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Grammar

Jump to PUNCTUATION:

Apostrophes
Commas
Colons
Quotation Marks
Semicolons

SENTENCE STRUCTURE

Parts of Speech
Agreement
Sentence Types
Common Mistakes

MATTERS OF STYLE

LEARNING ENGLISH


Punctuation

Apostrophes

Apostrophes are used to indicate a missing letter in a word, such as in a contraction, or to show possession. Apostrophes may sometimes be an element of proper nouns, such as the name of a person or place.

  • Contractions

    In contractions, the apostrophe goes in the place of a missing letter or letters.

    • Do not -> Don't
    • There has been a lot of questions. -> There's been a lot of questions.
  • Possession--Singular

    To show someone or something owns something. Most of the time, this means adding an apostrophe and the letter "s" after the person or item.

    • John has a book. That is John's book.

    When names already end in "s," your choice depends on the situation.

    Names that end with the "s" or "z" sound can be written as just adding the apostrophe or adding the apostrophe and the "s."  While both are acceptable, be consistent in your usage throughout a document.

    • Chris left her homework here. That's Chris' homework.
    • Chris's homework is on the table.

    Names that end with a silent "s," "x," or "z" take apostrophe "s"

    • Descartes had many philosophies. These are some of Descartes's philosphies.
  • Possession--Plural

    If the owner of the object is plural, look at the ending of the word. If it ends in s already, put the apostrophe after the "s."

    • I got a new water dish for the cats. I put the cats' new dish over there.
    • The Lees bought a new car. That is the Lees' new car.
    • The Ramirezes made a lot of desserts for the party. Those are the Ramirezes' desserts.

    If the plural form does not end in "s," add an apostrophe and an "s."

    • The women brought their lunches today. Those are the women's lunches.
  • Proper Nouns

    Some names will also include apostrophes. Generally, the letter after the apostrophe is capitalized. Follow the guidance of what you have seen in sources or what the person uses themselves for how to use them in your own documents.

     


 Resources

CSUSM Writing Center Apostrophes Handout (PDF)

Commas

Commas are used to separate information in sentences. They are used to separate clauses in compound and complex sentences. Commas are also included between items in a list, after introductory information, and to indicate nonessential information.

  • Compound Sentences

     A compound sentence is a sentence where the two clauses (or complete ideas) could be grammatically correct sentences by themselves. A comma is used before the coordinating conjunction.

    • The situation was quite difficult, so we decided to pause on making any major decisions.
    • Javier  is working on the website, and Catherine is conducting the interviews.

    For more information about compound sentences, see the Sentence Types section below or view the following CSUSM Writing Center resource:

  • Complex Sentences

     A complex sentence is a sentence where the two clauses (or complete ideas) could be grammatically correct sentences by themselves. A comma is used after the first clause if it starts with a subordinating conjuction.

    • Because the situation was quite difficult, we decided to pause on making any major decisions.

    Note that if we switch the clauses, a comma is no longer necessary.

    • We decided to pause on making any major decisions because the situation was quite difficult.

    For more information about complex sentences, see the Sentence Types section below or view the following CSUSM Writing Center resource:

  • Items in a List

     In lists with three or more items, commas are used to separate the items. These items can be single words, phrases, or clauses.

    • The restaurant serves ramen, pork cutlets, tempura, miso soup, and sushi.
    • Go up the stairs, down the sidewalk, around the fountain, and across the bridge to get to the parking structure.
    • The woman who made the cookies, the man who made the bread, and the couple who brought the cake all work together.

    There is debate about whether a comma before the last item--known as the Oxford or serial comma--is necessary. Different style guides and professors have different stances on this issue. 

    • With the Oxford comma: The store had blue, red, black, green, and purple pens.
    • Without the Oxford comma: The store had blue, red, black, green and purple pens.

    In general, the Oxford comma is necessary if excluding it would lead to confusion or change the meaning of the sentence. If you are interested in learning more about the Oxford comma, this article from Oxford Royale Academy explains how it is used and the controversy surrounding it.

