Grammar & Mechanics
Grammar is the structure of written or spoken language. It refers to the parts of speech and how they combine together to form sentences. Mechanics refers to the rules of the written language, such as capitalization, punctuation and spelling. An understanding of both grammar and mechanics is required to clearly communicate your ideas in a paper. Here are some strategies to help you improve your grammar and mechanics:
- Keep a list of your most common errors. For example, if you often get feedback from your instructors that you are using commas incorrectly and writing many run-on sentences, make note of these errors.
- When you are proofreading your work, refer to your list of frequent errors and carefully read for correctness in these areas.
- Read your paper out loud (or listen to someone else read your writing). If you have access to reading software such as Read and Write, make use of its audio function.
- As you listen to your paper, you will likely be able to pick out sections that "sound right" and sections that don't. Then, go back to the rules of grammar and mechanics to fix any problem areas.
- Use the spelling and grammar checking tool in your word processor. However, be careful! These tools simply make suggestions but may not always provide the correct solution. You need to decide if these suggestions are going to make your writing better or worse.
- Read more about your problem areas, view examples and practice your skills.
Check out Quick and Dirty Tips from the Grammar Girl for pointers and suggestions on how to become a better writer. Grammar Girl offers a great deal of information on both her website and podcast.
To practice your grammar skills, check out the interactive exercises at Grammar Bytes on chompchomp.com, quizzes from the Capital Community College, or The Basic Elements of English from the University of Calgary.
Punctuation consists of the marks that you use in your writing to separate words, parts of sentences, and complete thoughts. It gives the audience a set of directions for how to read your writing. These are very necessary tools for helping you share your ideas!
Explore "Interactive Quizzes" for punctuation applications and exercises. Scroll down the list of quizzes to "punctuation and basic mechanics."
Spelling refers to how we put letters together to form words. Correct spelling is an important part of successful writing since incorrect spelling can lead to confusion over meaning and gives an overall unprofessional look to a paper. Most of us occasionally make spelling errors that can be easily fixed by using some common sense strategies and learning basic spelling rules.
Here are some strategies to help you become a better speller:
- Use spellchecker: When writing on a computer, it is advisable to use a spellchecker to find the most offensive errors. However, since spellcheckers do not always accurately recognize some words, be sure to think carefully about the suggestions offered and, if necessary, consult a dictionary. When writing with a pen and paper, use your knowledge of simple spelling rules and a good reference site or book.
- Keep lists of personal spelling errors, or “demons,” which are the words you continually spell incorrectly. Use your spelling demon list to carefully edit all of your written work. You may wish to test your knowledge and practice your spelling skills on the following websites:
Common Spelling Rules
There are four common spelling pitfalls that you would have learned early on in your schooling. Now is a good time to review these basics. See the spelling rules and examples below:
Commonly Confused Words
There are some words that are commonly misused or mixed up with other words. Be cautious of homonyms, words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. An example of a homonym is they’re, their and there. Use the following strategies to deal with commonly confused words:
- List: Make a list of your personal spelling demons: words that you commonly have difficulty spelling.
- Proofread: When you are proofreading, refer to this list and pay special attention to these words in your writing.
- Find: You may use the “Find” feature in your word processor to locate homonyms that you misuse frequently.
- Research:To explore an extensive list of commonly confused words, visit "Words Commonly Confused" from Santa Monica College.
Capital letters are used only in certain situations in your writing. For example, use capital letters:
- as the first letter of each sentence
- for the personal pronoun “I”
- at the beginning of proper nouns, such as names, months, and days
- to indicate a language or a country, such as English or Great Britain
You should never write an entire paper in capital letters; it is very hard to read. Look for a complete set of capitalization rules and a practice exercise at Empire State College's Writer's Complex.
Parts of Sentences
There is no simple method for creating a sentence because writing is a very personal process. You choose the subjects and verbs, add additional details and, ultimately, decide how to join and organize them. However, it helps to know the basic parts of a sentence, so when you are creating endless combinations, you make sure you have a complete unit of thought! At its simplest level, a sentence requires a subject and verb. Often, you include an object to elaborate on the idea. From that basic structure, you can move in many different directions. Check out the following table for the basic parts of sentences, their definitions and some examples:
Once you understand that the basic sentence contains a subject, a verb and perhaps an object, you can take a look at other ways of combining words into a sentence using phrases, clauses and modifiers.
A Phrase is made up of one or more words that does not express a complete thought. There are many types of phrases:
Knowing the definition and types of phrases will not make you a better writer. However, understanding how words can be combined to make phrases in a variety of ways will make your writing more exciting and interesting.
A Clause is a group of words that contains both a subject and a verb. There are two types of clauses:
Independent and dependent clauses can be joined in different ways to form complex, compound, and compound-complex sentences. For more practice forming these types of sentences, check out these links:
A modifier, also known as a qualifier, provides more information about the subject or the verb. Typically, adjectives and adverbs act as modifiers. A modifier can be omitted from a sentence without impacting the original message; it is not necessary in a sentence, but it is nice to have!
Check out the passages below. Passage #1 contains no modifiers. Passage #2 has modifiers added. Consider how adding modifiers to your writing can enhance its readability and impact.
Passage #1 (No modifiers)
The employees reached the stairway. The alarms were ringing, while the smoke billowed. The air was acrid and heavy.
Passage #2 (With modifiers)
Quickly and quietly the frightened employees reached the stairway. The alarms were ringing constantly, while the smoke billowed out of the doorway. The air was acrid and heavy with soot.
Modifiers capture emotion and set the tone of a paper. Used appropriately, they can help draw your reader into your message!
Practice Activity: Identifying Subjects, Verbs, & Objects
Subject-Verb Agreement Errors
Verb Tense Errors
Dangling Modifiers (or Participles)
Parts of Speech
Words can be classified into eight parts of speech:
Each of these parts of speech has a specific function in a sentence. Learning the names of these parts will probably not make you a better writer, but if you understand their roles in a sentence, you will be able to apply the rules of grammar and mechanics to improve your sentences.
Parts of Speech Matching Activity
For more information on how parts of speech work together to form sentences, check out Bottom Line, Low Anxiety Grammar and Sentence Structure from Empire State College.