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Use of English


Run-on sentences/Comma splice

A run-on sentence is two sentences that are merged incorrectly without a joining word or linked by too weak a form of punctuation. This examples shows a form known as a comma splice: Run-on sentences are grammatically incorrect, they are one of the most frequent errors in text even though they read badly.

There are easy ways to correct a run-on sentence:

  • add a semi-colon, which is much stronger than a comma: Run-on sentences are grammatically incorrect; they are one of the most frequent errors in text.
  • change the run-on sentence into two sentences: Run-on sentences are grammatically incorrect. They are one of the most frequent errors in text.
  • add a joining word: Run-on sentences are grammatically incorrect and they are one of the most frequent errors in text.


Take care to match the subject with the verb: A group of new buildings including the Departments of Computer Science and Theatre, Film, Television and Interactive Media opens in October not A group of new buildings including the Departments of Computer Science and Theatre, Film, Television and Interactive Media open in October.

Collective nouns, such as team, crew, tribe, group, none, should be followed by a singular verb or pronoun when thought of as a single unit, but they take a plural verb or pronoun when thought of as a collection of individuals:

The committee gave its unanimous approval to the plans.

The committee enjoyed biscuits with their tea.

Number can be either singular or plural depending on how it is used: A number are without a loan but The number is slowly decreasing.

Split infinitives

Sometimes split infinitives make a sentence easier to understand: Enrolment in distance learning courses is expected to more than double in the next five years. However, a sentence is easier to understand if you don't split the verb with a lengthy phrase. As a rule, choose the version that sounds the least stuffy.


Some general points:

  • Headings at all levels have minimal punctuation.
  • If a web address (url) occurs at the end of a sentence, finish the sentence with a full stop.
  • Avoid double punctuation. Quotations that end with a question mark or exclamation mark should not be followed by a full stop outside the quotation marks.
  • If the sentence ends with a quotation that is a full sentence, the full stop should be put before the closing quotation mark.
  • Avoid using exclamation marks.


Apostrophes are used to indicate abbreviation, possession or contraction.


Belonging to just one person: the lecturer's notes. Belonging to more than one person: the lecturers' notes.

Possessive plurals of nouns omit the s after the apostrophe: The classes' timetables were confused.

Some plural nouns have no s: children. These take apostrophe s in the possessive: children's games not childrens' games.


Use 's for the possessive case in English names and surnames wherever possible: Hargreaves's, Dickens's. It is customary, though, to leave out the 's when the last syllable of the name is pronounced iz, as in Bridges' as long as you are consistent.


Use apostrophes in phrases such as in two days' time and six weeks' holiday but no apostrophe in adverbial phrases: three weeks old.

University examples

Use apostrophes in:

Students' Union
Overseas Students' Association
Graduate Students' Association
Freshers' Week

Colons (:)

Colons are used to:

  • introduce lists: There are specialist pathways in: child and adolescent mental health, diabetes nursing, health and social care, learning disability, midwifery.
  • separate statements in a sentence, when the second statement explains the first: The Department of Chemistry has some of the best facilities in the country: its laboratories have recently been refurbished.

Never follow a colon with a dash or hyphen. Always follow a colon with a l/c unless the next word is a proper name or title.

Commas (,)

We do not normally use 'serial' (or 'Oxford') commas. Use them only if it is necessary for clarity: for the Departments of Biology, Computer Science, and Theatre, Film and Television.

In general, don't add commas just because you might pause when speaking a sentence, but do add them if the meaning might be misconstrued without them.

Dashes (–)

The en dash (also known as en rule) is used as a dash. It is longer than a hyphen and has different functions. In most software, it can be found under 'Symbol/Special characters'.

En dashes are used:

  • between ranges of numbers –15, 2000–2003), taking the place of to
  • for linking distinct items or names for contrast or comparison: northsouth divide
  • where they replace 'and': Myers–Briggs
  • to indicate 'minus': –3°C
  • with spaces on both sides to separate clauses as a 'dash': Nearly all academic staff undertake teaching and research – a distinguishing feature of York.

