Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar Revision Checklist

Grammar Denial

When you’re part of a writing community, such as EzineArticles.com, there comes a time when you’re asked to copy edit a friend or family member’s work. This recently was the case for me when I accepted a request to review a friend’s magazine.

After an hour of review, I was surprised by the sheer number of grammatical errors and attempted to negotiate how to constructively help my friend. There were three stages to our conversation:

  1. Denial – “You’re too strict,” she said.
  2. Anger – Frustrated and feeling cornered, “I was never formally educated in school” she spat out.
  3. Bargaining – “Don’t worry about punctuation or sentence structure,” she told me. “Just look for spelling and misused words.”

Now I was confused. Punctuation and sentence structure are part of good grammar!

Self-Made Writing Genius

This entire scenario reminded me of so many self-made authors who never formally learned their craft – they taught themselves. Take for instance the great orator and author, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. In and out of various rural schools in Kentucky and Illinois for short periods of time, Lincoln estimated he had less than a year of formal education. Shortly after Lincoln arrived in Illinois as a 21 year-old-man, he sought out a grammar teacher to learn more about the English language. With the help of his teacher and the modest book “English Grammar and Familiar Lectures of 1828,” Lincoln taught himself English grammar.

Whether or not English is your native tongue, there’s no shame in teaching yourself English grammar as an adult. A formal education may provide a foundation of knowledge, but it’s up to you to build it up.

In addition to the checklist below, here are a few resources I frequently use when revising my own writing as well as when I’m reviewing another author’s work:

  • Google – Need a refresher on the definition of a word? Simply type “define: [enter the word]” into your Google search for the definition.
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves By Lynne Truss – Truss’ text is a must-have if you need to brush up and refine your punctuation.
  • The Elements of Style By William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White – For the odd rule and giving your writing style professional polish.

10-Step Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar Revision Checklist

  1. Spelling – Check for misspelled words.
  2. Misused Words – Review a running list of words you’re prone to misuse (even if they’re typos). For example: it’s vs. its, your vs. you’re, their vs. there, and a vs. an.
  3. Apostrophes – Look for all non-possessive plural nouns (ensure there’s no apostrophe) as well as review contractions or possessive nouns for apostrophe usage.
  4. Commas – Review for comma splices (a comma joining two independent clauses without the presence of a coordinating conjunction) as well as revise commas used in a series.
  5. Colons and Semicolons – Check colons for introducing long quotes, announcements, and introducing a series without expressions such as namely, that is, etc. Fix comma splices by joining independent clauses with a semicolon when stylistically correct.
  6. Dashes and Hyphens – Ensure dashes are not excessively used and they maintain a space on either side. Check whether your compound modifiers are using hyphens correctly (no space on either side).
  7. Other Punctuation – Review for excessive exclamation points and ellipses as well as period usage relative to quotation marks.
  8. Run-on Sentences – Find every occurrence of coordinating conjunctions – e.g., and, but, or, and yet – and revise any run-on sentences.
  9. Sentence Structure – Check for unclear syntax and unnecessary passive voice.
  10. Asides – Check parentheticals and adjust sentences to ensure they’re used only when absolutely necessary.

There you have it – my 10-step checklist. What do you include in your Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar Revision Checklist? What resources do you keep (and use!) in your writing space? Let us know – we’d love to hear from you.

Want more grammar insights? Browse the Grammar Tips category for posts on top misused words, spelling blunders, punctuation howlers, and much more!


MFrancis writes:

Great list!

Comment provided May 15, 2013 at 9:48 AM


Jean Kearsley writes:

Thanks for the retrospective compendium of links to EzineArticles’ past contributions to the cause. But I have to take issue with your recommendation of Elements of Style. Please see Geoff Pullum’s acute observations on its deficiencies, in “50 Years of Stupic Grammar Advice”, @ http://chronicle.com/article/50-Years-of-Stupid-Grammar/25497.

Comment provided May 15, 2013 at 10:25 AM


Mark Levit writes:

An adjunct Professor of ‘Writing for Business’ at a top-tier university, I’m increasingly disappointed with the level of “grammar, punctuation, and spelling fitness” schools have determined satisfactorily for passage.

Perhaps the challenges are the email & texting shortcuts to which students are accustomed. Or it’s possible schools are still “teaching to the [standardized] tests” which doesn’t make obvious a case for a working knowledge of the writing disciplines.

It’s even possible students believe they can become effective writers without being readers. Reading plays a substantial role in learning to write yet fewer college age young people read these days.

No matter, the emerging generation of business professionals is learning slowly the importance of high school English “rules.”

I’ve followed the paths of many of my students subsequent to their graduation and feel gratified they’re realizing the ability to communicate via the written word is vital to a smooth career launch.

Comment provided May 15, 2013 at 10:59 AM


Kirsten Nelson writes:

Agreed, Mark!


davidinnotts writes:

Mark, I’m speaking from the English schools system, but I reckon what I’m about to say applies to most advanced countries, though maybe not Japan.

Secondary schools have a lot of juggling to do. While language skills are important, they have been taking up less and less curriculum time, to make allowance for the expanded curriculum deemed by governments to also be essential. The result is that, while language is still a major subject, it’s not so major as we wordsmiths would like. Kids have also shown less interest in grammar (or did they always prefer almost anything else to boring grammar drills?) and they have been allowed more recently by their teachers in all subjects bar Language to be less than excellent in grammatical accuracy without comment or admonition – pressure of time, maybe.

The days when grammar was no.1 subject and also taught by default in every other subject (eg, spelling corrections even in Maths) disappeared decades ago. In many countries, the nadir was in the ’60s, when ‘expression’ took the place of ‘accuracy’ in written work. The idea then was to write out your thoughts (‘let it all hang out’) was a common expression; then correct spelling and grammar later. Of course, the ‘later’ rarely happened, and a generation grew up poor in literacy, except for ‘free expression’. Some of these are now the teachers!

The result was, that from the 1970s, for quite a while, college matriculees presented with poor language skills in most of the Western world, and had to rapidly gain the requisite skills to graduate, or even to pass first year. The backlash has taken effect, though. In English primary schools, language skills development in EVERY child are now a major test of a school’s corporate effectiveness (with penalties for failure), and this is now showing consequent results in secondary education. I have been hearing of a similar change from other countries. So what you’re longing for, Mark, should be on the way.

I don’t think, though, that texting or other specialist uses of English have any effect on this situation. People (including students) have always learned multi-level speech and writing skills, being able to speak their own language as required: formally, to elders, to family and to peers; to act similarly when writing; and to switch between these ‘sub-languages’ effortlessly. In fact, it’s a similar situation to speaking and writing several different languages. And both educators and employers have been bewailing the poor attitude, poor skills and reduced intelligence of the upcoming generation for more centuries than I care to recall!


You are partly right. Unfortunately, in some parts of the country schools have taken “No Child Left Behind” to a level that Mrs. Clinton never considered when she introduced the idea. In California, for example, no child is “left behind” (i.e. held back a grade) because he or she cannot pass the courses required to move on. It is called “social promotion,” and it has resulted in kids graduating from high school who cannot read, write or solve the simplest arithmetical problem without a calculator in hand.


Dianna Booher writes:

Useful post!

Comment provided May 15, 2013 at 3:20 PM


Jackie Mackay writes:

Good list – thanks. You asked “What resources do you keep (and use!) in your writing space?”

I use a Macbook, starting to utilise the iPhone as resources. Mostly though I have a Chambers 1893 illustrated English dictionary. and a 1900s Roget’s Thesaurus. They are both great resources for understanding the actual meaning of the words chosen. And a decent light.

Punctuation, the subject of your good article, is an intrinsic part of sending/getting a message. Its placement changes the meaning of the sentence. An unintentional meaning may carry consequences so serious writers do take care.

Jackie Mackay

Comment provided May 15, 2013 at 3:33 PM


davidinnotts writes:

Good list, Penny! But I agree with Jean K that Strunk & White’s tome is well out of date. I think you might want to use their guidance for a dissertation or thesis, especially in English, but not for an article meant for public consumption – way too formal!

But Truss is a brilliant and funny guide to punctuation, and I keep dipping into (and rereading for fun) W. McG. Bryson’s ‘Dictionary of Troublesome Words’ – that’s Bill Bryson, the humorous travel writer, scholar, newspaper hack and university Chancellor. Buy his current edition (1997 or later) though, not the much shorter original from 1983 which was developed from a guide for editors and journalists at The Times newspaper.

I thoroughly agree with your ‘grammar denial’ comments. I’m always being asked to ‘help out’ with polishing a text. but what most of these friends want is for me to make it spankingly good without insulting them by finding anything wrong! I try to have a brief conversation to find out what they actually want done, asking pointed (but diplomatic) questions about the level of grammar, the tone and the audience they’re aiming at. Ten minutes or so into this, we can actually find useful agreement, but a lot of friends don’t want to waste ten minutes – they just want approval. As this is a similarly explosive position as “Does this dress make my butt look fat?”, I often have to plead pressure of work!

But the worst times come when I’m stuck with the editing/compilation job of bringing a set of pieces from several authors into a harmonious, corporate whole. A good example is an institution profile I did a couple of years ago, with 15 pieces being supplied to edit, cut to a set length (reduction to a half, down to a tenth in one case, of bloated contributions) and harmonized in style and grammar. I won’t do that again in a hurry!

Comment provided May 15, 2013 at 6:24 PM


davidinnotts writes:

**sigh!** I’m doing it again – and in a hurry. Why do I say “yes”?


Randall Magwood writes:

Great 10-list tip. I didn’t know Lincoln struggled with English and grammar. I think all authors could use a grammar lesson every now and again, just so their readers can understand their article better.

Comment provided May 15, 2013 at 7:03 PM



A pretty valuable post. Grammar and punctuation improvement has been at the foundation of crisp and creative content.

Comment provided May 15, 2013 at 10:44 PM


Jim writes:

Great article as always. Just out of interest, if you have an eReader, you can download a free copy of the very same book that Abraham Lincoln used to learn the rules of grammar. It is available from Gutenberg.Org at this link http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14070

Cheers :-)

Comment provided May 16, 2013 at 3:55 AM


davidinnotts writes:

Thanks for the link, Jim. This is one of the best basic primers of theoretical English written, avoiding the idiosyncratic dogmatism of the old British primers and also the regularizing attempts of the like of Dewey. It takes English as it is (or was then) and teaches a thorough analysis.

I wanted to own a copy long ago, but those that came up for sale were rarities and cost a mint; I didn’t know that The Gutenberg Project had digitized it – they’ve done a fine job.

I can recommend it to anyone who wants to know the way English is constructed. Just know that it’s hard work – like other Primers – and it’s a couple of centuries out of date on usage, though that does make it interesting reading as you can’t help enjoying how English has developed over that time. The miracle, if you like, is how intelligible it is when we compare it with the English of a century previously, which now needs a scholar to read it with accurate understanding (Shakspere, for example). We probably have Samuel Johnson et al and the growth of literacy to than for that.


Thanks Jim!


TheInfoMarket writes:

Thanks for the great list of reminders. Understanding the basics of grammar is essential for all types of writers.

I would add that once you know the rules, you shouldn’t be afraid to break them when necessary. This could be to get closer to the style and tone of writing you are hoping to achieve. After all, language hasn’t remained static. It has gradually changed over time and will continue to change to meet our communication needs.

Comment provided May 16, 2013 at 6:10 AM


Gracious Store writes:

Thanks for this post. I confess I don’t have any grammar resource on my writing space, but I’ll surely get the two books you mentioned. They will go a long way to clarify some punctuation and syntax issues I am sometime unsure of.

Thank you

Comment provided May 19, 2013 at 6:00 PM


sem writes:

i’m so glad i came across this site. i have been looking for a way to improve my english. for the longest time i never understood why when i asked a question i always got an answer that didn’t respond to my question and its because my syntax is way off!

Now I sort of know what the problem is, I make a huge effort to make sense.

Even as i write i’m making a SUPER conscious effort just to make sure it makes sense.

In my case it’s being around parents for which english is not their first language. Their english is not that great and without realising I partially adopted it.

During school years I knew my english wasn’t great but at least their was SOME guidance, now as an adult I’m completely lost! (and the english is getting worse and worse – not spelling but things like syntax and grammar – sentences are jumbled and always using the wrong verbs).

If anyone has any tips or reading material or a book I can buy I’d be really happy to hear about it – i’m not a writer and didn’t understand anything on the list past the words “coordinating conjunction”. Please help! It has taken me 10-15 minutes just to write this! sounds sad but true…

Comment provided May 29, 2013 at 9:06 AM


davidinnotts writes:

Sem, the book recommended in the article: “Eats, shoots and leaves” (super-skilled readers note the position of the single apostrophe – it’s a British book) is a great start for grammar. As it’s a multi-million seller, you can be sure that it’s popular!

I also recommend Bill Bryson’s guide to “Troublesome Words” (http://www.amazon.com/Brysons-Dictionary-Troublesome-Words-Writers/dp/0767910435) – get the British current version if you can; it has more in and is more helpful. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Troublesome-Words-Bill-Bryson/dp/0141040394) Rather than trying to teach you the basics, it concentrates on stuff that you need but people often get wrong.

Neither of these books goes into the special language of grammar much, so they sound like what you’re asking for – both of them.


Emily writes:

Lincoln’s day schools were far more advanced than today’s. He also educated himself in his own time while of school age- by the light of a fireplace.

Once upon a time, Newsweek was considered a guide to acceptable English usage. That may still be the case.

Learning to diagram sentences will give you a gut feeling of the structure of language (not just English’s, of course). An instinctual feel for the structure of the language made me a superb court reporter.

Reading is a must.

Comment provided June 19, 2013 at 8:18 PM


davidinnotts writes:

Ooh! Rosy past indeed!

