Welcome to Top-Down Grammar! On this page you will find lecture transcripts and links to videos to assist you as you hone your grammar skills. 

Subjects and Verbs


Lesson video: 

The subject of every sentence is most often a noun or a pronoun and is always ‘the who’ or ‘the what’ the sentence is about. In statements (declarative and exclamatory sentences), the subject comes before the verb. 

Lisa moved the cappuccino slowly across her desk.

Don’t forget about the understood subject in a command (imperative) sentence.

Hand me the cappuccino quickly. (YOU)

Don’t forget about the hidden subject in most question (interrogative) sentences.

Where is Lisa’s cappuccino


Verbs are words that say what the subject is doing OR link the subject at the beginning of the sentence to another word at the end of the sentence. In English, a subject and a verb are required for a phrase to be considered a sentence. 

Sentences with action verbs that continue through the sentence are called transitive. These verbs take objects.

Lisa moved her cappuccino slowly across the bistro table.

Sentences with linking verbs or action verbs that do not act upon an object are called intransitive.

A linking verb with a subject complement

Lisa feels grouchy before coffee.

A linking verb with a predicate nominative:

Lisa was a barista. 

An action verb without an object:

I moved slowly.

More Examples:


Objects and Complements

Video tutorial: 

Objects take several forms, but the rules associated with them don’t change much. The following are the three main object forms.

Direct objects are most often nouns or pronouns that come after the verb, directly receive the action of an action verb, and usually answer the question ‘what’ when asked using the subject and verb.

Lisa moved the cappuccino slowly across her desk.

Indirect objects are most often nouns and pronouns that always fall between the verb and direct object. These words indirectly receive the action of the verb and usually answer the question ‘to/for whom’ when asked from the direct object. 

Kathy gave Lisa the leftover coffee from the breakroom. 

Objects of the preposition are the nouns and pronouns that are linked to the sentence through a preposition. 

Lisa moved the cappuccino slowly across her desk.

Kathy gave Lisa the leftover coffee from the breakroom.

The subject complement is a noun, pronoun, or adjective that follows a linking, intransitive verb. Its purpose is to describe or rename the subject of the sentence. Although it technically comes in two forms (predicate adjective and predicate nominative), both parts of speech can simply be called subject complements because in either form this word ‘completes’ the thought of a linking, intransitive verb.

This course is English.

We are a class.

The background color looks blue.


Prepositions and Conjunctions

Accompanying video: 

A preposition is most often a single word that relates a word working as a noun or pronoun to another word in the sentence. This connected word is called the object of the preposition and, together with the preposition and all modifiers, is a common type of phrase used in the English language.

A prepositional phrase gives the reader more details and it offers descriptive snippets of detail. Prepositional phrases act as adjectives or adverbs in sentences (depending upon whether the word they describe is a noun/pronoun or a verb). Words in the prepositional phrase cannot work in the sentence as anything other than a part of the prepositional phrase, and, simultaneously, the structure of the sentence remains unaltered if you take away the prepositional phrase. 

The dog ran after the car.

The book with the yellow cover sat on the dusty shelf.

During the speech, he could not stop yawning!

Across the creek, the yellow bench with its chintz cushions beneath the willow tree beckoned to us on that hot summer day.  

Common prepositions include: of, in, to, for, with, on, at, from, by, about, as, into, like, through, after, over, between, out, against, during, without, before, under, around, among, above, across

Conjunctions are one or two words used to connect words/phrases together or to connect clauses. There are four main types of conjunctions. It is not necessary to distinguish them, except for punctuation purposes, but it is important to recognize that all types ‘conjunct’ words, phrases, or clauses.

Coordinating and correlative conjunctions connect two words, phrases, or clauses with similar values. The most common include: and, but, or, yet, so, neither/nor, and either/or.

Tim and Susan are dating now.

The song is lyrical yet rhythmic at the same time

We will either go to the beach or to the pool.

Neither Abbi nor Graci stayed up till midnight.

The squirrel scurried up the tree trunk and onto a low branch.

She cooked the pie, but he made the coffee.

Subordinating conjunctions connect two clauses by making one into a subordinating (less important) clause. This type of conjunction include words like: after, if, because, and although.

