Grammar Resources - University of Chicago Writing Program

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Grammar resources - University of Chicago Writing Program

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An annotated collection of grammar and writing resources from around the web.

A word of advice: grammar is not math
We've selected the sites on this list because on the whole, we think they're pretty
good. But "rules" in writing -- unlike, say, rules in Newtonian physics -- are not
written in stone. They are established by agreement among experienced writers,
even though experienced writers can and do disagree all the time. You'll find, then,
that grammar books and sites can offer conflicting advice. Sometimes a source's
advice may even conflict with your professor's or boss's favorite grammatical beliefs.
But although we cannot endorse any single source, on-line or off, as the last word on
words, the sites we've chosen here do offer solid grammatical advice -- and some of
them manage to be pretty amusing as well. So surf away, but arm yourself first with
your native skepticism and common sense.

Grammar: quick guides
Just the facts: when you're in a hurry. The Grammar Handbook from the
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is a clear, primarily text-based source
organized by subject. Jack Lynch's Grammar and Style Notes (Rutgers) is a
well-written, literate, and lively guide to a host of grammatical issues.
But wait, there's more! In-depth guides.'s Richard Nordquist has an
extensive, informative collection of grammar-related articles on his Grammar and
Composition site. Dr. Nordquist illustrates his points with copious examples of good
writing, taken from authors ranging from George Eliot to Jon Stewart. This
entertaining and instructive site is the first place you should go when the first place
you went wasn't enough. Ad-supported.
Some on-line guides include not only in-depth information, but quizzes that let you
test your knowledge. One such site is Daniel Kies' Modern English Grammar
(College of DuPage). Mr. Kies describes grammar as a matter not just of form, but of
function: we arrange our sentences in a certain way in order to accomplish certain
things. Site demands JavaScript. For another effective user interface, try the
Hypergrammar at the University of Ottawa. Rather than leave you alone in a corner
with an undefined grammatical term, it allows you to click on the term for a
definition and an extended discussion. For an even more comprehensive source, try
Darling's Guide to Grammar and Writing, a nicely designed, well-organized
guide to matters from sentence structure to essay structure.† Besides taking quizzes
on a host of standard grammatical topics, readers can click on button to see a
random "notorious confusable" (a pair or trio of words that sound alike, such as
"we're" and "where" and "were").

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Grammar resources - University of Chicago Writing Program

Better grammar through nostalgia. Finally, those of us who learned our grammar
on TV can return to Schoolhouse Rock (use your popup blocker), a site -- or rather
a shrine -- devoted to the old Schoolhouse Rock songs, including several about
grammar. If you want the lyrics to "Conjunction Junction" and other anthems of the
Saturday morning pre-teen set, then this site is for you (you know who you are). For
an even greater nostalgia bath, try searching Youtube for "Schoolhouse Rock." As
of our last update, Conjunction Junction and several other Schoolhouse Rock
favorites had been posted there by public-spirited grammar fans.

Usage guides
Usage guides cover such matters as choosing between words of similar meaning and
the correct spelling of frequently misspelled words. Most of the guides in the
Grammar section deal with some usage questions, but if you need more depth, you
may want consult a specialist. The Washington State University's Paul Brians has
devoted a site to correcting Common Errors in English. Learn the proper use of
(among many other things) affect/effect, its/it's, assure/ensure/insure, and -- a
favorite from our youth -- peasant/pheasant. (Pheasants are not likely to revolt,
peasants are not likely to fly.) Unlike some other usage sites, this one explains why
some uses are preferred over others; it's (not its) both well designed and well
For more usage advice, try The American Heritage Guide to English Usage (on Its alphabetized list of common word choice errors will protect you
from many catastrophes, such as using "illicit" when you mean "elicit," "oral" when
you mean "aural," or "incredible" when you mean "incredulous." (Why yes, these
distinctions do matter, and we can imagine circumstances in which they would
matter a great deal.)

