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Your 10 biggest grammar woes, solved

A guide to commas, clauses, commonly mixed-up words, and more, with can’t-fail tricks to keep your writing clean.

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7. That vs. which

I see everyone from college professors to my teenage son mix up “that” and “which,” probably because we’re told their usage is tied to restrictive or nonrestrictive clauses. Most people, even writers, don’t know what this means, so I’ll simplify it. Use “that” when you want to define the identity of the subject. Use “which” when there’s no limit on the subject’s identity and it’s more like a parenthetical aside.

For example, “my mug that my daughter gave me sits on the counter” refers to a specific cup my daughter bought for me. It implies I own other mugs, but I’m highlighting this one for a reason. You can’t remove the clause because it is vital to the sentence. Now, let’s plug in “which:” “My mug, which my daughter gave me, sits on the counter” describes a mug but doesn’t imply that I have more than one. The mug’s origin is not crucial to the sentence. Remove the clause, and I still have a mug sitting on the counter.

‰‰ Tip: Which requires a comma before it in nearly every instance. That does not.

 

8. Punctuation in quote marks

Keep punctuation inside of quote marks. This includes when you use them around titles, such as a poem or for dialogue. Examples: “Is April the cruelest month?” he asked. “April is the cruelest month,” she replied. “I agree with T.S. Eliot’s thoughts in ‘The Waste Land.’”

‰‰ Tip: Apostrophes are punctuation. Keep those inside the quote marks, too, such as when you give a poem a possessive: “I think ‘The Waste Land’s’ description of April is unhinged.”

 

9. Hone vs. home in

“Hone” means to sharpen. You hone your skills by practicing them. “Home in on” means to target or aim toward. You home in on coffee every Monday morning.

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‰‰ Tip: When you think of “home in on,” imagine homing pigeons as they wing their way toward a destination, homing in on it.

 

10. Semicolons vs. dashes

When to use one or the other? Break these common pieces of punctuation into their most essential functions. Semicolons join two sentences with distinct subjects; dashes disrupt a sentence – by allowing you to emphasize a particular point.

Limit your dashes and semicolons. Like exclamation points, they are effective only in moderation. Save them for when you really want to jolt the reader.

‰‰ Tip: Most of the time, you can navigate by feel. When you reach a big reveal, pull out a dash. When you merely narrate the story, opt for the semicolon.

 

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Editors want to focus on your story’s or manuscript’s ideas, not performing syllabary surgery on a misplaced apostrophe. By learning these 10 grammar lessons, you can clean up your copy and perhaps land more assignments as well.

 

Toni Fitzgerald is the copy editor for The Writer. She discovered her inner grammarian at a Dow Jones News Fund editing internship in 1997 and has since plucked typos from books, magazines, newspapers, whitepapers, and website copy. She recently added a weekly blog on grammar tips to her website, tonifitz76.com.

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