Faculty of General Studies
University of Calgary


© 1984, 1993 The Effective Writing Programme


C .....Content
W .....Word Use

Note: This guide surveys the major problems most people have when they write essays, research papers, and compsitions of this kind. The idea is not to read the DETAILED MARKING CODE from start to finish, although some people do; rather, the idea is to consult specific sections, i.e., when your instructor puts coded marks on your assignments. We should point out that the explanations below are not meant to be comprehensive; they merely point out the most obvious features of the problems they describe. If you have trouble seeing how a particular explanation applies to your work, or understanding how to revise your work to eliminate the problem, consult a writer's guide or ask your instructor.


[C-1] INSUFFICIENT LENGTH. Be sure that your essay is as long as requested: an essay that is a great deal shorter than the suggested length may not demonstrate an ability to build a sustained argument. (See also C-2 below.)


[C-2a] Thin Content. Be sure that your essay is adequately developed. Include supporting details and specific examples, answer implied questions such as "how" and "why," and define terms where necessary (see PA-3). Remember that you can develop and rewrite paragraphs at the beginning and in the middle of your essay; resist the urge to tack material onto the end to stretch an essay to the required length.

[C-2b] Repetition. Do not introduce material that needlessly repeats material that you've already introduced. When revising your essay, be prepared to move or eliminate large blocks of material to correct problems of repetition.

[C-3] LOGIC. Be sure that you think through all statements to be sure that they are logically sound, and be careful not to make statements that you know or suspect to be contrary to fact.

[C-3a] Inappropriate Generalization. Avoid making unsupported (or unsupportable) statements such as "Children who watch violent television programs become criminals." If you cannot produce facts and figures to support your statements, at least provide a carefully thought-out argument. Consider using qualifiers such as many, most, some, may, possibly, perhaps, and maybe to avoid overgeneralizing.

[C-3b] Unsuitable Method of Argument. Do not substitute shrill name-calling or emotionalism for reasoned argument. Be particularly careful not to try to prove a point simply by using the emotional connotations of loaded words such as freedom, democracy, communism, and fascist. For example, avoid arguments like "This plan is bad because it is fascist."

[C-3c] False Analogy. Analogy can be a useful way to illustrate a point, but it usually cannot be used to prove it. Beware of assuming that because two things are alike in some ways they are alike in all ways. Consider the following argument, based on a false analogy: "You must have a license to drive a car, so you should have to have one to drink alcohol."

[C-3d] Self-Contradiction. Proofread carefully for statements that appear to contradict earlier statements. Often such apparent contradictions can be resolved by explaining further. Consider the following example: "Educational freedom is essential. However, curriculum must be carefully controlled." (What precisely is meant by "educational freedom" here?)

[C-3e] Circular Argument. Be careful not to try to prove a point by using as evidence the point that you are still trying to prove (e.g., "Capital punishment is bad because it is a detriment to society.")

[C-4] OFF TOPIC. If your entire essay, or a significant portion of it, does not relate clearly to the topic assigned, the essay's content can be faulted. Carefully reread the assigned topic before revising. (See also ST-4.)


[C-5a] Inappropriate Writing Strategy. Be sure that the approach you take is appropriate to the situation. For example, if asked for an analytical report, do not provide large stretches of personal narrative. When in doubt, ask for guidance from the person who assigned the essay.

[C-5b] Inappropriate Tone. Tone is established by the words and the arguments (see C-3b) you choose. While a formal essay certainly need not be stuffy and pedantic, you should normally avoid being extremely breezy and chatty in an essay unless the assignment calls for a very informal or personal essay. You should also avoid writing an extremely technical or specialized essay for a general audience (see W-5). Finally, avoid abrupt shifts in tone.


[ST-1] NO OR UNCLEAR THESIS. It is not always necessary to state your thesis at the beginning of your essay, but your essay must have a point or present a position that the reader can easily discern.


[ST-2a] Misleading Introduction. Avoid constructing an introduction that leads the reader to expect an essay quite different from the one you have written.

[ST-2b] Underdeveloped Introduction. An introduction may be very brief and may suggest ideas that are not developed until later in the essay. However, it should not mystify readers by making statements that do not make sense until they have read substantially further.

[ST-2c] Introduction Not Self-Explanatory. Your essay should be understandable by itself, without reference to your title or to a test question. Do not begin with a statement such as "Yes, I agree" or "Everyone opposes it," which makes the reader look outside your essay for an explanation.

[ST-2d] Poorly Focused Introduction. Make certain that the material in your introduction is more than a random collection of facts. It should be clear to the reader that all of the material is relevant, not just to a general topic but also to a specific argument.

[ST-2e] "Overture" Introduction. One type of introduction mentions, in order, each of the points that will be developed in succeeding paragraphs. Unskilfully used, such an introduction may result in an extremely repetitious essay, especially if the essay is short. Avoid repeating sentences from the introduction word-for-word in the body; instead, refer briefly to the concepts established in the introduction and develop from there.

