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How to write a solid essay: what is bad syntax

For most college students, their stresses over writing an essay that will receive a great grade revolve around topics, organization, and research. That’s understandable, because when first attending university, the standards instructors have for these three elements are significantly increased. However, in their anxiety over these things they may allow the quality of their essays to suffer in other ways—namely, spelling, grammar, and syntax.


In an age of ever-present word processors, spelling is a dying skill, because students expect their computers to spell for them. And while making the most of all the tools available to them, including word processing software, is a great student strategy, students should not depend overmuch on automated software. There are many instances of misspelled words that even the most sophisticated programs won’t catch, including homonyms or words that by chance are actual words, but not the word the student intended to use.


A strong command of grammar is also important. While students may feel they are already writing grammatically correct essays, they are sometimes not taking into account academic conventions or instructor preferences. For example, the use of the passive voice is not grammatically incorrect, but it is often scorned in academic circles. Students that cultivate an awareness of their grammar use will find it much easier to adapt to these changes.


Syntax is a subset of grammar, but it is of particular relevance to writing university level essays. Syntax is the way sentences are structured—word order, for example. The reason so many university students have difficulty with writing essays that have strong syntax is that they fail to understand that the preferred structure of sentences is noticeably different in formal versus informal writing, and in speech.

Improving Syntax

The best way for college students to improve their essays’ syntax is to read academic writing that has been published and become alert to the differences in sentence structure. Compare a published literary criticism, for example, to an informal blog, or the way that sentences are structured in conversation. While the structure in the published essay may at first seem foreign to the student, or pretentious, it is this type of syntax they must learn to use in writing their essays. While academic syntax is different and more formal than other types of syntax, it serves several purposes, including precision.

Top educational resources

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