There’s no quicker way to lose readers than to use incorrect grammar and improper punctuation. If you can’t get the basics right, readers figure, you also can’t be trusted to get the facts right.
Pronouns, punctuation and possessives seem to particularly bedevil students. So does subject-verb agreement. So where to start?
Make the AP Stylebook your best friend, your constant companion. The school, and much of journalism, follows AP style. Study it. Learn it. Heck, memorize it if you can. Get a copy of the stylebook. If you don’t have one, find it in the school library. For punctuation, read pages 326-336. For the use of the possessive, read pages 196-198. When in doubt about any usage, check it out in the stylebook.
For pronouns, here’s a comprehensive list plus some useful exercises to see if you know how to use them.
And here are a few of the most basic rules we follow, courtesy of Tim Harper:
Don’t use the serial comma. In other words, in a series, there is no comma before the “and.”
Correct: We ordered steak, mashed potatoes and Brooklyn Lager.
Incorrect: We ordered hot dogs, fries, and Bud Lite.
(Note: Some magazines and other publications do use the serial comma, so when pitching you need to check before submitting. But the serial comma is the default.)
In American English, the comma and period usually go inside the quote mark.
Correct: “I need to go see the writing coach,” she said.
Incorrect: “I don’t have time to go get help”, she said.
Don’t capitalize job descriptions unless used as a proper title in front of a name.
Correct: The report came from the parks commissioner.
Correct: The parks commissioner later spoke about the report.
Correct: Parks Commissioner Bill Smith refused comment.
Correct: Bill Smith, the parks commissioner, refused comment.
Incorrect: Bill Smith, the Commissioner of Parks, refused comment.
Incorrect: Bill Smith, the Parks Commissioner, gave the keynote.
“Who” refers to people. “That” does not refer to people.
Correct: He is one of the people who got punked.
Incorrect: She is one of the people that didn’t get punked.
“Which” often is used with a comma. “That” is usually not used with a comma. (Tip: try reading the phrase aloud if you’re not sure; if you naturally pause, it probably needs a comma.)
Correct: I have a deadline that is looming.
Incorrect: He’s got a dog, that has fleas.
Correct: We’re out of class at 5 p.m., which means the party starts at 5:05 p.m.
Make sure pronouns match the nouns to which they refer. Use singular pronouns for singular nouns, and plural pronouns for plural nouns.
Incorrect: The company gave their workers the day off.
Correct: The company gave its workers the day off.
Incorrect: Everyone waved their glow-sticks in the air.
Correct: Everyone waved his or her glow-stick in the air. (To avoid this awkward “his or her” construction, go plural, as below.)
Correct: The members of the audience waved their glow-sticks in the air.
Finally, here are some correct uses of AP Style:
He is from Peoria, Ill. (Not Peoria IL – AP Style does not always follow USPS abbreviations.)
She is from Boston. (Boston, Mass., is incorrect; some big cities do not take a state abbreviation.)
He started class Monday. (Monday through Sunday if referring to a day within a week past. Not “last Monday.”)
He will start class Tuesday. (Monday through Sunday if referring to a day within a week in the future.)
The report was issued in February. The report will be issued in December. (Use January through December – without a year – if referring to months within a year past or future.)
The school is scheduled to open in October 2011. (Use the year only because it is more than 12 months away.)
Moe left his two friends, Larry and Curly, when he had a chance to make $20 babysitting. (One through nine is spelled out, 10 and above are numbers. Use the dollar sign rather than spelling out dollars.)