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Tricks to Scoring High in An Academic Writing


Montell Benson


After thoroughly studying 15 academic writings of various separate categories to know why they received unbelievably poor marks despite that, even to a stickler for grammatical precision like me, they all appeared to have been well written, I discovered that they shared a common subtle defect that can sometimes be imperceptible to a trained eye: bad punctuation.


Before I continue, I think you might find this next information valuable. Academic essays, articles, etc. are evaluated across the following four dimensions: task achievement, coherence and cohesion, lexical resource, grammatical range and accuracy. Your marks in each of these dimensions are averaged to determine your overall score. This is why it is advisable for you to pay attention to them as you write. But, apart from being able to use a wide range of vocabulary and grammatical structures with textbook accuracy, demonstrating sophistication regarding the use of lexical terms, organising ideas and information logically and making your entire writing to be coherent and cohesive, you should also know how to punctuate sentences correctly.


Unfortunately, many people often worry if what they’ve written is not their best explanation instead of worrying about whether it is their clearest explanation; they often get carried away by the instinctive urge to write top-notch pieces that will impress markers so much that they resort to using verbose, unnecessarily florid language, and inflated grammar.


The problem with all these is that they can lead to using punctuation marks like the colon ( : ), semi-colon ( ; ) and dashes ( – ) wrongly. Funnily enough, these punctuation marks are not even necessary. So, why run the risk of failing if you do not know where and how they ought to be used? As a matter of fact, the only two punctuation marks you will ever need to use in academic writing are the comma and full stop. While academic writing makers often tolerate round and square brackets when they are placed around extra information in reports, they almost never, as a matter of strict adherence to rules, fail to distinguish between commas and dashes, treating commas as formal (appropriate) and dashes as informal (inappropriate).


Now, let’s see how to use these two essential punctuation marks effectively, starting with the COMMA (,).


Commas are, for the most part, used to mark off different sections within a sentence; but it is sometimes difficult to know how to use them correctly. You will find the guidelines that follow helpful.


1. A single comma ensures correct reading of a sentence which sets off with a long introductory element:

♦ According to reports presented by pioneer ecologists at the convention, not much has been done to conserve biodiversity. ✔️


2. We normally use commas in longer sentences to separate information into readable units. They also often separate clauses in a sentence and sometimes come before a coordinating conjunction like ‘and’, ‘but’, etc.:

♦ While the president was giving a speech at the ceremony, there was a sudden power cut. ✔️

♦ It is not that the newspaper publication lied exactly, but it did tend to exaggerate the issue. ✔️


3. A single comma is used after many sentence adverbs or starting linkers like ‘however’, ‘moreover’, ‘basically’, ‘by contrast’ and such:

♦ By contrast, the value of the naira in the global market declined to reach an all-time low in 2021. ✔️


4. A set of commas acts as a means of separating items in a list:

♦ Informal expressions are suitable for this kind of writing but business letters, applications, proposals and warnings would certainly require a more formal tone. ✔️

5. Pairs of commas are needed in the middle of a sentence to secernate any string of words which is either a parenthesis, or in contrast, to whatever went before:

♦ Drivers of vehicles, whether private or commercial, need to know how to read road signs. ✔️


||• Caution: do not add a comma after ‘that’ at the beginning of a clause:

♦Research has shown that certain flaws in children’s behaviour can be traced to the negative influences in the environments they live. ✔️


♦ Scientists have expressed concerns over pollution levels and warn that there will be devastating consequences if adequate measures are not taken to fight the menace. ✔️


♦Research has shown that, certain flaws in children’s behaviour can be traced to the negative influences in the environments they live. ❌


♦ Scientists have expressed concerns over pollution levels and warn that, there will be devastating consequences if adequate measures are not taken to fight the menace. ❌



A full stop is generally used to mark the end of a sentence:

♦ Wildlife experts say there has been a dramatic increase in the population of hitherto endangered species of birds these past two decades. ✔️


As I hinted earlier, if there’s a way for you to escape using colons and semicolons in an academic writing and using commas instead where they would have ordinarily been used, please do. However, if it can’t be helped, here’s how to use them correctly.


COLON ( : )

1. A colon is used to introduce a list:

♦ There are two other varieties of moth that are seldom mentioned: the codling moth and the hawk moth. ✔️

♦ The organisation solicits for three kinds of assistance: financial, educational and psychological. ✔️


2. It is also used to precede an expansion or explanation such as in splitting two parts of a sentence where the first leads on to or introduces an idea which appears in the second:

♦ Plans are well under way to introduce measures of austerity: subsidies on basic commodities such as fuel will be removed, interest rates will rise and businesses will suffer as government can no longer borrow to pay for its deficit spending. ✔️


Note: in British English the first word after a colon does not begin with a capital letter except it is a quotation, a proper noun or a content word in a heading, or the colon is followed by several complete sentences. The opposite is more often the case in American English.



1. Semicolons are used to separate items in a list that are grammatically complex:

♦ As stated in the document, a foreign organisation may be allowed to occupy the building on condition that they pay their rent regularly; that they will be responsible for carrying out all necessary cleaning; that they undertake to repair or replace any damaged facility; that they agree to act in accordance with any rule that may be necessitated by unforseen changes. ✔️


2. In certain instances, a semicolon can mark a much stronger division within a sentence compared to a comma, and is better than a full stop in order not to separate two ideas that are closely related. It gives a sentence a clear balance, with separate but linked ideas pivoting on it. For examples:

♦ Some students study best during the day; others do better at night. ✔️


♦ Large tropical fruit bats generally have good eyesight and are mainly fruit eaters; the numerous smaller bats feed mostly on insects, and use ultrasonic echolocation. ✔️


3. A semicolon is used between the items in a list, particularly when each one is quite extensive:

♦ HIV can be transmitted through various ways: transmission by blood and by sexual fluids through unprotected gay and heterosexual contact; transfusions of infected blood or blood products; sharing of needles, syringes and sharp objects contaminated with HIV infected blood; from an HIV infected mother to her baby — during pregnancy, in childbirth or after delivery through breast milk; but, certainly not by coming in direct contact with the body fluids of infected persons such as sweat and saliva as there is not enough amount of the virus in them. ✔️


Montell Benson is a grammarian, certified IELTS coach, Pearson editor/proofreader, and book reviewer. Reach him here: 
Email: coolmontell@gmail.com

The neck-deep investigation, OSINT Fact-checking, Climate Change airing the marginalized, and doing critical and accountability reporting is what I do. I lead a group of professional investigators at the PIJAlance Magazine Research and Investigations Desk (RID). If you have a story, check 'contact us' to hit me.

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