A Quick Guide to Grammar and Style

The English language. Notoriously difficult, full of confusing homonyms, strange rules and exceptions, and generally not altogether user-friendly. Writing can be a tricky prospect, particularly if it isn’t something you do often and even more so if you are writing in a non-native language. Most people don’t have much need to write in their daily lives. As an artist, you may find that you are suddenly called upon to do more writing than you are used to and for many that can be an intimidating prospect. While you may know all the correct forms of their/they’re/there and then/than (or do you…) there are lots of mistakes made by educated adults all the time. Not to worry, today I will break down a few of the most common to give you a better foundation when called upon to write as part of your art business.

First and foremost, it is important to know your audience. Statistics show that the average adult in the U.S. reads at a seventh or eighth-grade level. If you’re writing a blog on your website, keep this in mind. Using big words just for the sake of it can lead to confusion, frustration, and lost readers. Keep it simple. Make your point in plain language. No Artspeak.

Grant writing is another story in a way. You can be relatively sure that your audience moves in the world you do and is more used to sophisticated descriptions of artists’ work. That said, it is still a good idea to keep things plain and simple. Don’t skimp on rich detail, but don’t obfuscate, either.

Beware comma usage. Commas catch people up all the time. They are either left out or overused. There are rules when it comes to where and how to place commas. There are rather a lot of them, but some of the major ones are as follows:

Commas are used to separate independent clauses in sentences. An independent clause is a piece of a sentence that could stand on its own. Let’s use the following sentence as an example:

Artists are a rare breed, but artists who can write are like unicorns. 

This is a sentence made up to two independent clauses. That means that technically you could write, Artists are a rare breed. Artists who can write are like unicorns. Each piece of the sentence could stand on its own. When joining two independent clauses like this and when doing so using the conjunctions and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet a comma must be used.

Commas are also used when there is an introductory word before the main clause of a sentence. For example:

However, artists are a rare breed.

The word however precedes the main (independent) clause and must be separated with a comma.

What about the Oxford comma? Also known as the Harvard comma or the serial comma, this one causes a lot of confusion. Put simply, an Oxford comma is the final comma in a series of things. Take these two versions of the same sentence:

My sister loves her dogs, Madonna, and Coffee. 

My sister loves her dogs, Madonna and Coffee.

Technically speaking, the Oxford comma is not a requirement in most forms of writing. AP Style (which is what newspapers and magazines use) forbids the use of Oxford commas. However, they can be extremely useful in some instances like the sentence above. With the Oxford comma, it is clear that my sister loves three things. She loves her dogs, she loves Madonna, and she loves coffee. Without the comma, it could be argued that my sister named her dogs Madonna and Coffee.

There are many other comma rules that could be covered in future posts, but for now, these are some of the main and most commonly mistaken ones.

Let’s move on to tricky words. There are several groups of words that are commonly misused in the English language. Here are some of the most common:

Your: Possessive, shows ownership (Is this your paint brush?)
You’re: Contraction of you are (You’re doing great!)

There: Indicates place (Over there)
Their: Indicates possession (It’s their house)
They’re: Contraction of they are (They’re not home)

Then: Indicates time (Then we’ll go to the park)
Than: Indicates comparison (My sister is taller than me)

Accept: To agree to or receive (He accepted the residency)
Except: Not including (Everyone except Henry)

Affect: To change (The weather will affect the picnic)
Effect: A result or to cause a result (What were the effects of the discussion?)

Desert: A hot, dry place
Dessert: A delicious sweet following a meal

Less: Indicates volume (There is less water in your glass)
Fewer: Indicates things that can be counted (There are fewer jelly beans in your jar)

These are just some of the most commonly misused words in the English language. Like I said at the beginning of this post, English is infamous for its host of similar sounding words and it is so easy to get confused. When in doubt, always look it up.







  1. You are a man after my own heart! Although I have always been in the arts in some manner, I was also a proofreader for McGraw-Hill and am an admitted “grammar Nazi.” You left out one of my pet peeves, one that even some of the best writers I know get wrong: it’s vs. its. “Its” is possessive–think of it like “theirs” (no apostrophe) or yours (no apostrophe)–and “it’s” HAS to mean “it is”!

    • It is only my opinion, of course, but using the term “Nazi” to describe strict authoritarianism is a terrible practice. I know that Seinfeld used it quite often when talking about the ” soup Nazi,” but it is still in terrible taste. “Nazi” is quite a specific term, referring to a sick, period of human behavior.


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