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  • katymulvaney

Grammar Triage: If You Only Follow Four Grammar Rules, Make It These Four

Updated: Jul 31, 2023

Grammar is a class thing. And it is still going strong.

People make all kinds of claims about the internet changing grammar standards or "the kids these days" not caring about grammar. They are not entirely wrong, but grammar is still one of the primary ways that gatekeepers (at colleges, jobs, and even on the comment threads of the internet) sort people for status, intelligence, and, primarily, class. Of course, it shouldn’t be so. But it is so. You might as well make the best of it and use it to your advantage. Not all markers of class come with how-to books, after all, much less ones that give you the actual rules (looking at you, always-changing fashion style guides or absurdist manners/etiquette books). To get the full benefit, you would need to spend time mastering a lot of grammar rules. But these four rules will give you the highest return on your investment of time.

This is triage. This won’t solve all the problems with your college admissions essay or make you a star of your freshman English course or land you a new job overnight. This isn't a fix-all. This is about the rules that will keep you from being so frequently dismissed as uneducated or otherwise unworthy of respect based on your writing. Because that still happens, no matter what "the Internet has done to grammar standards." This is where I recommend you start. These rules will reap rewards, which will hopefully encourage you to keep adding new grammar skills.

This is not all you need to do to be a strong writer. Again, this is triage – rules to put in place to stop the bleeding. Number 2 and Number 3 are advice I only recommend for beginners, and they are habits that moving to Intermediate and Expert level should train out of you. But they will aid with basic clarity, which was the original idea behind grammar rules after all. Besides new ways to judge people and enforce class boundaries, of course.

1. Learn the Capitalization Rules.

Capitalization is actually fairly straightforward, unlike most of English grammar, and yet, it is one of the key markers of formal writing. Ignoring or botching the Capitalization Rules is the fastest way to have your writing dismissed. Yes, yes, informal texting has its own rules about capitalization, but even there you see people mocked for mistakes. tHiS iS a ShOrThAnD fOr StUpId CoMmEnTs even in texting or comment threads with otherwise very lax rules.

The best thing about the relaxed standards in much of informal writing, is that it has strengthened the power of getting capitalization right in formal writing. It has more of an impact, now that it's not standard in all forms of writing.

You can show that you know you are in a formal setting, that you have taken care with your writing, and understand the importance of basic grammar with one move. Personally, I find myself much more willing to excuse complex grammar missteps if the capitalization is correct. There is a limit, but it consistently helps. Capitalization communicates that the writer is making an effort. That makes me a lot more forgiving of mistakes, because everyone messes up sometimes. Not everyone bothers. Show that you bothered. The best part? The basic rules are quick to learn. You should ALWAYS capitalize the first letter of a word if it is:

  • the first word of a new sentence

  • the word “I”

  • someone’s name

  • a title attached to someone’s name like Miss, Mr., Mrs., Col., Judge, Her Royal Highness, etc.

  • the name of countries or other official places (states, territories, rivers, etc.)

  • a proper noun of any other kind (names of companies, for example)

If you aren’t certain if it is a proper noun, a proper noun is anything that has a name. Target is the name of a specific retail store, while a target is any goal or point you are trying to hit. In this way, grammar helps keep things clear. Do you want to see any old movie? Or do you want to see Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse? Obviously, you want to see Spiderverse, the name of the specific movie. Because it has a name, it is a proper noun (and a perfect movie). A trickier thing about the titles is that you won’t necessarily ALWAYS capitalize the word itself, only when it applies to a specific person. It would look strange to say that you “hope someday to become a Senator” rather than “senator,” but you should definitely refer to “Senator Bernie Sanders” as his title rather than “senator Bernie Sanders”. Similarly, Meghan Markle is married to Prince Harry of England. But if I were writing about how he gave up his life as a prince, I would use a non-capital letter version of the word, because the title doesn't refer to Harry in particular. After all, he did not give up being himself, just the role of prince. Short version of this rule: if Miss or Mr. could take the place of the title, then capitalize it.

Meghan Markle is married to Mr. Harry Windsor now, and he seems a lot happier than he ever did as a prince. You should ALMOST ALWAYS capitalize:

  • the first letter of the first word of a quote

  • Departments or initiatives within your company/school/etc.

There is a way to use quotes where capitalizing the first word isn’t correct. The best way to proceed is to look to the rule about the first letter in a sentence – if the quote is the start of a sentence in its original place, or if you are writing dialogue, default to using a capital letter at the beginning of a quote. On the second rule, unfortunately, standards vary. Some schools and companies will want things capitalized that others don’t. Your best bet is simply to mirror what other people do. Find somewhere that the department/initiative is written about, and use capital letters if they do. Believe it or not, this is a tool that is meant to make things clearer. If an email refers to Accounting, that capital letter is meant to show that they mean the whole department. If instead the email mentioned accounting, the lack of capital letter means that they are talking about the actual work of accounting – not the department where (most of) that work is done. These rules will get you going, and there is a short Youtube video with a great mnuemonic device that will help you keep track below.

2. Stop messing about with commas until you have time to learn how to use them. Until then, every time you change thoughts/topics, put a period and start a new sentence.

This might result in short sentences. That is fine. Each time you start a new thought put a period. If you start to change topics put a period before you do.