  • Introductory Information

     Commas are placed between introductory words or phrases and the main part of the sentence. Introductory information can include longer prepositional phrases, phrases such as infinitive or gerund phrases, or transition words. The comma should also be used at times when leaving out the comma might confuse the reader.

    • On top of the bookshelf at the top of the stairs, she placed her favorite photo.
    • Closing his eyes tightly, he stepped off the edge of the diving board.
    • Yuki decided to watch one more episode of her favorite show. However, she knew she needed to study.

    For more detailed information on using commas with introductory information, visit the following resource:

  • Nonessential Information

     Commas separate words, phrases, and clauses, from the rest of the sentence if that information is not nessary for the reader to understand the meaning of the sentence.

    • My cat, who I got from the Humane Society, loves catnip.

    In the above example, the fact that the writer got their cat from the Humane Society is extra information. Excluding it does not change the main idea of the sentence.

    • The man who called yesterday seemed a little upset.

    In this second example, the clause who called yesterday is essential to the meaning. This information is necessary for the reader to know exactly which man the writer is referencing.


Resources

CSUSM Writing Center Commas Handout (PDF)
Education First Comma Guide (web)
Purdue OWL Comma Quick Guide (web)
Purdue OWL Comma Extended Guide (web)

Colons

The most common usage of colons in academic writing is before lists, for emphasis, or before quotations and dialog. They also appear in how we note time and mathematical and scientific topics.

  • Lists

     Colons can be used to indicate to the reader that a list will follow. It can take the place of phrases like "which are," "such as" or "as follows" in a sentence.

    • The scientists observed several types of fish in the pond: carp, bass, minnows, sunfish, and bluegills.
    • Make sure you have all the necessary equipment before beginning the experiment: two test tubes, one 50ml beaker, gloves, and safety goggles

    When using a colon, the thought should be complete if you placed a period instead of a colon. Do not place a colon after prepositions, words such as "for example" or "like," or verbs that need an object or complement such as "is" or "are." Consider the following example.

    • The cities I want to visit in Europe are: Rome, Prague, Paris, and Vienna.

    Because we have the word "are" in the sentence, we do not need the colon. We could either remove the colon or rewrite the sentence so that it would be grammatically complete before the example.

    • The citites I want to visit in Europe are Rome, Prague, Paris, and Vienna.
    • I have many cities I want to visit in Europe: Rome, Prague, Paris, and Vienna
  • Emphasis

    A colon can be used when sharing one idea that you want to emphasize. In this way, it works similarly to using a colon before a list.

    • She was admitted to her top choice for graduate school: UCSD.
    • Once they reached the end of the journey, they had one final decision to make: where they would settle.
  • Quotations and Dialog

    Colons can be used in place of a signal phrase or comma when introducing a quote.

    • The company president shared the following advice: "Take risks where you can if you want to be successful."

    Colons can also be used in dialog between the name of the person speaking and their words. Note that in this case, quotation marks are not ncessary.

    • Reporter: What would you say is the secret to your success?
      Mr. Jones: Well, my company was founded on the idea that all employees should have a say in how our procedures work.
      Reporter: What are some examples of times when you have utilized employee feedback?
  • Time

    Colons are used between hours, minutes, and/or seconds when denoting the time of day or a duration of time.

    • The bus will leave at 2:45 PM.
    • Her finishing time for the marathon was 4:27:25.
  • Mathematics and Science

    Colons can be used to indicate a ratio.

    • To get the correct color, mix the blue and green pigments in a ratio of 2:1.

    Colons can also be used when introducing an equation in an academic paper.

    • The equation used to find the radius, r, was as follows:
       r=\frac{C}{2 \pi}
      where C is the circumference.

