Grammar Guide

Avoiding some common problems in grammar and mechanics can make your writing clearer and help your reader concentrate on your ideas. Here are some important areas to consider as you proofread a paper.

Fragments and fused sentences

Fragments are incomplete sentences, and fused sentences are actually two sentences crammed together. To fix these problems, use this step-by-step process:
  1. Circle all the verbs, which are words that can be made past tense.  (Today, I talk.  Yesterday, I talked.  Today, I am.  Yesterday, I was.)
    1. Cross out verbs that have "to" in front of them.
    2. Cross out verbs that end in "-ing" and do not have a form of the verb "to be" (am, is, are, was, were, been) in front of them.
    3. Cross out verbs that end in "-en" and do not have "has" or "have" in front of them.
    4. Any verbs that remain are probably main verbs.
  2. Underline each remaining verb's subject (the noun that is performing the action).
  3. Draw brackets around each complete clause (a group of words with a subject and a main verb).
  4. Cross out any clause that begins with a relative pronoun (who, whom, which, that) unless the clause is a question.
  5. Cross out any clause that begins with a subordinating conjunction (because, although, even though, as, when, if, while, since . . .)
  6. Anything that remains is probably an independent clause, which can stand alone as a sentence.

  7. If the sentence contains two or more independent clauses, separate them with a conjunction (and, or, but . . .) or a semicolon or a period.

Subject-verb agreement

We say that a subject "agrees" with a verb when both are singular or both are plural. Examples: The library is closed. The boys are outside. Her book, which inspired several movies, is popular. The books on the table are mine. The employees and the manager are in a meeting. Note: When the two nouns in the subject are connected by an "or," the verb agrees with the final noun: Examples: Judging from the looks of this house, I'd say the dog or the kids are home. Judging from the looks of this house, I'd say the kids or the dog is home.

Dangling and misplaced modifiers

Modifiers, which are words or phrases that describe other words or phrases, generally should appear next to the words or phrases that they describe.  When the word or phrase that the modifier describes does not appear in the sentence, we say the modifier is "dangling."  When the modifier does not appear next to the word or phrase that it modifies, it may be "misplaced."  To correct such problems, use the following procedure:
  1. Place brackets around the modifier.
  2. If necessary, supply the word or phrase that the modifier is describing.
  3. Move the modifier so that it appears next to the word or phrase it modifies.


If there is more than one of something, we say it is "plural."  To make a noun plural, you usually can simply add an "s."  Examples: books, dogs, players, unions.  English also has some irregular plurals--nouns that are made plural without adding an "s."  Examples: men, women, children, people, teeth, feet, deer.  Proper nouns--which refer to specific persons, places, things, or ideas--should be capitalized. Clue: Most proper nouns cannot be made plural. Examples: Michael Jordan, the Cape Fear River, the Bible, Raleigh, English, Spanish.  Common nouns--which refer to non-specific person, places, things, or ideas--should not be capitalized unless they appear at the beginning of a sentence otherwise require capitalization because of their context. Examples: basketball, ocean, book, city, language, history, psychology. Make sure that you use the correct form of each noun. If you are unsure of the correct form, check a dictionary.

Pronoun-antecedent agreement

We say that a pronoun "agrees" with an antecedent--the noun to which it refers--when both are singular or both are plural. Examples: The attorney won her case. The attorneys won their cases. The company is improving its service. The companies are improving their service.

Adjectives and adverbs

Adjectives are words that describe nouns.  They usually answer the question "Which?" or "What kind?" or "How many?" Most adjectives do not end in "-ly." Examples: nice, quick, bad, remarkable, true, good. Adverbs are words that describe verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They usually answer the question "When?" or "Where?" or "Why?" or "How?" Many adverbs end in "-ly." Examples: nicely, quickly, badly, remarkably, truly, well. Make sure that you use the adjective form of a word when the word describes a noun and the adverb form when it describes a verb, adjective, or other adverb. If you are unsure of the correct form, check a dictionary.


