It happens more often than I’d like to admit—someone comes to me with a grammar question, and I think I know what the answer is, but I’m not completely sure. Or I know the answer but couldn’t tell you what grammar rule I’m using to reach that conclusion. In my mind, “not completely sure” or “not sure why” is equivalent to guessing, and guessing is not the best option when it comes to grammar.
When I’m stumped, I do some digging using these grammar resources:
Good for needing a grammar refresh, conjugating verbs, understanding parts of speech, and handling specific words.
The dictionary is of course a go-to for all your definition needs, but you’d be surprised at its usefulness in grammar, too. If you’re someone who has a fairly good grasp of grammar, looking at a word’s definition, understanding the part of speech, and finding its different forms can help get the wheels in your brain turning. Many online dictionaries, like Merriam-Webster, use the word in sentences, offer synonyms, and provide other insights on the word to help you reach a conclusion about how grammar treats that part of speech. Other dictionary websites, like the Cambridge Dictionary and Dictionary.com, have pages that are dedicated to grammar and give you a wider understanding of the grammar issue you’re dealing with.
Reliable Websites, Like Grammar Girl
A great source when dealing with specific grammar issues that you can identify (e.g., “Do I use ‘lay’ or ‘lie’?”).
Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty is my home girl (although she isn’t aware of it yet). Her website on the Quick and Dirty Tips network has hundreds of posts explaining grammar, providing examples, listing sources, and generally making grammar easier to understand. In fact, if you type a grammar question into Google, you’ll likely see her site as one of the top suggestions. She also has a podcast, in case you’re interested.
Phone a Friend
Talk to a colleague, friend, teacher, or anyone else who you know to have good grammar insight when you’re in a time-crunch and need an answer fast or are looking for a confirmation.
When I’m truly stumped, out of options, or need an answer fast, I turn to Dallas. Dallas is the proofreader in our Creative Department, so she’s as reliable as it gets. Once, I was pretty positive I knew the answer to a grammar question, but I wanted to double check. Dallas told me I was wrong, and patiently came up with about three different explanations before I finally understood the grammar rule behind her decision. Getting a second opinion can certainly help, but you should always make sure that you understand the “why” behind their answer—if they can’t provide it, you at least have a good starting point on where to start your search.
Not-So Reliable Grammar Websites and Tools
A source for when you’re in a real pickle.
Sometimes, no one knows the answer. Not I, or Dallas, or my BFF Mignon, or the rest of the planet. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I’ll type the phrase into Google and read articles that use it. If it’s from a reliable source, like The New York Times, I’ll feel fairly confident in using it. Same goes with grammar tools like Grammarly.com and the spellcheck function in Microsoft Word. Those sources continue to become more refined as technology advances and often catch grammar mistakes. But use caution—the machine doesn’t always know what you’re trying to say, so the suggestions may not work in your situation.
My biggest issue with these grammar resources is that you’re not learning from them. They provide you with an answer, and it may even be the correct one, but it doesn’t offer an explanation. Until you understand the grammar rule that informs that decision, your writing will never improve, and you’ll be stuck back at these sources digging for an answer next time.
Truly, your best bet is simply to learn grammar through reading, writing, and practice. It sucks, I know. It’s like hearing that kale is the answer to a longer life, but it’s true. The more you understand grammar, the fewer tools you’ll need to inform your writing or proofreading. (If you need some tools, check out my blog from last year on grammar resolutions—they still apply, even in 2019). And, of course, if you’re ever stuck on a grammar question, feel free to contact me. I’d be happy to do some sleuthing with you.
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