Alert: Proofread carefully. The reader can read only the form you present on the page to understand what you mean. When you leave typos, misspelled words, and serious sentence errors in your paper, you give the impression that you might expect the reader to "read between the lines." In academic writing, the goal is just the opposite: you want to be as clear, as precise, and as exacting as you are able. Write to minimize the possibility that the reader could misunderstand your thought.
Edit carefully: Proofread thoroughly for errors like those listed here. Reread what you have written. Read your paper aloud to someone else. If you read a sentence and have to read it again to understand it, edit the sentence so it is clear the first time through.
This part of the Website provides a quick check of common errors students make with grammar and punctuation. Although the list is not exhaustive, it does include errors you might find in your own paper. You also can use the list as a reference for comments professors might make in the margins of your graded papers.
Indefinite referents: Whenever possible, avoid using "it," "there," and "this" when no specific referent precedes these pronoun: "It is difficult to say what caused the problem" or "It is necessary to understand this argument" Other examples include "There are many reasons for adopting this policy" or "This is because nonverbal communication is ambiguous." Often these types of sentences can be reworded to avoid the use of "it," "there," or "this" and to create stronger sentences as a result: "The problem arose from unknown causes" or "Often we miscommunicate because nonverbal communication is ambiguous." If you cannot point to a specific noun in the preceding sentence (or sentences) to which one of these words refers, change the structure of your sentence. Rewriting these structures often causes you to make an effective change from passive verbs to active ones.
Shifts in person or point of view: Be consistent with the use of "you," "they," and "I." Each of these pronouns represents a different point of view. Choose one and use it all the way through your paper. Any piece of writing should be grounded in a particular point of view. That point of view can be first person, second person, or third person. The following demonstrates the same idea from each of these three points of view:
(First person: I, me, we, us) I have trouble applying Tannen's work to generalized audiences because I do not think the research represents all of us. Tannen's limited sample of participants should make us wary of making generalizations from those research findings.
(Second person: you) You will have trouble applying Tannen's work to generalized audiences because you cannot be sure the research findings represent you. Tannen's limited sample of participants should make you wary of making generalizations from those research findings.
(Third person: her, him, he, she, they, them) A person would have trouble applying Tannen's work to generalized audiences because the research findings do not represent all individuals. Tannen's limited sample of participants should make a reader wary of making generalizations from those research findings.
Second person (you) is rarely used in academic writing. Many instructors prefer third person (her, him, he, she, they, them) because they believe third person is the most objective of the three points of view. On the other hand, some academicians prefer to have writers claim responsibility for their own ideas and interpretations; those academicians will encourage writers to use first person (I, me, we, us). If the instructor's preference is not evident, students should inquire.
Students err when they shift from one point of view to another within the same paper. Shifting the point of view can be confusing to the reader. The incorrect shift in person demonstrated here is common in student papers:
(Incorrect shift from first person to second person) I have trouble applying Tannen's work to generalized audiences because you cannot presume the research represents all people. Tannen's limited sample of participants should make you wary of making generalizations from those research findings.
In this example the author moves from first person ("I have trouble") to second person ("you cannot presume"). Shifts in person should be eliminated. A good way to edit for shift in person is to read every other page of the paper. Identify on each page the point of view being used.
Such as: Examples should be introduced by "such as" rather than by "like": "Her light reading included works such as The Foundations of the General Theory of Relativity and the Principia Mathematica."
Lack of agreement: Lack of agreement means two parts of a sentence do not agree in kind. Lack of agreement in student papers occurs in a variety of ways, but two are demonstrated here:
(Noun and verb) A plural noun may not agree in number with the singular verb used (or vice versa).
Incorrect example: "The series of explanations of concepts help make the meaning clear." "Series" is singular and takes "helps," not "help."
Correct example: "The series of explanations of concepts helps make the meaning clear."
(Nouns and pronouns) A pronoun may not agree with its antecedent noun.
Incorrect example: "An argument will not be successful unless their claims have been made clear." "Argument" (the singular, antecedent noun) requires "its" (singular pronoun) rather than "their" (plural pronoun).
Correct example: "An argument will not be successful unless its claims have been made clear." Remember that "everyone" and "audience" are singular nouns that do not agree with "their." Conversely, "media" and "data" are plural nouns that do not agree with "it."
