|The Good Writing Guide
Good writing is important. The ability to write clear and accurate text is the most useful skill that you will learn at university. Whatever subject you specialise in, and whatever career you choose after you graduate, a command of language is a valuable asset. When employers offer a job to an MA graduate they are sometimes interested in how much he or she knows about emotional labour or inter-generational social mobility, but they are always looking for someone with good analytic and communication skills and an eye for detail. In almost any job, you will spend time working with a range of texts. You may produce written reports, letters or marketing copy. You may also give lectures or presentations. If you are aiming for a career in which you can use language stylishly, such as journalism or creative writing, it is equally important that you know the rules of good plain English.
This document will help you to think about how you write. It will also improve your reading skills. While you are a student you will often be a reader, absorbing information from other sources or analysing the structure of a text. When assessments come along, you will be a writer, and someone else will read and analyse your work. Reading and writing are closely connected. Improving your skills in one area will have a knock-on effect in the other. Set yourself high standards in both these areas. One of the simplest ways to improve your own writing is to read actively and to look at how authors mould the language to their own purposes. Try to develop an eye for style and sentence structure as you read. This will help you to assess your own writing and expand your language skills.
While you are at university, ‘good writing’ means being able to produce a clear, grammatical, logical argument to answer a question in an exercise, an essay or an exam. This is not the place to be innovative or poetic. Chances to be creative with language are available elsewhere. Academic writing should be clear, clean and correct. It should display your knowledge and express your ideas. Good writing is always aimed at a particular audience. Your audience is the teacher(s) who will mark your work. Your teachers are highly qualified, and are likely to be the kind of people who have an obsessive interest in grammar and spelling. They will consider a command of language as important as any ideas you might want to share. If your grammar is so poor that it obscures your argument, you may fail the assessment. Markers cannot give credit for what they think you might have wanted to say. What is on the paper is all that counts. Good writing is not an optional extra to a degree; it is the core of the education system. Make this your primary goal at university. Everything that you study can be channelled towards making yourself a more perceptive reader and a more accurate writer. Get this right and you will understand more of what you read. You will also be able to express your own ideas with force and clarity.
This booklet is divided into three sections. Section A contains advice on reading a text for analysis, and on setting up your answer to a question. It looks at planning, structure and paragraphing, and it explains some technical terms. Section B deals with language. It highlights some common problems, and it offers advice on how to sharpen up your prose. Section C deals with using sources. It explains referencing and how to use critical material. If you are studying more than one discipline you may find that there are slightly different expectations about referencing between departments. Use the Quick-Fix pages as checklists every time you submit a piece of writing. Each section also has some recommended further reading. At the back of the booklet there is an index so that you can find things in a hurry. Many of the points have been numbered so that your marker can point you to the relevant section when things go wrong. If, after all that, you would like some more advice about good writing there are several
things you can do:
Consult your tutor. This is one of the reasons that tutors have office hours, and it is remarkable how few students take advantage of this opportunity for some individual advice. Remember to reread your tutor’s comments on your previous essay before you write the next one. You will find this very helpful.
Contact the Student Learning and Service Unit (SLS), Regent Building, Tel: 273030, or visit www.abdn.ac.uk/sls to find some helpful advice online. SLS runs workshops and courses on study skills and can also offer individual consultations, including support for dyslexia.
Use your own network. Ask a friend or flatmate to proofread your work before you hand it in. So long as they do not change the content or borrow your ideas this is not cheating. Choose someone you can really trust. A friend on a different course is ideal. You can return the favour and improve your own proofreading skills. This is excellent practice for a career in marketing, publishing or journalism. Develop an interest in writing, and discuss with your friends what works and what does not. This is one of the best ways to learn.
This is The Good Writing Guide. I hope it is useful.
Dr. Hazel Hutchison, 2005
(Adapted for Sociology by Dr. Alex King, 2007 and for Sociology by Dr. Debra Gimlin, 2007)
Section A: Planning
1. Reading for writing 4
2. Reading the question 4
3. Structure: Making a plan 5
Introductions & conclusions 5
4. Layout 7
5. Submission 7
Further Reading 8
Quick Fix: Planning 8
Section B: Language
6. Register 9
7. Punctuation: 9
Quotation marks 16
Exclamation marks 16
8. Grammar: 16
9. Spelling: 22
Common errors 23
US v UK spelling 24
Further Reading 24
Quick Fix: Language 25
Section C: Sources
10. Choosing sources 26
11. Using sources 26
12. Layout of quotations 28
13. Referencing 29
14. Plagiarism 30
Quick-Fix: Sources 32
SECTION A: PLANNING
1. READING FOR WRITING
Everyone has their own way of approaching a text. Some people like to take meticulous notes as they go along. Others prefer to read through swiftly and then return to look at the text in depth. Develop your own style of reading. However, here are a few things to remember.
Keep an open mind about the text. One of the most valuable things you can learn as you study sociology is the ability to suspend your own preconceptions as you read. Learning to see things from different perspectives is a vital part of the reading process. Do not attempt to make a text fit your own agenda as you go along, or dismiss it because it challenges what you believe. You do not have to agree with the text, but give it a chance to speak for itself. If you react strongly to something, try to work out why. Alternately, do not accept uncritically everything a text is trying to convey. Identify the assumptions and critically asses the argument as you read.
