Page 3 Language Arts: Writing Study Guide for the HiSET® Test

Writing Conventions

Writing conventions are the mechanics of written language, including: spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and general rules of standard grammar. These are important because they help to make writing more clear and understandable. Writing conventions can be tricky, however, because oral language doesn’t necessarily use the same conventions or require the same strict standards. Written conventions means ensuring that all grammatical rules have been followed.

Different Forms of the Same Word

There are multiple ways to conjugate words and it depends on how a word is being used as to which form is appropriate. Writers must ensure that the correct form of a word is being used, and in multiple-choice assessments, this is a favorite type of question as it tests students’ ability to recognize correct verb, pronoun, and modifier forms.

For example, verbs can express action or state of being in the past (anything that occurred before this moment), present (what is happening in this moment or things that are continuous), or future (things that have yet to happen or occur).

“Mary sat down to do her homework.” (past)
“Mary sits at her desk to do her homework.” (present)
“Mary will sit at her desk for three hours tonight finishing her homework.” (future)

It is important to use the correct verb form based on the time in which the action occurs.

Sometimes words play double duty and what is used as one part of speech can act like another This is why it’s important to look at words in the context of the whole question, not just the underlined portion on a multiple-choice test. For example:

“Larry enjoys fishing.”

In this sentence, enjoys is acting as the verb and fishing is actually working as a noun to indicate what it is that Larry enjoys. Then there’s this:

“We were planning on boarding the boat after lunch, but it was gone when we arrived at the dock.”

Here, a form of the verb go has become a modifier of the word boat.

Pronouns replace nouns (antecedents), but there are different forms of pronouns and writers must select the correct one. Pronouns must match their antecedent in number.

Modifiers are words (usually adjectives or adverbs) that describe or give more information about another word in the sentence. To make sense and avoid confusion, modifiers should be placed next to the words they modify or describe. For example:

“Harold caught a small shark.”

The word small describes the shark Harold caught.

When they are not located close enough to the words they describe, modifiers can make a sentence confusing. For example:

“The hat on the table that is blue is Brad’s.”

In this sentence, the modifier is misplaced and it becomes confusing as to what is blue—the hat or the table? Move things around a little and the sentence is much improved:

“The blue hat on the table is Brad’s.” or
“The hat on the blue table is Brad’s.”

Especially for the Essay—Your written response will be assessed based, in part, on your “command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage.” This means few or no errors in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and basic grammar (like sentence structure). Be sure to allot time to proofread your response. Many of the common mistakes writers make can be caught and corrected with just a little rereading of the response. Look to make sure that your sentences are complete, no run-ons or fragments, and that your spelling, capitalization, and punctuation look correct. If you get lost in a sentence in your response, chances are good that your reader will also become confused in that spot, so reread it to determine how you can make it more clear. Perhaps there is a word missing that would help link everything together. Perhaps there are too many ideas included in one sentence and they need to be broken apart into their own sentences. These are relatively easy corrections to make before you submit your test.


Agreement refers to words “agreeing” in number and tense with one another within a sentence. That means that if the subject of a sentence is singular, the verb must also be singular; if the antecedent is plural, the pronoun must be plural, and so on.

Subject-Verb Agreement

The subject of a sentence is who or what the sentence is about. It might be singular or plural. The verb is the action word or state of being. The subject and verb must always match in number (singular subject needs a singular verb; plural subject requires plural verb). Remember, the subject of a sentence is never found in a prepositional phrase, so if the sentence includes a preposition, the subject likely comes before it. If multiple subjects are joined by an either or an or or a neither, they are considered singular and the verb should match.

