I don’t care if you’ve been at the top of your English class since sixth grade: every student, regardless of age or discipline, knows the struggle of trying to write a paper. We’ve all been there. And a big part of that struggle is grammar, style, and usage. Especially when it comes to all-important term papers or that gen ed English class you loathe, writing papers with correct style and grammar is important. Occasionally, you’ll come along a professor who doesn’t care—or doesn’t even use correct grammar themselves—but most of the time, students need to be on top of grammar, punctuation, style, citations, and all the other little things that seem impossible to keep track of.
If you struggle with common grammar and usage, or if your papers always come back to you with lots of red marks and corrections, you should do yourself a favor and learn these rules now. And not just because it’ll help you do better on your English papers; out in the real world, these mistakes can really cost you. (Do you think your boss will be happy if you send an email to an important person with misspellings and other errors? No. No, they will not be happy.)
The most common grammar mistakes
- A lot: It’s two words. (But there are so many, countless, tons, myriad, plenty, numerous, innumerable, more descriptive words you could use instead of “a lot”!).
- Commas: In short, use them wisely. I’ve read so many papers of classmates who put, too, many, commas, in, to, their, writing. A super basic rule of thumb might be “when in doubt, leave it out.” But! There are tons of comma rules out there that are worth learning: Don’t use a comma between nouns and verbs. Do use a comma to set off long-form dates (July 4, 2017 is correct). But don’t use a comma for month and year (July 2017 is correct). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s okay if you don’t learn all the comma rules perfectly, but you should check out this easy guide to using commas whenever you’re unsure.
- Its/it’s: “Its” means possession/ownership. “It’s” is a contraction of “it is.” For example, “The campus has its own special vibe. It’s a place for doers and dreamers to come together.” (By the way, doesn’t that sound like every college brochure ever?!)
- Semicolons: I used to swear these were the greatest things ever—until I discovered the many ways you can mess up grammatically using them. Semicolons are often poetically described as the punctuation equivalent of “I could’ve stopped here, but I decided not to.” They basically work in two ways: First, they link related sentences and let you skip using conjunctions like “and” or “but.” So you could say, “We’re going to the beach; it’s the perfect day for it.” Or you could say, “We’re going to the beach, and it’s the perfect day for it.” However, if you’re unsure about how to use the semicolon, it’s often safer to just start a new sentence. Second, semicolons separate items within a series within another series. For example, you would write, “The students’ spring break choices were Cancun, Mexico; Washington, DC; and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.” But simple sentences don’t need a semicolon; for example, “He brought the ice cream, I brought the sprinkles, and Jenny brought the chocolate sauce.”
- Subject-verb agreement: I know this one sounds very elementary school-ish, but it’s a common grammar mistake even among college students. And subject-verb agreement can get especially tricky if you have a crazy-long sentence with lots of clauses. In any case, double-check to make sure your verb truly matches whatever it’s actually talking about, not just the word it comes right after.
- There/they’re/their: “There” is a place. “They’re” is the contraction of “they are.” And “their” means possession/ownership. For example, “They’re riding their bikes over there."
- Your/you’re: “Your” means possession/ownership; “you’re” is a contraction of “you are.” For example, “You’re going to use up all of your meal credits if you go to the dining hall five times a day.”
More simple style and usage tips to keep in mind for your papers
- Pay attention to what style you’re supposed to use for citations in your papers. MLA, APA, and Turabian are all common, and the style will often vary with the subject area.
- Make sure you cite enough and appropriately. This isn’t just about giving credit where it’s due; it’s about protecting yourself from getting into trouble with plagiarism. Plus, it serves as a guide for readers to find more information should they want to.
- Remember that titles of full-length books, magazines, and plays are italicized. However, titles of songs, essays, and short stories included in larger works are put in “quotation marks.”
- Proofread, proofread, proofread! Very often, we can skip over the same grammar or usage mistake several times in our own writing. I just reread something of mine this week that I wrote almost two years ago—something I’ve read through countless times since—and found a mistake that I hadn’t caught in all those times. You should also give yourself some time away from whatever you’re writing and come back to it for editing. When you’re writing an essay, try to finish a day or two before the deadline. Then leave it alone for at least an hour (ideally a whole day) and read back through it after that breather so you’ll have new eyes. Hopefully you’ll catch anything you didn’t see before.
Other places and people that can help with your writing
- First things first: if you are truly struggling, please do not turn to a professional essay writing service. It won't help strengthen your writing and grammar skills at all, plus you could get in major trouble.
- The Purdue OWL Writing Lab is awesome for general writing and grammar help for students, whether you’re in college or high school (or older!).
- Take advantage of your school’s tutoring and/or writing centers. It should be free for you to go, but also remember if you’re in college, you’re essentially paying for that stuff anyway with your tuition and fees—so you might as well get your money’s worth and visit.
- Have someone else read your writing. A friend, sibling, parent, mentor—any set of fresh eyes can be helpful. Even if they’re not familiar with the subject material, they can at least look at it for grammar issues and overall tone.
- The best, quickest, and easiest way to learn how to write better? Read good writing! There’s so much amazing writing online (look for respected websites) and a bajillion books out there to read. The more you read, the better your writing will be. Also, reading is great. Fact.
If you use this grammar cheat sheet, you’ll impress everyone who reads your school essays and other writing from now on! This list is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a good place to start for the most common paper-writing and grammar errors students face.
Does this grammar cheat sheet have what you’re looking for? What grammar, style, and usage things do you struggle with in your writing? Or if this stuff comes easy to you (lucky!), are there any tips for students we should add? Follow us on social media and tag us @CollegeXpress!