Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

How to actually improve your grammar. Why parallelism is important (and how to use it). Keycoos.

Episode Summary

917. For National Grammar Day, we answer one of the most common questions I get: How can I improve my grammar? Plus, I explain why parallelism is important, especially in resume writing.

Episode Notes

917.  For National Grammar Day, we answer one of the most common questions I get: How can I improve my grammar? Plus, I explain why parallelism is important, especially in resume writing.

"How to improve you grammar" was written by Susan Herman, a retired U.S. government analytic editor, language analyst, and language instructor.

| Transcript:

Subscribe to the newsletter for regular updates.

Watch my LinkedIn Learning writing courses.

Peeve Wars card game

Grammar Girl books

| HOST: Mignon Fogarty

| VOICEMAIL: 833-214-GIRL (833-214-4475) or

| Grammar Girl is part of the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network.

| Theme music by Catherine Rannus.

| Grammar Girl Social Media Links: YouTube. TikTok. Facebook. Instagram. LinkedIn. Mastodon.

Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff. National Grammar Day is coming up March 4, so today we're going to answer a general question I get a lot: How do you improve your grammar? Guest writer Susan Herman has lots of great suggestions! And then, I'll help you understand why parallelism matters in your writing and how to actually use it.

How to improve your grammar

by Susan Herman

Lots of people have asked me how they can improve their grammar, and most of them really mean their writing. Do you want to write more effective work emails or documents? Are you having to write more for school or work? Or maybe write a resume? Whatever the reason, grammar is important, at least in formal or professional writing. Good grammar shows the audience that you care and take the topic you’re writing about seriously. It also increases your credibility, especially if you’re trying to connect with or influence your audience. If people can’t understand you, they’re less likely to receive your true message. But remember that communication is the goal, not perfection. It’s not just about making your 10th grade English teacher – or the dreaded Facebook Grammar Police – proud. Think of it more as using “standard English” or professional writing. 

So what is “standard English”? According to Merriam-Webster, it is “the English that, with respect to spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary, is substantially uniform though not devoid of regional differences, that is well established by usage in the formal and informal speech and writing of the educated, and that is widely recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken and understood.” The key concepts in that rather long definition are “uniform” and “acceptable.” Notice that nowhere does it say “proper” or “correct.” Those terms are thrown around quite a bit, but they do not embrace the many variations that make English so interesting, or that language is a living entity, which it is. 

And it’s worth noting that many things that used to be considered “incorrect” have become acceptable through repeated use—both written and spoken. A great example is the “never end a sentence with a preposition” rule, which originally came from the 17th century idea that English should be like Latin. More recently, some of you may have heard the famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of [thing] up with which I will not put.” Sounds very stuffy and awkward, right? In modern usage, it is indeed acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition (gasp!) and simply say, “That is the sort of [thing] I will not put up with.” 

Now on to those tips for improving your grammar!

1. Reading is fundamental, right? (I guess I’m showing my age here). Read as much high-quality, edited writing as you can. Choose well-respected, credible news sources or nonfiction. Some fiction may use “standard English” more than others, but generally it contains more informal, colloquial, or “non-standard English.” Read different types of writing, like news, editorials or commentaries, or humor. Set a goal for reading or even join a book club to help keep you on track.

2. Don’t sweep your problems under the rug! There are grammar or spelling issues that plague all of us, even the best writers. And often, we try to “write around” these problems so we don’t have to deal with them. Instead, take a few minutes to research them, and then make a note of what you discover. Looking up the answer yourself from a credible source (we’ll talk about that in a minute) will help you retain the information and give you a sense of accomplishment too. Maybe keep a writing journal or personal “style guide” that contains the items that give you the most grief when you're writing.

3. Related to the last tip, use a style manual. There are many available in hard copy and online. Some of the most popular and well-respected style manuals are:

If you write frequently or professionally, buying one of these manuals is a good investment. But there are also several university writing centers and other writing sites that have summaries or working aids based on these manuals that you can access either free or by registering, sometimes at no cost.

4. If you can, get a “writing buddy” who can give you feedback. You could even exchange writing and help each other. But here’s a word of caution: Make sure your “buddy” is a good, experienced writer, such as a senior co-worker or someone who has received positive feedback on their own writing. Most of us, at one point or another, have experienced peer editing, where students review each other’s work. It seems like a good idea in theory, but if the person reviewing your writing doesn’t have the greatest grasp of standard English themselves, they could lead you down the wrong path. So choose someone who will be knowledgeable and honest with their feedback.