I can go shopping after I finish grading your essays.

If you will hand me the glue, I can finish the project.

Because the night was young, Chris decided to take a walk.

Although you are late, I will still let you in!

Conjunctive adverbs work as conjunctions, but ONLY connect two independent clauses with specially punctuated words such as: however, nevertheless, furthermore, and therefore.

The other team sat with their backs to us; however, I could still hear them talking about how they expect to win.


Adjectives and Adverbs

Accompanying video: 

Traditionally, adjectives are words or phrases that ONLY modify nouns and pronouns.

They can be proper like English, Sumatran, or Halloween.

He accidentally left his English book at home.

If you like strong, smooth coffee, then you should try a Sumatran blend from Starbucks.

I cannot wait to order my Halloween costume online tomorrow! 

They are most often common like pretty, angry, or good.

The pretty flowers wilted almost immediately after he picked it.

She seemed angry after he chose someone else as his lab partner.

Tom felt good about switching to a vegetarian diet.

Numbers and colors are most often adjectives like one, thousand, blue, or reddish-orange.

There are over a thousand ants in one, small anthill.

The blue sky was quickly replaced with the reddish-orange of sunset.

These may also be words that are traditionally thought of as verbs. These verbs masquerading as adjectives are called participles. They can be almost any verb in present or past tense which is used for description rather than action. These words may be alone or may be in a phrase called a participial phrase.

Dismayed, she hobbled awkwardly on her swollen ankle.

Dismayed by her injury, she hobbled awkwardly on her swollen but apparently unbroken ankle. 

Some prepositional phrases serve as modifiers for nouns and pronouns. In these cases they are considered adjectival. These phrases should always be directly before or after the noun or pronoun being modified in order to avoid confusion. 

The book with the blue cover is a collector’s edition.

Lastly, there are adjective clauses: a group of words that contains separate subjects and verbs from the key sentence, WHILE serving as a dependent description. Comma rules will be addressed later.

The bunny who is nicknamed Carmi is quite spoiled.

Pizza, which I happen to love, is not very healthy.

Those people whose names are not on the list do not need to stay for remediation.

I cannot imagine what it was like with no internet.

My dog, who usually loves attention, always shied away from my neighbor. 

Adverbs are words or phrases that modify verbs, adjectives, AND other adverbs.

There are two ‘tricks’ to help identify adverbs. Firstly, MOST words that end in -ly are adverbs, but only about half of adverbs end in -ly. Secondly, adverbs generally answer the questions where, when, and how. 

Adverb a verb modifier.

She slowly stopped.

The meeting is held there.

After his injury, he ran carefully.

Adverb as an adjective modifier.

He is always pragmatic.

She was extremely nervous about the test.

The artist painted extra decoratively for the premiere.

Adverb as an adverb modifier.

Chris runs very rapidly.

Her teacher speaks overly loudly.

     We are almost there.

Adjective Practice: 

Adverb Practice: 


Video about verbals: 

When a verb is used as a noun, adjective, or an adverb, it is called a verbal. It may be a single word, but it generally comes with modifiers as a phrase. There are three types of verbals/verbal phrases.

Participle/participial phrase: the past or present tense form of a verb that acts as an adjective (see section on adjectives). The distinguishing feature of these phrases is that, like prepositional phrases, these are NOT necessary for sentence comprehension/structure.

Limping, Lisa favored her aching knee.

Confused, Kathy returned to grading essays.

Traveling quickly, we only saw the the main tourist traps.

Gerund/gerund phrase: present tense verbs that take the place of nouns in sentences. The important feature of these phrases is that these ARE necessary for sentence comprehension/structure.

Drinking coffee is my favorite thing!

Some people make brewing coffee into an art.

My favorite hobby is watching documentaries.

Michelle is incapable of memorizing poems.

Infinitive/infinitive phrase:  the infinitive form of a verb that can work as a noun, adjective, or adverb in a sentence, but is easily distinguishable by its ‘to’ plus a word that is usually a verb.

The angry student decided to rebel.

Our bus to the tournament is about to leave.

To get there on time, we need to leave immediately.



