Resources

Words Often Confused

affect, effect-Affect is a verb meaning to influence (My lack of sleep didn't affect my performance on the test) or to touch the emotions (We were deeply affected by the lawyer's plea for mercy). In psychology, there's also a meaning of affect as a noun, but it's so specialized that most people will never use it in their entire lives. Effect is usually a noun, meaning result (The effect of these changes was an increase in productivity). Effect can also be used as a verb, meaning to cause (The environmental group hoped to effect a lasting change).
all right, alright-Although usage is gradually changing, at this time alright isn't generally accepted, especially in academic writing. All right is still the accepted form.
amount, number-Use amount before items that cannot be counted: amount of rain, amount of time, etc. Use number before items that can be counted: number of people, number of years, etc.
cite, site, sight-Cite means refer to (Cite your sources using MLA format). Site means location (The site of the World Trade Center tragedy is now known as Ground Zero). Sight can mean to see (as in We finally sighted the lights of the city in the distance) or it can mean a view (as in The Grand Canyon is an awe-inspiring sight).
compliment, complement-Compliment is a noun meaning words of praise (She paid me a very nice compliment) or a verb meaning to praise (It's rare for him to compliment students that way). Complement is almost always a verb meaning to complete or to balance (His personality complements hers perfectly). Compliment means full of praise (a complimentary statement) or provided free of charge (complimentary tickets), while complementary means completing or balancing (The color schemes for their outfits are complementary). To keep the two straight, remember that complement is related to the wordcomplete.
desert, dessert-As a noun, desert refers a dry, barren land (Few people could stand to live in the desert), or occasionally to what is deserved (He got his just deserts). As a verb, desert means to leave (He decided to desert his wife and children). Dessert refers to something sweet eaten after the main portion of the meal (We had chocolate ice cream for dessert).
everyday, every day-Everyday means ordinary or routine (I wore my everyday clothes to the play). Every day means each day (I try to do my homework every day instead of putting things off until just before exams).
fewer, less-Fewer should be used before nouns referring to things that can be counted (fewer books, fewer students, etc.). Less should be used before nouns referring to things that can't be counted (less water) or before nouns expressing abstract ideas (less patriotism).
imply, infer-Imply means to insinuate or hint at (What he writes implies that he thinks they were drunk at the time). Infer meansto draw a conclusion based on evidence-- the sort of thing we often mean by reading between the lines (After reading his report, I can infer that he wasn't really an eyewitness). In general, speakers and and writers imply, while listeners and readers infer.
its, it's-Its indicates possession (The jury rendered its verdict). It's means it is (It's awfully cold outside today). If you can't substitute it is and have the sentence still make sense, then you want its, not it's.
lay, lie-Although both words have other meanings, people confuse them only when the meaning is to rest or recline or to put or place. If you mean to rest or recline, you should use lie in the present tense (I've decided to let it lie there for awhile), lay in the past tense (Last night I just lay in bed without being able to sleep), and lain in the past participle-that is, with words like has orhad (The dog had lain in that same spot every evening for the past month). If you mean to put or place, you should use lay in the present tense (Lay those papers on my desk) and laid in both the past (I can't remember where I laid my wallet) and the past participle (I had laid the books over in the corner, but they're not there now).
lead, led-As a noun, lead rhymes with said and refers to metal (The table was so heavy that it seemed to be made of lead). As a verb, lead rhymes with need and means to guide (He will lead the team to victory). Led (which also rhymes with said) is the past tense form of the verb lead (Last year she led them to the state championship).
medal, metal, mettle-Metal is the material often mined from the earth (Gold is a highly valuable metal). A medal is an object made by humans, usually intended to honor someone (He won a silver medal in the Olympics). Mettle is a person's inner strength (The difficult experience will test their mettle).
principal, principle-Principles are rules, standards, or beliefs (These are the principles that guide my behavior). Principal, as a noun, can mean chief officer (a middle school principal) or monetary capital (You should try to pay off the principal of the loan). As a verb, it means primary (Outside Wisconsin, the principal thing people know about Green Bay is that it's the home of a football team called the Packers).
real, really-If you mean very, use really, not real (She did a really good job). And to assure that words like really and very retain their meaning, use them sparingly.
stationary, stationery-Stationary means standing still (Don't be a stationary target). Stationery means writing paper and envelopes (We need to order more departmental stationery). To remember the spelling of the one referring to writing paper, it may help to know that publishers, booksellers, and sellers of writing paper were once called stationers.
their, there, they're-Their is the possessive form of they (They must turn in their research papers next week). There refers to location (I have lived there for over ten years). They're means they are (They're all waiting for us).
who, whom-Who is the subject or subject complement in a clause (The teacher was Ramon Torres, who I believe is the best faculty member in the school-who is the subject of is the best faculty member in the school). Whom is an object (Amy Martin, whom I first met in 1999, is applying for a job here-whom is the object in whom I first met in 1999).
whose, who's-Whose indicates possession (Whose house was this in 1985?). Who's means who is (Who's going to do it if you won't?).
your, you're-Your indicates possession (Is that your coat?). You're means you are (You're going to waste a lot of money that way).
 