Think about language. It is easy to be carried away (or confused!) by engaging ethnography or intriguing theoretical perspectives, but keep one eye open for the language the author uses. Develop an eye for style. What makes Marx different from Durkheim, or Foucault different from Bourdieu? What kind of words do they choose? Do they use a lot of adjectives or a lot of verbs? Is their language formal or colloquial? Is their language abstract and philosophical or concrete and particular? These simple questions give you an insight into the author’s underlying concerns and preoccupations. Language does more than tell a story. It creates a world of ideas. What makes a degree in sociology really worth having is an understanding of how this process operates. Do not just look at what the text says. Try to work out how it conveys ideas and elicits certain responses.
Think about structure. This will depend on what kind of text you are reading. Rules of form are constantly evolving. However, it helps to have some idea of conventions and techniques so that you can see when something interesting or unusual is happening. Compare the text to what you already know about the area. Ask yourself how the text is put together and whether it seems to be following a convention or defying it. If something jars or seems out of place, there may be a good reason for this. Explore it.
Read between the lines. Be careful about this, because you could end up supplying a number of ideas that the text does not support. However, authors often manipulate the unspoken and the unseen as carefully as the things they tell. Identify the author’s assumptions. What are their key terms? Are they explicitly defined, or can you identify implicit definitions? What time period is covered in the description? Have things changed since then?
Take notes. This is obvious, but vital. If you see something interesting or have a good idea, write it down and note the page number. You will save hours trying to find it again later.
2. READING THE QUESTION
The easiest way to fail an exam or assessment is not to answer the question. Make sure you understand what the question is looking for. Be especially careful if the question includes technical terms such as culture, class, social structure, etc. These vary among sociologists and are rarely used in the same way as in common parlance. Thus, a standard dictionary can be misleading. If you are unclear about this you can discuss it with your tutor and clarify exactly what they want. Alternatively you can look the terms up in sociological texts for the course or previous courses you have taken. Make it clear in your essay exactly how you are using the term, and back this up with an outside source if possible.
Think about the kind of course to which the assessment belongs. Sociologists are looking for evidence of sociological thinking. Insight from psychology, anthropology, art history, and other subjects may be helpful, but make sure you are writing sociology and not something else.
It is often worth considering more than one question while you are doing some background reading for an essay. You can then choose the one that you find most interesting or stimulating as you go along. This way you avoid heading up a blind alley and then having to start all over again. Keep your question in mind as you write. Everything you say should be connected to it. Avoid rambling. You will not get credit for including irrelevant information, however interesting you may think it is. Indeed, excessive rambling will count against you. Answer the question.
Markers often complain about poorly structured essays, but by then it is too late to do anything about it. Bad structure in an essay is usually the result of a failure to read the question carefully, a lack of understanding of the subject, or a rushed job. Taking time to plan out your work helps in many ways. It ensures that you connect your essay with the question. It reduces the stress of writing, as you know where you are going next. It produces a well-rounded piece of writing.
3.1 Making a plan
However you like to take notes and marshal your ideas, at some point you are going to need a linear plan for your essay. It is always worth doing this, especially in exams when time is tight and nerves are likely to make you forget a good idea which seemed very clear fifteen minutes before. The classic layout for an essay is an introduction, followed by three sections, followed by a conclusion. This is based on the rules of Classical rhetoric, in which the speaker offered an introduction, a statement, a counterstatement, a resolution between the two and a conclusion. There is no set rule about structure, but this tried and tested system works well and usually produces a satisfying read. In sociology essays, this plan often evolves into an introduction, three sections dealing with relevant ideas and examples and a final section tying these together. On the other hand, remember that you are not just making lists of what you know. You are answering a question and the whole thing should form a logical argument.
A plan should operate as a skeleton for your essay. Ideally it should be possible for a reader to reconstruct your plan from the finished article. This is basically what you are doing when you take lecture notes. Paying attention to how this process works will make planning your own written work a lot easier. Most lecturers think carefully about how they want to present material to the class. It might seem random, but if you listen they will give you markers about what the main headings are, and when they are filling out these sections. Look over your lecture notes and think about some of the techniques lecturers use. Try to see the shape of the lecture. Is the lecturer moving outward from the text to the wider historical context? Or perhaps they are focusing in, beginning with background information, looking at a particular political problem or cultural issue, and then exploring how one text contributes to this debate. Alternatively, are they working through the text section by section? Or are they offering a spectrum of views on the text? These are all approaches you can use in structuring your written work. A clear plan makes it easier to fulfil your intentions.
Look at the contents page of this booklet. That is a tidy version of the plan I am using as I write. Ideally you want something that looks similar but shorter. You should also have a good idea of what goes in each section. I have chosen a plan that moves from general principles that you should think about before you start, through useful tools that you need as you go along, to some details that apply specifically to sociology and which will give your work polish. Sometimes you will have information that could belong in more than one section. For example, you will find information about choosing secondary sources in Section C, although it would also have been useful here. Use your judgement about where things go and what belongs together. Try to give your essay direction, and keep thinking about the question.