Resources

Education First Colon Guide (web)
Western Michigan University Writing Style Guide Punctuation: Colon and Semicolon (web)
Purdue OWL Punctuation Guide (web)
Grammarly Blog: Colons (web)

Quotations and Quotation Marks

Quotations indicate to a reader when you have taken the exact words of someone else from a source.

  • Quotation Basics

     Quotation marks should go around any information you have taken from the original source.

    • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began one of his most famous speeches by saying, "Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation."

    Punctuation such as commas or periods usually go inside the quotation marks.

    • A quote ending in a period: Later in his speech, he said, "But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice."
    • A quote ending with a comma; note in the original speech, this sentence ends with a period. However, the writer uses a comma because they want to add a signal phrase: "In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds," he continued.
    • A quote divded by a signal phrase, using commas: "Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom," he said,  "by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred."

    If you omit words in the quote, be sure to use ellipsis (...) to indicate missing words. If the words you omit include the removal of punctuation, use a terminal ellipsis (....) to indicate you have combined sentences. Remember that when eliminating words, you should not change the author's or speaker's original meaning. For more information about how to properly use an ellipsis in a quote, see this blog post from the APA Style Blog.

  • Introducing Quotes

    In the body paragraphs of academic work, quotes need to be introduced to the reader.

    •  Later in his speech, King said, "But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice."
    • King continued: "This is our hope."
    • Toward the end of his speech, King uses language that describes the diversity of the United States' landscape. "Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California."
  • Block Quotes

    Block quotes are longer quotes from a source that you include in your paper. The rules for how long a quote needs to be to qualify as a block quote vary by field and citation style. Block quotes are formatted without the use of quotation marks and instead use indentation to show when the quote begins and ends.

    For more assistance with block quotes in different citation styles, here are a few resources:

  • Quotes within Quotes

     If you are sharing a quote from a source, and that source is already quoting information, the quotation marks need to be formatted in a certain way to signal this to the reader. "Double quotes" go around the information from the source you are reading, and 'single quotes' go around the information they had quoted.

    Consider this example from The Punctuation Guide:

    • The author’s final argument is less convincing: “When Brown writes of ‘interpreting the matter through a “structuralist” lens,’ he opens himself to the same criticism he made earlier in his own paper.”

    Single quotes should also be used around titles that would normally use double quotes when included inside of a quotation, as in this next example from The Grammar Book.

    • Bobbi said, “I read an interesting article titled ‘A Poor Woman’s Journey.’”

Other Uses of Quotation Marks

Outside of longer quotes you may be using in your paper, quotation marks can also be used when referring to a specific word or letter, providing translations for non-English words, emphasizing a word or phrase (often sarcastically) through a scare quote, or sharing a nickname.

  • Referring to a Specific Word or Letter

     When talking about a specific word or letter in a sentence, use quotation marks around the word or letter.

    • To save a document, you can press the "Ctrl" key and the "s" key at the same time.
  • Translations

     When sharing a non-English word and its translation in English, place the translation in quotation marks. 

    • A common phrase you may here when entering shops in Japan is irasshaimase, "welcome."
  • Scare Quote

     Scare or sneer quotes are placed around a word or phrase to show sarcasm or to use the word or phrase as a euphemism.

    Consider this example from The Punctuation Guide:

    • The think tank’s “analysis” of the issue left much to be desired.
  • Nickname

    Use quotation marks when sharing someone's official or legal name and their nickname or stage name. Usually, their legal first name is listed first, followed by their nickname.

    • Barack "Barry" Obama
    • Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson

Resources

CSUSM Writing Center Quotations Handout (PDF)
Purdue OWL How to Use Quotation Marks (web)
Purdue OWL Quotation Marks Extended Guide (web)
Education First Quotation Marks Guide (web)
The Punctuation Guide: Quotation Marks (web)

Semicolons 

Semicolons are primarily used in compound sentences, but they can also be used to separate items in complicated lists. 

  • Compound Sentences

     A semicolon can be used in a compound sentence if the two sentences you are joining are closely related thoughts. It can be thought of as replacing a comma and the word "and" in the sentence. Below are 3 ways to write the same ideas.

