Academic Tips and Tricks

All the help you need for good essay writing

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Hyphen-Nation: Multiple Hyphens and Series Compounds

This is a great post that explains some questions I had about hyphens (specifically series compounds) very clearly:

From this blog:


It’s that time again, fellow wordsmithians, to return to the land of hyphens. Crazy as it may seem, two posts were not enough to exhaust the subject (though you may be feeling exhausted, and I wouldn’t blame you).

See, this is why hyphens are so tricky. There are almost as many different ways to use them as there are stars in a roadrunner cartoon.

Today, we’ll be talking about multiple hyphens and series compounds*.


Multiple Hyphens

Sometimes you need to use a phrase of three or more words to modify a noun, e.g., round-the-clock surveillance. “Round the clock” needs hyphens to let the reader know that the whole phrase is modifying “surveillance,” as opposed to only the word “clock.”

The same rules apply to long phrases as apply to two-word phrases. For example, you’d write “his hard-to-swallow story” if the modifying phrase comes before the noun, but “made his story hard to swallow” (no hyphens) if the phrase comes after the noun.

Here’s a tricky one for you. Do you write “forty year old virgin” or “forty-year-old virgin”?

<< waits for everyone to Google the DVD cover >>

If you answered “forty-year-old virgin,” then DING DING DING, you win the prize!** If you answered “40 year-old virgin,” then you are also right, though that wasn’t one of the options listed and you are SO busted for Google-cheating. (Speaking of Google-cheating, did you notice that different search results came back with different hyphen usage for the same movie title? Yeah. That’s why we’re doing this little exercise, my friends. We need better hyphenators on the Interwebs!)

Okay, here’s another test for you. Do you write “that scotch is fifty years old” or “that scotch is fifty-years-old”?

I know what you’re thinking. How is this different from the exercise we just did? There are two significant differences, my dears—brownie points to you if you’ve already figured it out. Difference #1: The phrase in question comes after the noun it modifies. Difference #2: There’s an ‘s’ in “years.”

Ready for the answer?


The correct answer is…wait a minute, what happened to the scotch??? Somebody drank my fifty-year-old scotch! That scotch was fifty years old, people! You don’t just drink another woman’s fifty-year-old scotch without asking! Where am I going to find another bottle of scotch that’s fifty years old??? Oh, the injustice!…

See what I did there? It’s fifty-year-old scotch, or it’s scotch that’s fifty years old. The shortcut way to memorize this rule is using that ‘s’ in “years” as an indicator. If there is an ‘s,’ then NO HYPHENS. If there isn’t an ‘s,’ then hyphenate.

Series Compounds*

So now…what the heck are series compounds?

Sometimes when you have more than one compound modifier describing a noun, and part of that compound modifier is the same for both compound modifiers, then you can omit the part that’s the same in the first compound modifier.

Just so you know, this is what your face looks like right now: O.o   (It’s kind of cute, actually.)

But never fear! I can just show you instead.

“By the time I’d reached the fourth- and fifth-draft revisions, I was just about to go nuclear on those hyphens.”

I’m essentially skipping repetition of the word “draft” in that sentence. Notice that you still need the hyphen after “fourth,” though. That hyphen is what clues the reader into the fact that “fourth” is referring to draft the same way “fifth” is.

You can also use this method with closed compounds (i.e., compounds that don’t normally have hyphens, such as “overrated”).

“Both pre- and postmodern cabbage is pretty much the same.”

But you can only use this method for compounds that share their second half. You wouldn’t, for example, write the following: “the underfed and -appreciated supermodels.” You’d have to repeat the “under” for both compound modifiers.

Well, that about wraps it up for now, lovelies. Stay tuned for our next installment of hyphenated madness in which we get insanely picky about prefixes.


*Note: Series compounds is a term I kinda made up. The rule is real, but there really isn’t a name for it, so I pulled one out of my…er, I came up with one that seemed fitting.

**The prize is my deep and everlasting respect for your mad grammar skillz.


Tips and Tricks 11: How to Proofread Your Own Work (Or, How to Proofread Someone Else’s)

As a professional proofreader and writer people expect every bit of work I do to be absolutely word-perfect, but honestly, it isn’t. This isn’t because I’m bad at my job, on the contrary, I am able to pick up the most minute of mistakes in other people’s work, but I struggle with my own because I know what’s there – or rather, what my brain thinks is there. But don’t just take my word on how hard it is, read this lovely humorous blog illustrating the problems you can run into. This is why professional multi-million pound authors get proofread, not just to clean up story-lines, but to spot the mistakes they didn’t even know were there. So, how can you proofread your own work? As I have just illustrated, the best approach is to hand it over to your friend/parent/ anyone else with a good eye, and have them do it, but if you absolutely can’t avoid it, here are some tips to help you out.

