Grammar Guide

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Paragraphs provide a structure for your writing which enables the reader to identify and follow the developing stages in your treatment of the material. Remember that paragraphs should have their own internal structure whilst fitting into the larger structure of the whole piece of writing. Be clear what the main idea for each paragraph is, deal with it as fully as is necessary for your purpose, but be alert to digression or irrelevancies. Check your own use of paragraphs by reading the first sentence to see if it outlines the paragraph's main idea. The effective use of paragraphs can be seen in writing when the reader can gain an overview of the content by reading the first sentence of each paragraph.

Using the apostrophe

This guide has been written to give a simple explanation of the use of the apostrophe (’). It explains the main rules for its use, and gives examples of commonly encountered problems.


The apostrophe has two main uses

  • It replaces missing letters when we join words e.g. I can't swim

       This is known as a contraction.

  • It shows ownership e.g. this is John’s book.


When contractions are used, the apostrophe replaces the letter or letters that were removed to make a shorter word:

                                do not                    becomes                don’t .

The apostrophe replaces the missing letter, in this case the o .

Further examples are:                          

                                I will                       becomes                I’ll

                                you are                   becomes                you’re

                                they are                  becomes                they’re

Whilst it is important to understand the function of contractions, their use is not usually appropriate in academic writing.


Apostrophes are also used to show ownership - they make a word possessive. To make a word possessive follow the three simple rules given below.

 1. If the word is singular add  ’s                  

the student’s books - meaning the books belonging to the student.

Further examples are:

the boss’s armchair; the government’s legislation.

2. If the word is a plural but does not end in s  add  ’s :

women’s rights - meaning the rights of women.

Further examples are:                     

children’s playground - meaning the playground for children;

men’s changing rooms - meaning the changing rooms for men.

3. If the word is plural and ends in s  just add an apostrophe:

the studentslibrary books - meaning the books belonging to the students.

Further examples are:

the ladies football league; the workersrights.

Common problems in using apostrophes

The apostrophe is frequently misused. Words that cause particular problems are: its / it’s and whose / who’s.

Its / it’s

Use its when you want to show possession:              

the government abandoned its policy.

Its belongs to a group of words that are already possessive. Other examples are: it is hers; it is yours. These words are already possessive; they do not need apostrophes to indicate possession.

Use it’s when you want to shorten it is:                   

it’s a nice day.

It’s is a contraction of it is. The apostrophe replaces the missing i.

Whose / who’s

Use whose when you want to show possession:          

the student whose notes I borrowed.

Whose belongs to the same group of possessive words as its. It does not need an apostrophe to denote possession.

Use who’s  when you want to shorten who is:                  

the student who’s coming to visit.

Who’s is a contraction of who is. The apostrophe replaces the missing i.

Remember: just because a word ends in s, it does not mean it needs an apostrophe! An apostrophe is added to show possession or to replace a missing letter or letters in contractions. If you are unsure when to use an apostrophe, check your use of the apostrophe falls under one of the rules outlined in this guide.

Using the comma

This guide explains how the comma (,) can be used to make your writing clear, unambiguous and easy to read. It gives examples of the main uses of the comma, and highlights some commonly encountered problems.

Why use commas?

Commas are used to divide or separate parts of a sentence in order to make the meaning clear and the sentence easier to read. They mark a brief pause in the sentence, usually at a point where you would naturally pause if you were speaking rather than writing. They may be used to separate individual words or phrases within the sentence. Some examples of the main types of usage are given below.

Using commas to separate items in a list

Commas are used to separate the individual words or phrases that together make up a list.

The fish kept in the ponds were eels, tench, pike, perch and carp.

The main reasons for the closure were low enrolment, poor learning material, staff recruitment problems and inadequate funds.

Note that a comma is not normally used before the last item in the list, unless it is needed for clarification.

The choices were History and Archaeology, Archaeology and Sociology, and Ancient History.

Here, a comma is used before the last item in the list to avoid confusion.

Separating the parts of a sentence

Commas are used to separate an introductory word or phrase from the main sentence, or to separate a word or phrase that briefly interrupts the flow of the sentence. In the examples below, the introductory and interrupting words or phrases have been italicised.

Nevertheless, many critics see value in this theory.

After the first decade, the changes were fully integrated into the system.

Numerous studies, however, prove that the theory is inaccurate.

The same theory, according to most writers, can be applied to language acquisition.

Similarly, commas are used to separate an afterthought or a final phrase that contrasts with the main part of the sentence.

The war was vitally important for Europe, far more than it was for Britain.

To understand a particular culture we must look at the whole of society, not just its individual parts.

A single sentence can, of course, use commas in more than one way. In the following example, commas are used to separate an introductory phrase, punctuate a list and separate a final contrasting phrase.

To use the comma effectively, avoid overuse as this can make the sentence difficult to read and understand. Use the comma purposefully, as shown in the example above, and re-read a longer sentence to check the pauses are in the most helpful places.