    • The Writing Center tutors are CSUSM students. As a result, they can relate to other students' experiences.
    • The Writing Center tutors are CSUSM students, and as a result, they can relate to other students' experiences.
    • The Writing Center tutors are CSUSM students; as a result, they can relate to other students' experiences.
  • Lists

    While commas are generally used to separate items in a list, sometimes the list contains a lot of details or phrases with commas within more than one of the items. In that case, semicolons can be used in place of commas after each item.

    • The members of the band Queen were Freddie Mercury, lead vocalist and pianist; Brian May, guitarist and vocalist; Roger Taylor, drummer and vocalist; and John Deacon, bassist.

Resources

Purdue OWL Sentence Punctuation Patterns (web)
Western Michigan University Writing Style Guide Punctuation: Colon and Semicolon (web)
Education First: The Semicolon (web)

Sentence Structure

Parts of Speech

 

The parts of speech are elements of a sentence that include articles, nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, interjections, prepositions, and conjunctions.

  • Articles come before a noun or adjective (e.g., a, an, the)
  • Nouns are a person, place, or thing (e.g., cat, John, pizza) and can be used as a subject, direct object, or indirect object in a sentence.
  • Pronouns are used to replace nouns (e.g., I, she, his, they, we)
  • Verbs are actions or states (e.g., run, write, sit)
  • Adverbs are used to describe verbs and commonly end in “ly” (e.g., loudly, smoothly)
  • Adjectives are words that describe a noun (e.g., sparkly, green)
  • Interjections are words that end with an exclamation (e.g., Wow!)
  • Prepositions indicate time or place and are used to show the relationship between words or to begin a prepositional phrase (e.g., at, behind, in)
  • Conjunctions are words that connect other words, clauses, and sentences together (e.g., and, but, or)

Parts of Speech Resources

Khan Academy – Parts of Speech (web)
Guide to Grammar – Parts of Speech (web)
EWU Writers’ Center – Parts of Speech (web)

Word order in English

Word order in English is important because the way words are arranged can affect the meaning of a sentence. Word order is crucial within the overall sentence structure. It also impacts particular parts of speech such as adjectives and adverbs.

  • Sentence Structure

     In English, sentences are organized in this order: Subject – Verb – Object. The subject is usually a noun or pronoun, the verb is an action or state of being, and the object is one or more words that are acted upon by the verb.  

    • The rabbit (subject) ate (verb) the carrot (object).
  • Adjectives

    Adjectives come in front of the noun they are describing.

    • He bought the gray house on the corner.
    • I decided to go with the cheaper option.

    Adjectives can also be used after be verbs when describing the subject of the sentence.

    • The driving test was easy.
    • That banana is green.

    If you are using multiple adjectives to describe one object, they must appear in a certain order. That order is:

    1. Quantity or number (one, 100, some, few)
    2. Quality or opinion (good, delicious, beautiful)
    3. Size (big, small)
    4. Age (new, young)
    5. Shape (round, rectangular)
    6. Color (magenta, blue, black)
    7. Material or place of origin (wooden, Japanese)
    8. Purpose or qualifier (sports, yoga, work)
    • Yushi brought five (number) delicous (opinion) round (shape) cakes to the party.
    • Did you see that beautiful (opinion) new (age) red (color) sports (qualifier) car?
  • Adverbs
     Adverbs can be placed in a variety of places in a sentence depending on their purpose. This chart from the University of Washington provides details and examples for adverb placement.

Agreement 

Grammatical Agreement Resources

CSUSM WC – Grammatical Agreement (pdf)
CSUSM WC Webinar--Subject-Verb Agreement (web)
Grammar Book – Subject-Verb Agreement (web)

Grammatical Agreement

In English, it is important that sentences have noun-pronoun agreement and subject-verb agreement.