[ST-3] POOR MIDDLE DEVELOPMENT. Use a clear pattern of organization. Consider such strategies as stating a thesis and then giving a number of supporting arguments; stating a problem and then examining one or more possible solutions; stating a course of action and weighing its advantages and disadvantages; or stating and then refuting a series of arguments against your thesis. There are many acceptable patterns; just be sure that the one you choose suits your material, groups related ideas together, and gives your readers the information they need to understand every point as they come to it.

[ST-4] PASSAGE NOT CLEARLY RELATED TO THESIS. It is not enough that all your ideas and arguments are relevant to your general subject. The reader must understand how they clarify and support your overall argument or thesis.

[ST-5] POOR TRANSITIONS BETWEEN PARAGRAPHS. The connections between paragraphs are often obvious simply because the ideas are clearly connected. However, if you go to a completely new aspect of your topic or change direction, you may need to give your reader explicit signals (e.g., "While the plan has many advantages, it is not without its problems.") (See also PA-5c.)

[ST-6] POOR OR NO CONCLUSION. Every essay needs an ending to convey a sense of closure. Your conclusion does not necessarily have to summarize your entire essay; it should, however, reinforce the point you are making in your essay and perhaps place your argument into a larger perspective. (If you have trouble concluding without repeating yourself, perhaps you have said too much in the introduction.) Be sure to adequately signal the beginning of your conclusion, and beware of striving too hard for a dramatic closing or of introducing a totally new point in your conclusion that may confuse or irritate readers if it is not developed.


[PA-1] NO NEW PARAGRAPH NEEDED. Avoid breaking paragraphs where there is no natural division in the thought. Successions of extremely short paragraphs tend to fragment ideas; one-sentence paragraphs in particular should be avoided except for special rhetorical effects such as transition or emphasis.

[PA-2] NEW PARAGRAPH NEEDED. There is no rule determining how long a paragraph should be; however, in a short paper you should normally divide your argument into fairly small units. (A good general guideline is three to seven sentences.)


[PA-3a] Underdeveloped Ideas. Avoid making vague or abstract statements without adequate supporting details. A well-developed paragraph provides enough details and illustrations to enable the reader to clearly understand and accept the paragraph's central point. Consider the following underdeveloped passage: "People are the only ones who know what is right for them. As a result, individual initiative and free enterprise are taking on some of their former meaning, at least for some people." (Are "the people" in the second sentence the same as those referred to in the first sentence? How is the second sentence a "result" of the first? What was the "former meaning" of initiative and free enterprise?)

[PA-3b] Elliptical Paragraph (Omission of Logical Steps). Do not omit steps in your argument that seem obvious to you but which may not to your reader. Unless you explain the connections between ideas, some statements may appear to be total nonsense, as the following example shows: "Television should be closely regulated. After all, it is more popular than radio."

[PA-3c] Extended Definition Needed. Many general terms can mean different things to different people. By explaining what you mean by terms such as basic education, social adjustment, or justice, you can often clarify what might otherwise be a confusing or insubstantial paragraph. For example, in the following passage from The American Myth of Success, Richard Weiss explains what he means by myth: I do not use the word "myth" to imply something entirely false. Rather, I mean it to connote a complex of profoundly held attitudes and values which condition the way men view the world and understand their experience.


[PA-4a] Poor Unity. A paragraph should have a topic or organizing idea (whether or not it is expressed in an explicit topic sentence) and should contain no material that is not relevant to that topic.

[PA-4b] "Hook" Structure. In general, avoid introducing a new topic at the end of one paragraph and developing it in the next; if not used expertly, this way of connecting paragraphs ("hook" structure) can destroy paragraph unity. Instead, you should generally start a new topic at the beginning of the paragraph in which you develop it.

[PA-4c] Poor Order of Sentences. Make sure your sentences are in a logical order. Do not bury a general statement in the middle of a series of more specific statements that amplify it: place it first or last. Ask yourself what the reader needs to know next to understand what you're saying.


[PA-5a] Poor Coherence. Sentences must flow smoothly and logically from each other. Make the connections between your ideas clear. It is not enough that every sentence in a paragraph relates to the topic or organizing idea (see PA-4a); it must be clear to the reader how each sentence follows from the one before it in a line of argument.

[PA-5b] Shifts. Avoid unnecessary shifts of person, number, tense, mood, and voice not only within sentences (see SE-9 and SE-10) but also from one sentence to another: such shifts can impair paragraph coherence.

[PA-5c] Transitions. Guide your reader by using transitional signals such as furthermore, likewise, in addition, therefore, for example, on the other hand, and however. Use these transitions, however, only to signal relationships that really do exist; when introducing a contrasting statement, for example, use however, not therefore.


