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Academic Writing


Don't let the computer do it

Don’t let the computer do it for you:

Grammar-checking software is no substitute for your own knowledge because it is not very good.  It does not understand context, cannot know all the rules of grammar, and is rarely very accurate.  The most accurate grammar checking software misses 40% of errors, while most others miss 75%.

Common Grammar Issues

Be consistent

However you write, be consistent.  If you are unsure what the rule is, look it up.  If you are still unsure, decide what your rule will be and stick to it.  If you change how you write within your document, you give the impression you weren’t thinking when you were writing and that you never checked your work before handing it in.  You will be marked down for that.  If you make a mistake, but do it consistently, people will simply assume you had learned the wrong rule.  You will be corrected, but your marks are unlikely to suffer.

‘I’ vs ‘we’

The most common issue of this type is the use of ‘I’ and ‘we.’  Some countries, such as Germany, teach that you can never use ‘I’ in academic writing.  Some teach you can never say ‘we.’  However, both are allowed in academic writing in English.  If you want to avoid the issue, use ‘one’ or rephrase the sentence. 

All of the following are legitimate and have exactly the same meaning:

  1. I conclude this argument is poor.
  2. We conclude this argument is poor.
  3. One concludes this argument is poor.
  4. It can be concluded that this argument is poor.
  5. It is reasonable to conclude this is a poor argument.

Grammar & Punctuation

Grammar and punctuation rules exist to ensure other people understand what you say.  Most people dislike grammar, and very few really know all the rules.  English grammar is less complex than many other languages because it is fairly flexible.  There are often different ways you can arrange a sentence yet keep the same meaning.  However, this flexibility can be a problem. 

The flexibility of English means you can use weird sentence structures or punctuation, yet people will still understand you.  As a result many people arrive at university with poor grammar which has got them by until now.  However, at university-level, you are expected to use grammar properly, and will be marked accordingly.  The quality of your grammar is expected to rise as you progress through the years.  At post-graduate level, your grammar is expected to be absolutely perfect.

This is not a guide on English Grammar.  There are many good books and websites which will cover the topic comprehensively. 

Sooner or later you will need to check a rule.  Be aware that US rules are sometimes different from the rest of the English-language world.  Do not follow US rules.  Follow the rules of International English or UK English.  If in doubt, use an Oxford publication, such as the Standard Oxford English Dictionary or the Oxford Living English Dictionary (

The secret to learning grammar:

It is too time consuming to learn all the rules of English grammar in time to use in your current work.

Learn rules as you need them.  If you’re unsure about something, look it up online.  Don’t guess.  If you get it wrong your marks will suffer.  No one will give you marks for “effort” – get it right or lose marks.



Apostrophes are used for:

  1. Possession (eg: Davids car; this is the peoples decision)
  2. Plural of letters (eg: he got two As in his exams; she has two B.A.s)
  3. To stand for missing letters in contractions (eg: isnt).  Do not use contractions in academic writing – ever.

To show you are discussing the word, not what it refers to (eg: the slang term for children is kids).

Apostrophes when the word ends in ‘s’.

Words can end in ‘s’ because they are plural (eg: cars) or because the word or name ends in ‘s’ (eg: the United States, Thomas).

  1. Possessive plurals - Put the apostrophe after the word (eg: the cars’ passengers)
  1. Names ending in ‘s’ – there is no single rule.  There are different, competing rules on what to do in order to show plural or possessive on names ending in ‘s’.  Some citation style guides have rules on this, such as APA.  Some publishers have their own rules.  In other cases, it is up to the writer.  Most guides will provide a single rule and won’t tell you alternatives are allowed, giving a false impression there is a single correct rule.  Both of the following are legitimate:
  1. Thomas’s car
  2. Thomas’ car


As a consequence, you need to do the following:

  1. Check the citation style guide from the department.
  2. If writing for publication, check the publisher’s style guide.
  3. Pick a style and be consistent.