I/me, he/him, she/her (Pronoun Case)

If you don't know whether it should be she and I or her and me, one simple way to determine the answer is to take each item separately, mentally crossing out the other item. For instance, suppose the sentence is this:
  • They were looking for she/her and I/me.
Would you write They were looking for she or They were looking for her?
Would you write They were looking for I or They were looking for me?
The answers to those questions tell you that it should be
  • They were looking for her and me.
On the other hand, supposed this is the sentence:
  • She/Her and I/me must present our report to the class tomorrow.
Would you write She must present a report or "Her must present a report?
Would you write I must present a report" or Me must present a report?
The answers to those questions tell you that it should be 
  • She and I must present our report to the class tomorrow.
You can use this method - considering each noun or pronoun separately - to determine the correct response for any I/me, she/her, he/him, or they/them question.
 

Their, His or Her, etc. (Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement)

  1. Although usage is changing, indefinite pronouns such as each, everybody, anyone, etc., still generally take singular pronouns in academic writing.
    • Everybody is responsible for his or her own decisions. (not "their own decisions")
    • Anyone who never does homework is in danger of failing his or her classes. (not "their classes")
  2. References to "a student," "the reader," etc., also generally take singular pronouns in academic writing.
    • If the guitarist wants to achieve an authentic modal sound on this song, he or she should put the guitar in DADGAD tuning. (not "they should")
  3. But perhaps the wiser approach, in most cases, is to use plural forms and "they " (or occasionally "we").
    • All people are responsible for their own decisions.
    • We are all responsible for our own decisions.
    • Students who never do homework are in danger of failing all their classes.
    • Guitarists who want to achieve an authentic modal sound on this song should put the guitar in DADGAD tuning.
  4. If two items are joined by or, the pronoun following them agrees with the nearer of the two items.
    • Either Tom or Larry will lose his job because of this.
  5. If a collective group does something as a unit, use a singular pronoun. If the group members do things separately, use a plural pronoun.
    • The jury will announce its verdict. (unified on the verdict)
    • Because they are not sequestered, the jury members can go to their homes at night. (different home for each member)
 

