10 basic grammar rules that will make your writing clearer

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When I lived in Ecuador a few years ago, I got a job as a tutor for rich kids who were applying to American universities. I taught SAT prep classes on grammar and Algebra, making me, by proxy, an expert on English grammar.

Little did I know that a few years later I’d be working primarily as a Content Manager, editing hundreds of articles each year.

Needless to say, proper grammar is my ish.

There are tons of basic grammar mistakes that you can fix easily and probably don’t need another blog post to explain them. But there are tons more grammar rules that most people either

  1. forgot existed
  2. never learned in the first place (thanks, US Department of Education)

So I’m here to teach them to you (or to refresh your memory) because if you wanna be a serious writer then you gotta get these grammar rules under your belt.

Your editor will thank you. The reader will thank you. And I will personally thank you for not spreading more confusion on the internet vis-à-vis poor grammar.

Pro Tip: Download the Grammarly app. It will highlight all of these issues just in case you forget about them 😇

1. the subject and verb must always agree

First, let’s go over the basics:

  • a noun is a thing
  • a verb is the action

So in this sentence, the noun is Tommy and the verb is to play.

Tommy plays with his dog Leo.

Where it gets confusing is when there are multiple nouns listed, so they kinda seem like they’re singular but they’re not.

Tommy, Brooke, and Anthony play with the dog.

Okay, that’s simple. The most commonly (mis)used way that I see this usually looks like:

Combining social media tools with social listening are is an effective way to build community for your brand.

In this case above, the action of combining is the thing (aka noun) that you are referencing. Though social media tools and social listening are both nouns, they are not what is being referenced with the active verb here.

tl:dr — the thing you’re talking about is what the verb should match, no matter how many other things are in the sentence

2. collective nouns are singular

Like if Anthony, Brooke, and Tommy were on a team, then team is treated like a singular noun…

…even though there are multiple people/things in it.

Other collective nouns that are treated as singular nouns include

  • People: board, choir, class, committee, family, group, jury, panel, staff
  • Animals: flock, herd, pod, swarm
  • Things: bunch, collection, fleet, flotilla, pack, set

Ironically, people as a term is treated as a plural. So people are weird. But the group is not.

tl;dr — if a single word references multiple things at once, it is often still treated as singular

3. the verb agreement is outside of the prepositional phrase

If you’re unsure how to conjugate the active verb in the sentence, then isolate all parts of the sentence.

For example, this sentence has a lot of moving parts:

Tommy, with all of his quirky traits and dangerous lifestyle choices, is a good dude.

If we take out the parts of the sentence that aren’t at the core, then we’re left with:

Tommy, with all of his quirky traits and dangerous lifestyle choices, is a good dude.

You see how much more obvious it is that Tommy is the main noun we are talking about? All of the plural stuff in the middle can make it confusing since it separates the active subject and its corresponding verb.

Another example:

Starting an online business, from choosing a marketable niche to setting up all of the right tools, is going to take a lot of work upfront.

So, what is the subject? Starting an online business

And if we remove the extras:

Starting an online business, from choosing a marketable niche to setting up all of the right tools, is going to take a lot of work upfront.

Makes it a lot easier to find the verb and to make it match the subject 👌

tl;dr — if you’re not sure how to conjugate a verb, then isolate the subject to make it obvious

4. modifiers have to be next to whatever they’re modifying

In grammar terms, a dangling modifier or misplaced modifier is when the modifier is not next to the thing you’re talking about.

And it makes things super confusing for the reader.

For example:

Correct: A very curious mind, Anthony is continuing his studies.

In this sentence, we are talking about Anthony. The modifier, then, is the little extra tidbit about Anthony.

If we were to make a dangling modifier out of this, it would look like:

Incorrect: A very curious mind, continuing his studies made sense to Anthony.

When written like this, it separates the modifier from the subject, causing more “mental jumps” for the reader to piece together your disorganized sentence.

Another (funnier) example of a dangling modifier:

Incorrect: Tommy said that he ate the whole barrel full of fish while we were surfing.

