Write it Right: Handling the Nitty-Gritty

  • What is the correct way to use abbreviations, apostrophes and percentages?
  • Which common spelling mistakes do spell-checkers miss?
  • What discriminatory forms of expression should I be aware of?

It is not always possible to remember how to use abbreviations, apostrophes, numbers or percentages, or how to incorporate tables in your essays. Use these guidelines when ‘cobwebs’ form in your mind about these nitty-gritty aspects of writing. While the nitty-gritty is a minor part of the essay writing process, it is also an area in which simple mistakes can lose you marks.

Use abbreviations rarely and carefully

It is fine to use abbreviations in your notes and essay drafts, but in the final version of the essay you submit to be graded, always use the full word. Using abbreviations such as i.e. (that is) is a sign of sloppy expression. Since you are graded on your expression, don’t fall into the trap of developing such bad habits.

Abbreviations as acronyms

Abbreviations can be used for acronyms (words formed from the initials of other words), but you cannot assume that everyone knows the meanings of abbreviations such as OECD. The standard rule for such abbreviations is to write them out in full the first time you use them in your essay and give the abbreviation in brackets afterwards. From then on you can use the abbreviated form. Note that it is not necessary to place full stops after each capital letter. For example:

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) argues that trade negotiations should take place. It is OECD policy that …

  • How to use apostrophes
  • Common spelling mistakes: Beware of computer spell-checkers
  • Avoiding discriminatory language: Sexism and racism
  • Capitals, emphasis and italics

How to use apostrophes

Apostrophes are used to do two things: to abbreviate missing letters and to show possession.

1. Apostrophes as abbreviations

Look at the following examples of apostrophes used as abbreviations:

We have arrived can be abbreviated to: We’ve arrived I cannot can be abbreviated to: I can’t I will do it can be abbreviated to: I’ll do it I am here can be abbreviated to: I’m here

One of the most common apostrophe mistakes occurs when using it’s or its:it’s is short for ‘it is’; its indicates possession.

2. Apostrophes to show possession

When apostrophes are used to show possession, it is easy to get confused about where to put the apostrophe: should it go before or after the ‘s’? For example:

  • If there is one girl: The girl’s book. The apostrophe shows possession—the book belongs to the girl.
  • If there is more than one girl: The girls’ book. The book belongs to the girls.

Possible confusion occurs when a word, usually a name, ends in an ‘s’. For example:

  • Parsons’ theory is the theory formulated by Parsons (the ‘s’ is part of the actual name). In effect, what you are implying here is Parsons’s theory but adding the final ‘s’ is seen as unnecessary.

Other problems occur when plurals are confused with apostrophes. For example:

  • It is the families problem should be It is the family’s problem.

Common spelling mistakes: Beware of computer spell-checkers

You will lose marks for spelling and typing mistakes. You are expected to proofread your work and to correct any mistakes before handing in your essay. Have a dictionary and thesaurus handy when you write your final draft. If you rely on a computer to check your spelling for you, be aware that the computer won’t find correctly spelled words that are used inappropriately. For example, a typing mistake such as typing the instead of them won’tbepickedupbya spell-checker. While spell-checkers are very useful, they don’t do all the work for you. Always proofread your work before submitting it.

The ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ rule

People still get this one muddled, often because they forget the ‘except after c’ part, so that words such as ‘belief’ and ‘relief’ lead to ‘recieve’ instead of ‘receive’. Everyone knows this rule—it has been drummed into us since childhood!—but when we type or write, it often comes out wrong anyway. So, always check that you’ve applied the rule correctly.

The affect/effect conundrum

The difference between ‘affect’ and ‘effect’ can be subtle and confusing. If in doubt, refer to your dictionary or thesaurus. The best way to understand the difference between the two words is to remember that ‘affect’ is usually a verb (a doing word) and ‘effect’ is a noun (a naming word). For example:

  • affect (verb): ‘The drug affects me’ (causes a change in something).
  • ffect (noun): ‘The effects of the drug are serious’ (names what the drug does).

The which/who distinction

Only use ‘who’ to refer to people. Use ‘which, to refer to inanimate objects such as organisations. For example:

  • ‘People who believe in …’
  • ‘Organisations which damage the environment …’

To practice or practise?

These two words are often mixed up. For example:

  • practise (verb): ‘The tennis players practised all day.’
  • practice (noun): ‘The law practice catered for all types of cases.’

Avoiding discriminatory language: Sexism and racism

Language is an integral part of culture, so it should come as no surprise that discriminatory attitudes have come to be reflected in our language over time. However, language is a dynamic entity, and being aware of such literary biases means we can change the way we write so as to avoid their use in future. For example, there are many sexist assumptions in the English language, with expression biased towards the masculine. When you are referring to both women and men in your writing, don’t exclude one sex by referring only to ‘him’, ‘he’, ‘men’, ‘man’ or ‘mankind’. The general rule is not to refer to the sex of a person unless it is relevant to your discussion. You can easily replace sexist expressions with ‘him/her’, ‘s/he’, ‘humanity’, ‘people’ or ‘individuals’ when you are including both women and men.

Racist expressions are less common today, but nonetheless you should be aware that words such as ‘ethnics’ or ‘an ethnic’ are slang and pejorative (implying disapproval). Instead, use ‘people of non-English speaking background (NESB)’, or refer specifically to the actual ethnic group, but only if it is relevant to your discussion. Most problems occur when writing about indigenous populations, so it is worth finding out the preferred expression in your particular country. For example, ‘aboriginal’ literally means an indigenous person—it isn’t country specific. Therefore, in Australia, the preferred terms to use are:

  • Aborigine (singular noun)
  • Aborigines (plural noun)
  • Aboriginal (adjective).

Note the use of the capital ‘A’ for Aborigine, as in capital ‘A’ for Australian or ‘I’ for Italian. By using the lower case, such as ‘aborigines’, you are referring to the original inhabitants of any country. The capital ‘A’ — in Australia, at least — is used to identify a specific indigenous people, Australian Aborigines.

Capitals, emphasis and italics

Use capitals for the first letter of names of organisations, institutions and legislation. For example:

  • Department of Foreign Affairs
  • House of Representatives
  • Act of Federal Parliament
  • the Federal Government.

Note the use of the capital ‘G’ for government when referring to a specific entity.

When you refer to the specific title of a book, article, report, newspaper or Act of parliament, you need to emphasise the title. In handwritten work this can be done by underlining the title. If you are using a computer, use italics instead to show emphasis.

Furthermore, parliamentary Acts and Bills are written and emphasised in the following manner:

  • Telecommunication Act 1988
  • Defence Amendment Bill.

Numbers, dates and percentages

If a number is two digits or more (10, 100) use the actual numerical form. For one-digit numbers, write the word for the number (for example, ‘five’). The words ‘per cent’ should always be written as two words (for example ‘10 per cent’). Some academic disciplines allow the use of the percentage abbreviation ‘%’, so check whether this is permissible in your case. However, you should always write in letters any number, including years, when it begins or ends a sentence.Dates and times should be written in the following way:

  • 10.30 a.m.
  • June 25, or 25 June 2000
  • 1990s.

Tables, figures and diagrams

Sometimes tables, figures and diagrams are necessary to explain or enhance complex ideas or information. Specific disciplines will have their own requirements, but generally tables, figures and diagrams should be placed in an appendix at the end of your essay. Make sure to give each item a heading and a reference. Visual representations of information should only be considered as additions to the written part of your essay, not as a replacement for writing about the information contained in the table, figure or diagram.