Writing is first and foremost a means of communication. Whether you’re working on a college essay, a school paper, or anything else, you want the style to enhance (not distract from) the content. You know not to turn in essays typed in weird fonts with food stains on them, and of course you know to use proper grammar.
Usually it’s not the basic things like your versus you’re that trip you up. However, there are some mistakes that are hard to catch because the incorrect form sounds so natural or the rules aren’t particularly clear. I see them in my own writing sometimes, and you should watch out for them in yours.
1. Commas and periods always go inside quotations like “this,” or “this.” Question marks can move depending on the meaning: “this?” means that the phrase contained within the quote is a question. “This”? means that the statement as a whole is a question.
Correct: She asked me, “Did you seriously just eat that entire pie?”
Correct: What do you mean, “entire pie”? There was only one slice left!
2. Beginning a sentence with a conjunction like and, or, or but is not technically incorrect, but it should usually be avoided in academic writing because it looks very informal.
Instead of and, try: furthermore, in addition, moreover, also, similarly, likewise
Instead of but, try: however, on the other hand, in contrast, nevertheless, on the contrary
3. Everyone, everybody, anybody, either, somebody, no one, and each are collective nouns that function grammatically as a singular noun—so you can’t use they or their as pronouns to refer to them.
Incorrect: Everyone threw their caps in the air at graduation.
Correct, but awkward-sounding: Everyone threw his or her cap in the air at graduation.
Correct and non-awkward: All of the students threw their caps in the air at graduation.
4. Don’t split your infinitives! The word to should be right before the verb, with no adverbs getting in the way.
Incorrect (but still awesome-sounding): To boldly go where no man has gone before
5. All lists must be parallel, meaning that each item in the list is the same part of speech as the others.
Correct: The bananas, the lottery ticket, and the flamethrower all seemed like good ideas at the time.
Incorrect: My dog likes chasing cars, barking, and to eat food that does not belong to her.
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