Many students assume that college writing is judged primarily on grammar. In truth, ideas, evidence, and arguments matter more than the mechanics of grammar and punctuation. Still, many of the rules of formal writing exist to promote clarity and precision. In addition, readers often think that good writing reflects good thinking. Writing filled with errors does not make a good impression, and most educators want to help students present themselves well. Correctness, then, isn’t the most important thing, but it does matter. Just remember that some rules are more important than others.
First, there are rules that are basic to English, such as “the car” not “car the.” Similarly, capitalizing the first word of a sentence and ending with appropriate punctuation are basic rules that most people do automatically.
Second, there are rules that are different in writing than they are in speaking. This is usually a degree of formality. These might be grammar rules, but they also involve vocabulary. For example, contractions are often avoided in formal academic writing. Likewise we often avoid slang words in academic writing.
Third, there are rules that are more optional because they reflect choices in style. Sometimes you must still follow these because of your audience (or your teacher). For example, there are many different ways to cite your outside sources of information, but we use MLA8 because that is what our academic department uses. Another clear example is using the third-person “they” when referring to a singular person, which is becoming increasingly — but not universally — accepted.
It’s sometimes hard to know at the beginning which rules are standard and which are optional. With the help of your instructors, you’ll learn them over time. The larger point is that observing rules is about learning and adopting the practices appropriate to your audience, which is one of the first rules of writing well.
Key points to remember
1. Subject-verb agreement: a singular subject requires a singular verb form, while a plural subject requires a plural verb form
2. Sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and comma splices: avoid these by using punctuation and conjunctions correctly
3. Word forms: pay attention to whether your sentence requires the noun, verb, adjective, or adverb form
4. Comma usage:
- Use a comma to join two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction
- Use a comma to mark the end of an introductory clause or phrase
- Use a comma to set off non-essential information (so-called non-restrictive clauses)
If your writing usually has a lot of errors in it, don’t worry. Identify one or two points to practice and then learn them. Use the feedback from your instructors and tutors as guides. You can’t become a perfect writer overnight (and no one writes perfectly all the time). But with more and more practice, you can certainly produce better and better writing that shares your ideas in a positive light.
Many students have one or two types of grammar errors that make up the majority of their mistakes. When they fix those one or two things, their essay or research paper improves a great deal. Think back to the self-analysis you did at the beginning of the term. Think about all the work that you have done this term to improve your writing. Now write a healthy paragraph that answers these three points once more:
- What is the most common error in your writing?
- How do you fix it? What’s the rule or guideline?
- How will you prevent this error in the future?
Text adapted from: Guptill, Amy. Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence. 2022. Open SUNY Textbooks, 2016, milneopentextbooks.org/writing-in-college-from-competence-to-excellence/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2022. CC BY-NC-SA