Grammar terms

Just as any competent artisan knows the tools of his or her trade, the professional writer should know the basics of the English language. That includes knowing the terms of grammar (verbal, antecedent, etc.) as well as the rules. How is the writer to avoid a run-on sentence if he or she doesn’t know what it is? To learn these things, students must do the ditch digging of the intellectual process: repeated study and memorization. This page contains a thorough (but not overly long) list of terms and rules for using the language that the professional writer should know.

Subject – A noun or noun substitute about which something is asserted or asked in the predicate.
John is a good student.
They were happy to hear the news.

Verb – Denotes action, occurrence, or existence.
Run, jump, did, is, were, etc.


Gerund – A verbal that ends in -ing and functions as a noun.
Borrowing money is a mistake.
Drinking before driving is dangerous.
Participle – A verb form that may function as part of a verb phrase (was laughing, had finished) or as a modifier (a finished product; the players, laughing at their mistakes…..)
Infinitive – Verbal used primarily as a noun, usually in present tense and usually preceded by the word to.
Hal wanted to open the present.
She failed to stop on time.

Pronoun – Takes the place of nouns. (he, she, it, we, they, etc.)

Relative pronoun – Refers to a noun elsewhere in the sentence.
Leslie is the one who likes to bowl.
The board postponed its decision.

Antecedent – A word or word group a pronoun refers to.
Like their trainers, animals can be polite or rude.
Reversing its earlier position, the board approved the project.

Agreement – Correspondence in number or person of a subject and verb.
(a boy asks, boys ask, the woman did it herself, the man did it himself)

Clause – A sequence of related words within a sentence.

Essential or restrictive clause – Limits the word referred to by imposing conditions.
Every drug condemned by doctors should be removed from the market.
All children under 12 years of age eat free.
Non-essential or non-restrictive clause – Not necessary to the meaning of the sentence, can be omitted.
My best friend, John, understands me.
The teacher, Mrs. Smith, gave extra credit.

Sentence fragment – A group of words which do not express a complete thought; i.e. they are not grammatically independent.
The boy on the sofa.
Over the mountain and through the woods.

Run-on sentence – Connecting two independent clauses together using only a comma, using only a coordinating conjunction (and, but, etc.), or using neither.
It is already midnight, I am running late.
I love going to the University and I love going to the football games.

Sentence – A group of words (containing both a subject and a predicate) that express a complete thought; i.e. they are grammatically independent.
I have a headache.
The party at the DKE house lasted until dawn.
What was her name?

Inverted sentence – One in which the usual or expected word order is changed.
At the head of the class stands the professor.

Dependent clause – A clause which serves as an adverb, an adjective or a noun in the sentence. A dependent clause cannot stand alone and maintain its full meaning.
I want to go to Tut’s Place because I am getting hungry.

Independent clause – A clause which can stand alone in its meaning. An independent clause often functions as the main clause in the sentence.
I want to go to Tut’s Place because I am getting hungry.

Coordinating conjunction – One of the seven connectives used to connect and relate words and word groups of equal grammatical rank (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet).

Modifier – A word or word group that describes, limits, or modifies another.
The blue sky …
He studied vigorously …
The doorway at the bottom of the stairs …

Parallelism – Using grammatically equal and corresponding words or word groups together in a sentence or paragraph.
Wrong: She like running, cooking and to swim.
Correct: She likes running, cooking and swimming.

Eight parts of speech:

Noun – Names of objects and concepts (tree, freedom, fruitcake, Lincoln Memorial …)
Pronoun – Words that substitute for nouns (he, you, her, they, we, it …)
Verb – Expressions of action or states of being (kicking, was, wonder, talk …)
Adjective – Words that generally modify nouns (bright, gray, flowing …)
Adverb – Words that generally modify verbs; they may also modify adjectives or other adverbs (quickly, steadily, lightly …)
Conjunction – Words that connect together words, phrases, and clauses (but, and, because, yet, so …)
Preposition – Words that go with nouns and pronouns to modify other nouns, pronouns and verbs (at the crossroads, in the middle, over the rainbow …)
Interjection – Words expressing strong emotion (wow, hooray …)

Grammar and punctuation rules

The following pages highlight some of the most important and common rules for using English. The material here represents a minimum level of knowledge that any writer should have about how to use the language. Study these pages thoroughly.


Make sure sentences aren’t long and convoluted.
Shorten long sentences where necessary. News writing demands short sentences for power and easy understanding on first reading. Sentences often are obscure when they are long and convoluted:

Some old-timers declare that Dingle, which resting at 6,000 feet elevation sometimes has three feet of crusted snow in May and this year had, to everyone’s consternation, strawberries unfrozen on vines in mid-October, was at onset called Cottonwood.

