Grammar Notes

Just some miscellaneous notes on grammar that I started a few years ago while finishing up my bachelor's degree. There are some conflicting rules between different groups and even within the same groups. For example, the English and Engineering departments at the same college might use different format requirements for their research papers. For my major (MIS), I was required to use APA Style.

Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Initialisms

From on 2008-12-29: Abbreviation: a shortened form of a written word or phrase used in place of the whole <amt is an abbreviation for amount>

An abbreviation could also be an initialism.

From on 2008-12-29: Acronym: a word (as NATO, radar, or laser) formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts of a compound term; also : an abbreviation

It looks like technically, acronyms don’t have to form something that sounds like a word, e.g., NATO, but in common usage acronyms do sound like words. Acronyms are very similar to initialisms but initialisms only use the first letter of each major word.

From on 2008-12-29: Initialism: an abbreviation formed from initial letters.

An example is SJD for a firm named Smith, Jones, and Doe, LLC.

Indefinite Articles: A and An (see

Use “a” before a singular noun beginning with a consonant (even if it begins with a vowel sound, except acronyms.).

  • She has a bike.
  • He has a car.
  • Tom has an MS in engineering. [We use "an" because MS begins with a vowel sound—“em.”]

Use “an” before an adjective or singular noun beginning with a vowel and vowel sound.

  • He is now an uncle.
  • Jack has an ulcer.
  • Frank is an annoying coworker.

Use “a” before a singular noun beginning with a vowel that has a consonant sound.

  • He will not attend a university. [Even though “university” begins with a vowel, the “u” sounds like a “y.”]

Examples with acronyms:

  • The proposal will become an ISO standard. [The acronym begins with a vowel and a vowel sound.]
  • He is an IEEE member. [The acronym begins with a vowel and a vowel sound.]
  • Joe is an MCSE. [The acronym begins with a consonant, but a vowel sound.]
  • Sam is an NBA analyst. [The acronym begins with a consonant, but a vowel sound.]
  • Bob is a PhD candidate. [The acronym begins with a consonant and a consonant sound.]

Capitalization (see

In addition to the basic rules of capitalization, take note to capitalize the following:

  • The first letter of each word in a letter greeting, e.g., Good Morning Ladies:.
  • School subjects if they are languages or actual class titles listed in a catalog, i.e., I signed up for Spanish, World History, and Prehistoric Times.
  • Geographic locations when they name specific areas, i.e., Miss Edna lived in the East until she married, then she moved to the South.
  • Titles with people’s names, i.e., Senator Martin, Admiral Wittenburg, and Doctor Lopez were assigned to investigate.
  • The title of a person (when used in place of that person’s name), i.e., Hello, Doctor, I brought Mom with me to analyze the X-rays.

Capitalize official titles only when they come directly before the title-holder's name as part of the name or stand alone. Titles following a person's name should appear in lower case.

  • Vice President of Human Resources John Smith has been with the company for twenty years.
  • John Smith, vice president of Human Resources has been with the company for twenty years.
  • I work directly with the Director of Technology Resources.

Capitalize the official names of departments, divisions, sections, offices, units and groups, or the proper noun part of the official name. Subsequent references to a department, for example, can use either "department" or the capitalized proper noun part of the official department name. Do not capitalize job descriptions.

  • Kathy is an analyst in the Human Resources Department. She has worked in Human Resources for almost a year now. That department is really fortunate to have her. She is based out of the Shared Resources Division. [The two departments mentioned are proper nouns, so they need to be capitalized.]
  • John Smith, vice president of Human Resources [or HR] has been with the company for twenty years.
  • Tom works in finance and accounting. [This describes Tom's field of work, not the actual department that he works in, so capitalization isn't necessary.]

Italicize (underline if handwritten or typed) the title of books, plays, and films and names of magazines, newspapers, journals, newspapers, pamphlets, long poems, TV and radio programs, works of visual art, software, Web sties, specific ships, trains, aircraft and spacecraft. If a punctuation mark belongs with the title, then it should be italicized, otherwise punctuation after the last italicized word should not be italicized.