My best advice is leave yourself time to do it, because to get something even close to perfect you need to read through it at least three times. If you construct your writing the way I do, then the first draft will be extremely rough. Proofread one is to put paragraphs in the right order, sort out sections of an essay (or book chapters, whatever it is you’re writing) and make sure it all makes sense and nothing has been missed out. Proofread two is to look through the reordered work and make sure everything flows well and there are no awkward sentences or dodgy/non-existent links between paragraphs. Of course, you can use your first and second proofreads to smooth out any spelling and grammatical issues you find along the way.

But proofread three is the crucial one, and the one I won’t get time to do on this blog entry because I don’t want to wait to get it online (so I apologise for any mistakes you find!). The third proofread should take place an absolute minimum of three days after the first two, and you must not revisit the work at all in the meantime. If you can, wait a week. Then go back to it. Hopefully by then you might have forgotten the exact details of what you wrote and your mind will be much more open to seeing mistakes; you won’t be reading what you think you know is there, but what actually is there.

If your proofreading someone else’s work, it should come to you having had the first, and probably the second, proofreading stages done already. No-one should be asking you to take a rough draft and turn it into something perfect, unless they simply want your opinion on a work in progress, but aren’t expecting you to actually correct anything. So if you’ve got a piece of work in a relatively good state and are ironing out the little mistakes, how do you start?

I always go through the process using the Microsoft Word ‘review’ tool, found here on newer versions of word:

In old versions you need to right click any toolbar and enable the ‘reviewing’ toolbar, than you will have all the buttons you need. On both versions, you then need to click ‘track changes’, this means that any revisions you make to the text will show up in a different colour and be reversible, like so:

To accept or reject your changes, the person you’re editing for will have to click the accept changes button, either individually for each alteration, by accepting all the changes in a document in one go, or by highlighting part of the text and clicking accept to accept all changes in that section.

One of the best features of this tool is the ability to add comments to the text, to do this, click the new comment button, a comment will appear wherever the cursor is currently situated within the text, or you can highlight a section and then click comment, this will indicate that your comment relates to that entire word, sentence, or section:

This is especially useful for the following:

Indicating you don’t understand what is meant

Justifying/ explaining the changes you’ve made

Showing where references need to be added


Of course, you can use the review tool on your own work too, especially if you’re not sure of changes you’re making and want to try them out before you make them permanent.

I hope this is helpful, if you have any other tips on how to effectively proofread your own work, please comment below 🙂

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Tips and Tricks 9: Colons and Semicolons

I’m going to be honest, colon and semicolon usage is something I really struggle with, while I’m hot on apostrophes, these little bits of punctuation tend to baffle me, and I ofetn end up relying on commas and dashes.


This has to change, as a professional proofreader and copywriter this is an unacceptable gap in my knowledge, so I’m going to search out the best online sources of information and take you along with me as I learn more. Hyperlinks will take you to the specific srticles I’m quoting from, not just the site homepage.



Wikipedia succinctly states that “A colon informs the reader that what follows the mark proves, explains, or lists elements of what preceded the mark.” and gives the following examples:

There was only one possible explanation: the train had never arrived.

I have three sisters: Daphne, Rose, and Suzanne.

Luruns could not speak: He was drunk

It also states that colons should be used to introduce a subtitle to a work, so my BA Dissertation would correctly be named as:

What the Fuck?: An Analysis of Swearing in Casual Conversation


Sussex University‘s website also has a great list of correct colon uses, and states that ” the colon is never preceded by a white space; it is always followed by a single white space in normal use, and it is never, never, never followed by a hyphen or a dash — in spite of what you might have been taught in school.”



These are a lot more complicated, and certainly tend to baffle me more!

Certainly the most memorable guide on its usage that I found, was this comic by The Oatmeal

But Sussex University also strikes again with a whole page of helpful guidelines, beginning like this:

“The semicolon (;) has only one major use. It is used to join two complete sentences into a single written sentence when all of the following conditions are met:

(1) The two sentences are felt to be too closely related to be separated by a full stop;
(2) There is no connecting word which would require a comma, such as and or but;
(3) The special conditions requiring a colon are absent.

