How to Improve Your Grammar

We could all use a refresher course to improve our grammar. If you’d like to improve your grammar and communication skills, check out Bill’s list of helpful hints below.

The Short Sentence as Gospel Truth

Short sentences are like brakes. They get your attention. But don’t be brake happy.

What Happened to Whom?

Do you know when to use whom? If you get confused by grammar rules, you're not alone.

I know, I know. I shouldn’t be such a pedant. Language, after all, is always evolving.

But . . . whatever happened to “Whom?” These days—in blog posts, online news articles, even The New York Times of all places—the question could just as readily appear as, “Whatever happened to ‘Who?’”

Long ago, my high school English teacher, Mrs. Helmick, drummed the basic rule into our thick skulls: “Who” is always the subject of a verb (meaning that “who” is an agent). The object (thing or person acted upon) of a verb or preposition is always “whom.”

Now, is that too hard to observe? I realize that doing so might require rewording a sentence, but pausing to do that might result in clearer and more elegant expression.

What do you think? Rules be damned? Or should Mrs. Helmick continue as my internal editor?

The Semicolon Offers Hope

When should you use a semicolon? Barnett Writer helps you so that you can impress your colleagues.

If you roll your eyes at using semicolons, please reconsider. After all, semicolons have been used since the 15th century to improve legibility and maintain logic. There’s meaning behind the rules.

Actually, the rules are simple.

  1. Use a semicolon to join two or more independent clauses (i.e., clauses that have both a subject and a verb) that express similar meaning.
    If there is a conjunction or transitional phrase introducing the second clause, use a comma.

  2. When you insert a conjunctive adverb (e.g., however, moreover, further, indeed, also), but not a conjunction, to introduce a second independent clause, use a semicolon.

  3. If you have a list of items that have commas embedded, use a semicolon to separate the major items in the list. This helps your reader to keep track.

One final point: semicolons save lives. To prevent suicide, Project Semicolon ( was founded in 2013 with the motto, “Your story is not over.”

Semicolons are not elitist.

A Brief, Painless Colonoscopy

Here’s a brief, painless “colonoscopy.” (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the opportunity.)

Properly used, colons add punch to your writing. They impose a full stop, like periods, but waive a red flag toward what comes next.

Typically, a colon joins two independent clauses (having a subject and verb) that are very closely related. The second clause should explain the first or carry heavier emphasis.

Example: “Our business faces two alternatives: we can make a fortune or file for bankruptcy.” Notice that a semicolon could be technically correct, but it lacks the impact of a colon.

Colons also introduce lists, usually of three or more items or of two or more complete sentences.

Example: “There are three primary colors: yellow, red, and blue.” (correct)
                “The three primary colors are: yellow, red, and blue.” (incorrect, remove colon)

When a proper noun (e.g., name of a person) follows a colon, it should be capitalized. The first word of each sentence in a series following a colon should be capitalized. Otherwise, do not capitalize the first word after a colon. I should stop before the anesthesia wears off. If you have any other tips for healthy uses of colons, comment.

Its, It’s, and Its’

Its, It’s, and Its’—misuse of these three little words often marred my students’ essays, causing me to age prematurely.

Let’s first clear up the rules.

Its = the possessive form as in “The cat ate its food.”

It’s = a contraction of “it is” as in “It’s good to learn something new.”

Its’ = Surprise! There is no such construction, ever.

Why all the confusion? I can think of two reasons.

First, in spoken English, there is no audible distinction among the two legitimate uses of “its” and “it’s.” Since we first learn our native language by aurally, we don’t encounter the difference between them until we encounter written English. Orally, meaning is determined by context alone.

Second, “its” constitutes an exception to the usual rule of inserting an apostrophe to indicate the possessive form. In this case, there is no apostrophe. An apostrophe appears in “it’s” to indicate the contraction of “it is.”

Finally, most spelling and grammar checkers won’t detect an error since “its” and “it’s” are both legitimate words. (Grammarly is inconsistent.)

Have some fun! Count the number of times “its” or “it’s” appear incorrectly in your colleagues’ email messages. But be careful about calling them out!

Loose “Nots” Destroy Logic

If you want to improve your communications you need to understand how and when to use words.

Loose “nots” wander to inappropriate places in your sentence and ruin the logic of what you intend to say. The following example appeared in a recent opinion piece.

“All politicians do not lie.”

From the context, it becomes obvious that the author did not mean, “All politicians tell the truth.” But that is what the sentence actually implies.

In this example, “not” should be moved to directly modify “all”: “Not all politicians lie.”

Inappropriate placement of “not” amounts to a problem of informal logic, not grammar. (It could be analyzed as a problem in formal predicate or existential logic, but we won’t go there.)

Regardless, such word order sloppiness distorts actual meaning.

Say what you mean! Your fussy readers will thank you.

Do you have other examples of illogical expression?

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