You may remember my post on “Common English Grammar Mistakes Kids Should Avoid at All Costs,” and if so, you probably also remember my…ahem…tiny (ok, who am I kidding? Large. Very large.) rant about the word “grammar.” I still stand by that message. However, as I also stated before, that is not to say that grammar is not important. Grammar is important in many ways, but it is not the most important facet of writing – not by a long shot. I grade English every week, and one way I thought I could make this post the most effective and informative is to set it up Q&A style: what grammar questions my students should be asking me, based on the mistakes I catch and comment the most upon.
Grammar Questions Students Should be Asking
Q: When should I write in a complete sentence?
A: In short, you should always write in a complete sentence, unless otherwise stated. Are there exceptions to this rule? Of course there are, especially when it comes to creative writing. However, in order to become the best writer possible, it is only to your benefit to write in complete sentences as much as possible when you first begin writing regularly.
Q: What qualifies as a complete sentence?
A: Great question! To be on the safe side (and beginning writers should), a complete sentence should always
ü Restate the question in the answer (when answering a direct question).
ü Begin with a capital letter.
ü End with a punctuation mark. (Pssst! Speaking of punctuation marks, if you ask a question, end it with a question mark, not a period, you know? And use exclamation points to show excitement or strong emotion, like I’m about to do in order to show you how important using the correct punctuation mark is!)
Q: What about the words “and” and “because”? Can I begin sentences with those words?
A: Excellent (and advanced) question if I do say so myself! In general, no. You cannot begin sentences with these words. Once again, there are definite exceptions to this rule [You can use “and” for effect and “because” if you are beginning a sentence with a dependent clause], but if you don’t know them confidently, don’t risk it.
Q: Does spelling matter?
A: Of course I think that spelling “matters,” but I also think there are more pressing “matters” to attend to. Follow these general rules:
ü For young students (PK–3rd grade), the most important words to spell correctly are words that are sight words, spelling words, vocabulary words, and words that are directly seen in a passage, instructions, or questions. Basically, any word that the student has direct access to or can easily “see” should always be spelled correctly.
ü For older students (4th grade and up), all of the above rules should be followed, and in addition, students should begin looking up unfamiliar words, asking an adult, and checking their spelling after writing.
As with all things, there are exceptions. I would always applaud a student for attempting to use a new word (as long as it was being used correctly), and would correct incorrect spelling, but not penalize for it. I would consider this a learning moment rather than a mistake.
That being said, if you find that your student is constantly misspelling certain words, you can do the following things:
ü Make a list of those words that a student can keep and consult while writing.
ü Brush up on basic phonics and general spelling rules.
Q: How important are commas?
A: Commas are very important, but commas are very tricky – much like this question. If you are a beginning writer, stick to comma basics, which would be
ü A comma followed by a coordinating conjunction used to join to independent clauses.
ü A comma used to separate items in a list.
If you are a more advanced writer, then you are probably aware of at least some of the other ways that commas can be used:
ü After an introductory phrase
ü After a dependent clause (if the dependent clause comes before an independent clause)
ü To introduce a quote
ü To signal a pause or a “breath” in writing
If you are confident about any or all of these rules, congratulations! Follow them and go forth and commend yourself on conquering comma confusion! However, like I’ve said before, if you are not sure, just don’t do it! It is much better to not have a comma and need one than to have an unnecessary or misplaced one.
Q: You just mentioned using commas to introduce a quote, but quotation marks confuse me! How do I use them?
A: Quotation marks can seem so scary, but there are generally only three occasions in which you use them:
- To show dialog (the spoken words of a character in a story)
ü Only put quotation marks around the words characters other than the narrator are speaking, and make sure that any punctuation marks included with that dialog are inside the quotation marks. Otherwise, follow basic sentence-writing rules. For example, if a sentence of dialog is interrupted by narration, capitalize and punctuate as normal, since the dialog is still meant to be one sentence.
- To indicate a quote (the spoken or written words of someone else)
ü If your quote is coming in the middle or the end of a sentence, use a comma (for a short quote) or a colon (for a long quote) to introduce it.
ü Never let a quote stand alone as its own sentence.
ü Never forget the end quotation mark.
ü Copy the quote exactly. If you take portions out of it, use ellipses (…) to show that you did so.
- To show irony or sarcasm
ü In short, if you are using a word in a non-literal way in order to be sarcastic, you can put quotes around it to indicate this.
Q: Why did you emphasize these particular rules?
A: I chose these rules because they are the most common strictly “grammar” based problems that I run across on a daily basis. They are also the mistakes that can lead to the most confusion for a reader, which is never a good thing. If I could give one piece of general advice to all student writers everywhere, it would be, “Write for a stranger.” What does this mean? It means that with any piece of writing you complete, a complete stranger should be able to pick it up, and without any knowledge of the assignment or topic, be able to read it and understand exactly what you mean. Never make your readers do the work of assuming or filling in blanks. Always write deliberately and completely. Follow these rules, and you will easily be on your way to doing just that!
What do you think? Are there other grammar mistakes you see from your student on a consistent basis? Do you have a question for Emily? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Author: Emily Karth, Writer and Teacher at MathWizard, Inc.