A rewrite, to straighten out the sentence tangle, improve the relationship of ideas, and get rid of the self-conscious words:

Some old-timers declare that Dingle was at first called Cottonwood. Because the town rests at 6,000 feet elevation, it sometimes has three feet of crusted snow in May. In mid-October this year, however, strawberries were still unfrozen on their vines. This unusual situation surprised everyone.

Note that the writer, in the original version, introduced many extraneous ideas between the two parts of the main idea. Remember that by definition a sentence is one idea. The following rule is excellent advice to writers and editors on how to end a long sentence: Don’t use more words. Instead, put in a period.

But don’t make sentences so short as to be choppy:

Every industry has had a major change in the last 25 years. There are few exceptions. One was the radio. It has changed many times. Its changes are due to inventions.

This should be rewritten in sentences long enough to put the important statements in the main clauses and the supporting statements in clearly subordinate parts of the sentence to show the relative importance.

Avoid sentence fragments.
A sentence fragment is only part of a sentence, usually because it begins with a subordinate word like a preposition, because it lacks a verb, or because it has a participle or verbal in place of a full verb. A sentence fragment is corrected by joining it by a comma or conjunction to another sentence of which it is logically a part.

Wrong: I applied for permission to weigh my load of carrots in the middle of the Hub. The weight station being closed for the holiday.
Right: I applied for permission to weigh my load of carrots in the middle of the Hub because the weight station was closed for the holiday.
Wrong: The council approved a record budget last night. Because the city tax base has grown.
Right: The council approved a record budget last night because the city tax base has grown.
Wrong: I called in late for work. Being sick.
Right: I called in late for work because I was sick.

Avoid run-on sentences.
A comma may not be used to splice together two independent clauses that can stand alone as separate sentences. The best way to solve this problem is to use a conjunction that clearly indicates the relationship of the two ideas.

Wrong: The plane crashed in a wooded area, it had run out of fuel.
Right: The plane crashed in a wooded area because it had run out of fuel.
Wrong: My boyfriend is a real cutie, he’s good at tennis, too.
Right: My boyfriend is a real cutie, and he’s good at tennis, too.
Wrong: He did well on the test, I bet he passed the course.
Right: He did well on the test, and I bet he passed the course.

Subject and verb must agree.
A verb must agree with its subject in number (singular or plural). Some assorted suggestions and areas to watch:

Collective nouns. Nouns that stand for a group or collectivity take a singular verb.
The student body is … (not are).
The team of rutabaga salesmen is … (not are).
The group of pantyhose manufacturers is … (not are).

Other examples of such words are class, family, committee, team, number, majority, group, herd and jury. When these words are used as subjects and denote the unit as a whole, they are singular and take singular verbs.

Different number in subject and complement. The verb always agrees with the subject, not the words that complete the thought after the verb: The most difficult part of the trek was (not were) the last 20 miles over the mountains.

A common blunder is the use of a singular verb form in a relative clause following “one of … “ or a similar expression when the relative is the subject.3
Wrong: One of the ablest men who has attacked this problem is Smith.
Right: One of the ablest men who have attacked this problem is Smith.
Wrong: One of those people who is never ready on time is Jones.
Right: One of those people who are never ready on time is Jones.

Use a singular verb form after each, either, everyone, everybody, neither, nobody, someone.
Wrong: Everybody thinks they should take Journalism 311.
Right: Everybody thinks he (or she) should take Journalism 311.
Wrong: Each of the canaries have scurvy.
Right: Each of the canaries has scurvy.

With the word none, use the singular verb when the word means “no one” or “not one.” But use a plural verb when none suggests more than one thing of person.
Right: None of us is perfect.
Right: None are so fallible as those who are sure they’re right.

A compound subject formed of two or more nouns joined by and almost always requires a plural verb.
Right: The moose and the walrus were standing next to the toaster.

A singular subject remains singular even if other nouns are connected to it by with, as well as, in addition to, except, together with, and no less than.
Right: His toast as well as his green peas is excellent.
Right: His cat in addition to his 30 dogs is living with us.
Right: My mother, together with my Uncle Myron and Uncle Luther, is coming to see me after my release from prison.

Compound subjects joined by the conjunction “and” usually take plural verbs.

Be careful with sentences in which the verb comes before the subject. Make sure you know what the number of the subject is.

Some words retain their Latin origins. Data and media are two such words. Although they are often used as singular nouns, they are plural and should be used with plural verbs.
The media are always accused of being biased.
The data from the study show the medicine had little effect.

Some words can be either singular or plural depending on their context. The writer must decide which is the proper use.

Titles of books, movies and other works should be treated as singular nouns even though they may be plural in form.

Fractions used as subjects in a sentence may be either singular or plural. They are singular when they refer to a unit as a whole; they are plural when they refer to individual members of the unit.

Pronoun-antecedent agreement

A singular antecedent requires a singular pronoun. A plural antecedent must be referred to by a plural pronoun.

