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Creating Correctness in Writing

June 8, 2021

In this series on the five elements of writing essays at Southern Adventist University, we’ve now reached the last element, correctness.

When the average person thinks about English, the first thing he might think of is "correctness" as it concerns basic matters such as grammar and punctuation. However, while correctness involves those things, we must not think of correctness as a simple skill or less important than other aspects of writing.

Because errors of correctness create such a viscerally negative reaction in some readers and listeners, errors of correctness get a lot of attention from editors and speakers. No one wants to be seen as being “illiterate."

Speakers of nonstandard English suffer from this conception of correct communication as being all about correctness. If we compare two pieces of communication, one that communicates clearly and vividly with many correctness errors, and one that is technically correct but otherwise unreadable, we will quickly discover that readers prefer the vivid example every time.

But we live in a world of standard and nonstandard expression, and depending on the context, we have to conform to expectations about correctness if we want to be effective communicators.

Grammar concerns far more than basic correctness. It is content! A grammar error stigmatizes social class or lack of education, like it or not. So you will want to check the grammar of your essays against the standard.

Other aspects of correctness are important as well. Always use the exact word needed. Sometimes a word appears to be the right one when in reality it only sounds similar to the right word. If you are unsure, consult a dictionary to be sure all your word choices are correct.

Unless you are being experimental or purposeful, avoid comma splices (two clauses joined only by a comma), run-ons (two clauses forced together with no punctuation or connecting word, and sentence fragments (unintentionally incomplete thoughts). Ordinarily, use of these forms is considered incorrect.

Think of punctuation as a clarification of grammar and meaning. Punctuation choices should not be determined by your feelings. This method will lead to many punctuation errors.

To illustrate: note these two sentences. “Because he was lying in jail, his health began to fail, and he was threatened with consumption.” “In jail his health began to fail and was threatened with consumption.” In the second sentence, the author reduces the complex-compound sentence to a relatively simple sentence with one subject and two verbs. All punctuation above is used correctly because of the grammatical structure of each sentence.

The most technical aspect of writing is mechanics—spelling, apostrophes, quotation marks, capital letters, abbreviations, numbers, italics, or hyphens. No good counsel here. Grab a handbook or dictionary and get it right! There’s no other way.

The format of an essay is simply an arbitrary requirement of the professor. Compare your essay to the sample format given you. Make the necessary changes.

A typo is an unintentional mistake that any writer can make when typing. “I go swimming in the pole.” Missing elements are also common. Writers can easily leave words out of essays that they will swear are there! “Don’t forget get your gift.” I’ve read documents five times for mistakes, found none, and still discover them later! Frustrating, but a fact of life.

Finally, consider carefully any attempts to be non-sexist. Languages are a collection of arbitrary signs. Meaning comes from context, not from dictionary definitions. Saying that a language is "sexist" is philosophical/social/political in nature. 

The standard grammar of agreement in English has changed in the natural course of language development. We can properly say, the “writer they.” However, always avoid clumsy and unclear uses of the word “they.” Sometimes the word "they" can confuse rather than enlighten. Also unavoid nonwords such as “he/she” or “s/he."

Remember, overall, that clear communication is always the goal, and achieving correctness will boost clarity.