In this post I discuss five common grammar questions (in no particular order) that I see in my editorial work and the wider world.
1. Which terms require apostrophes?
One of the most common grammar questions involves the use of the apostrophe. Writers regularly use contractions like “it’s” and “you’re” interchangeably with their possessive homophones “its” and “your.” “It’s” is a contraction of “it” and “is,” and “you’re” is a contraction of “you” and “are.” “Its” is the possessive form of “it,” and “your” is the possessive form of “you.”
One also sees apostrophes used incorrectly to make words plural, often in family names or other proper nouns. The Wallace family (to choose a random name) might place “The Wallace’s” on its mailbox. Or a restaurant might advertise that it “serves lunch on Sunday’s starting at noon.” For family names and any other proper noun, leave out the apostrophe to make them plural: “The Wallaces,” “Sundays.”
2. How do I make sure I’m using parallelism correctly?
Writers often have questions about constructing grammatical parallelism, especially with correlative conjunctions—phrases like “not only” and “but also.” The key point to remember is that phrases like “not only” need to appear after the word that governs both items in a parallel construction. What does that mean? I’ll give you an example. “John not only noticed Bob’s new car but also Bob’s new toupee.” Most readers likely grasp the meaning of the sentence, but the placement of “not only” might create some confusion. Because “noticed” governs both items in the construction (John noticed both the car and the hairpiece), “not only” needs to appear after it: “John noticed not only Bob’s new car but also Bob’s new toupee.” Note also that the items in a parallel construction need to be, well, parallel. That’s why you should repeat “Bob’s” before “new toupee.”
3. Where should I place modifiers in a sentence?
A common question writers have is not only where to place modifiers but also what counts as a modifier. In the sentence “A renowned author, she has received several awards for her work,” the phrase “a renowned author” modifies “she.” In English grammar, modifiers need to appear directly before what they modify. But consider the following sentence: “A renowned author, her work has received several awards.” The phrase “a renowned author” is an example of a dangling modifier, because it has nothing to modify. It can’t modify “her work” or “several awards.”
Here’s another example: “As an executive, many different problems land on my desk.” It probably seems clear after you’ve read the sentence that the person who refers to “my desk” is the executive. But the phrase “as an executive” is also a dangling modifier, unattached to anything in the rest of the sentence. You might revise as follows: “As an executive, I see many different problems land on my desk.” An exception to this rule is when the modifier modifies the general situation of the sentence, not one particular part, as in this example: “Given the weather conditions, schools and offices closed for the day.” The phrase “given the weather conditions” describes the situation that caused the closing, and so it doesn’t need to modify a specific term or phrase in the sentence.
4. When do I need to use a comma before “because”?
When you write a negative statement such as “He did not learn anything that day,” you often follow it up with the reason. Why did he not learn anything that day? Perhaps because he was asleep in class. But the sentence “He did not learn anything that day because he was asleep in class” is potentially ambiguous. The word not seems to apply to the entire phrase beginning with learn. So the sentence might be saying that the reason he failed to learn is not that he was sleeping in class, but rather some other reason. This ambiguity is why you need to insert a comma before “because” in these kinds of negative statements. “He did not learn anything that day, because he was asleep in class.” Now the sentence successfully conveys the idea that this guy needs to get some rest before coming to class.
Want more help? Read our post on this subject.
5. When should I hyphenate terms?
Writers are often unsure when to insert hyphens between words. I have seen references to “the world-order,” “advanced problem-solving,” and “event-planning.” But these phrases don’t need hyphens. Usually you need hyphens only when a pair of words works together as an adjective. In phrases like “problem-solving strategies” and “event-planning guidelines,” hyphens make sense. Hyphenated words do sometimes become widely accepted if they are used together constantly. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary contains the word “decision-making,” for example. But most of the time you don’t need to hyphenate phrases like that. You can always check the dictionary to make sure. If you don’t see the phrase hyphenated there, it’s probably best to omit the hyphen when you use it.
Have a look at our post on hyphens in MLA style for more.
I hope you found this post helpful and picked up some useful tips. If you’re feeling confident, stick around on the Style Center and take more of our quizzes!