If you want to improve your coursework or essay writing skills, then a good place to start is with your understanding of grammar. Surely any effort that can improve your writing skills and essay writing is worth making, and grammar is something that you’ll benefit from knowing well long into the future.
While grammar has a reputation for being notoriously boring and riddled with hard to remember rules, (a little bit like Harvard referencing) a sound grasp of the basics can be the difference between a good essay and a great one.
If you have any aspirations of doing a job that even remotely involves writing, you will want to brush up on your grammar now to save yourself a lot of work later on in life. You can also boost your overall student performance by acing your coursework.
Review Basic Grammar
The first step towards improving grammar should be to review the fundamentals.
What are the most basic parts of speech that you need to know?
Since grammar is about words and how they fit together in sentences, we thought it best to identify the most commonly used word types.
That way, you can refer back to this list if you need to clarify what the role of an adverb should be in a sentence and what exactly an adjective is.
First up, we have what many teachers used to refer to as the ‘describing words’.
Adjectives are used to modify nouns, to give the reader a more concrete idea of what to picture in their minds. A ‘decline in sales’ isn’t as striking as a ‘sharp decline in sales’ might be to the reader.
The most important thing to keep in mind when using adjectives in an essay is to use them sparingly, and make sure their use is warranted.
Not only do misplaced adjectives look messy, they can ruin the flow of a good sentence and come across as amateurish.
Some of the most common culprits of redundant adjectives include words like ‘nice’, ‘very’, and ‘really’. In an essay, you should try to steer away from these words as much as possible.
While they are used very frequently in speech, they don’t add much value to text.
Instead of relying on these overused adjectives, try and find words that do a better job of capturing the meaning. For example, rather than mentioning a ‘nice idea’ you could say it was ‘brilliant’ or even just ‘fine’.
Nouns are the words you use for places, things, and groups of people.
The biggest thing to bear in mind when it comes to improving your grammar with nouns is the amount of times you repeat them.
Compare the following two sentences and see which you think is better:
‘The company reported a sales increase which was celebrated by everyone in the company.’
‘The company reported a sales increase which was celebrated by everyone working there.’
In the first sentence, the repetition of the noun ‘company’ is unnecessary and doesn’t read well. In the second, the meaning is the same, but we’ve found a different way to refer back to the noun without repeating it.
This is a surprisingly common feature in a lot of writing, and it’s easy to do accidentally. This can be solved by reading back over your essay once you’re done and checking there are no noun repetitions close to each other.
Pronouns are words used in place of nouns, such as ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘we’, and ‘they’.
These words might not seem very important when it comes to improving your grammar, but they can help you get around the issue of overusing proper nouns.
Instead of saying something like ‘the company enjoyed greater success, far beyond the goals the company had set.’
You could replace the repetition of the noun with a pronoun to keep things moving along nicely ‘the company enjoyed greater success, far beyond the goals it had set’.
This is something that will come up a lot in your writing without you even being aware of it, so when you check over your essay see if there are any instances when you could use a pronoun instead of repeating a noun.
The ‘doing words’ in grammar, verbs are the ones which move things along and represent an action which has been taken.
There are two mistakes that people usually make using verbs in essays.
The first is trying to sound smart by using longer verbs too often.
While it’s fine to use a longer verb every now and again, sometimes it isn’t necessary and can sound unnatural when read aloud.
It’s the difference between, ‘he operates the mouse with his right hand’ and ‘he uses the mouse with his right hand’.
While the first sentence is perfectly valid, it reads more like an instructional manual and the verb ‘use’ does the job better.
The second mistake is using verbs in the passive voice too often, which we’ll get into later as it’s a big obstacle to writing with better grammar.
Not to be confused with adjectives, adverbs are words or phrases which are commonly used to modify a verb or adjective.
They serve more or less the same function as adjectives, except they describe with more detail how an action is carried out, or how great a characteristic is.
For example, ‘stock prices rose slowly’ or ‘he picked a very fast car’ tell the reader more information which could be useful.
One of the biggest mistakes using adverbs in essays is the use of the words ‘actually’ and ‘literally’.
While we use these words a lot in speech, you should try to avoid them while writing your essays.
This is especially true of ‘literally’ since many people use it as an intensifier, and distort its meaning. For example, you can’t say ‘it was literally the worst thing that could have happened’ as it isn’t grammatically correct.
The last main group of words we’d like to draw your attention to is connectors.
Connectors are exactly what they sound like - words which link one sentence or idea to another.
As such, they are hugely important for creating narrative flow throughout your essay.
One of the biggest mistakes with connectors is sticking to the same two or three.
It’s fine to use the words ‘but’, ‘yet’, and yes, ‘and’.
However, if you don’t mix it up, you will start to sound like a broken record.
Equip yourself with words that help you sound smarter and connectors for different situations and you can easily avoid this issue.
Using the Active Voice
As we mentioned earlier, one of the biggest grammar mistakes people make with verbs is relying too much on the passive voice.
Stick to the active voice as much as possible.
When you write in the active voice, you create a sense of urgency in your writing and clarity which you don’t get with the passive voice.
Consider the following two sentences and see which seems better:
‘It is thought that spirulina has many powerful health benefits’.
‘Health experts claim that spirulina has many powerful health benefits’.
The second sentence I’m sure you’d agree is much more clear, and striking.
By identifying the subject of the sentence, in this case ‘health experts’, you make sure there can be no confusion on the reader’s end as to who is doing the thinking.
Be careful not to make too many general statements using passive voice such as ‘it is said’ and ‘it was known’, and instead try to identify the subject and turn it into the active voice.
‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.’ Stephen King
Take it from world renowned author Stephen King, reading is key to improving your writing.
If you want to improve your grammar specifically, then it’s a good idea to read some books on the subject.
If you’re looking for a book to read that is more interesting than the average grammar book, try Stephen Pinker’s ‘The Sense of Style’. This book not only delves into grammar, but will give you all the tools you need to succeed as a writer.
Though, since reading grammar books will get old for many of us very quickly, you can make things interesting and read some books in your favourite genres too.
Simply by reading great nonfiction and fiction books alike you can pick up good habits when it comes to grammar, and then apply them to your own writing.
You don’t even have to painstakingly go through each line and identify the adverbs, adjectives, and examples of active or passive voice.
Just read the book and pay attention to the construction of the sentences and general structure of the text, and this can help enormously with your essay-writing.
As I’m sure you’re well aware, the benefits of reading are many, so there really is no excuse for getting stuck into a new book and improving your writing in the process.