writing tips

Rules of Grammar

I know what you’re thinking: ugh, grammar. But grammar is actually very important, even in creative writing. If you want your writing to succeed in any area you must know and apply the rules of proper grammar. This will make your writing clear and professional. Below are key areas of grammar I’d like to cover:

1. Punctuation:

This is probably a common area of confusion and frustration for most people. Where do you put commas? When do you use a dash or semicolon? Here are some general rules to apply:

Colon: Use a colon if you want to explain something further or  introduce a quotation.  You can use colons in place of ‘for example.’ Here are some sentences that illustrate these points:

  • The chest was filled with treasure: gold, rubies and diamonds.
  • Mahatma Gandhi said: An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.

Comma: Put commas between words in a series but not before the last and, or or nor except when it prevents confusion. Use a comma for emphasis but use it sparingly like other punctuation marks. For instance:

  • The box was filled with colourful crayons like blue, green and red.
  • There are different ice cream flavours like strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, and cookies and cream.
  • “I don’t really know, I never do.” (Emphasis)

Semicolon: Use a semicolon to separate sentences that are too closely linked to be separated. It’s also important to use a semicolon when phrases contain commas.  A good example of phrases that contain commas are geographical locations; you probably want to use semicolons to avoid confusion between them.

  • I thought the rain was nice; it was pretty soothing actually(See how the two phrases are so closely related and cannot really stand alone?)
  • I went to New York City, New York; Toronto, Ontario; and London, England.

Dash: I think the dash can be a little ambiguous–  you don’t really know when to use it.  See what I did there? 😀 Use a dash to signal a sharp break in a word or sentence, to reference a quotation or to divide elements into a list.  Below are examples of the dash:

  • “What do you mean–gone?” (The dash is good in writing for dramatic effect)
  • All that is gold does not glitter. Not all those that wander are lost. –J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Make sure to pack:

Brackets: Use brackets to enclose extra or additional information, to show fuller identification in proper names and direct quotations, and use brackets in numbering or lettering a series within a sentence. Also use brackets for equivalents and translations.  For instance:

  • The winter storm was awful (there was ice and white-outs) and we had to stay inside.
  • Winnipeg (Man.)
  • Three things are required to succeed: 1) hard work, 2) dedication and 3) self-belief. (Brackets can help organize information)
  • You can say “salut” (informal hello in French).

2. The Passive Voice:

Teachers may tell you that the passive voice is bad, especially English teachers. The passive voice can stifle writing and give it a sort of sluggish feel. But the passive voice can have an effect in certain circumstances. For example, if you work in the scientific field or legal field, the passive voice is acceptable.  However, if you are writing an English paper it’s probably best to use the active voice, depending on the subject matter. The active voice often gives writing more impact and gives the agent (what Kolln and Funk call “the doer” of the verbal action) more importance in the sentence.

For example, study these two sentences and figure out what’s different about them:

The girl took the book. (Active)

The book was taken by the girl. (Passive)

See how the agent (the girl) is active in the  first sentence?  But in the passive form the book is the one “acted upon” by the girl.

3.Personal Pronouns

For a quick review, personal pronouns are nouns like: I, you, he, she, they, we, it. Although we use these everyday some confusion can arise when the pronoun doesn’t agree with its antecedent.

This is called the pronoun-antecedent agreement.  An antecedent is the noun that the pronoun stands for in a sentence.

For instance, study this sentence:

Maria met Suzanne at the mall and while she was there, she bought a new pair of jeans.

Who exactly does “she” refer to? We can assume that “she” refers to Maria but we aren’t completely sure. Does it refer to Maria or to Suzanne?

A correct form of the sentence would look like this:

Maria met Suzanne at the mall and while she was there, Maria bought a new pair of jeans. 

In this case, Maria is the antecedent of “she” in the sentence. Now that the pronoun matches its antecedent, the meaning of the sentence is more clear.

Hopefully some of these tips have been helpful. It’s always good to consult a guide to help you with grammatical rules. You don’t have to remember them all but it’s good to put them into practice. Try some writing exercises to improve your grammar: that way you can break the sentence down and spot any errors. Another recommendation of mine is to buy a grammar guide-book, one complete with exercises.

Are there any other areas of grammar I should cover? Do you have any grammar tips of your own?


Kolln, Martha, and Robert Funk. “Understanding English Grammar.” Pearson, 2009.

The Canadian Press. “The Canadian Press Stylebook: A Guide for Writers and Editors.” The Canadian Press, 2010.

writing tips

5 Ways to Become a Better Writer

  1. Read. By reading other people’s work you expose yourself to different styles and ways of writing. You also learn what works and what doesn’t work for you as an audience member. I always ask myself a few questions when reading other people’s work: What techniques grab my attention? How does the author describe a scene?
  2. Write. The second step to becoming a better writer is to write more. The more you write, the more you hone your craft. I feel that when I write more, I start to get a feel for what sounds right on the page and what I can improve on.
  3. Ask for constructive criticism. Ask someone you trust to read your work and offer you constructive criticism, not destructive criticism. If you can get a second opinion, it will help you see your strengths and weaknesses in writing.
  4. Daydream. Allow yourself to daydream and just think things over. You could think about anything, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you’re opening yourself up to new ideas and revelations.
  5. Carry a notebook and pen with you. I find carrying a notebook and pen convenient, especially if I’m on a train or bus ride. If I have any sudden inspiration I jot notes down. Also, if I have to organize my thoughts I just write them down, which helps me get a clearer picture of my story and how it is progressing.

I also recommend checking out the book How to Write by Richard Rhodes. I think it offers some great advice on writing and how to get started.