[SE-1] SENTENCE FRAGMENT. Make sure that each sentence contains an independent clause--a group of words that includes a subject and a verb and that can stand alone.

[SE-1a] Misplaced Period. Avoid creating a sentence fragment by inserting a period into what would otherwise be a complete sentence (e.g., "Inflation is a difficult problem. Although it is not impossible to solve." "Capital punishment should be abolished. The reason being that it is ineffective.") To correct such fragments, link the ideas, using appropriate punctuation, e.g., a comma, a colon (:), or a dash. (See PU-1, PU-3, and PU-4.)

[SE-1b] Incomplete Sentence. Some incomplete sentences cannot be combined with adjoining sentences. Such sentences must be completely rethought and rewritten, as is the case with in the following example: "An underdeveloped country, in which many are uneducated. We must help such countries as much as we can."

[SE-2] COMMA SPLICE. (Comma Fault or Run-on). Do not use a comma to join two ideas that could each stand alone as a sentence (e.g., "We could make better use of our land, parks and recreation areas could be set aside.") To correct comma splices, change the comma to a period or semicolon (;) (or, in some cases, a colon). (See PU-2 and PU-3.) Another option is to add a co-ordinating conjunction (and, but, or for) after the comma. If a conjunctive adverb such as however, therefore, or likewise is used to join the ideas, a comma is still insufficient punctuation; a semicolon or period is required. (See Pu-2b.)

[SE-3] FUSED SENTENCES. Do not run two sentences together with no punctuation (e.g., "He had forgotten how empty the prairies are after two years in Toronto he had grown used to skyscrapers.") Correct fused sentences by adding a period, colon, semicolon, or a comma with a co-ordinating conjunction.


[SE-4a] Overloaded Grammatical Structure. If well-constructed, a sentence may be long without being overloaded. However, a long, clumsily-constructed sentence can be almost unreadable (e.g., "Meanwhile the poor student, who couldn't keep up the grades (possibly because of the way courses are taught) drops out because of this and the money, or lack of, for tuition, and gets a job in a trade he learns through the knowledge passed to him on the job, or goes on welfare.")

[SE-4b] Too Many Ideas. A fairly short sentence may be overloaded if it contains more ideas than can be clearly expressed in the space of a few words. Often, the ideas need expanding. A sentence such as the following example should probably be made into two or three sentences: "Students should realize that they are unique, each starting from a different point, and that they may end up with a career that wasn't pre-planned."


[SE-5a] General Mixed Constructions. Avoid shifting from one sentence pattern to another in mid-sentence; for example, the sentence "By exercising makes you fit" needs to be rewritten as "By exercising, you can become fit" or "Exercising makes you fit."

[SE-5b] "This-is-when" Construction. When used as a linking verb, "is" must join two nouns (e.g., "A good day is one on which . . . ."), not a noun and a "when" clause (e.g., "A good day is when . . . .")

[SE-5c] "Reason-is-because" Construction. Though common in speech, the reason is because is both ungrammatical and redundant. Correct the problem by deleting the reason is or by changing the word because to that. For example, the sentence "The reason I am living at home is because I want to save money" should be rewritten as "I am living at home because I want to save money," or as "The reason I am living at home is that I want to save money."

[SE-5d] Doubled Preposition. Don't use a construction such as in which or to whom and then repeat the preposition at the end of the sentence, as in the following examples: "To whom do I talk to?" "In which country was he born in?"

[SE-6] FAULTY PARALLELISM. Use the same grammatical form for words, phrases or clauses that form a pair or a series and are alike in function. For example, rewrite "She likes swimming, cooking, and to play squash" as "She likes likes swimming, cooking and playing squash" or as "She likes to swim, to cook, and to play squash." Often, clarity is added by repeating words like because or that to signal parallel structure, as in the following example: "Britain is in economic trouble because it is no longer a major power and the changed values of its youth." Correction: ". . . because it is no longer a major power and because the values of its youth have changed."

[SE-7] DANGLING MODIFIER. Modifying words and phrases are said to "dangle" if the subject they describe is not directly stated in the sentence; the resulting sentence can be unclear or even nonsensical (e.g., "Swimming across the lake, the sun set.") Here is another example: "Denied this love, the reaction of the dog can be harmful." (This sentence implies that the "reaction of the dog"--not the dog itself--is "denied this love.")


[SE-8a] Misplaced Modifier. Place modifying words and phrases as close as possible to the subject they describe; adverbs (e.g., only) can be particularly tricky. Check that your placement of modifiers conveys your intended meaning. For example, the sentence "Jones became ill after he married and died" should be rewritten as "After he married, Jones became ill and died."

[SE-8b] Misplaced Example. Don't tack examples onto the end of a sentence when the idea being illustrated is elsewhere. For example, the sentence "Economic problems are difficult to cope with such as inflation and unemployment" should be rewritten as "Economic problems such as inflation and unemployment are difficult to cope with."