“The cat meows at dinner time.” (singular subject: cat, singular verb: meows) “The dogs bark all day.” (plural subject: dogs, plural verb: bark) “The box of crayons is on the table.” (box is the subject, not crayons; it is singular and needs a singular verb: is) “Either Mary or Shana is going to win the award.” (Mary is, or Shana is)
“Neither child wants to leave the birthday party.” (Neither one wants to leave, singular verb)

Pronoun Antecedent Agreement

Pronouns are words that replace nouns in a sentence to minimize repetition. The nouns they replace are called the antecedents. Pronouns must agree with their antecedents in number (singular noun needs singular antecedent). Remember that pronouns such as anyone, anybody, everyone, everybody, someone, somebody, no one, and nobody are singular pronouns. Pronouns for living beings include he/him/his, she/her/hers, them/their/theirs, for inanimate things, and it/its. Here are some examples of correct pronoun usage:

“Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his his speech, I Have a Dream, in 1963.”
“Sally Ride was the first American woman to fly in space; her first trip to space was in 1983.”
“Both Mark and Tom turned in their homework.”
“Some of the salt spilled out of its container.”
“Margaret and she passed the test.”

A Sentence

A sentence is a unit of words that has:

  • a subject
  • a verb
  • a complete thought

If there are too many independent clauses joined together or if they are combined without the proper conjunction or punctuation, it is considered a run-on and needs to be broken down to contain fewer independent clauses, or it needs to have the proper conjunction or punctuation added. Sentences without a subject, verb, or complete thought are fragment or incomplete sentences and need to have more information provided. Complete sentences should always be used in formal writing. Occasionally a fragment sentence may be used for emphasis, but generally complete sentences are the way to go.

Sentence Fragment

A sentence fragment, or incomplete sentence, is a group of words that is missing one of the three components to make a complete sentence: a subject, a verb, or the expression of a complete thought. It is relatively easy to fix a fragment sentence if you can identify the piece that is missing. Here are some examples of fragment sentences and ways to fix them:

“Walked home”

There is no subject, so the reader doesn’t know who walked home. If you determine who walked home, you could write, “Lonnie walked home.”

“Suzie’s favorite band”

Here, there is no verb, so the reader doesn’t know what Suzie’s favorite band did or is. Maybe the band canceled a concert, so you could say, “Suzie’s favorite band canceled a concert.”

“When Mom got home”

This one does not contain a complete thought, so the reader is left asking “What happened when Mom got home?” Perhaps she was exhausted, so you could write, “When mom got home, she was exhausted.”

“Because he was late.”

Again, no complete thought—what happened because he was late? If you missed the movie, the sentence could be amended as, “Because he was late, we missed the movie.”

Watch out for those sentences that start with Because. They are not always fragments. A because clause can start a sentence as long as the sentence still has all required parts, like the correction above. They are often fragments, however, in the case of inexperienced writers. This is another example of how written communication varies from oral communication—think of how many times you answer questions with fragment sentences!

When you find the fragment piece that is missing, you can add it, attach the fragment to a neighboring sentence, or rewrite the fragment and the passage it is in to incorporate the idea in a complete sentence.

Run-on Sentences

A run-on sentence is a sentence that joins together two (or more) independent clauses without the proper punctuation or conjunction (joining word). These sentences can leave a reader breathless because there is no place to pause to catch one’s breath. Although run-on sentences tend to be longer sentences, don’t judge a sentence by its length. When properly punctuated and formatted, complete sentences can sometimes become lengthy; but that doesn’t make them run-ons. Short sentences can be run-ons, too. For example, “He is a man he is tall.” There is no internal punctuation so these two independent clauses (he is a man and he is tall) just run together and create a run-on sentence.

There are several ways to fix a run-on sentence. Here are some:

One common type of run-on sentence is the comma splice, where two independent clauses are joined by a comma. Commas don’t have the strength to hold together two clauses which could stand as their own sentences—commas need help and support!

If two independent clauses are joined together by a comma, there must also be a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) there to help. Using the short sentence example from above, if a comma was used between the two clauses, it would still be a run-on sentence. “He is a man, he is tall.” That comma just isn’t enough.

Instead, include a coordinating conjunction to help the comma keep these clauses together.

“He is a man, and he is tall.”

