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About this book

Packed with top tips on grammar, structure and style, this handy guide provides succinct and practical guidance on students’ most common writing concerns. Each tip is accompanied by authentic examples of student writing, suggested rewrites and useful exercises. Lively illustrations help students to understand and remember essential principles of grammar and punctuation, and end-of-chapter checklists help them to develop effective proofreading skills.

This compact and concise book is a must-have for students of all levels, and a valuable resource for teachers needing no-nonsense explanations of key punctuation and grammar points.

Table of Contents

Punctuation

1. Full stop or comma?

(avoiding the dreaded ‘comma splice’)
Abstract
Students often make the mistake of joining two sentences with a comma. Sometimes the misplaced comma is referred to as a ‘comma splice’, and the resulting muddle is known as a ‘run-on sentence’ — a sentence that extends or runs on beyond its natural life. Here’s an example:
Julia Copus

2. The comma (,)

Abstract
Many students seem to be unsure about where commas should — and, just as importantly, should not — be used. As a result, some people tend to overuse them, while others play safe and leave them out completely. The aim of this chapter is to put you at your ease, so that you feel you can use the comma with confidence where it is needed, and see at a glance where it is not.
Julia Copus

3. The colon (:)

Abstract
In many ways, the colon is one of the most valuable pieces of punctuation that exists. Its main (and perhaps most useful) function is to introduce a piece of information that sheds light on a statement made in the first part of a sentence. When used for this purpose it can stand for whole phrases such as by which I mean or let me clarify what I’ve just said. As a result, it is capable of turning many a lengthy and awkward sentence into something elegant and succinct. It is also (you’ll be pleased to hear) incredibly easy to master.
Julia Copus

4. The semicolon (;)

Abstract
The first thing you’ll notice about this chapter is that it’s nice and short. There is a reason for this: the semicolon is a stylish but not essential punctuation mark. Indeed, it’s possible to turn out a perfectly good piece of writing without using semicolons at all. But that is not to say that they aren’t useful.
Julia Copus

5. The apostrophe (’)

Abstract
If you’ve ever wondered why we bother to use apostrophes at all, consider the following sentence, from which the all-important apostrophe has been removed:
Half way through the memorial concert, all the bands groupies were asked to leave, on account of their poor behaviour.
Julia Copus

Sentence Structure

6. What makes a sentence a sentence?

Abstract
Just as a one-man band makes music without the help of other musicians, a sentence must make sense all by itself, without the help of neighbouring sentences. To take the analogy further, in the same way that a one-man band always contains a mouth organ and a drum, the two fundamental things that a standard sentence must never be without are a subject and a finite verb.
Julia Copus

7. The secret of clear sentences

Abstract
Readers look for two bits of information when they read a sentence:
1
Who or what is the sentence about? (SUBJECT)
 
2
What is the subject doing? (MAIN VERB)
 
If you provide that information quickly and clearly, your sentences will be easy to understand. If, on the other hand, you ask your readers to work too hard (by taking a long time to get to the subject, for instance) the chances are you’ll end up confusing them. And that is the very last thing you want to do — especially if one of the readers in question is your tutor, with a whole pile of other essays to mark.
Julia Copus

Paragraph Structure

8. How to build a paragraph

Abstract
It’s hard to imagine any long piece of writing — a story, an essay, a novel — with no paragraphs at all. It would certainly be very difficult to read — a dense, unbroken block of text, with no visual cues to suggest where the reader’s gaze might rest or their mind pause for a moment before changing direction.
Julia Copus

9. The topic sentence

Abstract
The opening sentence of each paragraph is often referred to as the ‘topic sentence’, because it announces the overall topic of the paragraph. All the information in the rest of the paragraph expands on, explains or elucidates that topic. In other words, the whole paragraph depends on the opening topic sentence in much the same way as a piece of clothing on the washing line depends on the peg from which it hangs!
Julia Copus

Style

10. Maintaining clarity in longer sentences

Abstract
Let’s get one thing clear: there is nothing innately wrong with longer sentences. Although short sentences are often clearer (and clarity should always be your primary concern), varying the length of your sentences makes the overall rhythm of your writing more interesting, and the writing itself more enjoyable to read.
Julia Copus

11. Parallel sentence structure

Abstract
When there is a series of clauses in a sentence, the whole thing becomes easier to read if the clauses are parallel in structure. For instance, the following sentence sounds awkward:
Julia Copus

12. Placing key points at the end of a sentence

Abstract
Students often lose valuable marks because their key points are difficult to see or to understand. In many cases that’s because those key points are presented halfway through a sentence which then trails off into a series of secondary clauses and additional information, much as this sentence does! In order to land the necessary punch, your main idea needs to be placed instead at the end of the sentence.
Julia Copus

13. Beware of overusing abstract nouns

Abstract
Partly because of a perceived need to sound ‘academic’, many students are fond of using posh-sounding abstract nouns that tend to confuse what it is they are trying to say. In fact, the obscure nature of such words is precisely what makes them so appealing. Writing accurately can be hard work — and when you’re pushed for time or don’t know what it is you want to say it’s very tempting to plump for a vague or abstract word that you hope will convey some sort of satisfactory meaning.
Julia Copus

14. Can I use ‘I’ in my essays?

Abstract
Students often come to university with a mental checklist of rules about what is and is not permissible in essay writing — such as the much-quoted Never use ‘I’. Since these ‘rules’ often derive from half-remembered or poorly understood advice from schooldays, it is not surprising that some of them are either over-simplistic or just plain wrong. When you need to make it clear to the reader that an opinion is your own, it is entirely appropriate to use the first person in an essay. In such cases — unless you are specifically told not to do so — you should go ahead and use it.
Julia Copus

At a Glance

15. How to improve your writing style — a checklist

Without Abstract
Julia Copus

16. Useful phrases for essay writing

Without Abstract
Julia Copus
Additional information