  • Noun-pronoun Agreement
     When using pronouns, the pronoun needs to agree with its referrant--the word it is replacing--in number and gender (if applicable).
    • I didn't know what to do with the book, so I left it on the table.
      • There's just one book, so we use a singular pronoun.
      • Objects in English typically are not gendered, so using it is appropriate here.
    • I didn't know what to do with the books, so I left them on the table.
      • Because "books" is plural, we need to use a plural pronoun--them.
    • Jennifer called and said that she will miss work on Friday.
      • Jennifer is singular; she is singular.
      • Jennifer uses she/her pronouns.
    • David and Carolina wanted to know if they should come in to the office tomorrow.
      • David and Carolina are two people, so the plural pronoun "they" is used.
    • Oh no! A student left their wallet here on the table.
      • In cases where the gender of a person is unknown, using they/them/their is acceptable.
    • I just saw on Instagram that Demi Lovato announced they are having a concert in San Diego!
      • Singular they/them/their should also be used if those are an individual's stated pronouns.
  • Subject-verb Agreement

    Verbs in English also need to agree with the subject in number.  In the example below, the subjects are bold and the verbs are underlined.

    • John is going to the store now.
    • John and Maria are going to make a fancy dinner.
    • That person needs to drive more slowly.
    • Those people need to be more careful.

    Be careful when there are phrases that come between the subject and the verb in a sentence. In the example below, the subjects are bold and the verbs are underlined.

    • The books from the library are very interesting.
      • The prepositional phrase "from the library" is giving more information about the books. The object of a preposition cannot be the subject of the sentence. That leaves us with "books" as the subject, so we need a plural verb.
    • The person who makes the decisions about these topics works in that office.
      • This example has a clause and a prepositional phrase adding extra information. In order to figure out which verb to use, we need to decide who or what in the situation works. We know that "person" is working, and since "person" is singular, we need the singular verb "works."

Sentence Types

Sentence Types Resources

CSUSM WC Webinar--Sentence Types (web)
Khan Academy – Types of Sentences
 (web)
Walden U Writing Center – Sentence Structure and Type (web)

Sentence Types

There are 4 main types of sentences in English: simple, comound, complex, and compound-complex. These are composed of one or more independent clauses and sometimes dependent clauses.

An independent clause is a complete thought on its own; it consists of a subject, verb, and any other information necessary for the idea to be complete on its own. A dependent clause consists of a subject and verb, but it needs help from an independent clause to complete the idea for the reader or listener. A dependent clause will start with a subordinating conjuction. For more help with subordinating conjuctions, see this article from eslgrammar.org.

  • Simple

     Simple sentences have only one independent clause and include a subject, verb, and sometimes an object and modifier.

    • She finished her writing assignment.

    Simple sentences are not always short. They can have many words but still meet the requirements of a simple sentence. In the example below, the subjects are bold and the verbs are underlined.

    • Mary, her best friend Rosa, Rosa's husband Pedro, and Pedro's brother met at the park, ate dinner at their favorite restaurant, and went to the theater to watch a movie together on Friday.

    The sentence above is a simple sentence because it is one complete thought. We do not see any new subjects after the verbs.

  • Compound

    Compound sentences have at least two independent clauses that are combined with a semicolon or a comma and coordinating conjunction between them. We can use the acronym FANBOYS to remember the seven coordinating conjuctions: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So. In the examples below, the subjects are bold and the verbs are underlined.

    • She finished her writing assignment, but she did not finish her math homework.
      • While one person is doing both actions, since we have the word "she" after the conjunction, it counts as a new subject and a new independent clause.
    • Luz and Roger made dinner, so Sylvia and Yue did the dishes.
      • We have an independent clause before the coordinating conjunction as well as an independent clause after the coordinating conjuction.
  • Complex

    Complex sentences have at least one dependent and one independent clause. In the examples below, the subjects are bold and the verbs are underlined.

    • She did not finish her math homework although she finished her writing assignment.

