3 Grammar Mistakes To Avoid In Your Academic Writing
Since writing is an art, the student, as the artist, has the creative authority to break the rules. But in order to break the rules, you first have to know them. For international students who may be conversing in English regularly for the first time, learning the ins and outs of grammar might be tough. The way you’re asked to write may be different than the way your friends speak, leading to some very understandable mistakes that are easily correctable once you know what to look for. When you’re writing your college essays, here are three important grammar rules to look out for and avoid…
1. Passive Voice
The sentences you write in your essay should be active… but what does this mean? Grab a pen, look at your paper, and circle all the ‘to-be’ verbs. These include is, are, was, were, be, being, and been. These are what’s called passive verbs—they convey the same amount of information but do so in an awkward, cumbersome way. Here’s an example:
- Tom, being taller, was asked to grab the cup by Susan. VS.
- Susan asked Tom to grab the cup because he’s taller than she is.
Remember to start your sentences with what’s happening. What’s the point of the sentence? Susan asked Tom to grab a cup. The point of the sentence isn’t that Tom is tall; the point is that he grabbed a cup for Susan. After you deliver the point of the sentence, then you can further explain it: the reason he did this is because he’s tall. Choosing the active verb allows the writer to be concise and use specific verb language to show what they mean. However, after I learned this rule, I got a bit paranoid, and I began correcting myself before I really start writing. This can actually be counterintuitive, because editing while you’re writing will overcomplicate the process. Remember, look for your mistakes after you’ve finished your first draft. It’ll be easier to catch your mistakes on the second read through, instead of trying to do everything at once. Plus, you can use passive voice every once in a while—the goal is just to be concise as much as possible.
2. First Person
“First person” refers to the use of I and me in your paper—which is a big “no-no” in traditional academic writing. A college essay is the student’s argument on a subject. The entire paper is the student’s opinion, so the reader already knows that it’s “you” writing. Specifying that it’s your viewpoint with phrases like “I think” or “I believe” not only would make the paper repetitive, and would also force more focus on the writer rather than on the topic. The good news is that this is a really easy fix. Go through your paper and simply cut out any mention of the words “I, me, our, us, you, me, my” or anything else that specifies who is writing the paper. This will put your paper into “third person”—which is a more impersonal and academic tone, and is much more appropriate for essay writing.
3. General Vocabulary
Remember, the point of your writing is to write clearly and concisely for your audience. If the language is too general, the reader won’t know what you’re writing about. Never use the word things or some. If you’re discussing numbers, for example, give the specific number or indicate that it’s an estimate. A “vast amount” does not explain anything to the reader, and you can’t keep them guessing. You may know exactly what you’re talking about, and you may be sure your professor will, too. However, write your papers as if the audience has no idea what you’re writing about. This will help you remember to clarify things more thoroughly. Following step 1 of this blog post and avoiding passive voice is another way to ensure your language is clear. Using active verbs allows the writer to be more specific in their essays. Plus, whenever you have the urge to write those pesky words like “things” or “stuff” simply replace them with the actual subject you’re talking about. It may be a little harder than just being general, but it’s sure to get you a better grade. Revision allows the author to act as a detective. Scroll through the pages of the essay and mark the grammar. Read the paper out loud to a patient bystander. You can usually catch your own mistakes. Plus, remember that once you’ve learned these rules of grammar, it’s okay to break them a bit to more appropriately meet the expectations of your specific assignments. Perhaps your professor wants you to write a more “reflective” essay where first person is more appropriate. Perhaps passive voice actually more accurately gets you point across. These tips are just ways to keep yourself honest, so don’t be paranoid! The more you write, the more comfortable you’ll become with writing in the way that suits you best. Writing is the painting of the voice. ~Voltaire