3.2 Introductions and conclusions
Have one of each in every piece of work. Avoid repeating the question in the introduction, but do offer an outline of the areas you will discuss. If you have a particularly juicy quote or fascinating fact, this may be a good place to show it off. Do not make wild generalizations about ‘working-class people’, ‘most sociologists’, ‘ethnic minorities’, etc. However if you have found a particularly outrageous generalisation in something you have read, do feel free to start by quoting this and then contradict it. Read some academic journal articles and see how other writers kick off. This is usually the hardest bit of an essay to get right. Imagine you are answering this question: Explore the connection between marriage and money in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
A weak introduction would be something like this:
Marriage and money are important themes in Pride and Prejudice. This essay explores the connection between marriage and money in Jane Austen’s novel. First I will look at the theme of marriage, followed by the theme of money. Then I will look at the connection between the two. From this we will be able to see what Austen is trying to say about the link between them.
There is nothing really wrong with this introduction, but it does not open up the question in an interesting way or provide anything to grab the reader’s attention. A better alternative offers a sense of where the essay will go, such as:
The connection between marriage and money lies at the heart of Pride and Prejudice. From the opening sentence to Elizabeth and Darcy’s engagement, this novel highlights the desirability of financial security in marriage. However, the novel also shows the dangers of marrying purely for gain. This essay will explore the different models of marriage which Austen presents in Pride and Prejudice: marrying for money without love, marrying for love without money, and marrying with both. These models allow Austen to examine the place of the marriageable woman within the society of her period.
This introduction demonstrates a knowledge of the text and some intelligent thought on the question. It also maps out the plan of the essay that is going to follow. If you can do this in advance then your way ahead will be much clearer. However, it is always worth going back to look at your introduction once you have finished the essay. Does it promise something that is not in the essay? Or could you flag up an interesting idea in a more stylish way? Most good writers rewrite their introductions after they finish the conclusion. Think of this as the shop-window for your work. Show what you have in store in a way that will encourage a closer look.
Conclusions are also hard to handle gracefully, but it is better to try than to ignore the problem. Return to the issues which were raised by the question and show how what you have said proves your point. Avoid introducing any new ideas or material here. Do not save up your main idea as a punch-line. Similarly avoid repeating what you said earlier, although you can, of course, refer back. As with the introduction, a short, well-chosen quote can help. Although it looks good if you explore a range of arguments during the essay itself, a conclusion should always conclude. Push your thinking towards some sort of resolution. Do not just sit on the fence. Answer the question one way or the other.
These can be useful in honours dissertations. In 2000-word essays, however, it is better to create a flow of connected ideas without stopping and starting. In a dissertation, subheadings will show your marker where you are going. They also allow you to see whether one section of your dissertation has outgrown the others. If this is a problem, you might want to consider revising your plan to accommodate your material. However, a few subheadings go a long way. Only mark major sections.
Ideally the structure of your essay should be obvious from your paragraphs. Each paragraph should be a step forward in your argument. Think of each paragraph as a mini essay in which you introduce a new idea, present some evidence to back it up, and draw a conclusion from it. Once you have done this, start a new one.
Within a section you can link paragraphs together by connective words and phrases, such as ‘however’, ‘consequently’, ‘moreover’. But make sure that these words really justify their presence. There is no use saying, ‘it follows that,’ if it is not obvious how one idea leads to the other. Similarly, avoid pompous declarations such as ‘it is the case that’ and ‘it is a useful observation to note that’ etc. Avoid starting paragraphs with vague pronouns such as ‘it’ and ‘this’. If you cannot use a real noun, you might want to stop and ask yourself exactly what you are talking about. If you want to pick up an idea from the last paragraph and explore it further, make sure that you name this idea, so that the reader can see what you
are doing. Be specific. Use nouns and verbs.
Markers are suspicious of paragraphs consisting of less than three sentences or rambling on for more than a page and a half. Read through your essay once you are finished. If you find any paragraphs that are too long or too short, consider revising where the breaks fall. Do not use novels or newspapers as models for paragraphing, which are aiming for very different effects. Journalists rarely have more than one sentence in a paragraph, and often do not write complete sentences. They are playing a different game altogether. Here again, journal articles or ethnographies will offer good examples, so pay attention to this as you do your research.
A paragraph should be identified by a topic sentence. These often come early in the paragraph, but they can be first, in the middle, or the last sentence. Make sure you can identify the topic sentence of every paragraph you write. Equally important are transitions between paragraphs. Writing flows more smoothly and is easier to understand when paragraphs are connected to one another. Thus the last sentence in a paragraph may introduce the topic of the following paragraph. Alternatively, the first sentence of a paragraph my refer to the topic of the previous paragraph and take it forward a step to the new topic of
the present paragraph.
Indent the start of every paragraph by hitting the tab key to the left of Q on the keyboard. This makes it very obvious where your paragraph starts. Do not indent your first paragraph or a new paragraph after a subheading. Do not indent after a quotation, unless you are starting a new paragraph. For more advice on layout of quotes see pages 28-29.
You can lose the goodwill of your marker before they even start by presenting an essay that is hard to read. There are several things that you can do to make your essay look good. These will not get you extra marks, but they might stop you losing some. They will also put your marker in a better frame of mind.
Put the question at the top. It might be obvious to you which question you are answering, but believe me, it is not always clear to the marker. Having the question on your essay also helps you keep the question in mind as you write. In exams there is no need to rewrite the question, but mark the number clearly both on your answer and on the front of the paper.
Double-space the text. The reason for this is so that the marker has space to correct your work in between the lines. It is for your benefit, even if it does not feel like it. Leave a 1”/2.5cm margin. This leaves room for comments and corrections. These will be useful. Make sure you read them.