[SE-9a] Shift of Number. Unless required by context, avoid shifting from singular to plural (or vice versa), as in the following example: "The Olympics challenge athletes. The athlete has to work hard and make many sacrifices to reach the Olympics." (See also GR-6e.)

[SE-9b] Shift of Person. Unless required by context, avoid shifting between first person (I, we), second person (you) and third person (one, he or she, they, students, etc.), e.g., "When one is healthy, you shouldn't worry about being poor." One possible revision would be "When people are healthy, they shouldn't worry about being poor." Note: use I sparingly and avoid using you in academic writing.


[SE-l0a] Shift of Tense. Unless required by context, do not shift between past, present, and future tenses. The following example illustrates a tense shift: "Housing prices will rise and many people are left without places to stay."

[SE-l0b] Shift of Mood. Depending on the verb form chosen, sentences can express statements (indicative mood), commands (imperative mood), or hypothetical conditions or wishes (subjunctive mood, e.g., "If I were you . . ."). Avoid unnecessary shifts in mood. For example, do not switch to the imperative: "Students should review their notes thoroughly. Don't forget to get a good sleep."

[SE-l0c] Shift of Voice. Active voice places the agent of the action before the verb (e.g., "The cat ate the rat"); passive voice reverses the sentence order (e.g., "The rat was eaten by the cat"). Avoid unnecessary shifts in voice. For example, the sentence "The committee members disliked each other [active], and their time was wasted in wrangling [passive]" could be rewritten entirely in the active voice: "The committee members disliked each other and wasted their time in wrangling." Active voice generally adds liveliness and impact to writing.

[SE-11] OMISSIONS. Avoid omitting words through carelessness.

[SE-lla] Omitted Connectives. Connectives, especially that, are often omitted in speech (e.g., "I thought [that] she had left") but should be included in written work. Omissions can cause confusion or invite misreading, as the following example shows: "An advantage to taking part in athletic activities is [that] a person's attitudes and awareness will improve."

[SE-llb] Incomplete Compound Constructions. You can omit duplicated words in constructions such as "He likes to ski and [to] fish." You cannot do so, however, if different prepositions are required. For example, in the following sentence, in cannot be left out: "She was more interested in, and in fact better at, skiing than her friend."

[SE-llc] Incomplete Comparisons. Make all comparisons complete and logical by including all words necessary to make the relationship clear. For example, do not write, "The University of Alberta has a better Engineering program." (Better than what?) Similarly, do not write, "Our program is like the University of Lethbridge." (How is a program like a university?) Correct to "Our program is like the University of Lethbridge's [program].")

[SE-12] LACK OF VARIETY. Try to vary your sentence structure to prevent your writing from being repetitious and dull. In particular, avoid series of short, choppy sentences.


[SE-l3a] Unclear Logical Connections. Ensure that ideas joined by connectives have a clear and logical relationship; beware of words such as with, regarding and involves, which are often vague. For example, in the sentence "The shortage involved a loss of consumer confidence," it is unclear whether the shortage caused or resulted from a loss of consumer confidence.

[SE-l3b] No Apparent Logical Connection. Check that your sentences make sense. Consider the following sentence: "The opinions of politics, which are actually messages, vary from financial and physical aid through to threats and declarations of war." Such sentences usually have to be rethought and completely rewritten.

[SE-l3c] Co-ordination of Logical Unequals. When listing items, avoid introducing items that are subcategories or that simply don't belong. Note the problem in the following example: "He studied mathematics, science, chemistry and biology." (The term "science" encompasses both chemistry and biology.)

[SE-l3d] Illogical Predication. Make sure that the subject of your sentence makes sense with the verb. Avoid sentences like "America was founded by the moral fibres of devoted Christians." Use metaphors carefully (see W-5).

[SE-l3e] Ambiguity. Avoid constructing sentences that can be understood more than one way. Consider the following example: "Bob did not hire her because she was a woman." (Did Bob not hire her or did he hire her for other reasons?) Hint: check if moving the because clause to the beginning of the sentence adds clarity. Also, watch words like as, which can mean while or because.

[SE-13f] Faulty Co-ordination. When you co-ordinate clauses, e.g., when you join clauses with and, or, or but, you signal that the ideas in the clauses are related and of relatively equal importance. Do not co-ordinate clauses that are unrelated or use a co-ordinating conjunction that signals the wrong relationship, as the but's in the following examples do: "The theatre company has had international respect for years, but Smith was a major figure in this success and took the company on a world tour." "It was a sad occasion but everyone looked mournful."

