Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation and Diction study guide

The following is a guide originally produced for studying for the Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation, and Diction exam given by the College of Communication at the University of Alabama.

The guide is organized along the topic listed below. Click on any of these topics to take you to that part of the guide.

A sentence is a group of words with a subject and a verb that expresses a complete thought. The four types of sentence structures are simple, complex, compound and compound-complex. Sentences may also be classified by their content: declarative, interrogatory, imperative and exclamatory.

Sentence errors. Some of the most common errors that occur with the use of sentences are sentence fragments, comma splices (or run-on sentences), errors in agreement, and lack of parallelism.

Word choice. Choosing the correct word to use in the correct context is an important part of knowing how to use the language. You should understand the subtleties of the language in order to make the correct choices.

Spelling and plurals. A student must know how to spell certain words. In this section, we give you some of the basic rules for spelling and a list of words you should know.

Parts of speech. Knowledge and understanding of the eight parts of speech should be a part of any student’s knowledge.

Phrases. Students should be able to recognize infinitive, appositive and participial phrases.

Punctuation. In this section, we give you some of the rules for using commas, colons, semi-colons, and periods.

A sentence is a group of words with a subject and a verb that expresses a complete thought. “John ran to the store” is a complete sentence; it has a subject, “John,” and a verb, “ran,” and it expresses a complete thought. “After the rain stopped” is not a complete sentence; it does have a subject and a verb, but it does not express a complete thought. A phrase like “after the rain stopped” is called a dependent clause; it contains a subject and a verb but cannot stand alone. “John ran to the store” is an independent clause.

Sentence structures
There are four kinds of sentence structures: simple, complex, compound and compound-complex.

simple sentence is one that has an independent clause — one with a subject and a verb that can stand by itself — and no dependent clauses, such as

John ran to the store.

The Electoral College really elects the president, not the popular vote.

The rain brought much-needed relief to the drought-stricken countryside.

No one cared much about Fred or his dog.

The simple sentences above have the subjects and the verbs underlined. A simple sentence is not called that because it expresses a simple thought; a simple sentence may express a complicated thought. It is a simple sentence if its structure has only one independent clause and no dependent clauses.

A sentence that has two or more subjects or two or more verbs may also be a simple sentence. For instance, look at the following sentences.

Both reporters and editors are necessary for putting out a newspaper.

I climbed into the truck and started it up.

The carpenters began their work but failed to complete it.

A complex sentence is one that has an independent clause and a dependent clause.

In the sentences below, the dependent clauses are underlined. A dependent clause has a subject and a verb, but it cannot stand alone as a complete thought.

Because I could not see her, I did not think she was there.

The professor left the question unanswered, saying the students would have to answer it for themselves.

As long as he works there, he will not have much of a social life.

A compound sentence is a sentence that contains two or more independent clauses, and these clauses should be separated by a comma and a coordinating conjunction.

I wanted to go to the game, but I did not have a ticket.

This is a compound sentence because it contains two independent clauses; they are separated by a comma and the coordinating conjunction “but.” Another common coordinating conjunction is “and.” Sometimes a semicolon substitutes for the comma and coordinating conjunction.

The following are some examples of compound sentences. Notice that they have more than one independent clause, and the clauses are connected by a comma and coordinating conjunction.

I couldn’t go to the game, and so I watched it on television.

France and Britain went to war with Germany in 1939, but the United States did not enter the war until 1941.

Good writing is not only a matter of style, but it is also a matter of content.

You can go with us, or you can stay home.

I could not believe it, and I told him so.


A compound-complex sentence is a sentence that contains two independent clauses and a dependent clause. The independent clauses should be separated by a comma and coordinating conjunction, such as in the following sentence.
The following sentences are compound-complex. In each, the independent clauses, the dependent clauses and the commas and coordinating conjunctions are underlined. See if you can tell which is which.

One candidate said that he would not raise taxes , but the other candidate would not make any promises.

