Saturday, June 21, 2014

I'm Being Stalked by a Serial Comma. 5 stellar grammar sites for writers.

RHYS:  I was educated at an English girl’s school where I had good grammar rammed down my throat by terrifying old spinsters. So I’ve never had much problem with their and there or even with lie and lay. I do confess to a small problem with the American use of a serial comma, but fortunately traditionally published writers like your Reds have the benefit of an editor, then a copy editor, to point out their serial comma sins.

But for those times when we will not have a copy editor to leap on our errors, I’ve found the perfect person to come to my rescue--or rather the perfect website. Today our guest is Nikolas Baron of  If you don't know Grammarly, it should be among every author’s favorites. It’s an online grammar check service.  It is already used by a few million people, so I can’t understand why I’ve only just heard about it. Nick’s job is to show writers and bloggers how they can use Grammarly’s amazing proofreading  application to improve their writing.

Nik has also rounded up the most useful grammar sites for us so this post is a must for all writers

Welcome Nikolas. So what are the most common mistakes you find on Grammarly?


Comic book writers conceive new superhero characters all the time. If there was a superhero committed to spelling, we might all be saved by a flying, caped editor every time we confuse affect and effect. Unfortunately, no such hero exists to save our posts from danger.  The English language is full of words with similar spellings or sounds, but different meanings. How can you remember how to use them correctly? I am no hero, but in my work at Grammarly, I research the most common errors and why people make them. I have navigated through some of the best websites to find some tips. The following five websites are almost heroic.

GrammarGirl: Affect vs. Effect

Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl, is the managing director of Quick and Dirty Tips.  This website addresses commonly confused words and phrases with simple explanations. To learn the difference between affect and effect, she suggests the phrase a very easy noun. The first letters of each word in the phrase should help you to remember that affect is used as a verb and effect is used as a noun. If you are a visual learner, visit the site to see how an aardvark getting shot in the butt with an arrow demonstrates the concept.

wikiHow : There, Their, They’re

This trio has been confusing writers for decades. The problem is, they’re homonyms.  WikiHow does not focus exclusively on grammar. According to their About page, the website aims to create “a world where anyone can easily learn how to do anything.”  The dynamic site allows anyone to edit content, adding or editing helpful explanations.  At the time that I visited, there was a printable usage cheat sheet and a detailed seven-step process to use there, their, and they’re correctly. In fact, I encourage you to use it to see if I have successfully used them in this paragraph.


Wordreference: Who, Which, That

On’s online forum, you can post a specific grammar question that you have. Who, which, and that questions are especially popular. One senior member asked which relative pronoun would be correct when describing a country. Within thirty minutes, another member posted a response.  If you like the personal approach, this is the site for you. The answers also tend to be short and direct.

Grammarly: Accept vs. Except

As part of the free proofreading feature, the Grammarly engine checks for commonly confused words. If a confusion is detected, the program will alert you and make suggestions. The partner site, Grammarly Answers, allows you to post questions or ask for examples. Answers come from the community of users, some who are grammar experts.  Often, web links recommended in responses provide detailed information. I found almost fifty posts about accept and except on the Answers website.

Writer’s Digest: Lie, Lay, Laid, Lied

Writer’s Digest publishes content geared specifically toward the issues of authors. One article, “LAY VS. LIE (VS. LAID)” by Brian A. Klems laid the argument to rest concerning the past and the present tense use of these tricky verbs. The author provides a helpful chart to reference anytime you have questions. Among the reader responses, you will find a number of other examples and links to worksheets and exercise.

Thank goodness; these five websites rescue us from recurring errors. Help is on the way! If we run to them in times of doubt, we can learn to use the most commonly confused words correctly. In time, the world will be safe from these befuddling words that menace us. 

RHYS: Thanks for the valuable advice, Nikolas. I hope you’ve all bookmarked the sites he mentioned. And no more excuses for lay and lie.




  1. Although I've visited Grammarly, I didn't know about all of the other helpful sites . . . thank you!

  2. Sorry, I thought a preview would show up-- the link is to comics on the subject of the Oxford comma.

  3. Such a good idea to have Nick visit Rhys--thanks! I didn't have terrifying spinsters as teachers:). And I have to confess that I still haven't mastered lay lie laid etc. Lately, I've just changed to a different verb when one of those rears its head!