Video lesson: 

A clause is a group of words with its own subject and verb. The clause may be able to stand alone as a sentence (independent clause) or it may be dependent upon the sentence in order to make sense (subordinate clause). There are three basic types of subordinate clauses: adjective, adverb, and noun clauses.

An adjective clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a noun or pronoun just like other adjectives and adjectival phrases. It is distinguished as a clause because it contains its own subject/verb

Anyone who reads about paleontology will find it interesting.

I just finished reading the book that you loaned me.

An adverb clause is a subordinate clause that modifies verbs, adjectives, and adverbs just like other adverbs.

When you finish the book, you should begin your worksheet.

Some people seem happy wherever they are.

Faster than the eye could follow, the bunny darted away.

A noun clause is a subordinate clause that acts as a noun. Just like in the case of gerunds, the sentence will NOT make sense without the entire clause.

Whoever is last must clean the kitchen.

Please invite whomever you want to the concert.


More Practice: 


Video tutorial: 

Unfortunately, on an electronic platform it is impossible for me to fully demonstrate the sentence diagram, BUT we can at least practice labelling the sentence. You will need to use the printed version of Top-Down in order to see and practice diagrams.

Remember, The two key patterns we use over and over are either transitive or intransitive sentences. The type of verb (action or linking) and the way it influences the second half of the sentence determines which sentence pattern the independent clause, or sentence, will follow. If we were drawinf lines, all of the necessary parts of the sentence would be above the line and all of the descriptors would be drawn below it. Here we will simply label all parts of each sentence. 

Here is the basic, declarative, intransitive sentence pattern.

                   subject    verb subject complement

         The bunny looks adorable!

Adding modifiers does nothing to change the key parts of a sentence.

 ADJ       ADJ    S                 (PREP)               V                 ADV       SC

The black bunny (with the fluffy ears) looks unbelievably adorable

Changing the sentence type to interrogative might change the order of the key components, but it does not change the parts.

     V         ADV ADJ    S      V          SC

Doesn’t the bunny look adorable

With an action verb that is intransitive, the pattern is simple.

ADJ        S            V              (PREP)

The bunny looked (at the carrots).

Filling the sentence with modifiers changes nothing about the pattern.

ADJ      ADJ         S      (ADJ CLAUSE)           V               (PREP)

The fluffy bunny (who is adorable) looked (at the carrots) 

<PART>     (PREP)   (PREP)

<given (to him) (by his owners)>.

Here is the basic, declarative, transitive sentence pattern:

subject  verb (indirect object) direct object

   She makes her bunny homemade treats.

Making it a question or adding modifiers does not change the pattern.

   (Prep)                       S             V       ADJ ADJ       IO Appositive    ADJ 

(At the pet expo), Chef Burney made her pet bunny, Bunnicula, all 

      ADJ      ADJ           DO

natural homemade treats. 

Pre-Diagram Review: 

Diagram Warmup: 

Diagram Practice: 

The first half of the suggested grammar review, sentence parts is complete and the second half, common sentence errors follows. In order to practice with sentence structure more, here are links in order of review complexity for extra practice:









Noun and Verb Errors

Always look for the correct forms of proper, common, and collective nouns; watch for a change from singular to plural between nouns and verbs; and be able to identify and correct shifting verb tenses.

A proper noun is a word in a sentence that names a specific person, place, or thing. While a common noun is the non-specific noun. Proper nouns AND common nouns may be singular OR plural; however, proper nouns are capitalized and may include multiple words working as one.

Your second semester teacher, Mr. Hunt, will not start at Great Bridge High School until after the fall semester

A collective noun may be proper or common, but is used (most often) to refer to a group of people or things. This is important when determining noun/pronoun and noun/verb agreement in regard to singular or plural usage.

The team competes in a tournament next week; however, all of the teams are not included.

As discussed in Unit I, the verb of a sentence may be a single word or a phrase that includes the main verb and helping verbs. It is easiest to treat verbs, whether one word or a phrase, as one unit.

You will find that final exams are less stressful if you have been studying throughout the course. Let’s prepare together!

