Columns > Published on February 13th, 2015

Seven Grammar Tools to Love

Like many rule sets, grammar rules seem like they are forced upon us by some faceless, evil source driven to destroy our everyday communication. But you can look at it another way. To me, grammar rules are more like grammar tools—common methods understood by many that can be used to create something extraordinary.

Think of it like a hammer: most people know how to use one, and it is useful for many tasks. It is meant to be used in a few specific ways, and if you grossly misuse it, you might injure yourself or ruin whatever it is you are working on. But used conscientiously, you can use a hammer to build both ordinary and extraordinary things. Grammar “tools” work much the same way. They are common enough that most people at least know that they exist, but if you misuse them, you might injure yourself or ruin your project. However, if you learn how to use them, you can use these tools to create both ordinary communications like emails and to build extraordinary works like novels and poems.

Over time, I have learned to use my grammar tools to my advantage, and the following list details a few of my favorites.

1) Serial Comma (a.k.a. the Oxford Comma)

 The serial comma is placed between items in a list, as in:

  • Taylor, Rob, and Josh went to a bar.

Just the mention of this controversial little tadpole sparks either fiendish loyalty or icy indifference. The debate is whether or not the comma before the and is necessary. While I have met plenty of people who swear by the Oxford Comma, I haven’t encountered anyone yet who actively hates it.

Nor have I ever heard a good explanation why NOT to use one. The standard reply is that is takes up to much space on a page and that, depending on the context, it just might not be necessary for clarity. Ok, I hear ya: adding a comma before the and in a list may take up a negligible amount of space, but we live in a digital age where page space is infinitely cheaper and more flexible than it was in the days of typesetting. Furthermore, sacrificing a smidgen of space will eliminate misunderstanding. You CAN’T GO WRONG by using one, whereas leaving it out COULD cause confusion—or even lawsuits! For that reason, I see it as something to love and embrace—it’s guaranteed to make your writing that much better, so why not let the Oxford Comma into your heart?

2) Ellipses

Most of us know these three little dots as a way to create a pause on the page. It can be used to signify a trailing off or interruption. For example:

  • Where is Rob? I thought he was running this thing, and he’s already 10 minutes…”

“Hi, everyone. Sorry I’m late.”

“Hi Rob.”

There is another, more playful use of the ellipsis that I love to teach in my Basic Grammar Class (which starts April 28th). I call it the “yada, yada, yada” usage after the 153rd episode of Seinfeld entitled “The Yada Yada” in which the characters omit seemingly juicy or embarrassing bits of their stories by saying “yada, yada, yada.” Here’s an example:

  • Taylor went to the bar last night to drink a few whiskeys, and yada yada yada, she came to work this morning with a Tyson-esque face tattoo.

Instead of using yada yada yada, you can use the ellipses:

  • Taylor went to the bar last night to drink a few whiskeys, and…she came to work this morning with a Tyson-esque face tattoo.

Hemingway was a master of using the ellipses to NOT write things that might have been racy or that were better left unsaid. This is a fun grammar tool that can add intrigue and whimsy to your writing. Now there's a tool that’s easy to love.

3) The Imperative Verb Mood

Don’t freak out—I can see you already trying to read ahead to avoid having to learn what a flippin’ verb mood is—but bear with me.*

The imperative verb mood is also known as the COMMAND form—that’s right, as in TELLING PEOPLE WHAT TO DO. What’s not to love about that? The imperative allows you to omit the usual need for a subject in your sentence. Pronouns like I, you, they, she, we, etc. are typical subjects, as are nouns and proper nouns like empress, the cat, or Ted. A verb in the imperative mood always carries the subject “you”—either singular or plural, so there’s no need to add it in. The verb form itself implies that the speaker is speaking TO a person or persons, not about them. The result is a forceful verb that says exactly what it means.

  • Run! It’s a sharknado!

