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Academic Skills

Grammar Points

Three Grammar Points

Some grammar points cause particular problems for non-English speaking student writers. This page will identify three of those difficult points: subject/verb agreement (the rule that singular subjects go with singular verbs and plural subjects go with plural verbs), correct word class (using nouns, adjectives and adverbs in their proper place), and verb tense consistency (remembering to keep to the present or past tenses).

The purpose of this page is not to teach you the grammar, but to remind you that these are important points to remember and look out for when you are editing your assignments.

1. Subject-verb agreement

A singular subject must take a singular verb, and a plural subject must take a plural verb. The only verb form that is affected by this rule is the third person simple present; but since this verb form is the one you will use most in your studies, it is essential that you master the subject-verb agreement rule as quickly as possible.

In these examples, the subject is in bold typeface and the verb is in italics:

  • The Prime Minister is meeting the President of the United States at the White House. (singular subject: Prime Minister; singular verb is meeting)
  • The Prime Minister and the President are meeting at the White House (plural subject: PM and President; plural verb are meeting)
  • Glass breaks easily. Glasses break easily.
  • The computer is a useful tool. Computers are useful tools.
  • The lion has eaten the zebra. The lions have eaten the zebra.

2. Correct word class (noun? verb? adjective? adverb?)

Words must be used in their correct form according to what they are doing in the sentence. A word being used as a subject or object must be in noun form; a word being used to describe a noun must be in adjective form; a word being used to qualify a verb must be in adverb form; and so on.

Examples (these sentences have been specially contrived to show the different forms: they aren't well written in other respects!):

  1. These managers differ1; one difference2 between these different3 managers is that they manage differently4.

  2. 1 differ is the verb in this part of the sentence
    2 difference is being used as a subject, so it is noun form
    3 different describes the managers, so it is in adjective form
    4 differently tells us how the managers manage, so it is in adverb form

  3. This is a productive company; it produces many products productively and has increased productivity.
  4. In the national interest, the nation will nationalise nationally.

3. Verb tense consistency

Not only must you know which tense to use, you must use tenses consistently.

For example, when you are describing something that is happening now, stick to the present tenses, and when you are describing something that happened in the past, stick to the past tenses.

Present tenses: present simple, present continuous, present perfect.
Past tenses: past simple, past continuous, past perfect.

  • The shop assistant is telling the customer that the shop has not yet received the goods she needs urgently; he says he is going to send them as soon as they arrive.
  • The shop assistant was telling the customer that the shop had not yet received goods she needed urgently; he said he was going to send them as soon as they arrived.

Remember that the findings/results section of a report should be in the past tenses, as it records what you did, saw, found, etc.

Punctuation points

A written message is much clearer when the sentences have appropriate punctuation. Punctuation provides structure to writing and so enables the writer to separate ideas and refine the information being presented. While there is some freedom to choose how to use punctuation, there are certain standard practices and all students need to be familiar with these. Below are common forms of punctuation that you should be able to use appropriately.

1. Capital (upper case) letter

A capital letter is always used to open a sentence.

Capital letters are also used within a sentence in a variety of ways.

people's names

Teresa Smith

street names

University Drive, Northbourne Avenue

days of the week

Monday, Sunday

titles before a persons name

Mr, Dr, Prime Minister

city/town names

Canberra, Sydney, Queanbeyan

months of the year

February, July

but not for the seasons (spring, summer)

nationalities

Australian, Vietnamese


country names

Australia, China


public holidays

Labour Day


 

specific groups of people

Inuits, Europeans

 

state/province names

Queensland, Yunnan

 

religious festivals

Christmas, Ramadan

religions

Islam, Christianity


specific building names

the Australian War Memorial, the Empire State Building

public events

Tour de France, Olympic Games

 

languages

Tamil, Spanish

   

2. Full stop (.)

A full stop is mostly used to:

  • signal the end of a standard sentence (Today is the last day to submit assignments.)
  • separate the parts of a web address (http://www.waterconserve.info/)
  • show that a word has been abbreviated (not always, so confirm that you need it)
  • indicate decimals (2.1), section numbering (Section 3.4) and time. (7.08).

A sentence contains one main idea or thought. Help in determining whether you have written a sentence can come from reading your work aloud and listening for the idea you are writing about. The number of words in a sentence varies. A short sentence with one idea is much less confusing to the reader, and probably also to you as a writer, than a long sentence that contains a number of poorly connected ideas.

3. Comma (,)

The comma is the most frequently used type of punctuation used within a sentence. It indicates a short pause and so helps make the meaning clearer to the reader. It is essential that you use commas in your writing. Below are examples of the most common ways to use the comma.

Comma Use Example

To separate adjectives or adverbs that are being used next to each other in a sentence.

Note: Often, but not always, there is no comma between the last adjective and the noun it is describing.

The large, wet, brown paper parcel was abandoned on the path.

Thomas gave a slow, clear and concise speech in the debate.

Red, white and blue, and green, orange and white are common combinations of colour in national flags.

To add meaning, elaborate, or somehow interrupt the main topic or idea of the sentence.

The author, who realised the data was sensitive, did not provide any details regarding his sources.

It was Friday already so the students, looking forward to a break, were working hard to complete their exercise today.

To separate out a word or phrase that is not part of the main idea but merely introduces the sentence. Usually it is a word that helps connect the sentence to the preceding and/or following sentences (a transition word/phrase).

However, the child in the blue coat was not willing to speak with anyone about the accident.

