Tips and Tricks for Self-Editing: Grammar

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Welcome to the last post in the tips and tricks self-editing series! We’ve discussed content and how to develop our ideas and arguments; we’ve tackled organization and how to present our content clearly; we’ve even covered style and how to present those ideas in a clear and enjoyable way. Today, we’re going to delve into grammar—the mechanics of our writing.

Why do we need grammar? If a reader can understand what you’re saying, even if you missed a few commas and have a few run-ons, it’s fine right? Not exactly. While content and your ideas matter most, grammar contributes to your clarity and credibility as a writer. Consider the following two sentences:

When Jose and Sahil goes swimming the pool by Target they must jumps fence in.

When Jose and Sahil go swimming in the pool by Target, they must jump a fence to get in.

Which is easier to read? Which do you trust more as a reader? Probably the second one, right? The first one lacks punctuation, omits words, and has subject-verb agreement problems while the second sentence properly punctuates and adds all the words which helps your reader do less work. The less time a reader has to spend trying to understand what your sentence says, the more time they can focus on what it means.

If it helps, pretend your reader is allergic to grammatical errors, like this:

Still, we know that editing your own grammar feels like this:

Warner Bros

It can be a tedious and painful process as you search for missing commas, dangling modifiers, run-on sentences, etc.. However, here are a few tips to help you find those errors:

  • Read your paper out loud.                                                                            

When you read out loud, you’re not only seeing the words on the page, you’re also hearing them too. Increasing the number of senses you have engaged with the text helps you focus more. Besides, if you start stumbling while reading your own sentence, you might have a problem with your grammar.

  • Read your paper backwards.

Start with your last sentence and work backwards from there, sentence by sentence. By reading in reverse order, your brain can’t anticipate the next sentence and ignore the mistakes in the one you’re reading. Instead, you force yourself to see each sentence in isolation, which helps you catch more mechanical errors.

  • Highlight each sentence.

If you’re proofreading on your computer, highlight each sentence. This technique will help you focus on one sentence at a time, minimizing the distractions from other sentences. When you can focus on one isolated sentence, you can catch more errors grammatically, because you will see the sentence in isolation.

Below is the grammar checklist, which includes common grammar errors we encounter at the Writing Center, but not all English grammar rules (and, of course, don’t forget to check your spelling). If any concept is new or hazy to you, be sure to click on the links to separate handouts that cover each topic in depth.

Self-Editing Checklist for Grammar

󠄀 Does each sentence have an independent clause?

󠄀 Are my dependent clauses attached to independent clauses?

󠄀 Do I avoid fragments?

󠄀 Do I avoid run-ons and comma splices?

󠄀 Do I include a comma with my coordinating conjunctions?

󠄀 Do subject and verb agree in number?

󠄀 Do my pronouns refer back to the most recent noun?

󠄀 Am I using punctuation appropriately?

󠄀 Do I use commas appropriately?

󠄀 Do I use the right articles?

󠄀 Do I capitalize when appropriate?

󠄀 Do I use the right verb tense?

󠄀 Do my verbs have objects if necessary?

󠄀 Are my adjectives describing nouns?

󠄀 Are my adverbs describing verbs or adjectives?

󠄀 Do I measure my nouns correctly?

󠄀 Do I avoid dangling modifiers?

󠄀 Do I use the right preposition?

󠄀 Am I using quotation marks appropriately?

󠄀 Do I use hyphens appropriately?

󠄀 Do I use modals appropriately?

󠄀 Do I use parentheses and brackets appropriately?

󠄀 Do I use apostrophes appropriately?

Did you make it through? Awesome! Even though we see these errors regularly, let’s focus on the most common ones.

The most important grammar rule you should know is how to create a complete sentence and avoid fragments, run-ons, and comma splices. Consider the following:

Lee dog

Wants dog

Although Lee wants a dog

Each of these examples is a fragment because they are either incomplete ideas or cannot stand alone. The correct sentence is “Lee wants a dog.” because it is an independent clause, which means a sentence that can stand alone. Now consider these sentences:

Lee wants a dog the dog must be fast, fluffy, and loyal.

Lee wants a dog, the dog must be fast, fluffy, and loyal.

Although these sentences have independent clauses, they are improperly punctuated. The first is a run-on, and the second is a comma splice. Here are some quick fixes to this problem:

Lee wants a dog. The dog must be fast, fluffy, and loyal. (period)

Lee wants a dog; the dog must be fast, fluffy, and loyal. (semi-colon)

Lee wants a dog, and he says the dog must be fast, fluffy, and loyal. (coordinating conjunction)

Lee wants a dog who is fast, fluffy, and loyal. (relative clause)

Every time you run into a problem like this, you have a few options on how you want to fix it, as shown above. Although grammar encompasses a set of rules, you have to weigh your options to make the best choice for each sentence.

After writing a complete sentence, people often forget the little things. For instance, subject-verb agreement can be a problem. Examine the following sentence:

Griselda want a laptop for graduation.

The noun is singular, but the verb is plural. In every sentence, we have to make sure that our verb agrees with our noun in number. Therefore, the correct sentence is “Griselda wants a laptop for graduation.”

After subject-verb agreement, tense consistency tends to be a struggling point for students. Consider the following sentence:

Yesterday, I go to San Francisco.

The writer has already established that the sentence takes place in the past “yesterday,” but “I go” is present tense. This inconsistency will confuse your readers for a minute.  They may even question you as a trustworthy source of information. To keep the tense consistent, we have to change our verb to match the set-up of the sentence, so the correct sentence is “Yesterday, I went to San Francisco.”

Lastly, students, especially English-language learners, tend to struggle with articles. Articles (the, a/an) are used to introduce nouns, but it’s hard to know when to use them. Consider the following sentence:

Phuong went to store to buy leash for her dog.

The previous sentence is missing two articles, but we can’t just use the same one. Remember, “the” is a definite article, which means that it’s used for specific nouns known to the speaker and the person he or she is speaking to. Meanwhile, “a” and “an” are indefinite articles, which means they are used for singular nouns that are general. If you review the sentence above, the speaker and the person they’re talking to probably knows which store Phuong went to, but they don’t know which leash Phuong is going to buy. Applying this logic to the sentence, that means the correct sentence looks like this:

Phuong went to the store to buy a leash for her dog.

Woohoo! We made it through the whole series. Great job!

I’d like to leave you with one final tip:

Writing can improve at every stage.

Your essays can improve after their “final drafts”; these blog posts can be improved once we’ve posted them; a novel can improve after it’s been published. Armed with the knowledge from these past four blog posts, your writing can become that much closer to perfect. That said, don’t let this be you:

As long as you do your best before turning in your paper, then think critically about your mistakes after receiving it back, you’ll always improve.

Best of luck to you!

Aldridge, Ben. “Proofreading.” San Jose State University Writing Center. San Jose State University Writing Center, 2014. Web. 23 April 2016.


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