An answer to the grammar questions you were afraid to ask

5th August 2016 at 01:00
Teachers freely admit to most shortcomings, but often hide a lack of grammar knowledge. Emma Torrance offers her guide to the most common mistakes

I HAVE A confession: I am feeble at mental arithmetic. Luckily for me, being bad at maths is not regarded as shameful. In fact, some of us wear it like a badge of honour.

The same goes for spelling. Even in teaching, a certain level of illiteracy can be dismissed as merely an endearing quirk. After all, it’s a problem that’s easily solved: you just need to pick up a dictionary.

Whether this is right or not is debateable, but that it is a thing? That is undeniable.

But there are no such reprieves when it comes to the secret shame of many teachers: grammatical ignorance. While we’ll happily admit our inability to multiply fractions, we’re much less willing to confess a routine struggle with the mechanics of writing.

The truth is we feel we should know about grammar, despite it being unashamedly difficult: elastic, abstract and full of exceptions. But grammar often feels too basic to brush up on and too embarrassing to ask about.

And these days, there’s nowhere to hide. With new government guidelines placing more weight on accuracy in students’ work, we have to ensure we’re helping, not hindering their performance. That means modelling good grammar, whether in the notes we scrawl on the whiteboard or in the formative feedback we pen on students’ work.

So what can we do? A great place to start is grammar flashcards ( But to give you a head start, here are the four most common problems that teachers can be guilty of, but will be too embarrassed to ask for help with.

Of course, you might disagree with these definitions – and that introduces the biggest grammatical problem of all: there are some definitive rules, but those glorious exceptions inhabit an endless battlefield of debate.

Possessive apostrophes

The apostrophe has two main uses. Firstly, it indicates possession: the cat belongs to Emma, therefore it is Emma’s cat.

Using the apostrophe to indicate singular possession is fairly straightforward, but when we need to pluralise, things can get sticky.

Confusion often occurs with borrowed words, like “tomato” or “panini”, which have kept their original, foreign spelling. In these cases, we are forced to uncomfortably apply English plurals to non-English words, making “tomatoes” and “paninis”.

In these examples, the results may feel and look wrong. So, in order to dispel our growing discomfort, we chuck in an apostrophe. And a grammatical crime is committed.

Last year, I nearly drove off the road after goggling at a sign advertising “Lous Limo’s”: a perfect storm of misuse. “Lou’s limos” is correct. “Lou’s” needs a possessive apostrophe because Lou owns the limos. “Limo” however, only needs an additional “s” to indicate that Lou has more than one. Because “limo” has been clipped from “limousine”, we struggle to pluralise it: it’s that awkward and uncommon final “o” that does it. We sense its wrongness but cannot work out how to compensate for it. Two good rules of thumb are:

1 If you’re unsure whether to use a possessive apostrophe, try up-ending your sentence. If you can add “belonging to” or “of” to your phrase, you need an apostrophe. If not, you’re probably pluralising.

2 When something belongs to a plural group, say a bunch of chickens or boys, you need to place the apostrophe after the plural “s”, so “the lockers belonging to the boys” becomes “the boys’ lockers”.

The apostrophe for omission

For speed or informality, we also use apostrophes to show that we’ve missed out part of a particular word or phrase. Grammatically, this apostrophe indicates the original, longer phrase by replacing the missing parts. We often don’t bother with this kind of punctuation in informal communication like texting (and neither do our students); meaning is usually clear. However, if you omit apostrophes in some contractions, like “I’ll”, the meaning changes. Now you’re “ill” – poorly, sickly. Similarly, “he’ll” shifts to “hell”, “she’ll” becomes “shell”, and so on, and so forth.

So grammatically speaking, what’s going on?

1 A basic action like “being” or “having” is combined with a thing/person:

2 A negative is being added to the verb in a squished form:

3 Two actions are combined together:

One awkward exception to the examples above is “its”/“it’s”. Here, only apostrophise for omission when you mean “it is”, as in: “it’s raining”, “it’s unfair”. If the phrase cannot be expanded to “it is”, then use “its”.

This creates confusion because “it” can be used possessively, as in “the car needs washing: its windows are filthy”. But in this case “its” avoids repeating “the car”. It works just like “her” or “his”, neither of which requires an apostrophe.


A colon’s grammatical purpose is to separate two parts of a sentence while maintaining their connection. It lets us extend or explain an idea already stated. You would usually structure a sentence using a colon by beginning with a general idea, then following it with specifics. For example, “The solution was obvious: split the food bill five ways and settle the drinks bill separately.”

Because both parts of the sentence are connected, in British English you don’t usually capitalise what follows the colon. From the example given you’ll spot that connecting words like “and”, “but”, and “so” are avoided. The two phrases either side of a colon should stand independently of one another: colons demonstrate degrees of separation, whereas connectives join.

1 Julie hates insects: I watched her gleefully pull the legs off a fly.

2 The US is a diverse country: immigration has played a key role in both its success and its development.


Semi-colons have a subtly different function to colons: they’re used to link two independent but closely related ideas, making them interchangeable with full-stops or connectives like “and” (this is an easy, but not entirely foolproof way to check if a semi-colon is a suitable option).

The semi-colon allows you to imply a connection, but both parts of the sentence should still retain their independence and cover a different idea. If your second phrase is merely adding more information to your first, a colon is likely to be a better bet.

For example: “It was a lonely place; I felt a growing sense of panic.”

Test it: can you use a full stop or “and” here? The semi-colon links the two separate ideas of “the lonely place” and the narrator’s “growing sense of panic”. They feel intrinsically related, which could be weakened by inserting a full-stop instead.

Another way to use the semi-colon is where a sentence (usually containing a detailed list) is so complex that commas alone would be unable to separate the ideas with enough clarity for a reader. The sentence below, for example, is difficult to decode.

“The garden was alive with the noise of the running hose, a choir of bees, hornets and wasps buzzing in angry harmony, my father’s lazy, slobbering snores, and the revolting, excitable squeals of my sister’s children.”

But by employing semi-colons judiciously, this sentence can be made more digestible:

“The garden was alive with the noise of the running hose; a choir of bees, hornets and wasps buzzing in angry harmony; my father’s lazy, slobbering snores; and the revolting, excitable squeals of my sister’s children.”

Emma Torrance is a former English teacher in secondary schools, who now delivers private tuition

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