Correct: While we were surfing, Tommy said that he ate the whole barrel full of fish.

In this case, you are modifying what Tommy said, so it should be next to Tommy.

The same is true for adjectives, too.

Incorrect: The stinky man’s coat needed a wash.

Correct: The man’s stinky coat needed a wash.

So is the man stinky? Or is the coat stinky? 🤔

tl;dr — if you’re adding context to what you’re saying (and it’s not absolutely essential), then make sure it is next to the thing you’re talking about

5. commas don’t work like taking a breath

Otherwise, you, like, totally sound like, idk, a valley girl

Purdue has a quick and dirty list of comma rules that I recommend you check out before you ever write anything else.

But for easy reference, these are the general use-cases for commas:

  • commas separate independent clauses that are brought together with a conjunction (but, and, for, or, yet, so)
  • commas come after an introductory clause or phrase, like a mini-preface
  • commas come after common introductory words, like well, however, therefore
  • commas separate nonessential clauses from the essential part of the sentence
  • commas separate items in a list
  • commas separate a list of adjectives describing the same noun
  • commas separate contrasting elements for dramatic effect (the ONLY use-case for a proverbial breath)
  • commas format geographical locations, dates, and time 🥱
  • commas separate quotes from the regular stuff

And never, ever do these:

  • put a comma between two verbs
  • put a comma between the subject and the verb

tl;dr — review how to properly use commas because you’re probably using them incorrectly (like most of us)

6. if it can be a standalone sentence, then make it one

Well, it was probably a long run-on sentence that caused the mental exhaustion.

And if your readers or editors are exhausted just by reading your content, then that’s a major problem.

My general rule of thumb is to make sentences as short as possible.

For example:

This sentence is technically grammatically correct so it doesn’t necessarily need to be cut down, although my editor would argue differently.

But if I wanted to make it even more clear and to the point, then it’d look like this:

This sentence is grammatically correct. It doesn’t need to be cut down. My editor would argue differently.

7. some words always come in pairs

If it doesn’t, then add it. (see, I just used a pair)

  • if — then
  • either — or
  • both — and
  • not so much — as
  • just as — so
  • not only — but also
  • at once — and

For example:

If you start your sentence with one of the first words listed above, then it must contain the second word.

Either you use them correctly, or you don’t.

Meaning, both if and then must be used together in a sentence.

It’s not so much about following rules as it is about bringing clarity.

Just as you need to use the right words to convey meaning, so too do you need to use proper grammar.

Not only is it important to do, but it is also easy to do.

At once, you are following rules and bringing clarity.

If you’re unsure about when or where to use these pairs, then just start by noticing them in the stuff you’re already reading. (did you see it in that sentence? 👀)

tl;dr — some words come in pairs, so try to memorize the pairs so that you can use them in your writing

8. the form and tense must be consistent throughout (parallelism)

In fact, I’m using parallelism in this post right now.

The idea is to make everything match.

So if you’re talking in the present tense, then stick to the present tense. If you’re writing about best practices, then put the best practices in the same verb tense. And if you’re putting three sentences together that are in a similar structure, then make sure the verb tenses are the same too.

(did you see it in that paragraph? 👀)

All three of those sentences had these things in common:

  • they were if/then sentences
  • the verbs are in present continuous (ie all using –ing)
  • they have about the same amount of syllables, making the cadence easy on the brain

Similarly, every item on the numbered list in this blog post is a statement.:

  1. The Subject And Verb Must Always Agree
  2. Collective Nouns Are Singular
  3. The Verb Agreement is Outside of The Prepositional Phrase
  4. Modifiers Have to be Next to Whatever They’re Modifying
  5. Commas Don’t Work Like Taking a Breath
  6. If It Can Be A Standalone Sentence, Then Make It One
  7. Some Words Always Come In Pairs
  8. The Form And Tense Must Be Consistent Throughout (Parallelism)
  9. There Is a Difference Between ‘Fewer’ and ‘Less’
  10. Logical Comparisons Use ‘Than’

