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Category : Punctuation Rules


By S Nicholas

The Little, Brown Handbook (1986) defines plagiarism as “the presentation of some else’s ideas or words as your own; from the Latin word for kidnapper.” See what I did there? I let you know that I did not make up that definition. I gave credit to my source.

Many of the papers we edit at EditMyEnglish are related to Ph.D. programs. And in the Ph.D. world, plagiarism is a HUGE deal! Those caught plagiarizing will be kicked out of their programs of study. In extreme cases, legal action might ensue!

So how do you avoid plagiarism? As one of my high school teachers taught me, when writing a paper, almost every sentence should be cited. That’s right! Almost every sentence! The sentences not containing citation are your very own. They are your thoughts that link one source to another source.

Your own thoughts do not need to be cited. For example, “I do not like cold weather.” That doesn’t need to be cited because it is your opinion. Common information also does not need to be cited. For example, if you say, “Florida is hot in the summer,” that doesn’t need to be cited. Most people generally acknowledge that Florida is hot in the summer.

Additionally, if you state common information, such as that the French Revolution took place from 1789-1799, it does not need to be cited. That is historic information, generally accepted to be true.

However, if you write any thoughts another author has shared on a topic, you do need to cite it. Someone else’s independent material, material attributed to them, would be ideas not generally known (unlike the dates of a war, or temperatures of a specific region, which ARE generally known).

You cannot take an author’s idea and re-word it a little and call it your own. Any idea you get from someone else needs to be cited. It is perfectly acceptable to use other works within your paper. Just cite the sources! In fact, the more outside sources you have in your paper, the stronger your thesis will be! But…you HAVE to cite all your sources.

The best way to avoid plagiarism is to cite your sources OR paraphrase the author’s material. To paraphrase correctly, without plagiarizing, use your own words to rephrase what another person said. Wait. Doesn’t that seem to conflict the preceding paragraph? Let’s look at an example:

Original: John F. Kennedy said, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That quote could be used in a paper, citing Kennedy as the original author of that quote, and using quotation marks. It would be perfectly acceptable to do it this way.

Plagiarism: I think that as citizens of this country, we should not ask what our country can do for us but rather, we should think about what we can do for our country. In this case, only a few words were changed, but the original intent of the original quote remained intact without citing a source. Therefore, it is plagiarism.

Paraphrasing: A famous man once suggested that we should consider how we might be of service to others, rather than waiting on others to serve us. In this case, an attribution was made to a source, the main idea of the original thought was left intact, but the way it was stated was changed.

The main concept to grasp when writing a paper is that you have to acknowledge where you got your ideas. It is illegal to take someone’s property for your own use; it is also illegal to take someone else’s words (intellectual property) and use them as your own.

I can usually spot plagiarism easily. If I’m working on a paper, heavily editing each paragraph, and then suddenly come across a perfect paragraph, my suspicions are raised. There are now computer programs for teachers to use to help spot plagiarism. When in doubt, either find a source to cite, or word your sentence in such a way that the reader has no doubt who had that thought.

Good students are typically conscientious, citing heavily, and using their own words to link between other authors’ words.

The Seductive Semicolon ;)

Okay, that may be a bit of a misleading title – there’s nothing all that sexy about semicolons (except perhaps for those folks who are really into English grammar). The most suggestive thing you can do with this particular piece of punctuation is make a winking emoticon, which, of course, is not an appropriate course of action when you’re writing something for your professor or submitting for publication. Nonetheless, the semicolon has a number of uses which can be very handy. One of those uses is relatively common; the other two described in this article are not as well known. All of them, however, may prove helpful to you in your writing.

Use #1: Combining Sentences. The most commonly known use of the semicolon is to combine two closely related independent clauses. The above paragraph actually contains an example of this:

One of those uses is relatively common; the other two described in this article are not as well known.

The first part of the sentence (i.e., everything before the semicolon) is an independent clause, as is the second part of the sentence (i.e., everything after the semicolon). In other words, there are two complete sentences that, from a grammatical perspective, could just as well be divided by a period. The semicolon, however, links them together more closely than a period would. This function is especially useful when illustrating a contrast or a cause-and-effect relationship, as in the following examples:

The forecast predicts snow for tonight; however, the game is still scheduled to be played.

The city’s unemployment rate hit nearly 12% in March; therefore, the mayor decided to seek additional state funding.

Use #2: Dividing Complicated Items of a List. In most lists, commas are the go-to punctuation for separating the items. However, if each item is relatively complicated or contains punctuation marks, then a semicolon is a clearer way to separate the list. For instance:

Next semester I am enrolled in History 302: The Western World since 1800; History 343: Art, War, and Religion in the Middle Ages; and English 201: Rhetorical Criticism.