Use a sensible font. Palatino is one of my favourites, but Times New Roman, Arial, or Verdana are also are easy to read and familiar to the eye. Use 11 or 12-point text; some judgement is necessary. For example, 11-point Palatino is about the same size as 12-point Times. Anything smaller is hard to read (so please forgive the 10-point font of this document). Anything bigger suggests that you might be trying to cover up for a short piece of work. Do not put quotations in italics, unless that is how they appear in the text you are quoting. Only use italics for titles of books and plays or words in a foreign language.
Give clear references. It is easy when you know how. See pages 29-30. Always include a list of works cited or references used. Even if you only have one or two texts to list, please do so. It looks professional and it is a good habit to form.
Include a word count. Writing to length is a useful skill which you will need later on. Learn to tailor your work to the requested word length. You will not be penalised for an essay that is within 10% of the stated word count, either over or under. However, you will be penalised for lying about it. When marking essays for a whole class, it is usually easy for the marker to tell when something is too long or too short, so be honest here or face the consequences.
5. SUBMITTING YOUR WORK
Make sure you know the submission dates and regulations for your course. You can get this information from your course guide. If you need an extension, you must ask the course coordinator before the deadline. Try to let your tutor know about a problem as quickly as possible.
Your course guide and the relevant level handbook will also have information about marking criteria and how to interpret the Common Assessment Scale. It is worth understanding how the marking system works, so have a look at the level handbook. Also look at the cover sheet which you should attach to your essay before depositing it in the box. This cover sheet gives you a good idea of what your marker wants to see in your essay.
Return of written work usually takes two to three weeks. Most courses operate a system of essay moderation. This means that once your tutor has marked your work they pass it on to another member of staff who looks at a random sample and any borderline cases. This means the system is fair, but can take a bit of time, especially in the middle of term when we have other things to do. Please be patient, and try not to pester your tutor for your work. This will only slow them down.
Clancy, John and Brigit Ballard. 1998. How to Write Essays: A Practical Guide for Students. Harlow: Longman.
Clifford, James, George E. Marcus (eds). 1986. Writing culture: the poetics and politics of ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Greetham, Bryan. 1999. How to Write Better Essays. London: Palgrave.
Hennesey, Brendan. 2002. Writing an Essay. Oxford: How to Books.
QUICK FIX: PLANNING
1. Read the text carefully, but do not focus so closely on your chosen question that you miss out on everything else. Take notes as you go along. It saves time later.
2. Make sure you understand the question. If you are unsure about anything, look it up or ask your tutor. It is better to look a bit silly at this stage than after the event.
3. Think about the question, and try to work out why your marker has set it. How does it connect with issues and ideas explored in lectures and tutorials? Identify the issues that you are going to concentrate on.
4. Make a plan. Remember that your essay is an argument that should persuade the reader. Try to give it direction and purpose. Focus everything towards answering the question you have chosen. Work out at this stage which material you will use in each section.
5. Demonstrate that you can step back from a text or argument and view it as a series of connected ideas or strategies.
6. If you are writing a comparative essay on more than one text, make sure you integrate the texts fully. Do not simply talk about them one after the other. Create a plan that allows you to move between the ideas in both documents.
7. Use your introduction to outline where you are going in the essay. Avoid simply restating the question. Try to be interesting.
8. Use paragraphs to distinguish between separate ideas and to move your argument forward.
9. Use your conclusion to point out how the evidence you have given answers the question. Make sure you answer the question. Do not sit on the fence.
10. Present your essay neatly and with enough room for comments and corrections.
SECTION B: LANGUAGE
Writing well involves presenting your material in a tone appropriate to your audience and to the task in hand. You would use different styles of language for a business letter, a newspaper report, a letter to a friend or a short story. It is important to develop a suitable tone, or register, for your written work.
A university essay is a formal document and requires a formal register. Students often struggle to find a balance between formal, intellectual language and open, accessible English. Many reputable scholars struggle with this too, which is why some academic books are so hard to understand. However, even the most complicated ideas can be articulated clearly. Your marker will be delighted to see complex thought presented in plain English. They will also notice if you dress up weak thinking in flowery language. Pay attention to the register of your writing and remember who will read your work.
As you read sociologists’ work, pay attention to the way they use language. If it seems too dense and formal then do not copy their style. However, if you find a book that is lucid, interesting and readable, try to work out what makes it so clear.
Avoid being too personal: Your name appears on the front of your essay, therefore your marker already knows that everything in the essay is your opinion. Do not keep saying ‘in my opinion’ or ‘it seems to me that’ etc. Have the courage of your convictions and state what you think. If you can back up your views with evidence from sources, there is no need to apologise or hesitate. You do not need to fear the first person, but don’t overdo it. Present your work as a piece of cohesive thought rather than as collection of your own responses. Avoid using phrases such as, ‘I want to look at’ – just get on with it.
Avoid being too clever: Some of the worst grammatical errors are caused by trying to write long, complex sentences. A short sentence is the most powerful way to make a cogent point. However, one short declarative after another quickly rings wooden. Similarly, do not use words that you think you understand. If in doubt, look them up instead of leaving them out.
