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Due to the formality and precision of academic texts, it is important to ensure that your writing is grammatically accurate. This resource is not intended to offer in-depth tuition on English grammar, but to complement the information you can find elsewhere, in grammar books and English Faculty materials. Much grammar teaching is prescriptive, offering guidance on what you should or should not write, what is and is not an error. However, the approach taken by this resource is descriptive, examining what the conventions of academic writing are and suggesting how you could develop your style. Some aspects of grammar are a matter of correct or incorrect, and it is important not to have grammatical errors in your work. However, as language changes over time, some grammatical rules have become more flexible, and variations are acceptable in many contexts. Some give the impression of informality, and you may wish to avoid them, but some are becoming accepted as standard. Individual writers and readers may have strong personal preferences about them, but it might not be accurate to describe them as grammatical mistakes. Common examples of grammar rules that have over time entered common usage and become more a matter of personal taste include:

  • split infinitives: to vividly evoke / to evoke vividly
  • prepositions at the end of sentences
  • certain types of comma, for example, the 'Oxford' or 'serial' comma, which is optionally used to separate the last two items in a list, especially where there is ambiguity: Chaucer, Gower, and Mallory / Chaucer, Gower and Mallory

These issues are a matter of personal taste, but where there is a 'house style' in the Faculty, you should follow it. Check the guidelines for portfolio essays and dissertations. If you get feedback on grammatical issues, it might be useful to look up the point in question in more than one grammar book, to get a sense of whether it is is a non-negotiable rule, or is a matter of personal preference. You can then target the grammatical rule and learn it, or make an informed decision about how to develop your writing style for particular readers, or discuss the matter with your Supervisor.

Grammar: Further reading

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.