You’d be surprised if I told you how bad college students’ grammar truly is. Take it from me; I’m a writing tutor at my university.
There is a definite pattern emerging among college students, and the same grammatical issues and writing questions arise over and over again. To be frank, one would expect a little more from fourth-year university students who have a pile of credits behind them.
Professors and future employers can pick out these grammatical mistakes with ease, and it detracts from actually reading your resume. If you’re going into the business, English, communication or teaching field, grammar mistakes can cost you your credibility or your job.
Here are the most frequent grammar issues I come across and some of the ways you can prevent them.
This is the biggest and most obvious mistake a writer can make. To keep things simple, only use commas in very specific contexts.
- Use a comma with a conjunction when sentence can be broken up into two sentences. Example: Tim put his hat on the desk, and he walked over to his bed.
- Use a comma if you establish a time element unrelated to the rest of the sentence. Example: First, I will explain this paper to you.
- Use two commas when you use a non-essential phrase or clause. Something is non-essential when it can be taken completely out of a sentence and the sentence would still make perfect sense (think of it as a bonus).
Example: Tina, who was wearing sandals, walked on the beach shore.
- If your sentence has more than three commas (and it’s not a list), chances are you need to change your long sentence into two shorter sentences. This is a good habit to perfect because it always keeps your writing crisp and clear. On that note, don’t use the serial comma if you are writing a simple list (I’m sorry to all the die-hard serial commas fans). Example: I am required to bring peas, carrots and spinach to the dinner.
This is a death trap in which even I have fallen. Generally, unless you’re writing an English paper, avoid the semi-colon. Most people use the semi-colon to prevent a comma splice, but fixing the splice will alleviate any need for the semi-colon.
- Wrong: Tina wanted cheese; she got it from the fridge.
- Right: Tina wanted cheese, and she got it from the fridge.
Notice, simply adding a conjunction and a comma makes this sentence more clear and less breathy.
To hyphen or not to hyphen? This one has the simplest fix, but the hardest part is identifying when to use a hyphen. Generally, the only time you need to inject a new hyphen is if it’s a compound modifier for another word. A compound modifier is when two words work together to modify one word.
- Example: Foot-long field, strawberry-flavored candy or eco-friendly phone.
Here’s the question to ask yourself when determining whether a hyphen is needed in “foot-long field”: Is it a foot field? No. Is it a long field? No. Well then it needs to be a foot-long field.
4. Passive sentence constructions
This will send business professors and professionals over the edge if they see it in their business reports or memos. A passive sentence may be acceptable for English professors (not always), but for business and medical professions a writer needs to get to the point quickly.
In a passive sentence, the receiver of the sentence is the subject and the active agent is the object. In an active sentence, the active agent is the subject of the sentence.
- Example passive sentence: The ball was kicked by the boy.
- Example active sentence: The boy kicked the ball.
Please note: Past-tense verbs aren’t always passive, and don’t let the “-ed” scare you.
When, why and how to use quotations can be baffling to the novice writer, and it is one of the most important mechanisms one must use. In college, improperly citing a source can cost you your degree and could make you lose credibility.
- When to use: Put a sentence in quotation marks when you copy a sentence from a credible source verbatim (and cite it).
- When to not: When you paraphrase or use a source’s ideas simply cite that particular sentence and do not put its contents in quotation marks.
- How to use: Always put your periods and commas inside the quotation marks when applicable. Periods and commas do not alter the contents inside the quotation marks like exclamation and question marks can.
Example: The person said “do not conform to what they want,” and “I was happy because of it.”
Remember, English is tricky and any of these grammar and punctuation rules are subject to breaking.
Also, like you, I am a student and have had my fair share of grammar errors. The best thing to do is proof read your writing by reading it out loud to some one, and by letting your paper stir for a day or two.
Jessica DuBois-Maahs is a senior communications major at the University of North Florida and plans on pursuing an M.A. in journalism. When she’s not writing blogs for NSCS, Jessica is a news intern for WKMG-TV Orlando.