Avoid slang: This does not just cover words and phrases. It also applies to informal expressions and sentence constructions. Do not say, ‘Cicourel’s analysis of juvenile delinquency blew me away. You know what I mean?’ You can express the same idea by saying, ‘Cicourel’s analysis is vivid and engaging,’ or, ‘Cicourel’s observational research demands a strong response from the reader.’ Avoid using ‘you’ or ‘us’ for the reader of the text. ‘One’ sounds formal in everyday speech, but it is very useful in this setting.
Tenses: Use the past tense for anything that happened in the past. If you use the present tense to refer to an author’s argument (‘Bruce says x, y. Brewer argues that …’) then stick with that consistently. The present tense may be the most appropriate for certain generalizations (‘Social stratification exists in every known society.’), but make sure that they really do apply to the present day.
Punctuation matters. It does not simply tell the reader when to start and stop. It organises the text into meaningful units. Getting it wrong can seriously damage the sense of the text. To see the power of punctuation, look at this example from Lynne Truss’s book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves:
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feeling whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy — will you let me be yours?
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn! For you I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
It makes you think, doesn’t it?
This is the most common problem in written English. One can see apostrophes in the wrong places in shops, theatre programmes, adverts, newspapers, restaurant menus and more. There is always some public debate going on about whether we should retain apostrophes in the language or abolish them because so few people seem capable of using them properly. I would like to ban them; German gets on fine without them, but the fact is that they still exist, and we still expect you to be able to put them in the right places.
A colleague of mine in the English Department asked her colleagues what they thought was the biggest problem in students’ written work. Wrong use of apostrophes was overwhelmingly at the top of the list. The reason this annoys markers so much is that the rules are pretty simple. Here they are:
APPROPRIATE APOSTROPHE USE:
Signalling possession by adding ’s to a singular noun: Susan’s book, King’s College, the boy’s father, the woman’s coat, the banana’s skin, the piano’s keys.
If the noun or name already ends in s then go ahead and add ’s as normal: Weber’s theory, Hymes’s measured verse, the bus’s driver.
A plural noun ending in s takes an apostrophe after the s: the boys’ fathers, the Trobrianders’ gardens, the Nuers’ cattle.
A plural noun not ending in s takes ’s: women’s rights, the children’s school.
Get into the habit of taking a moment to check if the apostrophe should be before or after the s every time you use one. Do not be tempted to tuck the apostrophe into a name that already has an s: Hyme’s narratives, or into possessive pronouns (see below).
Indicating a missing letter in a contraction such as don’t, won’t, wouldn’t, isn’t, it’s. However, these contractions are informal and should not appear in academic essays, except when they appear in quotations from texts. Write out these phrases in full: do not, will not, would not, is not, it is, etc. Note however that ‘cannot’ is one word.
DO NOT USE AN APOSTROPHE FOR:
Plurals of nouns ending in vowels such as banana’s, piano’s, tomato’s instead of bananas, pianos, tomatoes. This is known as the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’, but crops up everywhere. There is no excuse for this; it is just plain wrong.
Possessive pronouns such as hers, theirs, its, ours. These are complete words, like his and mine.
It’s and its are commonly confused, but this really annoys your marker, so get this one right. It’s should never appear in your written work. If you mean it is, then write this out in full. If you mean belonging to it, then there is no apostrophe. Run a search on your essay and correct any it’s that you find lurking in your text. Also look out for who’s and whose.
My brother used to be a sub-editor on a daily newspaper. He would get a rough and ready news story from a reporter, and would cut and correct it. He would put their commas in the right places. He would send it to the chief sub-editor who would look over it and put his commas in the right places. He would send it to the night editor, who would approve it, and put all his commas in the right places. They all thought they were correct.
Different writers vary their use of commas, which can be confusing when you are getting to grips with the rules. In the last 40 years, English has shifted quite radically to using as few commas as possible. Someone who went to university in the 1960s will have learned different rules from accepted contemporary practice. However, this does not mean that you can put commas wherever you like. Commas provide the internal structure or map of each sentence. They mark out which bits of the sentence are essential to its meaning and which bits are supplementary. They show where clauses start and stop, and they separate items in lists. Getting them in the right place keeps the movement of the sentence clear, but having too many can slow down your reader and make the sentence seem cluttered and fussy. Here are some rules to observe:
USE A COMMA:
To link two sentences with a conjunction (and, but, because, etc): this makes a compound sentence. There are three examples of this kind of sentence in the passage above. For example, the second sentence could be split into two:
He would get a rough and ready news story from a reporter. He would cut and correct it.
I have chosen to link the two sentences with a comma and the word and to emphasise that I want the reader to take both sections as part of the same event. However, a comma cannot link two sentences by itself. If I insert a comma but miss out the word and, I create a comma splice (see page 13-14).
The second last sentence has a similar structure. Here I have used but to emphasise the contrast. Technically it is possible to link together several sentences with commas to make a very long, complex sentence. Karl Marx and Pierre Bourdieu do this all the time in their writing, but you should avoid it. Limit yourself to one conjunction per sentence where possible. It is always better to write short, clear sentences in essays.
After connective adverbs: These words are very useful at the start of sentences in essays as they show how your argument is moving from sentence to sentence. However, yet, still, nevertheless, therefore, thus, moreover, for example, etc, can be used to suggest a connection or contrast between two sentences without formally joining them. A comma is required after one of these when it appears at the beginning of a sentence.
However, you will always make occasional mistakes.
