If you're anything like me, you have a love-hate relationship with grammar. On one hand, grammar rules are necessary for greater understanding and more effective communication. On the other hand, there are just so many rules (and so many exceptions to the rules). It can be overwhelming.
But fear not! We are here to share a plethora of grammar rules for writers that we've tackled over the years. If you have a question, we may have the answer. And if we don't, be sure to share your question in the comments below.
So let's dig into these grammar rules together.
63 Grammar Rules for Writers
Below is our list of grammar rules for writers. We give a quick explanation after each bullet point. But click on each link for further understanding and examples of correct usage.
- "A" before consonants and "an" before vowels is not the rule. Rather, the rule is that "a" is placed before consonant-sounding words and "an" before vowel-sounding words.
- A lot vs. alot vs. allot. "A lot" is either an adverb or pronoun, "allot" is a verb, and "alot" doesn't exist.
- Affect vs. effect. "Affect" is usually used as a verb, while "effect" is usually a noun.
- Allude vs. elude. "Allude" means to suggest or hint at something, while "elude" means to evade or escape.
- Alright vs. all right. "All right" is a commonly used phrase for okay, while "alright" doesn't technically exist.
- Analogy vs. metaphor vs. simile. A "metaphor" is something, a "simile" is like something, and an "analogy" explains how one thing being like another helps explain them both.
- Are subjects joined by "and" singular or plural? It depends on if the subjects are independent of each other.
- Awhile vs. a while. If you can swap out the word "while" with "period of time," then you're likely dealing with "a while." If not, then you're likely dealing with "awhile."
- Bi-annual vs. biennial. "Bi-annual" means twice a year; biennial means once every two years.
- Can I use contractions in my writing? While avoiding contractions may be proper, it can also be quite stilted.
- Can you start a sentence with "because?" Because there's no grammar rule against it, it's totally acceptable to begin a sentence with "because."
- Canceled vs. cancelled. If you play "soccer," then it's "canceled." However, people who play "football" (with a soccer ball) should probably use "cancelled."
- Do you underline book titles? Sometimes titles are underlined. Other times, they are italicized or put in quotes. Heck, some folks put them in ALL CAPS. Adhere to individual house styles and stay consistent.
- E-mail vs. email. When the AP and Chicago style guides agree, it's time to make it official and drop the hyphen.
- Empathy vs. sympathy vs. apathy. "Empathy" means you can understand what another feels; "sympathy" means you can share sadness for another's misfortune; and "apathy" means you don't care one way or the other.
- Ensure vs. insure. Some style guides make these words interchangeable, but WD uses "insure" when referring specifically to financial insurance policies and "ensure" to mean "to make certain."
- Everyday vs. every day. "Everyday" is an adjective; "every day" is a phrase that means "each day."
- Fable vs. parable vs. allegory. Fables and parables are actually both allegories with fables usually featuring animal characters and parables featuring humans.
- Fewer vs. less. Use "fewer" to refer to descending counting numbers and "less" to indicate declining degrees of something (often in an abstract way).
- Heroes vs. heros. "Heroes" is the plural of "hero," while "Heros" is a type of fish.
- Heroin vs. heroine vs. hero. Some people prefer to make "hero" gender neutral for men and women. Others feel "heroine" is the correct usage. On the other hand, "heroin" is a drug.
- Hone vs. home. "Hone" means to make more accurate; "home" means to aim toward a target with greater accuracy.
- How many spaces after a period? One space. Just use one space.
- How do you handle animal pronouns? Refer to animals as "it" unless the relationship is personal or you happen to know the gender.
- I could care less or I couldn't care less? "I couldn't care less" means you don't care; "I could care less" means you do care.
- Imminent vs. eminent vs. immanent. "Imminent" means something's about to happen; "eminent" describes a person (or thing) that is famous and/or respected; and "immanent" means inherent, intrinsic, or spread throughout.
- Into vs. in to. "Into" is a preposition that expresses movement toward or into something else. Meanwhile, "in to" is a separate use of the word "in" that happens to be next to the word "to."
- Is "none" singular or plural? "None" can be either singular or plural.
- Its vs. it's. "It's" is a contraction of "it" and "is," while "its" is an adjective or possessive pronoun (basically whenever it can't be replaced by "it is," it should be "its").
- Ketchup vs. catsup. They both describe the same condiment, though "ketchup" is currently the more commonly used term.
- Lay vs. lie (vs. laid). It's too complicated for a short blurb, so check out the graphic below this list.
- Lead vs. lead vs. led. As a noun, "lead" is a type of metal. As a verb, the past tense of "lead" is "led."
- Leaped vs. leapt (vs. lept). "Leaped" and "leapt" are both acceptable past tense versions of "leap," but "lept" is a misspelling of "leapt."