I cannot go , but I am sure that my friend can.

When the child comes home from school, his mother wants him to do his homework , and he can then play with his friends.

Sentence content

We’ve just been discussing the four structures for sentences. As for content, there are four types of sentences: declarative, interrogative, imperative and exclamatory.

A declarative sentence is one that makes a statement. This is the most common type of sentence.

An interrogative sentence is one that asks a question, and it is usually ended by a question mark (?).

An imperative sentence is a command; it is usually ended by a period, but it may also end with an exclamation mark (!).

An exclamatory sentence expresses some strong emotion (excitement, joy, fear, etc.) and usually ends with an exclamation mark (!).



Sentence fragments

Earlier we referred to sentences as groups of words with subjects and verbs that express a complete thought. Sometimes someone will write a group of words that does not express a complete thought. That is a sentence fragment. While there are some situations in writing where a sentence fragment may be appropriate, generally we should write in complete sentences.
In the following examples the sentence fragments are underlined.

A radio station’s credibility is based on trust. So much so that the station cannot long exist without it.

Too little, too late.

I doubt that the mayor will see you. Especially since you have already broken several appointments with him.

Comma splice or run-on sentence

A comma splice, or run-on sentence, is a common error, particularly among those who do not understand sentence structure. A comma splice is the joining of two independent clauses with only a comma ?nothing else. Generally, such a structure is not acceptable in written English.
The following are some examples of comma splices:

I doubt that he will come, he didn’t say he would.

Some people eat to live, others live to eat.

Ruth’s first home run barely made the seats, his second went over them.

A comma splice can be corrected in one of two ways. One way is to replace the comma with a semicolon. Another way is to put a coordinating conjunction after the comma. By doing that, the sentences above would become

I doubt that he will come; he didn’t say he would.

Some people eat to live, but others live to eat.

Ruth’s first home run barely made the seats, and his second went over them.



Agreement refers to singular or plural references. A singular subject takes a singular verb; plural subjects take plural verbs. In the sentence,

The clock strikes at quarter past the hour.

the subject is “clock.” A singular noun, “clock,” takes the singular verb, “strikes.” However, if the sentence were

Clocks strike regularly around the campus.

the plural subject “clocks” would take the plural verb “strike.” All that is fairly simple, but what about a sentence like this: The consent of both sets of parents are needed for a juvenile marriage. The subject and verb in this sentence are not in agreement. “Consent” is the subject, not “sets” or “parents.” Consequently, the verb should be “is” not “are.”

Agreement is also a problem when you are using pronouns to refer to nouns. These nouns are called antecedents, and pronouns should always agree with their antecedents. In the sentence, “The boys believed they could win,” the antecedent “boys” agrees in number with the pronoun “they.” Often, however, the following mistake is made: “The team believed they could win.” The antecedent “team” is a singular noun, and its pronoun should also be singular. The sentence should read, “The team believed it could win.”

Wrong:The team believed they could win.
Right:The team believed it could win.



Parallelism involves stating two or more elements in a sentence in the same grammatical form. Parallelism promotes ease of reading and undertstanding and is an important concept for the writer. Here’s a good example of a sentence in which the elements are not parallel:

Earlier this morning, she wrote three letters, mailed them and had poured herself a cup of coffee.

The elements that should be parallel in this sentence are the verbs, wrote, mailed, and poured. They are all past tense. The verb “had poured” is not parallel with the other verbs in the sentence. It is past perfect. The sentence should read:

Earlier this morning, she wrote three letters, mailed them and poured herself a cup of coffee.


Here’s another example:

Wrong: A lawyer should be logical, articulate and have a quick wit.
Right: A lawyer should be logical, articulate and quick-witted.


Sentence errors
Choosing the correct word to use in the correct context is an important part of knowing how to use the language. The Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation and Diction Exam has a number of questions that will ask you to make these choices. In this section, we will explain some of the types of choices that you may have to make.


