English grammar is challenging to learn when it’s your second language—but it’s no picnic for native speakers either! Many people (like myself) never learned grammar in school (I learned later, on my own). Others learned grammar but didn’t retain what they studied. Or even worse, the rules have changed. But proper grammar in client-facing copy (websites, emails, ads, etc.) is essential for many reasons, not the least of which is: you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Why the confusion over English grammar?

Quick question—what’s the correct term?

  • Record keeping
  • Record-keeping
  • Recordkeeping
An open old metal filing drawer perhaps used for record keeping
Is it recordkeeping, record-keeping, or record keeping?

Think about your answer. Did you guess? Do you know? If so, how? How confident are you about your answer? I’ll return to this later, as it’ll help demonstrate how something that seems simple can be pretty tricky.

To begin with, there is no authoritative source for grammar. It’s estimated that there are 160 different English dialects. Each one has its own pronunciation, as well as different vocabulary and grammar rules. Stating you’re using “American English” or “British English” is still problematic. There are seven groups of dialects in the both the US and England. That’s a lot of variation in two ‘standard’ forms of English.

Aside from the two ‘big ones’, the other most common variations of English are 

  • Canadian
  • Australian
  • New Zealand
  • South African
  • Indian English 

Canadian English uses British spelling (colour, traveller), but the grammar is closer to America (I’m going to the hospital vs. I’m going to hospital). 

A young female college student sitting alone in classroom with an open book (perhaps on English Grammar), looking at the camera.
When teaching English grammar and spelling in Korea, I found American English was less confusing.

Teaching English in Korea, I used “American English” (spelling and grammar) as that’s where most of the textbooks I used came from. I found teaching alternative spellings was more confusing for my students. I’d sometimes let students know that variations existed. But I found American English easier for everyone involved.

Determining which English variant you’re using is only the start

Writers often refer to a style guide as their authority on grammar, but which style guide should you use? That depends on what type of writing you’re doing and where it will appear. But again, there are no hard and fast rules. Different style guides will agree on many things but will disagree on several as well. When trying to determine if a grammar rule applies in a particular situation, it’s easy to find conflicting information from authoritative sources.

Additionally, anyone who studies language will tell you language changes and evolves. New words are added to the dictionary yearly, while others are removed or deemed archaic. Grammar rules and preferences also change.  

A close up photo of a dictionary entry for the word "dictionary"
Language evolves—words are added and removed from the dictionary and grammar changes.

We were taught never to use “they/them/their” to refer to an individual in school. “Send your teacher an email and ask them to give you an extension,” was incorrect. We were taught to write, “Send your teacher an email and ask him or her to give you an extension.” The former is now gaining acceptance over the clunkier “him or her”. 

There are rules for when you should use who and whom. But using whom is often seen as pretentious since most people don’t know when to use it. Since the 1980s, there has been a rise in the use of who, while the usage of whom has declined slightly since 1900.

You should be getting that picture that there’s nothing simple when it comes to grammar.

How to determine if something is grammatically correct or not?

Step 1 – Determine the general English variant you’re using

The control panel of an elevator/lift with the 6th floor button lit up.

At the very least, determine if you should be using American or British English. If you can narrow it down further, even better. This will inform things like

  • Vocabulary (elevator vs. lift, fries vs. chips)  
  • Spelling (color vs. colour, traveler vs. traveller)
  • Punctuation (period after titles—Mr. Mrs. Dr. vs Mr Mrs Dr) 
  • Oxford comma usage (yes in American, no in English—unless you follow the Cambridge style guide)
  • Grammar (singular vs plural collective nouns, like “The staff is…” vs. “The staff are…”, and prepositions—on the weekend vs. at the weekend)

Step 2 – Determine if there is an online preferred style guide for that country

Countries like Australia and New Zealand will follow the British English style, but there will be differences. As mentioned earlier, Canada leans towards British spelling but American grammar. Working for an Australian company, I often refer to the Australian Government’s Style Manual. It’s a style guide for government writing, but it’s a starting point. If you’re working for an organization with its own style guide, use it. 

As much as my writing coworkers and I prefer the Oxford comma, Australian English follows the British lead here and doesn’t use the Oxford comma. Frustratingly, even though I have the option to check for the Oxford comma turned off in Grammarly, it often flags the missing comma.

A top down shot of someone sitting at a laptop with the Google search page on the screen, perhaps looking for an answer to an English grammar question
Searching for answers to tricky English grammar questions online can sometimes leave you with more questions than answers.

Step 3 – If you can’t find the answer in your style guide, turn to the Internet—carefully

Style guides won’t have all the answers to your specific grammar questions. You’ll need to turn to Google, but you need to do so with care.

Remember that question I asked you a while ago? I recently had to determine whether to use recordkeeping, record keeping, or record-keeping in a piece of writing.

Googling “Is it record keeping or recordkeeping” will give you an answer, but is it the right one? The second search result is from Stack Exchange. I advise using sites like Stack Exchange, Quora, and Reddit with caution. On these sites, popular answers get upvoted, indicating people like or believe the answer to be correct. While you can find good information here, because something’s popular doesn’t mean it’s right. 

