Choose your words

What is good grammar and why do I need it?

More than once I’ve heard people say that when it comes to writing well, using proper grammar, usage, and punctuation doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you write how you feel. To some extent, there is a little truth in that. But why not write what you feel and write it correctly so that your mistakes don’t get in the way of someone understanding what you’ve written?

And if you want to publish a book someday and decide to write and submit a book proposal, you had better make sure it isn’t riddled with grammatical or punctuation errors. With all that in mind, below are several topics that are common sticking points for people who are writing in English.

When should I use a comma?

The humble little comma is so vital and so powerful. And yet, so many people don’t know when to use it—even some so-called writing professionals—because I keep seeing the same comma mistakes over and over and over. And over. Luckily, help is on the way.

Here’s the thing. Commas are small but important. Forget to use one and a sentence like

“Let’s eat, Grandma.”


“Let’s eat Grandma.”

Poor Grandma.


To summarize, use commas to do the following:

  1. Separate items in a list
  2. Join two independent clauses (also known as sentences) while using a conjunction like and, but, so, or, etc.
  3. Give a little pause after an introductory phrase. Again, you need to not eat Grandma.


  1. Now it’s time for some don’ts. The following are a few ways (of many) that people abuse the humble comma:

    1. The comma splice. This happens when you smash two complete sentences together with a comma.

    Incorrect: John went to the store, the friendly clerk said hello.
    Correct: John went to the store, and the friendly clerk said hello.

    2. Too many commas. Some like to insert commas whenever they feel like it. Don’t.

    3. No commas. A few fail to use commas at all, ignoring the ebb and flow of sentences. Don’t.

    4. Failing to put a comma in addresses (i.e., City, State).

    5. Using a comma before a subordinate conjunction. (This is more common than you’d think.)

For instance:

Incorrect: I caught a cold, because I forgot to wear my jacket.

Correct: I caught a cold because I forgot to wear my jacket.

Essayist Pico Iyer once wrote, “A comma, . . . catches the gentle drift of the mind in thought, turning in on itself and back on itself, reversing, redoubling and returning along the course of its own sweet river music.”

Learn your commas, and you’ll learn your language. And when you learn your language, your influence will grow.

Still confused by how to use commas? Feel free to email me or contact me via the form at the end of this post, and I’ll be happy to tutor you ad nauseam about them!

When should I use a semicolon?

The mysterious semicolon—so few people really know what they are for and how to use them. I might venture to guess that no part of English punctuation puzzles more people than the semicolon. So, let me help. Below are the three main ways to use a semicolon:

  1. Use the semicolon to connect closely-related independent clauses (also known in the normal world as sentences):

    John went to the store; it would be the last errand he would ever run.

  2. Use it to differentiate between different list items in a sentence where many or all of the list items contain a comma:

    I traveled to Fargo, North Dakota; Jacksonville, Florida; Chicago, Illinois; and Great Bend, Indiana.Or,The burglar’s kit contained the following: a flashlight, that he stole from his neighbor; a can of mace, that he once used on someone’s dog; a smoke bomb—always good for confusing a resident who might try to surprise him; and a two-way radio.

  3. Use a semicolon after a transitional phrase or conjunctive adverb (like however) when either of those words is connecting two complete sentences:

    I wanted to go to law school; however, my LSAT scores were abysmal.

That’s about it. Not that tough, really.

I bet you feel smarter already!

Note: just don’t use commas when you should use a semicolon.

When should I use a colon?

Now that you have mastered semicolons, let’s look at the colon, which is slightly less mysterious, but still often misused. Here they are:

  1. Use a colon before any kind of list (whether a list of words or a bulleted list or numbered list):

    I went to the hardware store and bought the following: a drill, some two-by-fours, and some glue.


    Applicants for the position must bring the following:

    Picture ID$
    100 in cash
    Their firstborn

  2. Use a colon to connect a complete sentence with a closely-related independent clause, dependent clause, or any info describes the preceding (complete) sentence:

    I went to another hardware store because I couldn’t find everything on my list: no more glue, and the drills were sold out.


    Jane only likes two kinds of guys: dumb and dumber.


    I like the following quote: “A fool and his money are soon parted.

And now a warning. Don’t do this:

Jane only likes: dumb guys and dumber guys.

Why is that last sentence wrong? Because the sentence before the colon isn’t complete.

In other words, always make sure the sentence preceding the colon is complete (aka an independent clause).

Good luck, and if you have any questions on using colons, feel free to ask them below.

What is a dangling modifier or dangling participle?

We’ve all read them. We’ve all written them: dangling modifiers, which often come in the form of dangling participles (where a participle is a verb phrase that modifies something in a sentence).

Dangling modifiers are one of the most common errors that even good writers commit. If you’re not careful, these little gremlins can creep into your writing because they are often easy to miss.

So, what are they and why do they dangle?

Well, a modifier modifies, and when the thing (usually a noun) it is modifying is missing, a dangling modifier or participle forms.

For example:

Dangling: Driving to Florida, my dog stuck his head out the car window.

Wow! Your dog can drive? Of course not.