Subjects amd verbs should agree in number. Pronouns and their antecedents should also agree in number. (See above for more explanation of agreement.)


Who, whom

These are two pronouns that are often used incorrectly, particularly in spoken English. Who is the subjective case and should be used as the subject of a sentence or clause as in the following example. (For more on the case of pronouns, see below.)

Who is free to run an errand?

I don’t know who can do that.

She is the one who will surely pass the text.

Whom is objective and should be used as the object of a sentence, phrase or clause.

Whom do you trust?

The coach was disappointed in Smith, of whom he expected much.

I doubt that we will find the people whom we are seeking.

In the first sentence, “you” is the subject of the sentence while “whom” is the object. In the second “whom” is the object of the preposition “of.” In the third sentence, “whom” is the objective of the clause “we are seeking.”

Like, as, as if

These words are often use interchangeably and consequently incorrectly. Like is a preposition and should have an object. As and as if are conjunctions and should be used to join clauses. The problem most often arises when like is used as a conjunction.

Wrong: I pretended like I knew what I was talking about.
I pretended as if I knew what I was talking about.

Comparatives and superlatives

Adjectives can show degrees of quantity and quality with their comparative and superlative forms. A comparative form of an adjective is usually made either by adding er to the end of the word or by putting more in front of it. The superlative form is made by adding est to the end of the word or by putting most in front of the word.
One of the rules for using comparatives and superlatives is that a comparative form should refer to only two objects. A superlative form should refer to three or more objects. Look at the following examples.

Wrong: He looked at the map for Midville and Danville and found that Midville is the closest city to us.

In this sentence there are only two cities involved: Midville and Danville. The sentence erronously uses the superlative form: closest. The sentence should read as follows:

Right: He looked at the map for Midville and Danville and found that Midville is the closer city to us.

Here is another example:

Wrong: Sue was the oldest of the twin sisters.
Sue was the older of the twin sisters.


Using adverbs to modify verbs

One of the common mistakes made in spoken English is to use an adjective rather than an adverb to modify a verb, as in the following sentence: He drives careless. The sentence should read: He drives carelessly. Make sure that the words modifying verbs are adverbs rather than adjectives.

Gerund phrases

Sometimes a phrase will use a verb or a form of a verb but will actually act as a noun in a sentence. Verbs that end in ing and function as nouns are called gerunds. Gerunds and gerund phrases can act as nouns in a sentence, as in the following:

Writing is a difficult task for many people.

The word “writing” is a gerund because it is a form of the verb “write.” It does not act as a verb in the sentence, however. Rather, it is the subject of the sentence. The following is an example of a gerund phrase in a sentence:

Writing a good advertisement takes some creativity.

The phrase, “Writing a good advertisement,” is a gerund phrase because it contains a gerund and is the subject of the sentence. If gerunds can act like nouns, can they then have modifiers? The answer is yes, and that sometimes presents a problem, as in the following sentence:

Wrong: She disapproved of me going to that movie.

The reason this sentence is wrong is that “me” modifies the gerund phrase, “going to that movie.” “Me” is the objective case of the pronoun, and for the sentence to be correct, it needs the possessive case of the pronoun.

Right: She disapproved of my going to the movie.

Use of pronouns after like or as

When pronouns occur after the conjunctions than or as, they should be subjective pronouns if they are the subject of an understood verb.

I had a better understanding of the subject than he (did).
Mary cannot recite the Gettysburg Address as fast as I (can).

Proper use of words

Part of the Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation and Diction Exam involves selecting the correct word or words in the context of a sentence. The following items include some of the words that you might find on the GSPD.

Less, fewer. Use fewer with countable items; use less with amounts or things not countable.

Affect, effect. Effect is a verb meaning to produce change, or it is a noun meaning result. Affect is almost always a verb that means to pose or to influence, but it can also be a noun referring to an emotional state. These are two of the most confusing words in English, but careful writers will learn to sort them out.

