Assisting students with writing is much more than marking errors and telling them to rewrite. It involves functioning as a writing coach, encouraging them to find ways to express themselves on paper, and do it so that their writing can be understood by others. Students need assistance during every phase of the process, from gathering ideas and sorting them to that final edit before “publishing” their work. (Publishing, in this case, can be anything from turning the assignment in to the teacher to typing it up for insertion into a class or school book.)
As with the Reading questions, Writing questions fall into two main types: questions that assess your skills and knowledge and questions that prompt you to apply your skills to classroom situations. Here is what you’ll need to know.
Note: You will find many links to our English Basics material in this study guide. The references will be to our extensive study guides in particular areas. If you need more practice, you can also access our practice questions and flashcards for that topic.
To help students with writing, you must first have basic knowledge that enables good writing practices. In this part of the study guide, we’ll go over the fundamentals of standard written English. The test questions will ask you to find errors in these areas of language and you need to know what is correct before you can do that.
The term grammar refers to the way words are put together to create sentences. Society has certain “rules” for how words should be put together, and those socially acceptable patterns are what make up grammar. Grammar encompasses everything from parts of speech to punctuation. Understanding grammar rules is important because it helps create clear communication. However, there are a lot of rules and a lot of exceptions to the rules.
You can gain an understanding of grammar basics by accessing the English Basics study materials on this site in the following areas. Just click on the topic and you’ll be taken to the study guide that includes more information about that grammar issue. We also provide practice questions and flashcards to help you assess your skills.
Additionally, for specific questions, it is important to know how to do a quick internet search to find reliable answers to your grammar uncertainties. We find Purdue Owl and Grammar Girl to be trustworthy sources. There is a search box at each of these sites for looking up your specific question.
The term usage refers to how words and phrases are used. It is important to understand usage because knowing how to correctly and effectively use words increases your ability to effectively communicate with the world around you. Understanding usage helps prevent miscommunication and misunderstandings because the meaning is clear and correct.
A homonym is a word that has multiple meanings even though it is spelled the same and has the same or similar pronunciation as another word. Let’s take, for example, the word scale. You can scale a wall in a rock climbing gym, you can weigh yourself on a scale, or you can find a scale on a fish. The words are the same, but they mean very different things, and they work as different parts of speech (verb or noun) depending on how they are used in the sentence.
Other Pitfalls Related to Homonyms— In addition to homonyms are homophones and homographs. Homophones are words that sound alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings. For example, to, too, and two are homophones. They sound the same, but they are not synonymous. Homographs are words that are spelled the same, but pronounced differently, depending on how they are used in a sentence. The word close is an example. As a verb, close means to shut (“Please close the window.”). As an adjective, close means nearby (“We are close to reaching our final destination.”).
Homonyms, homophones, and homographs can become confusing, but although the words may share similarities, they are not interchangeable, which is critical to remember when dealing with them. And it’s important to recognize the correct word usage because automatic computer systems may check for spelling, but they may not recognize the wrong homonym being used if it is spelled correctly.
Words with Apostrophes
Apostrophes are generally used for one of two reasons: to show possession or to form a contraction.
Possession— Apostrophes can indicate possession. To use an apostrophe to show possession, one generally adds an ’s to the end of a word. For example: Sasha’s hat, Carmen’s baseball, the girls’ basketball team, and the plant’s roots. If the word already ends in an s, different style guides say you can either add an apostrophe after the s (Linus’ bed), or add an apostrophe and an s to the word (Linus’s blanket). Whichever style you prefer, just make sure that you are consistent. But for a plural noun, which usually end in an s, add only an apostrophe but never add another s (the boys’ locker room, bosses’ meeting).
The exception to the possessive apostrophe rule comes with the word it. To make it possessive, an s is added without the apostrophe (“The dog got out, but its owner came to claim it at the pound.” “The tree lost its leaves in the big windstorm.”). If you add an ’s to it, you create a contraction (it is).
