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Grammar, spelling and punctuation

Checking grammar, spelling and punctuation is an important final step before handing in. It's good to leave time for final proofreading, because small mistakes can give a marker a bad impression. Do use computer spelling and grammar checkers but don't rely on them. They don't find all mistakes - and sometimes they change words and punctuation that are in fact correct.

See below a list of common grammatical errors.


Subject-verb agreement

Recent discoveries about the weather reveal that several cycles are involved.

NOT: Recent discoveries about the weather reveals that several cycles are involved.

Nouns and pronouns must agree in number

Children are encouraged to choose their activities freely.

NOT: Children are encouraged to choose his activities freely.

Pronouns must agree with each other

Once you have decided to take the course, you must keep certain policies in mind

NOT: Once one has decided to take the course, you must keep certain policies in mind.

Parallel Structures

Building parallel elements into a sentence adds clarity and emphasis

Eating huge meals, snacking between meals, and exercising too little can lead to obesity.

NOT: Eating huge meals, snacking between meals, and too little exercise can lead to obesity.

Wrong word forms and verb form

Wrong use of the word form can change the meaning of the sentences or wrong use of the verb form may give unclear sentence structure.

It is difficult to choose the answer

NOT: It is difficult to choice the answer.

It is important to have correct measurement of the water.

NOT: Measuring the water correctly is most important.

Use correct punctuation

Use a full stop or semicolon to separate two independent clauses, or join them with a coordinating conjunction.

We started to unpack our things, pretty soon we were ready for the beach.

OR: We started to unpack our things; pretty soon we were ready for the beach.

Use a colon to introduce a list or a long or formal quotation after a complete sentence. Otherwise make the quotation part of the grammar of your sentence.

Strunk (1995) asserts that: "Too many programmes are already underfinanced" (p.87).

OR: Strunk's assertion (1995) "Too many programmes are already underfinanced" (p.87) is based on questionable assumptions.

Are you unsure how to use articles?

Using Articles – (A, An, The), or No Article

It is important that the grammar, punctuation and spelling in your assignments are as correct as possible. One area that many students with English as an additional language find particularly difficult is using articles (e.g. a, an, the, or no article) because they may not have them in their language.

However, it is useful to remember that if you use the wrong article in your assignments, it usually doesn’t change the meaning. The content of your assignment and whether you have answered the question are much more important than correct grammar. Most of the time, only 10% of the total grade is given for correct grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Here is a brief list of the main rules for using a, an, the, and no article with examples for you to refer to.

Use of the, (the definite article)

  • Most uses of the shows that I, (the writer) know that you (the listener/reader) know who/what I am referring to - a specific person or thing
    e.g., ‘the assignment you are working on’ or ‘the diagram we looked at this morning’.
  • Once a topic has been introduced, a speaker/writer can use the to mean people/things that are normally present in that situation. For example, if someone is talking about a company they visited or work at, they can say,
    e.g. ‘the employees, the office, the boss, etc, without having to be clearer.
  • Remember, some uses of the are more idiomatic,
    e.g. ‘the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’. ; You will just have to learn these as you find them.

Use of a/an (the indefinite article)

  • A, the indefinite article, is the normal, neutral way of referring to one thing,
    e.g. ‘I am looking for a book on communication’, i.e. the speaker has no specific book in mind.

No article

  • No article is used for general classes of things
    e.g., ‘all books in the library’.
  • No article is often used with uncountable nouns
    e.g., ‘chocolate’, ‘glass’ or ‘wine’, but a/an is used when the meaning is ‘a type/kind of’ e.g., ‘a wine from Marlborough’.
  • Some uncountable nouns have quite a specific meaning when used with a.
    e.g., compare the meaning of ‘glass’ with ‘a glass’.

This flow chart may help you to choose the correct article. Go through the flow chart and ask yourself all the questions to find the most accurate answer.

Remember, use of articles is closely related to the context and the shared knowledge and understanding between the reader and writer. Therefore, it is most important to think about article use and practice in this way.

Some further points for you to remember

  • Nouns with geographical names follow no clear pattern and are difficult to predict. You should learn them together with the nouns they are used with e.g. ‘Lake Taupo’ but ‘the Waikato River’.
  • Look for articles and how they are used in your reading and listening and note them down.
  • Make notes of any use or non-use of the article which you think is unusual or interesting.

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