In the imperative, warning your friends to remove themselves from a cyclone of sharp-toothed fish is so much simpler when you don’t have to specify the subject.

  • You run! It’s a sharknado!

The you just takes too much time and sounds so awkward that your friends might pause to ponder it and get snapped up by a pissed-off, wind-blown great white as a result. You don’t want that, do you?

The imperative mood gives you the power to command people to take certain actions, and in the process you get to skip out on one of the most basic rules of sentences building—using a subject. So, learn it, use it, love it!*

*Author’s Note: Don’t freak out, bear with me, and learn it, use it, love it! are phrases that use the imperative verb mood to command you, the reader, to do (or not do) something. Note that I never say you, but it’s clear by the usage that I am talking to YOU! Isn’t that just so awesome?!?!?!

4) The Em Dash

The em dash (that’s the longer of the two dash types) has many uses, but one particular use is my favorite: the interrupter!

There are several ways that you can interrupt your sentences with parenthetical (or non-essential) information: the comma, the em dash, and—you guessed it—the parenthesis. Since I love to digress, the use of the em dash as a way to set off non-essential information is one of my favorite grammar tools. But, why, you might ask, do I prefer the em dash to the other two options? Because of the drama it creates, of course! My favorite pop grammarian, Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty, once explained it this way:

Parentheses are the quiet whisper of an aside, commas are the conversational voice of a friend walking by your desk, and dashes are the yowl of a pirate dashing into a fray. 

Frankly, I haven’t found a better way to illustrate it than that. Let’s do a demonstration:

  • After years of drinking mostly cheap wine, Taylor now prefers whiskey, but only the expensive kind.
  • After years of drinking mostly cheap wine, Taylor now prefers whiskey (but only the expensive kind).
  • After years of drinking mostly cheap wine, Taylor now prefers whiskey—but only the expensive kind.

In each case, the portion of the sentence that starts with but is non-essential information, i.e., removing it wouldn’t ruin the intent or grammatical structure. In the first example with the comma, the last bit comes as a sort of dry relaying of information. In the second, the detail about the expensive whiskey comes off as if it were being told to the reader as a secret. In the last version the dash is much more abrupt and loud. It’s non-essential information, but the use of the em dash ensures that it won’t be ignored.

My love of the em dash—as many who read my columns would know—borders on abuse, but it’s one of my favorite punctuation marks because it is so versatile and exciting. I’m sorry, but commas are just so boring in comparison!

5) Conjunctions

What is better than two sentences? Why two sentences connected with a conjunction to make a single sentence, of course! Conjunctions are the linking words for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so, (a.k.a. FANBOYS) and I am a FanGIRL of these utilitarian little words. (Har-dee-har-har.) No, really! I probably use a sentence that contains a conjunction in nearly everything I write, for they are just so useful. See? I did it just there. Conjunctions are used to link together two otherwise complete and independent clauses (which can stand alone as complete sentences) into one sentence by adding a comma and an appropriate conjunction. For example:

  • Portland is a small city. It is full of urban charm.
  • Portland is a small city, yet it is full of urban charm.

The second example shows the clear thematic connection between the two sentences in the first example by linking them together. In fact, you can use conjunctions to link together more than two independent clauses. So long as is makes senses, there really is no limit to the number of conjunctions you can use in a sentence.

Portland is a small city, yet it is full of urban charm, but it’s not too dirty or crowded, so it’s a perfect place to raise a family.

Sure, this does get a little tedious, but it’s still grammatically correct. It’s a great way to ramble on without writing a run-on sentence. Just as a refresher, a run-on sentence is not simply a long sentence, it is a sentence that lacks the proper punctuation to be grammatically correct. Writers like Charles Dickens wrote insanely long sentences that were grammatically sound. If you are long-winded on the page, then knowing your conjunctions is essential to crafting epic sentences that won’t offend the grammarians in your life.

