Academic Writing


The sentence and the full stop

The full stop is the most important punctuation mark. It shows the end of the sentence. The English language also uses capital letters at the beginning of sentences.

For example:

The first schools in what is now British Columbia were established by the Hudson's Bay Company in about 1853 on Vancouver Island. The present public school system originated with the Public School Act of 1872. Education is free and compulsory for children ages 7 to 15. Schools are funded by the provincial government and local property taxes. The province's 75 school districts are administered by locally elected boards.

Try this exercise: Exercise 1

The comma

The comma is the most important punctuation mark after the full stop. Its main use is for separating parts of sentences. Commas function in five main ways:

1. Before or after adverbial clauses and groups.

2. Before various connectives to join two independent clauses.

3. To separate some non-defining phrases from the rest of the sentence.

4. To separate words, groups and clauses in a series.

5. To separate adjectives that separately modify the same noun.

1. Before or after adverbial clauses and phrases

For example:

Recently, the number of service enterprises in wealthier free-market economies has grown rapidly.
Subsequently, the aircraft underwent numerous design changes before it was incorporated into the Type 4 jet aircraft.
To visit his brother, he drove through the night.
After dinner, he walked around the town.
Although it might seem highly unlikelythere are considerable similarities between the male and female body.
Similar feelings influenced middle-class shareholders and directorstoo.
When the activity of our kidneys is considereda bed-time drink does not waken us by filling our bladders during the night.
Some businesses only seek to earn enough to cover their operating costshowever.
Because stocks are generally negotiablestockholders have the right to assign or transfer their shares to another individual.
After the warthe United States Army occupied Japan and ordered the dismantling of Mitsubishi and other Japanese conglomerates.
If we work at night and sleep during the daytimewe have difficulty in adjusting our habits.
The patient's perception of his environment and his response to it is likely to be grossly reduced, since he might be unconscious or paralysed, for example.

2. Before various connectives to join two independent clauses

(and, but, or, so, nor, for, yet)

For example:

What we require is a National Emergency Government, but no two men I meet can agree how this can be formed.
The house badly needed painting, and the roof needed repairing.
Lord Knollys was not particularly pleased with these proposals, nor were other members of the Cabinet.
A loose stretch would wrinkle too easily with successive washes, or might even wrinkle on a damp day.
There was no Canadian Consulate in Paris at that time, so we had to go to the American Consulate for ours.
It was clearly not an all-party government, yet it was something more than a mere Conservative front.
These experiments led to theories about how development was controlled in terms of cell and tissue properties, but it was very difficult to link these theories with gene action.
The condition of the Liberals was far more serious than that of Labour, for the Liberal party was beginning to lose its sense of identity and purpose.

3. To separate certain phrases from the rest of the sentence

For example:

Malariaonce a widespread disease, is under control.
Day-to-day television, in its regularity and its availability, seems regulated by repetition and modulated by acceptable difference.
Mr Clinton, the President, said that he would give his full support to the proposal.
The Conservatives, who had gained more votes than Labour in the 1929 general election, were only the second largest party.
The chairman, getting to his feetbegan to describe his plans.
The opposition parties, however, were unwilling to accept any programme of economies which did not involve a cut in the standard rate of benefit.
A nap after lunch, on the other hand, will help you to feel less tired on the evening.
In the United States, for example, many people buy and sell goods and services as their primary occupations.
The prestige of the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, gave it an influence far greater than its mere numbers would have warranted.
Some of the top clubs, who had never liked the system, were worried about the growing tendency of the very best professionals to leave the country to play in Italy and elsewhere.

4. To separate words, phrases and clauses in a series

For example:

Many U.S. firms attempt to tap emerging markets by pursuing business in ChinaIndiaLatin Americaand Russia and other Eastern European countries.
Life-support machines are no different in principle from medicinessurgeryor other treatment.
A policeman has to be able to work at night, at weekends and on holidays.
The industrial power generatorelectronicsand appliance manufacturer Westinghouse Electric Corporation purchased media production company CBS Inc.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries manufactures a large variety of industrial products and machineryincluding shipssteel productspower plantstransportation systems, printing presses, aircraftguided missilestorpedoesand air-conditioning and refrigeration systems.

5. To separate adjectives that separately modify the same noun.

For example:

Critics praise the novel's unaffected, unadorned style.
It was conceived of by all those who participated in it as a temporaryemergency government.
He walked with long, slow, steadydeliberate strides.

