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English Language Grammar: Usage and Style

By Audrey Alleyne

The use of commas, semi-colons and apostrophes appear to contain some of the most confusing rules for English language grammar usage and style. The rules are really quite simple; read on to learn more.

Elementary Rules

There are simple rules for the comma and the use of the semi-colon. In the English language these rules provide for all internal punctuation required in four out of every five sentences.

The Comma

A comma is used after each term in a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, except the last:

Red, white, and blue

She stopped at the gas station, filled her tank, and left without paying.

According to Strunk, this rule follows the usage of the Government Printing Office and the Oxford University Press. On the contrary, the Associated Press (AP) omits the serial comma (which is the comma preceding “and” or “or” in a series) for columns and news releases when it is not needed. According to AP style: The flag is red, black and white.

However the AP does note that “complex constructions may read more smoothly with the comma, and in those cases the serial comma is preferred” in order to prevent confusion. The AP uses the following as an example, although it was used in a column: There are four major groups of vertebrates: mammals, reptiles and birds, fish, and amphibians.

Another rule for use of the comma is that in the names of business firms, the last comma is omitted:

Williams, Parker & Co.

Parenthetic expressions should be enclosed between commas:

The best way to learn a foreign language, if you are really interested, is to mingle and speak with the natives.

The Semi-Colon

Independent clauses should be joined by a semi-colon and not a comma:

It is getting late; we must leave soon.

I love reading mystery stories; they are very exciting.

Misuse of Possessives

The possessive singular of nouns is formed by adding ’s. According to William Strunk, Jr., author of The Element of Style, this rule also follows the usage of the United States Government Printing Office and the Oxford University press. Strunk gives examples like:

Charles’s friend

The witch’s malice

Exceptions, said Strunk, are the possessive forms of ancient proper names which end in –es and –is.

Achilles’ heel and Isis’ temple can also be replaced by using:

The heel of Achilles

The temple of Isis.

The possessive of Jesus, which is Jesus’, is also an exception to the rule of adding an 's.

The possessive form of pronouns, called the pronominal possessives, has no apostrophe. These are misused by many people. These possessives are: its, hers, theirs, yours and oneself. Often, we do see it’s used to mean it is and their’s used to mean there is. By the same token, many people place apostrophes on nouns where there is no possessive form indicated. We see these mistakes glaring at us on billboards, posters, on the Internet, in students’ compositions--everywhere. We see words like: voiceover’s, voice talent’s, agent’s, calendar’s and so many others.

Subject and Verb Agreement

Another very common mistake in English language grammar usage is that of subject and verb non-agreement. The rule is that a singular subject takes a singular verb and a plural subject takes a plural verb. How often do we see sentences like the following?

I think it is either her aunt or her uncle who are arriving today.

The correct sentence should be:

I think it is either her aunt or her uncle who is arriving today.

The rule is that a singular verb is required if two subjects are connected "by," "or" or "nor."

The same applies to sentences connected by "either" or "neither."

Wrong: Neither the boss nor his secretary are available.

Correct: Neither the boss nor his secretary is available. Or: Neither the boss nor his secretaries are available.

Wrong: Either Jack or Jill are coming.

Correct: Either Jack or Jill is coming.

The problem lies in recognizing whether the subject is singular or plural and recognizing if the verb is singular or plural.

The pronouns each, everyone, everyone, everybody, anyone, anybody, someone and somebody, appear to suffer most in regard to the rule of using a singular verb. These pronouns are singular and require singular verbs:

Correct: Each of them works well.

Wrong: Each of them work well.

Correct: Everyone means well.

Wrong: Everyone mean well.

Follow the Rules

Every language including English undergoes change from time to time. However this change is usually related to vocabulary: new words entering the language in keeping with the economy, the industry, the Internet, society, etc. We have seen the word "presently" meaning "soon" now used to mean "currently;" and the word "gay" used in the time of the great English poets like Shakespeare, Keats and Wordsworth to mean "happy;" now taking on a completely different connotation. English language grammar usage and style, however, remains constant. Simply follow the rules and your English will be acceptable.


1. The Elements of Style,

2. Subject and Verb Agreement,