In the above example, a semicolon is appropriate because each item is fairly complicated and contains at least one punctuation mark. If the writer of the above sentence chose to simplify the course titles, then commas would be more appropriate:

Next semester I am enrolled in History 302, History 343, and English 201.

This function of the semicolon is also useful when listing complicated numerical items such as dates, as illustrated in the sentence below:

As a result, protesters gathered in front of the Capitol on January 2, 1962; February 11, 1963; and June 24, 1964.

The above sentence would be difficult to read if it used commas instead of semicolons, since there would be a cluster of commas and numbers all scrunched together without clear separation. (“As a result, protesters gathered in front of the Capitol on January 2, 1962, February 11, 1963, and June 24, 1964.”)

Use #3: Creating Parallel Structure. This isn’t just any kind of parallel structure. In fact, the majority of sentences with parallel structure do not require a semicolon. There is, however, one particular kind of parallel structure where the semicolon is needed. Consider the following example:

The buildings were silent; the streets, deserted.

In this case, the comma effectively stands in for the verb “were.” Another way to phrase the sentence would be to say, “The buildings were silent, and the streets were deserted.” Notice how employing the semicolon makes for a more efficient use of words. While the above example may seem purely poetic, this function can actually prove very useful when reporting data. For instance, if you conducted a study involving three groups of participants, you could report data in a sentence like this:

Group A showed 33% improvement; group B, 21%; and group C, 9%.

This construction saves a lot of space and repetition compared to the alternative: “Group A showed 33% improvement. Group B showed 21% improvement. Group C showed 9% improvement.”

To summarize, keep these three applications of the semicolon in mind:

  1. Combining Sentences
  2. Dividing Complicated Lists
  3. Creating Parallel Structure

And I suppose if you’re interested in sending flirty text messages, there’s the fourth and most ambiguous use:

4. Making a winky face ; )

But perhaps it’s best I save my emoticon advice for another post.

It’s All in the Words!

By S Nicholas

I love words! I have always loved words. After a career working with words, I have decided that how people use language directly relates to how intelligent they are perceived! Note that I am talking about perception, and not necessarily reality. People with multiple college degrees who speak or write improperly convey to the world that they are, in fact, not smart. Likewise, people who may not have a college degree but talk and write correctly convey to the world that they are extremely intelligent. It’s all in the words.

Some of the most common mistakes which impact perceived intelligence include:
• “Between you and I” – This is NEVER correct! There is not a situation in which it would be ok to say or write “between you and I.”
WRONG: Between you and I, the food here is bad.
RIGHT: Just between us, the food here is bad.

• The misuse of I versus ME . The shortcut to knowing which is correct is to remove the other name in the phrase, and use either or I or me to see which works.
WRONG: Sam threw the ball to Jeff and I.
RIGHT: Sam threw the ball to Jeff and me.
If you remove the name “Jeff,” you will see that only the word “me” works correctly.

• Commas – this tiny punctuation mark is responsible for most of the mistakes I read!
1. A comma-splice occurs when two sentences are joined together by a comma.
WRONG: It is a hot day, I am going to eat ice cream to cool off.
RIGHT: It is a hot day, so I am going to eat ice cream to cool off.
Two sentences cannot be joined together with a comma unless a conjunction (and, so, but, etc…) follows the first complete thought.
2. A run-on sentence occurs when a sentence containing multiple phrases does not contain commas.
WRONG: It is a hot day so I am going to eat ice cream to cool off because I love ice cream and it always helps me feel cooler.
RIGHT: It is a hot day, so I am going to eat ice cream to cool off because I love it, and it always helps me feel cooler.
Commas used correctly help set off phrases in a distinct way in order to help the reader understand the message.

• Quotation Marks –It is important to remember that the comma and the period ALWAYS go inside the quotation marks!
WRONG: Jane said, “Go outside”.
RIGHT: Jane said, “Go outside.”
WRONG: The musical, “Hello Dolly”, was held last weekend.
RIGHT: The musical, “Hello Dolly,” was held last weekend.
Note that the comma and period need to be INSIDE the quotation marks. In some cases, the question mark might be outside of the quotation marks. For example: Did you hear him shout, “Fire”?

• You’re versus Your – The best way to determine which is correct is not to use the contraction, “you’re,” but spell out you are. If “you’re” trying to say “you are,” the contraction would work.
WRONG: Your trying to find your socks.
RIGHT: You’re trying to find your socks.
“You’re” is the contraction for “you are.” “Your” is simply showing possession…your socks, your house, your cat. Most frequently, people write “your,” but mean to say “you are.” When in doubt, don’t use the contraction.

Using proper grammar is an introduction of yourself to others. To put forth your best image, speak properly and write properly. A teacher’s hint for improving grammar: read good literature frequently!