[SE-l3g] Faulty Subordination. Write precisely; use subordinate conjunctions--e.g., because, although, unless, while--to express relationships clearly and to place emphasis where it belongs: in the main clause. For example, consider the precision of "Because the road was slippery, we went into the ditch" compared to "The road was slippery and we went into the ditch." Note that as well as imprecision and misplaced emphasis, logical problems can result from faulty subordination, as the following example shows: "Susan studied hard for her final exams although it was very important that she do well on them." (Here, although should be replaced by because or as.)


[GR-1] IDIOMATIC GRAMMATICAL CONSTRUCTIONS. Some aspects of grammar either are not governed by rules or are governed by rules so complex that they seem not to exist. Such constructions must simply be memorized. Most handbooks, especially those aimed at new learners of English, contain lists that can be helpful.

[GR-1a] Articles. Make sure that all nouns are accompanied by the appropriate articles (a, an, or the), or no article, as required. In general, non-count or mass nouns (words for things you cannot count one-by-one) are not preceded by articles (e.g., "Do I have permission to leave early?" "I'm cooking beef tonight.") When the precedes a non-count noun, it usually signifies that the noun is unique or that it is specified in some way (e.g., "He has the maturity that is required for the job, but does he have the energy?") Count nouns (those you can count), however, are more often preceded by articles. Consider the following example: "There is a big dog, a cat, and a budgie in the pet store. I would like to buy the dog, but I don't think the neighbours would like it. I'll buy the budgie."

[GR-1b] Prepositions. Make sure that you use prepositions appropriately (e.g., "He walked out of his house, down the street, and into the building. He went into his office, sat down at his desk, and began to work on his paper.")

[GR-1c] Plurals. Pluralize nouns when, and only when, required by the sense of the sentence. Non-count nouns (e.g., water, beef, art, information, evidence, courage, determination, coal, software) are usually not pluralized.

[GR-1d] Other Idiomatic Constructions. Errors in other idiomatic constructions reflect departures from conventional phrasing rather than violation of rules. For example, we say "take the initiative" rather than "make the initiative."

[GR-2] SYNTAX. Make sure that the word order in your sentences is correct and not unnecessarily awkward.

[GR-3] USAGE. Some constructions common in informal usage are not acceptable in formal written English. For example, in the sentence "There are less cars on the road than there were yesterday," less should be replaced by fewer. (Use less and amount to refer to non-count nouns such as air or money; use fewer and number to refer to count nouns such as cars or students.) When in doubt, refer to usage guides (often found in composition texts).


[GR-4a] Subjective and Objective Case. I, he, she, we, they, and

who are used only as subjects of sentences; me, him, her, us, them, and whom are used only as objects of prepositions or verbs. For example, the use of I in the following sentence is ungrammatical: "He gave the money to Martin and I." (Hint: eliminate Martin and you will hear that I is incorrect: you would not say "He gave the money to I.") (Use myself only in sentences such as "I will do the job myself," where I also appears in the sentence.) Note: in informalEnglish, who is often used as either subject or object.

[GR-4b] Possessive Case. Use the possessive before gerunds (-ing verb forms), e.g., "His leaving was a surprise." (See also SE-11c and SP-2a.)


[GR-5a] Context. Do not use a verb form that is not appropriate to the context. For example, "She is in Calgary since June" should read "She has been in Calgary since June."

[GR-5b] Correctness. Do not use a verb that is not a correct English form. Be particularly careful with unstressed verb endings (e.g., "He was supposed to come at ten") and with irregular verbs. For example, "She could have came earlier" should read "She could have come earlier."


[GR-6a] Faulty or Absent Back Reference. If you use a word or phrase that appears to refer back to an idea introduced earlier in your essay, be sure that the earlier idea is clearly expressed and not simply implied. Consider the following passage: "The National Parks are used for recreation. These facilities are destroying the parks' natural beauty." Here, these facilities must refer to an earlier phrase such as recreational facilities.

[GR-6b] Pronoun Reference. Avoid using a pronoun that does not refer clearly to a specific noun, either because there is more than one noun it can refer to (e.g., "The last time John saw his father, he was sick") or because the noun it refers to (the antecedent) is too far back in your essay. Note: avoiding pronouns altogether can cause repetitious diction (see W-4).

[GR-6c] Vague "this" or "which". Do not use this or which to refer to an idea that is not precisely stated (e.g., "When learning at home, one can be interrupted. This is an essential part of learning because of the need for concentration.") (In this example, this refers to not being interrupted, which does not appear in the sentence.)

[GR-6d] Agreement of Demonstratives. Use these or those only to refer to plural nouns; use this or that only to refer to singular nouns (e.g., "that type of shoes" or "those types of shoes" but not "those type of shoes").

[GR-6e] Pronoun Agreement. Don't use a plural pronoun to refer to a singular antecedent or vice versa. Note that although their is often used in speech or informal writing to refer to a singular noun, this usage is still not fully accepted in formal writing. For example, do not write, "A student should study their timetable carefully"; instead--to avoid the apparent sexism of his and the awkwardness of his or her--try using the third-person plural whenever possible (e.g., "Students should study their timetable carefully." "All students [Everyone] put down their books.")

