Last week, we learned about the top 5 grammatical errors that writers typically make in their writing. This week, we will learn about the top 5 writing conventions that writers typically struggle with.

Academic Writing Conventions

Unlike grammar conventions, writing conventions include capitalization, punctuation, and spelling rules in writing. We all know how to use end punctuation (or periods, question marks, and exclamation points) well, but we sometimes struggle with remembering how to use apostrophes, commas, semicolons, colons, and hyphens. Thus, the top 5 tricky writing conventions all involve different forms of punctuation, or marks that are used in writing to separate words, phrases, and clauses within and between sentences. Below you can find each error and the Common Core Standards to which they align.

Plurals and Possessives (L.3.1.B) (L.3.2.D)

As we all know, regular plural nouns describe more than one noun and often end in an “s.” Possessive nouns show ownership between one noun and another and are usually formed by adding an apostrophe + s (‘s). However, this can lead to some confusion while writing, particularly if the writers are using plural possessives (when you have more than one noun and ownership between the nouns. Here are some examples:

In the first draft of this sentence, it looks like there is more than one snake. But the singular verb “is” tells us that we only have one snake, and the tail belongs to it. Therefore, we need an apostrophe before the “s” to make it possessive.

In this case, there is more than one snake, but there also is ownership between the snakes and their tails. In situations like this, you want to handle the plural BEFORE the possessive. Make sure that the plural ending is there and then add your apostrophe. For plural possessives, you do not need to add another “s” after a regular plural noun. You would only add an “s” for the possessive is if the plural noun is irregular and doesn’t end with an “s,” for example, “The children’s shoes.”

Missing Commas (L.4.2.C) (L.5.2.B) (L.5.2.C)

We know that commas are used to show the reader where to pause briefly in a sentence. There are a lot of rules that govern comma usage, and some of these conventions have changed over time. Writers sometimes forget to use commas in compound sentences connected by a conjunction. A compound sentence is a sentence that connects two independent clauses (or two simple sentences connected by a conjunction). See the example below:

In the first draft of the sentence, there is no comma to separate the two simple sentences “Ms. Hayes was exhausted from work” and “she took a nap.” In the corrected version, we see that there is a comma before the coordinating conjunction “so.” This tells us we need to pause.

We also need to use commas after introductory words and phrases. See the example below:

In this example, “Nathan couldn’t hear the interview” is an independent clause, and the initial adverb “unfortunately” is an introductory word. To signal a pause, a comma is placed after the word.

Finally, we need to use commas to separate tag words and phrases. See the example below:

In this example, “I would like a glass of lemonade” is an independent clause, and “yes” is a tag word. We need to pause after reading it, so it needs to be followed by a comma for the sentence to make sense. Tag words and phrases can also be questions like, “You heard me, didn’t you?” and direct addresses such as, “Chris, come over here right now.”

3. Overusing Commas (L.4.2.C) (L.5.2.A) (L.7.2.A)

Because there are so many different ways to use commas, it is possible to overuse them, or use them incorrectly. One common error is putting a comma between an independent clause and a dependent clause within a complex sentence. See the example below:

While this sentence is quite similar to the one used in the previous section, there is one notable difference: while the first clause is a simple sentence, the second clause lacks a subject. When the second clause cannot stand on its own, it does NOT need a comma to separate it from the independent clause.

Another example involves using commas and semicolons in the same sentence. See the example below:

In the first draft of the sentence, we have far too many commas. This is because we have three different lists in one sentence. In situations like these, we need to separate each list with a semicolon to avoid confusion. The semicolon acts like a “super comma,” dividing each list and telling us to pause between them. This makes the sentence easier to read.

Finally, we need to make sure that we don’t overuse commas between adjectives of a different type. See the example below:

We learn in school to use commas to separate adjectives of the same type. A mistake that is frequently made is using commas to separate commas of a DIFFERENT type. In the above example, “big” is an adjective that shows size, while “red” is an adjective that shows color. We cannot switch them to say “red big dog” or say “the big and red dog,” so we do not need to put a comma between the words.

4. Semicolons and Colons (L.9-10.2.A) (L.9-10.2.B)

Some more advanced forms of punctuation which are taught in high school are semicolons and colons. Semicolons are most commonly used to link independent clauses, while colons are used to introduce a list or a quotation. Please see an example below:

In the first draft, the writer mistakenly used a semicolon to introduce the quotation. A semicolon should be used between two independent clauses that are closely related. For example, “We need to meet for coffee; I am available tomorrow.” While the dialogue is a complete sentence, a colon is more appropriate because it is meant to introduce the quotation. A colon can also be used to introduce a list of items (which would be separated by commas).

5. Omitting Hyphens (L.11-12.2.A)

The final example of punctuation that writers struggle with is remembering to use hyphens. Hyphens are used within compound adjectives, compound numbers, and certain affixes. Please see the example below:

In the first draft, we are using three different compound adjectives and numbers to describe the boy. So, we need hyphens between the compound words and numbers. “Well-known” is a compound adjective, “Self-confident” begins with an affix, and “seven-year-old” is a number that is behaving like an adjective. We would NOT need to use a hyphen if we said, “The boy is well known,” or “The boy is seven years old.” This is because the words come after the verb instead of before the noun.

How Afficient Academy Helps Writers with Writing Conventions

At Afficient Academy, we are proud to offer lessons and practice with writing conventions throughout our Afficient English curriculum. Our students don’t just practice a few exercises once; they have to demonstrate proficiency consistently throughout our program. This ensures that students don’t forget these complex concepts over time, as they progress through the learning, proficiency, and afficiency sections of our product. Our program also ensures that students continue to practice skills as they advance in grade levels, so elementary skills won’t be forgotten as students move on to more complex concepts. Take our FREE diagnostic test to find your instructional level in English language arts and get to work mastering punctuation skills at an accelerated pace. Stay tuned for an article next week on the 10 most commonly confused words!