Posts Tagged Proofreading

Two types of words you should never include in your essay

Contractions and Colloquial language.

One of the things you should not include in your essay.

Finding these in your essay will annoy your marker – not something you want to do…

Contraction: a shortened form of a word or group of words, with the omitted letters often replaced in written English by an apostrophe (from Dictionary.com)

“Don’t”, “isn’t”, “didn’t”, and “wouldn’t” are all contractions.

Don’t use them.

But, why? We use them all the time don’t we?

Yes we do but an essay is a formal piece of writing and contractions are informal. They are a quick short colloquial way to write words and phrases.

Do not use you them in your essay. It makes it look like you’re lazy because you can’t be bothered writing your words out in full. If the marker thinks you are lazy then then the box you are being put in has a ‘C’ or an ‘Achieved’ on it, or worse. Markers hate lazy students.

It is however, easy to accidentally use contractions when we are writing our essay – after all, we use them so frequently in everyday language. The best technique is to use Ctrl+F to search for all the apostrophes in your essay.

Colloquial: characteristic of or appropriate to ordinary or familiar conversation rather than formal speech or writing; informal.

“What’s up?” , “gonna”, “dunno”, and “thick as two short planks” are all colloquial.

Do not use them in your essay. It makes it look like you are not particularly well-educated. Your arguments will seem less credible and your evidence weak, in the eyes of the marker. You are in that ‘C’ or ‘Achieved’ box at the very best, once again.

In fact, using colloquial language in essays is pretty much considered an unforgivable sin by markers. You might get away with an accidental contraction or two but you won’t get away with colloquial language. Some markers will instantly fail you and not bother to read any more.

It’s not worth the risk.

Hang on a second, isn’t it ironic that you’ve used contractions in this blog post (and this question)?

Yes it is.

But, whenever you write, you follow the conventions and styles of the type of writing you are doing. We write this blog in a casual conversational style to make it easy for you to read, understand, and apply what we write about, to your essays. Contractions are useful when writing in this style.

An essay is a formal piece of writing – it is not casual and conversational. Contractions therefore have no place in it.

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How to write numbers and dates in your essay – be consistent!

In my last post we talked about consistency and I gave you a decent list of things you need to keep consistent:

Keep the numbers in your essay consistent

  • Tenses
  • Arguments
  • Spelling and Capitalisation
  • Formatting
  • Hyphenations
  • Abbreviations
  • Dates
  • Numbers

In this post we’ll look the last two: numbers and dates.

Numbers

One, 1, I…

Ten, 10, X…

Which is correct?

Well if you are talking about amounts definitely not the Roman numerals! Deciding between the next two is a little trickier.

There is no actual official accepted format but a good rule of thumb is use words for one through to nine and digits for 10 and above. The main thing is whatever you decide, whether it’s the rule of thumb above, all words or all digits – keep it consistent.

Don’t use both one and 1 or ten and 10 in your essays.

Another thing to watch out for is money and percentages.

50c, $0.50, 50 cents, fifty cents. Pick one and stick to it.

25%, 25 percent, twenty-five percent. Once again, pick one and stick to it.

This leads us nicely onto dates…

Dates

As with numbers there is no right way or wrong way to write out your dates – just keep it consistent!

20th century or twentieth century or even 20th-century and twentieth-century

1800’s or 1800s

7th August 1990 or 7 August 1990 or 7 August, 1990 or August 7, 1990 etc.

An interesting note from McGraw-Hill’s Proofreading Handbook by Laura Anderson, is that if you use a comma in your date then you need to use one after the year also. For example: “On 7 August, 1990, I was born.”

Throughout this post I have been saying that there is no right way or wrong way to write your numbers and dates as long as they are consistent throughout your essay. This is true.

However, people and/or subjects have preferences for certain formats – so make sure you check out what formats your lecturers, teachers, textbooks use first before making your own choice of format.

The secret to getting good marks in your essays is writing what the marker wants – so be consistent and use their preferred number and date formats in your essays this week.

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Consistency – important in essays too

A lack of consistency is plaguing the Knicks - don't let it plague your essay.

Consistency.

It’s a word that is thrown around a lot in the sports world. The New York Knicks lack consistency, well they did – now they are consistently losing.

When it comes to essays, lacking consistency is also a bad thing, better than your essays being consistently bad – but a bad thing all the same.

For a sports team, a lack of consistency breaks up momentum and makes it very difficult for them become successful. Their unpredictability also makes them painful to watch, beating good teams one week and losing to bad teams – like the Cavs the next.

In your essay, a lack of consistency makes it harder to read and therefore more frustrating for the marker to go through. A frustrated marker leads to poor marks and them heading for the exits before your essay is done – just like Knicks’ fans at the moment.

There are many ways of writing the same thing and quite often there isn’t one “right way”. What is wrong, however, is to use multiple “ways” in the same essay. For example, ‘focused’ and ‘focussed’ are both correct spellings of the intended word, but you should pick one and use it throughout – don’t alternate spellings to try and mix things up!

In an essay there are many things that need to be consistent:

  • Tenses
  • Arguments
  • Spelling and Capitalisation
  • Formatting
  • Hyphenations
  • Abbreviations
  • Dates
  • Numbers

Quite a lot! We will go through some of these in detail in future posts but the most important thing to remember is keep things consistent when you write this week.

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Using Ctrl+F to proofread your writing

In a future post we will go into how you must be careful of the tools Microsoft Word provides for you to check your writing, but there is one tool that is extremely useful.

