Below are some tips and refreshers on how to be most effective in your writing. I’ve included some of the most common grammar and spelling mistakes that are worth keeping fresh in your mind when you are proof-reading your work. The codes in parentheses correspond to some of the standard comments that I provide as feedback on papers. These guides are works in progress, so feel free to send along your questions.
Common Sentence Construction Issues
Incomplete Sentences / Sentence Fragments (IN, frag)
View this guide on sentence fragments.
Run-on Sentences (RO)
View this guide on run-on sentences.
Clear Sentence Construction
View this guide on sentence construction for help with:
- Misplaced modifiers (MM)
- Dangling modifiers (DM)
- Parallel structure (PS)
- Passive voice (passive)
Uses of Commas and Conjunctions
When you want to join two complete sentences together, use comma-and:
Maria went to the bar, and the bartender served her a drink.
Two complete sentences: Maria went to the bar. The bartender served her a drink.
When you want join two predicates to a single subject, just use and:
Maria sipped the drink and left a tip.
Two predicates: … sipped the drink / … left a tip
Self-Quiz: Which of the following are correct?
- Regan believes in animal rights, and bases them on inherent worth.
- Regan believes in animal rights and bases them on inherent worth.
- Regan believes in animal rights and he bases them on inherent worth.
- Regan believes in animal rights, and he bases them on inherent worth.
- Regan believes in animal rights, he bases them on inherent worth.
Ask yourself: Could the statements on both sides of the comma stand on their own? If so, they should either be separate sentences or connected by “, and”.
(Answers: 2 and 4 are correct. 5 is incorrect because it is a “comma splice” (CS): it tries to put together two complete sentences with only a comma.)
Common Word Choice Issues
There / Their / They’re
These three words are commonly confused, so if you know you tend to pick the wrong spelling, then pause each time you write one of these words and consider which meaning you want to use:
- “There” refers to a place. Example: “The books for the class are over there.” A common extended use of the term is to claim that something exists; for example: “There is a pool at the gym.”
- “Their” is the possessive of “they.” Example: “After having dinner with my friends, I am going back to their apartment.”
- “They’re” is the contraction of “they are.” Example: “I think the team has a good shot at the championship because they’re currently leading in the standings.”
Apart vs. A Part
When you want to express a part-to-whole relationship, use “a part”:
Michigan is a part of the United States.
When you want to express that one thing is separate from another, use “apart”:
Jorge has been apart from Melissa for three months.
Effect vs. Affect
“Affect” is usually a verb, meaning to influence. Use it when you want to say that “X affects Y.” For example:
The lousy weather did not affect my plans to go to the museum.
“Effect” is usually a noun, meaning the result of some cause. For example:
Most analysts agreed that women voters had a major effect on the passage of the amendment.
“Effect” may also be used as a verb, meaning to bring about. For example:
The recent events are proof that social movements can effect significant change.
To determine the right one to use, you might ask yourself two questions:
- Does my sentence say that “X affects/effects Y” (or “X does not affect/effect Y”)? If so, then it is a verb. If not, then it is a noun, and you probably want to use “effect.”
- Next, if it is a verb, does it mean “to influence”? If so, then you want “affect.” If your verb means “to bring about,” then you want “effect.” (Consider the examples above: the first sentence is talking about the influence of the weather on my plans not about how the weather brought my plans about. The last sentence talks about how social movements bring about change not how they influence change.)
One other way to think about it:
- “Affect” is related to the word “affection,” which refers to the way a person’s emotions are influenced. To have an affection for something is to be susceptible to feeling its influence on your emotions. For example: “The sight of the puppy’s sad eyes at the animal shelter really affected me.” Even though we use the verb “to affect” to talk about other kinds of influence that don’t have to do with emotions, we are drawing on a metaphor of emotional influence to talk about how “X affects Y.”
- “Effect” is the term involved in the common phrase “cause and effect.” When using the noun “effect,” it will have reference, at least implicitly, to some cause: as in, “X is the effect of (cause) Y.” When using the verb “to effect,” it will indicate the way in which some cause brings something about as an effect. (Usually “to effect” means the same as “to cause”).
- Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2009. (seventh edition)
- Strunk Jr., William, and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon, 2007. (fifth edition)
- Warren, Virginia. “Guidelines for the Non-Sexist Use of Language [full-text for CMU users].” American Philosophical Association (updated 2010).
- Bleifuss, Joel. ”A Politically Correct Lexicon.” In These Times (2007).