Overcoming Grammar (and Punctuation) Woes

Jul 8, 2014

Playing the grammar game can be a lot like a game of Yahtzee—all you’re hoping for is good luck and a good roll of the dice. If you came out of your education without specific classes on grammar, punctuation and proofreading and if you haven’t even heard of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, let alone have it in a prominent location on your bookshelf, you’re probably a little rusty on the rules of grammar and punctuation.

Luckily, there’s plenty of tools out there to help you master that proposal, even if semicolons aren’t your strong suit. Google search means you don’t need to pull out the dictionary every time you forget the meaning of “commencement,” and The Oatmeal has helped many of us understand that “a lot” is always, always two words. But sometimes even The Oatmeal can’t help you out. And in those instance, I want you to know that grammar and punctuation are not nearly as scary—or as difficult—as they are made out to be. Especially once you know the rule, the trade secret, that I’m about to share with you.

Be consistent.

That’s it. That’s the rule. If you can’t figure out the punctuation rule and in depth searching of “Grammar Girl” yields no results, do the old standby. Be consistent.

It’s really a rule, too. The beautiful thing about grammar and punctuation is that it’s not perfect. It changes with the times, and humans, who have a penchant for messing things up, created it. It’s no wonder that there’s not always an answer. In an undergraduate research class, I asked a question about a full sentence after a colon: Is it capitalized or not? The professor had no idea and told me to find out and report back to the class. After doing some digging, I determined that there was no right answer as long as one did the same throughout the thesis, report, blog post, recipe, status update, etc. And, if Strunk and White say “be consistent,” you know it’s solid advice.

Now, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t brush up on your comma, semicolon, hyphen usage. You should. But you should also relax knowing that if you can’t find the answer, chances are good that your readers can’t find it either. And if you act suave and confident with your “mini-golf” versus “mini golf,” you’ll find that readers trust you were right, no matter which form you used.

Just make sure you know the difference between “affect” and “effect.” There’s just no excuse on that one.