Thesauruses (or thesauri) and dictionaries
A good thesaurus can help when you know what you want to say but aren't quite
sure how to (say, express, declare, utter, proclaim) it. Try the Wordsmyth English
Dictionary-Thesaurus (by Bob Parks, Philip Resnick, and Mark Olsen) for a source
that both defines a word and suggests synonyms.
WARNING: a thesaurus is not enough! A thesaurus helps you generate ideas, but it
doesn't help you choose correctly among words with various shades of meaning.
Your best bet is a good dictionary. The Oxford American Dictionary has a splendid
digital version complete with extensive synonym discussions. If you recently bought
a Macintosh, you're in luck; the Oxford American Dictionary comes installed in all
versions of OS 10. You'll find it in your Applications folder; put it in your dock for
easy access. Windows users are out of luck as far as a pre-installed dictionary is
concerned, but you can go on-line and search several dictionaries simultaneously at (advertiser-supported).
If you are a University of Chicago student, you also have free access to the on-line
Oxford English Dictionary, known affectionately as the Mother of All Dictionaries.
(Link works only for U of C networked computers; if you're off-campus you'll be

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asked to log in from a U of C ID.) The OED may be a tad too cumbersome to
function as a quick synonym guide, but if you are looking for examples of how a
particular word has been used since it was first coined or imported into English,
there simply is no better source, or even a vaguely equivalent source. If you have
ever felt the slightest degree of intellectual curiosity about language, check it out.

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Grammar myths: "rules" that aren't.
When you were a young and impressionable child, you were probably told never to
end a sentence with a preposition, or never to split an infinitive. Both of these
practices are common in the spoken language. In order to avoid these "errors" in
writing, many people contort their prose into knots of meaningless verbiage. The
resulting sentences don't sound right, but according to the "rules," they are right -and what sounds right is actually wrong. Help! What should you do?
What you should do is be aware that not all the grammar advice out there is good
advice. Some of it is outdated; it no longer reflects the consensus of educated
speakers and writers. Some of it never reflected the consensus of educated speakers
and writers. Consider, for example, the following frequently repeated injunction:
"never split an infinitive." This rule -- an invention of nineteenth century
grammarians -- has been "broken" by great writers since the Middle Ages.
Professional linguists have been snickering at it for decades, yet children are still
taught this false "rule."
Fortunately, if you'd like to base your own writing on the actual practice of great
writers, there are plenty of resources out there to help you distinguish between
bogus "rules" and the real thing. For quick guides to common grammar
misconceptions, try The Living Dead at (commercial site),
Paul Brians' list of Non-errors. or the Grammar Girl's list of Top ten grammar
myths (ad-supported site).
On a similar note, when you tell your guests that "everyone should leave their
umbrella in the hall," you may be told that you're guilty of an embarrassing error.
"Everyone" is singular, but "their" is plural; in theory, you need "his" or "his or her"
to agree with "everyone." "Their," purists argue, is in such circumstances a clumsy
modern innovation that would shock great writers of the past. Right? Wrong, or so
argue the creators of Everybody loves their Jane Austen, a site giving an
informed historical perspective on the contentious subject of gender-neutral
language. Using search engines, as well as a more old-fashioned scanning technique
known as "reading," the site's creators have found in Jane Austen's novels
seventy-five instances of "they" or "their" used to refer to singular collective nouns
like "everyone" and "everybody." This use of "they" is common in the spoken
language, and it provides a gender-neutral alternative to "everyone/his." If Jane
Austen did it, then we can too.
For general reflections on when rules are useful and when they're not, try Bill Poser's
On Prescriptivism. You'll find entertaining and instructive discussion of this issue
and many other language-related subjects at Language Log, a multi-author
linguistics blog hosted at the University of Pennsylvania.

Classic style guides
If the advice we gave above about grammar rules arouses the ire of your Inner
Curmudgeon, you may wish to consult on-line style guides that take a firmer view.
Courtesy of, a treasure trove of on-line texts (advertiser-supported),
you may consult two classic guides to the English language on-line: Strunk's

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Elements of Style (1918) and Fowler's The King's English (1908). A word of
warning -- these beautifully written books are on-line for a reason: they are so old
that their copyrights have lapsed. Both are delightful to read, but new print editions
now better reflect contemporary usage. Nevertheless, you may wish to consult the
ur-Strunk or the ur-Fowler if a) you are motivated by purely historical interest, or
b)you are irked by contemporary usage and long for better days.
For another blast from our literary past, H.L. Mencken's The American Language
(1919)is online in its entirety courtesy of Wikisource. Beautifully written and
thought-provoking, the book describes the development of American English. It
doesn't reflect contemporary usage or recent linguistic research, but it's well worth a
look all the same.

