Grammar and Punctuation: What You Should Know

Working with grammar and punctuation is tricky, for several reasons: attention to grammar in a tutoring session can confirm students' worst preconceptions of revision as "correcting grammar"; students who are self-conscious about their command of grammar and punctuation may become intimidated by grammatical terms; many errors are performance errors rather than knowledge errors and will be corrected by the student with little or no prompting as he or she revises the paper. For these and other reasons, it is often or even usually best to address sentence-level errors without directly invoking grammatical terms.

However, as a tutor, you have to be able to identify patterns of error quickly and accurately, and you have to be able to address or explain errors in a variety of ways. Therefore you have to know the rules of grammar cold even if you never mention them by name in a tutoring session.

Fortunately, although English grammar is a complex system, some errors are more common than others. For starters, be sure that you understand the rules which pertain to the following:

sentence boundary errors

punctuation: commas


extra commas between main sentence parts

fused sentence (run-on)

missing comma after introductory element

comma splice

missing comma(s) around parenthetical element

misused semi-colon

added comma around restrictive modifier


commas misused with quotation

errors with verbs


subject-verb agreement

punctuation: apostrophes

improper verb tense or tense-shifting

confusion of plural and possessive

improper verb form (e.g. lie/ lay, endings, auxiliaries)


improper verb mood (e.g. "would have" for conditional

word choice errors

non-idiomatic collocations


mixed pairs (e.g., infers/implies)

pronoun errors

confusion of homonyms

pronoun/antecedent agreement error

false connotations

pronoun reference error


common ESL errors:

syntax errors

missing added or improper articles

dangling/misplaced modifiers

improper verb form

parellelism errors

verb agreement with noncount nouns

faulty predication

gerund/infinitive confusion

mixed constructions

non-idiomatic collocations


spelling and typographical errors


When Should You Use a Comma?

1) to separate two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (for,

and, nor, but, or, yet, so-FANBOYS)

Canadians watch the U.S. closely, but people in the U.S. know little about Canada.

2) to set off introductory elements

Unfortunately, it rained on our picnic.

Whenever it rains hard, the roof leaks.

3) to set off parenthetic elements. What's parenthetic? non-restrictive modifiers

Mr. Magoo, the cranky near-sighted cartoon character, was a favorite of mine.

There is no Santa Claus, although I wouldn't tell that to my son.


Anyone, who thinks that, is crazy.

4) to separate items in a list of three or more items:

Roses, petunias, begonias and tulips have all gone up in price.

5) with dates, addresses, large numbers, etc.

6) to prevent a misreading

WHEN IN DOUBT (and it's not on this list), LEAVE IT OUT

 (all) coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so-FANBOYS

(most) relative pronouns: that, which, who, whom, what, whoever, whatever, whichever

General Principles for Working with Grammar, Punctuation and Mechanics

1) Follow the writing process . If the argument or structure or the paper needs revision, or if the paper does not fulfill the assignment, discussion of lower-order concerns will only distract the student. Although writers correct grammatical errors during all stages of the writing process, the writer's attention should be on higher order concerns until the final stages of editing and proofreading.

If the paper needs higher order revision but there are many lower-order problems that will need work later, consider concentrating your efforts on the higher order concerns while advising the student to return with a revised draft for additional work.

If the paper needs higher order revision but the instructor has requested that the student get help with grammar and punctuation, proceed carefully. Ask the student what the instructor has specifically required; the student may have confused a general exhortation to get help with writing with a more specific request to cover certain topics of grammar. If the student really has been asked to work on grammar, determine as precisely as possible the instructor's expectations. You may wish to offer the student a choice; explain why large-scale revisions seem to you to take logical priority over sentence-level concerns, then offer to work on either global concerns, with the understanding that the student will return for further work, or on local concerns, with the understanding that the student is treating the paper as a finished product. Don't try to do both.

2) Distinguish performance errors from knowledge errors, and work on performance errors first. All writers make mistakes; they make more mistakes when they are working with difficult concepts, are distracted, or are in a hurry. Most writers can correct these "performance errors" on their own, as they work out their ideas fully and go over their writing again. Before offering an exposition of grammatical rules, have the student read his or her paper aloud and/or ask content questions about individual sentences.

