Language rules to improve your academic writing

A well-written paper isn’t just a matter of running a spell check. Following the rules of grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and word choice can make your writing clearer, more fluent, and ultimately more convincing.

Punctuation

Punctuation marks signal the structure of a text, showing where each idea begins and ends and how they relate to one another. Some of the most common grammatical mistakes can be fixed by simply adding, removing, or moving a punctuation mark.

Learn when to use commas and when a colon or semicolon is a more appropriate choice.

Dashes and hyphens look similar, but they have different functions – avoid mixing them up and check that you’ve been consistent.

In academic writing, it’s important to avoid plagiarism, so make sure to use quotation marks every time you use someone else’s words. Check that you’ve used the right form of quotation marks, put other punctuation in the right place, and properly integrated the quote into your own text.

Make sure you correctly use apostrophes to form the possessive with singular and plural nouns.

Capitalization

Capitalization rules in English require you to understand the difference between common and proper nouns. In academic writing, some of the most frequent errors relate to capitalizing models, theories and disciplines.

You should also make sure you use a consistent style of capitalization for titles and headings.

Sentence structure

Basic word order rules in English require a subject to be followed by a verb. Learn about how to avoid common sentence structure mistakes, such as fragments and run-ons. You should also try to write sentences of varying length and structure.

To ensure the different elements of your sentences are properly balanced, follow the rules of parallel structure.

Avoid confusingly structured sentences by learning how to fix dangling and misplaced modifiers.

Verbs

Verbs are the action words that tell us what happens in a sentence. Subject-verb agreement is important to make it clear who or what is doing an action.

Verb tenses locate an action in time. Make sure you use tenses correctly and consistently. The appropriate tense depends on whether you’re stating facts, making generalizations, describing the content of a text, reporting completed actions, or discussing events with ongoing relevance.

Phrasal verbs combine two or more words to create an entirely new meaning. They can be tricky to use, and they’re sometimes too informal for academic writing, so consider replacing them with one-word alternatives.

Word choice

There are some types of words that students often misuse or confuse.

Articles

The two types of articles in English are definite (the) and indefinite (a/an). It’s important to choose the right one to pair with a noun. The rules are different for single, plural and uncountable nouns.

Prepositions

Prepositions express relationships between different elements of a sentence (e.g. in, on, to, by, of, since). They can describe relationships of time, space, direction, and many types of abstract or logical connection.

There are many different prepositions in English, and they often have more than one meaning. The only way to learn them all is through reading and practice.

Pronouns

Pronouns are words that stand in for nouns (e.g. they, it, him, this). Make sure it’s always clear what noun you are referring back to.

Avoid second-person pronouns (you, yours) in academic writing. First-person pronouns (I, we) are sometimes acceptable depending on the discipline and type of document.

Conjunctions

Conjunctions are words that connect different parts of a sentence. There are different types of conjunctions with different functions and rules.

Commonly confused words

Some words are commonly confused or misused, including this/thatwhich/thatwho/whomaffect/effect, and different forms of the word research. Learn more about how to tell the difference between them.

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