Grammar can be a sticky subject, especially with English.
Our language has so many intricacies that getting a hold on the rules of grammar can be extraordinarily tricky.
Fortunately, we have plenty of useful resources to help us such as Grammarly (which you should totally get the Chrome or Firefox extension for if you haven’t already.) Grammar Girl is another fantastic place to go for keeping up to date with proper grammar usage. Thesaurus is excellent for making our writing more diverse. Even the Oatmeal has fleshed out the rules of grammar in their awesomely hilarious grammar guides.
This post is not meant to be a replacement for any of these resources. If anything, it’s meant to coexist and complement them by providing answers to a few of the most common grammatical questions, on a single page.
One last thing before diving in; while it’s a good idea to make your book as grammatically correct as possible before moving onto the publishing stage, you don’t have to go overboard. A traditional publisher will ensure an editor goes through your book line-by-line before it hits the shelves, to dot all the T’s and cross all the I’s. If you’re going the self-publishing route, you should hire an editor to do this for you.
However, the better you can make your own grammar, the better your chances are of finding a literary agent to represent you in the first place.
By the way, you can click any of these links to jump right to that point on the page:
How to Use Apostrophes
Apostrophes have two uses:
- To form a contraction
- To indicate possession
In many cases, the rules of grammar are straight-forward enough to make using apostrophes fairly simple.
- ‘Will not’ becomes won’t
- ‘Do not’ becomes don’t
- ‘He will’ becomes he’ll
Possessive apostrophes are used with names or other nouns.
- Those are Bob’s keys.
- Mary’s jet flies faster than Superman
- The taste of Mike’s chocolate covered crickets is to die for
But possession can get trickier when there’s more than one name involved. The correct formatting in this instance is to use an apostrophe after the second name, like so:
Jason and Keith’s birthday falls on the same day, only one year apart.
What about when a word or a name already ends in the letter ‘S?’ This is when the rules of grammar for apostrophes become trickier.
The carrier pigeons’ letters contain important information for Bill Gates.
‘Pigeons’ in this case is both plural and possessive. For this reason, the apostrophe goes after the S.
In some cases, though, you might run into a word that’s plural without an S. In these instances, to indicate possession, you add an S and put the apostrophe before it.
Children’s clothes are outgrown so quickly.
‘Children’ is already plural.
Finally, when dealing with names that end in an S, you can either add an extra S at the end or just add an apostrophe. Both ways are correct as long as you are consistent.
- The fate of the world rests on Iris’ shoulders.
- The fate of the world rests on Iris’s shoulders.
Take your pick.
For more info on the rules of grammar of apostrophes, check out this awesome guide by The Oatmeal.
How to Use Colons
The rules of grammar for colons are quite straight forward. You use colons:
- Before a list (like this).
- To separate ideas (This is far less common: that’s my opinion).
- To write times. It is 4:28 as I write this third bullet point.
Those were some great uses of colons.
How to Use Commas
Let’s start with the basics. Commas are used to:
- Separate independent clauses.
- Provide pauses and breathing space in lengthy sentences.
- Separate items in a list of three or more items.
- Add clarification to a sentence that would be confusing, otherwise.
“Let’s eat grandmother” versus “Let’s eat, grandmother.”
Using a comma to separate items in a list is important. Where there is some debate is whether or not to use a comma to separate the last item in a list. This is called the Oxford Comma, named after the editors who commonly used it at the Oxford Press.
Not my image – original source unknown.
Ultimately, you will need to decide whether or not to use the Oxford comma for yourself.
Commas after “as.”
Commas after the word ‘as’ are dependent on how ‘as’ is being used.
If it’s being used to describe an action taking place while something is being said, then it’s dependent on what the action is. For instance:
- said Harry as quietly as possible
- said Slughorn, as Ron collapsed.
These examples are taken from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. No comma is used in the first example because it’s merely a description of the way Harry is speaking. In the second example, there is a comma because Ron collapsing is a different action than Slughorn speaking.
When using ‘as well as’ the use of a comma can often be a judgement call.
“I need to purchase pasta as well as tomato sauce”
This doesn’t need a comma because the meaning of the sentence is clear without one. However, a comma could be added to provide breathing room.
“The words we use, as well as how we say them, influence our overall message.”
This non-restrictive clause in the middle does require the usage of commas.
Commas after “because.”
