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Grammar & Mechanics


Apostrophes are most commonly used in 4 ways.

I. The first way an apostrophe is used is to signal possession.

The apostrophe follows the name of the owner.
• The committee's decision
• The child's book
• Somebody's chess set
• The children's diapers
• Thomas's toys

These are all examples of times when ownership is signaled by using an apostrophe followed by a -s.

II. The next way also signals ownership, yet it shows possession for plural nouns
already ending in -s.

• The students' suggestions (More than one student)
• My friends' ambition (More than one friend)

Note: When a word ends in -s with a z pronunciation, an apostrophe alone is sometime used: Charles' mother

III. The third way to use an apostrophe is with contractions. In a contraction, the apostrophe appears where letters are omitted. To test whether you put the apostrophe in the correct place, mentally replace the missing letters.

• Can't (cannot)
• Didn't (did not)
• He's (he is)
• They're (they are)

IV. Use -‘s for a plural form in only two instances. Use -‘s for plural forms of letters of the alphabet. Italicize only the letter of the alphabet, not the plural ending.

• Joe loved to eat the J's out of his alphabet soup.
• He had a strange problem of spelling hat with two t's.

And use -‘s to refer to the plural word itself. Again, italicize the word, but not the

• You have used to many but's in that sentence.

Note: Yours, ours, its, theirs, his, hers, and whose are seven possessive pronouns; thus they need no apostrophe.

Comma Guide

Commas and periods are the most frequently used punctuation marks. Commas customarily indicate a brief pause; they're not as final as periods.Commas are used in sentences on paper the same way that pauses are used in speech-to clarify and convey meaning. Commas often fall in a sentence where there is a natural pause. Reading a sentence aloud can be an effective way to determine these pauses.
There are many more specific rules to follow as well. Here is a list of common rules:

1. Put commas after introductory elements coming before the main sentence.

a. Put commas after introductory adverb clauses. These clauses begin with words like while, when, but, although, and like, among others.

-When I ride my bike, I never fall down.

-Although the vote was a close one, Kennedy beat Nixon.

b. Put commas after introductory -ing phrases.

-Foaming and splashing, the water crashed against the rocks.

-Running too fast, I slipped on the ice.

c. Put commas after introductory prepositional phrases.

-Without further ado, here is the Heisman Award winner.

-In today's society, money is the ultimate goal for many.

d. Put commas after introductory infinitive phrases. An infinitive is the word "to" plus a verb.

-To vote in America, a person must be eighteen years old.

-To be successful, you must have determination.

e. Put commas after other introductory phrases or words that could be misread or misunderstood.

-However, people do have successes without education.

-Beyond, the stars flashed in the dark space.

-Yes, he has made his choice.

f. Put commas after introductory conjunctive adverbs such as therefore, consequently, or moreover.

-Moreover, Sam's dog is most sleepy in the afternoon.

-Therefore, a hot tub in the writing center is necessary.

2. Put commas before these seven conjunctions when they connect two full sentences: AND, BUT, OR, NOR, FOR, SO, YET.

-I tried to run, but I kept falling down.

-The president is the leader, so he makes the final decisions.

*The only exception to this rule is when the two sentences are very short.

-I can run and I can walk.

3. Put commas around words or phrases that interrupt sentences.

-The man, however, was not fooled by the trick.

-The water, dashing against the rocks, foamed and splashed.

4. Put commas between words in a series of three or more.

-Some basic parts of speech are nouns, verbs, adverbs, and prepositions.

5. Put commas between adjectives if they could be reversed or separated by "AND." Adjectives with these characteristics are considered "independent" and therefore need to be separated be commas.

-The dashing, foaming, splashing waves hit the beach.

6. Commas are used in certain conventional places.

a. With numbers: St. Cloud has a population of 60,000.

b. With dates: Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990.

c. With addresses: John lives at 434 Court Ave., Delbert, ND, 55555.

d. With titles and degrees: My teacher is Jim James, Ph.D.

e. With direct quotations:

Mary said, "How are you?"
"Strangely enough," he said, "I am fine."

*No comma is used if the quote is very short: Billy said "No."