Aside from the differences between active and linking, there are a few other points about verbs. For instance, if the subject of a sentence is singular, then the verb must also be singular and if the subject of a sentence is plural then the verb must also be. Nouns which are singular do NOT end in ‘s’, while nouns which are plural DO end in ‘s’. Collective nouns are treated as singular. On the other hand, verbs which are singular DO end in ‘s’ and verbs which are plural do NOT end in ‘s’. Yes, this means that they look the opposite in regard to the use of the suffix ‘s’. There are, of course, always exceptions with nouns due to irregular spellings, and with verbs in certain tenses.

Ryan is late, but his twin sisters are on time.

Dogs need chew toys.

Clancy loves his yak milk chew the best.

Abbi and Graci dance ballet, but Ryan takes karate.

The last common point about verbs is that they should NOT shift tenses within the same sentence. This means that if a sentence begins with a verb in one tense (present, past, or future), all verbs should mirror that, unless there is a very clear shift in perspective.

Because her first appointment ran over, she just grabbed a granola bar and raced to the meeting without lunch.

He stoked the fire, grabbed a marshmallow, stuck it with a stick, and roasted it.


Fused Sentences and Fragments

Lesson video: 

A sentence or independent clause contains at least a subject and a predicate and which expresses a complete thought.

After months of training, my friend entered and ran the Rock and Roll Marathon in Virginia Beach last year.

I waited on the sidelines and cheered like a good friend with no desire to run does!

Separate two independent consecutive clauses in one of three ways.

Period- It was much tougher than he had expected. He made it to the finish line where I waited.

Comma and coordinating conjunction- It was much tougher than he had expected, but he made it to the finish line where I waited.

Semicolon- It was much tougher than he had expected; he made it to the finish line where I waited.

The comma splice (use of a comma between coordinate main clauses not connected by a conjunction) and the fused sentence or run-on (two independent clauses run together without an appropriate conjunction or punctuation) deprive readers of a warning signals and cause them to re-read for comprehension.

Comma splice- A clarinet has an almost cylindrical tube, an oboe has a conical pipe.

Correct- A clarinet has an almost cylindrical tube, but an oboe has a conical pipe.

Fused sentence- I go to concerts often Bach is my favorite composer.

Correct- I go to concerts often; Bach is my favorite composer.

An incomplete sentence or fragment is a phrase punctuated like a sentence (independent clause), but which does not contain a clear subject, verb, and/or complete thought.

To hear the band play. (no subject or predicate)

Listened carefully and happily. (no subject)

The parade coming around the bend. (no predicate)


Subject and Verb Agreement

Accompanying lesson: 

If the subject of a sentence is singular then the verb WILL also be singular, but this means it will end in an ‘s’. If the subject is plural, then the verb will also be plural and will NOT end in ‘s’. (Yes, this is the opposite of noun forms, so it can be confusing.)

This bracelet, unlike that one, costs far less.

Rocks formed from molten magma are igneous.

Many times, if English is your first language, you can ‘hear’ the correct match, but if the sentence has phrases between the subject and verb or if it is an inverted sentence, then even that ‘edge’ will not help. For complex sentences, it is necessary to remember the rules, be able to identify the subject and verb, and to know the proper form.

The point of several students is that we didn’t have time!

The trees in the park were allowed to grow wild.

Where does the committee meet for formal rulings?

There is the toy your puppy loved last time.

The conjunctions 'neither/nor' and 'either/or' are considered singular as long as the noun closest to the verb is singular. (Note the use of the singular pronoun as well: in this case ‘his’ indicates that both the counselor and the teacher have been identified in a previous sentence as men.) On the other hand, those singular nouns connected with the conjunction 'and' produce a compound subject which is considered plural. 

Neither the counselor nor the teacher was told that his job was in danger.

Abbi and her sister like to take dance classes during the summer.

A range of indefinite pronouns which are commonly used as subjects are considered either singular or plural. You may look up extensive lists and memorize them, but understanding the basic premise is much easier. The general idea is that those indefinite pronouns ending in -one, -body, or -thing are considered singular (someone, everybody, anything....) while those that imply multiple people are plural (few, most, some…).

Everything on these shelves appearing on your list needs to be catalogued.

Many of the staff members have gone on record saying that the new policies in the executive branch have had an adverse effect on workplace morale.