However is particularly problematic. If you leave out this comma, it sounds like the whole sentence is a subordinate clause which should lead to some other statement. If however is operating as part of a subordinate clause, the comma goes after the clause:
However much you try, you will always make occasional mistakes.
This is easy to get wrong, so look out for this one.
Though and although cannot be used as connective adverbs at the start of sentences: X Although, many people try to do so. They can, however, be used at the start of a subordinate clause:
Although Durkheim has been thoroughly criticised, his ideas remain influential.
To separate items in a list: This works for nouns and adjectives:
Edward Sapir wrote grammars of several languages, a general book on language, essays on personality and even poetry. He was remembered by his colleagues as having a piercing, inquisitive mind.
If you have three or more items, use and between the last two. Avoid listing verbs and adverbs. One at a time is quite enough.
To signal parenthesis: Commas can be used like brackets to insert an extra piece of information, interesting or otherwise, into a sentence. Reread that last sentence without the words between the two commas. It still makes sense. The phrase between the commas is not a complete sentence. In this case it is a modifying phrase, which adds some extra information or comment about the preceding noun. The first comma signals a short diversion from the sentence. The second comma shows that this is finished, and the sentence picks up where it left off. You could insert a different kind of phrase or clause here, such as ‘or even a witty aside’ or ‘if you have any extra information to insert’.
Parentheses have great comic potential, but try to resist the temptation to use them in essays for hilarious remarks that probably will not seem so funny to your marker. Also avoid using them to include lists of things that you would like to mention but cannot be bothered to include properly in a working sentence:
X Asylums describes many aspects of patients’ lives, close observation by staff, lack of privacy and limited sources of personal identity, which give us the sense of the ‘impoderabilia’ of daily living.
Here it would be better to say:
Asylums describes many aspects of patients’ lives. It covers their close observation by staff, lack of privacy and limited sources of personal identity, which combine to give the reader a sense of social complexity.
The second version sounds less muddled. Try to avoid long, rambling diversions in sentences, or diversions within a diversion. One short phrase is fine, but if your parenthesis is any longer than ten words, you should consider putting this information in a sentence of its own.
If you do use commas to form a parenthesis, make sure you close it. You would not use just one bracket. In fact, avoid using brackets and dashes wherever possible. Good use of commas is much more elegant.
To mark out clauses: If you are hazy about what a clause is, you need to read something that will explain the basics of grammar slowly and carefully. See the list at the end of Section B for some further reading.
Traditional grammar is very careful to note every shift in the syntax of a sentence by inserting a comma. (See two letters on page 10.) Modern writing is more relaxed about this. Look at sentences four and five in the opening paragraph about commas on page 11. These sentences are grammatically identical, but I have only put commas in one of them so that you can see the two styles in action. Aptly enough, the chief sub-editor liked to take commas out whenever possible, while the night editor liked to put them back in. In that particular case it does not make much difference. The syntax works either way.
Some clauses do not need to be separated by commas, especially when a linking word such as that, whenever, since etc. is used. However, commas can make a dramatic difference to the meaning of a sentence. Leaving them out can make a sentence ambiguous. Use commas to make your meaning apparent, not just to provide pauses where you think the reader needs a rest. The easiest way to get this right is to be absolutely clear in your own head about what you want to say, and to say it as simply as possible in short sentences. You will find a quick explanation of clauses on page 17, which should help.
To introduce speech: A comma is used to introduce speech or a quotation when it forms part of the preceding or following sentence:
Dima said, ‘Without deer there is no culture, nothing.’
‘Without deer there is no culture, nothing,’ said Dima.
You can also use a colon to introduce a quotation or speech:
Dima said, ‘Without deer there is no culture, nothing.’
Always use a colon when the quotation follows a complete sentence:
Dima told me one of those perfect statements that I had to write down immediately: ‘Without deer there is no culture, nothing.’
DO NOT USE COMMAS
To join sentences without a conjunction: This creates a comma splice, which comes a close second to dodgy apostrophes on the marker’s hate-list.
A comma splice looks like this:
X Some markers are sent into a rage by comma splices, they will give themselves a hernia with fury, and will cover your essay in red pen.
It should read:
Some markers are sent into a rage by comma splices. They will give themselves a hernia with fury, and will cover your essay in red pen.
Some markers are sent into a rage by comma splices; they will give themselves a hernia with fury, and will cover your essay in red pen.
Oddly enough, this quirk was tolerated more in the nineteenth century. So, you will sometimes see comma splices, which would now get red pen all over them, used by very stylish and correct writers, such as Robert Louis Stevenson or Ralph Waldo Emerson. This just proves that the language is alive and constantly changing, but it is not worth arguing this point with your tutor.
Learn the current rules and follow them. My experience as a marker suggests that the comma splice is a common mistake of bright students who read quickly and think coherently. Sometimes certain ideas seem so connected that one instinctively wants to put them in the same sentence. However, linking these is no longer the job of the comma. If you really want to run together two sentences that seem to connect, consider a semi-colon (see below). It is an under-used punctuation resource. Alternatively include a conjunction, and, but, so, or, for etc. Connective adverbs such as however, yet, still, nevertheless, therefore, thus, moreover etc. are not strong enough to join two sentences. If you want to use one of these, stop the sentence and start again. If you are a fast reader, keep a special lookout for comma splices as you proofread.