WRONG: With their record at 4-4 for the year, DeBoer said he thinks the team has a chance at the playoff.
WRONG: Director of food services, Bob Lowe, said they usually host a welcome back event.
WRONG: The opening band patterned their music after the Beatles.

Two or more singular antecedents in compound form as they are in this sentence take a plural pronoun.

Collective nouns usually require singular pronouns.
WRONG: The group decided the time had come to re-evaluate their effort.

Writers should avoid choosing one gender reference over another in the choice of pronouns. In the sentence below, the word “child” is singular and the pronoun “his” is also singular, the problem here is sexual stereotyping. The sentence should be rewritten to avoid this problem.
WRONG: A child will jealously guard his toys.
RIGHT: Children will jealously guard their toys.

Some words are singular even though they appear to be plural. The word “politics” can be either depending on its context. So how can you tell? The tipoff in this sentence is the verb, which is singular. The pronoun should also be singular; it should be changed to “its.”
RIGHT: His politics with all its ramifications was not what I could agree with.

The “his/her” form is not an acceptable way to avoiding sexual stereotyping in the selection of pronouns. It is awkward and jarring to the reader.
Some words, such as “measles,” appear to be plural but are actually singular. It should be referred to by a singular pronoun, “its” rather than “their.” In this sentence, the singular verb “has” is correct.
Measles has relatively mild effects on its victims.


Commas separate two independent clauses when used with a coordinate conjunction.
James paid the money to the bank, and John kept all the receipts buried in a bed of rutabagas.
He knew he had to give up buying pantyhose, but he lingered in the Kroger lingerie department every day.

Commas separate words or items in a list.
The dinner consisted of rutabagas, carrots, chicken and mousse.
I stuffed the toaster with chopsticks, lettuce and popcorn.
Note: No comma before the terminal “and,” unless an integral element of the series requires a conjunction.
I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for lunch.

Commas separate coordinate adjectives. They modify the same noun and could sensibly be separated by “and.”
He said the committee wanted to hear frank, blunt, truthful answers.

Commas separate words or figures that might be misunderstood.
What the problem is, is not clear.

Commas set off introductory material. (Coming before the main clause)

Prepositional phrase – After days of inactivity, the senators agreed to a rousing game of wiffleball.
Participial phrase – Having suffered heavy losses, the enemy withdrew.
Infinitive phrase – To win games, the team must pay off the officials.
Dependent clause – If another strike takes place, the company will stop giving away fur coats with each order of barbecue.

Commas set off words or phrases used as appositives. (An appositive is a word or phrase placed next to another word or phrase as an explanation.)
The sole heir, Junior McKenzie, will inherit the fortune.
Gary Hart, the former candidate, will speak at the meeting.

Commas set off non-essential (non-restrictive) clauses.
John Thomas, the man standing on the corner, is my cousin.
The latest entrant in the race is James West, who has served two terms in the office and one term in prison.

Commas set off parenthetical words or phrases.
Connective adverbs – However, he found the load too heavy.
Prepositional phrases – He, on the other hand, is a gentleman and a scalawag.

Commas set off the year in a complete date.
Student Printz staffers on April 12, 1992, pelted the adviser with rutabagas.

Commas set off a state or country when a city or town name is used.
She came here from Dublin, Ireland, when her father bought a toupee factory.
His family moved to Tulsa, Okla., after his arrest for shoplifting a garden hose.
Note: Commas on both sides of the noun.

Commas set off nominatives of direct address.
She said, “You know, Joe, your marsupial is loose.”
Susan, where did you hide my potato peeler?

Commas set off direct questions from explanatory matter.
The mayor said, “I can’t give you a statement until I finish this sandwich,” and he began to eat.

Commas set off age and address when used in identification format after names.
Sam James, 32, 456 First St., was arrested at 2 a.m.

Do not use a comma when the clause is essential. (restrictive)
The man who is standing on the corner is my cousin.
The car that is stalled in the parking lot belongs to the nun.

Do not use a comma with an “of” phrase indicating place, position or residence.
Sam James of Tupelo was arrested at 2 a.m.

Do not use a comma with a partial quotation. (not an independent clause)
He declared that the pie was “better than kissing.”
He said that “everyone but my mama” would be charged.

Do not use a comma before a coordinate conjunction in a series.
The flag is red, white and blue.

Do not use a comma between adjectives that are not coordinate. (The adjectives could not be separated by “and” and make sense.)
That is a beautiful race horse.
The knife has a sharp cutting edge.


Periods end a sentence.

Periods are used after and within many abbreviations. (See the stylebook for elaboration.)

Periods are used as an ellipsis. (A series of three to indicate missing words.)


Semicolons separate independent clauses not connected with a coordinate conjunction.
He was lying in the dirt; he had been drunk since his journalism test.