In that sentence, the phrase, “Driving to Florida” was meant to modify whomever was actually doing the driving, not the dog. And when you leave out the person it was supposed to modify, it just sits there, dangling. Poor participle.

A corrected version might read,

Corrected: As I drove to Florida, my dog stuck his head out the car window.

Here’s another:

Dangling: Embracing Joan for the first time, rashes broke out on Harold’s face.

Sigh. The rashes aren’t embracing Joan, Harold is. Let’s fix that.

Corrected: As Harold embraced Joan for the first time, rashes broke out on his face.

In this sentence, Harold still has some major issues, but at least he is now the one doing the embracing, not his rashes.

Here are a couple more quick examples:

Dangling: With my homework finished, the TV got turned on.

Corrected: With my homework finished, I was free to turn on the TV.

Dangling: Being out late last night, my homework didn’t get done.

Corrected: Because I was out late last night, I didn’t get my homework done.

Obviously, something funny is going on with the TV and homework in that first sentence, but the fix clears everything up. And of course, homework can’t stay out late, but the fix again clears it all up.

So, how do you avoid creating these little grammatical deformations, these grammatical monstrosities?

Simple: you carefully reread what you’ve just written. Sometimes aloud. In particular, you watch out whenever you use a participial phrase, those phrases that use verbs ending in -ing.

You may also notice that the corrected version is usually a little longer, but the corrected version also identifies who is performing what action and is much clearer. In other words, one way to avoid these dangling constructions is to write in active voice as much as possible.

When do I capitalize a word?

Okay, so capitalization is anything but sexy, but I’m going to guess that some of you get it wrong—a lot.

And who can blame you? You’ve read too many brochures, manuals, or government documents where the authors have capitalized every word they thought was important, as if they were writing in German, where every friggin’ noun is capitalized. Oy vey.

Well, English ain’t German, so you all need to back off on the capitalization.

Here then is a quick list of what words to capitalize and not capitalize:


  • Proper nouns (which pretty much is a way of saying everything in this list along with a few items I probably forgot), which includes much of the items below
  • First and last names
  • Formal titles
  • Place names and geographic features like cities, countries, lakes, rivers, mountains, whatever
  • Government agencies but only when naming the actual agency
  • Company names
  • Trademarked products
  • Works of art, literature, film, etc.

Don’t capitalize:

  • Process steps you just came up with
  • Random words you want to emphasize (use Italics for that)
  • Words like at, or, the, and, and to within titles
  • Words like state or federal unless they’re part of a proper name, like the State of Utah

I’m sure I’ve missed a few examples in both lists, so shoot me an email if you have any questions.

Again, when in doubt, don’t capitalize regular words unless they have somehow become a proper noun.

How and when do I use apostrophes?

My wife told me that I should talk about how to use apostrophes to something show possession, since she is often confused by this.

She isn’t the only one who gets confused. Because even though I write for a living, every once in a while I have to think about what I’m doing, especially with plural words.

So, if you have ever wondered how to use apostrophes for possession, here it is:

  1. To make a singular noun possessive, add an apostrophe and then add an s:

    John’s ball
  2. To make a singular noun ending in s possessive, add an apostrophe and an s:

    Chris’s car
    The crocus’s petals
  3. To make a plural noun that ends in s possessive, add an apostrophe after the s:

    The boys’ ball

  4. For plural nouns not ending in s, treat them just like a singular word and add an apostrophe and then an s:

    The women’s restroom

Got it?

Now, there are a few odd exceptions to the above rules (sorry), especially if you follow an evil organization like the Associated Press (don’t get me started), which most of you don’t. But these above rules will serve you well in 99.99% of your writing.

If you need to deal with exceptions, just ask a pro. Seriously. (See above lesson about my car.)

A common mistake

Many people mistakenly make a word plural by adding an s and an apostrophe when all they needed was to add the s.

Incorrect: Our five boy’s went to school at BYU.

Correct: Our five boys went to school at BYU.

What is the difference between active voice and passive voice?

I don’t believe I have covered this very important topic. But if I have, then maybe it bears repeating.

Generally, use active voice much more often than passive voice when you write.

So, what is active voice, and what is passive voice? It’s simple:

Active: John kicked the ball.

Passive: The ball was kicked by John.

In both sentences someone kicks and something gets kicked, but one sentence focuses on the person doing the kicking, and the other focuses on the thing being kicked.

Now, sometimes you want to focus on who or what got kicked, but mostly, your writing will be clearer if you just say who kicked whom and leave it at that.

In other words, your writing will be clearer and stronger if you use active voice rather than passive voice.

There is a time for passive voice, but people often use passive voice because they don’t want to stick their neck out. Like this:

It has been decided that the children should no longer have fun at school.

Great. But who decided it? Who knows? Sentences like this allow the writer to weasel out of saying who is doing the kicking, or in this case, who decided that kids should not have any fun at school.

To recap: use active voice as much as possible, and watch out for passive voice—it likes to creep in and make your writing mushy. That’s it.

Want to know more or have questions about anything I have written about above? Feel free to contact me via the form below:

Copyright © 2023. All Rights Reserved. Web Design by i4 Solutions