This solves the run-on sentence that was the initial problem and the comma splice that was created when just a comma was added in there. This is a good approach if the writer is trying to show a connection or comparison between the two ideas presented in the clauses.

Another way to fix a run-on sentence is by inserting a semicolon (;) between the two clauses. This keeps a closer connection between the two ideas as they technically still share a sentence together.

“He is a man; he is tall.”

Sometimes run-ons occur when a writer tries to include a transition in the middle of a sentence, between two independent clauses.

“He is a man, therefore he is tall.”

That comma is straining under the pressure again. To fix this, a writer will replace the comma with a semicolon and move the comma to after the transition word (also known as a conjunctive adverb):

“He is a man; therefore, he is tall.”

Of course, run-on sentences can always be fixed by splitting the clauses apart and allowing each to be its own sentence:

“He is a man. He is tall.”

This completely separates the two ideas and makes each the focus of its own sentence.


The term mechanics refers to the rules of writing. When a test question or a teacher’s rubric includes mechanics as an assessment point, it means that the writing will be evaluated based on the writer’s ability to properly employ punctuation, capitalization, and spelling rules as well as grammar rules like subject-verb agreement and using complete sentences.


Capitalization rules are ingrained to students at a young age, but while some are easy to remember, some are not, especially if they are not used often. For example, writers know to capitalize the first letter of the first word in a new sentence, but what if that sentence is a quotation in the middle of another sentence? It’s easy to remember to capitalize proper nouns, like someone’s name, but what if it’s a nickname? It is important to review capitalization rules before an assessment, just to refamiliarize yourself with ones you might not remember because you don’t often use them.

Here are the main things to remember in capitalization (if the answer is “yes”, capitalize it):

  • Is it the first letter of the first word in a sentence?
  • Is it a proper noun or someone’s name (or nickname)?
  • Is it the first letter of the first word in a complete quote? (If it’s a partial quote, don’t capitalize it.)
  • Is it the name of a day, month, or holiday? (Don’t include seasons.)
  • Is it the title of a book, movie, song, magazine article, television show, poem, or some other publication or art form? (Don’t include articles [a/an/the], conjunctions, or prepositions.)
  • Is it a city, country, nationality, or language?
  • Is it a specific time period, era, or historical event? (Don’t include century numbers.)


Punctuation refers to the marks used in writing to separate sentences and elements of sentences and to indicate emphasis. There are a variety of punctuation marks in writing. You will want to review the use and function of periods, commas, colons, semicolons, question marks, exclamation points, apostrophes, quotation marks, and parentheses.

Remember that:

  • A period (.) brings the reader to a full and complete stop.

  • A comma (,) acts as a speed bump and causes the reader to pause, but not stop completely.

  • A colon (:) is used grammatically in order to introduce a list in a sentence or add emphasis, or between independent clauses when the second illustrates an example of or explains the first.

  • A semicolon (;) is in between a comma and a period when it comes to strength and power; it can hold together two independent clauses without the need for a coordinating conjunction.

  • A question mark (?) denotes an inquiry that is being made, even if only rhetorical.

  • An exclamation point (!) should be used sparingly as it indicates strong emphasis and becomes weakened and less effective if overused.

  • An apostrophe (’) is used as a placeholder in a contraction (which you should avoid using in formal writing) and to show possession (except for the word it).

  • Quotation marks (“) are used to indicate the exact words of a source other than the writer.

  • Parentheses [( )] help a writer include more information as an aside rather than a focused part of the sentence; the content of parentheses is extraneous and not integral to the understanding of the sentence and therefore could be omitted.


