Grammar Mechanics Study Guide: Pre-Ged Language Arts, Writing (page 2)

Updated on Aug 12, 2011

About the same time you learned to begin a sentence with a capital letter, you also learned to end a sentence with a period, a question with a question mark, and an exclamation with an exclamation point. However, the correct usage of some other forms of punctuation is not always as clear. Commas often cause the most confusion for writers, so we will review their use in this section. We will also quickly review a few others, including semicolons, apostrophes, and quotation marks.


Each time you write the date, whether on an assignment or on a check, you use a comma to separate the day and the year, such as January 1, 2015. In a sentence, a comma is used to set off the year if the day is included. However, if only the month and year are stated, a comma is not used. Look at the following sentences:

We moved into our house in August 2001, and my sister was born on February 9, 2002, at West Coast Hospital.

Commas are also necessary to separate items in a series. If only two items are joined by the conjunction and, a comma is not needed. Commas are also used to separate adjectives that are listed together if each adjective is able to independently describe the noun. Look at the following examples:

We had a quiz in English, a test in math, and a paper due in history.

The math test covered addition and subtraction of fractions.

It has been a long, stressful day.

Commas are also used to set off phrases. Use a comma after an introductory phrase at the beginning of a sentence, or at the beginning and end of a phrase that interrupts the main message of a sentence with nonessential information. To determine whether information is essential or not, try reading the sentence without it. If the meaning of the sentence does not change without this information, it is not essential. Consider the following examples:

By the way, there is going to be a sale at the mall this weekend.

After the movie ended, Mr. Moffitt took his family for a walk downtown.

Our drama teacher, who is new to the school this year, is planning auditions for the spring play.

A comma is also used to introduce a quotation or to separate a quote from the speaker. Notice that when the speaker is named after the quotation, the comma is placed inside the quotation marks, as follows:

Julio said, "The movie, a documentary on the life of penguins, lasted nearly two hours."

"I've wanted to see that movie since it was released," replied Kailyn.

An appositive is a noun, pronoun, or modifying phrase which explains or identifies the noun or pronoun beside it in a sentence. If the noun being explained is too general without the appositive, a comma is not used because the information is essential to the meaning of the sentence. However, if the meaning of the sentence is clear without the appositive, commas are needed before and after the appositive. Consider the following examples:

A top expert in his field, Professor Johansen is often asked to speak at national conferences.

Nicholas the captain of the chess team is not the same person as Nicholas the captain of the wrestling team.

A compound sentence includes two independent clauses which are joined by a conjunction, such as and, but, or, nor, for, or yet. In a compound sentence, a comma is used between the first independent clause and the conjunction. However, a comma is not used between compound predicates. Consider the following:

Springfield is the capital of Illinois, and it is the home of Abraham Lincoln.

The frozen surface of the lake began to thaw and became dangerous for ice skaters.

The first example is a compound sentence because it contains two independent clauses. The second example has a compound predicate, or two verbs, but is not a compound sentence since it does not contain two independent clauses.

Sometimes, two independent clauses are joined by a conjunctive adverb, such as however or on the other hand. When this happens, a semicolon or a period is used to separate the clauses, not a comma. A conjunctive adverb is followed by a comma when it begins an independent clause, and it is set off by commas on either side when used in the middle of a sentence. Consider the following:

My grandfather's car won't start this morning; however, it is still under warranty.

My dad's car, on the other hand, no longer has a warranty.

In order to use commas effectively, it is important to recognize the following conjunctive adverbs:

Some complex sentences include a dependent clause and an independent clause. When the dependent clause comes first, it is followed by a comma. When the independent clause comes first, a comma is not needed. Consider the following:

Because it was so hot outside, Adrienne only stayed at the beach for a short time.

Adrienne only stayed at the beach for a short time because it was so hot outside.

Let's put all of this information about commas into practice. Use what you've learned to answer the following question.

"Well," explained Morgan, "we need to slice the fruit, pour the punch into the punchbowl, and bake the stuffed mushrooms. The guests who are mostly his coworkers, will arrive by 7:00."

Which correction should be made to the sentence?

  1. remove the comma after Morgan
  2. remove the comma after fruit
  3. insert a comma after punch
  4. insert a comma after guests
  5. remove the comma after coworkers

Answer: d

The phrase who are mostly his coworkers is not essential because the meaning of the sentence can be understood without it. Therefore, it should be placed apart by commas on both ends.


Rather than using a comma and coordinating conjunction, a semicolon can be used to link two related independent clauses. As discussed in the section about commas, semicolons also link clauses that are connected by a conjunctive adverb. Consider the following:

The Countryside High School football team won Friday night's game; they remain undefeated.

The president is elected to a term of four years in office; similarly, governors also serve a four-year term.

As you know, commas are used to separate items in a series. However, if the elements of the series already contain commas, semicolons are used to separate the elements. Consider the following:

Judge Alvarez has presided over cases in Sacramento, California; Rockford, Illinois; and Lexington, Kentucky.


Apostrophes are used to form possessive nouns. If the noun is singular, the apostrophe precedes the s, even if the singular noun already ends in s. If the noun is plural and already ends with s, the apostrophe is placed after the s.

It was Nadia's idea to donate her brother's old toys to the children's home.

The twins' birthday was last week, and everyone went to Carlos's house for the party.

Apostrophes are not used with possessive pronouns such as hers, theirs, or its. These words already indicate possession, so an apostrophe and s are not necessary. Consider the following examples:

Marisol pointed out that the flowers in the vase are hers.

The dog wagged its tail.

An apostrophe is also used to show the plurals of letters, as follows:

There are four i's in Mississippi.

One of the most common uses of apostrophes is to take the place of the missing letters in contractions. These words will be discussed later in this chapter.

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