Getting the Mechanics Right

Many students assume—or fear—that college writing is judged primarily on its grammatical correctness. Ideas, evidence, and arguments matter more than the mechanics of grammar and punctuation; however, many of the rules of formal writing exist to promote clarity and precision which writers much achieve in order to effectively convey ideas, evidence, and arguments. In addition, texts that observe the rules of formal written English tend to be more persuasive by making the author appear well informed and careful. Writing replete with errors does not make a great impression, and most educators want to help students present themselves well. Correctness, then, isn’t the most important thing, but it does matter.

Another common assumption among students is that one is either good at grammar or not good at grammar, and that such is one’s immutable fate. Not true. Once you master a particular rule or practice, it becomes second nature, and then you can focus your attention on mastering another. I finally nailed down commas and semicolons in college and some finer points of grammar in graduate school. I do a lot of formal writing in the course of my career, and I still look things up in a writing handbook from time to time. You can master the practices of formal written English, and college is a great time to use the feedback from your professors to identify your common errors and learn to correct them.

In thinking about correctness, it’s important to recognize that some rules are more important than others. Joseph Williams helpfully distinguishes three kinds of rules.[1] First, there are rules that are basic to English, such as “the car” not “car the.” For example,

INCORRECT: I thought whether true claims not.
CORRECT: I hadn’t thought about whether the claims were true.

If you’ve gotten most of your formal education in English, you probably observe these rules routinely. If your writing has mismatches of number (singular/plural) or tense, it might be due to haste or carelessness rather than unawareness. Similarly, capitalizing the first word of a sentence and ending with appropriate punctuation are basic rules that most people comply with automatically when writing for a professor or in other formal situations.

Williams’ second category is comprised of rules that distinguish standard written English from the informal variants that people use in their day-to-day lives. Most students with middle-class and non-immigrant backgrounds use informal vernaculars that closely parallel standard written English. Students with working-class or more modest backgrounds or who are members of transnational and multi-lingual communities may use informal variants of English in their everyday lives that are quite different from standard written English. It’s an unfortunate reality of social inequality that such students have to expend more effort than their middle-class English-speaking counterparts to master the standard conventions. It’s not really fair, but at least the mechanics and rules of formal writing are documented and unambiguous. Learning to communicate effectively in different social contexts is part of becoming an educated person.

Some examples:

INFORMAL:We ain’t got no more of them cookies.
FORMAL: We don’t have any more of those cookies.
INFORMAL: My coat, my phone, and my keys was all lock in the car.
FORMAL: My coat, my phone, and my keys were all locked in the car.
INFORMAL: u shd go 2 café b4 wrk bc coffee
FORMAL: You should go the café before work to get some coffee.

The informal versions are clearly English, and they’re widely understandable to others. The first and second examples contain choices of tense, number, and punctuation that are inappropriate in standard written English even though they don’t actually impede communication. Most students already understand that these first two categories of rules (rules fundamental to English and the rules of standard written English) are obligatory for formal writing.

There is a third category of rules that Williams notes and enthusiastically criticizes; he calls them “invented rules” because they usually arise from busybody grammarians rather than enduring patterns of customary language use. Some invented rules Williams calls “options”: those that your reader will notice when you observe them and not care if you don’t. Here’s an example of the fabled don’t-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition rule:

OBSERVING THE RULE: With which concept can we analyze this problem?
IGNORING THE RULE: Which concept can we analyze this problem with?

Some grammarians would claim that only the first version is correct. However, you probably have the (accurate) impression that professional writers are much more likely to choose the second version. This rule does not reflect real-life customary practice, even in standard written English. That’s why Williams calls it an “invented rule.” Most of your professors are fine with the second version above, the one that ends a sentence with a preposition.

Similarly, there’s this murky idea out there that one should not split infinitives; that is, one should not have any words between “to” and the verb that follows. Here’s an example:

OBSERVED: to go boldly where no one has gone before
IGNORED: to boldly go where no one has gone before

Again, while some grammarians have argued that conscientious writers should avoid splitting infinitives, most professional writers have ignored that claim. The second version, which puts the adverb (“boldly”) within the infinitive (that is, between “to” and “go”) makes for a perfectly clear and pleasing phrase. The invented rule about splitting infinitives is an attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. If you want to give your writing more of a scholarly air, you could observe some or all of these optional rules. But, unless your professor has a particular penchant for one of these invented rules, you can safely ignore them.

