How to write a paper

5 Grammar Tips to Immediately Improve Your Writing

I get it, grammar can seem really, really boring. Nitpicking the English language can numb your mind and lull you to sleep. Go ahead and let out that big yawn. Ahhhh… Now we have that out of the way, I implore you to keep reading.

Regardless of what you study or where you work, you need to sound intelligent and professional in your writing. If you fail to correct grammar mistakes in your documents, you undermine your credibility. Sloppy writing reflects poorly on you as a student, employee, or potential new hire, so it’s more than worth the time to edit your work and polish up your documents.

In a previous post, I touched on the top three grammar errors I catch in my students’ writing: 1) poor comma use, 2) noun-pronoun agreement, and 3) that vs. which. After grading another round of final papers, I’ve found that these three errors still top the list, but they’re not the only ones. Below, I’ve highlighted five more grammar, spelling, and style issues to watch for, and keep out of, your writing:


Shifts in person. This grammar goof occurs when the person unnecessarily shifts within a sentence or paragraph (first to second, second to third, etc.). For example, the person shifts from third to second in the following sentence: “The reader should pay attention so you don’t miss any details.” This mistake is especially common in stream-of-consciousness writing, so watch out for it if you tend to write in this manner.

Homonyms. Do you know when to use “compliment or complement,” “desert or dessert,” or “then or than”? If you have trouble distinguishing among the uses of these words, then you need to brush up on your homonyms. “Homonyms are words that sound the same but have different meanings and spellings,” as defined by Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. They are common grammar errors that stick out to readers but can be easy to fix if you edit closely for spelling. Check out the OWL page for a list of frequently confused words.

Redundancy. This error occurs when you say the same thing more than once. For example, phrases such as “advance preview,” “armed gunman,” and “combine together” are redundant. One word in the phrase already incorporates the other word into its meaning, so you could simply say “preview,” “gunman,” or “combine.” Redundant phrases can be tough to catch (my advisor corrected the phrase “exact same” in my master’s thesis proposal), but you’ll sound more intelligent without them. For examples of redundancy, check out the English Chick.

Capitalization. Believe it or not, you don’t get to decide when to capitalize certain words in professional documents. You can toss the rules of capitalization out the window when you do creative writing, but you need to pay attention to them in resumes, cover letters, business proposals, and other professional documents. I often catch this error in degree names. Unless you write out your exact degree name, such as a Bachelor of Science in Biology, then you should use lower case for these words when describing your degree, such as a bachelor’s degree in biology.

Repetitious first words of sentences. OK, I must admit, this is more of a pet peeve than an actual error, but you can greatly improve your writing if you avoid this style issue. Consider the following paragraph:

I have the necessary skills for this position. I have held two internships in my field. I can apply the skills I learned in these internships to this job. I believe I am a good fit for this position.

I call these “I sentences,” since “I” is used to start multiple, consecutive sentences when writing in first person, but this style issue can also happen with “the,” “it,” or any other word. Writing this way sounds juvenile. As a general rule, try not to use the same word to start three or more consecutive sentences. Here’s a quick fix to the previous paragraph:

I have the necessary skills for this position. In my field, I have held two internships and can apply the skills I learned in these internships to this job. Therefore, I believe I am a good fit for this position.

Mistakes happen. We all make them. As a student, it’s your job to minimize them so you sound intelligent and professional.

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