Tag Archives: grammar

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?


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.


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

Writing Resources: Grammar Girl

Have you ever wondered what the difference is between affect and effect? Lay and lie? i.e. and e.g.? Grammar Girl has the answers to these questions and many others that elude writers far and wide. Grammar Girl is an online resource that provides answers to commonly misunderstood grammar issues. The source of these answers is the site’s host, former magazine and technical writer Mignon Fogarty. Fogarty has written several books on grammar and provides sneak peaks from her works on the Grammar Girl website.

Grammar Girl has a wide range of information, including but not limited to grammar, punctuation, word choice, and style. The fact that grammar girl discusses word choice is probably my favorite feature of the site! I’ve always been one to over-think word choice in my writing. One of my favorite examples is “101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master In No Time”, which is a number of  sneak peaks to one of Fogarty’s books. In these posts, word choice is discussed in great detail.

However, there is one thing that any Grammar Girl user should be aware of. Grammar Girl by itself won’t be able to answer all of your grammar questions. The site is very robust, but in no way all encompassing. My suggestion is to use Grammar Girl in addition to other great writing resources (like the The Writing Center @ MSU!). Grammar Girl isn’t a perfect one-stop destination for all of your grammar needs, but it is still an incredibly helpful resource.

Intercontinental Ink: Struggles with the English Article System

As a consultant here at the MSU Writing Center, I’ve noticed one item in particular that almost all Writing Center clients who are non-native speakers of English struggle with: the English article system. Articles like a and the are an inherent knowledge native English speakers take for granted. Sure, if something is definite, it is preceded by the, like the frog. Indefinite would be a frog.

Simple, yes? No.

Let’s look at plurals. The frogs is fine, but what about a frogs? Or simply frogs? Then we can get into uncountable things, like life, which doesn’t need an article. But the life has a different, more colloquial meaning, so using this article unknowingly could create unintentional meaning.

Mid-way though a writing center consultation, I’ll find myself confidently tromping down the path of explaining the English article system, only to stumble over my shoddily crafted rationales.

I’ll say, “Yeah, all nouns need an article!” Haha, no. “Okay, well, if it’s plural then you don’t. Usually. Sometimes. I think?”

Then I’ll backtrack with, “Um, no, actually just some… like… well let’s just look at an example in your paper,” as I continue to not sufficiently explain anything of value.

After I’ve finished this awkward conversation with myself, praying that the client still thinks I possess some fragment of credibility, I determine that honesty is probably best in this situation: I don’t know how to explain the English article system. Articles are like prepositions in that you just have to know when to use them.

Latin doesn’t use articles. Japanese doesn’t use articles. Russian doesn’t use articles. Why, then, does English? Unfortunately, it’s just the way it works. And on behalf of English and those who cannot explain it, I’m sorry.

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

Understanding “Writing” More Broadly

The Great Grammar DebateI can admit that standard grammar is an exceedingly important part of writing, particularly in the academic context that The Writing Center exists in. If only to avoid being distracting to readers, grammar is important. If we also want to convey a sense of professionalism or mastery of coursework, it becomes indispensable.

I will also admit, however, that I absolutely hate focusing on it in sessions. To explain my distain, I will point to my title as a “Writing Consultant.” There is a distinct ideological difference between tutoring writing and tutoring English, as a language. As mentioned in the introduction to this series, The Writing Center does not require consultants to be “grammar experts,” though we all have a general knowledge that is sufficient for most situations.

Though grammar is integral to clear writing, there is a great deal more to the expression of our thoughts, ideas, and feelings through the written word than grammar alone. A typical academic writing assignment, for example, requires that a student be able to read and understand often lengthy prompts, have formulated original, insightful thoughts on the topic, articulate and structure their ideas logically and in adherence with American academic conventions, and all the while keeping in mind course materials and themes. Juggling all of these various, competing conditions requires a number of skills that take time to develop. Our goal at The Writing Center is to not simply to make better papers, but better writers. To do so necessitates that we focus on helping clients develop these skills to do well now, and throughout their college career. Continue reading

Grammar: The Difference Between “Important” and “Most Important”

The Great Grammar Debate

It’s a normal occurrence in a writing center appointment. I will ask, “what would you like to work on today?”  The response typically includes — or starts with — the word “grammar.”

I want to stress, first and foremost, that this is okay. There is nothing wrong with wanting your college paper to contain Standard American English grammar, especially considering how it generally is part of your grade. That said, many writing assignments have grammar and mechanics as part of a paper’s grade, but it often accounts for roughly 10 percent or less of that paper’s grade. That means there’s another 90 percent of that paper to work on, so why wouldn’t we talk about that, too? Put another way, a paper can have absolutely perfect grammar and still fail miserably. Continue reading

Grammar isn’t the Bad Guy

The Great Grammar DebateOne of the phrases I hear the most from students coming to The Writing Center is, “I’m terrible at grammar.” What’s highly interesting about this phrase is two things: 1.) Generally speaking, students say “grammar,” but actually define that term as including “grammar, spelling, and punctuation,” and 2.) In my experience, 9 out of every 10 people who have said that really aren’t bad at it at all. It seems like, for a variety of reasons, this idea of “proper grammar” has become some sort of multi-headed beast in peoples’ minds; an unconquerable set of rules, punctuation marks, spelling, etc., that they just don’t have a chance at mastering. FALSE.

Firebreathing dragon, with the word "Gramma" in the flames.

Image via www.churchstroke.com, edited by Gines

Being good at grammar isn’t something that everybody just inherently knows; it’s like a muscle that grows over time as you continually learn more about how to strengthen it. Grammar also isn’t this set of rigid rules designed to make writing difficult, but rather the resource that helps you to communicate well through your writing. In reality, it’s no different from the chemist using the right beaker to successfully conduct the experiment, or the violinist who must tune their strings to the correct pitch before a performance.

Additionally, using proper grammar doesn’t necessarily mean you’re crafting flourishing sentences of “erstwhile’s,” “thou’s,” and “fortnight’s.” In fact, using it correctly doesn’t even guarantee that it’s a good sentence. What actually makes writing interesting and enjoyable to read is largely based on the content. Grammar, then, is the vehicle that helps you deliver those important words to your audience. Think of it like this: grammar is not a set of strict rules looking for every opportunity to trip you up between subject-verb agreements, or using the proper tense. Instead, it is a set of tools that helps you get your message to the audience. For example, if you have an idea for a fantastic play or a witty short story, grammar isn’t your enemy here. It’s the resource you use that helps you to translate what you see in your mind to words on paper in a way that allows other people to understand what you’ve envisioned.

Ultimately, the term “proper grammar” seems to evoke this idea of rules upon rules that just aren’t easy or enjoyable to use. Then again, what chemist is going to say that his favorite part of experimentation is the beakers? What musician will say that for them, it’s all about tuning up the instrument? This applies just as much to writers. Proper grammar isn’t the reason people write; we do it to tell stories, to inspire audiences, to create something meaningful, and so much more. Grammar is simply the tool that allows us to share our ideas through writing.