Williams calls the second sub-category of invented rules “folklore.” They’re invented rules (like “options”) in that grammarians think writers should observe them, but, in reality, no one does. Williams gleefully lists instances in which the very grammarians who propose these rules go on to unselfconsciously violate them.[2] You may have heard of these rules, but they’re widely considered absurd.

For example, some grammarians are dismayed that people use “that” and “which” interchangeably, and they argue that writers should use “that” to indicate restrictive elements and “which” to indicate non-restrictive elements. A restrictive element is one that makes a necessary specification about something; a non-restrictive element is one that simple adds extra information. Consider these two examples:

Version 1:

The party that Alex went to was shut down by the police.

Version 2:

The party which Alex went to was shut down by the police.

For almost all readers, versions 1 and 2 are saying the exact same thing. For the persnickety grammarian, version 1 is specifying the party that Alex went to, and not the party that, say, Jordan went to, while version 2 is simply inserting extra information about Alex’s attendance at the party. According to these grammarians, “that Alex went to” adds critically needed information (restrictive) while “which Alex went to” adds bonus information (non-restrictive).

As Williams and some others explain: it’s bullshit. Professional writers use commas and carefully chosen words to do the job of distinguishing restrictive and non-restrictive elements, and they choose whichever relative pronoun (“that” or “which”) sounds better in context. You could observe the distinction between that and which if you like, but no one would notice. More importantly, observing this invented rule wouldn’t necessarily make your writing any clearer, more concise, or more graceful.

There is one rule that Williams calls “folklore” that you probably have to observe in college papers nonetheless: that is, the rule that you can’t start sentences with But, And, So, For, or Yet (or other coordinating conjunctions). I’m sure you could browse through assigned readings and articles published in major newspapers and magazines that violate this so-called rule. Here are two examples that took me about 10 minutes to find:

From the front page of the New York Times January 7, 2014:[3] “But since the financial crisis, JPMorgan has become so large and profitable that it has been able to weather the government’s legal blitz, which has touched many parts of the bank’s sprawling operations.” And a little further down we see, “Yet JPMorgan’s shares are up 28 percent over the last 12 months.”
From a news article in Science, December 21, 2007:[4] “Altered winds blew in more warm air from the subtropics only in models in which mid-latitude oceans warmed as observed; apparently, the warmer oceans altered the circulation. And that ocean warming is widely viewed as being driven by the strengthening greenhouse.”

If you’re writing a paper for my class, feel free to begin sentences with conjunctions. As the above examples show, it’s a concise way to support clarity and effective flow. However, I suspect most instructors still hold to the old rule. Thus, you shouldn’t start sentences with “And,” “But” or other coordinating conjunctions unless you’ve been specifically invited to.

There are countless other rules that I don’t discuss here. The point of these examples is to show that you don’t have to observe every little rule you’ve ever heard of. There are some elements of mechanics that you have to master; I summarize some common ones below. These practices will gradually become second nature. It’s sometimes hard to know at the outset which rules are standard, which are options, and which are folklore. With the help of a good handbook and your instructors, you’ll learn them over time. The larger point I want to make here is that that observing rules isn’t about traversing a minefield of potential errors; it’s just about learning and adopting the practices appropriate to your audience, which is one of the first rules of writing well.

Elements of punctuation and language you must master

If you’ve gotten most or all of your formal education in English, you’ve mastered the vast majority of the real rules of grammar. Most of the students I work with just have to nail down a few additional practices to produce appropriate academic writing. There isn’t any great secret to learning them; they’re learned through repeated practice and feedback.

1. Comma usage

I didn’t really master correct comma usage until my college years. There was a year or so in which I constantly checked my work against a style guide, but since then I haven’t often had to think about commas. Here’s a brief run-down of the rules of comma usage that I see many students violating. For a more complete explanation, and an invaluable set of online exercises, see the website of handbook author Diana Hacker.

A. Use a comma to join two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction:

CORRECT: Her misdeed was significant, but the punishment was excessive.
ALSO CORRECT: Her misdeed was significant but justified by the circumstances.