Contraction— Apostrophes may also be used to show a contraction of two words into one word. In the case of contractions, the apostrophe stands in the place of the missing letter(s) when the two words are joined. For example, can’t = can not; didn’t = did not; couldn’t = could not, it’s = it is (note: this is not the possessive form!). Generally speaking, contractions should not be used in formal writing, so when helping a student with his or her writing for school, encourage the student to skip the contractions and spell out both words (it increases the word count, too!).
Other Confusing Words
Besides homonyms, homophones, and homographs, sometimes words just get misused because they are confusing. The English language has many words with similar meanings but, depending on the context in which they’re being used, only certain ones are grammatically correct. For example, if you are trying to express an amount of something, do you use fewer or less? It depends on the situation because fewer is reserved for things that are able to be counted (“Molly has fewer pieces of Halloween candy than Megan.”) while less would be used if the amount is unable to be counted or specifically quantified (“Sam has less energy than Sasha today.”).
For more examples of commonly confused words, please see the chart on our English Basics page, under “Word Weirdness.
Capitalization is important and is becoming a lost art in this age of texting and tweeting. Capitalization is the use of uppercase or capital letters at the beginning of a sentence, the start of a proper noun, in titles, acronyms, the pronoun I, and events or periods of time. Capitalization is important because it indicates a certain level of education, understanding, and language awareness. It serves a purpose and should be used correctly so the language is not misunderstood. If, for example, a text is written in all capital letters, the tone changes and it may seem as though the author is yelling at the reader, which can feel like an attack. Different style guides do have slightly different rules for capitalization in some scenarios, so again, whichever you choose just make sure that you are consistent.
Beginning of a Sentence
A sentence should start with a capital letter. Included in this rule is starting a new sentence within a quote. For example: The doorman held open the door and said, “Have a wonderful day!” as we exited the building.
Proper nouns—the names of specific people, places, things, or events—should be capitalized. For example:
“I visited my Uncle Sam in Washington, D.C., last summer.”
“Saint Paul is the capital of Minnesota and lies on the Mississippi River.”
“Does Josh know we are standing at the base of the Statue of Liberty?”
“European artists during the Renaissance experimented with new techniques.”
The Pronoun I
The pronoun I must always be capitalized no matter where it comes in a sentence. At the beginning? It gets capitalized: “I forgot my book.” In the middle or at the end? Capitalize it: “My friend, Jane, and I walked home together.”
An acronym is an abbreviation formed by using the first letter of each word in a name, phrase, or title to create a new word. The letters in an acronym are all capitalized, which helps to indicate that it is an acronym. For example, UCLA is an acronym for the University of California, Los Angeles. IT is an acronym for Information Technology. Even acronyms in the world of texting and social media should be capitalized: BRB is an acronym for “be right back,” AFAIK stands for “as far as I know.”
Most of the words in song, book, movie, or other titles are capitalized, but there are some exceptions. To see these exceptions, check out the list in our English Basics Capitalization Study Guide.
Punctuation is important because it affects how a reader reads a sentence. Punctuation marks are the “road signs” to readers to indicate when they should pause, stop, or question. Punctuation helps impart emotion into a sentence, so understanding the different types of punctuation and their uses can help you help students understand and navigate their way through a text. Punctuation can be found at the end of a sentence or within a sentence.
End punctuation is the punctuation that comes at the end of a sentence. There are three options for end punctuation: a period, a question mark, and an exclamation point.
Period— Periods end complete sentence statements. They are used at the end of a declarative sentences. They do not impart emotion on a sentence and just indicate the statement is over.
Question Mark— A question mark ends a sentence that asks a direct question. It affects the tone of a sentence because now, instead of being a declaration or statement, there is a question or uncertainty posed.
Exclamation Point— An exclamation point ends a sentence that displays strong emotion or excitement. To end a sentence with a period says, “Okay, it’s done.” But to end a sentence with an exclamation point means the author is making a strong statement. An exclamation point suggests that his sentence is saying something important—something the reader should pay attention to. When students write, they may tend to overuse the exclamation point to add emphasis or importance to their writing. It is important to discourage the overuse of exclamation points because they can also be construed as being an elevated voice, and the reader doesn’t want to be yelled at by the author. And if students are going to use an exclamation point, one is enough; using three exclamation points at the end of a sentence does not actually add any more emphasis than a single exclamation point and is not considered acceptable punctuation usage.
