The Blog

More English Grammar and Punctuation Rules That Drive Us All Nuts

Rule #2: Strunk and White, the venerable authors of, suggest that it is almost always preferable to choose the word "use" over the more pretentious word, "utilize."
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Sometimes you learn a whole lot more by being wrong about something than right. And that's the case in what I wrote in my last Grammar and Punctuation blog about placement of exclamation points and question marks relative to quotation marks.

From many HuffPost readers, and confirmed by the English grammar books, I have learned:

1. ENGLISH RULE: No matter what, periods and commas go inside quotation marks, but exclamation points and question marks go outside of quotation marks, unless they are an integral part of the quote itself.

Exclamation point example: Karen told me, "I am so excited about going to college!" (inside quotation marks)

Another example: I was really sad to hear the student say, "I'm simply not in the mood for college"! (outside quotation marks)

Question mark example:
Christian asked, "What do you think about my wanting to attend a party school?" (inside quotation marks)

Another example: Can you imagine how frustrated I get when students declare, "All I care about is attending a party school."? (outside quotation marks)

As promised, here are a few more grammatical and punctuation mistakes students (and others) frequently make. Believe it or not, a college president reader of my blogs twice asked me to clear up the usage of "use" versus "utilize."

2. ENGLISH RULE: Strunk and White, the venerable authors of The Elements of Style, suggest that it is almost always preferable to choose the word "use" over the more pretentious word, "utilize."

Wikinut sums it rather nicely by saying, "Don't utilize utilize, use use instead." They go onto say, the choice between use and utliize depends on how the item to which you are referring is normally used. For example,

"You use a pen to write, but can utilize it as a weapon."

"You use a dining table for eating, but can utilize it as a work space."

Not suggested: I utilize the Common Application

Preferred: I use the Common Application

Not suggested: He utilized the services of an independent counselor

Preferred: He used the services of an independent counselor.

3. ENGLISH RULE: Whether to use who (and whoever) or whom (and whomever) depends on whether the word is referring to the subject of a sentence or clause or the object of a sentence or clause. If you've forgotten what a subject and object are, here is a quick reminder: He (the subject, or the person doing something) loves (verb) Grinnell College (the object, the person or thing "being done to.")

Who is like the subject pronouns I, you, he, she, it, we, they.

Whom is like the object pronouns me, him, her, us and them. Whom also is used after a preposition (e.g., to whom, for whom, by whom, etc.)

Mistake: Whom wrote the letter of recommendation?

Correction: Who (used like I wrote, you wrote, he wrote, etc.) wrote the letter of recommendation?

Mistake: Whom is the teacher for that course?

Correction: Who (who is like he, she) is the teacher for that course?

Mistake: Mark is whom got into UCLA

Correction: Mark is who got into UCLA. (He, not him, got into UCLA)

Mistake: To who do I send my transcripts?

Correction: To whom (there is a preposition so whom is correct) do I send my transcripts?

4. ENGLISH RULE: Many people seem to confuse affect and effect. Effect is a noun and is usually used to mean the result of something or a change. E.g., studying hard usually has a good effect. Affect is a verb and usually used to mean to influence or cause something. E.g., Studying hard usually affects one's grades.

Mistake: The teacher's lecture meant to show how drugs effect decision-making.

Correction: The teacher's lecture meant to show how drugs affect decision-making.

Mistake: The affect of drug laws has not changed student behavior that much.

Correction: The effect of drug laws has not change student behavior that much.

Mistake: Rainy, cold weather really effects my mood.

Correction: Rainy, cold weather really affects my mood.

Occasionally the word, affect, is used by psychologists to describe a person's mood. E.g., The student had a very positive affect. And sometimes the word, effect, is used like a causal agent. E.g., I really want to effect change in my students.

5. ENGLISH RULE: Semicolons and colons are often used interchangeably, but they shouldn't be. Semicolons separate two clauses that are related to one another, but could stand alone as their own sentences.

Example: I am thrilled to have been accepted at OSU; it is my number one choice.

They are also used between two sentences that are connected by conjunctions, such as therefore, however, thus, and then.

Example: I am thrilled to have been accepted at Lewis and Clark; however, I decided to attend OSU because they have a veterinary school.

Semicolons also help separate a list of items in a sentence that already has commas.

Example: I went to the bookstore for supplies today and ended up buying pens, highlighters and colored pencils; amazing, graphic lined notebooks, and also a few books.

Colons are used to introduce or give examples of something, including a list, a statement or question or even a quotation.

Example of a list: Many high school students don't understand that there are different kinds of colleges: two-year community colleges, four-year public colleges and universities and four-year private colleges and universities.

Example of a statement: I keep telling students that there is one thing they need to keep in mind when they put together a college: finding colleges that really fit them.

Example of quote: Even Shakespeare has something to say to college applicants: "To thine own self be true."

A colon is also used after a salutation for a letter (Dear Martha) or separating numbers when identifying at time (7:00)

So that's my two cents worth about grammar and punctuation for now. Another time I'll come back and deal with neither/nor, it's, its, your, you're; lie/lay, and recurring use of the same word.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, there are wonderful Internet resources on the top; just Google whatever you need or want. And if you are near a library, check out J. Martyn and Anna Kathleen Walsh's Plain English Handbook and Watkins, Dillingham and Hiers Practical English Handbook. You can buy used copies of each of those for just a couple of dollars at a local used book store or on

Happy New Year!