6) Passive Voice

As a veteran of the Creative Writing Degree system that has helped thousands of writers earn actual (though mostly useless) college degrees in prose writing, I, too, was indoctrinated into the “passive voice is evil” club.

It was so drilled into me during my education, that, for a time, I truly believed that passive voice was a completely useless, and possibly dangerous, verb construction. I mean, who are all these people who can’t seem to take responsibility for their actions?!?

However, I realized the modern creative writing community’s insistence on nothing but active verbs made all of our writing seem robotic and aggressive. Passive voice allows you to tackle a topic from a different angle instead of always hitting your sentences head on. It seems maniacal to persist in ramming your readers through the front door of every sentence when you can, occasionally, sneak them around the back.

Passive voice allows the writer to shift focus from the doer to the deed. In some cases, this is a nice balance from the constant pressure to name the actor of every single verb in your piece. It is, occasionally, NOT important WHO made the mistakes, but that mistakes were made. Certainly, we don’t appreciate this sort of blame-deflection when we DO need to hold someone accountable, but grammatically speaking and stylistically speaking, passive voice is NOT always bad. In fact, it can be very useful when deployed conscientiously.

In Steven Pinker’s latest book, Sense of Style, he reminds grammarians that “linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader's attention and memory.” Sure, you might say, it’s SO like a cognitive scientist and psycholinguist to advocate passive voice construction since the science community often employs passive voice to direct a reader away from the actions of the scientist conducting an experiment and toward the result of that test. And, in some ways, I’d agree. But Pinker has a point. As writers, we have to understand the human mind to a degree because we use words to implant ideas in the minds of our readers. Knowing how to mold those minds is an important skill for the practitioners of the writing craft to perfect.

Consider this simple example:

  • The baker baked the cinnamon rolls to perfection.
  • The cinnamon rolls were baked to perfection.

Sure, the first example contains the subject (the baker) and the active verb (baked), and it would be considered by most main-stream editors to be the good version.

However, is the focus really on the baker—or is it on the perfect cinnamon rolls?

My vote is for the cinnamon rolls since they take center stage here—not the baker. Unless the story is about the baker and not the rolls, it can make sense to extract the actor from the sentence and focus only on result of the action—perfect cinnamon rolls.

So go ahead, give yourself license to use passive voice in your writing when and where is makes sense. It’s not BAD, in fact, it can be used for good.

7) Semicolon

It’s time to learn, once and for all, to love this winking wonder of punctuation. When I finally learned to use the semicolon correctly, I was actually a bit mad at all my English teachers for not highlighting how simple the rules for semicolon use actually are. Compared to the comma, the semicolon has only a few jobs, and they are very distinct. The first is to separate items in a list that already contain commas, for example:

  • The forest is full of sly, red foxes; leafy, loam-covered trees; and chattering squirrels.

The commas are used to separate adjectives, so ALSO using them to separate the items would be confusing—thus the semicolon. Easy, right?

The other main usage for the semicolon is the same as the comma+conjunction rule I pointed out earlier. If you want to connect two (or more) thematically similar sentences to create a single sentence, you can 1) use the comma+conjunction rule, or 2) you can throw out the period and connect the two sentences directly. Observe:

  • The cinnamon rolls were baked to perfection.
  • Taylor ate three of them in succession.
  • The cinnamon rolls were baked to perfection; Taylor ate three of them in succession.

BAM! It’s so effing simple, I want to kick the me from yesteryear who assumed semicolons were so complicated. If I only had a time machine!

The problem with grammar is that some of it is complicated, so all this time is spent learning the nuances—but no time is spent showing students the EASY stuff. If we were allowed to master some of these easier grammar tools, we might be more confident about learning and mastering the harder ones. The usage rules for the semicolon are actually quite simple, therefore learning to love the semicolon is actually much easier than it seems.

Weigh in, dear readers. What are your favorite grammar tools? Why do you love them? Go ahead, gush! We're all wordophiles here.

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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