Month: April 2012

Teaching Grammar To Suck Eggs

Punctuation exists to give absolute clarity to the written word. Being able to use punctuation effectively allows me to write confidently because I know that my message will be clear for the reader.

I’m the first to admit that learning grammar at school was dull. All those hours sticking bits of punctuation into paragraphs that had been contrived purely to hold bits of punctuation … who cared? Well my inspirational English teacher who insisted that I stop looking at pictures of Haircut 100 and start thinking about finite verbs.

The golden rule of punctuation is simple: if you don’t know how to use something – don’t use it.

There is nothing more distracting than a random comma stuck in a sentence because the writer knew that something should go in but they weren’t sure what or where. Unless you are writing a list if you need to use a comma then limit it to one per sentence. I have encountered many people who write long sentences with stray bits of punctuation and think they look intelligent. They don’t. They look like people who don’t know how to punctuate a long sentence. The intelligent way to write is to keep one thought to a sentence.

For one client I evolved into a grammar guru. It started with questions like “rain and snow – is that whether or weather?” and culminated in a special lesson on how to use the apostrophe.

Ah! The Apostrophe – how does one small splodge on a page create such panic? I think it’s because we are told how difficult it is to place the apostrophe correctly and how we will be open to ridicule if we don’t. There are academics who believe that losing the apostrophe would do no damage to the language. However until the day the apostrophe is abandoned it is probably a good idea to know what to do with it.

Generally the apostrophe is used to show possession or to abbreviate so “can not” becomes “can’t”. Now in my experience most people are fairly comfortable with using an apostrophe to abbreviate or join words but get flustered about how to use it to show possession. So here’s a simple example:

Shepherd’s Pie – this is the pie belonging to the shepherd (one pie, one shepherd)

Shepherds’ Pie – still one pie but this time belonging to lots of shepherds. The shepherd has been made plural by the addition of the “s” and the apostrophe on its own shows that the shepherds possess the pie. It would be perfectly correct to put “shepherds’s” but it is not stylistically elegant.

Shepherd’s Pies – lots of pies belonging to one shepherd.

Shepherds’ Pies – lots of pies belonging to lots of shepherds.

One final tip – “it’s” can NEVER be possessive.

“It’s” is the abbreviation of “it is”.

Look at this sentence: “the kitten played with it’s ball of wool”.  Change “it’s” to “it is”: “the kitten played with it is ball of wool”.

It doesn’t make sense.

The sentence should read “the kitten played with its ball of wool”.

I do not claim to be an academic expert on grammar but I am always happy to answer a query or give advice. Just complete the form below: