‘Grey Areas and Gremlins: A grammar and punctuation refresher’ text-workbook


I’ve been self-publishing my text-workbook Grey Areas and Gremlins: A grammar and punctuation refresher since 2003 and continuing to develop various colour-coded explanatory handouts to accompany it.

Grey Areas and Gremlins is a simple, easy-to-use reference and workbook for anyone who wants to discover and apply ways to solve the common problems that writers and editors encounter.

I both use the book as a classroom resource and sell it by mail order.



Here are the book’s table of contents and introduction:


Introduction v

Acknowledgements vi

PART 1: The nine parts of speech 1
A summary of the nine parts of speech 2
Parts of speech: a summary of the common grammatical problems and solutions 3
Nouns 12
Pronouns 27
Adjectives 34
Verbs 42
Adverbs 59
Conjunctions 62
Connectives 66
Prepositions 68
Interjections 76
Exercises: Parts of speech 77

PART 2: Construction of English 79
A summary of the four elements used to construct English 80
Construction of English: a summary of the common grammatical problems and solutions 82
Phrases 84
Clauses 88
Sentences 95
Paragraphs 106
Exercises: Construction of English 109

PART 3: Perfect punctuation 112
A summary of the punctuation marks 113
Punctuation: a summary of the common grammatical problems and solutions 119
Full stop 125
Question mark 128
Exclamation mark 130
Comma 132
Semi-colon 140
Colon 142
Dash 145
   The en rule: when and why 146
Parentheses 154
Brackets 155
Braces 155
Ellipsis 156
Quotation marks 157
Apostrophe 160
Hyphen 164
Solidus 173
Bullets 174
Exercises: Punctuation 176

Twenty general-revision questions 178
Twenty more general-revision questions 180

Answers for the exercises 183
     Answers for ‘Exercises: Parts of Speech’ 183
     Answers for ‘Exercises: Construction of English’ 188
     Answers for ‘Exercises: Punctuation’   192
     Answers for ‘Twenty General-revision Questions’ 196
     Answers for ‘Twenty More General-revision Questions’ 198

APPENDIX 1: The four registers of English 200
APPENDIX 2: How do speech and writing differ? 201
APPENDIX 3: A basic glossary of grammatical terms for writers, editors and proofreaders 202

Index 206


A ‘grey area’ is a problem for which there seems to be no ‘black or white’ solution. A ‘gremlin’ is a serial ‘interloper’ who causes havoc in your mind space while you’re doing your best to make your meaning clear. Here are just a few examples:

Grey areas: to use – or not to use – which or that; the subjunctive; a full stop after Mrs or Inc; I or me; who or whom; a hyphen in small business; may or might; while or whilst; different from or different to; formal or informal English; a comma before or after however; active or passive voice; because at the start of a sentence; a rule or a convention; a statement or a question; is or are; past simple or a past participle; a comma before and; a full stop or a question mark; a conjunction or a connective; a colon or a dash; a comma or a semi-colon; parentheses or brackets; single or double quotation marks; initial capitals in headings

Gremlins: personification of a concept or an inanimate object; nominalisation; the greengrocer’s apostrophe; primes rather than smart quotation marks; a solidus rather than an en dash; a four-point ellipsis; a full stop at the end of a title, heading or question; more than one exclamation mark to conclude a strong command; a comma between the subject and verb/s; starting a sentence with and; a colon rather than a comma to precede direct speech; no closing parenthesis; a wrong-way-round apostrophe; a semi-colon after each entry in a bulleted list; to recreate, coopt, reuse and preown

Some aspects of this text-workbook are more to do with editorial decision making than correctness of grammar or punctuation. However, both copy editing and grammar–punctuation are about whether we editors can justify our changes and corrections to ourselves, our clients and/or our readers. Are we making peace or war with all three of these ‘stakeholders’?

If we’re making peace, the writing is pleasant, effective, alive, clear and enduring. Pleasant: readers actually enjoy reading the document, whatever it is. Effective: they’re positively rather than negatively influenced by the message, and they’re not indifferent to it. Alive: they feel revitalised having read the document because it has many signs of life. Clear: they get the message on the first read because the meaning is crystal clear. Enduring: they might want to actually revisit the document, even if they don’t have to.

If we’re making war, the writing is waffly, ambiguous and ridiculous. Waffly: we send our readers on a treasure hunt through a hellish landscape of fudge, sludge, padding and fat. Ambiguous: we confuse our readers by regularly using words and constructions that have more than one possible meaning. Ridiculous: we introduce unintended humour and give our readers a little giggle at the writer’s expense.

What could be more important than clear communication? How can we communicate clearly, though, if we haven’t systematically learnt English grammar and punctuation at any stage of our formal education? How can we say that because English is constantly evolving, anything goes, if we haven’t even grasped the basics of our own language? How can we decide whether and when to bend, break or keep a rule if we don’t understand it? How can we know which style to adopt if we don’t know the difference between a rule and a convention? How can we drive the car if we don’t know when it’s broken down and we don’t have the tools to fix it anyway? How can we expect our readers to engage with our text if we don’t compose it with tender, loving care?

What is grammar, anyway? In a nutshell, it’s how words behave in groups – how they’re related to each other – because their role depends on where they’re located in a sentence. Words are the building blocks we assemble in order to construct English. The result is phrases, clauses, sentences and paragraphs – the four elements. We add the punctuation marks in and between the elements so we make the meaning as clear as it can be. All readers – regardless of their age, expectations, gender, background or level of education – should get the gist of a piece of writing; otherwise, why write anything?

Sure, communication has been democratised: most of us can now use a personal computer, send e-mail messages and attachments, format our documents and use the Internet. However, most of us have neither a paid secretary to ‘tidy up’ our correspondence and reports nor an inkling that we might require a grammar and punctuation refresher until someone more literate points out our linguistic shortcomings. We might set out to draft a document, construct meaning and form an argument but end up demoted, deconstructed and destroyed.

The four purposes of this edition of Grey Areas and Gremlins are to empower you to write easily and eloquently, to equip you with the knowledge to justify your changes and corrections, to help you make informed choices, and to reinvigorate the body of knowledge that went AWOL, at least in Australia, in about 1972. Some of the ‘common problems’ I address, such as ‘the pathetic fallacy’, are forms of expression that I find irritating and avoidable but that you might find unremarkable and be indifferent to. Using italicised example sentences, I table suggested alternatives that I call ‘correct’ or ‘preferred’. I can only offer the sentence/s that I myself would prefer to read.

I wish you education and entertainment as you make your way through Grey Areas and Gremlins. Some of you will be using it as a standalone resource, others as the prescribed text-workbook for one of my editorial-training courses. Whatever your orientation and your expectations for your learning outcomes, I hope you enjoy the ride!