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Written assignments

Use our simple guide to help you make the right choices with your punctuation

Using correct grammar will help your marker understand your assignments and help improve your marks during your degree. 

Using commas

Using commas properly will make your arguments clearer and help your reader understand your statements – this is especially important when you're writing about complicated ideas and theories.

Using commas to divide items in a list

Usually you don't need to include a comma before the final item in the list and you'll use a word like 'and' or 'or' instead. For example: 

Their essays focused on healthcare, therapy, nursing and rehabilitation.

If an item in your list includes an 'and' you'll need to use an extra comma (known as the Oxford comma) in your list. For example: 

We'd like to order cheese salad, egg and tomato, and ham sandwiches.

The second comma separates 'egg and tomato' as fillings for one sandwich from the other items in the list. Without the Oxford comma it wouldn't be clear if the customer wants one sandwich with egg and another with tomato and ham, one sandwich with egg and tomato and another with ham, or one sandwich with egg, one with tomato and one with ham.

Using commas after introductory phrases in sentences

An introductory word or phrase can signal the continuation of a point, change the direction of a sentence or emphasise an author. Most of these phrases need a comma after them to show where the main part of the sentence begins. When this happens phrase before the comma can be helpful for the flow of the text but could be removed without losing the meaning or point of the sentence.

Three examples of continuation:

  1. In addition, it is essential to drink plenty of water.
  2. Consequently, dehydration can be avoided.
  3. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the ambient temperature.

Two examples of a change in direction:

  1. However, drinking too much water can overwhelm the kidneys.
  2. Having considered the need to drink enough water, it is important to consider the effects of drinking too much water on health.

An example of emphasising an author:

According to Smith (2013), students prefer to attend lectures later in the day.

Using commas in complex sentences

Complex sentences have two parts called clauses:

  1. An independent clause, which could exist by itself
  2. A dependent clause, which needs the independent clause in order to make sense.

The clauses are linked by a specific type of connector, which can be a word or a phrase.

Examples of connectors:

  • although
  • even though
  • whereas
  • while
  • if
  • unless

Independent clauses

If an independent clause comes first you don't use a comma. In the following example the first part of the sentence stands alone as a complete sentence:

I am going to the theatre tonight although the exams start tomorrow.

Dependent clauses

If a dependent clause comes comes first, it is always followed by a comma. In the following example the first part does not make sense without the second part.

Although the exams start tomorrow, I am going to the theatre tonight.

Additional uses of commas

Adding information to shorter sentences

When you add information this way it can be removed without a sentence without losing its meaning or the topic. For example: 

Carl Jung, who was originally seen as a protégé by Freud, is known for his work on archetypes and how they influence human behaviour.

Linking another point

We often use relative pronouns like 'which', 'who' and 'where' to bring in a linked point. The clauses either side of these words can stand alone and make sense. For example: 

English is what is known as a dense language, where meaning is often conveyed in fewer words than in a Latin-based language.

Download our commas revision sheet

Download this page as a PDF for your grammar and punctuation revision notes.

It's and its 

'Its' and 'it’s' mean different things. Typically, you shouldn't use contractions in your university assignments.

Its

'Its' is a possessive pronoun like 'my', 'your', and 'their'. Foe example:

  • Every country has its traditions.
  • The horse shut its eyes and neighed.
  • This approach also has its disadvantages.

Possessive nouns have an apostrophe, which represents that something 'belongs to' someone. For example:

  • Michael’s car broke down yesterday. (The car belonging to Michael.)
  • It was Janet’s turn to lead the meeting. (The turn of Janet to lead.)

It’s

The apostrophe in 'it's' shows a contraction and stands for 'it is' or 'it has', where the apostrophe replaces the missing letters. For example: 

  • It’s snowing again.
  • Have you seen my jacket? It’s disappeared.
  • It’s probably true that most pop stars use Autotune.

Download our 'it's and its' revision sheet

Download these tips as a PDF for your grammar and punctuation revision notes.

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