Ctrl+F (a.k.a. the Find Function).

Some mistakes and typos are so similar to the correct spelling that it is extremely difficult to pick them up. This is where Ctrl-F comes in.

1. Make a list of words that you could easily mix up or misspell. Below is a few examples from McGraw-Hill’s Proofreading Handbook by Laura Anderson p123:

  • accept ~ except
  • affect ~ effect
  • alter ~ altar
  • born ~ borne
  • their ~ there
  • prostate ~ prostrate
  • quiet ~ quite

2. Then go through your essay and check you have used the right word in the right situation by entering the words into the search box of the Find Function. Remember the Find Function only reveals instances when you wrote in exactly what you typed in the search box, though. So you need to go through the document searching all variations of each word that you may have used at different times (including completely incorrect variations that you know you write occasionally, in case the spellcheck function misses them).

Other things you should check:

  • Apostrophes – you shouldn’t be contracting words in an essay, like “shouldn’t”, but it’s easy to do by accident. Also, you can check your possessive apostrophes at the same time.
  • Consistent spelling – which is the topic for my next post…

Ctrl+F is very good way to pick up those nearly impossible to spot errors and after you have been writing for a while, you’ll know what words you commonly make mistakes with and so will have a good list to search.

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The importance of punctuation

Have a read:

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy–will you let me be yours? Gloria

Now read this one – same words, different punctuation:

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be? Yours, Gloria

Completely different meanings.

So make sure you proofread and check your punctuation carefully – you don’t want to accidentally say something you didn’t intend!

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The 3 major things to check when you proofread

So you’re reading slowly and deliberately, but what do you need to look out for?

Correct grammar is one of the 3 main things you should look out for.

Actually, a lot of things but they can be put into 3 main categories:

  1. Spelling
  2. Grammar
  3. Punctuation

1. Spelling

This category is rather straightforward and includes those accidental typos that come from typing (or writing) too fast. Here a spellcheck function, such as MS Word’s, can be useful – but you need to be careful. Sometimes words that are spelt correctly get nice red squiggly lines underneath them and sometimes words that are spelt incorrectly don’t. It is always much better to check with an actual dictionary such as dictionary.com.

Picking up typos and spelling mistakes can be the hardest mistakes to spot because we see what we expect to see. So you should check all the letters in a word carefully. In a future post we’ll look a one easy way to find spelling mistakes and typos in your essay.

2. Grammar

Or more specifically, in this case, syntax. In short, syntax is set the rules that govern the order of the words in a sentence. We are not going to go into these here but if you read through what you’ve written slowly and deliberately you’ll know if it sounds right.

Sometimes it is obvious your syntax is not quite right, however sometimes it is more subtle.

For example, take the first sentence of the paragraph above: “Or more specifically, in this case, syntax.” It could also be written, “Or in this case, more specifically, syntax.” Neither are wrong. The first one (and the one I used) is the best order because the fact that I am talking about a specific part of grammar is the more important piece of information conveyed in that sentence. This is to do with how the placement of words or phrases affect how much they stand out in a reader’s mind. What’s at the start or end is more memorable.

If you can’t tell between two possible word-orders, say them both out loud in the context of your essay. Choose the one that sounds like it says what you were intending to say.

It sounds hard but with practice and general reading you’ll be able to spot errors in your essay’s syntax.

3. Punctuation

To check you have punctuated properly you must read out loud. It also helps to exaggerate your pauses.

Read your sentences evenly, allow a normal pause at a comma, longer pause at a semi-colon or em-dash, and the longest pause at a full-stop, exclamation mark or question mark.

Do you finish a sentence gasping for breath? Add some punctuation or break it up into two (or more) sentences.

Does your sentence actually say what you meant it to say? Change where the punctuation is so it does say what what you want it to!

Next week I’ll look at how powerful punctuation is and how it can completely alter the meaning of a sentence.

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How to (proof)read your writing

Ok so we’ve got the big picture sorted – our essay as a whole does what it’s supposed to – but what about when we look closer?

When you read slowly and deliberately, does your essay make sense?

The next step is to do a slow, deliberate proofread – the aim of this is to make sure the details are correct.

The first detail is, does your essay make sense when it’s read? If it doesn’t, the marker has no choice but to give you low marks – how can they not when they don’t understand what you’ve written?!

So let’s get started

Some people prefer to print it off and read through a hard copy of their essay; I prefer to read it on the screen. It doesn’t really make a difference; though seeing your work in a slightly different form and environment, in hard copy as opposed to sitting and staring at your laptop screen (exactly where and how you wrote your essay), can make it easier to pick up your mistakes.

How to read

This is very important. Read slowly. Read deliberately. Read every single word.

When people usually read, they speed read. There are many different ways of speed reading and some of the techniques are identifying words without focusing on each letter, not sounding out all words, not sub-vocalising some phrases, or spending less time on some phrases than others, and skimming small sections (from Wikipedia). In short, you are taking in the big picture and filling in the little details yourself.

Now this is fine when you are reading what someone else has written because you have never seen it before; but when it comes to your own work, if you speed read, you fill in the details with what you meant to say. The details of what you actually said might not be not quite what you intended. A comma out of place can be a very dangerous thing – but that’s for another post.

So you need to read slowly and deliberately, and the best way to do this is to read out loud. Read and sound out every single word; pause deliberately at the commas, semi-colons, and full-stops.

Does what you are reading out loud make sense?

Next week we’ll go over what else you need to look for when you do your slow and deliberate (proof)read of your essay.

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