Alternatively, I could have made the entire list action items:

  1. Make The Subject And Verb Agree
  2. Check That Collective Nouns Are Singular
  3. Remove The Prepositional Phrase To Test The Verb Agreement
  4. Put Modifiers Next to Whatever They’re Modifying
  5. Don’t Use Commas Like Taking a Breath
  6. Separate Clauses Into Standalone Sentences
  7. Always Use Paired Words
  8. Format The Form And Tense Consistently
  9. Understand The Difference Between ‘Fewer’ and ‘Less’
  10. Make Logical Comparisons Using ‘Than’

Or I could have put them into present continuous:

  1. Matching The Subject And Verb Must
  2. Using Collective Nouns As Singular
  3. Checking The Verb Agreement Outside of The Prepositional Phrase
  4. Putting Modifiers Next to Whatever They’re Modifying
  5. Understanding That Commas Don’t Work Like Taking a Breath
  6. Making Standalone Sentences Out of Multiple Clauses
  7. Using Words That Always Come In Pairs
  8. Matching The Form And Tense Throughout Your Piece (Parallelism)
  9. Knowing The Difference Between ‘Fewer’ and ‘Less’
  10. Making Logical Comparisons With ‘Than’

Parallelism can also be used in a single sentence.

I woke up to the sound of the birds chirping outside my window, slumbered out of bed to the kitchen, fumbled with the coffee machine, and waited for the bitter elixir to bring me to life for the day.

For comparison, this is how that sentence would look without parallelism:

I woke up to the sound of the birds chirping outside my window, getting out of bed to go to the kitchen, put the coffee machine, and will wait for the bitter elixir to bring me to life for the day.

Read that sentence out loud and tell me how it sounds.

By making the verb tense match both in reference to time and action, the entire thing becomes much easier to read and to comprehend.

tl;dr — read your stuff out loud to see if it matches and if it doesn’t then check for parallelism

9. there is a difference between ‘fewer’ and ‘less’

They make me cringe so hard.

They should say, “10 items or fewer“.

That’s because ‘less’ is used to describe something that you cannot count and ‘fewer‘ is used to describe something that you can count.

You can count 10 items and the sign already counted them for you (there are 10). So it should say “10 items or fewer“.

Some other quirky instances where you use fewer instead of less (or vice versa) include:

  • there is less traffic (uncountable) and fewer cars (countable)
  • women commit less crime (uncountable) than men and there are fewer crimes (countable) committed by women
  • there is less heat (uncountable) and fewer degrees (countable)
  • she earns less money (uncountable) and fewer dollars (countable)
  • that thing is less heavy (uncountable) and weighs fewer pounds (countable)

You get my drift?

tl;dr — if you can count it, then use fewer. if you can’t count it, then use less

10. logical comparisons use ‘than’

…make sure that you’re comparing what you think you’re comparing.

The easiest way to check for an illogical comparison in a sentence is to look for the word “than”. Once you find “than”, you can look for the two items that are being compared.

More often than not, you’ll find an illogical comparison.

For example:

Incorrect: Tommy’s hair is wilder than Anthony.

Correct: Tommy’s hair is wilder than Anthony‘s hair.

The same is true when comparing groups of people or things:

Incorrect: She is smarter than the class.

Correct: She is smarter than the others in the class.

final thoughts

Think about it this way: the easier you make it for your editor, the more likely they’ll re-hire you for a future project 🤑

For more details about these grammar rules, check out Magoosh for a longer list with more examples, or Albert for some practice. They both offer SAT prep courses, which isn’t exactly what you’ll find in the Freelance World, but they’re much better quality than any grammar courses you’ll find on Udemy or Coursera (I checked).

This post was originally sent out in my newsletter. Sign up and get writing tips and SEO lessons right in your inbox.

Written by

Plant-based, yogi, digital nomad, and millennial trying to figure out how to do more of what I love with as little impact as possible ↣ www.marquismatson.com

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