I adored the grammar lessons in grade school, but I realized they were specific to the school I was in when I switched school systems. Writing 101 isn’t taught the same way in every classroom.
Not everyone gets to grow up with grammar quizzes and sentence diagram tests. Don’t feel bad if you can’t tell an em dash from a hyphen! Browse this guide and you’ll refresh yourself on everything you need to know.
Note: this is for American English and assumes you already speak it as a first or second language. It won’t explain verbs, nouns, etc. Also, some parts will vary by in-house style guides with various publishers. However, you can use these refreshers to problem-solve your WIP and feel more confident about how you wield your words.
1. Punctuation Around Dialogue
American English grammar rules almost always firmly state that punctuation around dialogue goes inside quotation marks.
Wrong: “I don’t want to go to the park”, she said.
Right: “I don’t want to go to the park,” she said.
This rule won’t apply if you’re asking about something someone said. Otherwise, punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks to end what’s being said.
Wrong: Did the teacher say, “Do your homework?”
Right: Did the teacher say, “Do your homework”?
Also, dialogue tags always have a comma or another punctuation mark separating what’s being said from the tag itself. That’s because the tag is an integral part of the dialogue since it identifies who’s saying the spoken words.
Wrong: “I love chocolate ice cream.” he said.
Right: “I love chocolate ice cream,” he said.
2. Adjectives vs. Adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs often get confused. They both start with “ad” and describe other words. So what do they mean?
Adjectives are descriptors that apply to nouns.
Adverbs are descriptors that often end in -ly and apply to verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. (Basically anything but nouns.)
Adjective: He is a hairy cat. [“Hairy” describes the noun “cat.”]
Adverb: The hairy cat ran quickly across my yard. [“Quickly” describes the verb “ran.”]
Adverb: He really likes to roam. [“Really” describes the verb “likes.”]
Adverb: Even though we have a very small neighborhood. [“Very” describes the adjective “small.]
Adjectives are also considered stronger descriptors in writing because they’re more specific. Using adverbs occasionally is often fine, but publishers and editors who sift through submissions with a fine-tooth comb don’t like repeated adverb usage when a more direct description could fit the sentence.
Adverb: I really enjoy going to the movies.
Stronger verb: I love going to the movies.
3. There, They’re, and Their
People often get these confused because the English language is very confusing. To put it bluntly:
There: a location
They’re: a contraction for “they are”
Their: the possessive pronoun form of “they”
They’re driving their car to that store over there.
4. Run-On Sentences and Fragments
Run-on sentences go on for too long. Fragments are incomplete sentences.
You’ll know both when you spot them because it isn’t how people normally talk. People pause to collect their thoughts, take a breath, and describe their thoughts in complete sentences (even with slang, the sentences still make sense).
Run-On Sentence: She went to work and had a meeting at 11:00 before going to lunch at the restaurant across the street which had her favorite food on the dessert menu so she enjoyed it before going back to work and clocking out at 5:00. [This sentence addresses six different actions in too many phrases for a running list of commas with a conjunction at the end.]
Fragment: Every single animal. [Every animal what? There’s no context, so the sentence is incomplete. Sometimes writers use fragments as creative descriptors if they break grammar rules effectively, but you have to know how to avoid fragments to use them well.]
5. Em Dashes
Ah, the em dash. I’m so biased when it comes to this punctuation mark.
Em dashes indicate a purposeful pause, followed by essential information. They can also distinguish phrases or lists in the middle of a sentence.
Most importantly, they’re the length of an m.
You’ll know you’re using them correctly if you can replace your em dash with a pair of commas, a colon, or a semicolon.
I love using em dashes—especially for sentences like this—so I may use them a little too often. [You could replace the em dashes with commas and it would still be correct.]
I couldn’t resist it—Em Dash Press had to be the name for my blog. [This em dash could be a semicolon.]
6. En Dashes
En dashes are the little sibling to em dashes. En dashes are two hyphens long or the length of an n. They point out the range in numbers or time, but can also stand in for “to” or “and.”
The war lasted from 1434–1442.
I’ll be at the library from 6:30–7:30 p.m.
The final score was 32–34.
You have a ticket on the Chicago–New York flight tomorrow evening.
At this point, you’re likely wondering what’s even left for hyphens to do. The answer is quite a lot.
It’s one dash wide and joins words.
Hello, my name is Alvina Stuart-Kelly.
I’m looking for a dog-friendly apartment.
She has a two-year-old child.
Typically, they don’t go after adverbs and don’t join words after nouns.
Incorrect: My apartment is dog-friendly.
Incorrect: That child is two-years-old.
8. Commas (Oxford and Otherwise)
Commas are a curse and a gift for writers. Myself included.
We often use commas that are unnecessary because, in our minds, that’s where we’re pausing to breathe or collect our thoughts as we type the sentence.
Sometimes it just feels right to use too many—until it’s time to edit.
There are multiple types of commas. The first is the comma that connects a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, for, so, yet, nor) with the rest of the sentence.
He’d love to hang out, but he has to finish his homework.
A comma can also go after an introductory phrase.