Few people know how to use a semi-colon well, which is a pity, as this is an elegant element
of style. It has two main functions in prose:
To connect two sentences: This is a good antidote to the comma splice. It works especially well for short sentences where the sense follows on directly into the second sentence, and where the two halves are of equal importance and length:
I opened my notebook; I began to write.
It is also possible to use a semi-colon with a connective adverb:
I opened my notebook; however, I did not begin to write.
This is more cumbersome and should be used sparingly. The golden rule of using semi-colons to join clauses is that each half of the completed sentence should also operate as a grammatical sentence in its own right. In other words, only use a semicolon where you could put a full stop. Therefore, you should avoid putting a semicolon next to conjunctions, such as and, but, so etc, or relatives, such as that, which, when etc. You do not need these. The semi-colon does the job of linking well enough by itself.
To separate items on a list: This is especially useful when the list is long and the individual items on the list include commas:
Sociologists and philosophers have conceptualised the ‘social body’ in various ways: Shilling’s notion of the body as a ‘project’; Hepworth and Featherstone’s understanding of the body as a ‘mask’; and the ‘absent body’ discussed by Leder.
This way the reader can easily tell where the important divisions between the items occur. If this list only contained commas, it would be very confusing. When using semi-colons in a list, it is often a good idea to introduce the list with a colon to show where the list begins.
Like semi-colons, these are rarely used but are not as confusing as many people think. The
function of a colon is to introduce information of some kind:
To introduce a list: A colon announces that something important is about to follow. This makes it ideal for kicking off a long list, as above. The list can also be a sequence of short items separated by commas:
You will need four ingredients to bake a cake: flour, sugar, butter and eggs.
To introduce a quotation or speech: This is very useful in essays, and works well before a
large, indented quotation. Always use a colon to introduce a quotation which follows a
To introduce an explanation or statement: In this case the colon is used to create some sort of anticipation. It is often used when reporting speech or when summarizing or expanding the first half of the sentence:
Schneider’s message is clear: societies are not partible into kinship, economy, religion, and politics.
Sahlins pulls no punches: opponents to the culture concept are whiners.
DO NOT place a colon between a verb and its object or a preposition and its complement.
X In the available space, write: your name, address, and phone number.
Not every list need be announced with a colon.
Unlike semi-colons and colons, dashes are over-used. They are often used by writers who
are unsure which punctuation mark to choose. Dashes should NOT be used instead of
brackets, parenthetical commas, semi-colons, full stops, or colons before lists and
Avoid all of the following constructions:
X Even the dual-earner family — a very common case in Britain — finds it increasingly difficult to purchase a home in many parts of the country.
X Elizabeth makes her feelings obvious — she despises Mr Collins.
X Elizabeth feels only one emotion for Mr Collins — contempt.
All of these can be rewritten using more appropriate punctuation. However, dashes do have their place, whatever some may say. When you use one make sure you type a long dash (—) not a short hyphen (-). Press Ctrl, Alt and the hyphen key at the top right of your keyboard. Dashes are useful where the sense of the sentence is interrupted in some way, or where a long qualification or description has led away from the main point of the sentence.
The dash provides a breathing space in which the sentence can reorganise itself:
Asdiwal is young, enthusiastic, intelligent, successful, courageous to the point of foolhardiness — the classic tragic hero.
The final phrase does not fit easily into the syntax of the sentence, but it is obviously referring to the subject of the sentence, Asdiwal. If you were to put a comma after ‘foolhardiness’, the final phrase would get lost in the list of adjectives. You could create a new sentence: ‘He is a classic tragic hero.’ However, this lacks the immediacy and movement of the version above. A dash seems justified in this case.
Here is another one:
Hamlet’s indecisiveness, his arrogance, his suspicion of others, his passionate, brooding, introspective nature — these all contribute to his downfall.
In both these sentences you could quite correctly substitute a colon. However, the effect of a colon is to lead the reader forward into the following section. A dash is more like a bucket of
cold water flung in the reader’s face, jolting them back to the starting point of the sentence. Colons point forward, and dashes point backward. Nobody wants this experience too often,
so, once more, use with extreme caution. If you can replace a dash with another punctuation mark, you probably should.
7.6 Quotation marks
In British usage, speech and quotations are signalled by single quotation marks:
O’Brien asked her respondents to identify their social class and got, ‘What do you mean by class?’
Quotations and speech within quotations are signalled by double quotation marks:
’When Obrien’s respondent said, “I am middle class”, she did so without utilising a sociologists’ definition of class status.
You will see this done the other way around, with double quote marks on the outside and single quotes within. This will probably be in books or journals published in the US, where the system is reversed. Please use the British system. For more on quotations, see Section C.
7.7 Exclamation marks
Do not use these, unless they appear in quotations (see above). An academic essay should persuade by force of reason and evidence. Exclamation marks do not fit in the formal register of academic writing.
If you want to express interesting ideas then a sound grasp of grammar is essential. Your understanding of grammar may be more developed than you realise. If you have studied a foreign language, you may have a very sophisticated knowledge of how it works. Most speakers use grammar well without knowing all the terms for the techniques they are using. This is fine when it works, but it can help to stop and think about what you are doing. Markers tend to use technical, grammatical terms when pointing out problems in your work, which is not much use to you if you do not know what they are talking about.