    The first part of this sentence is an independent clause because we could put a period after "homework" and still understand the complete thought. The second part of this sentence is a dependent clause; starting with the subordinating conjucntion "although," we need more information from an independent clause to understand the whole thought. Note that when a subordinating conjuction is in the middle of a setence, we do not need to place a comma in front of it.

    • Although she finished her writing assignment, she did not finish her math homework.

    This second example has the same meaning as the first, but the clauses have been flipped. Since we started the sentence with the dependent clause, we place a comma at the end to signal to the reader that the independent clause is coming next.

  • Compound-complex

    Compound-complex sentences have two or more independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses. It gets its name because it contains elements from both compound and complex sentences. In the examples below, the subjects are bold and the verbs are underlined.

    •  Although she finished her writing assignment, she still couldn’t go out with her friends because she did not finish her math homework.
      • Dependent clause: Although she finished her writing assignment
      • Indepedent clause: she still couldn’t go out with her friends
      • Dependent clause: because she did not finish her math homework
    •  Marc stayed home from the basketball game because he needed to study, but he was disappointed to hear about the loss.
      • Independent clause: Marc stayed home from the basketball game
      • Dependent clause: because he needed to study
      • Independent clause: he was disappointed to hear about the loss

Common Mistakes

Some of the most common mistakes in writing when it comes to sentence structure are fragments, run-on sentences (also known as comma splaces or fused sentences), and misplaced and dangling modifiers.

  • Fragments

    Sentence fragments are sentences that cannot stand on their own because they are missing a subject and/or a predicate. A sentence fragment is not a complete thought. While we might use sentence fragments while speaking or when writing informally, we should try to avoid fragments in academic writing. Fragments can be corrected by adding the missing information.

    • Because of the exam.
      • This is a prepositional phrase. There is no subject, and there is no predicate or action happening here.
      • Correction: He was stressed today because of the exam.
    • Because I need to study.
      • Here we see a subject and a verb. However, the sentence is starting with a subordinating conjunction which makes this a dependent clause. The reader is left wondering about the context and doesn't have enough information for this idea.
      • Correction: I can't come with you because I need to study.
    • The reason for me being late for the third time.
      • In this case, we have a topic that might be the subject, but we don't have a predicate or action.
      • Correction: The reason for me being late for the third time is that my car is very unrealiable.
  • Run-ons

    A run-on sentence occurs when a compound sentence is not properly punctuated.  The two main types of run-on sentences are comma splices and fused sentences.

    A comma splice is when two or more independent clauses are placed together with only a comma. This can be fixed by adding a coordinating conjunction after the comma, replacing the comma with a semicolon, separating the sentence into two or more sentences, or turning one of the independent clauses into a dependent clause.

    A fused sentence is when two or more independent clauses are placed together without a semicolon, comma, or coordinating conjunction. This can be fixed by separating the independent clauses with a semicolon, adding a comma and coordinating conjunction, completely separating the sentence, or making one of the independent clauses a dependent clause.

    • Comma splice: The nice lady offered to pay for their drinks, they insisted to pay for hers instead.
    • Fused sentence: The nice lady offered to pay for their drinks they insisted to pay for hers instead.

    Run-ons can be corrected in multiple ways: 

    • Solution 1 (Add coordinating conjunction): The nice lady offered to pay for their drinks, but they insisted to pay for hers instead.
    • Solution 2 (Add a semicolon): The nice lady offered to pay for their drinks; however, they insisted to pay for hers instead.
    • Solution 3 (Separate the sentence): The nice lady offered to pay for their drinks. They insisted to pay for hers instead.

    • Solution 4 (Add a subordinating conjuction to one of the clauses): Since the nice lady offered to pay for their drinks, they insisted to pay for hers instead.

  • Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

    A modifier is a describing word such as an adjective or adverb that comes before another word. A dangling modifier is when a modifier is misplaced within a sentence and either describes the wrong word or does not make sense.

