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Writing better essays

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Grammar and punctuation

Once you have got your ideas in order, as described in ‘Getting reading to write’, you need to get down to writing.  It’s important to express yourself as clearly and succinctly as possible, but this may not come naturally.  Indeed, a recent report on writing standards of UK students showed that many had a poor vocabulary, used phrasing and punctuation inconsistently, and were generally unable to form well constructed sentences, let alone structure an argument.
 
In ‘Structuring written work’, we described how a good essay will develop an argument, which means ‘planning in some considerable detail how the essay will flow from one idea to the next; how different theories and arguments from different authors will be introduced; what conclusions will be reached; and how they will be supported by relevant evidence, or deductive reasoning’.

In order to do this, you need to be familiar with how to construct the basic building blocks of language, which means being able to write a grammatically correct sentence. You also need to learn how to develop a good, clear style, and use the paragraph effectively.  We shall look at the former in this article and the latter in an article How to write more clearly – style.

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Sentences

Are you conscious when you write that your sentences are awkward and clumsy, that you sometimes have difficulty in conveying what you mean to say?  If so, you may be having difficulty with the basic rules of grammar.

In the UK, a whole generation missed out on learning the rules of grammar as educational theorists failed to perceive the link between grammar and the ability to communicate in writing.  If this applies to you, don’t despair: a lot of people who write very well don’t know the rules of grammar but have absorbed them simply by being sensitive to language’s natural ‘rhythm’. Rather in the same way that you may know how to drive to the centre of your town, but you couldn’t say, for example, what manoeuvres you make and how you make them.

However, it’s useful to have an awareness of some of the key points of grammar, which we shall look at very briefly whilst giving you guidance on sources of further help.

Sentence structures – parts of a sentence

A sentence must consist of a subject and a verb.  The verb is the word that indicates action, or doing, and the subject (noun) does the doing:

Subject: the dog
Verb: eats

Sometimes, there is an object (as well) – the recipient of the action:

Subject: the dog
Verb: eats
Object: his food

If there is another word that depends on the verb, but which also modifies the subject, this is known as the complement:

Subject: the dog
Verb: eats
Complement: hungrily

For more on this topic, see the resources below; the University of Ottawa’s Writing Centre is particularly helpful.

The above sentence structure is known as ‘simple’: it contains just one basic idea, about the dog’s hunger.  However, we might want to add information, for example, that the dog was hungry because he had not been fed for three days, or that after eating he went for a walk.  These are known as complex or compound sentences.  You can spot them because they have more than one verb.

Complex and compound sentences are both sentences with more than one idea or set of information.  They also contain more than one clause – a grammatical unit with a verb.  In the following examples, there are two sets of subjects and two verbs:

[The dog ate his food] and then [he went for a walk].
(Note that we could omit the ‘he’, but its role in the sentence
would still be ‘understood’.)

A compound sentence is one where two independent clauses are linked by a ‘joining’ word or conjunction such as for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

A complex sentence is one where one clause is dependent on the other:

[Because he had not been fed for three days], the [dog ate hungrily].

If a clause relates back to a previous subject, it is known as a relative clause:

‘The dog, whose bone I had taken, became aggressive.’

Of course, a sentence can be both complex and compound (complex clause in {} and compound clause in []):

{Even though you may not be required to publish}, a publication will always look good on your CV, [and also get you noticed with your peers].

Why might you wish to write a case study, [and what is it about case studies] {that makes them appealing subjects for publication for both academics and practitioners}?

In actual fact, in academic writing, sentences will tend to be longer, and the complex-compound sentence will be very common.

Sometimes, a group of words is clearly linked e.g. ‘for a walk’ in ‘the dog ate his food and went for a walk’. Such groups of words, which are grammatically linked but which don’t have verbs, are called phrases.

Words can be divided into different classes according to their functions in the sentence.  See below for definitions for the main ones.