Common mistakes

A comma cannot separate subject from predicate. The following sentences are not possible:

*A man of his great abilities, would always be successful.
*The number of service enterprises in wealthier free-market economies, has grown rapidly.
*Only occupants of the deep oceans or the darkest recesses of caves, will escape such rhythmic influences.
*Experience indicates that, these rhythms do not result wholly from our life-style.

A comma cannot be used to join grammatically separate sentences. The following sentences are not possible:

*London is a very cosmopolitan city, there are people from many culture living there.
*Learning a new language is like learning to swim, it takes a lot of practice.
*Students in Higher Education face many problems, for example, they have to cope with a new culture.

Try this exercise: Exercise 2

The apostrophe

The apostrophe has two main functions in English, but only one in academic writing. It is used mainly to show possession or relationship. It is also used in informal writing to show contraction or letters left out.

Possession or relationship

The apostrophe precedes the 's' in singular words and plurals that do not end in 's'. It follows the 's' in plurals that end in 's'. The apostrophe is not used with the possessive pronouns 'hers', 'yours', 'theirs' and 'its'.

For example:

The province's 75 school districts are administered by locally elected boards.
Modern estimates of England's total population vary between 1 and 3 million.
Two years earlier, The Economist had described gambling, as Britain's second biggest industry.
The annual per capita consumption of sugar, between the Queen's accession and 1860, rose to 54 lb. in 1870-99 and 85 lb. in 1900-10.
Newly married, neatly permed and wearing the very latest in expensive Western wedding garb, they head for the groom's sleek sports car under a hail of rice.
By then Leonardo's expertise with paint brush and palette, pen and pencil was already well advanced.
In contrast to the all-inclusiveness of other countries' socialised medical services, 40m Americans have no coverage at all.
The intention of this new alliance is to make the fight against the administration's policy on cryptography a populist issue and to derail potentially threatening legislation.
Hemp's environmental credentials are indisputable.
The third and main reason is the process of extracting fibre from the plant's stem.
The weather's unpredictability makes this risky - farmers can easily lose their whole crop.

Common mistakes

An apostrophe cannot be used to make plurals. The following - from the University of Hertfordshire - are not possible:


Try this exercise: Exercise 3


Quotation marks

In academic writing, quotation marks are used to show that you are quoting directly from another author's work. The quotation marks should enclose the actual words of the author and all bibliographical information must be given.

For example:

Hillocks (1986) similarly reviews dozens of research findings. He writes, "The available research suggests that teaching by written comment on compositions is generally ineffective(p. 167).
For example, McCawley stated in 1968, "... a full account of English syntax requires a fairly full account of semantics to just as great an extent as the converse is true(p. 161).
Hatch (1978, p. 104) wonders whether a more accurate portrayal might be that the learner "learns how to do conversation, how to interact verbally and out of this interaction syntactic structures are developed.

Note the punctuation before the quotation marks:

When a reporting verb is used to introduce the quotation, a comma is used.

He stated, "The 'placebo effect,' ... disappeared when behaviours were studied in this manner(Smith, 1982, p. 276), but he did not clarify which behaviours were studied.

When the quotation is integrated into the structure of your sentence, no punctuation is used.

Richterich and Chancerel (1980, p. 5) maintain that "assessment should be an integral part of the learning material.

When the quotation is independent of the structure of the main sentence, a colon is used.

Miele (1993, p. 276) found the following: "The placebo effect ... disappeared when behaviors were studied in this manner.
Holmes & Stubbe (2003) noted the following:
Humour typically constructs participants as equals, emphasising what they have in common and playing down power differences.

Try this exercise: Exercise 6


Colons are used to add extra information after a clause. This can be divided into three main categories.

1. Lists

A colon can introduce a list.

We need three kinds of support: economic, moral and political.
The Labour government found itself under pressure from three directions: from the left wing, from the TUC, and from Sir Oswald Mosley and his supporters.

2. Explanations

A colon can be used before an explanation.

We decided not to go on holiday: we had too little money.
It was conceived of by all those who participated in it as a temporary, emergency government, formed for a single limited purpose: to balance the budget through drastic economies and increases in taxation.
It was something very rarely seen in Britain, or in other democracies: an emergency government.