Here is a famous example:

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

A semicolon can always, in principle, be replaced either by a full stop (yielding two separate sentences) or by the word and (possibly preceded by a joining comma). Thus Dickens might have written:

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. or
It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.”

They also list this sentence as an incorrect semicolon usage:

“In 1991 the music world was shaken by a tragic event; the death of Freddy Mercury”

The sentence above does not contain two halves which could stand independantly as sentences ‘the death of Freddy Mercury’ is not a sentence in itself, so the sentence above should have a colon not a semicolon.


Bristol University has a handy quiz to help you grasp semicolon usage, it gives you good feedback explaining why you gave the right or wrong answer. However, it only tests your knowledge regarding semicolon usage within sentences, and there are a few other uses of the semicolon I wil go on to explain.


Semicolons can be used in lists where each example in the list contains a couple of pieces of information, such as:

“I have recently visited Topeka, Kansas; Cheboygan, Michigan; and Honolulu, Hawaii.”

or “In the meeting today we have Professor Wilson, University of Barnsley; Dr Watson, University of Barrow in Furness; Colonel Custard, Metropolitan Police and Dr Mable Syrup, Genius General, University of Otago, New Zealand.”

Both of the above examples would become very confusing if all the semicolons were replaced with commas!


Grammar Girl does a great job of explaining how semicolons can be used to emaphasise relatedness between sentences, and to avoid having too many short sentences.


I hope the above links helped you as much as they’ve helped me.

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Tips and Tricks 7: Common problems and how to solve them

This entry gives tips on twelve mistakes I see again and again in students’ work. They are all easily avoidable, and if these are observed in conjunction with my other tips and tricks you should be well on your way to having a very readable and nicely laid-out essay. The content of course, is up to you.


1)         Tabs and page breaks are easy to use in Microsoft Word, yet so many students resort to using the space bar or enter key to create breaks in the text. This is not a good method as creating a large space using the enter key may mean a heading is at the top of the page initially, but if you change some text higher up, the entire document will move up to fill the gap, leaving your headings in funny places. A much better way to keep headings at the top of pages is to use page breaks. These can be inserted via the insert menu, under the ‘break’ option, just place the cursor where you want the break to occur. These break the text meaning the next line appears at the top of the next page. Inserting these breaks before headings will keep your text well ordered no matter what else you change. (You can remove breaks by clicking the ‘show formatting’ key, clicking the break and clicking the delete key).

Tabs are a way of creating even gaps in text, though the tab key is most often used to create indents at the start of a new paragraph. Tabs are useful for making text on separate rows line up, for example:

A list

can be drawn

so each item lines up with the one above

more accurately than just pressing the space key multiple times!

2)         Make sure all text is either justified, or left aligned throughout your document – not a mixture of both. Using formatting creatively, for example having certain key quotes centred within the rest of the text, can look really nice, but having inconsistent formatting such as random variations in text size, line spacing and alignment just looks unprofessional.

3)         On a similar note, keep formatting for headings consistent. You may wish to adopt a system which shows heading hierarchy such as main headings in bold, sub-headings in italics and sub sub-headings in plain text.

4)         Make sure bulleted/numbered lists are not out of line with the rest of the text (unless they are intentionally so, and if this is the case, follow this convention for all lists in the document).


1)         Make sure paragraphs flow logically, there should be no abrupt subject changes. This is obviously easier said than done, and like many problems, is often hard to spot in your own work, as you understand the logic behind the order, even though someone else might not. This is easiest corrected by either (if you have time) setting the work aside for a week and coming back to it – this makes problems easier to spot, or by having a friend look over it and tell you if any parts don’t make sense. To avoid abrupt subject changes stick to one topic per section, so that all paragraphs in that section have a logical link. Use words such as ‘likewise’, ‘alternatively’ or ‘similarly’ to show that sentences have a relationship to the ones before.

2)         Make sure all writing is in the past tense, not present or future. This is an often-made mistake because writing often starts before all the research is complete, so at the time of writing sentences like ‘questionnaires will be distributed’ make sense. However, always try to imagine how this will sound from the perspective of the reader who is reading your essay when everything is complete.

3)         Always tell the reader where to find things – don’t just say ‘in the appendices’ or ‘discussed later’ give them page reference. This is especially important in dissertation length essays or documents with very long appendices, as it is very frustrating as a reader to not be immediately able to find what you’re looking for.

