8: The devil is in the details, and the details are all about grammar

When it comes to an essay, it is not just about research, argumentation, and logic. A major part of how well your essay is received by your tutor has to do with details like grammar, which includes accurate punctuation, capitalisation, word choice, sentence structure and verb tense not to mention correct spelling! While it may seem confusing and stressful, grammar does not have to be - it just is a matter of getting a few rules and patterns down. Once you have those memorised and understood, you almost do not even have to think about grammar - you will just write the right way!

Whether English is a second language or you just simply lack confidence and experience when it comes to grammar, this chapter is designed to give you the components of grammar so you can refer back to it when you need to check anything you are of sure of in terms of how to structure your essay writing. The chapter will also look at some common grammar mistakes and how these can be fixed so as to avoid losing any valuable points on your essay.

Chapter 8 contents:

8.1: Punctuation

Punctuation exists within writing to signpost for the reader, letting them know when and where to pause and what the tone of the sentences are in terms of a question, a statement, or even an exclamation. A good way to see if the punctuation you are using makes sense is to read what you have written aloud. You may find that it flows or you may realise that there are places where you stumble over or sound awkward. Here is where you might have gone wrong with your punctuation.

Let's start with the end of every sentence and then work backwards into the middle and start of sentence (just because we can do so and it will help you work into the idea of grammar). At the end of a sentence, you will find a full stop (period, they call it in America), a question mark, and an exclamation point. Here are some thoughts about this type of punctuation as it relates to an essay:

  • The best punctuation to use in an essay is the full stop.
  • While question marks can have their place in an essay, most tutors do not want to read questions. First, this takes up precious space that could be better utilised with a key point. Second, the entire essay is really an answer to a question so there is no reason to restate it. Of course, if you are quoting from a source that has a question in it or you are including interview questions as part of your essay, then question marks can be used.
  • Exclamation points are not acceptable for use in an essay because they are considered informal and there is no room within an essay for something attached to an emotional response. It is more something that you would use in informal writing.

Then, throughout a sentence, you may use other types of punctuation. Here is a list of what they are and how they should be used:

  • The comma is seen most often and is used to separate ideas and items. If you have a list, want to join two complete thoughts or sentences, or you are adding in a separate thought in the midst of another one, a comma becomes your go-to punctuation. Commas can also be used to replace words or to introduce a transition. Later in this chapter, you will see that the comma also delivers up some of the most common grammar mistakes.
  • Colons and semi-colons can often be used in an essay. A colon is added as a signpost that what follows will be an explanation of what is found in the first part of the sentence while semi-colons often are used in place of full stops in order to connect two shorter sentences.
  • Hyphens and dashes can be included in essay writing under special circumstances but should be kept to a minimum. They hyphen is the shorter version of the dash and is found in compound words (thirty-one, state-of-the-art, etc.) and there are no spaces found on either side of the dash.  Then there are dashes, referred to as em dashes, which are longer and may or may not have a space on either side of them. This type of dash is used for a section of text that interrupts a sentence and tends to be fairly long. However, this is a stylistic type of writing that should be used sparingly when it comes to essay writing.
  • Ellipses look like this: (…) or [...], and only have one function in essay writing, which is that they indicate where text has been left out from a quotation or a transcript. If it makes what you are saying unclear, you can choose to put a word in the brackets or parentheses to help the reader understand what is meant.

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8.2: Capitalisation

While some of the rules about capitalisation may seem pretty obvious like capitalising the first word at the start of a sentenced and the letter, "I," and proper nouns. However, there are some other situations where it is important to remember capitalisation:

  • Countries
  • Languages
  • Nationalities
  • Roman Numerals
  • Historical Periods
  • Months and Days of the Week
  • Initials
  • Brand Names
  • Keywords in Titles
  • Direct Reference to Person in Political Party (Conservative, Liberal, etc.)