In the first example, the comma is telling the reader that one clause (her misdeed was significant) is ending and another (the punishment was excessive) beginning. The second example does not use a comma, because the words that follow “but” (justified by the circumstances) do not add up to an independent clause; they make a dependent clause that could not stand alone as a sentence.

Note: “Because” is NOT a coordinating conjunction. It’s a subordinating conjunction. Therefore, it does not use a comma:

INCORRECT: Conspiracy theories can be compelling, because many people distrust the government.
CORRECT: Conspiracy theories can be compelling because many people distrust the government.

“Because,” like other subordinating conjunctions (such as “although,” “unless,” or “until”), is meant to knit together one indivisible thought; hence, no comma. Including a comma weakens the connection in the mind of your reader.

B. Use a comma to mark the end of an introductory element

CORRECT: While we were eating, the baby crawled out of the room.
CORRECT: Alongside the road, we found the perpetrator’s gun.
CORRECT: Because many distrust the government, conspiracy theories can be compelling.

The first example would be comically confusing without the comma. The second example shows how the comma helps your reader separate the introductory element from the part that followed. The third example might be confusing. The sentence from part A, above, beginning with “Conspiracy theories” does not use a comma, but in this example, a dependent clause is serving as as an introductory element.

Learn these rules, and if you hate them, learn to love them. In college, writing stops being about “how well did you understand fill-in-the-blank” and becomes “how professionally and strongly do you argue your point.” Professionalism, I have found, is the key to the real world, and college is, in part, preparing you for it. If you do not learn how to write in a way that projects professionalism (i.e. these rules), then expect to get, at best, Cs on your papers.

Kaethe Leonard

C. Use a comma to set off non-essential information (so-called non-restrictive elements)

Both of these sentences are correct, but they convey different ideas:

EXAMPLE 1: Gathering places vital to their communities are worth the investment.
EXAMPLE 2: Gathering places, vital to their communities, are worth the investment.

The first says that only those gathering places that are vital to their communities are worth the investment (implying that some are not vital and therefore not worth investing in). In that first example, “vital to their communities” is a restrictive element. In the second example “vital to their communities” is extra information. The sentence implies that gathering places in general are worth the investment (ostensibly because they’re vital to their communities). The commas mark the phrase as non-essential information, which is a non-restrictive element. In writing the second sentence, you might enclose the non-essential information in parentheses instead.

2. Use punctuation and coordinating conjunctions to avoid sentence fragments

At some point, you were probably instructed that all sentences must have a subject (which includes a noun) and a predicate (which includes a verb) and that they must be written to stand alone. Consider this example of a sentence fragment:

INCORRECT: When you go to the supermarket. You don’t often think about the work behind the scenes.

It has a subject (you) and predicate (go to the supermarket), but the “when” indicates that the sentence is incomplete. When people write sentence fragments, they usually have the missing elements in the preceding or following sentences, so it’s really a punctuation error.

CORRECT: When you go to the supermarket, you don’t often think about the work behind the scenes.
ALSO CORRECT: You don’t often think about the work behind the scenes when you go to the supermarket.

In the first version the dependent clause (the part that couldn’t stand alone) comes first, necessitating a comma. In the second, the main clause (the part that could stand alone) comes first, so no comma is used.

3. Use punctuation and coordinating conjunctions to avoid run-on sentences and comma splices

A run-on sentence (one that smooshes two sentences together) may be incorrectly connected with a comma, which is then called a comma splice. This error is easily corrected with punctuation and some coordinating words.

INCORRECT (run-on): The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary works it had a major influence on Mesopotamian culture.
INCORRECT (comma splice): The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary works, it had a major influence on Mesopotamian culture.

Clearly, the writer wants the reader to see these two sentences as connected. He or she has three options to show their reader how the sentences relate.

CORRECT OPTION 1 (semi-colon): The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary works; it had a major influence on Mesopotamian culture.

The semi-colon is an elegant and underutilized option. By joining two sentences with a semi-colon, the writer can subtly tell the reader that the epic’s earliness and influence, together, make it important.

CORRECT OPTION 2 (comma and coordinating conjunction): The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary works, and it had a major influence on Mesopotamian culture.

The use of “and” in this option also tells the reader to put the two claims together. A more specific conjunction—such as “but,” “so”, or “yet”—is usually a better choice than “and” or a semi-colon because it would provide more information about how the two claims relate.