Like, as. As is used to introduce clauses; like is a preposition and requires an object.

Principal, principle. Principal means someone or something first in rank, authority, or importance. ‘Principle’ means a fundmental truth, law or doctrine.

Over, more than. Over and under are best used for spatial relationships. When using figures, more than and less than are better choices.

Whose, who’s. Who’s is the contraction of who is. Whose is the possessive form of who.

Its, it’s. It’s is the contraction of it is. Its is the possessive form of the word it.

Lay, lie. Lie is a state of being, while lay is the action word. Lay needs an object to be used correctly.

Your, you’re. Your is a pronoun which means belonging to you; you’re (a pronoun plus a verb) is a contraction of you are.

There, they’re, their. Their is a possessive pronoun; there is an adverb indicating direction; they’re is a contraction of the words they and are.

Medium, media. Medium is the singular form of this word and requires a singular verb; media is the plural form and requires a plural verb.

Accept, except. Except means exclude; accept means to receive.


Word choice
The spelling words in the GSPD exam may include those on the list below. These words are not the most difficult words in the language to spell, but they are some of the most commonly misspelled words.
You will also need to know some of the basic rules for forming plurals. Here are a few:

  • Most plurals for nouns are formed by simply adding -s to the root word.
  • Nouns ending with -s, -z, -x, -ch or -sh usually require an -es ending to form the plural.
  • When a word ends with a consonant and then a -y, the -y is changed to -i and an -es is added (example: army, armies).
  • When a word ends in a vowel and a -y, you can simply add an -s for the plural (example: bay, bays).
  • Compound words without hyphens simply take an -s on the end (cupful, cupfuls), but compound words with a hyphen take the -s on the significant word (son-in-law, sons-in-law). The AP Stylebook advises that -‘s should be used only in forming the plural of single letters (A’s, B’s) but not figures (1920s, 727s).
  • Never use -‘s to form the plural of a word that is fully spelled out.

The following is a list of words that you should know how to spell.

all right
Spelling and plurals


Commas (,), semicolons (;), colons (:) and periods (.) are among the most common forms of punctuation.

Commas are used to separate items in a series (red, white and blue) and to set off parts of a sentence (After the rain had stopped, John ran to the store). They are also used arbitrarily, as in separating elements in a date (Nov. 15, 1980).
The following are some specific rules for using commas:

  • A comma should be used to separate introductory phrases and clauses from the main clause of the sentence.
    Plagued by doubts, he could not make up his mind.

  • Use commas to set off non-restrictive elements in a sentence. A non-restrictive element is something that is not essential for the meaning of the sentence.
    The new teacher, who was born in Idaho, turned out to be brilliant. 
  • A comma should separate words that interrupt a sentence or words of direct address.
    He decided, however, not to go.
    What is your decision, Joe, about the job?
  • A comma should separate items in a series. (AP style advises that in a short series, a comma is not necessary between the next to last item and the conjunction. The flag is red, white and blue.) But longer items need the comma before the conjunction.
    He began his day by getting up, washing his face, puring himself a cup of coffee, and looking at the morning paper.


Semicolons are used to separate independent clauses in the same sentence.

He did not want to go with us; he wanted to stay home and watch the baseball game.

A semicolon should also be used to separate long items in a series.

Attending the dinner were John Smith, mayor of Tuscaloosa; Mary Johnson, president of the League of Women Voters; Joe Jones, vice-president of Jones Steel, Inc.; and Rhonda Jackson, head of the Committee for Better Government.

Colons are often used to link the latter part of a sentence to some previous part.

The flag contains the following colors: red, white and blue.

The period (.) is most often used to end sentences, but it has other uses, such as ending abbreviations (Mr.). The question mark (?) is used to end interrogative sentences, and the exclamation point (!) ends sentences and expressions of excitement.


Copyright © 2002 Jim Stovall


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