If you’ve gotten most or all of your formal education in English, you’ve mastered the vast majority of the real rules of grammar. Most of the students I work with just have to nail down a few additional practices to produce appropriate academic writing. There isn’t any great secret to learning them; they’re learned through repeated practice and feedback.
1. Comma usage
I didn’t really master correct comma usage until my college years. There was a year or so in which I constantly checked my work against a style guide, but since then I haven’t often had to think about commas. Here’s a brief run-down of the rules of comma usage that I see many students violating. For a more complete explanation, and an invaluable set of online exercises, see the website of handbook author Diana Hacker.
A. Use a comma to join two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction:
CORRECT: Her misdeed was significant, but the punishment was excessive.
ALSO CORRECT: Her misdeed was significant but justified by the circumstances.
In the first example, the comma is telling the reader that one clause (her misdeed was significant) is ending and another (the punishment was excessive) beginning. The second example does not use a comma, because the words that follow “but” (justified by the circumstances) do not add up to an independent clause; they make a dependent clause that could not stand alone as a sentence.
Note: “Because” is NOT a coordinating conjunction. It’s a subordinating conjunction. Therefore, it does not use a comma:
INCORRECT: Conspiracy theories can be compelling, because many people distrust the government.
CORRECT: Conspiracy theories can be compelling because many people distrust the government.
“Because,” like other subordinating conjunctions (such as “although,” “unless,” or “until”), is meant to knit together one indivisible thought; hence, no comma. Including a comma weakens the connection in the mind of your reader.
B. Use a comma to mark the end of an introductory element
CORRECT: While we were eating, the baby crawled out of the room.
CORRECT: Alongside the road, we found the perpetrator’s gun.
CORRECT: Because many distrust the government, conspiracy theories can be compelling.
The first example would be comically confusing without the comma. The second example shows how the comma helps your reader separate the introductory element from the part that followed. The third example might be confusing. The sentence from part A, above, beginning with “Conspiracy theories” does not use a comma, but in this example, a dependent clause is serving as as an introductory element.
Learn these rules, and if you hate them, learn to love them. In college, writing stops being about “how well did you understand fill-in-the-blank” and becomes “how professionally and strongly do you argue your point.” Professionalism, I have found, is the key to the real world, and college is, in part, preparing you for it. If you do not learn how to write in a way that projects professionalism (i.e. these rules), then expect to get, at best, Cs on your papers.
C. Use a comma to set off non-essential information (so-called non-restrictive elements)
Both of these sentences are correct, but they convey different ideas:
EXAMPLE 1: Gathering places vital to their communities are worth the investment.
EXAMPLE 2: Gathering places, vital to their communities, are worth the investment.
The first says that only those gathering places that are vital to their communities are worth the investment (implying that some are not vital and therefore not worth investing in). In that first example, “vital to their communities” is a restrictive element. In the second example “vital to their communities” is extra information. The sentence implies that gathering places in general are worth the investment (ostensibly because they’re vital to their communities). The commas mark the phrase as non-essential information, which is a non-restrictive element. In writing the second sentence, you might enclose the non-essential information in parentheses instead.
2. Use punctuation and coordinating conjunctions to avoid sentence fragments
At some point, you were probably instructed that all sentences must have a subject (which includes a noun) and a predicate (which includes a verb) and that they must be written to stand alone. Consider this example of a sentence fragment:
INCORRECT: When you go to the supermarket. You don’t often think about the work behind the scenes.
It has a subject (you) and predicate (go to the supermarket), but the “when” indicates that the sentence is incomplete. When people write sentence fragments, they usually have the missing elements in the preceding or following sentences, so it’s really a punctuation error.
CORRECT: When you go to the supermarket, you don’t often think about the work behind the scenes.
ALSO CORRECT: You don’t often think about the work behind the scenes when you go to the supermarket.
In the first version the dependent clause (the part that couldn’t stand alone) comes first, necessitating a comma. In the second, the main clause (the part that could stand alone) comes first, so no comma is used.
3. Use punctuation and coordinating conjunctions to avoid run-on sentences and comma splices
A run-on sentence (one that smooshes two sentences together) may be incorrectly connected with a comma, which is then called a comma splice. This error is easily corrected with punctuation and some coordinating words.
INCORRECT (run-on): The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary works it had a major influence on Mesopotamian culture.
INCORRECT (comma splice): The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary works, it had a major influence on Mesopotamian culture.