[GR-7] SUBJECT-VERB AGREEMENT. Don't use a plural verb with a singular subject or vice versa. For example, since the subject of the following sentence is size, not books, the verb is makes, not make: "The size of these books makes them hard to read." Two subjects joined by and are treated as plural; joined by or, they are treated as singular. If one subject is plural and the other singular, make the verb agree with the nearest one (e.g., "Either the manager or the employees are wrong.")


[GR-8a] Adverb/Adjective Confusion. Use an adverb to modify a verb, an adjective or another adverb. Adverbs almost always end in ly; don't omit this ending when required. For example, write "a really good show," not "a real good show"; "the cost increased quickly," not "the cost increased quick."

[GR-8b] Other Confusions Between Parts of Speech. Use the part of speech required. Watch word endings; for example, write "capitalist societies," not "capitalism societies."

[GR-8c] Infinitive/Gerund Confusions. In some constructions, the infinitive form (the to form) of a verb is required and in others the gerund (-ing) form is required; take care not to confuse these forms. For example, "We wanted going" should be written as "We wanted to go"; "He dislikes to travel" should be written "He dislikes travelling."



[W-1a] Wrong Word. Be sure that you know the exact definitions of the words you use. If you can't find a word that exactly fits a context, don't use one that almost fits; recast the sentence entirely to express your meaning.

[W-1b] Synonyms. Remember that synonyms often have different connotations (e.g., ignorant/uneducated, skinny/slim).

[W-1c] Invented Words. Be certain that the word you use indeed exists. Be sure not to use an incorrect prefix (e.g., unsimilar) or the wrong suffix (e.g., understandment).

[W-1d] Omnibus Words. Words such as factor, aspect, situation and concept have legitimate uses, but don't use them as all-purpose words to be jammed into a sentence when you can't find the word you really need. Consider the lack of clarity in the following examples: "Women should resist concepts they are not responsible for." "Another objection to beauty pageants is the beauty aspect."


[W-2a] Padding. Words and phrases such as the use of, in the case of, and in my opinion can often simply be eliminated. Other phrases can be shortened; for example, instead of at this present point in time, write now.

[W-2b] Redundancy. Don't say the same thing two or three times (e.g., each and every; ideas, beliefs and convictions). Eliminate unnecessary words such as in colour in the phrase red in colour.

[W-2c] Unnecessary Complexity. Sometimes an entire passage should be simplified. For example, the sentence "He prefers books of a fictional nature, particularly those which deal with science fiction" can be shortened to "He prefers fiction, particularly science fiction."

[W-2d] Artificial Variation. Don't use synonyms simply to dress up or add variety to a piece of writing. At best, it looks artificial; at worst, because synonyms have different connotations, it destroys the sense of your sentence. For example, avoid passages like "Dogs should be kept in the country. Rural areas give canines the space they need for exercise. Our four-legged cur friends are much happier in provincial situations than they are in the city."

[W-3] EXCESSIVE COMPRESSION. Some writers use a single sentence to introduce all of the ideas that they will later develop. While this strategy can be effective, it can be confusing if the ideas are compressed too much. For instance, it is hard to understand where the writer is going with this sentence: "Television is a bad influence on children because of violence, role modelling, and commercials."

[W-3a] Over-Compressed Meaning. Sometimes an obscure sentence can be clarified by adding just a few words (as opposed to more information--see PA-3). Consider the following sentence: "There is also the safety factor of keeping guns out of the homes of ex-cons." Note how a few added words increase clarity: "There is the increase in public safety that would result from keeping guns out of the homes of ex-cons."

[W-3b] Headline English. Be careful when stringing nouns together; noun strings can lead to awkwardness or obscurity. For example, "A large vehicle operator mileage reduction" could mean "a reduction in the mileage allowed to operators of large fleets of vehicles" or "a large reduction in the mileage allowed to operators of vehicle fleets."

[W-4] REPETITIOUS DICTION. While the repetition of a word or phrase can be effective, unchecked repetition can suggest a limited vocabulary or carelessness (e.g., "If I improve my writing skills, I'm sure my marks will improve. Therefore, my overall average will improve.")


[W-5a] Slang. Avoid slang (e.g., ticked off, out to lunch, screwed up) in formal essays. It is often inexact, it becomes outdated quickly, and it is not always easily understood by everyone.

[W-5b] Trite Expressions. Avoid using cliches--expressions which have become stale from overuse (e.g., pretty as a picture, hard as nails, a rolling stone gathers no moss).

[W-5c] Jargon. When writing for a general audience, avoid or define technical or specialized terms. For example, composition teachers should avoid terms such as tropes, heuristic, and gerundive when speaking to most students.

