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About this book

Aimed at students wishing to improve their writing skills, this guide deals with the key basics of grammar, punctuation and spelling while also showing students how to construct a sentence, how to build a paragraph and how to structure an essay. This third edition includes an expanded 'Spot the Mistake' section.

Table of Contents

Writing Correctly

Frontmatter

1. Writing a Sentence

Abstract
This is the chapter you are most likely to skip. The fact that you have bought or borrowed this book shows that you want to improve your writing skills, but the likelihood is that you are looking for advice on how to fine-tune your performance or perhaps for a ‘quick-fix’ solution to a problem. The chances are that you do not want to waste your time reading about something as elementary as ‘a sentence’. Our experience as teachers in a university, however, where students might be expected to be competent writers, has shown us that the most common weakness in students’ writing is the inability to generate sentences that are not only readable and understandable but also grammatically correct in a conventional, formal sense. This is not a new problem: people have always had difficulties handling the basic mechanics of sentences. Part of the reason for this may lie in the sort of technical vocabulary sometimes used to explain the mechanics of language, which can be off-putting, although the number of technical terms you actually need to know is small. The good news, however, is that once the basics of sentence construction are grasped, everything else will fall into place. This is because the sentence is the basis of essay writing. Indeed, the main thing students need to know is how to construct grammatical sentences. Fortunately, this is a skill that is easy to acquire, especially if you read this chapter.
John Peck, Martin Coyle

2. Punctuation

Abstract
Punctuation is important. It is an essential part of the signalling system of language and is central to effective communication — as well as to the passing of exams. A lot of people, however, make an awful mess of punctuation, which means that their performance in essays suffers and they fail to do themselves justice. Yet the basic principles of punctuation are straightforward. The three main punctuation marks it is necessary to grasp are the full stop (we’ll include the question mark here), the comma and the apostrophe. These are the equivalent of stopping, changing gear, and indicating when driving, and are no more difficult to master than these basic driving skills. There is more to the business of punctuation than just these three points (which is why we return to the subject in Chapters 5 and 8), but it is possible to be a clear and successful writer without venturing to use anything as complicated as a semicolon in your written work. The full stop, the comma and the apostrophe, though, are vital, and you must come to terms with how to use them. Correct punctuation will help you say exactly what you want to say in an essay. It will do this because it is concerned with making your meaning clearer by signalling the relationship between words or ideas and also with marking out the boundaries of meaning.
John Peck, Martin Coyle

3. Spelling

Abstract
Writing is a craft, and as with any craft it has to be learnt. Or should that be ‘learned’? Which is the correct spelling? Writing is all about using the correct words in the correct order. So far, we have concentrated on the mechanics of achieving the right word order in a sentence. Now, however, we want to turn to getting the words themselves right.
John Peck, Martin Coyle

Writing Confidently

Frontmatter

4. The Well-crafted Sentence

Abstract
There are a lot of people who know how to construct a sentence, but who, the moment they start to write an essay, get things wrong, producing work that is marred by mistakes or by sentences that do not quite make sense. Why do things go wrong? Why do sentences sometimes read awkwardly and not convey their meaning clearly? One answer to this second question is that the writer has not thought about what he or she wants to say. Indeed, some people argue that provided you think clearly about what you are doing — about the ideas you wish to convey, the information you wish to get across, the argument you wish to develop — then the writing will take care of itself. If you bear in mind the purpose and audience of your work, they suggest, it should be the case that your writing will have direction and coherence.
John Peck, Martin Coyle

5. Polished Punctuation

Abstract
In this chapter, as in Chapter 4, we continue to look closely at a student’s essay. The aim is to emphasise the extent to which changes and corrections to the punctuation in an essay can improve the impact of what is being said. For the most part, everything we suggest involves simple moves, but it is these which are too often ignored by students. Of course, if you already know how to punctuate, this could be a chapter you merely skim-read. It might prove reassuring, however, to remind yourself just how simple and straightforward the conventions of punctuation are, and to remind yourself why these conventions are so important.
John Peck, Martin Coyle