One troublesome agreement problem occurs because English has no convenient way to use a singular pronoun without indicating sex. "They" can be used in English to indicate a group of people whose sex is not named. When the writer wants to indicate an individual without attributing a sex to that person, English has no similar, singular pronoun to use. What pronoun should a writer use in this sentence? "A scholar should be aware that _?_ is consuming information created by other scholars." To fill in that question mark, writers use a variety of solutions: "he/she," "s/he," "she or he," or "she (he)." Sometimes writers use "they" even though the antecedent noun is singular: "Every theorist strives to do their best work." Students should inquire about their instructors' preferences on this issue just as graduate students and professors must inquire about journal editors' policies and standards.
Critical differences: Certain words are similar in meaning to each other but are used in slightly different ways:
"Less" and "Fewer:" "Less" and "fewer" are different. The rule is simple: if you can count it, use "fewer"; if not, use "less." Correct usage would be "fewer students" (not "less students") and "less knowledge." The parallel series moves from many to few to fewer and from much to little to less.
"Like" and "As:" Both "like" and "as" are used to indicate comparisons, but the former precedes a noun phrase while the latter is used before a verbal expression: "He drinks like a fish" and "There's no business like show business," but "The symphony ended as it had begun--in E flat major."
No such word: "Alot" is not a word (although "allot" is), and "a lot" is generally inappropriate use of informal speech in writing. "Irregardless" and "eachother," also are not words.
"Quote" and "Quotation:" "Quote" is not a noun. "Quote" is a verb. "Quotation" is a noun. "Quote" is not a short form for quotation as, for example, "memo" is for "memorandum." Writing "this quote proves my point" is inaccurate usage."
Splitting phrases. Avoid needlessly splitting infinitives and verb phrases. "He tried to walk quietly into the room" is preferred over "He tried to quietly walk into the room." "He believed that he probably would go" is preferred over "He believed that he would probably go."
"Which" and "That:" "Which" and "that" should not be used interchangeably.
"Which" is used when what follows is not crucial to the meaning of the sentence. Example: "Those gray squirrels, which you have been feeding, gnawed a hole in our roof." Example: "on the ice barrier, Byrd and his men established winter quarters, which they named Little America."
"That" is used when what follows is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Example: "The studies that have produced such results are numerous." Example: "This article is the one that changed the course of the discussion."
Hint: "That" is correct more often than "which." Also, when "which" is used, commas usually appear around the clause or phrase introduced by "which."
Sentences: Sentence errors include use of incomplete sentences (sometimes marked as "sentence fragment" or "frag"), run-on sentences, and comma splices.
Incomplete sentences. A complete sentence consists of a subject and a predicate. Students often write incomplete sentences when they begin the sentence with an adverbial, dependent clause. Example: "After Coates completed the surveys of the undergraduate participants and distributed a new set of surveys to graduate students." This example of an in complete sentence suggests the writer did not proofread slowly and carefully. Muttering the sentences aloud to yourself as you proofread is a good way to catch incomplete sentences like this one.
Run-on sentences. A run-on sentence is actually two or more sentences run together without punctuation. Example: "Dr. King's use of metaphor creates striking images that appeal to the imaginations of listeners in his audience people came from their hometowns all over the United States in hopes they might be inspired at the rally in Washington, D.C." The writer should use punctuation after "audience" and before "people." The writer could choose either a semi-colon between these two independent clauses or a period (after "audience") and a capital letter (on "people").
Comma splices. Commas splices are like run-on sentences except that the writer places a comma between the two clauses: "Uncertainty reduction theory includes too many conditions, it is not a usable theory." Commas cannot connect two independent clauses unless a conjunction (such as "and" or "but") also is used. Usually, a semi-colon can repair a sentence with a comma splice. The example could be repaired by using a conjunction ("Uncertainty reduction theory includes too many conditions, and it is not a usable theory"), by using a semi-colon ("Uncertainty reduction theory includes too many conditions; it is not a usable theory"), by making the sentence into a single sentence ("Uncertainly reduction theory is not a usable theory because it has too many conditions"), or by making it into two separate sentences ("Uncertainty reduction theory has too many conditions. It is not a usable theory"). Using the semi-colon in this case might be the strongest construction because you want the writer to associate the two thoughts expressed in each of these independent clauses.