- Leave alone vs. let alone. "Leave alone" means to leave a person alone, while "let alone" means to quit bugging a person. However, it's becoming more common for people to use "leave alone" in both instances.
- Lets vs. let's. "Let's" is a contraction of the words "let" and "us," and "lets" is the present tense form of the verb "let."
- Lose vs. loose vs. loosen. "Lose" means to cease to retain something and/or be unable to find something; "loose" means to set free as a verb or describe something that is not fixed as an adjective; and "loosen" is a verb which means to make less tight.
- May vs. might. "May" and "might" mean the same thing, but "may" hints you're more likely to do it, while "might" signals you're less likely to follow through.
- Metaphor vs. personification. "Metaphor" is a word or phrase that takes on the meaning of something else ("I am an island"); "personification" is a figure of speech that attributes human behavior to things that are not alive ("the stars winked").
- More than vs. over. They're interchangeable.
- OK vs. okay vs. O.K. All versions are okay, but OK is the version most commonly used.
- Oxford comma (or serial comma) and why it's so cool. When you list out three or more things (like commas, periods, and question marks), use the serial comma to make your lists clear.
- Peak vs. peek vs. pique. "Peek" means to take a look; "peak" is related to the highest point (like a mountain peak); and "pique" is a French word meaning "to stimulate" (as in a new grammar rule piqued my interest).
- People vs. pesons. While most people prefer to use "people" in all situations, "persons" can be used when referring to a smaller group of people (like fewer than 10).
- Pronoun problems: "He/she," "he or she," or just "he." Honestly, it's a question of style over grammar, since all versions, including the consistent use of "she" is appropriate.
- Prophecy vs. prophesy. "Prophecy" is a noun that means a prediction, while "prophesy" is the verb that means to make a prediction.
- Question mark placement in dialogue. Question marks should always appear at the end of questions (even within sentences) and within quotation marks.
- Raise vs. rise. Both mean the same thing, but a subject "raises" an object while something that "rises" does it on its own.
- Reign vs. rein. "Reign" is a period of time dominated by a ruling power or verb that means one possesses power over someone or something; "rein" is a leather strap used to control a horse (or reindeer).
- Same vs. similar. Both words are similar, but they're not the same.
- Semantics vs. syntax vs. pragmatics. "Syntax" is the study of sentence structure and grammar rules; "semantics" is the study of meaning for those sentences; and "pragmatics" is the study of meaning within context.
- Semicolon use. Go for it; they're fun.
- Sight vs. site vs. cite. "Sight" involves your vision; "site" is a location; and "cite" is an act that involves praise, compelling someone to appear before a body, or calling attention to someone or something as proof (as in a report or discussion).
- Simile vs. metaphor. I know we discussed these above (see analogy), but this is a reminder that simile is like something whereas metaphor takes on the identity of something.
- Since vs. because. Both can be used interchangeably, but the use of "since" can get ambiguous if it's not used in reference to time.
- Slight of hand vs. sleight of hand. "Sleight of hand" refers to manual dexterity, and "slight of hand" refers to small hands.
- Snuck vs. sneaked. Traditionally, "sneaked" is the proper word to use, but "snuck" is sneaking into everyday use. As a result, this may be an actively evolving change in language. Grammarians, prepare yourselves!
- Starting a sentence with "but." Some folks will tell you it's improper to start a sentence with a conjunction. But it's fun and grammatically OK to do it.
- Subjunctive vs. indicative mood (or "if I was" vs. "if I were"). Use indicative mood to express fact (such as "I was editor of Writer's Market) and subjunctive mood to express a hypothetical wish (such as "If I were the CEO of Fill-in-the-Blank Inc., I would do things my way.").
- What is the plural form of email? "Email" is what you use in a general sense (like "I get a lot of email"); "emails" is what you use when using numbers (like "I received 17 emails"); and "email messages" works in both situations (so it's the safe option when in doubt).
- When do I spell out numbers? There are exceptions to the rule, but a sound rule of thumb is to spell out numbers under 10 (zero through nine) and use numeric form when more than (or over) 10.
- Where vs. were vs. wear vs. we're. "Where" defines a location or position; "were" is a past version of "be;" "wear" is a verb and noun most commonly related to clothing; and "we're" is a contraction of "we" and "are."
- Which vs. that. Brian Klems said it best: "If the sentence doesn't need the clause that the word in question is connecting, use which. If it does, use that."
- Who vs. whom. If you can replace the word with "he" or "she," then use "who." If you can replace the word with "him" or "her," then use "whom."
Please refer to this list whenever you're stuck on an issue. And if we don't have the answer you're looking for, please let us know in the comments below. We'll be happy to add it to the list.
No matter what type of writing you do, mastering the fundamentals of grammar and mechanics is an important first step to having a successful writing career.