[W-5d] Pretentious Diction. Resist the temptation to write to impress; there is no need to use big words when small, ordinary words convey your meaning precisely. For example, has the capability of means the same thing as can.

[W-5e] Mixed or Inappropriate Metaphor. Metaphors can make writing vivid and interesting; however, bizarre or clashing metaphors can make writing ludicrous (e.g., "There aren't enough flies in the ointment to justify throwing out the baby with the bathwater.") (See also SE-13d.)

[W-6] IMMATURE DICTION. Avoid using childish wording; for example, bunnies and puppies usually have no place in a formal essay, nor do such phrases as "it was really wonderful." (See also SE-12 and C-5.)


[SP-1] COMMONLY CONFUSED PAIRS. Do not confuse words such as to and too, effect and affect, then and than, and their, there and they're. Check such words when proofreading; they're easy to interchange accidentally. Use it's only as a contraction for it is or it has; its' is not a word.

[SP-2] APOSTROPHES. Don't omit the apostrophe in contractions; for example, write let's for let us, don't for do not, etc. (Use contractions sparingly in formal essays.)

[SP-2a] Possessives. To form the possessive of a singular noun, add 's (e.g., today's society, Brendan's proposal). Similarly, add 's to form the possessive of a plural noun that doesn't end in s (e.g., many people's ideas, both men's coats). To form the possessive of a plural noun that already ends in s, just add an apostrophe (e.g., two students' exams, both nations' governments).

[SP-2b] Simple Plurals. Don't use apostrophes in simple plurals (e.g., "two cars collided," not "two car's collided.")

[SP-2c] Possessive Personal Pronouns. Don't use apostrophes in the possessive pronouns his, hers, theirs, ours, yours, whose, and its.


[SP-3a] Spelling Errors. Note words that you misspell, and try to learn them; there are probably fewer than you think.

[SP-3b] Capitalization. Use capitals only when required, such as to begin proper names, days, months, holidays, book titles, words of religious significance, and the names of languages (e.g., English and French).

[SP-3c] Spacing. Use a dictionary if necessary to determine which words are conventionally spelled as one (e.g., cannot, whereby, already) and which are spelled as two (e.g., a lot, all right).

[SP-3d] Syllabication. When using a hyphen to indicate that a word continues on the next line, divide the word only between syllables. If you are unsure about syllabication, check a dictionary.

[SP-3e] Rules. Many English words follow spelling rules. Consult any English handbook for the rules for doubling consonants, dropping silent e's, reversing i and e ("i before e except after c . . .") etc.

[SP-3f] Abbreviations. Consult a dictionary for standard abbreviations. Use them sparingly in formal writing, and never use a private shorthand (e.g., w. for with) or symbols (e.g., & for and) just because you are in a hurry.

[SP-4] PROOFREADING. When proofreading, resist the urge to skim. To slow yourself down, place a ruler under each line or read the last sentence first, then the second-last, etc. Look for the slips you know you often make.



[PU-1a] Use a comma after introductory words, phrases, or clauses (e.g., "When I first arrived in Calgary, I thought that the city was too big. However, I'm now used to it.")

[PU-1b] Use a comma to separate items in a list. A comma before the conjunction (and or or) is optional (e.g., "He is tall, thin[,] and blue-eyed"). (See also PU-11.)

[PU-1c] Use commas around words or phrases--including appositives--that are not essential to the meaning of a sentence. (An appositive renames in different words a nearby noun.) Study the comma use in the following examples: "The teacher, however, did not agree." "Bob Allen, who is the city's mayor, spoke at the library today." "Ottawa, the country's capital, is beautiful." (See also PU-11a.)

[PU-1d] Use a comma before a final clause or phrase when it is not essential to the meaning of the first part of the sentence (e.g., "Jason is still fat, although I'm sure that going to Weight Watchers will help.") When the final phrase or clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence, do not use a comma before it (e.g., "You won't win the lottery unless you buy a ticket.")

[PU-1e] Apart from the rules outlined above, in rare cases, it may be necessary to use a comma to prevent misreading.


[PU-2a] Use a semicolon to join closely-related independent clauses that could each stand as a sentence (e.g., "The semicolon has a number of uses; one use is to separate independent clauses." Used correctly in this way, the semicolon could be replaced by a period. (Note: you can use a semicolon to correct a comma splice--see SE-2.)

[PU-2b] Use a semicolon to join independent clauses (which could each stand as a sentence) when the second clause begins with a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, moreover, nevertheless etc.) (e.g., "The team practised every day; however, it still lost the championship.")

[PU-2c] Use semicolons to separate long items in a list, especially when the items contain commas (e.g., "The conference on AIDS featured John Adams, a doctor; Sue Brown, a lawyer; and Ed Olson, a dentist.")

