Academic Tips and Tricks

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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.

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Tips and Tricks 5: Essay Formatting

To many of you, this may be obvious, but it is something that is so worth doing. Most of you probably receive a style-guide at the beginning of the academic year listing the standard essay format in which your tutors would like your work submitted. Obviously I can’t claim to know all your submission guidelines, and I suspect the vast majority of universities now have electronic submission, so some of these tips will be less relevant. However, all this aside, this will ensure your tutors do not get frustrated whilst reading your essay by something which is so easily remedied.

These were my department’s guidelines, and should work well for most academic assignments:

  • Font: Times New Roman or Ariel, 12pt, black
  • Spacing: 1.5 – double
  • Margins: 1.5 – 2cm

Graphical assignments/art subjects will probably be more fluid in their presentation rules, but check first if in doubt.

Always have one. This is especially paramount if you’re handing in a paper copy of your essay. And don’t forget, even if you use electronic submission many tutors will print out your work for archiving or just because they don’t like to mark assignments looking at a screen. The header should include:

  • Page numbers
  • Your name
  • Your tutor’s name
  • (optional) assignment title
  • (optional) your module name/code
  • (optional) your student ID number

All of these things make the assignment more clear and easy to read. They also make it easier to look back to the assignment and remember when and who it was written for.

Title Page
This should contain all the info in the header, plus all the optional points. It should be one full A4 sheet and in a larger font to make it clearer:

This is the title page of my MA dissertation, for standard assignments, the line about “dissertation submitted for the degree of…” does not need to be included.

For essays of 4000 words plus, a contents page can be very helpful, especially if you have a lot of headings and sub-headings, as you can see from the picture below, even very complicated essays can be easily understood if the contents page is clearly formatted:

As always, I hope this helps.

(Both example pages are taken from my MA dissertation, and are the intellectual property of myself, Elizabeth Marsden – though you may, of course, use the formatting and layout as inspiration in your own assignments if you wish).