Using commas to link simple sentences

A series of short, simple sentences can be jerky and tedious to read.

The University is large. It is close to the town centre. There are special rooms available. Advance reservation is necessary.

A way of improving the flow of the writing is to link sentences with a comma

together with a linking word (a co-ordinating conjunction) such as and, but,

so, or, nor or yet.

The University is large, and it is close to the town centre. There are special rooms available, but advance reservation is necessary.


A comma cannot be used on its own to join two sentences. A comma only indicates a pause in a sentence; it can not join sentences without the addition of a co-ordinating conjunction. For example, these two sentences, whilst grammatically correct, would read better if joined.

The people followed their own creed. They were willing to die for it.

However, they can not be joined by using a comma on its own, as the comma shows only a pause, not a link.

X The people followed their own creed, they were willing to die for it.  X

A comma together with a co-ordinating conjunction joins the sentences correctly.

The people followed their own creed, and they were willing to die for it.

Sentences can sometimes be joined effectively using a semi-colon (;). The companion leaflet, Using the Semi-colon and Colon provides a guide to its use.


If in doubt about your use of commas, read each sentence aloud, pausing briefly at each comma. If the sentence flows badly and seems jerky, you probably have too many commas. If you are breathless by the time you have reached the end of the sentence, you might need to insert some commas at appropriate points as shown in this guide. It may even be necessary to divide a very long sentence into two or more separate sentences.

Using the semi-colon and colon

This guide has been written to give a simple explanation of the use of the semi-colon (;) and colon (:).  It explains how they can be used effectively and gives examples of their main uses.

The semi-colon

The semi-colon represents a break within a sentence that is stronger than a comma, but less final than a full stop. It enables the writer to avoid over use of the comma and preserves the finality of the full stop. Semi-colons are used to separate items in a list and to link closely related sentences.

To separate items in a list

Use the semi-colon to separate items in a list when one or more items contain a comma. (These examples use a colon to introduce items in the list. An explanation of the use of the colon is given below.)

The speakers were: Dr Sally Meadows, Biology; Dr Fred Eliot, Animal Welfare; Ms Gerri Taylor, Sociology; and Prof. Julie Briggs, Chemistry.

The four venues will be: Middleton Hall, Manchester; Highton House, Liverpool; Marsden Hall, Leeds; and the Ashton Centre, Sheffield.

The main points in favour of the system were that it would save time for buying, accounts and on-site staff;  it would be welcome by the reception staff; it would use fewer resources; and it would be compatible with earlier systems.

To link sentences which are closely related

Closely related sentences are often linked to emphasise their relationship and to vary the pace of the writing. For example:

I read the book in one evening. It was not very helpful.

One way to link these sentences is with a comma and a word such as and, or, but, nor, for, so, yet (called co-ordinating conjunctions).

I read the book in one evening, but it was not very helpful.

For variety in sentence structure, the semi-colon can be used to link closely related sentences instead of a co-ordinating conjunction and comma.

I read the book in one evening; it was not very helpful.

The semi-colon tells the reader that the second clause is closely linked to the first clause. Note how sentences joined in this way are similar in either theme or grammatical structure as shown in the example below.

Personal writing utilises the first person form; impersonal writing utilises the third person form.
He was nervous about giving the speech; he asked for water several times.
The deadline has come forward a week; everyone's help will be needed.

For use with otherwise, however, therefore…

The semi-colon can be used to link sentences which also use words such as otherwise, however, therefore, as connectors. These connectors (known as conjunctive adverbs) also include: moreover, nevertheless, thus, besides, accordingly, consequently, instead, hence.

I did not finish reading the text; instead, I watched the news.

(Notice that the connecting word instead is followed by a comma).

The research is far from conclusive; nevertheless, it has some value in this case.
Dr Suptri argues that the research shows an increase in such occurrences; however, many experts would dispute this.

The colon

The colon acts as a pause which introduces related information. It indicates that the reader should look forward to information that follows on from the earlier statement. Some of the main ways a colon can be used are shown below.

To introduce a list

The colon can be used to introduce the items in a list.

Topics discussed will include:  the structure of viruses, virus families and current concerns in virology.

Students joining the department undertake to: attend all lectures and tutorials, meet deadlines for written work and contribute to tutorials and seminars

To introduce an explanation, conclusion or amplification

The colon can also be used to introduce an explanation, conclusion or amplification of an earlier statement. The use of the colon separates and highlights the second statement, showing that it follows on from the first.

Tai chi is more than a form of physical exercise: it is meditation in movement.

After extensive research, the committee came to its conclusion: development could not take place without further funding.


The semi-colon and colon are often underused, yet their correct use can enhance the clarity of your writing. Beware of an over dependence on the comma and full stop, as this can make for ambiguous and repetitive sentence structure. Look in your writing for opportunities to use the semi-colon and colon in the ways described in this guide.

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