Then there are those situations where you feel as though it should be capitalised but you should not:

  • Seasons
  • Generic Terms

You may run across other situations where you are not sure about capitalisation, so it is best to check with your university and its style guide to see if that answers your questions. Of course, if you are still in doubt, then it does not hurt to ask your tutor.

In all cases, be consistent with your capitalisation of words. Too often, essays are turned in where students have changed how they capitalise certain things halfway through their writing. This is a red flag for those marking the essays, so be sure you keep writing it the same way throughout.

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8.3: Verbs

Verbs are one of the strongest weapons you have in your arsenal of words when it comes to an essay because there is action and force in verbs, creating a call to action or creating a way to influence and convince the reader. Here are some things to know about verbs:

  • Every sentence needs one to make it complete along with a subject.
  • The verb should agree with the subject in terms of singular and plural.
  • Verb tenses are very important in terms of keeping these consistent throughout an essay. This means keeping it in the past, present, or future verb tense throughout. If you keep your sentences shorter, you may find it easier to stay away from switching verb tenses in the midst of one sentence.
  • Also, when writing an essay and referring to someone else's research, always refer to it with a verb in the past tense because the research is done even if it is dated the same year as you are writing your essay in!

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8.4: Nouns and pronouns

The next area of parts of speech includes nouns and pronouns. Here is the difference between the two types of speech:

  • A noun is a person, place, or thing, including those that are both concrete and abstract.
  • A pronoun can replace a noun and make a sentence less wordy and repetitious. For instance, pronounces include her, him, them and theirs.

When it comes to nouns, there are a few things to keep in mind to make sure you are being grammatically correct in your essay:

  • Use a dictionary to make sure you have spelled a noun correctly as you take it from singular to plural. There are some tricky nouns out there when it comes to transitioning to plural.
  • Note any nouns that tend to be gender specific and make sure these match up with what you are discussing in your essay so it makes sense.
  • Be sure to avoid the use of any slang words. While you may use many terms in daily conversation, it is best to stick with the most traditional nouns for academic writing.

When it comes to pronouns, there are also a few recommendations to make sure you use them correctly:

  • If your noun is singular, when you use a pronoun to replace it later on, the pronoun also must be singular, such as each, anybody, someone and nobody. That means you must also have a plural pronoun if you have a plural noun.
  • You have to be very careful where and how you use pronouns because you do not want to confuse the reader about what the pronoun is really referring to in your essay.
  • The pronouns you choose to use also must match up with the voice you are using, such as first or third person. For first person, pronouns would be me and I, for example, and for third person, pronouns would be things like she, he, or they. Most essays should be written in third person, but there are some situations where the tutor may request that you write about your opinion and use first person.

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8.5: Adjectives and adverbs

Adjectives and adverbs are other parts of speech that are often used within essays. In first defining each:

  • Adjectives are used to describe nouns and are placed right before the noun they are describing, such as black cat or sharp teeth.
  • Adverbs can be conjunctive, which means they join phrases together, such as also, furthermore, and however, or they can be how, where, or when something has happened and can be placed in different parts of a sentence.

In working with adjectives within an essay, there are a few things to remember:

  • There are three forms of adjectives: absolute, comparative, and superlative. Examples of absolute would be good and weak while comparative would be better and weaker and superlative would be best and weakest.
  • You need to be careful using a superlative adjective in your essay because it is difficult to really back that up with research or data. There is always that chance that you could be wrong by making such a strong statement.
  • Do not overdo adjectives in an essay. Remember this is not a creative writing assignment so it does need dramatic flourishes. Just stick with the facts and be clear and formal with your words.

There are not many things to remember when it comes to adverbs. You just do not want to use adverbs that appear to be overly persuasive and then make the reader feel like they should have already known what you are saying. Therefore, it is best to say away from adverbs like obviously and clearly.