Comma Splices (Run-Ons) and Fused Sentences

The term comma splice refers to the use of just a comma to join two independent clauses (that is, two groups of words that could each stand alone as a complete sentence). Here's an example:
  • He didn't study at all for the test, he got a B+ on it.
He didn't study at all for the test could stand alone as a complete sentence, and so could he got a B+ on it. The commasplices together two groups of words which should be separated by something more emphatic than just a comma--thus the termcomma splice.
Some English teachers (and some other people) use the term run-on sentence rather than comma splice to describe passages such as He didn't study at all for the test, he got a B+ on it, because the sentence runs on rather than stopping after test. But on this web page we'll employ the more commonly used term: comma splice.
The sentence above could be fixed any of several ways:
  1. By adding a conjunction such as and, but, or, etc., with a comma, before the conjunction.
    • He didn't study at all for the test, but he got a B+ on it.
  2. By replacing the comma with a period.
    • He didn't study at all for the test. He still got a B+ on it.
  3. By replacing the comma with a semicolon.
    • He didn't study at all for the test; he got a B+ on it anyway.
  4. By replacing the comma with a semicolon and also adding a conjunctive adverb such as however, therefore, ornevertheless.
    • He didn't study at all for the test; nevertheless, he got a B+ on it.
  5. By changing the sentence structure, for example by beginning the sentence differently.
    • Although he didn't study at all for the test, he still got a B+ on it.
Probably the most common source of comma splices in college students' papers is difficulty handling conjunctive adverbs in general and the word however in particular. The basic rule is this: if a conjunctive adverb joins two independent clauses (in other words, if the words before the conjunctive adverb could stand alone as a complete sentence, and so could the words after the conjunctive adverb), then there should be either a semicolon or a period (either one is correct) before the conjunctive adverb, and a comma after it. Here are examples:
  • Some of us wanted to go to an expensive French restaurant; however, we ended up just going out for barbecue.
  • Some of us wanted to go to an expensive French restaurant. However, we ended up just going out for barbecue.
A comma before however in the above examples, rather than a semicolon or period, would create a comma splice.
If, however, the conjunctive adverb comes in the middle of a single independent clause (in other words, if the words on one side or the other couldn't stand alone as a complete sentence), then there should be commas before and after the conjunctive adverb. The sentence you just read is an example:
  • If, however, the conjunctive adverb comes in the middle of a single independent clause, then there should be commas before and after the conjunctive adverb.
In the above sentence, it would be incorrect to put a semicolon or period before the however.
Another frequent source of comma splices is the word then when that word joins two independent clauses. For example, the following is a comma splice:
  • Mary won her first six matches in a row, then she lost the next five in a row.
The above sentence could be fixed by putting a period or semicolon before then, but simpler solutions would be either to add a conjunction before then (to make the sentence into a compound sentence) or to eliminate the word she immediately after then (so that then is no longer joining two independent clauses):
  • Mary won her first six matches in a row, but then she lost the next five in a row.
  • Mary won her first six matches in a row but then lost the next five in a row.
Either of these revisions is grammatically correct.
The term fused sentences refers to joining two complete sentences without any punctuation at all. In other words, fused sentences are a comma splice without the comma. Here's the example from earlier, reworked as fused sentences:
  • He didn't study at all for the test he got a B+ on it.
Fused sentences are much rarer than comma splices in college students' writing, and most teachers consider fused sentences to be much more serious types of errors. The ways of fixing fused sentences, however, are essentially the same as those for fixing comma splices: adding a conjunction with a comma before it, or adding a period or semicolon, or rewording the sentence.
 