5. Don’t rely solely on technology! We are all aware of the perils of autocorrect, and spellcheck and grammar check can be faulty, too. They can help – maybe – but they don’t know context or nuance. So always do your research, as we mentioned earlier, and review your own writing. In addition to these automated tools, there are lots of internet resources that claim to help you improve your grammar or writing. Some of them can be very helpful, but don’t rely solely on them. Also, don’t rely on one source too much and take its advice at face value. Check other sources, talk to a mentor, or find examples of other writing to model what you want to say.

And now let’s talk about some pointers for learners of English as a foreign or second language: 

  1. Exposure is the key. And exposure to the right type of material is important too. Watch TV – preferably with English captions – or listen to podcasts in English (like this one!). But again, choose wisely – news, documentaries, or educational programs. They are more likely to contain standard English than, say, a reality show.
  2. The same goes for reading. If you are a beginning learner of English, choose factual news stories, weather, or other non-fiction material. Once you progress, you can read opinion or editorial articles, which contain standard English but also more high-level language including humor, irony, sarcasm, and nuance.
  3. Just as we already mentioned, research the grammar questions that are giving you problems. There are many online resources for learners of English that can help explain grammar in a simple way. Keep a journal or flashcards not only for vocabulary, but also for grammar issues.
  4. Dedicate as much time as you can to practicing your language skills, and you will definitely see improvement!

Finally, allow me to give a shameless plug for "Grammar Girl’s Quick & Dirty Tips for Better Writing" on Linkedin Learning. In this course, I share ways you can instantly make your writing better, including using active voice, writing with rhythm, and using commas like a pro. I also dispel a few common grammar myths, give pointers for breaking up run-on sentences, and much more. Watch just one video or the whole series to improve your writing skills.

That segment was written by Susan Herman, a retired U.S. government analytic editor, language analyst, and language instructor.


The Pleasing Pattern: Parallel Structure

by Mignon Fogarty

The human brain is wired to look for patterns. Patterns like the golden ratio found in art and nature are pleasing to the eye, and patterns in writing can make your words more pleasing and memorable to your readers.

Speech writers know all about patterns because many common rhetorical devices rely on patterns. Some of the most famous pieces of writing use patterns, and that’s probably one of the reasons we remember them. From Julius Caesar’s “I came, I saw, I conquered,” to Martin Luther King Junior’s “I have a dream” speech, patterns have helped speakers deliver a strong message.

When someone says, “It was the best of times,” almost everyone knows that it refers to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and what follows is “it was the worst of times.” You may not know the rest of the opening lines by heart, but listen to them to see how Dickens continued the pattern—the parallel sentence structure—to draw in his readers:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . .”

By following each clause with one that is its opposite (best/worst, wisdom/foolishness, and so on.), Dickens is also using a rhetorical device called antithesis.

Winston Churchill used the same method of starting each clause with the same words (sometimes called anaphora) in one of his famous speeches from World War II:

“. . . we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”

Note how similar each clause is. With Dickens, each clause starts with “it was the…” With Churchill, each clause starts with “we shall…” Another word for this kind of pattern is parallelism.

You may not be writing a novel or writing a speech to rouse an entire country, and you may not always want to use heavy hitters such as anaphora and antithesis, but you should still embrace parallelism whenever possible, not only because it makes your writing powerful and memorable, but also because when it’s missing, readers will often get a vague sense that something is wrong. They’ll stumble over your writing because, as I said earlier, the human brain homes in on patterns like a pigeon. We see them even when they aren’t there, so we’ll be expecting sentences to follow a pattern — almost filling in the blanks before we even get to them.

Take this sentence, for example:

Kids these days are obsessed with taking pictures of themselves, hanging out with friends, and check Instagram to see if anyone liked their posts. 

I stumble when I get to “check” because it’s not parallel. I expect to read “checking…” We have the gerunds “taking pictures” and “hanging out,” but then the sentence switches to a verb — “check” — which doesn’t follow the pattern. You can easily make that sentence better by replacing “check” with a gerund: 

Kids these days are obsessed with taking pictures of themselves, hanging out with their friends, and checking Instagram to see if anyone liked their posts. 