Finally, there was the owners explanation of who had been painting his house when the fire started.

To separate the main clause and a dependent or subordinate clause in a sentence when the dependent or subordinate clause comes first.

Note: For more information check out the clauses in a grammar text.

Although punctuation can be hard to apply, if has an essential function in communication.

Punctuation has an essental function in communication although it can be hard to apply.

To prevent ambiguity or misreading

To the young, chicken blood soup sounds exotic.

Before a conjunction: ie the "FANBOYS" for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so

It is easy to learn grammar rules, but it is much harder to apply them.

4. Semicolon (;)

A semicolon is useful for providing a pause that is stronger than the comma and weaker than the full stop. For example, when two ideas are so closely related you do not want to use two separate sentences, use a semicolon instead of a full stop.

They concluded their discussions late last night; further negotiations will have to be conducted by email.

A semicolon is also useful to separate items in a list that already has commas in use.

We bought several samples to add to our collection: a garnet from Mexico; a shiny, silver-coloured mineral called galena; and two large quartz crystals.

5. Colon (:)

A colon is used at the end of a clause that introduces a list, especially when the following or as follows is used.

There are many different types of marsupials found in Australia: kangaroos, wallabies, numbats, possums and so on.

The children should line up as follows: Jane, Tom, May, Paul, Maria and Sandy.

A colon is also used to introduce a summary or an explanation.

6. Apostrophe ('s)

An apostrophe is used in formal writing to indicate possession. That is, the noun that owns the item has an apostrophe added to the end of it.

The boy's shoe was left by the side of the road

The accident was reported on the front page of Saturday's newspaper.

For plural nouns that end in s the apostrophe comes at the end of the word.

The nurses' pay increases have also had an impact on healthcare industry finances.

The flowering plants bright red petals seem to be particularly attractive to honey eaters.

Apostrophes can also be used in contractions such as it's (=it is) and don't  (= do not), you should not use contractions in academic and professional writing.

When NOT to use an Apostrophe

Do NOT use an apostrophe when it is the plural noun form that is required.

The days of large six cylinder cars may be coming to an end.

Do NOT use an apostrophe for place names that appear to be possessive.

Arthurs Seat, Captains Flat, Lions Bay, Jacksons Point

Do NOT use apostrophes for public holidays that appear to involve possessives.

Mothers Day, Fathers Day, All Saints Day

Do NOT add apostrophes to shortened forms to make them plural.

1800s, 1980s, Recommended Dietary Intakes (RDIs)

7. Question mark (?)

The question mark signals the end of a question.

Why did he come to town?

If you have a question inside a sentence, then the question mark is treated as a comma and no capital letter follows.

The man with the new umbrella asked, "When is it going to rain?" but the man who had neither a coat nor an umbrella kept quiet.

Be sure to use a question mark only for direct questions. There is no question mark used when the question is indirect such as in:

The child asked when she could use the computer.

8. Exclamation mark (!)

The exclamation mark signals the end of an expression that is filled with emotion such as pain, sorrow or surprise. It is rare in academic writing.

Watch out for the car! I passed my exam!

9. Quotation punctuation

Use exactly the same punctuation as in the original text when you are quoting.

"Ethnographic data is considerably more frequent in the longitudinal investigation: hence also the greater number of longitudinal case studies." (Barron, 2002, p.29)

If you add something to the original text, use square brackets to identify what is added.

"How do psychological scientists grapple with this problem [of confounds]?" (Sternberg, Roediger & Halpern, 2007, p.137)

If you omit something from a quotation, use an ellipsis (three dots with a space on either side) to identify that something has been omitted.

Fur traders carrying disease and trade goods unintentionally contributed to the decline

of ... indigenous religious belief. (Cook, 1995, p. 6.)

In each case be sure that you do not change the original meaning of the quoted text.

10.  Quotation marks ( " ... " )

All quotations taken from texts must have quotation marks around them. The words quoted must be exactly as they appear in the original.

"A paragraph is coherent if all sentences are related to one another."

(Flick, Millwood, 1999, p. 339)

Long quotations may be indented and placed in a contrasting font:

Our punctuation system has evolved in tandem wiht the traditions of writing and printing. Elements of modern punctuation made their appearance in England in the seventeenth century, but it was only towards the end of the eighteenth that their use was formalised into a system. (Peters, 1995, p. 621) 

11. Parentheses (brackets)

Use parentheses, more commonly referred to as brackets, to separate out information. Frequently this is non-essential information, so brackets should be used sparingly.

The afternoon sun came through the window (which faced west).

12. Dash ( - )

Use a dash only occasionally in academic writing. Properly used, the dash adds variety and informality to writing but it is not a substitute for clear thinking or accurate information.

We were asked - actually told - to take our food with us.

Common examples of the incorrect use of punctuation

The comma splice:

  • The ladies were seated in the formal dining room, the men were drinking port in the smoking room. WRONG! 

The comma cannot join two sentences like this. Correct examples are:

  • The ladies were seated in the formal dining room, while the men were drinking port in the smoking room.
  • The ladies were seated in the formal dining room; the men were drinking port in the smoking room.
  • The ladies were seated in the formal dining room. Meanwhile, the men were drinking port in the smoking room.
  • The ladies were seated in the formal dining room. The men were drinking port in the smoking room.

A Final Note

There are many books on academic writing on the UC library bookshelves that provide further details about punctuation. There is also some useful assistance, including practice exercises, on websites, some of which are listed below: