Guide to Grammar, Style, and Punctuation

Posted date: October 12, 2017

Using commas and using semi-colons

You probably learned the rules concerning the use of commas and the use of semi-colons early on at school. If, however, these do not mean a lot to you, you can discard them and use this rule instead: Try reading one of the sentences you wrote out loud and think about where it feels natural to take a pause i.e. where you might stop naturally to draw breath. If the pause is short, as that one was, a comma is probably needed. If the pause is longer, but not sufficiently long for a full stop i.e. where a period would be needed, it is likely a semi-colon is needed. Just bear in mind that the part of a sentence that comes after a semi-colon should be capable of standing alone, just as a complete sentence.      

If it is the case you do not want readers to stop to draw breath, you should not insert a comma because if there are too many commas it would be too difficult for readers to work out what it is you are trying to say and it would make your sentences impossible to read.

The sentences in your text should not cause your readers to constantly have to take the type of short breaths that too much punctuation requires since they would be left hyperventilating. Additionally, they should not be left gasping for air from trying to reading very long sentences that lack punctuation. Think of yourself as being responsible for the health of your readers’ hearts!   

Keep an eye on your use of dashes and of hyphens

When beginning a clause—this clause is a typical example—the longer of the two types of dashes (known as the m-dash) should be used. (This dash can be indicated with a double hyphen (e.g.--) where your keyboard does not have an m-dash key.) Make sure both parts of your sentence i.e. the one that precedes and the one that comes after the dashes makes sense even if the dashes were removed and the words they contain. Note: the above example shows that the sentence is legible whether it has the clause within the dashes or not.

The m-dash can also be used instead of a colon when you want to make the words following it sound more dramatic: “The hall was covered with photographs of those he loved – his father, mother, and grandparents.” Or it can be used to give a sentence an element of surprise: “His loved ones photographs were on display in the hall; there were photographs of his parents and grandparents – and of Brute, his beloved bulldog.” While m-dashes are used to set off a sentence’s parts, a hyphen is used to combine words, e.g., three-quarters, son-in-law, kind-hearted, etc.   


Abbreviations should always be spelled out in full when you use them for the first time or before you use them regularly in a text, except when you are confident that readers of average intelligence would recognize the acronym. For example, some acronyms are used more frequently that the full name or words the initials represent, e.g., AIDS, CEO, NASA, NATO, and so on. Therefore, it would be strange to keep writing these out in full. However, remember the particular audience you are writing for since people who are experts in a particular subject are not likely to need or want to have certain terms fully spelled out. 

Split infinitives should be avoided if possible

These days, there is no strict rule about split infinitives and, sometimes, not splitting an infinitive can make a sentence sound more awkward than if it were split, but splits are usually ungraceful (think of this: To be or to be not.)   

Referents should be clear

Whenever you write or say “this concept” or “that theory” or just “it,” it should be crystal clear which concept or theory you are talking about. If you say “she” or “he” or “these writers,” your readers should not have to stop to work out who you are referring to.  Think twice about your use of the word “this.” It is common enough for writers to use the word “this” if or when they are not entirely sure what it is they want to bring the attention of their readers to. This is especially the case when developing a highly complex argument that has a variety of different angles or elements. Vagueness can sometimes be an indication of confused thinking. So, double-check with yourself that you know what “this” is when you use it. What word would you use to replace it? If you cannot easily answer this, perhaps you need to rework the ideas in a particular section (it will be impossible for readers to understand your meaning if you do not understand it yourself. Whenever you see referents that are vague or any other seemingly minor issues, you should consider whether there is a more significant underlying problem).

The word “that” should never be used in reference to a person

“The last man that was found alive.” “The doctor that he was talking to.” People are not objects so it is derogatory to use the word “that” when referring to them. Instead, you should use the words “who” or “whom.” For example, “The last man who was found alive.” “The doctor whom he was talking to.” Maybe you are using the word “that” because you are not quite sure when to use “who” or “whom.” And on this same subject, make sure you are not manipulating sentences to get around different types of grammar issues you are not sure about. If this is the case, put yourself in control! Free yourself! Get a full grip on the rules to enable yourself to write in a free and confident manner, instead of being overly cautious in case you break any rules, or break them unintentionally. You could start by creating an electronic file wherein you list any rules you are prone to forgetting. Then keep this in front of you when you are writing. Any rules you are not sure of, you can look up in a grammar guide or by visiting’s website.  

To whom is who doing what? This is a question you can ask of yourself if you are not sure when to use who and whom. The person doing the action i.e. the subject is the “who.” The person receiving the action i.e. the object is the “whom.”

Passive voice should be avoided. This tends to take the power and energy from a written piece. It is more effective to say, “Dickens’ novel” than “the novel that was written by Dickens.”

Underling and italics

One or other of these can be used but both should never be used together since they have the same meaning. Copy editors used to use underlining to instruct printers to set given words in italics typeface. Likewise, editors used to underline italicized words to indicate that italics should be removed. Therefore, underlining italicized words or phrases is essentially akin to using double negatives.

Build parallel construction into all sentences

The following is an example of a sentence that does not have parallel construction, “Reading back over my draft, I see it is repetitive, terse, and with no clear thesis.” This example does have parallel construction, “Reading back over my draft, I see it is repetitive, terse, and that it does not have a clear thesis.” Alternatively, you could write the sentence as, “Reading back over my draft, I see it is repetitive, terse, and lacks a clear thesis.” In the examples that have parallel construction, any of the words can be removed and the sentence will still read sensibly.