[PU-3] COLON [:]

[PU-3a] Use a colon to set off lists that follow a main clause that could stand as a sentence (e.g., "He has three favourite hobbies: reading, jogging, and dancing." "Our itinerary is as follows: Montreal on Monday, Fredericton on Tuesday, and St. John's on Friday." Note: use a colon after "as follows" but not after the words "such as" or after a verb (e.g., "are" or "includes"). (See also PU-11h.)

[PU-3b] After an independent clause that could stand as a sentence, use a colon to introduce a quotation or a word, phrase, clause, or another independent clause that amplifies or explains the opening clause (e.g., "She is a very energetic woman: she teaches full-time and also writes several book reviews a year.") (See PU-4b.)

[PU-4] DASH. Note: in handwriting, a dash is longer than a hyphen; in typed text, it is represented by two consecutive hyphens, with no space before or after.

[PU-4a] Use a dash before and after phrases or clauses which interrupt a sentence to provide additional information (e.g., "Because I am a psychology major, The Manticore--the second novel in Davies' trilogy--interests me greatly.")

[PU-4b] Use a dash (or a colon) to emphasize a short appositive at the end of a sentence (e.g., "Success means just one thing to him--money.")

[PU-5] PARENTHESES. Use parentheses to enclose added information of minor importance (e.g., "More than 1,000 years ago, the Hopis (the word means `the peaceful ones') settled in Arizona.") Avoid cluttering your essays with a large number of parenthetical insertions.


[PU-6a] Use quotation marks when quoting directly (e.g. The critic said, "That's the best Canadian novel we've seen in years." The prime minister argues that "something can be learned from the opposition party's policies.")

[PU-6b] For quotations within quotations, use single marks (e.g., She turned to her daughter and said, "Remember that Bill always says, `The only people who are worth anything are the people who take chances.'")

[PU-6c] Use quotation marks to mark words being used in a special sense (e.g., What does "freedom" really mean?) For emphasis, use italics or underlining--not quotation marks.

[PU-6d] Italics and Underlining. Underline titles of published works such as books, newspapers, and brochures; use quotation marks for titles of poems, essays, chapters, etc. that form parts of larger published works. Underline foreign words and words that you wish to stress. Note: underlining is equivalent to italics. (See also PU-6c.)

[PU-7] HYPHEN [-]

[PU-7a] Use a hyphen to indicate the division of a word at the end of a line. Divide only between syllables. Consult a dictionary when you're unsure of the correct division.

[PU-7b] Use a hyphen to join words serving as a single adjective before a noun (e.g., "a well-deserved raise").

[PU-8] QUESTION MARK. Use a question mark to end an interrogative sentence, even if it is a rhetorical question (e.g., "What kind of world would that be?") Do not use a question mark after an indirect question (e.g., "My parents asked me if I planned to attend university.")

[PU-9] EXCLAMATION MARK. The exclamation mark is used to indicate strong emotion; it rarely appears in formal writing. Use it very sparingly.

[PU-10] PERIOD. Use a period to end a complete sentence. (See SE-1 for a discussion of fragments.)

[PU-11] NO PUNCTUATION NEEDED. Note: punctuation marks in brackets below are incorrect and should be omitted.

[PU-lla] Do not use a single comma between a subject and its verb (e.g., "The boy in the green car[,] is my brother.") Note: if setting off non-essential information, a pair of commas may intervene between a subject and its verb (e.g., "The boy in the green car, as you might have guessed, is my brother.") (See PU-1c.)

[PU-llb] Do not separate a final adjective from its noun (e.g., "She is a tall, pretty[,] blonde.")

[PU-llc] Adjectives that can be rearranged without affecting the meaning of the sentence should be separated by commas (e.g., "He is a foolish, insecure, unprincipled person.") Do not use commas to separate adjectives that cannot be rearranged because each modifies the entire concept that follows it (e.g., "It was a pretty little yellow house.")

[PU-lld] In general, do not use a comma to separate two words or phrases joined by a co-ordinating conjunction (e.g., "They are hard-working[,] and trustworthy.")

[PU-lle] Use a comma after a tag that introduces a direct quotation (e.g., She said, "Hurry up!"). Do not use a comma to introduce an indirect quotation blended into a larger sentence (e.g., "He said[,] that he was in a hurry.")

[PU-llf] In general, do not use a comma after a co-ordinating conjunction such as and or but (e.g., "He was in a hurry, but[,] he couldn't find a taxi.")

[PU-llg] Do not use a comma between a main clause and a final subordinate clause when the meaning of the sentence depends on the second clause (e.g., "You won't win the lottery[,] unless you buy a ticket.") (See PU-1d.)

[PU-llh] Do not use a comma or a colon after a verb or after the phrase such as (e.g., "I like exotic fruit such as [:] mangoes and kiwis.") (See PU-3a.)

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