Sentence Fragments

Sentence fragments are just what their name suggests: wordings which are only part of a sentence but which are written as if they were a complete sentence, with a capitalized word at the start and a period, question mark, or exclamation point at the end.
Sentence fragments do have legitimate uses. We use them in everyday conversation quite frequently, as for example when a student replies A little after being asked, Did you study for the test? Advertisements in newspapers and magazines often use sentence fragments. And even in essays for general readers, fragments can sometimes be helpful in creating a relaxed or playful tone, as in the following passage, which has the sentence fragment in bold:
  • Of course, new students quickly float up or down to their natural rung on any high school's social ladder, and I was no exception. Unfortunately, my natural rung wasn't very high. I may have left my identity behind in Muncie, but my personality and appearance had come to Hillsdale with me. Still a nerd.
But in most writing you'll do for college classes, sentence fragments are likely to be inappropriate. In fact, most of your professors probably consider sentence fragments to be rather serious errors in their students' writing. So let's take a look at how sentence fragments occur and how to eliminate them when they're inappropriate.
Sometimes the sentence fragment may lack either a complete subject or a complete predicate, as in the following examples, in which the bolded materials are sentence fragments:
  • The letters to the editor section is often full of letters about the Packers. Usually praising Brett Favre to the skies or else giving angry advice about how the team should be coached.
  • The Academy Award for Best Picture went to Million Dollar Baby. The story of a young woman determined to succeed as a boxer.
Sometimes the sentence fragment may contain a complete subject and complete predicate but is still not a complete sentence because it begins with a subordinating conjunction such as although or because, or by a relative pronoun such as who or that, as in the following examples:
  • The production received an excellent review from the local drama critic. Although the audience the night I saw it didn't seem to like it much.
  • I was always being compared with my brother. Who always got better grades, was better in sports, and was more popular than I.
In most cases, the simplest, most effective way to correct an unintentional sentence fragment is to connect it with the previous complete sentence by changing a period before the fragment to a comma and eliminating the capital letter at the start of the fragment:
  • The letters to the editor section is often full of letters about the Packers, usually praising Brett Favre to the skies or else giving angry advice about how the team should be coached.
  • The Academy Award for Best Picture went to Million Dollar Baby, the story of a young woman determined to succeed as a boxer.
  • The production received an excellent review from the local drama critic, although the audience the night I saw it didn't seem to like it much.
  • I was always being compared with my brother, who always got better grades, was better in sports, and was more popular than I.
Of course, sentence fragments can be eliminated in other ways as well--for example, by rewording the fragment itself so that it becomes a complete sentence, rather than connecting it to the previous complete sentence. Here's an example:
  • The letters to the editor section is often full of letters about the Packers. Most of these letters either praise Brett Favre to the skies or else give angry advice about how the team should be coached.
But again, simply connecting the fragment to the previous sentence by use of a comma is usually the best solution.
 

Quoting Within an Essay

How Much/When

Quote sparingly, paraphrasing most of your information so that your voice as a writer come through. Below are two of the most common reasons for quoting:
  • The original wording of the quotation is so powerful that to change it would diminish its impact.
  • The quotation provides necessary authority and support for your idea.
 

How to Weave Quotations into Your Writing

Quotations cannot be simply dropped into an essay. Instead, they should be logically and smoothly integrated. Pay attention to the sentence or phrase that precedes the quotation and sets up expectations in readers' minds, as well as to ways you follow up the quotation, explaining its significance and linking it with your own subsequent sentences.
The following examples, taken from an essay analyzing if and why racism exists on college campuses, demonstrate weak integration. Ways to revise them follow. Examples follow MLA format.
Example A: Weak Integration:
  • Minorities may feel pressured to alter a way of life to which they have become accustomed. Moreover, the behavior, lifestyle, and values of minority students are likely to be substantially different from those of whites (Jones and Farrell 212).
(Note: in the example above, readers expect the quotation to be about altering the minorities' way of life. It is not. What relationship do you see between the quotation and the sentence that precedes it? The quotation tells why minorities may feel pressured, and the relationship would be clearer if the passage were revised as follows:)
  • Minorities may feel pressured to alter a way of life to which they have become accustomed because their behavior, lifestyle, and values . . . are likely to be substantially different from those of whites (Jones and Farrell 212).
Example B: Weak Integration:
  • The administration at the University of Missouri believes that with a constant recruitment of minority students over the next couple of years, the ratio of minorities to white students will become much more equal. All students grow by meeting people unlike themselves (Brown A1). The administration at the University of Missouri hopes that this is true for its university.
(Note: In the example above, the reader expects the quotation to be about the ratio of minorities to white students becoming more equal. Instead, it talks about the advantages of a more equal ratio. Here's a more effective revision:)
  • The administration at the University of Missouri believes that with a constant recruitment of minority students over the next couple of years, the ratio of minorities to white students will become more equal, thereby allowing students [to] grow by meeting people unlike themselves (Brown A1).
 

