Three simple grammar rules you might not know (but definitely should)

Thursday, September 29, 2016
by Kate Stericker

Imagine you’ve laboured over an important writing assignment for the better part of a week. You’ve scrutinized every paragraph, clause, and comma, and you’re certain this work is some of the best you’ve ever done. You hand it in, eager to receive recognition for all the effort you’ve invested. However, a few weeks later, the paper comes back to you soaked in red ink! As you anxiously skim your professor’s comments, you realize that your ideas were strong and the structure of your paper was flawless; almost every correction references a mistake relating to grammar. As you look more closely, you’re overcome with confusion--some of the the rules you’ve violated don’t sound familiar at all! Have you lost marks for breaking rules you’ve never even heard of?

Of course, it’s unlikely that anything as extreme as this nightmare scenario will happen to you. If you’re reasonably fluent in the English language, you probably understand many of the most important grammar rules. However, it’s just as probable that there are quite a few rules you’ve yet to come across. Even as a student in the English department, I discover new grammar rules every single semester when I read over the feedback on my assignments. With this in mind, I decided to compile a list of grammar rules which many students either don’t know or often forget to follow. These rules are all easy to apply--the key is to learn that you have to apply them!

1. The difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’

If you’re anything like me, you might have gone most of your life thinking that the words ‘that’ and ‘which’ were completely interchangeable. “The class that I took last semester”? Sounds fine to me! “The class which I took last semester?” Just as good! However, in my second year of university, I had a British Literature professor who kept returning my essays with red circles around half of my ‘that’s and ‘which’s, with the other word penned in over top. Determined to stop losing marks over something I didn’t understand, I looked up the rule that governs which word to use.

As it turns out, the distinction is simple, and pretty interesting. Both ‘which’ and ‘that’ are used to introduce clauses that provide information but could be removed without compromising the grammatical correctness of the sentence.‘That’ is used in restrictive clauses, which are clauses that are essential to the meaning of a sentence. If you take these out, the sentence may still be grammatical, but the meaning will change! For example: “The Writing Centre drop-ins that take place in the Davis Centre run from 1:00 to 4:00.” Without the restrictive clause, the sentence would wrongly suggest that all drop-ins occur during these times.

In contrast, ‘which’ is used at the beginning of non-restrictive clauses, which provide additional information but could be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. (Did you notice how meta that sentence got?) For example: “Writing Centre drop-ins, which can be helpful and illuminating, run for at least three hours every weekday.” While the non-restrictive clause adds some detail, the sentence would still mean the same thing without it.

2. The order of quotes, citations, and punctuation marks

I think we can all agree that university essays have too much going on at the end of sentences. Punctuation, quotation marks, bracketed citations --with so many elements to juggle, it’s no wonder that the order sometimes gets muddled up. I spent my first semester just taking stabs and seeing what looked right before I finally buckled down and memorized the rules. I’ll keep my summary short and sweet so it sticks in your mind: if a sentence ends with a quote, the period falls within the quotation marks. If you have a comma next to a quotation mark in the middle of a sentence, the same rule applies. Here are some examples (in italics rather than quotes to keep things simple):

According to the Writing Centre website, the writing specialists at drop-ins “can teach you revising skills and strategies.” These specialists view your work “as readers would,” so they are able to point out passages which may be confusing to someone less familiar with your topic.

If you’re incorporating an in-text citation, the rule is simple: make sure it falls after the quotation mark but before the punctuation.

Drop-ins provide “convenient access to writing and research help in a single location” (“Drop-ins at the Library”). The Writing Centre, an “academic support unit that supports students, staff, and faculty as they build communication excellence” (“About the Writing Centre”), is responsible for running them.

Although these rules may seem intuitive when you see the elements ordered correctly, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen a misplaced period or quotation mark in an academic paper!

3. Numbers: word or numeral?

There’s a sinking feeling that can arise when you need to incorporate a number into a sentence and you have no idea whether you’re supposed to spell it out or write the numeral. Forty-one or 41? Sixteen or 16? I see plenty of students who use numerals in every case, resulting in phrases like “6 years” and “only 3 people.” My tendency used to be to write out most numbers, leading to phrases like “in seventy-seven cases” or “one hundred and thirty times.” It’s clear that you can’t use the same approach in every case, but how can you tell what each specific situation calls for?

This case is a little different from the two other ones we’ve discussed, since there’s no universal rule. Academics disagree on precisely what the guidelines should be, and sometimes you just have to trust your instincts. However, I’ve come across a useful rule which, while not applicable in every case, definitely helps put my mind at ease when I’m not sure I’ve chosen the correct option. It’s straight-forward and easy to remember: when the name of a number has two syllables or fewer, write it out. When it has three or more syllables, use the numeral. Keep this rule in mind while proofreading your papers, and you won’t have to worry about writing “except for 1 thing” or “one thousand, seven hundred, and eighty-seven years ago.”

Although you might doubt that you’ll remember the content of this blog long after you’re finished reading, improving your grammar is all about practice. Keep these rules in mind when you’re proofreading your papers this term, and, before long, you’ll be following them in your first drafts without even thinking about it. Of course, knowing three new rules won’t keep your papers free of mistakes, but it’ll help you feel a bitmore confident during the proofreading process and save your professors a little red ink. And, if you love grammar as much as I do, you might take comfort in the fact that there’s always more to learn!