  4. I went to an all-girls Catholic school..... My grammar is excellent. Now it's all about correcting the Kiddo, since proper grammar apparently isn't "cool."

  5. Susan, take the Kiddo to see "My Fair Lady" or read "Pygmalion"-- " can teach her to speak like a lady, or work in flower shop, which requires even better grammar."

  6. Thanks for the list of good grammar websites, Nik! There's so much on the web--it can be hard to winnow the chaff from the grain.

    I went to a small rural school and was terrified when college approached--how would I fare against kids from schools that offered so much more? I needn't have worried. It turns out that we had excellent teachers--no matter our limited resources (and teacher salaries). I never had a paper come back with mistakes in grammar. I knew how to write a paper, proper grammar, how to research--and, more importantly, to proof, proof, proof before turning anything in.

  7. Thank you for introducing us to grammarly dot com and other websites. Your story about the superhero reminded me of a children's show. Someone needed help with a word and a superhero came to the rescue.

    I automatically edit myself as I write. I think I was taught to pay attention to language.

    Can Nikolas refer me to something else? I find myself having problems with the DO / DOES. I try to avoid words like "do" and "does" when I write because I know I will make a mistake.

    I remember learning about the word "lie". In the beginning, I learned that the word "lie" meant to say an untruth. In the 4th grade, our teacher used a projector to show different pictures. There was a photo of someone laying on the floor. I saw the word "lie" and the teacher explained that "lie" had different meanings. One meaning was to tell an untruth. Another meaning was that photo. I visualize that photo when I see "lie" used to mean that someone is resting.

    I also visualize the image of an hen laying eggs. Is this correct?

    Rhys, I wonder if you automatically edit yourself as you write or edit After you finish writing?


  8. Commas are my downfall, Nik - can you recommend a good source to demystify?

    Also where to break paragraphs.


  9. Commas are my downfall, Nik - can you recommend a good source to demystify?

    Also where to break paragraphs.


  10. Susan, I was also educated by nuns, for 12 years. Good grammar, spelling and punctuation were drilled into our brains.

  11. Hallie, when in doubt, Strunk & White. Or the Chicago Manual of Style (for most books; articles tend to use AP style).

    For commas, after you've checked the basic rules, look to whether your reader will be confused by their use or their elimination. Also, try reading aloud. When you do, think of a comma as a quarter note, a semi colon as a half note, and a period as a whole note/rest. The rhythm tells you where to put them or if one shouldn't be there (and English is ALL about the rhythm, which is why you should NOT have music playing in the background while you write).

    As for paragraph length, the old rules don't work, because people today have very short attention spans. Break when you think your reader needs a break unless you are writing academic (pretentious) prose.

  12. Am I the only one who got positively giddy when I saw the subject was grammar today? Although I'm sure I make mistakes, I have loved grammar since I was a kid. Diagramming sentences was a thrill for me in school. Reading a grammar book is an exciting activity. Yes, I am a grammar geek and a fan of the Oxford comma. I have the latter part of that statement as part of my profile on Twitter. There is no hope for me.

    Nik, I envy you in your fascinating job. Thanks for the great Web sites that I will visit to make sure I've been there before. I will be sure and earmark them for my granddaughters, too, as they are so computer oriented.

    My most appalling moment in teaching was during my student teaching as I discovered many in the class didn't know what a direct object was. How could they know when to lie or lay if they didn't know what a direct object was? Arghhh. I still have nightmares about that. Hehehe! Now I'm off to drool over the grammar sites.

  13. And aardvark getting shot with an arrow? I think of myself as educated, I really do--and I still just avoid affect and effect. Ridiculous.

    But so funny. Where to break paragraphs is instantly evident to me

    What is the do/does problem?

    Nik, this is wonderful!

  14. How can a writer reconcile the rules of grammar with a story that is interesting to read? I read a lot of comments by friends who might use excellent grammar, syntax and spelling skills, while their notes are stilted and surrounded with an affect of perfection. I guess that's better than having a flat affect, but it's boring to read.

  15. Just to clarify: I know it can be done. I read authors who do it very well. How do you manage it?

  16. Hank, good question.

    Here are a few examples:

    Do you want ice cream? (Ironically, I never had the problem with "Do you...")

    The problem arises when I try to include a person in the third person.

    Does he and she...

    Do he and she...

    Which one is it?