Different word classes – parts of speech
Part Function Examples
Noun The name of something or
someone – people, place (proper noun), thing, or concept (abstract noun)
Margaret, London, book, journal, dog, house, beauty, marketing, accounting
Verb Describes an action, what the noun does, state of being Eats, is, carries, has
Adjective Describes a noun red book, sunny day
Adverb Modifies a verb (can also be a group of words) To do badly,
to run slowly
Pronoun Stands in for a noun (for example to save repetition)

Relative pronouns
refer back to a previous subject
He, she, it, we, they



which, who, whoever, whom, that, whose
Conjunction (Con)joins two parts
of the sentence together, either independent clauses, or dependent clauses
And, so, but, if

After, although, because, if, when, where, whether
Preposition Word that links nouns, pronouns etc., usually indicating some sort of relationship, or position Up the hill, down the road, round the bend
Determiner The direct and indirect article, and other words which precede and modify nouns The boy, a boy, some boys, nine boys, those boys

The verb is far and away the most important part of speech. It can:

  • have different tenses, which tell you whether it is referring to the past, present or future

  • be either passive (the Bill was passed) or active (Parliament passed the Bill).  The former indicates being the recipient of action, while the latter performs the action.  Use of the passive has a direct impact on style - see ‘Writing concisely’ in How to write more clearly – style

  • be either transitive (with an object, e.g. ‘The dog eats his food’) or intransitive (without an object e.g. ‘The dog sleeps’)

  • be made up of groups of words, e.g. ‘had been fed’, ‘will look’, ‘be required to publish’.

Punctuation indicates the rhythm of speech – the pauses and their significance.  Its correct use will add a lot to your ability to write clearly.

The following is a brief summary of the main punctuation marks and their functions.

Punctuation
Mark Function Examples
Full-stop/period . Ends a sentence

Indicates that an abbreviation has
been used
e.g.
Comma , Separates out clauses or phrases

Separates out elements in a list

Separates out two adjectives which precede a noun
Services, organizations, sports, art, ideas, people, and places may all be branded.


A beautiful, unspoilt view
 Colon : Introduces a list


Introduces a long quotation

Separates two clauses, of which
one is the consequence, or a modification, of the other.
Yin lists six different types of structure:

You will probably want to organize material into subheadings within the main sections: subheadings help you develop the logical flow of your material, and also act as sign posts to your reader.
Semi colon ;  Separates two balanced and connected phrases  By this stage you will know what your main sections are; the next task is to structure your material within the major sections.
Question mark ? Indicates a question  
Exclamation mark ! Indicates emphasis
or surprise
 
Apostrophe’ Shows possession

Shows missing letters
The author’s book

Can’t, won’t
Quotation marks
" "
‘ ’ 
Shows that something is quoted material. Use single quotes for something that is quoted within a quote. The questions this paper addresses, therefore, are "What are the understandings that are ‘wired into’ the practices of those who participate in school governance?"
Ellipsis ... Shows that words are missing, especially from a quote Principal: "...the trap that ... the board chair fell into there, early on in this scenario was just really listening to one parent."
Parentheses
( )
[ ]
Shows that material
is secondary, less important

For references in the Harvard reference system


Square parentheses show that words included in a quote were not in the original but have been inserted to make sense.
Brands originally functioned to identify and differentiate products (Keller, 1998).

Board Chair: "Not following it up. ... all she [the Board Chair] needed to do was ring the principal and say, [the parent] mentioned to me yesterday..."
Slash / Shows alternatives. He/she (commonly used to avoid the masculine pronoun used in a general sense).

Sources of further help

Grammar is a complex subject and we have only been able to scratch the surface here.  You would be well advised to get hold of a decent grammar or guide to English usage, and there is also plenty of help on the Web.

Books

Websites

The following are a few recommendations.  As with books, it’s partly down to personal preference, e.g. whether you prefer a structure based on theme, or an alphabetical one, or whether you respond to information presented visually.


How to write more clearly – style

Learning to write grammatically and use punctuation correctly may help you express yourself clearly and accurately, but it is not the sum total of good English. Good written communication also means writing in a way that is clear and logical, and with an economy that eschews unnecessary words.

Under the broad heading of style, we shall look at using the paragraph effectively, then at how to write simply and concisely, and finally, bearing in mind how conventions vary according to audience, and what are the distinguishing marks of an academic style.

Image: Writing.

The paragraph

Good use of the paragraph is key to good style. If it is used badly – if too long or short, or if there is a sudden break in sense within or between – then the meaning is obscured.   Below are some simple rules for good paragraph construction.

Topic sentences

A well-constructed paragraph should have one major theme, announced in the topic sentence,  which subsequent sentences should develop and support.

Observation can be used as both a quantitative and a qualitative research methodology. In the case described in this study, observation was mainly used qualitatively as the research was highly exploratory in nature. On the other hand, observation, if structured, can generate detailed quantitative findings. Data, for example, generated via EPoS tracking (a machine-based observational tool) is highly statistical in nature. Whether findings generated by observation are quantitative or qualitative in nature depends on whether the research is structured or unstructured - which, in turn, often depends on the stage of the research project.

Developing ideas

Ideas set out in the topic sentence should be developed by adding information, providing explanation or data, giving examples, defining terms, comparing and contrasting. Here is how the above paragraph does this:

Observation can be used as both a quantitative and a qualitative research methodology. EXAMPLE: In the case described in this study, observation was mainly used qualitatively as the research was highly exploratory in nature. COMPARISON/CONTRAST: On the other hand, observation, if structured, can generate detailed quantitative findings. EXAMPLE: Data, for example, generated via EPoS tracking (a machine-based observational tool) is highly statistical in nature. EXPLANATION: Whether findings generated by observation are quantitative or qualitative in nature depends on whether the research is structured or unstructured - which, in turn, often depends on the stage of the research project.

Building bridges

You need to connect the information you provide by bridging words and phrases.  Bridges can be logical, i.e. implicit in the logic of the paragraph by ideas being developed as above, or verbal , through linked words and phrases, or referring back to key ideas.

If you ensure that ideas develop along a main theme, as we discussed above, it should help in building logical bridges. Verbal bridges however are also very useful, and there are a number of ways of providing them, including:

  • using linking words and phrases (on the other hand, for example).
  • referring back to key ideas, either repeating phrases or using pronouns (‘in the case described in this study’).

Length

While in general it is best to avoid paragraphs that are too long, there is no hard and fast rule for their length other than to say that sense will dictate a new paragraph, when it is clear that you are dealing with another topic. If when reading through your work you find that some of your paragraphs are very long, check to see if there is a natural break in the sense.

Making effective transitions

You need to make sure that you have proper transitions between paragraphs, and that there are no awkward jumps which can leave the reader confused.  Here are some examples of transitional words or phrases:

Likewise, in the same way, similarly, in comparison: shows similarity, comparison, drawing a parallel

On the other hand, in contrast, despite, nevertheless, in spite of: contrasts with what has gone before, dissimilarity

First, second, to begin with, at the same time, later, finally: placing in order, showing a temporal sequence

Thus, accordingly, therefore, because, as a result, since: shows causality, cause and effect

As has been said previously: referring back

For example, for instance, such as, thus, as follows: introducing examples

In other words, namely, to be more precise, that is to say: providing an explanation

Also, for example, in other words, moreover, more importantly: addition, reinforcement:

Finally, in conclusion, in short, overall, to conclude, to sum up: in summary, conclusion.

Image: Writing.

Writing concisely
Original version Edited version

Vocabulary acquisition is naturally a basic skill for all language students and much research has been done in this domain at all levels from ab initio to advanced study (Chesters et al., 1992; Meara, 1997). A group of academics within the French Department decided upon the idea of designing a micro-computer program that would allow students to learn French vocabulary in such a way, that:

  1. the learning would be faster 
  2. the lecturer input would be less 
  3. the effectiveness of learning would be enhanced
Vocabulary acquisition is a basic skill for all language students, and is the subject of research at all levels from ab initio to advanced study (Chesters et al., 1992; Meara, 1997). A group of academics within the French Department decided to design a micro-computer program to help student to learn French vocabulary faster, more effectively, and with less lecturer input.