Science and Technical Writing Guides
Writing in the sciences requires you to use standardized text structures you didn't
learn in English class -- structures like proposals, lab reports, and scientific journal
articles. Carol A. Vidoli's Technical Report Writing (NASA) explains in detail the
style and organization expected in NASA documents. Engineers and science students
can seek advice at Virginia Tech's Writing Guidelines for Engineering and
Science Students, by Michael Alley, Leslie Crowley, Laura Grossenbacher, and
Christene Moore. If you're out to expand your vocabulary, the site also includes a
Word of the Month page, which, as its name suggests, entertains readers by defining
an unusual (but useful) word each month. (When we last looked, the word was
"imbroglio" -- an extremely useful word, in our view, for veterans of academic
department meetings.)
For an extensive detailed description of the process of writing lab reports, try NCSU's
Labwrite for students. Molly Cage and Jonathan Wakefield's Writing Biology Lab
Reports (University of Richmond) offers well-written, well-documented information
on how to do just that. Steven Neshyba's† Template for Writing Chemistry
Laboratory Reports (University of Puget Sound) is a brief set of guidelines for
first-year students.
How do you punctuate a single sentence that includes an equation? What can you do
to remain within NASA's 200-word limit for abstracts? Poets never face these writing
quandaries. But for scientists, they come up all the time, and NASA has kindly
provided a source for you: Mary K. McCaskill's Grammar, Capitalization, and
Punctuation: A Handbook for Technical Writers and Editors is on-line in its
entirety. (PDF download) You too can learn to punctuate from NASA! And you
should: most sciences and "hard" social sciences (such as economics and statisticsoriented research) use an "open" style of punctuation that differs somewhat from the
humanities-oriented standards you may have learned in your humanities classes. Ms.
McCaskill's work gives the secrets away.

English for non-native speakers (ESL)
A word of caution: surfer beware. Help for non-native speakers is plentiful on the
net, but it comes in three flavors: non-profit, for-profit, and somewhere in between.

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The most authoritative non-profit sites are provided by various university writing
centers. For-profit sites are provided by businesses specializing in language
instruction. Since this links page is on a non-profit, university-based server, we don't
funnel students to for-profit sites. However, we make an exception for sites that fall
"somewhere in between" the for-profit and non-profit models. Some sites provide
both free and paid content, and the paid content often goes into considerably more
depth than the free content. From the business's perspective, the free content's
purpose is to advertise the paid content. From your perspective as a user, however,
you may take advantage of the free content without going on to buy the paid
content. If paid content looks tempting, keep in mind that the internet is vast and
probably contains the information you're looking for somewhere else -- for free.
Non-profit ESL sources. Purdue University's On-line Writing Lab has excellent
handouts on matters of interest to ESL students: † articles (a/an/the); count and
non-count nouns (too many cupcakes vs. too much jello); prepositions (to the
lighthouse, from here to eternity); and the approximately thirty (thirty!!) English
verb tenses (I was sneaking into the movie† when I saw Bob, who would have been
at work if he hadn't been fired an hour before).
Non-profit Metasites: The following metasites can help you locate additional ESL
sites. George Washington University's The ESL Study Hall has a selective and very
informative listing that describes each link. GWU lists sites ranging from grammar
and diction exercises to on-line journals written by and for ESL students. Another
useful metasite is provided by the Journal for Teachers of English as a Second
Language; their listing of links is comprehensive but does not describe the links.†
Advertiser-supported ESL resources's Kenneth Beare has assembled
an extensive array English as a Second Language instructional materials. The
site includes goodies of interest to native and non-native speakers alike, such as this
list of the thousand most commonly used words in English (with
pronunciations), and this handy guide to simple vs. progressive tenses. Many of
the articles include or link to on-line quizzes so you can test your knowledge
(requires JavaScript).

How we choose the sites
We update the sites about four times a year, using the following highly technical
method: we go to the sites and try them out. We include the sites on this page if
they pass the following four tests. 1) The advice they give must be correct to the
extent that "correctness" is possible when discussing a phenomenon as fluid as
language. 2) They must not be boring. Humor and lively writing count heavily. 3)
They must not be completely inundated with advertisements. Ads are fine
(bandwidth costs money, after all). But we won't include a site if it has more ads
than grammar. 4) They must be viewable on a variety of modern browsers. Sites
that demand a specific browser will not be useful to those of our students who use
another program, so we will not link to them.


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