The Dreaded FFG
With any luck, you’ll never see the dreaded FFG note in your Feedback for Mechanics. But if you violate the inviolable 14 Rules of Absolutely Essential Grammar and Punctuation, you can always check here to see where it is you went wrong.
Hidden in the Curriculum
We probably shouldn’t have to study grammar in College Composition II, but the fact is not everybody who gets this far into college is comfortable with grammar basics. We’ll review grammar basics in class only if necessary, but I will enforce strict standards for minimally correct writing in your Portfolios.
Fails for Grammar
Papers that violate these very basic rules will fail, at least temporarily, but you’ll have every opportunity to revise your work until your writing is error-free and worthy of a grade.
If your paper fails for basic grammar, I’ll refer you back to this post for advice on how to correct mistakes. I’ll add to this list of 14 basic rules if other errors show up in papers often enough to warrant a new rule.
Rule 1. There/Their/They’re
They’re has only one use. It’s a contraction for They are.
Example: They’re really tasty.
Their has only one use. It’s a possessive for Them.
Example: Their chips are really tasty.
There is used the rest of the time, as an adverb of place, or as a pronoun to introduce sentences.
Example: There are plenty of chips over there.
Rule 2. Its/It’s
It’s has only one use. It’s a contraction for It is.
Example: It’s a simple rule.
Its has only one use. It’s a possessive for It.
Example: Stand that baby on its head.
Rule 3. The reason is because
Because means for the reason that.
It’s repetitiously and repeatedly redundant to say that “the reason for something is because….”
Wrong: The reason he lost his license is because he got so many tickets for speeding and reckless driving.
Right: He lost his license because he got so many tickets for speeding and reckless driving.
Right: He lost his license by driving recklessly and speeding.
Rule 4A. Pronouns and Gender
It’s considered socially insensitive to automatically use male pronouns where a person’s gender is not known.
Socially insensitive: Be careful with your antecedents, or your reader will lose his place.
The common solution, of mixing a singular noun with a plural pronoun, however, is worse.
Grammatically incorrect: Be careful with your antecedents, or your reader will lose their place.
One correct but awkward solution is to alternate male and female pronouns in your writing.
Correct: Be careful with your antecedents, or your reader will lose her place.
Another solution is to stick with plurals.
Correct: Be careful with your antecedents, or your readers will lose their place.
Rule 4B: Pronouns and Number
Pronouns must agree in number with the nouns they represent. Singular nouns, like officer, cannot be represented by plural pronouns, like they.
Incorrect: It is unlikely that a police officer will admit that they used excessive force.
Correct but gender insensitive: It is unlikely that a police officer will admit that he used excessive force.
Correct but clumsy: It is unlikely that a police officer will admit that he or she used excessive force.
Correct: It is unlikely that police officers will admit that they used excessive force.
Correct because it eliminates the pronoun: Police officers rarely admit to using excessive force.
Incorrect: If the suspect suffers “great bodily harm,” they have the right to defend themselves.
Correct but gender insensitive: If the suspect suffers “great bodily harm,” he has the right to defend himself.
Correct but clumsy: If the suspect suffers “great bodily harm,” he or she has the right to defend himself or herself.
Correct: If the suspects suffer “great bodily harm,” they have the right to defend themselves.
Correct because it avoids the pronoun: Suspects who suffer “great bodily harm” have the right to self-defense.
Rule 5. Count and Noncount Nouns
Use the word number, not the word amount, to refer to things that can be counted, like votes. Use the word amount, not the word number, to refer to things that cannot be counted, like voting. The easy way to determine whether the noun can be counted or not is to apply the word many or much.
How many votes? Votes can be counted. Therefore we talk about the number of votes.
Correct: Early registration increased the number of votes cast in the last election: two million votes.
How much voting? Voting cannot be counted. Therefore we talk about the amount of voting.
Correct: Early registration increased the amount of voting in the last election: much more than last year.
Use the word fewer, not the word less, to refer to things that can be counted, like votes. Use the word less, not the word fewer, to refer to things that cannot be counted, like voting. The easy way to determine whether the noun can be counted or not is to apply the word many or much.
How many votes? Votes can be counted. Therefore we talk about more or fewer votes.
Correct: Fewer votes were cast this year than last year.
How much voting? Voting cannot be counted. Therefore we talk about more or less voting.