Don’t forget that collective nouns like team, group, herd, and class, are treated as singular as long as it is obvious they are referring to the grouping as one whole.

The team from his school expects to finish the season undefeated.



Video version: 

Pronouns are words that replace nouns and there are a number of ways in which they can be used incorrectly. One instance is choosing the CASE: subjective, objective, or possessive.

Subjective or nominative personal pronouns are those used as subjects of clauses. These most commonly include: he, she, we, they, I, you, it.

They will be there by noon, but we will be there before 11:00.

Objective personal pronouns are used as direct objects, indirect objects, and objects of the preposition in clauses. These most commonly include: him, her, us, them, me, you, it.

Don’t bother calling her; Amy has a major paper due tomorrow.

If you give the project to us, Mr. Smith will have it by Friday.

Possessive personal pronouns denote possession. These serve as adjectives in sentences and include most often the following: his, hers, ours, theirs, mine, my, yours, its.

That is her dark blue notebook; your notebook is a slightly lighter blue.

Is this a slice of his chocolate chess pie or my pie?

Pronouns must agree with the antecedent (the noun to which the pronoun references), in gender (male/female), and in number (singular/plural). Most singular and plural personal pronouns are clear, but indefinite pronouns need attention. Some singular, indefinite pronouns are: anybody, anyone, anything, each, each one, either/or, neither/nor, everybody, everyone, everything, nobody, no one, nothing, somebody, someone, and something. Some plural indefinite pronouns are: both, few, many, and several.

Susan played her guitar instead of listening.

Simon and Justin are also not completing their work.

Either Mabel or Lucy will turn in her assignment first.

Everyone should complete his or her own responsibilities.

Pronouns should not change point of view (1st, 2nd, 3rd). First person pronouns refer to one’s self like I, me, we, and our. Second person references the reader via you, your, yours, and yourself. Third person may use all forms of personal pronouns like he, she, they, him, her, them and also indefinite pronouns like one or some.

I was tired, and so I ordered a cappuccino. (1st)

You should not judge other people’s caffeine consumption. (2nd)

They ordered the same thing he had ordered. (3rd)

Be sure to use the clear/correct forms of demonstrative pronouns (this, these), interrogative pronouns (what, which, where, when, why, how), reciprocal pronouns (each other, one another), relative pronouns (which, that, who, whom, and whose), and reflexive pronouns (myself, ourselves, yourself, herself, himself, itself, themselves). It is not necessary to remember all these types of pronouns, but rather to just remember a few quick rules about these pronouns.

Use that when the subsequent words define or describe something essential to the meaning or if referencing a thing or animal:

Those are the dishes that need to be put away.

That is a Jack Russell puppy!

Use which if the words that follow give information that isn’t crucial to the meaning:

Those dishes, which once belonged to my grandmother, need to be put away.

Who is a subject and whom is an object; both of them refer to people:

Who made those colorful posters?

To whom does this pen belong?

Reflexive pronouns should ONLY be used to refer to the grammatical subject of the sentence. I suggest that if you are in doubt, rewrite your sentence to exclude the reflexive pronoun.

We will be going to the city by ourselves. (correct)

Myself wrote every word of the paper. (incorrect)

A final point about pronouns is that they should be clear and not overused: an issue called vague pronoun reference. In these cases, we do not know to whom the pronoun is referring. 

The jury will render her verdict tomorrow.

Correct: The Jury will render Jane Johnson's verdict tomorrow.

Jack told Jill she would meet them at the hill.

Correct: Jack told Jill, Little Bo Peep would meet them at the hill.

She was too tired to drive, so she told her she would not leave until the next day.

Correct: Margy was too tired to drive, so Margy told Katie that she would not leave until the nest day.


Photo by Darya Jum on Unsplash 

Adjectives, Adverbs, and Wordiness

Accompanying video: 

Generally, these are simple, descriptive parts of sentences; however, there are some common errors of which you should be aware.

Adjective forms of words should ONLY describe nouns and pronouns. These adjectives may be compound (and if so are generally hyphenated: blue-green, fifty-two), comparative words ending in -er and -est), participial (words ending in -ed that are traditionally verbs, but describe instead), or entire phrases (participle and preposition) and adjective clauses, but they should always be near the noun/pronoun they modify.