3. Quotations

A colon is used before a quotation when the quotation is independent of the structure of the main sentence.

Miele (1993, p. 276) found the following: " The placebo effect ... disappeared when behaviors were studied in this manner."


Do not use a colon directly after a verb or a preposition that introduces the list, explanation or quotation.

Try this exercise: Exercise 7


Semi-Colons have two main uses in academic writing.

1. To separate closely-related sentences

A semi-colon can be used to separate two sentences which could be written as independent sentences but are very closely related in meaning.

A thorough and detailed biography of Arthur Henderson is also badly needed; the recent short studies by F. M. Leventhal and Chris Wrigley add little in so far as the events of 1931 are concerned.
Clearly, as the concentration of P rises, so will the proportion of enzyme molecules to which P is bound; hence the rate of conversion of S to A, and thence to P, will fall.

In both cases a full stop would be acceptable. A comma would not.

2. Complicated Lists

A semi-colon can also be used to separate items in lists, especially if the items are long and complicated and already contain commas.

Labour was the largest party with 288 MPs; the Conservatives, who had gained more votes than Labour in the 1929 general election, were, nevertheless, only the second largest party with, by 1931, 262 MPs; and the Liberals had fifty-nine MPs.
Latin literature continued to be copied by Christian aristocrats; classical learning survived in the teaching available, now in episcopal households rather than public schools; Roman art continued to adorn the walls of churches and the sides of sarcophagi.

Capital letters

Capital letters have two main uses in English: they are used at the beginning of sentences and for proper names.

1. At the beginning of a sentence

If football was a business, it was a very peculiar one. Clubs did not compete with one another to attract larger crowds by reducing their prices. Nor did they make any serious efforts to derive income from a huge fixed asset, which was used for only a few hours a week.

2. Proper names

Personal names: John, Ms Smith, Dr Brown, Mr Gates, Elizabeth,

Titles: Mr, Ms, Dr, Colonel, Professor, President, Prime Minister, Judge

Geographical names: Argentinian, Europe, China, Mount Everest, Lake Michigan Skye, Borneo, London, Bangkok, the River Thames, the Pacific Ocean, the Panama Canal, Baker Street, Cambridge Road, Raffles Hotel, St George's Hall

Company/Organisation names: Shell, Woolworths, Microsoft, Boots, World Trade Organisation, World Health Organisation, Federal Trade Commission, British Broadcasting Corporation

University/School names: Oxford University, University of Hertfordshire, Royal College of Music

Religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam

Days, months, festivals - but not seasons: Monday, July, Christmas, summer, winter

Magazines & Journals: Newsweek, Vogue, The Times, New Scientist, TESOL Quarterly

Languages: English, Hindi

Nationalities: English, French, Spanish, Japanese, American

Try these exercises: Exercises 4 & 5

Dashes and hyphens

If you are writing for publication, the publisher may have rules about the use of dashes and hyphen. Some people, however, consider them to be informal.

There are three main types of hyphens or dashes, distinguished by their length: hyphen (-), en dash (–), and em dash (—).

1. The hyphen (‐) is usually used to join words and to separate syllables of a single word, such as tie-in, toll-free call, two-thirds.

For example:

It was this government which ruled Britain until May 1940, when yet another coalition, led by Churchill—a genuine all-party coalition—governed Britain until 1945, when there was a return to party politics and alternating governments.

2. The en dash connects things that are related to each other by distance or time, e.g. May–September, pages 147–48, 40–50 people, 2–3 weeks.

For example:

Marquand gives us perhaps as much detail about the events of AugustOctober 1931 as we are ever likely to need.

3. The em dash can be used in place of commas to separate various non-defining phrases from the rest of the sentence:

For example:

Malariaonce a widespread diseaseis under control.
Mr Clintonthe President—said that he would give his full support to the proposal.

or in place of a colon:

We need three kinds of supporteconomic, moral and political.

For example:

It was this government which ruled Britain until May 1940, when yet another coalition, led by Churchilla genuine all-party coalitiongoverned Britain until 1945, when there was a return to party politics and alternating governments.

It's easy to insert these dashes using Microsoft Word on a PC. With a full keyboard with a numbers pad, you can click 'minus' for a hyphen, 'Ctrl-minus' for an en-dash and 'Alt-Ctrl-minus' for an em-dash.


Now do this exercise as a summary: Exercise 8