    • Misplaced: The baker set the cake, extremely large and beautiful, on the table.
    • Correct: The baker set the extremely large and beautiful cake on the table.

 Resources

Owl Purdue – Run-ons (web)
UMN Center for Writing – Run-on sentences (pdf)
Khan Academy – Syntax (web)

Matters of Style

Structure Resources

Guide to Grammar – Parallel Form (web)
Grammar Monster: Starting a Sentence with And or But (web)

Parallel Structure

Parallel structure is a type of form that helps readers understand the likeness of content. Parallel structure is done by using the same form and structure in sentences that are closely related.

  • Not Parallel Structure: The students majored in engineering, art history, in sociology, in biology, and also psychology.
  • Parallel Structure: The students majored in engineering, art history, sociology, biology, and psychology.

Ending on Prepositions

Ending a sentence with a preposition is grammatically correct; however, it is uncommon in formal writing. The only time it is not grammatically correct to end a sentence with a preposition is if there is information missing from the sentence. Ask your instructor if this type of sentence is appropriate for the writing in their course.

Beginning Sentences with Coordinating Conjunctions

Coordinating conjunctions are typically used to connect ideas within a sentence. While it is not grammatically incorrect to use them at the start of a sentence, it is uncommon in formal writing. Instructors' preferences on this may vary. Often, a transitional word or phrase with a similar meaning can be used instead. 

  • With a coordinating conjunction: Many people do not believe climate change is a serious issue. But, if we do not slow down on our use of natural resources, the planet will be in worse shape sooner than many realize.
  • Replaced with a transition word of similar meaning: Many people do not believe climate change is a serious issue. However, if we do not slow down on our use of natural resources, the planet will be in worse shape sooner than many realize.

Word Choice Resources

Academic Tone

Academic writing often takes a more formal tone that our everyday language. The sections below share more information about how to have an academic or formal tone in your writing.

Medium Certainty

In academic writing, use language that shows medium certainty in claims you are making. Words showing medium certainty include:

  • probably
  • will
  • should
  • usually
  • likely
  • often

Try to avoid words such as "must," "always," or "never" in your claims.

Voice

Voice can refer to your personal writing "tone," but it also refers to first, second, or third person in your writing.

  • First person = I, me, mine, we, us, our
  • Second person = you, your, yours
  • Third person = students, the researchers, the participants, etc.

Academic writing that is not a reflection or autobiographical typically uses third person. However, as style guides are updated, first person is becoming more acceptable in scientific writing where the researchers are reporting on their experients or findings. Second person is still often avoided unless it is necessary for clarity. Check with your instructor about their prefences for assignments in their course.

Unbiased Language

Academic language should be as free from bias as possible. Some tips to help remove bias in your writing include:

  • using gender neutral terms when available
    • "police officer" instead of "policeman"
  • using "them" or repeating the noun instead of defaulting to "him" in examples
    • Each student should consider their situation...
    • Students should consider their situations...
  • not using adjectives as collective nouns
    • "women" instead of "females"
  • avoiding gendered labels unless gender is crucial to the point being made
    • "doctor" instead of "woman doctor"
  • including race or ethnicity if not relevant to the information presented
  • using the preferred term used by group when referring to them

People First Language

When speaking about groups of people, it is important to use respectful language. In both formal and informal interactions, People First Language should be used when talking about a person with a disability. This means saying "adults with disabilities" instead of "disabled adults." For more information and examples of people first language, see this webpage from the District of Columbia Office of Disabiity Rights.

Learning English

 Learning English Resources

If you speak another language at home, are an international student, or started learning English once you began school in the United States, you may be concerned about your grammar and vocabulary. The Writing Center wants to support you on your academic journey! We believe that the vocabulary choices you make in your paper are your choice, and we support you in those decisions. However, if you need extra support in understanding the rules of academic English, our tutors are happy to guide you. Check out one of our webinars, attend a one-on-one tutoring appointment, or for additional support, consider applying for Ongoing Support.