Lots of people have asked me how they can improve their grammar, and most of them really mean their writing. Do you want to write more effective work emails or documents? Are you having to write more for school or work? Or maybe write a resume? Whatever the reason, grammar is important, at least in formal or professional writing. Good grammar shows the audience that you care and take the topic you’re writing about seriously. It also increases your credibility, especially if you’re trying to connect with or influence your audience. If people can’t understand you, they’re less likely to receive your true message. But remember that communication is the goal, not perfection. It’s not just about making your 10th grade English teacher – or the dreaded Facebook Grammar Police – proud. Think of it more as using “standard English” or professional writing.
So what is “standard English”? According to Merriam-Webster, it is “the English that, with respect to spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary, is substantially uniform though not devoid of regional differences, that is well established by usage in the formal and informal speech and writing of the educated, and that is widely recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken and understood.” The key concepts in that rather long definition are “uniform” and “acceptable.” Notice that nowhere does it say “proper” or “correct.” Those terms are thrown around quite a bit, but they do not embrace the many variations that make English so interesting, or that language is a living entity, which it is.
It’s worth noting that many things that used to be considered “incorrect” have become acceptable through repeated use—both written and spoken. A great example is the “never end a sentence with a preposition” rule, which originally came from the 17th century idea that English should be like Latin. More recently, some of you may have heard the famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of [thing] up with which I will not put.” Sounds very stuffy and awkward, right? In modern usage, it is indeed acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition (gasp!) and simply say, “That is the sort of [thing] I will not put up with.”
Now on to those tips for improving your grammar!
- Reading is fundamental, right? (I guess I’m showing my age here). Read as much high-quality, edited writing as you can. Choose well-respected, credible news sources or nonfiction. Some fiction may use “standard English” more than others, but generally it contains more informal, colloquial, or “non-standard English.” Read different types of writing, like news, editorials or commentaries, or humor. Set a goal for reading or even join a book club to help keep you on track.
- Don’t sweep your problems under the rug! There are grammar or spelling issues that plague all of us, even the best writers. And often, we try to “write around” these problems so we don’t have to deal with them. Instead, take a few minutes to research them, and then make a note of what you discover. Looking up the answer yourself from a credible source (we’ll talk about that in a minute) will help you retain the information and give you a sense of accomplishment too. Maybe keep a writing journal or personal “style guide” that contains the items that give you the most grief when you’re writing.
- Related to the last tip, use a style manual. There are many available in hard copy and online. Some of the most popular and well-respected style manuals are:
- The Associated Press (or AP) Stylebook, probably the most widely used, and it’s also what we use for Grammar Girl.
- The MLA (or Modern Language Association) Handbook
- The Chicago Manual of Style
- The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (or APA)
If you write frequently or professionally, buying one of these manuals is a good investment. But there are also several university writing centers and other writing sites that have summaries or working aids based on these manuals that you can access either free or by registering, sometimes at no cost.
4. If you can, get a “writing buddy” who can give you feedback. You could even exchange writing and help each other. But here’s a word of caution: Make sure your “buddy” is a good, experienced writer, such as a senior co-worker or someone who has received positive feedback on their own writing. Most of us, at one point or another, have experienced peer editing, where students review each other’s work. It seems like a good idea in theory, but if the person reviewing your writing doesn’t have the greatest grasp of standard English themselves, they could lead you down the wrong path. So choose someone who will be knowledgeable and honest with their feedback.
5. Don’t rely solely on technology! We are all aware of the perils of autocorrect, and spellcheck and grammar check can be faulty, too. They can help – maybe – but they don’t know context or nuance. So always do your research, as we mentioned earlier, and review your own writing. In addition to these automated tools, there are lots of internet resources that claim to help you improve your grammar or writing. Some of them can be very helpful, but don’t rely solely on them. Also, don’t rely on one source too much and take its advice at face value. Check other sources, talk to a mentor, or find examples of other writing to model what you want to say.
And now let’s talk about some pointers for learners of English as a foreign or second language:
- Exposure is the key. And exposure to the right type of material is important too. Watch TV – preferably with English captions – or listen to podcasts in English (like this one!). But again, choose wisely – news, documentaries, or educational programs. They are more likely to contain standard English than, say, a reality show.
- The same goes for reading. If you are a beginning learner of English, choose factual news stories, weather, or other non-fiction material. Once you progress, you can read opinion or editorial articles, which contain standard English but also more high-level language including humor, irony, sarcasm, and nuance.
- Just as we already mentioned, research the grammar questions that are giving you problems. There are many online resources for learners of English that can help explain grammar in a simple way. Keep a journal or flashcards not only for vocabulary, but also for grammar issues.
- Dedicate as much time as you can to practicing your language skills, and you will definitely see improvement!
Finally, allow me to give a shameless plug for “Grammar Girl’s Quick & Dirty Tips for Better Writing” on Linkedin Learning. In this course, I share ways you can instantly make your writing better, including using active voice, writing with rhythm, and using commas like a pro. I also dispel a few common grammar myths, give pointers for breaking up run-on sentences, and much more. Watch just one video or the whole series to improve your writing skills.