Back to Basics – Understanding Grammar

When I first started writing I had no idea how much I actually didn’t know about the English language. I like to consider myself a pretty smart person, but I had to look up simple things like how to punctuate dialogue, what the difference is between past and present tense, and how to use the apostrophe correctly. And I’m the first to admit that I still learn something new every day. These simple things—and a whole lot more—are fundamental knowledge if we want to write our stories, and write them well.

I don’t have copious amounts of time and space to go through everything—and let’s face it, it would be very unrealistic to even try—so today I thought I’d just touch on some of the basics.

The basic parts of speech and the written word

Noun: a person, place or thing. For example, father, Sydney, bird.

Pronoun: a word that replaces or stands for a noun. For example, he, she, it.

Verb: an action word. For example, run, climb, sit.

Adjective: a word that modifies or describes a noun. For example, the blue house.

Adverb: a word that modifies or describes a verb. For example, she ran quickly down the hall.

The basic punctuation marks

End punctuation: these consist of the full stop (.) or period in American English, question mark (?) and exclamation point (!). A full stop is used at the end of a sentence that makes a statement and is the most common of the end punctuation marks. The question mark is obviously used when a question is asked, and the exclamation point is used for emphasis.

Commas: the comma is the most popular punctuation mark, and also the one that often breaks the rules. It is principally used for separating things or joining two clauses in one sentence. Have a look at this Wikipedia article for more information.

Semicolons: a semicolon (;) is used to separate two main clauses not joined by a co-ordinating conjunction such as and or but. Click here to read a very amusing article by The Oatmeal about how to use the semicolon correctly.

Colons: a colon (:) is used to set off a series, summary, or list after a main clause.

Dashes: There are two main types of dashes: an en dash (–) which is the width of the letter n and used for periods of time in place of the word to, and an em dash (—) which is the width of the letter m and used to set off a short summary after a complete main cause. It may also be used to replace commas where two main clauses are interrupted by a piece of additional information. Dashes should not be confused with the hyphen (-) which is used to link words and parts of words.

Apostrophes: this little mark (’) is the most common misused punctuation mark in written English. It has two primary uses. One, it denotes ownership, and two, it indicates abbreviation. The biggest mistake I often see is when an apostrophe is used to create a plural. Have a look at this great explanation from The Oatmeal on How To Use An Apostrophe.

Quotation Marks: these are also referred to as inverted commas (“”) and are used to set off quotes or dialogue.

Phew! Now I’ve got that out of the way, I want to give you a tip that’s the one thing I find really helpful with my own writing. Read it out loud. Often things sound different in our head, so reading a sentence or paragraph out loud, and to someone else, will help iron out any imperfections.

K. A. Last is a YA author and has recently self-published her debut novel – Fall For Me – available at Amazon and Smashwords. She drinks lots of tea, and loves all things pink. K. A. Last hangs out on Facebook or you can find her on twitter and Goodreads. She’s also been known to blog once in a while.


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