Punctuation and Grammar Do's and Dont's:
Avoiding Pesky Mechanical Errors that Hurt Your Writing Grades
There are entire books about writing, but the following do's and don'ts represent the most common grammar and punctuation issues in student papers.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Entire books have been written about grammar and punctuation for school assignments, but in my experience as a college instructor, the following do's and don'ts represent the grammar and punctuation issues I have seen most often:
Do avoid misspellings and typos/sloppiness.
Use your spell checker and be sure to allow enough time to spell check before turning in your paper. Just what is the difference between a typo and a misspelling anyway? A misspelling is a word that you deliberately write or type incorrectly because you don't know the correct spelling, while a typo is a word that you may know perfectly well how to spell, but you mistype it so that it appears as a misspelled word or the wrong word. With that in mind, it's important to remember that spell checkers will not catch a word that is spelled correctly but is not the correct word for the context. For example, I frequently mistype "from" as "form." "Form" is spelled correctly, but its meaning is very different from the meaning of "from." To effectively use a spell checker, you also need to be able to recognize a word's correct spelling. One word that my students always seem to have a hard time with is "definitely." Apparently many of them misspell the word initially. Then their spell checker catches the error and suggests "defiantly" as the word they were trying to spell. "Defiantly" is correctly spelled word, but it's certainly not the same as "definitely."
That's where careful proofreading comes in. While spell-checking is key to catching most misspellings, thorough proofing is essential for catching the misspellings that appear as out-of-context words, as well as for spotting typos and sloppiness. Most of us are notoriously bad proofreaders of our own work. Thus, the more distance we can put between ourselves and our writing, the better proofreaders we'll be. One of the best ways to achieve this distance is to allow enough time to proofread your paper once, put it down overnight (longer if your schedule allows), and then take a fresh look at it the next day or better yet, ask a friend to view it with fresh eyes.
Do be careful with apostrophes used with possessives.
Apostrophe problems are on the fringe between spelling and a punctuation errors. When you wish to show ownership or possession, you need an apostrophe: the king's English, the company's policies, Brittney's bad hair days.
Don't add apostrophes unnecessarily or in the wrong place.
Some writers are tempted to add an apostrophe + s to form a plural when they really just need to add an s (or es, ies, etc.)
Do know how and when to use commas.
Rule governing use of commas are plentiful, but some are just common sense. Think of commas as traffic signs that tell you to pause. If your paper lacks the appropriate pauses, it probably won't read well and will benefit from commas. In addition, few substitutes exist for simply knowing the rules. If you don't know them, you can refer to a good grammar book or use a grammar checker on your computer (again, to use a grammar checker effectively, you need to be able to recognize the correct rules and usages). Another helpful technique is to read your paper aloud.
Do use commas in numbers of four digits or more.
Don't forget other punctuation issues.
In many instances, punctuation goes inside quotation marks; learn the rules governing this usage. Don't use a hyphen (-) when you intend to use a dash (--). With most word-processing programs, the easiest way to indicate a dash is with two hyphens (--), but some enable you to create an actual dash (In Word, on a Windows PC, you can type Alt + Control + the hyphen [-] on the numbers keypad to form a dash; on a Mac, type Option + hyphen [-].)
Do be sure your nouns and pronouns agree.
When you use a pronoun to refer to a noun you've already used, the pronoun must agree in number with the noun.
Wrong: When a student wants to add a course, they must have a slip signed by an adviser.
Right: When a student wants to add a course, he or she must have a slip signed by an adviser.
Don't use vague pronoun reference.
This faux pas consists of using pronouns, such as "this," "it," or "these," in place of nouns in an unclear fashion. When you use such pronouns, a referent must accompany them. Check every personal, impersonal, relative, and possessive pronoun to be sure no question exists as to what noun the pronoun refers to.
Wrong: Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975. This disheartened many Americans.
This what? You need to make clear what this refers to:
Right: This event disheartened many Americans.
You can argue that the meaning of this is clear in the above example, but determining the meaning can still slow some readers down.
The referent for this is far less clear in the next example:
Wrong: A new political climate developed when Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, and many refugees escaped Vietnam in boats. This disheartened many Americans.
This what? This new political climate? The event of Saigon's fall to the Communists? Or the escape of the Vietnamese refugees in boats?
Right: This series of events disheartened many Americans.
Don't use "etc." in formal writing.
In informal writing, or if your instructor permits it in formal assignments, use "etc." only after listing three or more items.
Do place limiting adverbs, such as "only" next to the word they modify.
Wrong: He had only a face a mother could love.
Right: He had a face only a mother could love.
Wrong: The Disney company is only recruiting on this campus (by placing "only" next to the verb "recruiting," you are suggesting that recruiting is the only activity the company is pursuing on the campus).
Right: The Disney company is recruiting only on this campus (by placing only next to the noun "campus," you are suggesting that this is the only campus at which the company is recruiting.)
Don't ever use an ampersand (&) in formal writing.
Always spell out the word "and."
Don't start a sentence with "also."
Either join the sentence with the previous sentence or place "also" next to the word it modifies.
Wrong: I learned about the demand for accountants. Also, I discovered the best way to get a job in accounting.
Right: I learned about the demand for accountants and discovered the best way to get a job in accounting.
Right: I learned about the demand for accountants. I also discovered the best way to get a job in accounting.
Do insert only one space between sentences.
When you were taught typing in high school (or earlier), you were probably taught to insert two spaces between sentences. This practice dates back to old-fashioned typewriters, which required that two spaces be inserted between sentences, but today's computers allow enough space between sentences when you insert only 1 space.
Don't capitalize unnecessarily.
People's job titles are generally not capitalized unless they precede the person's name:
Wrong: Dr. Randall S. Hansen is the Founder of Empowering Sites.Watch other uses of capitalization, ensuring that capitalization is truly necessary. For example, names of majors and degrees should not be capitalized. Whenever you are tempted to capitalize, ask yourself if the word truly requires capitalization. If it's not a proper name/noun, it probably doesn't need to be capitalized.
Right: Dr. Randall S. Hansen is the founder of Empowering Sites.
Right: Empowering Sites Founder Dr. Randall S. Hansen is speaking at a seminar.
Don't use sexist language.
Be inclusive when you write, rather than referring to "man," "mankind," (use "humankind" or "humanity"), and "he," "him," "his" (use "he or she," "him or her," "his or her").
These last items are common to several academic style guides, but your instructor may want you to use a style in which these rules don't apply, so check the writing style guide assigned for the course, if applicable, or check with your instructor.
Do spell out numbers nine and under. Use numerals for numbers 10 and larger except when the number starts a sentence, in which case, spell out.
Always use numerals with age and percent.
Do spell out the word "percent;" don't use the % sign.
Do spell out "United States" when used as a noun. It's OK to use "U.S." as an adjective.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.