You don’t have to be a spelling bee champion to do well on spelling assessment questions. These questions will contain a list of four different words and you will need to identify which one is not spelled correctly. Usually, looking at the words carefully will indicate to you which one just doesn’t look right. Remember your basic spelling rules when you examine the words (but remember, this is English so there will always be exceptions to the rules):

  • i before e except after c (unless it’s neighbor or weigh or ancient)
  • Adding suffixes to words that end in y usually changes the y to an i like baby to babies or ugly to ugliest (but not always)
  • The suffix ful is always spelled with just one l (joyful, hopeful, beautiful)
  • When a word has one syllable with one vowel next to one consonant, double the final consonant letter when you add a vowel suffix (big → bigger, sad → saddest, run → running) and in longer words if the stress is on the final syllable (begin → beginner, occur → occurred)

Look carefully at all of the options before you make a selection and apply some of those spelling rules you use every day.

Especially for the Essay—Mechanics is one of the evaluation criteria on your written response. This means that evaluators will be looking to make sure that you properly capitalized, spelled, and punctuated your writing and that you employed grammar rules with few errors. Proofread your response before you submit it. Most, if not all, mechanics errors can be caught with careful proofreading before submission. You may be surprised at the mistakes that you find because your brain was working so much faster than your hands could keep up with—but finding and fixing those mistakes could mean a big difference in your assessment score. And remember that spell check will not catch homophones (words that sound alike or nearly alike but have very different meanings). It is important that you make sure you are using the correct form of the word depending on your intended use (they’re/there/their, too/to/two, affect/effect, etc.).

Reference Sources

Being able to identify reliable sources can help you evaluate the arguments made by a writer and construct trustworthy arguments in your own writing. It is not enough for a writer to make a claim and support it with “because I said so.” Instead, good writers use reliable sources to back up and support their claims. To recognize reliable sources, consider how much information is given about a source and whether that makes it an appropriate basis for support. For example, if an argument is made about a medical topic, having an opinion or piece of evidence or support from a doctor or researcher is going to be much more valuable than having the opinion or support of a banker. Consider the source and determine if it is a credible place or person from whom to receive information.

Development of Your Position

This only thing for which you will not receive a specific score on in the multiple-choice questions but that is assessed in the essay. It is, however, something that can help you analyze errors in the multiple-choice questions, so it’s well worth a bit of attention. It is not enough to simply state a position or claim. You must add detail and support to be understood and to engage your reader.

Central Idea and Supporting Ideas

Your entire written response should be centered around your thesis statement, which is your claim with regard to the topic. Remember that this is an argument essay, so your claim should not be something everyone everywhere would agree with, but instead be something you need to convince people of (not because it is ridiculous but because they may not have considered the topic from your position before). Everything in your essay should tie back to your thesis statement. From topic sentences to evidence to explanation, it’s all there to help support, prove, and explain the claim you make in your thesis. It can be easy to “go off on a tangent” when writing an argument essay because the topics are usually things people can get excited about. However, it’s important to stay focused on the task at hand, and that is to prove your argument and convince your audience that your interpretation is the best. If an idea or sentence doesn’t serve to support your thesis, it doesn’t belong in your essay.

Explanation of Supporting Ideas

Using evidence and support is very persuasive, but only if it is used correctly. It is not enough to make a claim, say someone agrees with your interpretation, and move on. All of the evidence and support that you include needs to be explained to your readers. You know why it’s there and you see the connection to the argument, but it may not be as clear for your readers. Be sure to not just include evidence, but to explain what it means and why it’s there as well. It needs to be made very clear to the readers how this piece of evidence supports your claim and proves that your argument is valid.

Writing an Argument

To score well on the writing portion of the test, it is not enough to just present an argument to your reader. You must show that you are “in command” of the argument, that you are guiding it and not allowing it to guide you. This means that you structure your response in an organized way that clearly and logically presents your ideas, that your response remains focused on your claim (or argument), and that you use reliable sources to support your argument, explaining how they prove your position. You are being assessed on your ability to demonstrate valid reasoning and critical thinking. This is made evident by staying on topic, focusing your response around a thoughtful consideration of the topic (clear and concise thesis statement), effectively integrating multiple examples of relevant and sufficient evidence that is elaborated upon thoroughly, identifying and addressing counterclaims, and drawing your response to a sense of conclusion.