These mistakes are often due to unfamiliarity with certain areas of spelling or grammar. Even native speakers have ‘blind spots’ to some extent, and those for whom English is not their first language, or who have a Specific Learning Difficulty such as Dyslexia, may also find this a problem.
Spelling mistakes will often be highlighted by your word processor’s spell check, and common ones will be automatically corrected. Do take the time to look through the document for red underlining which indicates spelling mistakes and correct them yourself, rather than trusting your spellchecker to select the correct amendment. However, some mistakes are due to the confusion of words which sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings (homonyms). They will not be picked up by a spell checker. Commonly confused words include:
- There and their
- Affect and effect
- Bear and bare
- Loose and lose
Grammar mistakes can be very varied, and again the type will depend on whether you are a native speaker or not. They may include sentence structure, incomplete or run-on sentences or problems with certain parts of speech such as verbs or plurals. Word processors often have a grammar check, but these can be unreliable and inflexible.
- Punctuation is part of grammar, and includes apostrophes, commas, semi-colons etc.
- Some issues with spelling and grammar may be due to differences in American and British English (or other national variants), rather than mistakes, and you should not be penalised for these if American English is your native language; but make sure that you are consistent in the language you choose to use and do not switch between them.
Inappropriate word choice can happen when you are not completely sure what a word means, and use it wrongly. This may be particularly common with terminology or formal words you would not normally use.
Editing for spelling and grammar is an opportunity to improve your writing skills. Make time to check unfamiliar words in a dictionary to ensure you are using them correctly. There are lectures at the beginning of the first year on grammar and editing which highlight the mistakes that lecturers most frequently encounter in student work, and you could consult your notes and handouts from these. You could also reflect on your past work and feedback, and try to identify habitual mistakes, or discuss with your supervisor or Director of Studies. Helpful resources might include grammar books or websites (there are several aimed at students). Once you are aware of the mistakes that habitually appear in your work, you could devote a little time to learning them, and in the meantime also use the ‘search’ function in your wordprocessor to find instances of them you may have overlooked.
If you think that difficulties with spelling and grammar might indicate Dyslexia, you can contact the Disability Resource Centre to arrange an appointment to discuss it further.
This resource does not aim to offer a comprehensive guide to grammar, but grammatically correct written English plays a significant role in the way you are perceived as an academic writer. If your essay feedback indicates that there are grammar issues in your work, it is worth identifying some resources so you can investigate further. There are a great many books on grammar, and more are published each year. Not all of them will suit your purpose or learning style. Rather than offering a reading list of grammar books, this resource suggests some criteria for choosing between them.
Grammar books may be pitched at different readers. You could ask your supervisor for recommendations, although their preferences may not be the same as yours.
- Those books written for linguistics students or non-native 'English as a foreign language' speakers may be too broad in scope and too detailed, and may not relate to the specific issues encountered by native or near-native speakers (to which group English literature students usually belong).
- There are also books aimed at native speakers who wish to improve their English. Books with a general audience may not deal with grammar in the context of academic writing, and grammar 'rules' do vary according to differing contexts, such as spoken language or business English. Other books are addressed specifically to students, and these might be the most appropriate to your needs.
- Books on study skills in general may also have sections on grammar which may be a good place to start. If you have a Specific Learning Difficulty such as Dyslexia, there are also study skills books which present grammar in a way which is most helpful to you, for example, the chapter on grammar in Study Skills for Dyslexic Students, ed. Sandra Hargreave.
You may want a book which systematically reviews all the main areas of grammar with which native speakers usually struggle and which offers exercises, so that you can work your way through it (for example, Grammar and Writing, ed. Rebecca Stott and Peter Chapman). On the other hand, the grammar issues which you identify in your work may be confined to one or two small areas, in which case a book which is structured like a reference work may be more suitable so that you can find what you need quickly (for example, Michael Swan's Practical English Usage).
You might also consider the level of detail you find helpful, including grammatical concepts and terminology, and exceptions or alternative constructions). Some books will offer the basics, assuming no wish to learn about grammatical terminology for its own sake, and simplifying the 'rules'. These books might be helpful if you want to take a more pragmatic approach to improving your grammar and avoid being overwhelmed. They may also be useful if you are not sure exactly what the problem is and need help diagnosing it; with more complex books on grammar you may need to know the technical term before you can look up the explanation. These more complex books will be far more detailed, which may be useful if you have more time and may also develop your ability to analyse the language you encounter in the literary texts you are studying.