6. Spelling and Usage

Abstract
In this chapter we deal again with the subject of spelling, but we also begin to move on to the broader issue of the appropriate use of words. As we have already pointed out, the rules of English spelling are at times more difficult to remember than learning the words themselves. There is the fall-back of a spellchecker on a word processor, but that should be nothing more than a final check; part of the skill involved in becoming a competent writer is making yourself more aware of words, and that includes knowing how they are spelt. What we do in this chapter is start with a few ruses that people resort to when they are unsure about the spelling of words, and then proceed to the conventions for plurals and hyphens. At the heart of the chapter is a substantial list of words that students (but not just students) frequently spell incorrectly. Then, at the end, we move on to the additional issue of the correct use of words. Often students are unsure whether they should write could of or could have, and equally unsure about the difference between shall and will. It is such matters of usage that we look at in the final section, where we try to steer a commonsense course between formal and colloquial usage.
John Peck, Martin Coyle

Writing with Style

Frontmatter

7. Writing an Essay

Abstract
Writing an essay is a complex performance. What always surprises us is not the fact that so many people make mistakes, but that so many people make such a good job of it. Every paragraph of an essay involves perhaps a hundred conscious or half-conscious decisions about what word to use, how to structure and punctuate a sentence, and how to organise and present one’s work. Each paragraph of an essay is essentially an elaborate piece of architecture that the writer has had both to design and build. Examiners are, therefore, going to be reasonably tolerant if a few elements in the overall structure are a little shaky.
John Peck, Martin Coyle

8. Punctuation and Presentation

Abstract
Success in writing depends on attention to the overall structure of your work (the topic of Chapter 7) and attention to detail. That includes making sure that sentences are grammatical and correctly punctuated and spelt, as well as a host of little presentational details that you should strive to get right. Punctuation is one vital aspect of how your work is presented to your reader, but there is something closely related to punctuation, most properly referred to as the ‘mechanics of presentation’. These are conventions rather than absolute rules about writing, but it helps the reader of an essay if your work is presented in accordance with the conventions of an established code.
John Peck, Martin Coyle

9. The Right Word

Abstract
Writing, as we have said, is a matter of arriving at the right words in the right order. If you can achieve that, at some stage you have crossed the line from writing merely competently to writing with style. For many people, particularly when producing an academic essay, language is merely a kind of wheelbarrow for trundling their ideas around. There comes a point, however, when the reader begins to notice just how well written some essays are — possibly they notice in a negative way, in the sense that they suddenly realise an essay has been effortless to read, that the writer has swept them through the topic with poise and assurance. A great deal of what is involved in writing with style is a matter of following the rules and paying attention to detail; the last two chapters, in particular, have dealt with how to achieve a professional level of structural organisation and polished presentation in your work, and these are important aspects of writing with style. But perhaps the real key lies in the skill with which good writers invariably find the right word and forge the right phrase. It is only with constant practice that one can achieve such assurance in writing, but in this chapter we try to suggest some of the things to be aware of in making the move from competence to writing with style.
John Peck, Martin Coyle

Writing with Style

Frontmatter

10. Twenty to Remember

Abstract
Many of the difficulties over punctuation and grammar are caused by the comma (,) and the apostrophe (′). This list is largely about how to use these. A tick (√) means right; an asterisk (*) means something is technically wrong.
John Peck, Martin Coyle

11. Spot the Mistake

Abstract
Most writing guides include exercises that the reader is expected to complete. We didn’t want to include exercises of this kind, primarily because they are extremely boring. Consequently, no one ever does them. But we felt it might be interesting, and perhaps helpful, to present a few examples of individuals and organisations making mistakes in their writing. There is, of course, always a smug glow of superiority all of us feel when we are able to identify the shortcomings of others. It is, however, particularly gratifying when it is the Civil Service, the BBC, national newspapers, well-known companies or people involved in education that are caught out in this way. You might wish to see if you can spot what the errors are in the examples below.
John Peck, Martin Coyle

12. A Note on Grammar

Abstract
By grammar we usually mean the conventional system of rules for putting words together in a sentence. It includes the idea of placing the words in a suitable order, giving them appropriate endings and linking them in a grammatical way. Traditional grammar books take many of their ideas from Latin grammar and apply them to English. Modern descriptive linguists point out, however, that Latin is a misleading model to use and that English works largely on the basis of word order rather than inflections or changes to the endings of words as in Latin or many European languages. The two approaches share some of the same vocabulary but put different emphases on it. While traditionalists are interested in the rules, linguists are much more interested in the form and function of language.
John Peck, Martin Coyle
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