Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018
Reviewing and editing your work
It is possible to write a whole book about grammar, and many people have. Numerous books pitched at university-level students devote large sections to grammar and punctuation (see, for example, Peck and Coyle, 2012a, 2012b). Grammar is a system of rules. It operates at two levels. At one level it describes individual words and their functions. At another level it concerns how words are combined to form meaningful phrases, clauses and sentences. This second aspect of grammar is sometimes called syntax.
Words in the English language belong to one of seven or eight common categories according to their function (Table 10.1). Knowing the names for different categories of word is useful when it comes to reviewing and editing, and when discussing work with others. Each category of word has several forms, although to keep the table to a manageable size, Table 10.1 shows only the various forms for nouns.
Common grammatical errors
Three grammatical errors are common among university students, and especially among those for whom English is not their first language.
Lack of subject-verb agreement
As we know, a sentence contains a subject and a finite verb. The verb needs to agree with the subject in terms of number, person and tense. When it does not, there is said to be ’lack of subject-verb agreement’. It is particularly easy to have a lack of agreement when a clause and/or infinitives are inserted between the subject and the finite verb, as in this case. Here the subject ’need’ is singular but the finite verb form ’were’ is plural:
The need for groups of students to meet, to agree ways of working, were established early in the project.
For the subject and finite verb to be in agreement, the sentence should read:
The need for groups of students to meet, to agree ways of working, was established early in the project.
Appropriate use of the definite or indefinite article
Correctly using the definite article (’the’) or the indefinite article (’a’ or ’an’) can be a minefield. Reading a sentence out loud can reveal missed articles. For example:
Although helicopters are viable means of swiftly taking a film crew to remote location, their use is expensive, carries higher-than-usual risk, and extensive technical backup may be required.
The sentence should read (with the missing articles shown bold):
Although helicopters are a viable means of swiftly taking a film crew to a remote location ...
Usually, but not always, ’the’ refers to a specific item but ’a’ or ’an’ refers to any example of that item. For example, articles (shown bold) are correctly used in this sentence:
The tiger is a member of the genus Panthera.
Table 10.1 Common categories of word in the English language
There are other members of the genus Panthera, such as lions, so it is appropriate to say ’a’ member. There is only one genus Panthera, so ’the’ is appropriate. The complexity of using articles is shown by ’The tiger ...’. Here the definite article refers to both a unique species and all the members of it. In the context of this sentence it is not referring to an individual tiger.
For advice and examples on the use of articles, and other grammatical topics, go to Education First (www.ef.com/english-resources/english-grammar/) for UK English, or the Purdue Online Writing Lab (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/1/5/) for US English.
It is easy to write a paragraph containing tenses that drift back and forth in time, causing confusion for the reader. Normally, consistency is needed.
Smith and Jones (2010) reported on the problem of juvenile delinquency in rural communities but fail to address the issue of the teenagers’ family backgrounds.
The inconsistent use of tenses in the sentence above could be addressed in two ways. By making both verbs take the present tense (shown in bold):
Smith and Jones (2010) report on the problem ofjuvenile delinquency in rural communities but fail to address the issue of the teenagers’ family backgrounds.
Or writing both verbs in the past tense:
Smith and Jones (2010) reported on the problem of juvenile delinquency in rural communities but failed to address the issue of teenagers’ family backgrounds.
There is a subtle difference between these two choices. Using the present tense suggests that the source cited is still current. Using the past tense pushes the citation back in time. If you refer to an old source in the present tense, it suggests that the point you are making (even if the source is old) is still valid. For example:
Sharp and Blunt (1995) conclude that strength of gender identity is a key issue in the association between self-esteem and body image in teenagers.