Common Grammar Questions Answered

There are many common grammar questions that students have when they're learning how to write. It can be quite confusing, trying to remember all those rules about punctuation and sentence structure. Here are the answers to some common grammar questions you may have.

When should I use quotation marks?
Quotation marks are used to show that a person is speaking, or to show that a phrase or sentence is a direct quotation. For example:

  • "I wish you were able to join us," she said, "we really enjoy your company."
  • Ben Franklin said, "A penny saved is a penny earned."

Commas and periods always go inside of quotation marks. Exclamation points and question marks always go inside quotation marks when they're part of the quote.

Quotation marks are also used when writing titles of things such as poems, songs, articles and short stories. For example:

  • "The Road Less Traveled" was her favorite poem.
  • They danced to "Fire and Rain."

In rare cases, you might put a question mark or an exclamation point outside of the quotation marks, if you're quoting a title. For example:

  • My favorite song is "Penny Lane"!
  • Have you read Robert Frost's "Trees"?

When should I use apostrophes?
Apostrophes are used before the letter s to show possession. For example:

  • These are Harriet's elephants.

In the case of a plural noun already ending in s, the apostrophe is used without an additional s. For example:

  • Watch out for the elephants' trunks!

Apostrophes are also used in contractions, such as can't, don't and isn't to replace the letters omitted to form the contraction.

Apostrophes are not to be used in place of quotation marks, except to show a quotation within a quotation. For example:

  • Anna cried, "My mother said, -Don't let the dog out!' but it was too late."

Is it really wrong to end a sentence in a preposition?
Conventional writing wisdom has always stated that we should never end a sentence in a preposition. Most of us learn this is school; however, there is no such hard and fast rule. It is a perfectly acceptable practice, and in many cases it's preferable when you want to avoid awkward sentence structure.

What's the difference between "that" and "which"?
Many writers struggle with whether to use the word "that" or "which" in their sentences. "That" is used for restrictive clauses, those that are essential to the sentence's meaning. "Which" is used for non-restrictive causes, to simply give more information about the subject. For example:

  • She brought the cat that was yellow to the vet.  The phrase "that was yellow" tells us it was the yellow cat she brought to the vet, and only the yellow cat; not the brown or black cat.
  • She brought the cat, which was yellow, to the vet. In this case, "which was yellow" just gives us more information about the cat. This sentence tells us she brought the cat to the vet, and, incidentally, the cat happens to be yellow. When using "which" the clause is set apart by commas, as it is non-essential to the meaning of the sentence.

These are just some of the grammar basics essential to good writing. While it does seem there are lots of rules to remember, the more you write, the easier it gets.

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