3) If the student's command of Edited Standard Written English is intuitive rather than formal, address sentence level concerns with non-technical language as much as possible. (See below for examples.) Good writers do check the rules of grammar from time to time, but rule-checking is only feasible when ESWE conventions have largely been internalized. Non-technical questions allow writers to see the logic of grammar, and help them to develop their "ear" for ESWE. Such questions are also less likely to be intimidating or confidence undermining than technical explanations of ESWE conventions.

4) When intensive work in grammar is necessary, work on patterns of language use rather than individual cases as much as possible. Deviations from ESWE are not "errors" like falling off a log or forgetting the sugar in a recipe; a writer who does not follow the conventions of ESWE is following the rules of a different dialect, or may be misapplying ESWE rules which have been incompletely learned. Try to understand the logic behind a student's error before addressing it,

and if possible have the student edit several sentences in the paper with the same error so that the new convention can be fully internalized. If possible, work on only a few errors per tutoring session; overloading the student with rules will make retention of them less likely. Consider recommending to students whom you work with regularly that they keep a "never again" notebook, writing down a rule or two at a time and holding themselves responsible for teaming those rules.

Non-technical Questions to Ask About Passages

with Grammatical and Stylistic Errors

(adapted from Meyer and Smith, The Practical Tutor)

  1. What is the action of this sentence and who is doing it? or Who does what? or How does who do what? Can this stand alone? (fragments, stuffy academic prose, mixed constructions, subject-verb disagreement)

2) How many ideas (or actions) are in this sentence? How are they connected? (fused sentences, faulty subordination, mixed constructions, excessive coordination)

3)When are the actions taking place? (wrong tense, tense shifts)

4) What do you mean by this? (wrong word, scrambled sentence, vagueness)

5)What's another way to say this to be persuasive to your particular audience? (inappropriate diction)

6)What single word (or phrase) expresses this idea? (wordiness)

7) If you take this word or phrase or clause away, will the sentence still make sense? Will it still be talking about the same subject? (error with restrictive modifiers and/or parenthetic elements)

8) Read this aloud. Where do you pause? Where does the intonation of your voice rise and fall? (most comma errors, some sentence boundary errors; only works for some students).

Grammar Diagnostic

1. There are two kinds of religious rituals; esoteric and exoteric.

2. The difficulty of controlling unruly spectators is the main frustration.

3. In discussing the influence of Sigmund Freud on peoples self-understanding, Jerome S. Bruner writes about Freud, "for his role as architect of a new conception of man."

4. When the chemist added the stone to the solution, it turned purple.

5. The sentence has four subject's and as many verbs; its too complex.

6. Listening to the sad news, my eyes filled with team.

7. The inspectors detected a fissure in the engine block, as a result, they called a halt to production.

8. Scientist seek to verify a hypothesis through a series of experiments that they conducted under laboratory conditions.

9. Sometimes broken parts are replaced by mechanics, or, if a replacement is not available, they improvise.

10. Of the 80 firefighters, 12 required hospitalization. Because they were injured.

11. Increasing numbers of people in industrialized societies are concerned about the impact of money on its politicians.

12. The cost of tuition in some institutions, especially institutions which are heavily dependent on government funding such as state universities, have increased nearly 50% in the past decade.

13. In 1948 Russian defetors wrote about life under Stalin thus the West learned of his ruthless purges

14. The sight of teenagers hitting each other violently upset the elderly couple.

15. Paul's teacher, who was concerned about his declining grades called his parents.

16. The production list contains 250 kinds of parts, some oiled and some without.

17. There is a number of things that one can do in that situation.

18. Motorists taking Route 103, should be alert for landslides.

19. A desire for peace proposed a truce between the combatants.

20. In that situation, the manager wished he was not contractually obligated to the client.

21. Heartburn is having a burning sensation in your chest.

22. The author claims that voluntary recycling is doomed because "it is inconvenient for them to be responsible for their own waste."

  1. The sunset was spectacular but no one stopped watching TV to look at it

24. The idle mechanics claim to be waiting on some parts to come in.

25. During their last vacation, they traveled a route, from Maine to Nevada.

26. The survivors managed searching the debris for signs of life.

27. Why shouldn't I flaunt the law? Politicians do it all the time.

28. As he spoke the listeners quickly realized that this would be no ordinary political talk.