Let’s get this out of the way immediately: yes, I am one of those grammar people.
Every time I see a misplaced apostrophe on a restaurant menu (appetizer’s, entrée’s, etc.), I can’t help but joke (much to my companions’ delight, I’m sure), “Who is appetizer and what’s he got?”
An unnecessary comma in a novel forces me to pause my internal monologue dramatically, as must have been intended by the author (because why else the comma?).
Point being, I love grammar.
Most people who read your board minutes, proposals, or newsletters likely aren’t doing so as attentively as I might. But that doesn’t mean they won’t notice grammatical errors and make a judgment—whether consciously or subconsciously—about you and your content as a result.
So how do you prevent your minor mistakes from turning into major issues and embarrassing errors in the minds of your readers?
Be Clearer with Commas (and Semicolons)
I recall one of my elementary school teachers telling me that comma usage was as easy as placing this little piece of punctuation anywhere in a sentence where you naturally would pause. And I recall just as distinctly the exact moment I realized how wrong she was.
Although comma usage isn’t quite that simple, there are a few straightforward rules to ensure your commas always are correct.
1) Always use a comma with an introductory element or statement.
That means any time you say something like “In 2019…,” “In fact…,” or “When the association was founded…,” a comma should follow it. Take the following example:
When we started the association in 1990, Internet privacy wasn’t a primary concern.
You just as easily could say, “Internet privacy wasn’t a primary concern when we started the association in 1990.” When that is the case, you need a comma. (Or should I say you need a comma when that is the case?)
2) Don’t separate dependent clauses with a comma.
If you have two or more independent clauses in a sentence, those phrases should be separated by a comma. However, you do not need a comma if the phrases are dependent. Take a look at the following example of two dependent phrases spliced with a comma:
Mary didn’t want to study medicine because she was afraid of needles, and disliked science.
The idea that Mary disliked science is not a full thought, so it cannot be separated by a comma.
Still not sure how to tell the difference between the two? An easy way to remember this rule is right there in the names: although both may include a subject and verb, an independent clause can stand alone and a dependent clause cannot.
3) Don’t fear the semicolon.
Many people find the semicolon tricky, but it actually is one of the easiest forms of punctuation to use.
The first and easiest rule involves lists. Essentially, if you have lists within lists, you need a semicolon. Take the following example:
Andrew bought a suede vest; a red, white, and blue bandanna; and a vintage guitar for his Willy Nelson costume.
Once you get the hang of identifying independent clauses, the second rule for semicolons is just as simple. If you have two independent clauses that are closely related in a single sentence, and there is not a coordinating conjunction between them, you can use a semicolon to separate them. Let’s go back to our friend Mary in medical school for an example of this:
Mary didn’t get into her first-choice medical school; her last-choice also denied her application.
Agreement and Apostrophes Are Important
Whether they involve issues of subject/verb agreement or misplaced modifiers, agreement issues are among the most common—and easily resolved—grammar mistakes.
4) Don’t misplace your modifier.
A misplaced modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that is incorrectly separated from the word it is describing. Take the following example:
Julie ate a cold dish of ice cream for lunch.
Sure, the chances are good that the dish was cold because it contained ice cream—but chances are even better that in this sentence, the writer actually wanted to describe the ice cream as being cold. That’s the difference a properly placed modifier makes.
5) And don’t let it dangle.
A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that seems to modify something that doesn’t seem to be in the sentence at all. Let’s check back with Julie after she’s eaten her ice cream for an example of this:
After finally finishing the ice cream, the day felt much more pleasant.
Although most of us can intuit what is meant, if you read this sentence literally, it implies that the day ate the ice cream, not Julie.
6) Subjects and verbs should play nicely together.
The subject and verb in a sentence always should agree in terms of number. More simply put, if the subject is singular, the verb should be too. Take the following sentence:
The most important part of life are the memories you make.
This is a tricky one because “memories” is plural—but it’s important to remember that the verb is actually modifying “the most important part,” meaning it should be singular: “The most important part of life is the memories you make.”
7) Always, always check your apostrophes.
If you read the introduction to this post and thought, “What’s the problem with appetizer’s?” then this one is for you.
Although they are among the most unassuming parts of punctuation, apostrophes also are one of the most important—especially when we’re talking about “it.”
It seems natural that “it’s” would be possessive; after all, most possessive forms contain an apostrophe somewhere. But in this case, it’s a contraction clear and simple. If you’re stuck, don’t think of the other possessive forms you know, but instead about “hers.” Although “her” stands alone, we’d never dream of saying the bracelet was her’s—right? It’s the same with “its.”
Consistency Is Key
Grammar is important; this much we know. But regardless of whether you’re writing an informal email or press release to be sent to hundreds of stakeholders, the most important thing is consistency.
Consistent, clear communications not only get your message across more effectively, but they also show the reader how carefully you’ve considered what you’re saying—sending another, even more impactful, message about your organization’s competency and professionalism.
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