Hyphens & Dashes


A dash is made by typing two consecutive hyphens; word-processing programs will often fuse the hyphens into a single line like this 

Dashes have a variety of uses, all of which are to place emphasis in some way or another. Often the dash functions like a poor man's colon-it is less formal and creates less of a break in a sentence. The two main ways of using dashes are using a single dash and a using a pair of dashes.

1. A pair of dashes can be used around a non-essential clause in two ways:
a. to emphasize an interruption within a complete sentence. I must-I absolutely must-do my homework before I go to Loso's Main Street Pub.
b. to set off an appositive series that contains commas. There are many young female pop singers-Mandy Moore, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson-but Britney Spears reigns supreme over them all.

2. A single dash can be used to emphasize a word or group of words at the end of a sentence, usually in one of these three ways:

a. to summarize.

And then I regained consciousness-it had all been a flashback!

b. to lead into a final series.

The movie The Big Lebowski is a cinematic masterpiece-hilariously written, creatively filmed, and brilliantly acted.

c. to lead into an elaboration.

I'm glad I chose Saint John's University-the faculty is excellent, the classes are small, and the campus is beautiful.

*Note that the clauses appearing after a dash or in between a set of dashes do not change the meaning of a sentence-they only give additional information.

Quotation Marks

There are three different ways to introduce (or punctuate) quotations: with the comma, the colon, or nothing at all. Longer quotations (exceeding four complete typed lines) are set off from the text without quotation marks and are usually introduced by a colon or comma, while shorter quotations (four or fewer complete typed lines) are incorporated into the text and can be introduced by any one of the three methods of punctuation.

It is important to introduce every quotation--don't just drop a quotation in from nowhere so that it floats between your own text. In general, the lead-in for a direct quotation should identify both the person who is about to speak in the quotation and how the following quotation pertains to what you are writing or what you are about to write.

The Comma:
• Use a comma when it fits into the natural flow of the sentence, even if you are not quoting someone. It is used commonly after such words as asks, remarks, asserts, states, and concludes.
According to Forster, "the greatest writer ever was Dickens."

Forster states, "the greatest writer ever was Dickens."

As Stone asserts in The American Short Story, "it has been regarded as essentially trivial, a diversion."

The Colon:
• When a long quotation is formally introduced, it is usually preceded by a colon. Remember that in this situation the colon is like a period: it must have a complete sentence, or an independent clause, on both sides of it.
In his biography on Dickens' life and works, G. K. Chesterton has the following to say about Dickens' character:
For the essence of Dickens' character was that it was at once tremulous and yet hard and sharp, just as the bright blade of a sword is tremulous and yet hard and sharp. He vibrated at every touch and yet he was indestructible; you could bend him, but you could not break him (132).

• Quotations of verse are also usually preceded by a colon.
Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner concludes thus: "A sadder but wiser man, / He rose the morrow morn."

• If a quotation is woven into your sentence and the syntax of your sentence matches that of the quotation, then neither a comma nor a colon is needed. Note that your voice makes little or no pause before reading these quotations.

During its early years, St. John's gave its approbation to such student clubs as The Sodality of the Blessed Virgin because they promoted "practical piety" among the students.

Wilson countered the charge by saying that "there is never any reason for supposing that anybody but the governess sees the ghosts."


1. A sentence pattern includes a subject and a predicate. One common way of enlarging sentence patterns is by joining two sentence patterns with conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, or, yet, so. This makes a compound sentence.

Sentence Pattern , and Sentence Pattern
___________ , and ___________ 
___________ , but ___________ 

___________ , for ___________  
___________ , nor ___________ 

___________ , or ___________  
___________ , yet ___________ 

___________ , so ___________ 


Mary is laughing, but John is crying.
Mary cried, for she was hurt.
Away flew the paper, and up jumped the dog.
I couldn't tell Jesse how I felt about her, nor could I ignore my feelings any longer.

2. Another way to enlarge sentence patterns is to combine sentences by using conjunctive adverbs: then, therefore, however, thus, moreover, nevertheless, in fact, consequently, likewise, still, also, otherwise, for example, furthermore, instead, and others that act like them. The whole sentence is a compound sentence.

[Sentence pattern]; conjunctive adverb, [sentence pattern].

Mary is laughing; however, John is crying.
John was hurt; therefore, Mary cried.
Mary gave Jack the answer; thus, he passed the test.

