In my time as the token English major of my friend group, I’ve edited many an academic paper, which is surprisingly good practice for my own writing. There are a few tricky grammar points that are tough for student writers to remember—mostly issues of punctuation and wording—but that make a huge difference in essays. Try using these tips while editing your paper and you’ll notice how professional it sounds with just a few small changes (and remember to always read your paper aloud while editing)!
Never split an infinitive
Even though we find ourselves splitting infinitives naturally when we speak, it’s technically incorrect grammar for an academic paper. This is a subtle change, but your professor may notice an improvement in your style if you rearrange just a few words. For example:
Before: “She was disappointed to never have to wash the dishes again.”
After: “She was disappointed never to have to wash the dishes again.”
The Hyphen vs. Dash Debate
Although they look almost identical, hyphens and dashes serve very different purposes, and to the trained eye, improper use of either can be cringe-worthy. Hyphens are typed with a single tap on the keyboard and are used to connect two ideas, usually when forming an adjective. They also connect numbers when written out.
Example: “In order to binge-watch all six seasons of Glee, I had to stay up for one hundred and twenty-one hours.”
Dashes, though, are formatted with two hyphens (or inserted as a symbol on Google Docs—ugh) and are used as punctuation, often to replace colons or parenthesis, or to represent an interruption in speech.
Example: “Kenyon’s new K-card access policy is not popular among students—its limitations present concerns of safety and convenience—but the administration has not been open to their feedback.”
Never end a sentence with a preposition
This is another habit of speech that many of us find normal, and in dialogue, it can sound natural. However, prepositions at the end of sentences have no place in an academic paper. If you’re writing a creative piece or dialogue, though, this rule can be relaxed to imitate the tone of casual speech.
Before: “That’s the trampoline the gymnast falls on.”
After: “That’s the trampoline on which the gymnast falls.”
I know, this sounds pretty stodgy. In your essays and research papers, though, it sets you apart as someone who cares about sounding as professional and polished as possible.
Watch your commas
Although commas are some of our most useful punctuation tools, they aren’t the magic bullets of your sentence. Many writers tend to overuse commas without realizing that they only have a few purposes in a paper. First, commas denote a natural pause in speech. This is where reading your paper out loud can be helpful: the pauses in your speech will stand out, and you’ll know that that’s where to put a comma. Commas also have a vital place in sentence structure. I won’t bore you with constructions and diagrams, but if you have a part of a sentence that can’t stand alone, it needs to be followed by a comma.
Example: “However smart he may be, I’m sure he can’t get a perfect score on Professor Greenwood’s final.”
You’ll also need a comma when joining independent clauses (parts of a sentence that can stand alone) with a conjunction (and, but, for, etc.).
Example: “I want to go the beach this spring break, but I’ll have to stay on campus to look after my amoeba research samples.”
Other uses of the comma, including contrasted ideas, adjective series, and lists like this one, come naturally when reading your writing aloud.
As Michael Scott says: “NO!”
Recognize a run-on
The other side of a comma-happy writer is one who doesn’t pause enough. Run-on sentences are the plague of collegiate literature, but they’re easy enough to fix with some practice. When in doubt, try to identify a single idea in a sentence, and add an element to modify it if necessary (separated by a comma in most cases). Another tool to check your run-ons is to comb them for redundancies. Many run-ons are caused by unnecessarily restating ideas or elements of your sentence. For example:
Before: “Old Kenyon is a building at Kenyon College it is a dorm building which has burned down in 1949.’
After: “Old Kenyon is a dorm building at Kenyon College. It burned down in 1949.”
Because this sentence contained independent ideas fused together without any punctuation, it needed to be separated. Two of the ideas were related, so they could be combined into one sentence.
The last tip to make your paper stand out is to convert some of your passive voice statements to active voice. The passive voice has a reputation for sounding academic, but it can also be uppity and awkward. Having a sentence with a deliberate verb in the active voice is a much clearer way of stating your point. Trust me, your professor will appreciate clarity over pomp in this case.
Before: “The Aztec Empire was conquered by the Spanish.”
After: “The Spanish conquered the Aztec Empire.” In my opinion, editing is probably the most vital part of your writing process. Even if you put off writing your paper until the night before, make sure you have some time set apart to go over it and check for errors, inconsistencies, and awkward phrasing. These tips only take a little while to implement, and they can mean the difference between a paper that sounds like it was written at 1:40 am and its more convincing version. Happy writing!