In general, use commas to set off the following words or phrases:
  1. items in a list: I like bananas, oranges, and strawberries.
  2. introductory phrases
    1. prepositional phrases: At the end of the movie, the hero leaves town.
    2. subordinate clauses: Because I like the outdoors, I go hiking a lot.
    3. verb phrases: Having taught this subject several times, I knew the answer right away.
  3. transitions: Mozart wrote many amazing symphonies. Symphony 39, for example, opens in an exciting way.
  4. conjunctive adverbs: She generally doesn't like jazz; however, she has bought a few of Miles Davis's albums.
  5. appositives: The activist, a woman with impeccable credentials, has changed legislators' minds about a number of issues.
  6. non-restrictive clauses: The White House, which is in Washington, is a national treasure.
  7. cities when they appear with states or countries: She was born in Anderson, Indiana, but she moved to Fort Wayne.
  8. years when they appear with months and days: The dean arrived on May 8, 1999, and departed in May 2000.


Use apostrophes in the following words:
  1. contractions: don't (do not), weren't (were not), we'll (we will), she's (she is or she has), it's (it is)
  2. possessive nouns
    1. singular possessives: The dog's bed is red.
    2. plural possessives: The dogs' beds are red.
    3. irregular possessives: The children's game ended. The women's league is large. He sells men's clothing.


In general, underline or italicize the titles of long works and ongoing works, such as books, plays, films, compact discs, magazines, journals, and television shows. Examples: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Macbeth,Home Alone, Tattoo You, Smithsonian, The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, Seinfeld. In general, place quotation marks around the titles of short works, such as poems, songs, short stories, and magazine articles. Examples: "The Raven," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Barn Burning," "Gun Control in the United States."

Punctuation and quotation marks

Periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks. Example: Although I like "God's Grandeur," my favorite poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins is "The Windhover."


  • subject-verb agreement 
  • proper noun 
  • common noun 
  • dictionary

Suggestions for Practice

  1. Commas: Most of the mistakes that writers make in their punctuation concern the use of commas. The secret to using commas correctly is memorizing the most common places where they are required. The following sentences provide examples of these places. If you can learn the rules that apply in these sentences and apply them to your own sentences, you will solve 90 percent of your comma problems.
    1. I have experience working in sales, accounting, and marketing.
    2. Sears needs to promote itself as a friendly, service-oriented store.
    3. The president chose January 18, 1996, to implement the program.
    4. She moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in August 1991.
    5. Finally, the game had many great plays. For example, Mays made a leaping catch in center.
    6. At the beginning of the year, business is slow.
    7. Although the film received excellent reviews, few people went to see it.
    8. The film received excellent reviews; however, few people went to see it.
    9. A new teacher has joined the faculty. The teacher, who is from Alabama, arrived in May.
    10. Two new teachers have joined the faculty. The teacher who is from Alabama arrived in May.
    11. Martha Johnson's husband, Steve, is a carpenter.
    12. Martha Johnson's friend Steve is a carpenter.
    13. The company opened in December, and sales began to rise dramatically in March.
    14. The company opened in December and closed in March.
After you have read these sentences carefully and determined the rules at work, read the following paragraph and put commas where they are needed.

Our plan for improving the company's sales included new approaches to magazine radio and television advertising. First we began running several new national magazine advertisements. The first advertisement ran in the May 8 1996 issue of Newsweek and features author Toni Morrison who appears holding one of our candy bars. At the bottom of the page a paragraph explains that Morrison eats one of our candy bars every day. We produced our first radio commercial in September 1996. In this commercial which ran first in Jackson Mississippi and later in Orlando Florida cellist Yo-Yo Ma explains that he always eats one of our candy bars before a performance. Although Ma is not as famous as other celebrities we might have chosen we decided he would appeal to a well-educated sophisticated audience. Of course television was the main venue we exploited. We wanted to reach a large audience; however we could not afford to spend a lot of money. We decided to run commercials during the syndicated shows Seinfeld and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The commercials began appearing in December 1996 and continued running for the next three months.

  1. Readability: Use "Proofreading Strategies" to identify and correct readability problems in a draft.
  2. Format: Review the instructions for a project. Make a checklist of format requirements and then use this checklist to determine whether a draft contains all of the required components. Here are a few components that instructors sometimes require:
    1. cover page
    2. page numbers
    3. subheadings
    4. block quotations
    5. parenthetical citations conforming to MLA, APA, or another style
    6. "Works cited" page conforming to MLA, APA, or another style
    7. appendix
Updated January 26, 2000 | University of North Carolina at Pembroke
© Mark Canada, 2000 |

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