The twenty-six members of the school board voted for the proposed amendment. (compound, participial)

Her purse was heavier than her book bag! (comparative)

Adverbs describe verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs by answering the questions how, when, and where. Linking verbs do not take adverbs, but action verbs do. In that instance, adverbs may be separated from the verb in the sentence, but will be offset by commas. Adverbs may be one word (particularly words that denote when, where, and end in -ly) , a phrase (prepositional), or an adverb clause. 

Yesterday, we bought a new coffee machine.

Where did you put the directions?

The coffee will hopefully be worth the price of the machine!

There are some adverbs and adjectives that are confused. One example is good versus well. Good is an adjective and so should only describe nouns and pronouns, while well is an adverb.

As an adjective: You did a good job.

As an adverb: You did the job well.

Other examples of commonly confused adjectives/adverbs are: easy/easily, late/lately, hard/hardly, and most/mostly.

It's easy to fail a test, but you can easily perform better by studying.

After lunch will be too late to finish the daily projects, so lately I have begun starting work immediately after breakfast.

Learning a new skill can be hard, but that is hardly a reason to not even try!

Most of the time I am late to meetings, but that is mostly because I always have work I am trying to finish ahead of time.

A last point about modifiers is associated with comparisons. The following are the key points to remember when correctly writing or correcting sentences that make comparisons.

1) More or -er is used for comparing TWO things while most or -est is used for comparing THREE or more things.

Of the two sisters, Janie swims more quickly while Marnie dives better.

But of all of the members on the swim team, Tammy has the strongest crawl stroke.

2) State comparisons fully.

Automakers worry about their industry more than environmentalists worry about their industry.

3) Items being compared should be comparable.

The cost of an electric car is greater than a gasoline-powered car.

4) Use ‘any’ or ‘any other’ appropriately.

Incorrect: Los Angeles is larger than any other city in Canada.

Correct: Los Angeles is larger than any other city in the United States.

5) Comparisons should state what is being compared.

Incomplete: Brand X gets clothes whiter.

Complete: Brand X gets clothes whiter than Brand Y.

6) Fewer and less present a serious difficulty in American English because it is used incorrectly daily. Technically, signs in stores should read ‘10 Items or Fewer.’ Less refers to things that cannot be physically counted like sunlight or raindrops while few or fewer refers to items that can be counted like desks or cookies.  

Today is less sunny than yesterday.

There are fewer sunflowers in the garden now.

Wordiness can also be a problem with adjectives and adverbs. Too many or unclear adjectives disrupt sentence flow. Overuse of or repeated use of adverbs make sentences seem clumsy.

Is it a true fact that the ozone layer is being depleted?

Some are very somewhat similar to American varieties.


Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

Video lesson: 

Sometimes an adjectival phrase, usually a prepositional or participial phrase, is not placed next to the noun or pronoun it modifies (describes). This can lead to sentences that are misleading and/or confusing. It is important to have all modifiers of nouns and pronouns, whether a word or a phrase, directly before or after the word it modifies. This is considered a misplaced modifier because the descriptive phrase is out of place.

Misplaced: The house was broken into that he recently purchased. 

Correct: A thief broke into the house that he recently purchased.

Misplaced: The author signed autographs with a hat on his head.

Correct: The author with a hat on his head signed autographs.

Misplaced: Damaged in the accident, Susan saw her moped in the repair Shop.

Correct: Susan saw her moped that had been damaged in the accident in the repair shop.

Sometimes, a modifier is present without the true noun or pronoun it modifies in the sentence at all. This is considered a dangling modifier because the phrase is ‘hanging out’ in the sentence with nothing attaching it to the sentence. This creates sentences that are confusing.

Dangling: Having finished the assignment, the TV was turned on.

Correct: Having finished the assignment, my younger brother turned on the tv.

Dangling: Having arrived late for class, a written excuse was needed.

Correct: Having arrived late for class, Tommy had a written excuse ready.

Dangling: Hoping to garner favor, my parents were unimpressed with the Gift.