Lincoln would have attended a school (‘grammar school’ was a common title) which prepared scholars for university. It would have concentrated on Latin Grammar and writing. and studying ancient authors, with concurrent English grammar studies and leading to later essay practice in both Latin and English. Arithmetic was a compulsory but minor subject.

Lessons were extremely boring and repetitive, with an emphasis for young children on rote chanting and memorization, with severe physical punishment for failure to learn sufficiently quickly. Pain DOES concentrate the mind! Older scholars were expected to spend most of their time on set exercises of mind-numbing monotony – no imaginative scenarios to stimulate learning. How do we know? Some of their timetables, books and curricula still exist for us to study.

Other subjects – those which dominate today’s schools, like science, geography and home skills – would have usually been totally absent; some schools were ‘advanced’ and taught a little mathematics and history.

Such was the ‘advanced’ teaching for those whose parents were privileged enough to be able to afford the fees. Most got very little; Lincoln himself was almost entirely self taught and by sheer talent and determination rose above his blighted beginnings well enough so that in 1844 he could afford to buy a rich house outright – a rare thing, then for a man in his 30s.

Remove pink glasses; see truth!


Emily writes:

I guess you knew him personally.

A while back, there were tests that students had to pass to finish grades. Third grade, even, had math questions that were beyond today’s people. They involved practical farm-related math problems about, say, wool.
Many biographies of Lincoln tell of the fireside reading he did.
And when I was in high school, advanced English classes included Latin. They taught it some in logic courses there, too.

Did I say anything about good old days? – Methinks not.

Comment provided June 20, 2013 at 5:25 PM


davidinnotts writes:

Removes tongue from cheek.

For centuries now, adults (especially College professors and employers) have been saying that school teaching isn’t what it was, and the youngsters of today are far less intelligent and worse educated than ‘when I was a kid’.

No, I can’t claim to have lived quite that long, but I can read books that collect the evidence, and appear trustworthy. And I have studied History of Education and Educational Psychology in depth at college. I’ve commented in other articles on these themes, but in brief: there was a time, a few decades ago, when teachers (not all) took their eyes off the ball of good grammar, as they concentrated on excellent imagination and expression. A generation grew up handicapped by poor spelling, punctuation and grammar, and that included many of today’s older teachers. I was just – barely – too old to be caught in this, thank goodness! You describe the consequences well.

But your point about the test questions from the past is partly, though not wholly, right. No-one today would do well in examinations from a long time ago. We haven’t the background, personal experience or need. What would you think if your urban kids were trained and tested on farming maths, science and history? Wouldn’t you complain to the School Board about ‘inappropriate curricula’? And would you prefer your kids to learn Latin and Classical Logic INSTEAD OF… – well, what? School curricula are pretty crowded, and it’s always been a bone of contention what to lose and what to add; and it goes round in fashions. Lincoln missed most of this, anyway. I read that he attended few lessons, but did discover what he needed to know, and being pretty bright, taught himself (at his fireside?)

In 1925 there was a major report in England on school standards issued, complaining that standards had dropped in elementary schools. This was driven – they said – by too much unnecessary ‘extra material’ like maths, social history, physical training and domestic science. The ‘3 R’s’ had dropped to under two-thirds of the school week! Compare that with today. Suggest what to drop from today’s timetables to put reading, writing and arithmetic (not Maths) back to 2/3 of all school time – and wait for the fur to fly!

All school learning is a balance of time. What counts is how much students are enjoying what they do, how well they are encouraged to excel, and whether, when they leave, they’ve been fitted for the life they’ll have to live in TODAY’s society. Latin? Useful – for the more scholarly. But it’s not called a dead language for nothing! Arithmetic? Well, yes – but not to the point of deep mental arithmetic when we have calculators in our pockets and few of us will need to add up at a till. I suspect that your ‘math questions that were beyond today’s people’ were serious arithmetic, not the maths needed to study for higher qualifications: set theory, integration and ballistics, for example.


Vijay Khosla writes:

Great post indeed!

Comment provided June 21, 2013 at 1:09 AM


CA Sucharski writes:

I enjoyed reading your article and shared it on my LinkedIn page.

Proofreading is a necessary step in writing, and there are still many people who believe that if they let a document rest and proofread it later, they will catch all their mistakes. After you have written something and reviewed it a few times, your eyes naturally begin to skim. A second set of eyes is invaluable.

A good proofreader will check for flow, consistency of style and tense, punctuation, grammar, and spelling. That includes verifying the spelling of the names of companies and people. Proofreaders also offer a valuable second perspective on what’s been written.

I have worked for some amazing writers, who have fantastic spelling and grammar skills, and are very well read. However, very few pieces escape the mark of my red proofreading pen. A good writer knows the value of that second set of eyes.

Thanks for a great checklist!

Comment provided July 3, 2013 at 10:35 AM


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