Questions about "Grammar" (Usage, Spelling, Syntax, Punctuation, . . .  the whole kit-and-caboodle)

Nuts and Bolts: What are the formal terms for the grammar of English?: the parts of speech; verb tenses; verb moods (indicative, imperative, subjunctive); the parts of a sentence.

 "What do I do if, when reading a paper, I know something should be changed so that it "sounds better," but I cannot think of why?  I do not know basic rules of English... I just know what feels/sounds/reads well. Where can I learn things such as the basic parts of speech? . . . what are "future perfect" and so on? Also, off topic, but why do we learn all of the grammar for other languages but never for our own???   For basic rules of English, buy a handbook in print or read one online.  Take your time and slowly  learn the most common names for things and conventions of grammar and usage. 

        The "perfect" tenses use forms of "to be" to modify a verb so that it expresses some ongoing action that either has been completed in the past, is completed in the present, or will be completed in the future, which is where your question will be answered.  Here they are: the "past perfect"--"Once I had known what the past perfect tense was, but I have forgotten it.")  A "perfect" tense verb (past, present, future) indicates an action that is continuing ("Bob had fixed the goat"; "has fixed the goat"; "will have fixed the goat"), vs. a simple past/present/future which happens once and ceases ("Bob fixed the goat"). 

"I wish I was vs. I wish I were."  Either "was" or "were" will express the "counterfactual statement" clearly, that is, "I am not X but I wish I was," or "I am not X but I wish I were."  Prescriptive grammar reserves "were" for subjunctive mood statemenst, a formal distinction now mostly lost in spoken English, but if you are writing formal prose, "were" will sound better.  If you are writing a rousing bluse anthem to hard drinking, "I wish the river was whiskey and I was [a diving duck]" will sound better.

Usage, AKA "being a word" and "using a word in syntax": usage differences for affect/effect, When and how to use affect verses effect, further/farther (Simple answer: many users say they're synonyms but grammar cranks use "further" metaphorically and farther with actual distancs.) & lay/lie (Simple answer: "lay" is used with things one controls and "lie" is used when one reclines one's self and to name falsehoods.)

Is it okay to end a sentence with a preposition?   (Because English word order determines meaning, the location of your preposition within the sentence can sometimes have significant effects.)

My first question is in regards to using the passive voice. I have a relatively good understanding of what it is but I know there are instances where it should and should not be used. I know some professors seem to be against using it at all but I've heard and read there are reasons for using it occasionally. When should I correct it and when should I let it go?  (Simple answer: it depends on whether the agent/actor is as important as the action, and on whether you know "who done it.")

Which vs. that?: "that" is restrictive, referring to the specific thing preceding it, and "which" is not, so it refers to the thing as a class or group; who is the "subjective case" and operates as a sentence's subject, whereas "whom" is objective case, and operates as the object of the verb or a preposition.)

Punctuation--"pointing" the sentence to help readers parse its structure: 

"Comma use. I know I tend to overuse them, so could we go over general rules and how to apply them?"   I am always unsettled by sentences with a comma used as follows: "It was raining, pouring."  or "This is great, a really positive turn of events." In both of these, it seems like the word or phrase following the commas is repeating the preceding word in different terms. I can take out "great" so the second sentence says "This is a really positive turn of events," without sacrificing the meaning.  I've learned that "because" should never be preceded by a comma. Is this true? Are there exceptions? I've seen it in some academic works recently.

"Dash vs. semi-colon and dash vs. comma. I know that you are supposed to use dashes to "make a point", and I like to use them, but I've been told that I use them incorrectly even when I am trying to emphasize something. "

Punctuation beyond the comma: I’ve been taught that the only thing semicolons do is prove you went to college. Is there ever a time that a semicolon is the best choice? Or is a period or colon more appropriate?  What's the difference in usage between hyphens and colons? I tend to use [dashes] a heck of a lot. Especially when I want to stick one phrase -- like this one -- in the middle of another. Is there a rule or convention against doing this in academic writing?

- Independent and dependent clauses, how they are related to commas and semicolons, and whether using them perfectly really matters.

"When you're quoting a full sentence and it ends with a ? or !, do you end the sentence with ?". (put the period outside quote marks) or ?" (don't worry about putting a period)"

 When does the punctuation go inside the parentheses? (When does it go outside)?

Pronoun Reference--I learned in journalism class in high school that it is now considered okay to use "they/their" to refer to a singular entity for the sake of neutrality, but I know it still offends some people. Is there really a "correct" way? I know we talked that we can just make the noun plural to make it agree, but I guess there could be some times when that may not make sense. If student writers use they/their in this way, would you recommend that we recommend they alter it in some way? Or is it okay to leave it alone?   How can we solve the problem when tutoring?  (Simple answer: generalize in the plural when talking about human beings.)

Kirsch, Gesa.  “The Politics of I-Dropping.”  College Composition and Communication. 45:3 (October 1994) 381-3.  Web.

Myers, Miriam Watkins.  “Current Generic Pronoun Usage: An Empirical Study.”  American Speech 65:3 (Autumn 1990) 228-237.  Web.

Stotko, Elaine M. and Margaret Troyer, “A New Gender-Neutral Pronoun in Baltimore, Maryland:  A Preliminary Study.”  American Speech.  82:3 (Fall 2007) 262-79.  Web.

Style--the "kit-and-caboodle" of compositional form, that which is not required or prohibited, but which transmits aesthetic values

What makes a sentence a fragment?

We've discussed the differences between "informal" and "formal" language regarding academic writing. While formal language (i.e. non-colloquial words/sentences) is widely accepted, I've always wondered whether it's acceptable to use verb contractions in essays (e.g. would've vs. would have)? When writing essays for school, is it generally more acceptable to not use verb contractions? Or does it matter? I usually resort to verb contractions because not using them sometimes causes my writing to appear either disjointed or pretentious, if that makes sense. I've had teachers who've told me to use one or the other, which suggests that it may not matter all that much. Can we have more than one style?  How does style communicate meaning?

Document Format:

I've been taught many different ways of citing sources within the text (ei where to cite, how often to cite, what to put in the parentheses). If students come to me saying they were told to cite in a way I haven't been, should I try to fix it or should I have confidence that they are doing as told. Having learned various ways it might be difficult for me to choose one of the styles to recommend to the tutees.  

Published style guides offer guidance for large groups of readers and writers who share common communications goals--news writers and readers, Associated Press (AP free guide from Western Washington U.); literature analysis and linguistics writers and readers, Modern Language Association (MLA summary from Purdue OWL), American Psychological Association (APA text summary from Purdue OWL), University of Chicago Manual of Style (U. Chicago summary from Purdue OWL), Council of Science Editors (CSE short guide from Juniata College)

Free Online Grammar, Punctuation, and Sentence Diagramming Sites

Updated MLA Style for Works Cited Format (2009)