The rule here is that commas are usually not needed with ‘because.’ Exceptions may be made when using ‘because’ in the negative sense, to avoid confusion.
The dog did not want to play because he was too tired.
The above sentence is confusing and incorrect without a comma. Was the dog too tired to play or was there another reason? It’s not clear.
The dog did not want to play, because he was too tired.
Now we know.
Commas after “but.”
Commas are used with ‘but’ only when it is at the beginning of an independent clause.
I would go to work, but I’m sick.
A comma is needed here.
It’s okay to screw up a task but only once.
A comma is not needed here as it’s part of the same thought.
Commas after “which.”
Use a comma after the word ‘which’ when adding information that is necessary for the reader to know in order to understand the context. When ‘which’ adds some extra description, a comma is not needed.
He entered the room which was painted red.
No comma needed.
He entered the room, which he was unaware was the scene of the murder from the previous night.
A comma is needed to separate the independent clauses.
For more information on properly using commas, check out Grammarly’s Grammar Handbook.
How to Format Dialogue
There’s an entire post here on this. See The Ultimate Guide for Writing Dialogue in Your Novel.
How to Use Parentheses
To use parentheses correctly you need to consider what part of the sentence you’re putting inside of them. Essentially, words inside of parentheses are treated as being separate from the rest of the sentence.
Mark (went to the store for milk and eggs) and came back five hours later with a suspicious bruise on his face.
This would not be correct. The rule to follow for parentheses here is that if you took them away, the sentence should still make sense.
Mark went to the store (for milk and eggs) and came back five hours later with a suspicious bruise on his face.
This would be correct. It would also be okay to leave the parentheses out of the sentence altogether.
When formatting parentheses with punctuation, the rule is to keep the punctuation outside of the parentheses, unless that punctuation is part of the sentence within. If there is a comma it should fall outside and at the end of the closing parenthesis. For example:
I ate pizza for dinner, (with pepperoni, ham and pineapples) along with a glass of Coke Zero.
This is not correct, because the comma comes before the parentheses.
I ate pizza for dinner (with pepperoni, ham and pineapples), along with a glass of Coke Zero.
Also, don’t judge my eating choices. I know what I like… those beautiful beautiful carbs.
How to Use Quotation Marks
The rules of grammar for quotation marks are to use them for:
- Showing dialogue
- Conveying sarcasm or disbelief
Punctuation goes inside quotation marks.
“Are you a Pikachu? Because you’re shockingly beautiful,” he said, seconds before she rolled her eyes at him.
Quotation marks become a little trickier when you throw single quotation marks into the mix. In these cases, the single quotation marks go inside of the doubles. Don’t put double quotation marks inside of doubles.
“Yes,” he said, nodding slowly. “The tea is ‘safe’ to drink. There’s certainly nothing ‘poisionous’ in it.”
In other slightly related news, don’t drink the tea.
For more information on using quotation marks, check out Grammarly’s guide.
How to Use Semicolons
The rules of grammar for semicolons are a little more complicated than regular colons.
In the most simple of terms – they are used to connect two separate statements or ideas into one.
Think of them like hyphens, but for sentences.
We use hyphens to connect two or three words that mean something when linked together but would technically mean something slightly different on their own. For instance, a run-on sentence is a sentence that goes on for too long. A run on sentence is a man running on top of a sentence.
Semicolons are a bit like that, although they don’t change the meaning in quite the same way.
I just ate 10 Timbits from Tim Hortons. I don’t want dinner anymore.
Although it’s grammatically correct to write this, it reads a bit clunky. Technically it’s all part of the same thought, even though I pause. Therefore I can write:
I just ate 10 Timbits from Tim Hortons; I don’t want dinner anymore.
Also, again, stop judging my eating choices.
A semicolon can replace a period when used in this fashion, but not a comma.
A second, less common use of semicolons is to use them as a ‘super-comma.’ This is done when it would be too convoluted to only use commas.
For my next vacation I want to go to Rome, Italy; Zürich, Switzerland; and then Paris, France. In that order; it has to be in that order.
A semicolon can replace a comma when used in this fashion, but not a period.
Simple, right? You can check out The Oatmeal’s guide on semicolons for more information.
The Rules of Grammar Settled
That’s all of the rules of grammar to be written about for now. Have you found this guide useful? Please let me know, as well as if there are any additional rules of grammar that you would like to see included. This guide may be updated in the future and if so, I will post a summary of updates below this section.