For the most part, italicize any name that can stand on its own, as opposed to being a part of something, e.g., one would italicize a book title but not a chapter title. A chapter title should be in quotation marks instead. Also italicize words as words, foreign words that are uncommon (to your audience), words for emphasis, and words as reproduced sounds.

  • John’s dog growled grrr! The buzzing bees go bzzz.
  • I read reviews of Pirates of the Caribbean in the Philadelphia Daily News.

Put quotation marks around titles of newspaper, journal and magazine articles and short poems, short stories, songs, episodes of TV and radio programs, and chapters or subdivisions of books.

Use quotes to set off words used as words.

  • A common greeting is "hello."
  • The article "How I Became a Billionaire" was first published in Billionaires-R-Us Magazine. [Note how the article name is quoted while the magazine name is italicized.]


If a quotation is introduced or followed by an expression such as "he said" or "she writes," use a comma. If the expression is a complete sentence, then capitalize the first letter.

  • Martin Nova said [or writes], "The students are getting better at writing."

When a partial quotation is blended in with your sentence, no punctuation is necessary.

  • Martin Nova often refers to things as being "like a box of fudge."

If the quote starts off a sentence, set it off with a comma unless the quotation ends with a question mark or exclamation point.

  • "I was a refugee," Martin Nova, a Cuban-American, said, "when I left Cuba in 1980."
  • "Who called you?" Jim asked.

When you are quoting something that has a spelling or grammar mistake or presents material in a confusing way, insert [sic] directly after the word.

With quoted material that is more than three lines in length or longer than forty words, introduce the quotation with a colon and indent on the left margin.

Martin Nova made a great speech about school:

[INDENT]School has been really good to me. . . .

Hyphen: - (On a standard keyboard, this is on the same key as the underscore.)

Use between numbers and words.

  • forty-seven
  • Jocelyn Smith-Jones

Note: Do not leave a space before or after the hyphen.

En dash: – (Keyboard combination: Alt + 0150. In most cases, using a hyphen is acceptable since this key is not on a standard keyboard.)

We use it most commonly to indicate inclusive dates and numbers.

  • July 9–August 17
  • pp. 37–59.

Note: Do not leave a space before or after the en dash.

Em dash: — (Keyboard combination: Alt + 0151, or use two hyphens)

Use an em dash sparingly in formal writing. Don't use it just because you are uncertain about correct punctuation. In informal writing, em dashes may replace commas, semicolons, colons, and parentheses to indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought.

We use the em dash to create a strong break in the structure of a sentence. Dashes can be used in pairs like parentheses—that is, to enclose a word, or a phrase, or a clause—or they can be used alone to detach one end of a sentence from the main body. Dashes are particularly useful in a sentence that is long and complex or in one that has a number of commas within it.

Note: Do not leave a space before or after the em dash.

Colon :

Used after an independent clause to call attention to the words that follow, to introduce a list, or to explain or define something.

1. Send check or money order to: 221 Barnwell Street, Columbus, GA 22234.
2. The conference speakers who were chosen by the steering committee included: Sean Baldwin, Tiffany Chen, and Juan Vanelli.
3. The three most important assets a hotel manager can have are: patience, charm, and intelligence.
4. Applications should be submitted to this address: Post Office Box 322, Hartwell, FL 98204.
5. The following employees have won awards for their proposals: Mark Jordan, Cynthia Meyers, and Deborah Hollowell.
6. Here is what you can do: Eat my shorts!

The first three sentences misuse the colon, while the last three are correct.

Capitalization and punctuation are optional when using single words or phrases in bulleted form. If each bullet or numbered point is a complete sentence, capitalize the first word and end each sentence with proper ending punctuation. The rule of thumb is to be consistent.