The last two sentences in the previous paragraph should have commas in them, technically speaking. If you knew that (especially if it bothered you to see them missing), and you can look back and tell me where they should go, then you don't need this rule. But for those of you who didn't catch it and aren't sure where they go now that I've told you, consider this way forward in the meantime.

I am going to write the rest of this section without commas. I am going to skip them even when they should be there. Most of the time this will work out just fine. Or at least you'll be able to to understand the sentences anyway.

Commas are great tools. They are also complicated. Notice those two sentences. The two thoughts are related. They are also just fine on their own. They do not have to be shoved together into one sentence. Periods do not mean the words on either side of the period have no relation. In a good paragraph all of the sentences should be related. Commas have a very important roles in sentences. Commas do a lot of different jobs. They are not easy to get right without practice. You should learn the comma rules when you have time. Until then your sentences will be fine if you keep them simple. Just end each thought with a period. This is triage remember? “But this will make my sentences choppy!” Correct.

Your sentences will have to be simple. Your writing will not be ideal. One of the biggest marks of a good writer is fluid but complex sentences. But we are at the beginning. At the beginning run-on sentences are a much bigger problem. At least short sentences are easy to follow. Run on sentences make writing much harder to understand. Readers are more likely to get lost in long sentences. So keep it short and simple. Clarity is more important than fancy flourishes. If you are ready to tackle longer sentences then great! That is a great mark that you are moving from beginning to intermediate writing. But in triage mode use periods for each new point. Leave complexities for later.

3. Tenses are a lot and they get complicated in English. Default to past tense in writing and present tense in speaking.

I taught English grammar for years, and I still don’t 100% know what the “subjunctive” tense is. I know it has something to do with stuff that was or will be happening but isn’t right now? Possibly stuff that might have happened but didn't? Even that sentence gives me a headache. But I use the subjunctive tense correctly all the time, because I have absorbed how people express themselves around me over a lifetime. I don’t need to understand a series of ridiculous grammar charts to use the correct tense. But without the work of a lifetime absorbing the rules passively, you are in for a lot of headaches if you try to use the complicated tenses of English. The good news is that rules #2 and #3 go well together. Simple sentences tend to need the simpler tenses. Complex sentences have more use for present perfect or future progressive tenses. Seriously, if you had put a gun to my head and told me to explain “future perfect tense” to you, I would have been readying myself to die when I guessed wrong. And yet, I just used it in a sentence. I highly recommend that you not try to learn this skill in isolation or by memorizing charts. I spent more time with charts than I like to admit triple-checking that I got the above paragraph right, and I literally taught this shit. For now, since we are in triage, default to past tense in writing and present tense in speaking. As you grow more comfortable, notice the different variations that others use and begin to incorporate them. This is where all that advice about reading a lot to become a better writer is actually correct. So keep trying things! But in the meantime, even if past tense is “wrong” in the specific case, it is usually less glaring a mistake than trying to get complex before you are comfortable. You might not even notice when you start using the complex tenses. It is definitely worth the extra effort to be able to understand when to use past and when to use present tense, but if you aren’t sure which to use: default to past in writing, present in speaking. If you want a song that will get stuck in your head but is NOT (as promised) “rock n’ roll” that goes through the most basic difference (with future tense as a bonus):

4. Learn the principals, rules, and common exceptions for subject/verb agreement.

This rule is the most complicated of the ones I advise you to learn first. Sorry. I also recommend that you bite the bullet and look at charts like I belittled as an approach in part three. Sorry again. Here are some charts. This is a great flow chart for subject/verb agreement! This Youtube video also does a good overview. Her tone is a LITTLE childish, but she is thorough and links to other videos that start further back in the process if you are confused at any point.

Learning this sucks. I'm sorry. The good news is that if you're an English Second Language student, then you may well have a huge leg up here. If your native language has conjugated verbs, English is basically a simplified version of conjugation. The bad news is that there are SOO many exceptions. Sorry. Find charts and read to pick up the patterns. Instead of taking you through the rules myself, since I recommend that you rely on traditional resources here, I want to explain why this made the list of the top four. Warning: it’s messed up.

Incorrect subject/verb agreement is a key part of racist parodies of immigrants, both historically and sadly, still now. It’s that fucked up thing some (mostly) white people do where they put on an “accent” and use poor grammar to mock English Language Learners. It is such a common element of those racist parodies, such a common shorthand for “foreigner who is too dumb to speak English properly” that it has seeped into the common American consciousness. We (unconsciously) think of messing up subject/verb agreement as “proof” that the speaker fits that absurdly offensive stereotype. Yes, it should be the job of white people to fix this bias, not your job to avoid playing into it. But well…looking at the last several years, I only lose more faith in Americans to do that work. And it has been a shorthand for “stupid immigrant” for over a hundred years, which means that it has seeped deep into the unconscious of the American mindset. Most people aren’t aware that they are blaming you for messing up this thing that THEY also mess up a lot. They just think you sound dumb and foreign. It sucks. I’m sorry. (If you are white and American, poor subject/verb agreement will read as “idiot child” instead.) It is not okay that we have this cultural baggage. It is a holdover from a time of even more overt racism than 2023. But it is real. So fixing this will pay dividends – it will lower your exposure to both obvious and quiet racism. No, that should not be your burden, but it can spare you some pain.

So if you are in triage mode of learning English Grammar, here are four places to start. Let everything else go until you've got these four down. By the way, spelling is next, and it only didn't make the the top four because basically everything has a spellcheck feature these days. Turn it on!


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