Alternative Ways to Introduce Quotations

  1. Precede the quotation with a speech tag including the author's name and title, separated from the quotation with a comma. If the quotation is a grammatically complete sentence, it normally should start with a capital letter even if it is not the start of your sentence, as in the following example:
    • Jones and Farrell, academic writers at a large Southern university, note, The behavior, lifestyle, and values of minority students are likely to be substantially different from those of whites (212).
  2. Precede the quotation as in #1 but use that. If you use that, then no punctuation should separate the speech tag from the quotation, and the first quoted word isn't capitalized. Here's an example:
    • Jones and Farrell, academic advisors at a large Southern university, have stated that the behavior, lifestyle, and values of minority students are likely to be substantially different from those of whites (212).
  3. Precede the quotation with a complete sentence that indicates the quotation's message. Use a colon after the sentence to connect it to the quotation. (If you use just a comma, you have an error known as as comma splice.) If the first word of the quotation starts a grammatically complete sentence, capitalize that first word. Here's an example:
    • Jones and Farrell, academic advisors at a large Southern university, describe why minority students may not feel comfortable in a predominately white university as follows: The behavior, lifestyle, and values of minority students are likely to be substantially different from those of whites (212).
  4. Integrate the quotation within your own sentence structure. This is frequently the smoothest way to introduce a quotation, and the way that demonstrates most clearly that you understand what you have read and are using it to support your own points, rather than letting what you have read make points for you. In this case, put no punctuation between your words and the quoted words, and do not capitalize the first word of the quotation. Here's an example:
    • Minority students may not feel comfortable in a predominately white university because their behavior, lifestyle, and values . . . are likely to be substantially different from those of whites (Jones and Farrell 212).
 

Handling Changes within a Quotation

You should not alter a quotation without signaling to the reader that you are making a change. Below are the two most common ways to do so:
  1. To signal that you have eliminated some of the author's words in the middle or at the end of a quotation, use an ellipsis (three spaced dots). In the example below, the writer has omitted from the original quotation the words of minority students:
    • Minority students may not feel comfortable in a predominately white university because their behavior, lifestyle, and values . . . are likely to be substantially different from those of whites (Jones and Farrell 212).
    • You can also use an ellipsis if your quotation ends before the end of the original sentence, as in the following example: Minority students may not feel comfortable in a predominately white university because the behavior, lifestyle, and values of minority students are likely to be substantially different . . . (Jones and Farrell 212).
  2. To signal that you have altered or added to the original quotation, use brackets. Reasons you may alter or add to quotations include changes in verb tense or clarification of a pronoun or term.< >For example, suppose you wanted to quote the sentence All students grow by meeting people unlike themselves,but in your paper the sentence for some reason would need to be placed in the past.. You could write:Brown notes, All students [have] grow[n] by meeting people unlike themselves (1A).Or suppose the sentence from Jones and Farrell had read, Their behavior, lifestyle, and values are likely to be substantially different from those of whites, and you wanted to use this sentence in your paper--but in your paper, it wouldn't be clear who their referred to. You could write:
    • [Minority students'] behavior, lifestyle, and values are likely to be substantially different from those of whites (Jones and Farrell 212).
 

Block Quoting

Block quotations are defined in MLA style as more than four typewritten lines or in APA style as more than forty words. Use them sparingly! They take up valuable space and often slow the reader down. In addition, frequent block quotations can give the impression that you don't have much to say for yourself but are instead letting your sources do all the speaking for you. But if you do use block quotations, remember the following guidelines:
  1. Introduce the block quotation with a complete sentence which indicates the main point of the quotation and which is followed by a colon.
  2. Continue to double space, don't use quotation marks, and indent along the left margin only (five spaces for MLA and ten spaces for APA). Follow the quotation with a period before the parentheses, not after as with most citations.
  3. Return to the left margin and add material highlighting the significance of the block quotation rather than letting it dangle by immediately starting a new paragraph.