When we last spoke, it was still November.
Commas also go around phrases within a sentence.
My neighbor, who is a great painter, is open for commissions.
Then there’s the Oxford comma, which goes before the coordinating conjunction at the end of a list.
We need to get paper towels, apples, and flour at the supermarket.
You can also place a comma in between two nouns that are interchangeable.
The fresh, cheesy soup is delicious.
The cheesy, fresh soup is delicious.
There should be a comma after a conjunctive adverb at the beginning of a sentence if it’s contrasting something.
I don’t like swimming in rivers. However, I’ll make an exception for you.
Introductory prepositional phrases (you can find a complete list of prepositions below) also get followed by a comma if they’re more than four words long. However, you can put them after smaller prepositional phrases too.
[“After the game” is the prepositional phrase below.]
Correct: After the game we should get milkshakes.
Also correct: After the game, we should get milkshakes.
Also correct: After the game ends tonight, we should get milkshakes.
When a prepositional phrase ends a sentence, you don’t need to put a comma before it because they’re typically describing a verb.
Incorrect: We should get milkshakes, after the game ends.
Correct: We should get milkshakes after the game ends. [“After the game ends” is describing the timing of the verb “get” in relation to the object “milkshakes.”]
Prepositions are words that come before a noun, verb, or pronoun to indicate details like the place, time, direction, location and relationship to an object.
There are too many prepositions to list in this post, but you can find a ton of the over on this website. The examples below have prepositional phrases set apart with a pair of tildes.
He left ~for college~.
They were born ~in 1972~.
~From September to November,~ I’m going to be very busy.
You’ll know you’re using a preposition incorrectly when it’s essentially dangling at the end of the sentence or can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence.
Incorrect: Where’s the mouse at?
Correct: Where’s the mouse?
Incorrect: He leapt off of the couch.
Correct: He leapt off the couch.
Notably, some uses of prepositions are colloquial. In real-world conversations, you might say things like, “Where are you at?” and that’s absolutely fine. It’s even fine to use them like that when writing dialogue for characters who have a specific vernacular usage of them, like regional or cultural phrasing.
When neither of those is present in the written word, editors will recommend revising your sentences to reflect prepositional usage rules like the ones above.
Apostrophes have a couple of different jobs.
First, they show possession when something or someone owns something.
That is Henry’s car.
Watch out for the tree’s loose branches.
Apostrophes also go after an “s” if the plural noun has possession of something.
The stores’ new parking lot looks much better.
The wagons’ wheels were made of wood.
The classmates’ party just began.
When a plural noun doesn’t end in an s, it usually gets the standard apostrophe before an s.
The sheep’s pen needs a repair.
The people’s voice matters.
The women’s shoe section is over there.
Apostrophes join words to create contractions too. Contractions join two separate words to save time, effort, or word count. They’re what most people use in everyday language because contractions are less formal in tone. (I just used one in that previous sentence!)
It’s time to go to bed.
They’re making dinner now.
I can’t run very far.
We use colons to make sense of too much information. Basically, they give order to lists, phrases, or titles.
They need to call the following guests: Isabelle, Ana, and Richard.
The Urgent Need for Answers: A Call for Solutions to Healthcare Inequities [This would be the title of an academic paper, book, or article.]
We have one thing in common: the desire to write more stories.
Don’t be afraid of semicolons; they are here to help you!
Semicolons join two related ideas or clarify lists with multiple long phrases.
I ate dessert before dinner; life is about doing what makes you happy. [The second half of the sentence provides clarity or reasoning to the first half. The semicolon could get replaced by an em dash or “, because” if you preferred it that way.]
When I wake up, I brush my teeth with an electric toothbrush; swish a sensitive-teeth mouthwash in my mouth for 30 seconds; and wash my face while I shower. [If you replaced the semicolons with commas, the phrases would be considered too wordy. Semicolons provide more visual order for readers in this context.]
13. Exclamation Marks
Some people avoid ever using exclamation marks. Others use them all the time.
I say that the correct usage depends on the situation.
If an overly enthusiastic, excited kid were telling their friends they were going to Disney World, they might breathlessly say something like, “I just got the best news! My mom got time off of work! So we’re going to Disney World!”
However, if a more serious or laid-back person said they had a good day and wanted to describe it, they’d likely say, “My day was good! I had a great lunch and the drive home was easy.” Finishing the last sentence with an extra exclamation mark would be out of character for them.
You also wouldn’t want to use exclamation marks in formal writing settings, like academic papers or newspaper articles, because it would come across as too casual. But it’s fine if you’re writing a social media post or texting a friend.
As long as the exclamation mark indicates excitement or urgency, you’re using it correctly. Consider who’s speaking and why to figure out if their dialogue would result in more than an occasional exclamation mark.
Writing 101: You’ve Got This
I hope this helps clarify the basics so you’re more confident about writing your next story. Grammar is complicated and ever-changing (I’m looking at you, AP Style Guide), but you can count on these basics to structure things correctly for your readers.
Ready to write? Try a few prompts from my weekly prompt challenges or explore some free resources that make worldbuilding so much easier.