Correct: Hoping to garner favor, my fiance gave my gifts a thoughtful present: my parents were unimpressed!

Dangling modifier: Hungry, the leftover pizza was devoured.

Correct: Hungry, the kids devoured the leftover pizza!


Photo by Darya Jum on Unsplash 

Faulty Parallelism and Passive Sentences

Video lesson: coming soon

Parallelism refers to the position and relation of words, meanings, and forms of words in a sentence. The phrases in a sentence must be parallel in agreement, direction, and comparison. Faulty parallelism can cause sentences to be wordy and can make meanings unclear. It is easiest to look at examples of this via examples.

Faulty: In the mall, she bought boots, stockings, and found some gloves. (verb change)

Correct: In the mall, she bought boots, stockings, and gloves.

Faulty: There are many unusual species in the forest and at the dry areas. (preposition shift and type of noun)

Correct: There are many unusual species in the forests and deserts

Faulty: In a burst of emotion, the actor smiled, was snarling, grimacing, and whimpered. (changes in tense)

Correct: In a burst of emotion, the actor smiled, snarled, grimaced, and whimpered.

Faulty: The lawyer insisted that her job requires more hours than a teacher. (the comparison is left unfinished)

Correct: The lawyer insisted that her job requires more hours than a teacher’s job requires.

Declarative sentences that are correctly, and formally written, should follow a basic sentence pattern of subject, verb, and object in addition to direct verb tenses. Sentences written in this way are considered active. There are three clear instances when a sentence is does not do those things and is considered passive. As a writer, you want to AVOID using sentences like these passive examples.

1) If the person or thing that is doing the action is buried in the sentence after the verb.

Passive: A car was parked in our driveway by a stranger.

2) If there is no clear subject that is directly capable of doing the action of the verb.

Passive: A strange car parked in our driveway.

3) If the verb phrase is linking when it could be action and/or is indirect and includes multiple helping verbs.

Passive: A stranger seemed to have parked his car in our driveway.

Passive: A strange car must have been parked in our driveway.

Good sentences are active with the subject before the verb and without lengthy verb phrases. When testing, correcting, or writing, always choose active sentence patterns.

Active: A stranger parked his car in our driveway.



Accompanying video: 

Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses in a series. Using a comma before the ‘and’ in the series is called the ‘Oxford comma.’ Its use is not mandatory, but may or may not be preferred by teachers and editors. It is used in grammar texts. 

I studied the notes, textbook, and previous tests for the final exam.

Florida had been in the hands of the French, the Spanish, and the English.

Use commas to separate adjectives of equal rank.

The mountain’s wild, lush scenery attracts tourists every year.

She left detailed, precise instructions for the babysitter.

Use a comma after an introductory word, phrase, or clause.

No, I will not go on vacation with you this year! Of course, I will consider it for next year.

In the deep recesses of the couch, I found the ring I had lost. Quite obviously, I was stressed until I found it!

Use commas to set off nonessential phrases (a phrase that is out of order and/or not grammatically necessary), but NOT essential ones (a phrase that is in the proper place/order and is necessary to the meaning of the thought/sentence).

Nonessential- Joanne, my friend, went to the University of Ohio.

Essential- My friend Joanne went to the University of Ohio.

Nonessential- Mrs. Geoff, wearing the red dress, took the students on the field trip. 

Essential- The teacher wearing a red dress took the students on the field trip.

Commas are needed when a geographical name or date is made up of two or more parts, when a name is followed by one or more titles, and when an address consists of two or more parts.

The cheese was shipped from Starkville, Mississippi on May 11, 2019.

The shipping address was 1300 University Lane, Starkville, MS 39759. 

Use a comma after the greeting in a personal letter and after a salutation in all letters:

Dear Abby,

I do not know what to do.



Use commas with quotations (more about quotations later). 

The guest asked, “Do you know where the nearest convenient store is?” 

“If you turn left,” said the receptionist, “you will come to a 7-Eleven in about two miles.” 

Use commas correctly in numbers.

The condominium actually sold for just over $100,000!

With the upgrades you requested, the vehicle will cost you $25,698.

My friend’s high school is the largest in the area, with a student body of 3,152 students.