Correct: Less voting occurs in off-Presidential years than in Presidential-election years.
Rule 6. To/Too/Two
This one should be learned before high school.
Two has only one use. It’s a number.
Example: I’ll take two of those.
Too is a conjunction meaning and or in addition.
Example: I’d like one of those too.
Example: Too, I’d like one of those. (This use is rare.)
Too is also an adverb meaning excessive.
Example: Those kids are too cute.
To is used in every other case: to form infinitives, as a preposition to indicate place, or to mean roughly for the purpose.
Example: To get to London, to go to the concert, you’ll need to cross the bridge.
Rule 7. Periods and Commas Inside the Quotes
Always, always, always, always, always. Periods and commas always go inside the quotes.
Always: Election day is not just a “day,” but could really be called “election month.”
Never: Election day is not just a “day”, but could really be called “election month”.
Rule 8. Then/Than
Clear rules determine when these two words are used. They are in no way interchangeable.
Then: Used for time: “Then we had ice cream; now we have ice cream soup.”
Then: Used for consequence, with if: “If it melts, then we’ll have soup.”
Than: Used for comparisons only, such as finer: “Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina.”
Again, only with comparisons, such as all the other options: “Other than waiting, we had nothing to do.”
Rule 9. Affect/Effect
Affect (the verb) and Effect (the noun) are interchangeable about one time in a million. Forget about that one time; you’ll never need it. Instead, concentrate on the 999,999 times you’ll be correct by following this rule:
Affect: The cold does not affect me. Affect is a verb.
Effect: The cold has no effect on me. Effect is a noun.
Affect/Affectation: The cold does not affect me, but I pretend it does: it’s an affectation of mine. Affectation is the noun form of the verb affect. Effect has no “noun form” because it’s a noun!
(If you must know about that one time in a million, I’ll tell you, but I shouldn’t risk it: “To effect that change, we had to pull all his teeth.” The meaning of this use of effect is “to put it into effect.”)
Rule 10. Your/You’re
You’re has only one use. It’s a contraction for You are.
Example: You’re a fine writer.
Your has only one use. It’s a possessive adjective for You.
Example: Your writing is quite strong.
Rule 11. Single Quotes/Double Quotes
Other countries can do what they like, but in America, we use Double Quotes for everything!
Even if you’re just using quotes ironically, or for another special purpose, they’re always double, not single quotes.
Correct: McDonald’s “healthy menu” is meant as a joke.
Correct: The word “vague” shows up too often in my notes.
The only proper use of Single Quotes is inside Double Quotes.
Correct: “All our restaurants offer ‘healthy’ menu items,” said Ray Croc.
[You may also notice that newspaper headlines break the rule routinely by using single quotes in direct contradiction of your beloved professor’s Rule 11.]
Want some really good examples of complex situations?
Rule 12. The Banned 2nd Person
Although it’s technically not bad grammar, writing 2nd-person sentences that address the reader as “you” is banned from academic writing.
Incorrect: You are far more likely to be pulled over for speeding if you are a teenager.
Correct: Teenagers are far more likely to be pulled over for speeding.
Rule 13. Plurals and Possessives
Writers who make mistake the plural for a possessive once will often do so repeatedly. An occasional typo won’t trigger a Fails for Grammar, but pervasive errors will.
Incorrect: America is the worlds most obese nation.
Correct: America is the world’s most obese nation.
Correct: Earth is fine but there may be other worlds we could occupy.
The rule is only slightly more complicated when a plural is formed without an “s.”
Incorrect: Democracy is every citizens responsibility.
Incorrect: Democracy is the peoples’ responsibility.
Correct: Democracy is the people’s responsibility and every citizen’s privilege.
Correct: Democracy is strong when all citizens’ rights are observed.
Rule 14. Subject/Verb Agreement
Subjects must agree in number with their verbs. Most writers match nouns and verbs without difficulty.
Correct: Hunger in developing countries harms everyone.
Correct: Hunger and disease in developing countries harm everyone.
Correct: Hunger or disease in developing countries harms everyone.
More problematic are singular pronouns that some writers believe to be plural.
Singular: Everybody, everyone, everything.
Singular: Anybody, anyone, anything.
Singular: Somebody, someone, something.
Singular: Nobody, No one, Nothing.
Rule 13. Plurals and Possessives
Rules 4A, 7 and 9
Rule 3, 4A, 9