4)         Abbreviations cause a whole host of problems. First, make sure that you define your abbreviations! Check through the document to make sure it is the very first use of the abbreviation that has the definition – don’t leave it to a later sentence when the reader may already be confused. Also make sure your abbreviations are consistent and properly capitalised (many abbreviations such as PhD contain both upper and lower case characters). If you have created an abbreviation yourself make sure you use it to mean only one thing, e.g. one student used ‘VM’ to mean both Visual MerchandisING and Visual MerchandisER, – as one was a job title and the other the description of a process, the abbreviation ‘VM’ should have been used for one or the other, not both.


1)         Harvard references should always have page numbers as well as dates (Smith 1988:12). The exception to this is if you are referring to the entire subject of a book or article, rather than a specific section of the text, in this case, only the date is used, e.g. ‘there have been multiple texts on the evolution of the species (Dawkins 2009, Ridley 2006)’ – as you can see from this example, this is a good way to reference multiple texts which have a common theme.

2)         For both Oxford and Harvard references make sure you have the place of publishing, as well as the name of the publishing house, e.g. Oxford: Blackwell

3)         For Oxford references, if you have a footnote for a reference and the one immediately after it would be an identical reference, it is ok to write the word ‘ibid’ after the reference number. This is Latin for ‘as above’ and means you can avoid unnecessary repetition.

4)         It is a common academic practice to put a web address between these symbols <> like this: <> this distinguishes the web address from the rest of the reference and makes it easier to see.

Please keep following this blog for more useful hints – or even better comment on my entries – I am always willing to help and am happy to elaborate on anything you don’t feel is clearly explained. I am also very happy to answer individual questions, or to create entries based on questions asked.


Tips and Tricks 2: Apostrophes

While colloquial uses of apostrophes are rapidly changing (as my boyfriend recently pointed out, MMO’s is the accepted pluralisation of this acronym), it is worth knowing the rules for academic and professional writing, as you’re far more likely to encounter the pedantic types who really care about grammar and punctuation in these areas. So here are the uses of apostrophes:

Contracted words are words which are either words with bits missing, or words consisting of two words put together, with bits missed out. E.g:
don’t (do not)
it’s (it is)
or the incredible naval term fo’c’sle (forecastle, referring to the upper deck of the ship)
notice in all of these that the apostrophe replaces the missing letter, it is don’t, not do’nt.
Though please note, normally contractions should not be used in academic writing, wherever possible, use the full form.

Apostrophes can denote ownership, such as “Mary’s hat”. This is the most commonly incorrectly used form as the apostrophe is often placed wrongly, or, these can be confused with plurals, leading to mistakes such as “apple’s”.

The rule is: for singular ownership, the apostrophe goes before the ‘s’:
The cat’s milk (one cat owns some milk)
Bob’s trousers

For plural owners, the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’:
The cats’ food (food belonging to multiple cats)
the mothers’ children (multiple children belonging to multiple mothers)
Freshers’ Fair (the fair for many freshers)

There are however, some exceptions, which only make things more confusing… e.g.:

  • The pronoun ‘it’ does not take an apostrophe to denote ownership, “it’s” always means  the contracted form of “it is” and never “the thing belonging to ‘it'”, the correct way of writing “the thing belonging to ‘it'” is “its” as in: The creature chased its tail.
  • Irregular nouns which look different when plural (i.e. those where something other than just “adding an ‘s'” happens, such as ‘mice’ or ‘children’ not ‘mouses’ or ‘childs’) have the apostrophe before the ‘s’ when plural to denote ownership, so not “the childrens’ coats” but “the children’s coats”
  • There is the option, though many people choose seemingly arbitrarily on this rule, of using just an apostrophe, rather than apostrophe plus ‘s’ to denote ownership on words which end in ‘s’: “James’ book”, though many place names, and even the name of my old secondary school, choose to ignore this rule “King James’s Square” “Lord Williams’s School”

Apostrophes are never used to denote plurals. Not even plurals of acronyms such as “CD” or “CEO”, these are always CDs, CEOs, apples etc. Apostrophes are also not used to denote decades such as “the 80s”, though this is a rule which seems to be in a state of flux and may not continue to be correct usage for much longer as uses such as ‘the 80’s’ and ‘CD’s’ are frequently seen.