They sold 1,756 tickets, just shy of the 2,000 thay had hoped to sell.

Use a comma before the conjunction to separate two  independent clauses (comma splice). Watch for conjunctions elsewhere in sentences.

We read about Cancun, then we wrote our report on it. 

Although you may have visited that region of Mexico, we learned even more about it through our research.


Semi-Colons and Colons

Video version: coming soon

These punctuation devices are an important part of sentence structure, but are used sparingly in American English. It is easiest to understand their key uses and to avoid them outside of these main uses.

A semicolon is used to join independent clauses that are not joined by a conjunction and a comma.

My mother works in a hospital; she is not a doctor or nurse.

My aunt and uncle have five dogs; they have three dachshunds and two poodles.

Use semicolons (and a comma) to join independent clauses separated by a transitional expression.

A cloudless, blue sky dawned that morning; nevertheless, a hurricane was just off the coast.

We had to fit twenty people at the table; as a result, no one had any elbow room.

Use semicolons between complex items in a series

I gave coffee gift cards to Mr. Hobbes, my science teacher; 

Mrs. Johnson, the librarian; and Mr. Tompson, my P.E. coach. 

A colon is used as an introductory device.

You must bring the following items to the senior class picnic: potato or macaroni salad, chips and dip, a desert. 

A colon introduces a formal or lengthy quotation.

The speaker began with these words: “I have never had the privilege of speaking before such a distinguished group.”

Mom walked angrily to the door and then turned: “Your excuse is unacceptable and you are grounded for a week.”

Use a colon to introduce a sentence or phrase that restates.

His spaghetti sauce lacked the most vital ingredient: he forgot the hamburger meat!

Our tour guide took us by some beautiful spots: the rose gardens, formal ponds, and fountains.

The colon also has some specialized uses.

I awoke at exactly 5:22 a.m.

Mr. Johnson said to use National Geographic 4:8 in order to find the information we need for the project.

Dear Mr. Hartman:


Hyphens, Dashes, and Quotations

Teaching video: 

The ways to use these three punctuation marks are limited and very specific. As with semicolons and colons, learn the key uses and use sparingly.

First, hyphens must never be used interchangeably with dashes, which are noticeably longer. Second, there should not be spaces around hyphens. Third, hyphenate two or more words when they come before the noun they modify AND act as a single idea. This is called a compound adjective. A hyphen is frequently required when forming original compound verbs for vivid writing, humor, or special situations.

He lived in an off-campus apartment.

Our new school contained state-of-the-art design to accentuate the latest technology.

My brother video-gamed his way through life.

Secondly, dashes indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought. Words and phrases between dashes are not considered part of the subject. Dashes are visibly longer than hyphens.

Joeand his trusty muttwas always welcome.

The Ames Sentineldated May 1, 2013arrived in June.

Lastly, now is a good time to add in a refresher about quotation marks. We have looked at them while working with other forms of punctuation, but it is always important to look at them specifically. In formal, American English, the rules are short and clear; however, do not be confused by slight deviations when reading journalistic-style writing or formal writing in other English dialects.

One key concept about punctuation and quotations is that punctuation is always used after tag-lines (the ‘he/she said part) and INSIDE quotation marks.

The guest asked, “Do you know where the nearest book store is?”

Quotations are also used for titles; however, not all titles. The titles of larger published pieces such as novels, plays, albums, periodicals, and anthologies are NOT written with quotation marks: instead they are typed in italics or underlined if handwritten. Titles of smaller works such as poems, songs, and chapters are set apart with quotation marks.

“I want to buy the latest edition of The New Yorker,” he added.

“If you turn left,” said the receptionist, “you will come to a Books-a-Million in about two miles.”

Quotations may also be inside quotations. For instance, if someone is speaking and they quote someone else and/or mention a work that needs quotation marks, then the marks INSIDE are single. Note that other punctuation marks still fall inside the single and normal quotation marks. Also note that where other forms of punctuation are used before a tagline, a comma is NOT needed!

“Thanks so much!”

“Hey!” she added as I turned to leave. “Be sure to check out the article in The New Yorker, ‘Life After Election Day.’ ”