchal nature of western society has been restored. Well, not exactly relieved, but still. South Park-esque stag parties in the underworld aside (let’s not forget about that whole Marilyn Monroe thing), the importance of the oxford comma has never been clearer.

Or dirtier.

Here’s another disturbingly off-putting Oxford comma mishap, courtesy of clevergirlhelps.tumblr.com. Context is everything, people.

We picked up tonight’s dinner, rat poison and nitroglycerin. 

Now it’s your turn! Try to come up with your own ridiculous examples of when not keeping it Oxford goes wrong, and leave them in the comments section below! And always remember to keep it Oxford!

Basic Grammar Leads to Basic Communication

The Great Grammar DebateGrammar may seem tedious and frivolous to many. You may think you’re wording is right, but then you ended your sentence in a preposition. Or you split an infinitive. Or you used ‘affect’ as a noun. Just when you think you can get away with a passive sentence, you’re suddenly overcome with the fear of the wrath of your anthropology professor who definitely reads her copy of the Chicago Manual of Style to her kids every night before bedtime.

You ask, what’s the point? Why do we need such strict rules to communicate an idea?

Because it’s important to maintain a consistent structure so that we can most effectively understand each other. It’s a sort of framework we need, a basic element, which we can build from to explain our ideas with as little confusion as possible.

Grammar is like what Arthur Shopenhauer says about mankind… and porcupines:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told–in the English phrase–to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

He explains that humans maintain a basic set of manners so that we can tolerate as many people as possible based off this minimal foundation that we’ve all agreed was an acceptable way to act. Like politeness, grammar is also this minimal foundation to which we must adhere for others to understand and make communication possible. Simply put, we rely on grammar, whether or not we’re cognizant of it, to interact with others on a basic, often misunderstood level.

Grammar: The Importance of Content

When I look at the appointment form online and all a client has to work on is “grammar,” I cringe a little bit.  I think grammar is important, but I am not an expert, I do not know all of the rules and I really cannot explain them. I am also a firm believer that the importance of grammar depends on the situation or the type of writing.  Grammatical errors on a one page resume stand out more than errors in a five page paper.  Resumes are meant to be scannable and grammatical errors may stick out more and cost the writer a job.  But with a larger piece of writing, like a five page paper, grammatical errors don’t stick out as much.  Continue reading

Dashes, and Commas, and Parenthesis, Oh My!

still image from the original Wizard of Oz, from left, The Tin Man, Dorothy, and Scarecrow

Are you afraid of dashes, commas and parenthesis? Well, you don’t need to be afraid any longer.  I won’t go through all the uses for each symbol, but we will look at using them to set off information within a sentence. Many times they are used in similar ways, but they indicate stronger or weaker emphasis.  There are always rules, and of course times when we break the rules, but here are some very generalized guidelines.

You can think of the dash like the roar of a lion, it shows that something has a high level of contrast and the dash is used to bring attention to the words set apart by the dashes.  It can show a level of surprise or strong emphasis. Such as, “The young boy—with arms as thin as sticks –hoisted the massive weight above his head.” The contrast of the thin arms shows the surprise in being able to lift the heavy weight.

The commas are a little subtler, you can think of them like a tiger weaving through the underbrush of the jungle. They can be very powerful, but they pause and wait, ready to pounce with more information.  Something like, “The young boy, who had been secretly training at the gym for months, hoisted the massive weight above his head.”  Here the information within the commas offers more information about the young boy and why he could lift the weights.

Parenthesis can also be powerful, but they are more like the bear walking peacefully through the forest.  They can pack powerful information, but generally are quieter, while still offering more information. We could say, “The young boy (stronger than he looked) hoisted the massive weight above his head”

A few of the “rule breakers”-

If we are already using parenthesis for references in a sentence and the information you want to set off within a sentence would be normally set off with parenthesis, then you might want to consider using commas or the dash so your reader won’t be confused.

If you are already using a lot of commas in a sentence, you might want to consider using the dash or parenthesis instead of more commas.

Well, I hope this helps give a little insight on when to use the lions, tigers and bears of the punctuation world.  Remember, we would love to help talk about those scary punctuation marks with you at the Writing Center!  Make an appointment today–

If you would like to read more about this topic, check out Grammar Girl’s entry at —Grammar Girl