Grammar and Punctuation: Language


1. That versus Which

2. Prepositions

3. Apostrophes and Contractions

4. Pronouns

Elements of language—rules and choices about words—can drastically alter the meaning of the sentence. If you use “that” instead of “which,” for example, you are implying that the phrase that follows is a required part of the definition of the words or concepts in the sentence, and this interpretation may change your entire point. Below are descriptions of the most common language choices you must make in writing.

1. That versus Which
Knowing when to use “that” and “which” puzzles many writers. The basic difference in the use of “that” and “which” is the nature of the clause that follows. Nonessential clauses can be connected to the sentence using “which,” while essential clauses—in other words, those that significantly change the meaning of the sentence—can be connected to the sentence using “that.” Essential clauses do not need commas. You can also think of these clauses as nonrestrictive and restrictive. Nonrestrictive clauses tell you something about the subject of a sentence, but they do not restrict the meaning. Restrictive clauses, on the other hand, limit the possible meaning of the subject.

A helpful way to determine whether or not your clause is essential (restrictive) is to read your sentence aloud both with and without the clause. If the two sentences convey specifically different meanings, your clause is essential and you must use “that.”

Nonessential or nonrestrictive clause:
The poetry reading, which was held at Otherlands, was successful.
The poetry reading was successful (the location was not a factor in this).

Essential or restrictive clause:
The poetry reading that was held at Otherlands was successful.
The poetry reading at Otherlands (but not necessarily elsewhere) was successful, or that out of all the locations where readings took place, Otherlands had the only successful poetry reading.

Nonessential or nonrestrictive clause:
The minor medical center, which is in the Baptist healthcare network, is on Poplar Avenue.
This sentence establishes that the medical center is on Poplar Avenue; the fact that it is in the Baptist healthcare network is extraneous information.

Essential or restrictive clause:
The minor medical center that is open on Sunday is on Poplar Avenue.
This sentence conveys that the particular medical center location on Poplar is open on Sundays. The fact of its Sunday hours is critical to the meaning and so the clause must be essential or restricted by using “that.”

There are of course exceptions, and this rule applies only when referring to inanimate objects or nameless animals. When referring to a human being or named animal, you should use “who” or “whom.” Whom is an objective form of “who.”

The professor who won the Clarence Day Teaching Award is Patrick Shade.
The professor to whom we owe the loudest round of applause is Patrick Shade.

2. Prepositions
A preposition links nouns, pronouns, and phrases to other words in a sentence. The word or phrase that the preposition introduces is called the object of the preposition. Some common prepositions include the following:

about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, but, by, despite, down, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, like, near, of, on, out, over, to, with

Formal writing should not have sentences that end in prepositions. Prepositions should be moved to the beginning of the clause.

Faulty construction:
Grammar is something I need help with. 
Correct construction:
Grammar is something with which I need help.

3. Apostrophes and Contractions 
The apostrophe has three main uses: to form possessives of nouns, to create contractions, and to indicate plurals of lowercase letters.

To form possessives of nouns add ’s to the singular form of the word, add ’s to the plural forms that do not end in –s, add an to the end of plural nouns that end in –s, and add ’s to the last noun in a list to show joint possession of an object.

Apostrophes are used in contractions. A contraction is a word in which one or more letters have been omitted. The apostrophe shows this omission. To use an apostrophe to create a contraction, place an apostrophe where the omitted letter(s) would go.

Be careful. Many words and contractions that are phonetically identical have different meanings. For example “they’re” means “they are,” which differs from “their” (possessive) and there (place). Also, “you’re” means “you are,” which differs from “your” (possessive).

4. Pronouns
Pronouns replace and refer to other nouns. Many students use ambiguous pronoun references. To avoid this mistake, all pronouns in your paper should accurately and clearly refer to their appropriate nouns. For example, never use the pronoun “their” when referring to something that belongs to “someone,” and never use “he” if there are two male possibilities in the sentence.

Inconsistent, faulty reference:
A student at Rhodes must register for their classes online.
“Student” is singular; whereas “their” is plural. The consistent, correct reference is below:
Students at Rhodes must register for their classes online.
A student at Rhodes must register for his or her classes online.

Double, unclear reference:
Brian and Michael, having saved up enough money for a spring break trip, decided to drive down to Florida and stay in his father’s condo at the beach.
“His” could refer to Brian or Michael. To correct, replace “his” with the correct name in possessive form.

The teachers claim that grammar rules are clear, but they are confusing.
“They” could refer to teachers or rules. Which are confusing: the teachers or the rules?