Clearly, the writer wants the reader to see these two sentences as connected. He or she has three options to show their reader how the sentences relate.
CORRECT OPTION 1 (semi-colon): The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary works; it had a major influence on Mesopotamian culture.
The semi-colon is an elegant and underutilized option. By joining two sentences with a semi-colon, the writer can subtly tell the reader that the epic’s earliness and influence, together, make it important.
CORRECT OPTION 2 (comma and coordinating conjunction): The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary works, and it had a major influence on Mesopotamian culture.
The use of “and” in this option also tells the reader to put the two claims together. A more specific conjunction—such as “but,” “so”, or “yet”—is usually a better choice than “and” or a semi-colon because it would provide more information about how the two claims relate.
CORRECT OPTION 3 (separate sentences): The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary works. It had a major influence on Mesopotamian culture.
If you don’t want your reader to consider the two sentences closely related, you can convey that by choosing separate sentences. With the Gilgamesh example, you might choose this option if the paragraph is mostly about the influence of the epic on Mesopotamian culture but you have a good reason to include a sentence about how early it is. These two sentences would function well as the first two sentences of an introductory paragraph.
4. Use colons correctly for lists, quotations, and explanatory information
INCORRECT: We packed: clothes, camping equipment, and a first-aid kit.
CORRECT: We packed the essentials: clothes, camping equipment, and a first-aid kit.
For lists, use a colon when the part before the colon can stand alone as a sentence. Otherwise, leave the colon out (“We packed clothes, camping equipment, and a first-aid kit”).
INCORRECT: Mitchell explains that: “Part of the fascination of Gilgamesh is that, like any great work of literature, it has much to tell us about ourselves.”5
CORRECT: Mitchell explains the power of the epic: “Part of the fascination of Gilgameshis that, like any great work of literature, it has much to tell us about ourselves.”6
You can use a colon to introduce a quote if the parts before and after the colon can stand as complete sentences. A comma is an option here as well. Introducing a quote with your own complete sentence and a colon is another underutilized trick in student writing. Recall from Chapter 5 that you have to use source material within your own analytical thread. Introducing a quote with your own complete sentence can make it immediately clear why the quote you choose is important to your argument.
5. Use modifiers clearly and precisely
Modifiers are words and phrases that add information to a sentence. They specify the meaning of (that is, they modify) a noun or verb. Sometimes the modifier is misplaced, ambiguous, or not clearly pertaining to a noun or verb (a so-called dangling modifier). These problems can lead the reader to wonder what exactly you’re claiming.
MISPLACED: The ski-jumper looked sleek in his new suit weighing only 140 pounds.
CORRECT: The ski-jumper looked sleek wearing a new suit and weighing only 140 pounds.
The suit didn’t weigh 140 pounds (one hopes); the ski-jumper did.
AMBIGUOUS: When formal rules and day-to-day practices differ, they should be changed.
CLEAR: Formal rules should be changed to match day-to-day practices.
CLEAR: Day-to-day practices should be changed to match the formal rules.
In the first version, it’s not clear what should be changed. The two clear versions make it obvious what the author is arguing.
DANGLING: Walking down the street, the houses glowed pink in the sunset.
CORRECT: Walking down the street, she saw houses glowing pink in the sunset.
The first version suggests that the houses were walking down the street. The pronoun to which that first phrase refers (“she”) is missing. The second version corrects that by bringing in the needed pronoun.
6. Choose correct words
Many wrong-word errors that I see seem to be artifacts of the spell-checkers built into word-processing programs. For example, I often see “costumers” where students meant “customers,” “defiantly” instead of “definitely” and, somewhat comically, “martial” instead of “marital.”
Other wrong-word errors come from homonyms, two or more words that sound the same, such as the there/their/they’re or your/you’re errors. In college writing, another common one is the misuse of effect/affect. Use “effect” if you’re talking about the result of a cause as a noun, and “affect” if you mean influence or talking about emotion in psychology (in which case it’s pronounced AF-fect).
CORRECT: The effects of the conflict have been long-lasting.
CORRECT: The conflict has affected everyday life throughout the country.
CORRECT: Research shows that the presence of living plants impact both cognition and affect.
“Effect” can also be a verb, in which case it means to bring about:
CORRECT: The conflict effected major international policy changes.
That sentence is saying that the conflict brought about policy changes. If you wanted to say that the conflict influenced (but did not itself cause) policy changes, you would write that the conflict affected policy changes.