CORRECT OPTION 3 (separate sentences): The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary works. It had a major influence on Mesopotamian culture.

If you don’t want your reader to consider the two sentences closely related, you can convey that by choosing separate sentences. With the Gilgamesh example, you might choose this option if the paragraph is mostly about the influence of the epic on Mesopotamian culture but you have a good reason to include a sentence about how early it is. These two sentences would function well as the first two sentences of an introductory paragraph.

4. Use colons correctly for lists, quotations, and explanatory information

INCORRECT: We packed: clothes, camping equipment, and a first-aid kit.
CORRECT: We packed the essentials: clothes, camping equipment, and a first-aid kit.

For lists, use a colon when the part before the colon can stand alone as a sentence. Otherwise, leave the colon out (“We packed clothes, camping equipment, and a first-aid kit”).

INCORRECT: Mitchell explains that: “Part of the fascination of Gilgamesh is that, like any great work of literature, it has much to tell us about ourselves.”[5]
CORRECT: Mitchell explains the power of the epic: “Part of the fascination of Gilgamesh is that, like any great work of literature, it has much to tell us about ourselves.”[6]

You can use a colon to introduce a quote if the parts before and after the colon can stand as complete sentences. A comma is an option here as well. Introducing a quote with your own complete sentence and a colon is another underutilized trick in student writing. Recall from Chapter 5 that you have to use source material within your own analytical thread. Introducing a quote with your own complete sentence can make it immediately clear why the quote you choose is important to your argument.

5. Use modifiers clearly and precisely

Modifiers are words and phrases that add information to a sentence. They specify the meaning of (that is, they modify) a noun or verb. Sometimes the modifier is misplaced, ambiguous, or not clearly pertaining to a noun or verb (a so-called dangling modifier). These problems can lead the reader to wonder what exactly you’re claiming.

MISPLACED: The ski-jumper looked sleek in his new suit weighing only 140 pounds.
CORRECT: The ski-jumper looked sleek wearing a new suit and weighing only 140 pounds.

The suit didn’t weigh 140 pounds (one hopes); the ski-jumper did.

AMBIGUOUS: When formal rules and day-to-day practices differ, they should be changed.
CLEAR: Formal rules should be changed to match day-to-day practices.
CLEAR: Day-to-day practices should be changed to match the formal rules.

In the first version, it’s not clear what should be changed. The two clear versions make it obvious what the author is arguing.

DANGLING: Walking down the street, the houses glowed pink in the sunset.
CORRECT: Walking down the street, she saw houses glowing pink in the sunset.

The first version suggests that the houses were walking down the street. The pronoun to which that first phrase refers (“she”) is missing. The second version corrects that by bringing in the needed pronoun.

6. Choose correct words

Many wrong-word errors that I see seem to be artifacts of the spell-checkers built into word-processing programs. For example, I often see “costumers” where students meant “customers,” “defiantly” instead of “definitely” and, somewhat comically, “martial” instead of “marital.”

Other wrong-word errors come from homonyms, two or more words that sound the same, such as the there/their/they’re or your/you’re errors. In college writing, another common one is the misuse of effect/affect. Use “effect” if you’re talking about the result of a cause as a noun, and “affect” if you mean influence or talking about emotion in psychology (in which case it’s pronounced AF-fect).

CORRECT: The effects of the conflict have been long-lasting.
CORRECT: The conflict has affected everyday life throughout the country.
CORRECT: Research shows that the presence of living plants impact both cognition and affect.

“Effect” can also be a verb, in which case it means to bring about:

CORRECT: The conflict effected major international policy changes.

That sentence is saying that the conflict brought about policy changes. If you wanted to say that the conflict influenced (but did not itself cause) policy changes, you would write that the conflict affected policy changes.

The dilemma of gendered language in English

What to do about gender with an unspecified subject? In the past, the consensus was to always use “he” and readers were supposed to understand that the subject might be female. As you know, that’s no longer accepted. The culture of formal academic writing hasn’t settled on a widely supported solution yet, which creates a pervasive problem for the student writer.