Lego figurines of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker from Return of the Jedi
“No, I am your father.”

Ever seen Star Wars? Ever quoted the line, “Luke, I am your father”? Then you got it wrong. The correct line is, “No, I am your father.” Star Wars fans and “experts” have quoted the incorrect line for years, believing it to be correct.

Include these sites as part of your research but don’t rely on them. 

Turn to trusted authorities on English Grammar

Look for trusted authorities. Major dictionary/publisher sites are good sources, but be aware they may lean towards certain style guides. When I see a result from “The Grammar Girl”, I have confidence the information is accurate. She’s been around for a while and comes across as very knowledgeable. I also haven’t seen many criticisms of the answers she’s given. The more you Google these things, you’ll begin to learn which sources you can trust and which you may want to be wary of.

I use Grammarly daily as the starting point for my grammar-checking needs, but it’s not infallible. Just because a site contains “grammar” in its title doesn’t mean it’s an authority. There’s a blog on Grammarly about the correct use of hyphens, but the grammar-checking tool doesn’t follow those rules. An expert can get more out of it than a novice. And you can’t blindly accept all the suggestions—they’re suggestions that need to be evaluated.

An screenshot of English grammar checking tool, Grammarly, incorrectly suggesting that record keeping needs a hyphen.
But your own blog states you only need the hyphen before the noun…I’m so confused.

Some Google tricks you can use to get answers to your English Grammar questions

Often, I’ll add “Australian English” to my search, but that doesn’t always work. When I Googled “Is it record keeping or recordkeeping Australian English,” the second result is from the Australian Tax Office, which uses “record-keeping”—problem solved! Not so quick. It’s actually “record-keeping rules.” 

This requires a hyphen because the two words function together to describe a noun. Because it comes before the noun “rules,” you need a hyphen. If it were “Rules for record keeping,” would it still require a hyphen? Grammarly seems to think so. But according to Grammarly’s own blog on the matter, it doesn’t.

With no definitive results, I tried Googling 

“record keeping ” vs “recordkeeping” British English 

knowing Australian English tends to follow British grammar rules.

The first result is from a site called “Grammar How.” Seems authoritative. It states:

“Record keeping” is the most popular choice of the three, meaning it’s correct in most cases when written as a noun. However, British English seems to value “record-keeping” as a hyphenated form, while American English seems to value “recordkeeping” as a one-word option.

Problem solved! But wait. I decided to dig a little deeper. I checked with Google Ngram. This tool compares word usage against a corpus of books. Grammar How’s explanation that counts the number of mentions to determine what’s correct may be flawed. Adding the three words, I get this graph:

A line graph from Google Ngram Viewer showing that recordkeeping is the most popular variation.
What happened in the 1940s that catapulted recordkeeping to the top?

Recordkeeping is the clear winner in America, though the gap is narrowing. Changing the corpus to British English, I got this graph. 

A line graph from Google Ngram Viewer showing that record keeping and record-keeping are the most popular variations in British English

Recordkeeping is the least used. But record keeping seems to be slightly preferred to record-keeping. I had one more trick up my sleeve.

If you click on the gear icon on the Google search page, you’ll see a link for Advanced search. That will open up several additional options. I set the region to Australia. Then I searched for each term and compared the number of results.

  • Recordkeeping – 752,000
  • Record keeping – 8,230,000
  • Record-keeping – 8,300,000

Hmm…the hyphenated form seems to be the slight winner here. But when I look at the search results, most instances aren’t hyphenated! And in some cases, they should be (i.e., Good record keeping practices).

So what’s the answer to my English grammar question?

I opted to go with record keeping. Notice I said, “opted.” Style guides are often just that—guides. They’ll often explain rules and preferences but end with, “Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal preference.” It’s not unheard of for British writers to use the Oxford comma as a matter of preference.

It was obvious that recordkeeping is preferred in America. But the Google search results included unhyphenated mentions. I determined that the two-word variant is correct, except when it comes before a noun (record-keeping practices, record-keeping rules).

A man sitting at a computer desk, looking at the camera and shrugging as if to say, "I don't know"
Getting to the bottom of tricky English grammar questions can be quite a journey.

What should you do when you need to check a grammar rule? The best answer I can give you is to use an expert. Do you really want to go to all that trouble to determine if you should write recordkeeping, record keeping, or record-keeping? Probably not. But it’s what I do.

You can do it on your own. You’ll learn a lot, and the more you do it, you’ll become more of an authority. But it comes down to the question: Is this the best use of your time? Without an authoritative source or an easy way to get an answer, as well as conflicting (incorrect) advice from authorities like Grammarly and sites like GrammarHow, it’s easy to get things wrong.

So, did you get my question right? 😉

How do you check tricky English grammar rules? What are your go-to resources and tricks? Let me know in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “How a freelance copywriter and proofreader gets answers to tricky English grammar questions

  1. You should have said this: “…like me.” You should not have said this: “…like myself.”

    1. Well spotted! You are, of course, correct. You can only use “myself” if “I” is the subject of the sentence. After many years of study, I know that now. I didn’t when I was in school.

      Perhaps my subtle (and intentional) joke would’ve landed better if I’d added a winking emoji. 😉

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