If You Get Stuck on a Grammatical Question, Try These Steps

Here are two secrets most writers won’t admit. One: we often have questions about grammar, style and even spelling. Two: when we’re not sure how to write something, most writers take the same basic steps. These steps can help you too.

Am I supposed to write it as “fifty-eight” or “58?” Do I spell it “complimentary” or “complementary” in this context? Should that be a semicolon or a period?
Here are two secrets most writers won’t admit. One: we often have questions about grammar, style and even spelling. Two: when we’re not sure how to write something, most writers take the same basic steps to deal with it. (And secret three: first we whine and throw tantrums.) I’ll explain our steps below, because they can help you too. But first, here are answers to some common writing questions.
1. You can write it as “fifty-eight” or “58.”
There are two correct styles. One is to spell out numbers one through nine and to use numerals for 10 and up. The other is to write out every number in words through ninety-nine, then use numerals for 100 and above. (Note: for two-word numbers, like fifty-eight, use a hyphen.)
Both are correct. It’s a matter of style. So pick one and use it consistently. But before you write any number, make sure not to break the following rule.
2. Don’t begin a sentence with numerals.
If you’re starting a sentence with a number, always spell it out in words: “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall,” for example, and not, “99 bottles of beer….”
3. Put punctuation inside the quotation marks.
Example: “Should we expect you there at 3:00 or 3:30?” (Place the question mark before the end quotation.)
Another example: We should assign a “designated scribe,” someone in the meeting responsible for capturing important ideas and actions. (Place the comma inside the quotation mark here as well.)
4. “E.g.” means for example, and “i.e.” means that is.
Example: “We should stock up on supplies (e.g., food, water and medicine).” 
Or: “We might be facing a w-shaped recovery (i.e., the market, while up now, might be headed for a second major drop).”
5. Believe it or not, “Joneses” is correct.
To pluralize a name that ends in “es,” you actually add another “es” on the end. That leads to the odd-looking, but correct, “Joneses.”
Example: “I went jogging with the Joneses.” (“And they were so fast that I couldn’t keep up with them!”)
Writing involves addressing dozens, sometimes hundreds of grammatical and style questions like these. When writers get stumped, we often use some of the following tactics. You can also use these steps in your work-related writing.
1. Write around the problem.
Let’s use my reference to the “Joneses” as an example. If a writer isn’t sure this is the correct way to write it – or, if he is sure but fears his readers will think he got it wrong – the writer might cheat to avoid writing “Joneses.” Instead, he might write, “I went for a jog with the Jones family” or “I went jogging with Cheryl and Ron Jones.”
If you’re not sure about the grammatically correct way to write something, and you can’t find the answer, you can always find another way to write it.
2. Look it up in a writer’s reference guide.
Most writers have one or more of the following writing reference books on their desks. You should have one as well.
  • AP Stylebook (Associated Press)
  • MLA Handbook (Modern Language Association)
  • The Gregg Reference Manual
Each is a hefty text that clarifies thousands of writing guidelines – grammar, usage, punctuation, style – and explains which ones can be broken, and when. Many of the writing guidelines vary from book to book; that’s because what you might think are grammatical rules are often just matters of style. The important thing is to be consistent in your style throughout your documents (including emails).
What’s great about these books is that they are easy to search, so you can almost always quickly find the answer to your writing question.
A second book I’d recommend you buy is The Elements of Business Writing, by Gary Blake and Robert W. Bly. This is a very brief but extremely useful guide to writing effective professional documents – letters, memos, reports, etc.
3. Look it up online.
If you don’t have a reference book handy, place your grammar question in a search engine. If you type, “Do I capitalize the first letter after a colon?” into Google, you’ll find several good sites, including several Wikipedia pages, which offer answers.
4. Keep your usage consistent.
For writing questions that are a matter of style – “fifty-eight” vs. “58,” for example – what’s most important is that you remain consistent in your writing. If you choose to use numerals when writing any number above nine, make sure you always stick to that rule in all of your documents.
5. You can always ask me.
Still stumped on a grammar question? You can always email me, and I’ll do my best to help.

About the Author

Robbie Hyman is a professional communications and public affairs writer. He has 15 years’ experience writing for nonprofits, small business and multibillion-dollar international organizations and is available as a freelance writer for federal agencies.

Robbie has written thousands of pages of content, including white papers, speeches, published articles, reports, manuals, newsletters, video scripts, advertisements, technical document and other materials. He is also co-founder of MoneySavvyTeen.com, an online course that teaches smart money habits to teenagers.