Introduction to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation

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How to use this site:

  1. If you know the issue and just want to check the rule, click on the appropriate menu item on the black bar above, or use the search tool on the left.
  2. If you aren’t sure about the rules even after reading the entry, or if you just need someone to help you edit and revise your writing, call the Christ Writing Center to make an appointment. Drop-ins are welcome, but the services of the trained tutors are available on a first come first served basis only after those with appointments receive assistance. There are now two handy locations: 109B Chryst Hall and 113 McNairy Library.

Why All Those Rules?

The information  provided on this site is for formal, written English appropriate to publishing, business, and college classes. Different constructions will be more appropriate for a variety of speech acts, occasions, audiences, and regions of the country and the world. Much of being an effective communicator is just a matter of suiting the construction to the audience and occasion. And, those constructions change over time. We don’t use the language appropriate to earlier centuries or generations. So, this blog needs to be periodically updated.

Language is rule governed, and native speakers have internalized most of those rules by the time they’re three just by listening and speaking to the people around them. That’s why we grow up sounding like, sharing a dialect with, the people around us.1 Mostly, that’s our family and the kids we play with. Few of us speak and write in the dialect used in a formal college paper. Instead, as we grow up, we learn to use a variety of dialects and speech registers, each with its own set of rules.

I ain't got no body! Sheet with two holes for eyes.Generally, that’s a good thing. Language like that used in the caption on the left is fine when we’re talking to friends, writing popular music lyrics, and so forth. It’s less appropriate when writing a professional or academic paper, doing a job interview, and such. Most adults know when to use one register vs. another.  Once a rule is internalized, there’s an actual physical, neurological connection built into the brain, and it can, for the most part, run on autopilot. After that, we don’t have to think about it, though we can if we have some reason to do so. This system lets us get on with the business of thinking and communicating at speed. But, language is always changing across time, place, social circumstance, and audience. So, writing the sort of fairly formal, mannered English used by professionals, in business, and in college classes can be tricky.

Talking about language can be tricky too. Language is the medium we do most of our conscious thinking in, and thinking about what we’re thinking, speaking, and writing in can be tough. That makes it hard to change if it’s not a usage that the the style-mavens, the powers-that-be, approve for certain  speech or written registers.2

The rules themselves are entirely arbitrary. There’s nothing intrinsically good or bad about them. The rules of grammar, usage, and punctuation used by writers are designed to maximize clarity. Nothing else.

Grammar Troll believes he is a 'superior life form'. He thinks you're dumb!

Grammar, punctuation, and spelling shouldn’t be the cause of abject terror. Whether they’re plumbers, musicians, or athletes, those  who do a task for a long time get good at it. And, those who have a natural affinity for a task gravitate to it and do it a lot. The more you write and carefully revise, the better you’ll get. That’s a promise. If somebody in the past made you feel small or stupid about your writing, they’re just trolls. Ignore ’em!

Luckily, the rules for formal, written English are entirely finite.3 Most of us make fewer than 10 mechanical or grammatical errors—always the same ones, over and over.  Learn those few—and know how and when to look up others as needed—and suddenly the writing clears right up. That doesn’t mean that it’s deathless prose. It just means that it’s a serviceable, clean product which lets the writer’s ideas shine through.

There are no grammar police! Feel free to use sentence fragments, misspelled words, and such when sticking notes on the refrigerator or texting your friends and family. After all, they get you…mostly.

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1. Dialects: sociolects and ethnolects. We all come from somewhere and bring with us the tonalities of those origins, including regionalisms, ethnicities, social classes, and even professions.(back)

2. Speech Registers.  We do not speak or write the same when addressing a small child, a best friend, or a boss or client.   A pediatrician, for example, might talk to a small child about the ‘booboo’ on her knee, but talk to the parent about her ‘scrape,’ and bill the insurance for ‘wound care’ or a ‘hematoma.’ Each different variety of language is called a speech register, and they’re the one of the last things that language learners get good at.(back)

3. Grammar, usage, and punctuation rules. Why are there so many different rules? Think of it as both dialectal and a matter of speech registers. The various ‘tribes’ or ‘communities’ of writers have different technical needs and perspectives. Over time  publications, academic societies, and disciplines develop unique styles which help to define them. Each publication and society may only tweak things a bit here and there, but after a few decades the differences become fairly noticeable.(back)


AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors, 10th ed., Oxford University Press, 2007. Web. 28 June 2014. [See also: AMA Manual of Style.]

American Psychological Association. Publication Manual Of The American Psychological Association, 7th ed. Washington, DC, 2013.

Associated Press. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, Basic Books, 2013. [See also: AP Stylebook. Web. 28 June 2014.]

Brechner, Robert   Contemporary Mathematics for Business and Consumers. Thomson South-Western, 2005.

The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed. University of Chicago Press, 2010. Web. 28 June 2014. [See also: Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide.]

The Chicago Manual of Style: Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers. 15th ed. University of Chicago Press, 2003. Print.

Dewdney, A.K. 200% of Nothing: An Eye-Opening Tour Through the Twists & Turns of Math Abuse & Innumeracy. John Wiley and Sons, 1993.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Garble’s Style Manual.  Garble’s Writing Center. 9 January 2007. Web. Found 27 June 2014.

Hazlett, Curt.  “Tips to make numbers your best friend.” Web. 28 June 2014.

Linguistic Society of America. “Unified Style Sheet for Linguistics.” (PDF) 3 April 2007. Published by Linguist List. Web. Found 15 July 2014. See also

The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2009.

MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, 3rd ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2008.

Note: The Modern Language Association publishes two books on its documentation style: the MLA Handbook is intended for high school and undergraduate students; the MLA Style Manual is for graduate students, scholars, and professional writers.

The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. Oxford University Press, 2005. Web. 29 June 2014.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, Times Books, 1999.

Nichol, Mike. “Linguistic Register and Code Switching.” Daily Writing Tips.  n.d. Web. Found 31 July 2014.

Norquist, Richard. “Choosing a Style Manual and Style Guide: Popular Style Guides for Students, Researchers, and Professionals.” about education. (n.d.) Web. 28 June 2014.

The Owl. Purdue University’s Online Writing Center.  2006 Web. 28 June 2014.

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. (6th ed.) American Psychological Association, 2014. Web. Found 10 July 2014.

Scientific Style and Format : The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers. 8th Ed. Council of Science Editors. University of Chicago Press, 2014. Web. Found 10 July 2014.

Siegel, Ethan. “Who Discovered the Earth is Round?” ScienceBlogs. 21 September 2011. Web. Found 11 July 2011.

Smith, Jennifer. “Paper Writing Tips in Linguistics University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Fall, 2011. Web. 15 July 2014.

Stanford University. Tips for Writing a Linguistics Paper.” Excerpted from Linguistics TA Handbook provided by the Linguistics Department of Sanford University. 2013. Web. 15 July 2014.

Turabian, Kate. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students & Researchers, 8th. ed. University of Chicago Press. Print.


“Grammar Troll” image developed from the “troll” visual meme at All Twitter by 2014. Web. Found 10 July 2014.

The “I ain’t got to body” ghost sheet is a cropped detail from “Ghost Haiku” posted by Shen Shi’an 4 September 2013 at The Daily

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