We need an assistant who can do the following:
a) input data,
b) write reports, and
c) complete tax forms.

The following are requested:
a) Wool sweaters for possible cold weather.
b) Wet suits for snorkeling.
c) Introductions to the local dignitaries.

These are some of the pool rules:
1. You must not run.
2. If you see unsafe behavior, report it to the lifeguard.
3. Have fun!

Semicolon ;

The semicolon is the mark of punctuation that is used to separate two independent clauses (word groups that can stand alone as sentences) when there is no coordinating conjunction ("and," "but," "or," "nor," "for," "so," and "yet") between them. The two independent clauses share a relationship with the second one usually supporting or expanding on the first one.

1. America has much to accomplish; more than we realize.

2. The titles that medical paraprofessionals are given may differ; the complexity of their duties is the same, however.

3. America has much to accomplish, however, we also have much to gain.

4. The conference speakers were Jane Doe, president of Cyberpro Corporation; Jim Smith, superintendent of Richfield School District One; and John Doe, president of Southland Technical College.

5. Trung is a Vietnamese citizen; however, he lives in Australia.

Sentences 2, 4, and 5 are correct. The semicolon is the mark of punctuation that is used to separate two independent clauses when there is no coordinating conjunction ("and," "but," "or," "nor," "for," "so," and "yet") between them.

Comma ,

Use before a coordinating conjunction ("and," "but," "or," "nor," "for," "so," and "yet") joining independent clauses.

If something or someone is sufficiently identified, the description following it is considered nonessential and should be surrounded by commas.

  • Freddy, who has a limp, was in an auto accident. [Freddy is named so the description is not essential.]
  • The boy who has a limp was in an auto accident. [We do not know which boy is being referred to without further description; therefore, no commas are used.]

Use commas to introduce or interrupt direct quotations shorter than three lines.

  • He actually said, "I do not care."
  • "Why," I asked, "do you always forget to do it?"

Use a comma to separate a statement from a question.

  • I can go, can't I?

It is preferable to use a comma, not a semicolon, before introductory words such as namely, that is, i.e., for example, e.g., or for instance when they are followed by a series of items. The comma after the introductory word is optional.

  • You may be required to bring many items, e.g., sleeping bags, pans, and warm clothing.
  • As we discussed, you will bring two items, i.e. a sleeping bag and a tent.

Use a comma to separate elements of an address. Note that the zip code is not preceded by a comma.

  • Joe lived at 123 Main Street, Beverly Hills, California 90210.

Use a comma to separate a title.

  • Joe Smith, PE, is an engineer at Boeing.

Use a comma to separate two adjectives when the word "and" can be inserted between them.

  • He is a strong, healthy man. [This is correct because you can use "and" between "healthy" and "strong."]

To avoid confusion, use commas to separate words and word groups with a series of three or more.

  • John went fishing with Bill, Tony, and James.

Use a comma when an -ly adjective is used with other adjectives.

NOTE To test if an -ly word is an adjective, see if it can be used alone with the noun. If it can, use the comma.

  • Felix was a lonely, young boy. [Here "lonely" can be used alone with boy.]
  • I get headaches in brightly lit rooms. [Here "brightly" is not an adjective because it cannot be used alone with rooms; therefore, no comma is used between brightly and lit. It would not make sense to write, "I get headaches in brightly rooms."]

Use commas before or surrounding the name or title of a person directly addressed.

  • Yes, John, I will give you a ride home.

Use a comma to separate the elements of a full date and after the year.

  • On Friday, February 24, 2006, I turned thirty.
  • On February 24 I will turn thirty. (No comma needed here.)

Use a comma to separate the city from the state and, optionally, after the state.

  • He has lived in Dover, Delaware, for several years.
  • He has lived in Dover, Delaware for several years now.

Apostrophe '

Use possessive case in front of a gerund (-ing word).

