This page contains enriched content visible when JavaScript is enabled or by clicking here. Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Language and Writing Center: Grammar & Spelling

English grammar

Do you confuse their and they're? Are you unsure about whether you can start sentences with certain phrases such as "however" or "and"? Whether or not English is your native language, standard formal English can be difficult to master.  This page contains tips that are great for the person who wants to begin to strengthen their writing or for the advanced writer who just needs a refresher or quick reminder.

Proofreading Apps/Software

There are a number of free online platforms that are designed to check spelling, grammar, and in some instances plagiarism.  While these resources can be helpful tools, keep in mind that they are not always perfect!  Human language is nuanced, and computer programs do not understand nuance.

Semicolons vs. Colons

; vs :

One common stylistic mistake writers of English make is the improper use of the semicolon (;).  Semicolons should only be used in two ways:

  1. You can use a semicolon to separate what grammarians call two independent clauses.  In layman’s terms, an independent clause is essentially a set of words that can be a complete sentence.  Ask yourself: can the words before the semicolon and the words after the semicolon be complete sentences on their own?  If so, you can use a semicolon.

Correct use of a semicolon:

The Pentateuch was traditionally ascribed to one author; today, most biblical scholars agree that it is an amalgamation of multiple texts by numerous authors.

Incorrect use of a semicolon:

The Pentateuch was traditionally ascribed to one author; Moses.

Note that the semicolon is often mistakenly confused with the colon (:), which is used to introduce or set up words, names, or ideas that may not be full independent clauses (or sentences).  For example, we can fix the incorrect use of a semicolon sentence by replacing the semicolon with a colon:

INCORRECT: The Pentateuch was traditionally ascribed to one author; Moses.

CORRECT: The Pentateuch was traditionally ascribed to one author: Moses.

  1. You can also use semicolons for complex series, or lists involving phrases where you might need to use commas in the listed items.  For example:

The five pillars of Islam are: shahāda, the testament of faith, publicly stating (in Arabic), “There is no god but God and Muḥammad is His Messenger”; ṣalāt, praying, preferably communally, five times a day facing Mecca; zakāt, or alms-giving; ṣawm, fasting from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramaḍān; and ḥājj, the pilgrimage to Mecca during the month of Dhū’l-Ḥijja that every able-bodied Muslim is supposed to perform at least once in her life.

Articles and Videos on Improving Your English Spelling and Grammar

English can be a difficult language for writers to master.  English spelling is un-phonetic, while common spoken English often differs from the formal written English that you are expected to use in your papers.  The readings and videos below offer tips and context to improve your understanding of standard formal English spelling and grammar.

Comma Usage

There are a number of rules in English on when you should and should not use a comma.  Instead of reviewing them (although you can do so here if you would like), there is an easy trick to help you to determine whether or not you have a comma in the right place.  Read the sentence or sentences out loud as someone would normally speak.  If you find yourself giving a brief pause somewhere, then there probably should be a comma there; if you do not pause in between words, then there probably should be no comma there.

Websites for Non-native English Learners

Verb Tenses in Academic Writing

While you should use the past tense when writing about events in the past, you should in general use the present tense when paraphrasing an author or setting up a quotation, even if the author is no longer with us. Scholarship is a ongoing discussion.  When you read and discuss an author's work, that author is making an argument right now in the present, even if she is dead.  So, do not write:

  • Carl Jung wrote: "The psyche...
  • Carl Jung said, "The psyche...
  • Carl Jung argued that...

but instead:

  • Carl Jung writes: "The psyche...
  • Carl Jung says, "The psyche...
  • Carl Jung argues that...