Here are some suggestions as to how you can make your style more concise.

1. Avoid circumlocutions

A 'circumlocution' is the use of many words when just a few will do – an easy trap to fall into when trying to make a point a little more forcefully! Here are some examples, together with simpler ways of expressing the same idea:

It is possible that: may, might, could
Prior to, in anticipation of, following on, at the same time as: before, after, as
At this point in time: now/then
The reason for, owing to the reason that, on the grounds that: because, since, why
Notwithstanding the fact that, despite the fact that: although
This is a subject which: this subject
The question as to whether: whether
Is able to, has the capacity to: can

2. Avoid "padding" words and tautologies

There are some other words of this type which are pure padding and can be omitted – for example, 'basically', or 'current' as in 'the current chairman' when you are not referring to past or future chairmen.

Tautologies are those words which mean the same thing: for examples safe haven, future prospects etc. Sometimes, tautologies are used for rhetorical effect, but at other times removing the unnecessary words will improve conciseness.

3. Avoid the passive voice

Using the passive voice (the subject receives the action) when the active voice (the subject does the action) would suffice is a classic error even amongst experienced writers, and has the immediate effect of adding unnecessary words which means that the sentence loses impact.  For example, 'He was stopped composing by his failing health' is better phrased as 'His failing health stopped him composing'. 

However, there are times when it is better to use the passive voice to create a more impersonal style and avoid too much use of the personal pronoun, for example, ‘Interviews were carried out’ instead of ‘I carried out interviews’.

4. Avoid unnecessary determiners, qualifiers and modifiers

There are some words which appear to modify a noun but which merely clutter up the sentence.

Managers need some kind of extra help if they are to avoid getting bogged down with paperwork.
To a certain extent women no longer lag behind men in terms of pay in certain areas.

Either omit these words or give specific details.

5. Change clauses into phrases and phrases into single words

Sometimes, phrasal constructions can be reduced to adjectives:

The employee with talent 
The talented employee

Relative clauses can also sometimes be reworded:

The IT system that met most of our requirements 
The most compatible IT system

Other clauses can be worded more simply as in the following example, in which two clauses are put together as one:

If citing a shortish extract, you can do this by 
just reproducing it within the article. 
A shortish extract can be reproduced within the article.

Some infinitive phrases (those that use verbs with 'to') can be turned into sentences with active verbs:

The responsibility of a leader is to motivate and inspire 
A leader should motivate and inspire

Writing in an academic style

There are so many different styles of writing – academic essay, business report, e-mail – there can be no one right style for each.  In the third you will be more informal, in the second you will be succinct, and break up the text with bullet points and headings, whilst in the first you will adopt a more formal style. Here are some pointers for writing in a more academic style:

  • Use formal English – don’t write in a colloquial style, using abbreviations (won’t, can’t) or exclamations.

  • Be impersonal (‘It can be seen that’) avoiding use of the first person where possible (except in the case of personal reflections)

  • Be cautious - use phrases to indicate that you cannot be completely certain: appears to, seems to, tends to, may in some cases, the evidence tends to suggest.

  • Temper generalizations – give examples, and don’t make absolute claims unless you can substantiate them, use qualifying words such as as a rule, for the most part, generally, in general, potentially, normally, on the whole, in most cases, usually, the vast majority of, a large number of, it is likely that, have tended to.

  • Avoid faulty logic – if you are developing a general argument, make sure that the statements on which you base the argument are valid. Avoid non sequiturs, which are sudden jumps in the sense, with the effect that a point raised in one paragraph is followed by a completely different point in a subsequent paragraph, or even within the same paragraph. This leaves the reader confused and unable to hold onto the thread of the argument!

  • Use continuous prose – avoid devices that break up the text, such as bullet points or headings. The latter will however probably be necessary for a longer piece of work, such as a dissertation, or a report.

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