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October 27, 2015

12 Essential Rules to Apply to Your Online Writing

Photo Credit: Adikos via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Many people think of grade school (and perhaps someone with a name like Mrs. McGonagall) when they think of grammar.

You might think you’re covered when it comes to grammar, especially if you’re one of those who really do know the difference between there, their and they’re but, beyond that, what does it really matter?

Jack Kerouac (Vanity Fair) sure wasn’t worried about grammar or punctuation and he made it big, so why can’t you?

The neat thing about grammar and language as a whole is that it changes. It evolves constantly and, while what we learned back in the fifth grade under the ever-watchful eyes of our strict schoolmarms might not be as important now as it was then, it’s dangerous to abandon the grammar ship entirely.

While the grammar of “olde” might have seemed stuffy and pretentious, there is a way to tap into that school of grammar rules that will greatly benefit your online writing pursuits today.

Why Grammar Matters Online

It’s not enough to know the difference between affect and effect anymore (although it’s a great start). In order to be a credible, valued, popular online writer with a wide variety of job offers and a formidable sense of expertise, you need to be perceived as intelligent and credible, which is tough to do if you’ve cast the grammar rules to the wind.

Although most fifth grade grammar rules are outdated in today’s writing environment, you still need to employ great grammar in order to produce good writing.

It’s that simple.

What You Need to Know: Grammar 101 For the Modern Day

Parts of Speech

Do you remember diagraming sentences? Us too. Although we promise we won’t make you do that now, it is important to have working knowledge of what goes where and how it all comes together to form cohesive thoughts that your readers love to share.


We all remember the old refrain, “a noun is a person, place or thing.” All you need to do to update this oldie but goodie is to remember that a “thing” can be a jar of ketchup or existential philosophy. It’s all the same when it comes to nouns.


Verbs are action words that describe a state of doing or being. Although most people remember the “doing” part (as in “I am running with Pam”), most forget the “being” verbs, as in “I am confused by grammar.” Since “am” is a state of being, it qualifies as a verb.


Pronouns step in for nouns when you want to keep it short and sweet. Instead of “When Ryan Gosling wants to know what his fans think of his ‘Hey Girl’ memes, he will ask his fans what they think of his ‘Hey Girl’ memes” the sentence, using pronouns, could become “When Ryan Gosling wants to know what his fans think of his ‘Hey Girl’ memes, he will ask them about it.

Pronouns are an important tool for people who tend to be wordy in their online writing, as they can often shorten and clarify sentences.


One of the helpful things Mean Mrs. McGonagall did do is teach students that prepositions can best be remembered by the fact that they illustrate a relationship between a noun or a pronoun and another piece of the sentence. In other words, think of a little mouse named Pre. A preposition is anything that Pre can do or (wait for it) any position she can be in. Therefore, Pre could be under, over, atop or behind a box. Got it? Good. Try not to end sentences with prepositions and you’re well on your way to being a grammar king or queen.


A conjunction serves to connect elements of a sentence. Examples include for, and, but, or, yet and so. For example, “Lois wanted to purchase a new house but couldn’t locate a relator.”


Interjections are what you use when you’re in the midst of a heated argument about grammar rules. “Yes!” or “No!” or “Wait!” all qualify as examples. By definition, an interjection is a stand-alone exclamation that acts as filler in casual conversation and often serves to convey emotion or feeling.


The verdict is still out on determiners — sometimes considered parts of speech and sometimes not, these little guys serve the important purpose of introducing nouns. For example, “My mother once told me that only the best online writers master grammar rules.”

Punctuation Rules: 5 Things to Remember for Online Writing

Punctuation is important. Most writers have seen this infamous example:


With that in mind, and with a concern for all of the grandmas in the world, it’s important to get your punctuation down pat, especially when your writing will be spread all across the Web.

1. When to use the Semicolon: Use the semicolon to connect two sentences that could stand-alone but don’t want to. For example, “John was angry; he knew that the horse had bucked him off on purpose.”