Other Punctuation Marks
Periods, question marks, and exclamation points are examples of end punctuation, but some sentences have punctuation marks within them. Here are some of the most commonly used punctuation marks students are likely to encounter.
Comma— The comma is an often-used, often misused punctuation mark. Commas indicate that the reader should pause, but not come to a complete stop (which would call for a period). Commas are used to separate words or word groups in a list. They are used in geographical locations, dates, numbers, and after introductory words or phrases, just to name a few uses.
Note that there is something called an Oxford comma or serial comma. It is the comma that comes right before a conjunction in a list. It is a disputed comma: some institutions and style guides require it and some prefer it not be used. If in doubt, the default position is to go ahead and use it before the conjunction when listing a series of items.
For more information about commas, including the Oxford comma, check out this part of our English Basics study material.
Quotation Marks— Quotation marks are used to denote someone else’s words besides those of the author. When a source is quoted, it means that whatever text is found within the quotation marks are word for word what the source says. They may be used around direct quotes from an outside source, dialogue, or phrases or words that might be new or unfamiliar to the reader. Quotation marks can also be used around titles of shorter-length pieces like songs, articles, or poems.
There are actually two types of quotation marks a student might encounter: a single (‘) and a double (“). Double quotation marks are used primarily, but if there is a quote within a quote, the single quotation marks are used to indicate a speaker within the quote. For example, “The other day my Mom said, ‘Don’t you know watching too much TV will ruin your eyes?’ but I kept on watching,” explained Daniel to his friend.
Punctuating with quotation marks can be tricky. For help on where to put punctuation marks when you are also dealing with quotation marks, check out [this page](https://uniontestprep.com/english-basics/study-guide/punctuation/pages/3 of our English Basics study material.
Apostrophe— Apostrophe usage can really throw people off. An apostrophe is used for one of two tasks: to indicate a contraction (“Mark isn’t coming”) or to show possession (“Lola’s pencil”). But the rules for using apostrophes change when it comes to the word it. It is the exception to the possessive apostrophe rule. To show possession using it, there is no apostrophe (“The horse shook its head.”). Apostrophes are not used in dates or to make plural nouns.
For more information about apostrophes, check out the same page of our English Basics study material linked just above.
Colon— Colons introduce a list, example, or quotation. They are used relatively sparingly, but students will come across them occasionally. Correct usage requires that colons be used only if they will not interrupt the flow of the sentence.
Semicolon— Semicolons are a speed bump for the reader; they are intended to slow the reader down for longer than a comma, but not bring the reader to a complete stop as a period would. Semicolons are used to join two independent clauses instead of using a comma and coordinating conjunction. They may also be used when linking independent clauses that include a transitional expression or to replace internal commas so the sentence doesn’t get too confusing with too many commas.
Ellipses— Ellipses are the three dots used to indicate that a word or words are being omitted from a quoted source. They may also be used to indicate a pause or hesitation or to show that a thought is trailing off. These uses are more informal and are generally not used in formal writing.
Parentheses— Parentheses are used to add information into a sentence without a big interruption. The key to using parentheses correctly is to remember that whatever is inside the parentheses must be “extra” information and not be essential to understanding the sentence. Parentheses set apart information or ideas that are “Oh, by the way” thoughts.
Hyphens and Dashes— Hyphens and dashes are not the same thing. Hyphens are shorter versions of dashes and they are used to join words together to make compound words, in ages, between some numbers, and after certain prefixes. Dashes are used to show a connection between two things, to indicate a span of numbers, or to replace commas, parentheses, or colons when the author wants to add emphasis. Dashes should be used sparingly because they impact tone and can easily make a text seem choppy or disjointed if overused.
For more information about hyphens and dashes, scroll to the end of this page of our English Basics study material.