Ellipses (...)

There is no space before an ellipsis, but there should be one space after one: '... an important date.'

Do not add a full point after an ellipsis at the end of a sentence: 'There is a problem...'

Hyphens (-)

Hyphens are used:

  • in compound adjective phrases: up-to-date records; a 12-hour journey and three-digit number
  • for two-word adjectives when followed by the noun: fast-flowing river; but not if it comes after the noun: the river is fast flowing
  • when two words are frequently used together: an in-depth interview; the longed-for result
  • to avoid confusion: to re-create a scene.

Semi-colons (;)

Use semi-colons to separate:

  • two related ideas within one sentence: Don't add a semi-colon for a pause; add one only if the text afterwards relates to the text before. When used in this way both ideas must have a subject and a verb.
  • items in a list where the items include commas so are fairly complex: The meeting was attended by Professor Andrew Wilson, University of Barnsley; Professor Christine Watson, University of Skipton and Dr Hilary Holmes, University of Auckland.

Do not use a semi-colon to introduce a list (use a colon for this).

Quotation marks ("")

  • Use double quotation marks not single.
  • Use single quotation marks for emphasised words or phrases and for a quotation within a quotation.
  • For a longer quotation, simply indent on both left and right sides.
  • There is no need for quotation marks around the title of a module, workshop or conference which has initial capitals on important words.

Punctuate quotations as follows:

  • He said, "This is the right way to punctuate quotations."
  • "This is the right way to punctuate quotations," he said.
  • He said that this was 'the right way' to punctuate quotations.
  • He said, "This is the 'right' way to punctuate quotations."

Keeping your style simple

Keeping your style simple by using plain English is important because it makes your text more readable. This guide, and the suggestions here, are designed to make text and images in University publications easy to understand, enjoyable to read and accessible to all. The guide is not intended to make publications simplistic, or to crush individual writing styles.

Vary sentences

Try not to use the same sentence construction throughout your prose. For example, if you are writing about a particular person, do not begin every sentence with their name or the personal pronoun.

Fred Bloggs was professor of glass studies at Harrogate University for six years before moving to Australia to examine the effects of tropical weather on modern glass manufacturing. This in turn led him to write about glass performance in typhoons in the South Pacific. The book was a surprise best-seller.

Sounds more interesting than...

Professor Fred Bloggs was appointed to a chair in glass studies at Harrogate University in 1977. He moved to Australia in 1983 to study glass manufacturing. He spent a great deal of time in the South Pacific islands and wrote a book about typhoons and glass.

Text is often more readable if you vary the length of sentences. This gives a more interesting rhythm to the words.

Use active verbs

Any text can come across as turgid if it is written using passive language. You can engage the reader's attention by using active verbs. It's usually better to say The committee decided to..., than A decision was made by the committee to...

The procedure will be implemented next week is better than. The implementation of the procedure will take place next week.

We discussed the matter is better than We had a discussion about the matter.

Write appropriately for different audiences

Any writer should be clear who they are writing for before they begin to write. Is your audience young, well-educated, familiar with the subject? Are you writing important information which they are expecting and need to have for their job? Or are you writing for strangers, trying to engage their interest in something?

When you are writing for the web, remember that your text must make sense out of context since readers will have come to it from different routes. Keep your sentences concise. Use bulleted lists, descriptive headings and emphasise keywords by using bold. For further information see Writing for the web.

'Verbing' nouns

Avoid using verbs which have been made, for convenience, from nouns. There is an increasing trend in journalism to do this and they tend to make writing heavy-handed.

Examples include:

NounExample of 'verbing'What to use instead
action We must action these items. carry out
access Please access the file to find out. find; look in
impact The weather will impact the event. have an impact on
author Who will author the report? write
source Who will source the material? search for
progress The minutes were progressed straightaway. produced
task We have been tasked to... asked; given the job of

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