2. When to use a Colon: A colon should only be used for two reasons: One is to introduce a quotation, explanation, example, or series and the other is after a salutation in a formal letter, as in “Dear Mary:” The third, somewhat obvious, use is to separate the hour and minute when writing times, as in “12:15 pm.”

3. When to use Periods: Use them at the end of declarative sentences, complete statements and abbreviations, such as Mrs. and Dec.

4. When to use a Comma: The comma is an oft fought over piece of punctuation but is properly used to separate ideas or elements in any given sentence. The comma is a complex punctuation piece and should be used when a sentence contains an introductory phrase, when a brief pause is meant, when one main action takes place at the beginning of a sentence and after conjunctions such as like, or, or but. Additionally, commas can be used to separate lists of items numbering two or more.

5. When to use Apostrophes: Apostrophes are used to indicate that letters have been omitted, such as in contractions like “don’t,” which is a shortened form of “do not.”

5 Rules for Quotation Marks: What Goes Inside, What Goes Outside

Quotation marks, much like commas, are a difficult form of punctuation. Although most writers know that quotation marks are used to denote quotes or spoken words, there are other uses for these pesky apostrophes-wannabes that evade most online writers.

1. When Citing, Use Quotes Around the Titles of Short Works: Quotations are used to set off the names of short works, like poems, songs, book chapters (such as The Brothers Karamazov’s “Grand Inquisitor”) and short stories. Long works, such as full books, are italicized.

2. Use Quotes (and Start a new Paragraph) Every Time the Speaker Changes in Dialogue: This rule is designed with the reader in mind as it can be almost impossible to keep track of who is speaking when this isn’t observed.

3. Periods and Commas go Inside Quotes: In the United States, periods and commas go inside of quotes.

4. Colons and Semicolons go Outside of Quotes: In the interest of clarity, colons and semicolons go outside of quotation marks. For example: That’s the thing about Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood”; even if you’ve listened to it a million times, you always want to hear it again.

5. Question Marks and Exclamation Points Depend Upon Context: Question marks and Exclamation Points go inside quotes if they are part of the quote itself but outside if they are part of the sentence as a whole. Clear as mud?

2 Creative Punctuation Rules for Online Writers

Creative punctuation is where your fifth grade English class fails to apply to online writing. Punctuation and grammar, although established studies, also allow for some wiggle room and writers often take advantage of this slack in order to convey meaning and customize their writing. In many cases, creative punctuation can actually add depth to writing and heighten the narrative, making for a fuller reader experience and a stronger piece.

1. Ellipsis Points For Hesitation: Ellipsis points (the “…” often used to convey pause) can be used to convey hesitation in writing and may come in handy in dialogue or blog pieces.

2. Long Dashes for Abrupt Transitions: Long dashes (also known as em dashes) may be used to signal abrupt transitions or showing that someone has been cut off in mid sentence.

What to do With Numbers

Last, but not least, are numbers. Opinions vary widely on this but the general convention is to spell out any numbers from zero to nine and use numerals for numbers 10 and higher. Additionally, any number that starts a sentence should be written out.

The Case for Modern Grammar

Online writers can’t afford to be sloppy with grammar and punctuation rules and these helpful tricks will ensure that, no matter what you’re writing, you’re making the grammarians of the world proud. Although many grammar rules are somewhat fixed, the entire construct of grammar and punctuation continues to shift to accommodate the modern writer. Nowadays, there is more play in grammar than there has ever been before and, with loopholes for things like creative punctuation, it is possible for today’s online writer to take some liberties with grammar and punctuation rules while also staying true to dear Mrs. McGonagall, wherever she may be…


Julia McCoy is a serial content marketer, entrepreneur, and bestselling author. She founded a multi-million dollar content agency, Express Writers, with nothing more than $75 at 19 years old. Today, her team has nearly 100 expert content creators on staff, and serves thousands of clients around the world. She's earned her way to the top 30 worldwide content marketers, and has a passion for sharing what she knows in her books and in her online course, The Content Strategy & Marketing Course. Julia also hosts The Write Podcast on iTunes.