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8.6: Prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections

The last three parts of speech include prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. Remember these tips about each one as you choose your words and structure your essay:

  • Prepositions and conjunctions are used to link words within a sentence. While prepositions, such as on, beneath, about, without and towards, link nouns to other words by focusing on drawing connections with logic, time, or space, conjunctions, such as and, if, either and for, link the phrases together found within a sentence.
  • Traditionally, it has been frowned upon in academic and writing circles to end a sentence with a preposition like with or of. It is still best to try and avoid it, but perspectives on this are lightening up a little bit.
  • Prepositional phrases are often put together in the wrong way. For example, it should be bored with rather than bored of and could of really should be could have.
  • There are two types of conjunctions: coordinating conjunctions connect ideas, including and, for, so, yet, but, or, etc. Try to avoid using these to start a sentence in an essay; subordinating conjunctions include since, unless, although, whether and because and where they are placed decides where the emphasis on meaning and connection should be placed.
  • Interjections are exclamations like wow, hey, and hello, so because they are connected to emotion and feeling, they should be avoided in essay writing. Of course, if they are used in a transcript or quotation that you are using in conjunction with the essay, that is okay.

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8.7: Common grammar mistakes and how to fix them

When it comes to grammar mistakes, there seem to be some fairly common ones that pop up quite regularly. Here is a list of the grammar mistakes we see quite often and some tips on making sure you do not repeat them:

  • Run-on sentences: This is where one sentence really should become two separate ones with a full thought.
  • Incomplete sentences: This can happen quite often as part of run-of sentences where a sentence is missing a verb, which often completes the thought in a sentence.
  • Comma crazy: Students often go crazy with commas because they are not sure exactly where to use them. In actual fact, commas are not essential to a sentence. So, follow the adage, "when in doubt, leave it out." They will not be missed but they will distract and create unnecessary pauses if there are too many.
  • Verb agreement that disagrees: There is often confusion when it comes to verb agreement in terms of singular and forms of the subject that the verb is matched up with. For example, it is not "the dog were eating the bone"; it should be the "the dog was eating the bone," and "the dogs were eating their bones." This often happens with students where English is not their primary language because grammar rules like verb agreement in different in other languages.
  • Spelling mistakes are becoming more common as students rely on their spellchecker in their word processing software programme. What happens, though, is that it does not catch everything, especially if you have spelled a word wrong in terms of a typo that actually makes another word that is spelled correct but not the right one for the meaning.
  • The misunderstood apostrophe: Even experienced writers are known to go wrong with the apostrophe and where it goes in a word.
    • Apostrophes are used for contractions to replace the missing letter or letters, but remember that contractions should not be used in an essay because they are not considered formal enough in terms of writing style.
    • An apostrophe is also used to indicate possession like John's book or Jill's dog. If you are using a plural (which means ladies instead of lady), then you need to put the apostrophe after the 's.'
    • The one that seems to create the most problems is 'its' as students get mixed up when to use it. "Its" is possessive like "its cover" and does not need an apostrophe. The only time is when it is the contraction, "it's" for "it is," but you would not be using this in an essay.
    • Another place where apostrophes get misused is when it comes to dates like the 1960s or 1970s, for example. Do not use an apostrophe between the year and the 's.'

Many of these mistakes are often found with university students who do not speak English. If this is the case, you might want to consider getting extra assistance through an English as Second Language (ESL) programme from the university or through a tutor. They can assist with improving your grammar, phrasing, and sentence structure.

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Chapter 8: In summary

Make sure you can answer these questions about grammar before you move on:

  • What should you know about full stops, exclamation points, and question marks?
  • When should you use commas, colons, and semi-colons?
  • What are the rules of apostrophes?
  • What should be capitalised and what should not be?
  • What are the different parts of speech and what can go wrong with each one?
  • What are the most common grammar mistakes and how can you fix them?
  • What should you do when it comes to spelling?
  • Where can you go if English is your second language and you are unsure about English grammar?

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