Note: Unlike coordinating conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs can be moved around in the second sentence patterns:

"Mary is laughing; John, however, is crying." OR
"Mary is laughing; John is crying, however."

(While conjuncitve adverbs may come at the end of the sentence, they are usually found at the beginning or imbedded in the sentence).

3. Another way to enlarge sentence patterns is to use a subordinating word before one sentence pattern. Although several subordinates can be used with several different sentence patterns, a conventionally written sentence always has at least one sentence pattern without a subordinate word. The subordinate words are if, because, when, where, while, since, after, before, until, and other words that act like them. They usually make complex sentences.

[Subordinate word + sentence pattern], [sentence pattern]

Since Jack was hurt, Mary was crying. (note comma)
While Jack bunted the ball, the third baseman came up to make the play.
Although Mary gave Jack he answers, he failed the test.

[Sentence pattern] [subordinate word + sentence pattern]

Mary was crying since Jack was hurt. (notice there is no comma)
The third baseman came up to make the play while Jack bunted the ball.
Jack failed the test although Mary gave him the answers.

4. Another small group of subordinating words (who, whose, whom, which, that), called relative pronouns, introduce subordinate clauses functioning as adjectives.

Noun: [Subordinate word + sentence pattern]: verb:
Mary, who is my cousin, laughed.
The girl who is laughing is my cousin.

Sentence pattern: Subordinate word: Sentence pattern:
I knew whom you meant.
Jerry heard that she was his cousin.
I met the girl who is his cousin.


The Semicolon (;) is primarily used to express a close, two-way connection between two sentences; however, it also has a variety of other uses. Generally, semicolons can be used in six ways:

1. Semicolons link two closely related independent clauses. These clauses should be roughly equivalent in form, length, and importance. Several Writing Center tutors are leaving after this year; others will be returning next fall.

2. The semicolon is used when a conjunctive adverb (e.g. however, therefore, moreover) links the two clause. Several Writing Center tutors are graduating this year; however, others will be returning next fall.

3. A semicolon can be used in place of the comma before a coordinating conjunction (e.g. and, but, or, nor, for, yet, so) to avoid confusion when the sentence contains many commas. Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, and Phil Gramm are a bunch of bourgeois, conservative, capitalist pigs; and they should all be forced to live on a minimum wage salary for a year, buy groceries with food stamps, ride the bus to work, and try to provide day-care for two children.

4. Items in a simple series are separated by semicolons if the items contained internal commas. The Writing Center loses several experienced tutors this year, including Karen Ernst, Writing Center still-life artist; Tony Silva, booking agent extraordinaire; Andrea Williams, classical literature specialist; and Glen Tautges, ellipses engineer.

5. The semicolon is used between items in a scholarly series. Critics and scholars concur that Jane Austen's literary achievements rest on three uniquely wrought capacities: (1) her profoundly moral analysis of human foibles; (2) her keenly perceptive analysis of the social caste system of nineteenth-century England; and (3) her delicately pervasive wit and irony.

6. Semicolons are also used in elliptical constructions. This university's campus is beautiful; its teaching staff excellent; and its food generally non-lethal.

Below are some examples and explanations of common misuses of the semi-colon. The correct punctuation is in parentheses.

1. Between a subordinate clause and the rest of the sentence. Unless you brush your teeth within ten or fifteen minutes after eating;(,) brushing does almost no good.

2. Between an appositive and the word it refers to. Another delicious dish is the chef's special;(,) a roasted duck rubbed with spices and stuffed with wild rice.

3. To introduce a list. Some of my favorite film stars have home pages on the Web;(:) John Travolta, Susan Sarandon, Brad Pitt, and Emma Thompson.

4. Between independent clauses joined by AND, BUT, OR, NOR, FOR, SO, or YET. Five of the applicants had worked with spreadsheets; (,) but only one was familiar with database management.

Exceptions: If at least one of the independent clauses contains internal punctuation, you may use a semicolon even though the clauses are joined with a coordinating conjunction, as discussed earlier.

Topic Links


Comma Guide

Hyphens & Dashes

Quotation Marks



Additional Resources


Purdue Owl

Grammar Book

Grammar Girl

Texas A&M University Writing and Speaking Guide

NoRedInk - Grammar Exercises

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