Being marked down for style issues

You need to be aware that the person marking your work may have learned English in another country.  Some other languages have rigid rules where English is flexible.  In some countries a style of writing English which is optional, and which has legitimate alternatives, is taught as if the version they teach is the only permitted way to do it. 

This means you may get marked down for stylistic decisions which are actually legitimate because the person marking your work does not realise their “rule” is just a style.  If you suspect this is the case, you will have to research your useage and provide evidence, then discuss this with the person who marked your work.  Most people will revise their marking if you show evidence.


Commas are used in sentences whereever you want the reader to pause.  This is normally when you move from one fact or concept to the next, as an alternative for parentheses, between items in a list, after starting a sentence with a connective, and (sometimes) when starting a quote.

There are a great many rules regarding correct use of commas.  If in doubt, consult a reputable guide.

The most common mistake with commas is to have too many.  Try reading the sentence out loud, pausing for breath every time you see a comma.   If it sounds disconnected, you’ve probably got too many commas.  A good way to tell is if you can replace the comma with a word. 


For example:

“If it sounds disconnected, you’ve probably got too many commas.”

Can be rewritten as:

“If it sounds disconnected then you’ve probably got too many commas.”

But you cannot replace the comma with a word in the following:

“One of the best skills a writer can learn, is how to use commas.” - so this is wrong

A coordinating conjunction is a word which connects two parts of a sentence.  There are seven coordinating conjunctions: ‘for’, ‘and’, ‘nor’, ‘but’, ‘or’, ‘yet’, ‘so’.


You must put a comma before a coordinating conjunction.  However, be careful – the word must be functioning as a conjunction.  All of these words can be used within a sentence without being a conjunction.



I don’t like you, for you are silly   VS   This gift is for you

This machine is amazing, and so I want to buy it  VS   This food is bread and butter

I never saw him jump, nor did I see him fall   VS   He could not jump nor fly

We were out of milk, but I did not buy more  VS  That speech is nothing but hot air

I could hire a car, or I could buy a boat   VS   I could hire a car or buy a boat

We are drowning, yet I cannot swim   VS  It is not yet time for a change

This food is nice, so I will get more  VS  I am saving money so that I can have a holiday

Each item in a list must be separated with a comma except the last one, which takes 'AND'.

EG This is a list of items, amounts, names, addresses and phone numbers.

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if the last item includes the ‘and’.

EG:  Please order coffee, cheese, apples, bread and butter.

Here it is impossible to tell if we are to order one item (bread with butter) or two items (butter and bread).  In cases like this, put a comma in front of the ‘and’.  This is called the ‘oxford comma’.

EG:  Please order coffee, cheese, apples, bread, and butter.

A logical connective is a word which connects two items via logic.  The most common logical connectives are ‘therefore’, ‘as a result’, ‘consequently’, ‘thus’, ‘accordingly’, ‘subsequently’, ‘however’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘nonetheless’, ‘conversely’, and ‘on the other hand’.

EG:  It is raining therefore it is wet.

‘Therefore’ shows that “it is wet” is a logical conclusion from the fact it is raining.

Logical connectives are often used to start sentences in academic writing.  This is because most of academic writing is a chain of reasoning, in which facts lead to conclusions.  

Whenever a logical connective starts a sentence, it must be followed by a comma.


It is true that some people are richer than others.  However, society cannot agree what to do about it.

Most people have two feet.  As a result, shoes are sold in pairs.

The car did not have working brakes.  Consequently, it crashed.

The experimental methodology was flawed.  Therefore, we cannot trust the conclusions.

He is telling the truth.  Nevertheless, I will not believe him.


TIP: For better writing style, don’t use the same connective over and over again.  There are always alternative words which mean the same.  Vary the word you use to make your writing more interesting.

Commas can be used instead of parentheses, any time you like.


This sentence (which was written by me) is boring.

This sentence, which was written by me, is boring.

TIP: It is not a strict rule, but academic writing tends to prefer commas.