Every university student has at some point wished that the human brain came with a built-in spell-checker. Sleep deprivation, study fatigue, and anxiety can all take a toll during exam times, leading to rampant errors in handwritten essays or short-answer questions. Additionally, studies by Statistics Canada and the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario reveal a decline in literacy skill over the past decade, which means that current post-secondary graduates are less literate than those from older generations. In part, this is due to education systems and reduced literacy acquisition or use outside of an educational environment. So what can you do to avoid the most common grammar, punctuation, and spelling mistakes when you have to rely on your own skills?
Know the structure and purpose of paragraphs.
You cannot write a cohesive essay without understanding and utilizing the paragraph properly. Essentially, a paragraph is made up of two or more sentences focused on a single topic. Each paragraph should have an identifiable topic sentence followed by supporting sentences with clearly defined points. Academic writing, for the most part, requires an author’s argument to be made as clearly and concisely as possible. As long as you keep track of proper paragraph structure, this is easy to accomplish—just remember, one topic per paragraph. It’s often helpful to write a quick outline to keep track of your argument and supporting points, especially in time-sensitive situations like exams.
Know your homophones.
The grammar rules regarding homophones cause problems for both native and non-native English speakers. Mixing up words that sound the same but have different meanings is the most common spelling mistake authors make. The list of homophones in the English language is surprisingly extensive, but the following words cause the most confusion:
Affect and Effect
Affect is a verb, as in “The music affected her emotionally.”
Effect is a noun, as in “The most common effect of sleep deprivation is the constant urge to nap.”
Than and Then
Than is used when comparing two things, as in “He was faster than his coworkers at completing projects.”
Then denotes a subsequent action or time, as in “Then, she put on her coat and went home.”
There, Their, and They’re
There indicates a position or location, as in “She would rather sit over there.”
Their is a possessive pronoun, as in “They loved their dog, even when he ate their shoes.”
They’re is a contraction of the verbal phrase “they are,” as in “They’re all going to the concert later.”
Your and You’re
Your is a possessive pronoun, as in “I can’t stand your taste in movies.”
You’re is a contraction of the verbal phrase “you are,” as in “You’re going to regret eating all those chocolates.”
Whose and Who’s
Whose is a possessive pronoun, as in “Whose car is blocking my driveway?”
Who’s is a contraction of the verbal phrase “who is,” as in “Who’s going to the restaurant later?”
To, Too, and Two
To is a preposition, or part of the infinitive expression of a verb, as in “She was heading to the gym after work” (preposition) or “She wanted to go home” (verb).
Too is an adverb, as in “There was too much junk food at the Christmas party” or “Although he’d already had a brownie, he decided to eat a gingerbread cookie, too.”
Two is a number, as in “She couldn’t image having two babies at the same time.”
Accept and Except
Accept is a verb, as in “Please accept my apologies.”
Except is most often used as a preposition, as in “I love all kinds of fruit except bananas.” It can also be used as a conjunction, as in “She would have purchased the fruit, except that she left her purse at home.”
Unfortunately, the easiest way to keep these types of words straight when a spell-checker isn’t available is memorization. Consider reading over this list of most commonly misused homophones before your next exam!
Know how to use the comma properly.
The most common grammar mistakes relate to one simple form of punctuation—the comma. Commas are overused, underused, forgotten altogether, or generally misunderstood. Below are the most common comma mistakes:
The comma splice, or run-on sentence, is all too frequent in exam essays or long answers because it’s easy for time-constrained students to connect floods of ideas with commas until they have sentences half a page long and one frustrated professor. The rule here is that two independent clauses—full sentences able to stand on their own—should never be separated by a comma. Instead, use a semicolon, use a comma with a conjunction (such as “and,” “but,” or “so”), or simply end each clause with a period.
It was a gloomy day, so she bundled up in her hat and scarf.
It was a gloomy day; she bundled up in her hat and scarf.
It was a gloomy day. She bundled up in her hat and scarf.
It was a gloomy day, she bundled up in her hat and scarf.
Nonrestrictive Phrases and Introductory Clauses, Phrases, and Words
Nonrestrictive phrases provide additional information that isn’t necessary for the sentence to make sense. These phrases are often used to add description to some element in the sentence and should be set off by commas.
Introductory clauses, phrases, and words that are not separated by a comma can cause confusion and detract from the readability of your writing. These introductory elements usually set the stage for the rest of the sentence and are dependent because they can’t stand on their own and make sense. They will often start with an adverbial clause; a prepositional, participial, or infinitive phrase; or a transition word like “still,” “however,” or “furthermore.”
Because he kept Tylenol in his work desk, he was always ready for a headache.
To get to her friend’s new house, she had to take the train and walk three blocks.
Still, his text message wasn’t clear and made her anxious.
Nonrestrictive Relative Clauses
Nonrestrictive relative clauses are a type of dependent clause introduced by a relative pronoun, most commonly “which.” These clauses contain information that is not essential to the understanding of the sentence and should be set off by a comma. A good rule to remember is to always use a comma before the word “which.”
He finally changed his number, which he had been meaning to do since he moved, to avoid all those long-distance charges.
Even the most grammatically gifted students and writers may have difficulty with these grammar rules when a spell-checker isn’t available. Preparing for such a situation does require some effort, but learning these grammar rules—whether on your own or with the help of a grammar course—will be sure to help you write well.
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