Semicolons separate independent clauses connected by an adverbial conjunction.
The Bulldogs fought hard; nevertheless, they lost.
I must have your excuse in writing; otherwise, your mother will have to take the test for you.


Colons are used before a long, formal quotation. The quote usually forms a new paragraph.
In a spirited speech before the packed convention hall, the governor said:
“When I put my girlfriend, Madge, on the corporate payroll… (continues for numerous lines)

Colons are used before a list that follows a complete, independent clause.
She has three pets: a cat, a dog and a pig.

Colons are used after an explanatory statement or for emphasis.
The question is this: Who put the camel in my sportscar?
There was only one thing to do: Snicker.


Hyphens are used to make up prepositional phrase combinations:

Hyphens are used to make up compound numerals and fractions.
a three-fourths share

Hyphens are used in suspended compounds.
The presentation will be a five- or six-page book.

Hyphens are used to distinguish between different words.
re-creation or recreation

Hyphens are used when two or more adjunctives work together to modify a noun or when adjectives and nouns have to be grouped to make sense.
small-group decision-making
a first-quarter touchdown
a bluish-green dress
a full-time job
But, note that the adverb very and all adverbs that end in -ly are not joined to other modifiers with a hyphen.
a very good time
an easily remembered rule

Quotation marks

Periods and commas almost always go inside quotation marks.

Dashes, semicolons, questions marks and exclamation points go inside if they apply to the quoted matter. Otherwise, they go outside quotation marks.

For rules about apostrophes, read and learn the rules in the punctuation section of the AP Stylebook.

Misrelated modifiers

Every word or phrase that modifies or qualifies the meaning of another should be placed in the sentence so that the connection is immediately clear. Usually this means that related words or phrases come together:
Wrong: Jones came to San Francisco after his wife left him to work in the shipyards. (It’s unclear who went to work in the shipyards, Jones or his wife.)
Right: Jones came to San Francisco to work in the shipyards after his wife left him.

Participial phrases

A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.
Wrong: Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap. (The house is dilapidated, not me.)
Right: Being in a dilapidated condition, the house was priced cheaply and I was able to buy it.

This kind of problem is called a dangling modifier. The word walking refers to the subject of the sentence, not to the woman. If the writer wishes to make it refer to the woman, he or she must recast the sentence.
Other examples:
Wrong: Old and dying, I decided to put the sick dog to sleep.
Right: I decided to put the sick dog, which was old and dying, to sleep.
Wrong: Wearing a risque mini-skirt and a tank top, my old uncle was shocked at the beauty queen’s attire. (It was the beauty queen, not my uncle, wearing the mini. Even my uncles aren’t that strange.)
Right: My old uncle was shocked at the attire of the beauty queen, who was wearing a risque mini-skirt and a tank top.
Wrong: Students must return the books promptly. If lost or stolen, the student will be charged $20.
Right: If the books are lost or stolen, the student will be charged $20.

Reference pronouns

The meaning of many pronouns depends on the nouns they refer to, the antecedents. When encountering pronouns like this, these, that, them, which, and it, make certain the noun related to the word is clear and agrees with it.
Wrong: At one debate society meeting, they debated …
Right: At one meeting, the society debated …
Wrong: The class was boring, and they wished it was over.
Right: The students found the class boring, and all wished it was over.
Wrong: He studies newspapers, intending to make it his career.
Right: He studies newspapers, hoping to make news-editorial journalism his career.
Wrong: A journalism student in David Davies’ classes has a hard life. Many of them must study 14 hours a day and give up alcohol.
Right: Journalism students in David Davies’ classes have a hard life. Many of them must study 14 hours a day and give up alcohol.

Case in pronouns

Some problems in using pronouns arise from confusion as to the case, i.e., how the relationship of nouns to pronouns is indicated. Pronouns in the nominative, also called the subjective, case, are I, he, she, we, they, and who. Their corresponding forms in the accusative, or objective case, are used when the pronoun is a direct or indirect object or the object of a preposition. Most problems occur when the object of the preposition is written in the subjective rather than the correct objective case.
Wrong: The instructor came between he and I.
Right: The instructor came between him and me.
Wrong: The author is not him.
Right: The author is not he. (Subjective case follows linking verbs—i.e., forms of to be, and verbs which can ordinarily be interchanged with to be, such as to seem and to appear.)

Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.
Right: The Student Printz is an incredible newspaper, and all its editors are geniuses.
Wrong: The Student Printz is an incredible newspaper and all its editors are geniuses.

A reference note
Parts of this section are adapted, and some short paragraphs and examples are taken verbatim, from pp. 47-53, Editing with Understanding, by Hollstein and Kurtz. Macmillan: New York, 1981. We are also indebted to The Elements of Style, 3rd edition, by Strunk & White.

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.


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