Informally, using “they/their” as the neutral singular is becoming a common practice. For example, if a Facebook friend hasn’t specified a gender, Facebook used to exhort you to “write on their timeline” for “their birthday.” I hear this more and more in spoken language as well. For example, most people who hear this sentence spoken wouldn’t note a glaring problem: “A doctor who makes a mistake is often too scared to admit their slip-up.” However, in an academic paper, that sentence would be considered a pronoun-antecedent error because “doctor” is singular and “their” is still considered plural. Most of your professors still don’t accept they/their as a gender-neutral singular possessive. Hopefully in coming years, academic writing will come to accept this perfectly reasonable solution to the gendered language problem, but we’re not there yet.

My first semester in college, it was my standard practice to rotate back and forth between the male and female pronouns. I did not want to appear sexist and was unsure how to avoid doing so. Referring to the same hypothetical person in one of my papers I wrote, “When one is confronted by new information that does not fit tidily onto her personal map…” Later in the paragraph I referred to the same individual by saying, “This new information demands that he forsake the world of the Cave in which he had been raised.” Obviously, in retrospect, that was confusing and certainly not the best option. But it illustrates the point that this can be a challenging dilemma. Thankfully for you, three more appropriate solutions are provided in this chapter.

Peter Farrell

So what to do? Here are three possible solutions.

  1. Choose plurals when possible. For example, “Doctors who make mistakes are often too scared to admit their slip-ups.”
  2. Write “he or she” or “his or her” if it’s not too repetitive. You don’t want to have more than two or three such “ors” in a paragraph, but a couple wouldn’t be tedious for the reader. For example, one might write, “A doctor who makes a mistake is often too scared to admit his or her slip-up. He or she might be forbidden from doing so by hospital attorneys.”
  3. Consider whether a real-life example is better than a hypothetical subject. Long passages about hypothetical people and situations often lack argumentative force. If you’re writing a paper about medical errors, you might do better to replace hypothetical claims like the above example with real-life examples of physicians who have made mistakes but were reluctant or forbidden to acknowledge them. Better yet, discuss the results of studies of medical errors and their outcomes. In addition to solving the gendered language problem, real examples are more persuasive.

Remember, it’s about precision and respect. Whatever you do, don’t just write “he” for doctors, attorneys, and construction workers and “she” for nurses, social workers, and flight attendants. You also shouldn’t just write “he” or “his” for everything, expecting your readers to mentally fill in the “or she” and “or her” themselves. Doing so seems lazy, if not actively sexist. Showing respect through precise language about gender makes you seem much more credible.


This chapter does not (and could not) provide a complete run-down of formal English language usage. You would do well to bookmark a couple good reference sources to consult when questions arise. If your writing usually has a lot of errors in it, don’t despair. Identify one or two practices to master and then learn them, using the feedback from your instructors as a guide. You can’t become a flawless writer overnight (and no one writes flawlessly all the time). But over the course of a few semesters, you can certainly produce more precise text that presents your ideas in their best light.

Exercises and other resources

  1. As noted above, the website associated with Diana Hacker’s popular writing guides offer excellent practice in grammar and mechanics. If you keep getting dinged in your papers for misplaced apostrophes, for example, you can review a lesson and take practice quizzes on that site until you nail it. She also provides exercises especially useful to writers learning English as a second (or third or fourth) language.
  2. Most college libraries subscribe to online reference sources for their students. Go to your library’s website and look for proprietary guides like the Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. These are often of much higher quality than the first few hits you get on Google.
  3. In Andrea Lunsford’s The Everyday Writer 5th ed. (New York: Bedford-St.Martin’s, 2012) she includes a list of the 20 most common errors in student writing. This site, like Diana Hacker’s, also offers free online exercises in mechanics.

  1. The three types of rules are explained in Williams and Bizup’s Style. Williams first described invented rules in J.M. Williams, “A Phenomenology of Error,” College Composition and Communication, 32, no. 2 (1981): 152-168.
  2. J.M. Williams, Phenomenology of Error
  3. Peter Eavis, “Steep Penalties Taken in Stride by JPMorgan Chase,” New York Times, January 7, 2014, page A1.
  4. Richard A. Kerr, “Global Warming Coming Home to Roost in the American Midwest,” Science 318, no. 5858 (2007): 1859.
  5. Stephen Mitchell, Gilgamesh: A New English Version (New York: Free Press, 2004).
  6. Ibid.