This section will point out a few common problems, and offer definitions of some terms that may crop up in your markers’ comments. If you have serious problems with the grammar of the prestige variant of English used in academic writing, this booklet will not solve them. If your markers consistently complain about your syntax, sentence structure, tenses, pronouns and the like, you probably need some help from one of the sources listed on pages 8 and 24.
Syntax is the order of elements. English is an ‘SVO’ language, which means the normal order of elements is subject-verb-object. ‘The man bit the dog,’ is clear in its meaning, if weird. Problems can develop, however, when a writer starts to pile various modifying elements (subordinate clauses, temporal phrases, etc.) at the beginning of a sentence. Then it is possible to lose track of the subject, the verb, and the object (complement).
Clauses are the internal sections of a sentence, which fit together to build up meaning. Every clause has a noun and a verb, sometimes called a subject and a predicate. However, not all clauses are of equal weight and value. The clauses of a sentence are like the internal walls of a house. Some can be moved around or altered without doing too much damage. One is always essential and cannot be removed without the whole thing falling in. Clauses which are essential are main clauses. A compound sentence will have two main clauses. A main clause requires a noun and a verb:
However, it can also be more elaborate:
I know some useful things about grammar.
A main clause is the bit of a sentence which can make a sentence all by itself.
‘Know’ is the principal verb of this sentence, which means it is the verb in the main clause.
‘I’ is the subject of the sentence, which means it is the noun doing the verb, also called the predicate.
‘Some useful things about grammar’ forms the object of the sentence. This is the noun phrase which represents the thing that ‘I know’.
Subjects, objects and predicates can all be made up of single words or phrases to make up the main clause.
Subordinate clauses: Onto this main clause one can attach other clauses, which support and describe the main clause. These are called subordinate clauses. All the subordinate clauses in the following examples are underlined. Subordinate clauses can often be moved around without changing the meaning of a sentence:
I know some useful things about grammar, which is lucky for you.
It is lucky for you that I know some useful things about grammar.
A subordinate clause is a section of a sentence which contains a subject and a predicate (i.e. a noun and a verb), but which is doing the job of an adverb or an adjective. It is not part of the main action of the sentence. It is describing a thing or an action in the main clause or in another subordinate clause. A sentence can have more than one subordinate clause. They can follow and/or precede the main clause.
Because my mother drilled prescriptive grammar into my brain, I know some useful
things about grammar, which is lucky for you, as you can draw on these to improve your writing.
By now, however, this sentence is getting a bit long and complex for my liking. Once you have more than three clauses in a sentence, it is very easy to get confused about which is the important one. I advise against sentences any more complex than this. They are hard to write well and hard work to read. The real danger is when the main clause gets missed out, and you end up with something like this:
X Because I have studied English, which is lucky for you, as you can draw on these to improve your writing.
This is not a sentence. It has no main verb, only a succession of subordinate clauses.
A subordinate clause is often flagged up by a word such as while, which, if, that, whenever, although, as, despite, etc. It describes the subject, the object or the predicate of the main clause. A phrase containing a participle (usually a verb ending in – ing) behaves similarly. These cannot form sentences in their own right, even though you will find them in The Sunday Times.
In your written work, therefore, you should avoid things like this:
X Although this is not the case.
X However much you try.
X Rarely appearing to do so.
X Being of sound mind and judgement.
All of these are sentence fragments. They do have nouns and verbs, but they lack a principal verb and are not valid as stand-alone sentences in formal written English. Charles Dickens, who was once a journalist, uses these often in his fiction for dramatic effect. However, they have no place in academic essays. The Microsoft grammar check will not always pick up sentence fragments, so correct these carefully yourself. I have found using MS Word’s grammar checker to be of little use beyond mild entertainment.
Dangling elements: You also need to make sure that the different bits of the sentence match up in a way that makes sense. A subordinate clause or participle phrase can cause complications when it is not quite clear to which bit of the main clause it refers. My mother’s favourite example of a dangling modifier recalls her own days driving an XKE:
Full of curves, the young woman drove her sports car down the mountain road.
This is called a dangling modifier, because the first phrase dangles ambiguously from the main clause and modifies the (apparent) wrong noun. This sentence highlights the curves of the woman, when the road’s curves were probably what the author had in mind. In this sort of sentence, try to keep the subject of the main clause as the subject of the subordinate clause, so that the two halves of the sentence are talking about the same thing or person. This may require some rewording.
The young woman raced her sports car down the curvy mountain road.
Look out for other elements in sentences that ‘dangle’. Make it clear what each bit of the sentence describes. Remember that pronouns usually refer to the most recent available noun. (See section on pronouns page 21)
Most importantly, make sure that what you have written makes sense to your reader, not just to you.
Relative clauses: A relative clause is a subordinate clause which refers to a preceding noun or pronoun. It usually starts with who, which or that. In the following sentence the relative clause has been underlined:
The ethnography which we read last year is out of print.
There are two kinds of relative clause: defining and non-defining.
A defining relative clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence because it gives important information about the preceding word. This identifies it in some way, marking it out from all other possible occurrences of the word. The example above is a defining relative clause. It makes clear that the sentence is discussing one particular ethnography studied last year, in contrast to ethnographies studied this year or two years ago.
A non-defining relative clause offers information that describes but does not specify; it is doing the same job as a modifying clause in a parenthesis. Like this, it must be enclosed in commas to keep it out of the way of the main action of the sentence: