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Grammar Tips for College Students: Common Mistakes That Make You Look Bad

May 21, 2008 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 4 Comments

When you’re in college, written communication is key.  Your professors will judge your competence, your grade, and even your intelligence by the way you write.  Your writing skills are definitely important in traditional college settings, but they’re even more crucial when you’re studying online.  Your online professors will have virtually no communication with you that isn’t in writing: via email, forum postings, written assignments, and more.

Good writing will make a good impression.  Grammatical mistakes could be embarrassing—and might even have an effect on your grade.  Here are a few common grammatical errors all college students should avoid.
Any spelling mistake at all

Okay, maybe your high school teachers let the occasionally misspelled word slide.  But college professors will expect you to know how to use a dictionary.  Be careful relying only on the Spell Check function to check your papers; it might catch some mistakes, but it won’t catch everything.  Be sure to proofread your assignments carefully before you hand anything in.

See Also: Online English Grammar Courses

Misused apostrophes


Your writing represents you—especially when you’re studying online. 

Apostrophes are often misused by high school and college students alike—but your professors will definitely know an error when they see one. Use apostrophes when indicating ownership: I borrowed Joe’s book.  By all means, use them when indicating a contraction; such as “don’t” in place of “do not.”  But whatever you do, don’t use an apostrophe to indicate a plural noun:  I bought new shoe’s is wrong.  

In addition, apostrophes are often misused in the case of singular and plural possessives.  Never place an apostrophe to the left of a noun unless it’s plural: Six chairs’ legs are wobbly.  This is the only time an apostrophe should be placed to the left of a word.

See Also: Online Degrees in English

Affect vs. Effect

There are many words in the English language that have very close spellings and meanings, and are often misused.  “Affect” and “Effect” are two examples that are often interchanged.  The difference is simple: affect is a verb, while effect is a noun.  You can affect something or you can have an effect on something—but you can’t do it the other way around.

Its vs. It’s

“Its” is used to show ownership—for example, the dog scratched its leg.  “It’s” is used to indicate a contraction for “it is.”  This one is confusing, because apostrophes are commonly used to show possession.  But not with the word “it.”  This is a common mistake, but one your college professors will expect you to know not to make.

There vs. their vs. they’re

These three words all have very different meanings—and because they sound exactly the same, they are easily confused.  “There” refers to a place a relative distance away; as in over there or I left my paper there.  “Their” indicates ownership by a group of people: The students left their books in the classroom. “They’re” is a contraction of “they” and “are”: They’re going into town later. 

Your vs. you’re

“Your” indicates ownership by the person you are talking to: Your breakfast is ready.  “You’re” is a contraction of “you” and “are”: You’re a strong swimmer.  These are commonly confused, and should be avoided at all costs. 

Comma splices

Commas are used often in English—and they’re misused just as often.  One of the more common mistakes is the comma splice: two complete sentences, joined together with a comma, as in: I left my wallet at home, I had to go back for it. If you’re going to join two complete sentences, use a conjunction along with the comma: I left my wallet at home, and I had to go back for it.

Sentence fragments

All sentences should include a subject and a predicate, as well as a complete thought.  The subject is the person, place or thing that’s doing the action in a sentence; while the predicate is the action that’s being done.  It’s not uncommon for people to leave out either the subject or the predicate by mistake.  If you look at all the bolded sentences in this article, they’re fragments; in some cases, fragments can be used to have a specific effect in writing.  But in college-level papers, professors will expect complete sentences.

Your writing represents you—especially when you’re studying online.  You don’t necessarily have to be Ernest Hemingway to pass a college course, but you do need to be able to write without errors.  If you have trouble with basic writing skills, an online course in grammar and mechanics may be the ideal preparation for college.




Ab Over a year ago

Not knowing your left from your right could also hurt you, as well as not knowing it is perfectly possible to _effect_ change.

Reba Gordon Matthews Over a year ago

Great post. These are probably the most common errors. I will share this post with my online college students. Thanks for sharing.

MomsThoughts Over a year ago

"If you look at all the bolded sentences in this article, they’re fragments;" I see no bold sentences.

Matthew Galles Over a year ago

The difference between affect and effect isn't quite so simple. Both words have oft-forgotten alternate usages. Effect can be a verb when it is used in the sense of "causing something to be." Affect can be a noun when it is used to describe a certain demeanor or facial expression.

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