Articles such as “a” and “the” can also throw off parallelism. They should come before only the first item in a series or before all the items in a series:

Here, each gift gets an article: For her birthday, we gave Ashley an iPhone, a ring light, and an Instagram account of her own.

And here, there’s just one article before the series of gifts: For her birthday, we gave Ashley an iPhone, ring light, and Instagram account of her own.

Parallelism—or the lack of it—becomes even more obvious when you have items in a bulleted list. Consider this example:

When you close the store for the night [and then we have a bulleted list of instructions]

None of those bulleted items used the same structure, and the list was hard to read. You can improve the instructions by giving more detail in the introductory sentence and making each bullet use the same structure:

When you close the store for the night, take these steps in the following order: [and now the bullets]

So much better! And it’s even more obvious when you see it on the page.

Lack of parallelism isn’t just a common style problem in prose, it’s also one of the more common errors in resumes, so remembering to check your parallelism can help you get ahead in your current job—or help you find a new one.

That segment was written by me and originally appeared in Office Pro Magazine, a publication of the International Association of Administrative Professionals.

Before we get to the familect, I have an interesting comment from Tammy about a word I mentioned a few weeks ago. 

"Hi, my name is Tammy. I love your podcast, and in a recent episode, you mentioned that the word 'abdomen' is not used as an adjective. However, in the fitness world, we will use the word 'abs' as a shorten version of the word 'abdomen,' and just like you hear 'arm exercise,' 'leg exercise leg day,' we also sometimes hear the word 'ab exercise.' Anyway, just thought it was interesting thing."

Excellent point, Tammy. I wonder if they didn’t have “ab day” back in Philip Gove’s time when he was writing about “abdomen” never being used as an attribute noun. Thanks for the call.

And finally I have a familect story from Jay.

"Hi, Grammar Girl. This is Jay from Plano, Texas, and I'm relatively new listener to your podcast, being tuned in from you past couple of years. I love your insights into the English language. Between your show and Merriam-Webster's Word Matters, I kinda learned to retreat from the grammatical rigidity of rules and focus more on the common sense purpose of the language, which is just to communicate clearly. Anyway my family may not be unique, but it comes from when I was young and discovering the joyful experience of adding cookies to my diet. But when I would ask for cookies, I would call them key-coos. My family would try to correct me, and I even had to repeat it slowly with them in stages. They would say 'cook,' and I would say 'cook.' And they would say 'key,' and I would say 'key.' Then they would put it together and say 'cookie,' and I would proudly repeat 'key-coo.' They finally gave up, and just ... just gave up and let it become part of our family lexicon ... but today my sisters, my mom, my wife, and kids will still occasionally ask for key-coos."

Thanks, Jay. I will have key-coos after lunch today in your honor. Also, Jay had some insight into the “out over your skis” origin that we talked about a few weeks ago. He pointed out that in snow skiing you do want to lean forward, but in water skiing, you don’t. If you lean forward in water skiing you’ll go down and get a face full of water. Nobody I saw discussing it seemed to consider water skiing, but that seems to make a lot of sense.

If you want to share the story of your familect, a family dialect or a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL, and I might play it on the show.

And today I have a special treat! My friend Squiggly, the yellow snail you hear about in the example sentences, is reading the credits. I think he was a little put out when I had Quantos do it last week.

Squiggly: Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. I want to give some extra special thanks to those great people that make all this happen starting with our audio engineer Nathan Semes, and our editor, Adam Cecil. Our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, without whom I wouldn’t get my daily chocolate bar — woot woot, Morgan!

Hey, Grammar Girl, did you know that our marketing and publicity assistant, Davina Tomlin, interned at a kitten shelter one summer? 

Grammar Girl. No! How fun. 

Squiggly: Their Instagram must be set for life! Our intern…does she get to play with kittens at work, Grammar Girl? 

Grammar Girl. No, I don’t think so.

Squiggly: That doesn’t seem fair. Our very talented intern —BUT who doesn’t get to play with kittens at work — is Kamryn Lacy. And I am Squiggly.

Grammar Girl. Thanks, Squiggly. Great to hear your voice.

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening, and have a happy National Grammar Day.