The Write Stuff--Part 6: Grammar

Did you go to grammar school? I did, but my daughter didn't. By the time Becky's mornings with Sesame Street were reprogrammed to accommodate public education, she was officially enrolled in elementary school--at least that's what Massachusetts and New York called the first 6 to 8 years of reading, writing, arithmetic and dodgeball.

I'm wondering if grammar is part of that "elementary" curriculum. After 37 years of reviewing young adults' résumés, reports, manuscripts and memos, I'd have to say no--at least not to the extent it was in the 1950s and '60s. Writing at an eighth-grade level used to be a prerequisite for high school; now it seems to be the endpoint of formal education. That's why this month's column confronts the "grammar gap"--the difference between casual self-expression and prose fit for publication.

What is grammar, anyway? My dictionary defines it as "the form and structure of words." For example, "Its important to write good" contains two grammatical errors: Its should be It's--a contraction for It is, instead of the possessive form of It; and good should be well--an adverb modifying write. I wouldn't want to say how many times I've encountered those mistakes; I might discourage you.

Another element of composition is syntax, "the arrangement of and relationship among words." Grammar and syntax usually are linked; it's rare to read a manuscript where one is fine and the other is fractured. Syntax is more subjective than grammar and, therefore, harder to teach. Like movies and music, sometimes what's bad is easier to spot than what's good.

If you want to write for publication, you have to confront the nuances of syntax and the rules of grammar. That's a lifelong exercise, but maybe I can help by highlighting a few common errors:

1. Sentences are supposed to express complete thoughts. Readers should be able to distinguish a subject, an action and perhaps an object. "I filled the E tank with propane. Instead of oxygen." incorrectly elevates a clause, "Instead of oxygen," to sentence status. A good way to verify the appropriateness of a sentence is to ask yourself, is it self-sufficient? Or does it depend on another sentence, like what I just wrote? (Memo to aspiring writers: Starting a sentence with And, But or So, although grammatically incorrect, isn't a bad thing once in a while.)

2. Commas, colons, semicolons and dashes--that's a column by itself. Indications and differentials for those punctuation marks are often subtle and subjective. Here are some guidelines:

  • Use commas before conjunctions (e.g., and, but) introducing independent clauses--phrases that could stand alone as sentences, without the conjunctions.
  • Separate items in lists with commas, as I did at the beginning of this section.
  • Use commas before and after dependent clauses--phrases that aren't complete enough to form sentences.
  • Colons signal readers that the author is about to amplify or illustrate the preceding clause, after a pause. "Two things I don't like about my paycheck are: taxes and not enough zeros" doesn't need a colon, but "There are two things I don't like about my paycheck: taxes and not enough zeros" does.
  • Semicolons can be used to join independent clauses; however, I'm tempted to suggest you keep that simple by forming two sentences instead. I could have done that here.
  • Dashes are analogous to diagnoses of exclusion--what doctors favor when nothing else fits. Usually, we use dashes as substitutes for verbal pauses--or whatever. (Sorry, I was just looking for another reason to use a dash.)

3. Use single quotation marks inside double quotation marks; for example, "I looked at my partner and said, 'I thought you had the keys.'"

4. Have a bias for active, rather than passive forms of speech. The latter are wordy and more awkward. "I'm reminded of the time I was told by a patient that she did not want to be intubated by me" should be shortened and simplified: "I remember a patient who said, 'Don't intubate me!'"

5. How about homonyms--words that sound alike but have different meanings?

  • There vs. their vs. they're: "There are medics who think they're doctors, but their paychecks are much smaller" illustrates use of all three, but leaves us wondering whether their refers to medics or doctors (an example of another common problem).
  • Here vs. hear: "I hear the rules here don't allow eating while driving."
  • To vs. too: The latter is a synonym for also.
  • Then vs. than: "Then my instructor reminded me, 'You're not allowed to choose more than one answer to each question.'"
  • Affect vs. effect: Both can be verbs or nouns, but effect is usually the latter and affect the former in EMS, unless you're commenting on someone's affect--i.e., his or her way of responding to a situation or condition.
  • Except vs. accept: "I accept your suggestions, except the one about Thai food for breakfast."

6. The word most often misspelled? I vote for weird, often appearing as wierd. Just remember the rule "I before E, except after C, and other places."

7. Please don't use irregardless in place of regardless. I know, irregardless is in some dictionaries, but so are discussant and retardate. You're not planning to use either of those, are you?

8. Try not to start sentences with Hopefully. Lots of people do, but that doesn't make it right. Hopefully means doing something with hope. "Hopefully, the night shift cleaned up after that GI bleed" means the night shift not only scrubbed the rig, but did so in a hopeful state of mind. That's asking a lot.

You'll find most of the above and much more in The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White. I've relied on that slender but indispensible book during 40 years of manuscript management. Whether you mean to be a serious writer or just want to fine-tune informal correspondence, invest $10 in the latest version. You won't regret it.

Speaking of style, in part 7 we'll discuss how to establish your own.


1. Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th ed. Wiley, 2002.

2. Strunk W, White E. The Elements of Style, 4th ed. Longman Publishers, 2000.

  • Part 1: Introduction--goals, philosophy, agenda.
  • Part 2: Getting started--generating ideas, choosing topics and planning content.
  • Part 3: Developing publishing contacts; submitting queries and proposals to editors.
  • Part 4: Language, structure, essential elements of composition.
  • Part 5: Using protected material--references, citations, quotations, graphics.
  • Part 6: Grammar--common mistakes.
  • Part 7: Establishing your style.
  • Part 8: Self-critique--reviewing, rewriting, polishing.
  • Part 9: Editors and editing.
  • Part 10: Summary.
  • Part 11: Case study--development of the December 2011 Life Support column for EMS World.

Mike Rubin, BS, NREMT-P, is a paramedic in Nashville, TN, and a member of EMS World's editorial advisory board. Contact him at