  • Alex's skating was a joy to behold.
  • This does not stop Joan's inspecting of our facilities next Thursday.

Use 's after the last name only if all the people possess the same item.

  • Cesar and Maribel's home is constructed of redwood. [This indicates that Cesar and Maribel resided in the same home.]

Use 's in both names if there is separate ownership.

  • Cesar's and Maribel's home is in Los Angeles. [This indicates that Cesar and Maribel reside in different homes.]

Numbers and Dates

Spell out numbers of one or two words. Use figures for numbers that require more than two words. Generally, figures are acceptable for dates, addresses, percentages, fractions and decimals, scores, surveys, statistics, exact amounts of money, division of books (chapters, pages, etc.), identification numbers (serial, model, etc.), and time.

  • 55 percent (or 55%)
  • 1/2
  • .0053
  • $163.65
  • volume 3
  • chapter 5
  • page 34
  • serial number 56893
  • 4:30 PM

Hyphenate all compound numbers from twenty-one through ninety-nine.

  • She brought thirty-six cupcakes to school.

Examples of dates:

  • On Friday, February 24, 2006, I turned thirty.
  • From February 1997 to April 1998 I attended the NYU two evenings a week.
  • Income tax returns are due 15 April 2007.

Examples of use of hyphens in ages:

  • Alex is seven years old.
  • Alex is a seven-year-old.

Ellipses Mark . . .

This consists of three spaced periods. It indicates that words from a direct quotation have been removed. If a full sentence or more has been removed in the middle of the quotation, use a period before the ellipse (that is, put a period after the last quoted sentence before the break, and follow it with three spaced periods).

Do not use the ellipses mark at the beginning of a quotation. Use the ellipses mark at the end of the quotation if words have been removed from the end of the final quoted sentence (that is, if you only used the first part of a sentence you’ll need to put three spaced periods after the last word of the partial sentence that you quoted.)

Who vs. Whom

Who is the subject of a sentence: Who is conducting the class?
Whom is the object of a verb or preposition: Forward the document to whom it may concern.

Nominative and Objective

Nominative Objective
I me
he/she/it him/her/it
you you
we us
they them





Use Nominative Case:

  • When the pronoun is the subject of a sentence
  • After the verb to be (is, are, am, were, was)
  • After the word than in a comparison

Use Objective Case:

When pronoun is object of the sentence or preposition (e.g. with, to, in, over, above, for)

  • She is with him.
  • Who is there? It is I.
  • Julie types faster than he.
  • John and I are going to lunch.
  • John and she will be giving the speech.
  • She left a message for you and me.

APA (American Psychological Association) first/third person voice (from

When you write in APA style, you rarely use first person voice ("I studied..."). This is rarely done in published journals and when it does occur, it's only done by very senior scholars. You should use the third person or passive voice constructions when writing in APA style ("The study showed...") unless you are co-authoring a paper with at least one other person, in which case you can use "we." ("Our findings included...") In general, you should foreground the research and not the researchers.

Parallel Structure

From Parallel structure means using the same pattern of words to show that two or more ideas have the same level of importance. This can happen at the word, phrase, or clause level.

Incorrect: She likes reading, shopping, and cooks occasionally. | His speaking, his writing, and technical skills are top notch. | Mary likes to hike, swim, and riding bikes.

Correct: She likes reading, shopping, and cooking occasionally. | His speaking, his writing, and his technical skills are top notch. | Mary likes to hike, swim, and ride bikes.

Time Perspective

Use the same tense when writing.

Incorrect: I interviewed all the students in my last course and they are dissatisfied with the teacher.

Correct: I interviewed all the students in my last course and they were dissatisfied with the teacher.

Incorrect list:

  • Designed Active Directory forest/domain
  • Installed Windows Server 2003 servers
  • Administer SQL Server 2005 servers

Correct list:

  • Designed Active Directory forest/domain
  • Installed Windows Server 2003 servers
  • Administered SQL Server 2005 servers

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