Digital History>Writing Guides>A Guide for the Grammatically Perplexed

A Guide for the Grammatically Perplexed

Academic, technical, and professional writing is different from speech. It is more formal and it is less personal. It is also much more precise and must obey certain basic rules.

Eight Rules for Effective Writing

Rule 1: Effective writers avoid grammatical mistakes and spelling errors.

They use apostrophes and commas correctly; make sure that subjects and verbs agree and that the tense is consistent.

Rule 2: Effective writers use active verbs and avoid passive ones.

They avoid verbs like "was" or "has been" or "is" or "were."

Good writing depends on lively verbs rather than superfluous adjectives.

Make verbs active by placing the subject before the verb: Congress passed the bill.

Rule 3: Effective writers avoid flowery language and delete needless words.

Their sentences sound nice, read well, and are easy to follow. They make every sentence count.

Rule 4: Simplicity doesn't necessarily mean simple-mindedness.

Effective writers recognize complexity and anticipate counterarguments.

Rule 5: Effective writers are precise.

They choose words carefully and make sure that they say exactly what they mean.

Rule 6: Effective writers recognize that writing is different than speech.

It is more formal and less personal. They avoid the use of colloquialisms, clichés, and such words as I or my or feeling.

Rule 7: Effective writing requires rewriting.

Rule 8: Effective writers don't plagiarize.

They properly acknowledge the sources of their ideas and information.

Plagiarism occurs when an author passes off the ideas or words of another as his or her own without crediting the source. Plagiarism is theft.

It is easy to plagiarize accidentally. Do not copy three or more words from an author directly. Rework the sentence or place the material in quotations.


You are plagiarizing if you:

  • present someone else's words or ideas as your own present ideas without citing the source
  • paraphrase without crediting the source use direct quotes without quotation marks
  • use direct quotes without footnotes or proper citation
  • submit material written by someone else as your own

Citing Sources

In a history class, you must always properly acknowledge the source of quotations, paraphrases, arguments, and specific references.

Proper citation requires you to

  • place direct quotations in quotation marks, or indent lengthier direct quotations
  • specify the original author’s name and the specific source of the information.

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A Brief Guide to Grammar

1: Thou shalt not mix verb tenses:

George Washington defeated the British and protects the country from France.

2: Thou shalt not use the passive voice:

The Aztecs were destroyed by disease. Disease devastated the Aztec.

3: Thou shalt not have sentence fragments:

The little town of Dayton, Ohio, the scene of the famous Monkey Trial.

4: Thou shalt make sure that subjects and verbs agree:

The army required each one of the soldiers to carry their own rifle.

5: Thou shalt use the correct word:

After the war, he traveled to North Carolina to find his long separated mother.

6: Thou shalt not use contractions in a classroom essay.

Do not use don’t.

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Grammar Tips

Singular or Plural?

  • All/Any/None All, any, and none
    These words can be singular or plural. If you mean all of it, any of it, or none of it, use a singular verb.
  • He/Her/They
    Always use the singular he or her with such words as anybody, anyone, everybody, everyone, nobody, no one, somebody, someone, each, either, and neither
  • ics words
    Words that end in ics - like economics, mathematics, politics, statistics - are singular
  • What
    What can also be singular or plural. If what stands for one thing, use a singular verb. If it stands for several things, use a plural verb.
  • Anybody's, everybody's, somebody's, and nobody's
    These words are always plural.
  • Couple, total, majority, and number
    These words can be singular or plural.

Making Words Plural

  • Names
    Form the plural by adding s, even if the last letter is y. If the name ends in s, sh, ch, x, or z, add es.

Proper Word Choice

  • However
    Do not use however at the beginning of a sentence
  • I or me
    Use me after a proposition: words like after, before, by, like, toward, with. An easy way to determine whether to write you and me or you and I is to put the tricky pronoun - me or I - first.
  • Its/It's
    It's is short for it is; its is the possessive form of it, as in: "The corporation gave its assent to proceed.
  • Lay or Lie
    Lie means to recline or fib; lay means to place
  • Rise or Raise
    Rise means to go up or get up; raise means to bring something up.
  • Sit or Set
    Sit means to be seated; set means to place.
  • That or Which
    Eliminate the needless use of which. Only use which in two instances:
    • which goes inside commas
    • if you can drop the clause and not lose the meaning of the sentence, use which
  • Their/There/They're
    Their is the possessive form of they. There is the opposite of here. They're is shorthand for they are.
  • Use or Used
    In a question, choose use. Did use is another way of saying used.
  • Who or Whom
    Who does sometimes (it's a subject). Whom has something done to it (it's an object, like him). You might try mentally substituting he or him for who or whom; if him fits, you want whom. Who is doing what to whom.
  • Who's or Whose
    If you can substitute who is or who has, use who's
  • Will or Would
    If the lead verb is past tense, use would. If the lead verb is present tense, use will.
  • Your or You're
    If you can substitute you are, use you're


If word is singular, add 's, even if the ending is s, z, or x. If the word is plural and doesn't already end in s, add 's. If the word is plural and ends in s, just add the '.

If two people possess something in common, consider them a single unit and put a single 's at the end. If two people possess something individually, each name gets an 's.


Subjects and verbs must agree. If the subject is singular, so is the verb. If the subject is plural, so is the verb.

In a sentence that begins: I wish I or If I, always use the word were, not was.

Colloquial Phrases

Do not use colloquial phrases or clichés. Never use the following words in formal writing:

ain't, could've, should've, would've, might've, must've, it'd, that'd, there'd, this'd, what'd, that'all, that're, that've, there'll, there're, there've, this'll, when'll, when're, when's, where'd, where'll, where're, where's, why're, why's why've, gonna, gotta, wanna.


A comma separates phrases; a semi-colon separates complete sentences.

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