Checking Spelling and Grammar

The spelling and grammar in a formal research paper must meet top standards. You can begin by using the spelling and grammar checker in a word processing program, but this should only be the start of the process. You still need to go through your paper word by word and sentence by sentence to ensure that you catch and correct all errors.

Sometimes automatic checkers catch what can only be referred to as potential errors. They flag any words for spelling that they don't recognize, for instance, and almost all cases of passive voice, even though sometimes the passive voice is preferable. Make sure that you don't blindly agree to every change suggested by a spelling and grammar checker. Instead, use them merely as guidelines.

You need to slow down when you are doing any proofreading and editing. Read your paper word by word at a much slower pace than you would usually read. If you read at your normal pace, you will not see all of your errors.


With so much advanced software available, you would think that a spell checker could find and fix any errors in your paper. However, no spell checker can recognize every word, and if you have ever used a spell check program before, you know how often it flags common words.

One thing spell checkers often cannot do is identify places in the text where you have spelled a word correctly but have used the wrong word. That is why there is no substitute for your own proofreading, or someone else's.

You can speed up this process if you know what to look for. For example, it is common to make errors in pluralized words. This being the English language, there are as many exceptions to rules as there are rules themselves. Here are some rules to remember:

  • For words ending in “s,” “sh,” “tch,” “x,” or “z,” add “es,” as in “messes” and “witches.”

  • For words ending in “ch” with a soft sound, add “es,” as in “porches.”

  • For words ending in “y” preceded by a vowel, add an “s,” as in “days.”

  • For words ending in “y” preceded by a consonant, change the “y” to an “i” and add “es,” as in “countries.”

  • For words ending in “o,” you usually just add an “s” to form the plural, as in “memos.” In a few instances you add “es,” as in “potatoes.”

  • For words ending in “f,” you usually change the “f” to a “v” and add “es,” as in “elves.” In some cases you add an “s” to make the word plural, as in “beliefs.”

Proofread and edit for different errors each time you read through your paper. Don't try to catch everything with one pass through it. You should also save the edited draft after each round of corrections in case you want to go back to a previous draft at any point.

You also need to pay close attention to possessives. In most cases it is a simple enough rule to add an apostrophe and an “s” to a noun to make it possessive. When the noun is singular and ends with the letter “s,” you add an apostrophe and an “s.” When the noun is plural and ends with the letter “s,” you just add an apostrophe.

When you are writing the possessive of a family name, you make it plural first, and then just add an apostrophe. Therefore, the possessive of the name Spalding is Spaldings’. Possibly the most important rule is to stay consistent throughout your paper and show these possessives the same way every time.

One of the most common errors with possessives occurs with the words “its” and “it's.” “Its” is the possessive form of the word, whereas “it's” is a contraction of “it is.”

Word Usage

As you proofread, check for proper word usage. As you read through the paper, look out for words that are frequently mistaken for similar words, or for words that don't fit the context of the sentence. These could be words that you used despite being unsure of their meaning.

When you write the first draft you know what you want to say, but you can't find the correct words to use. Because you are writing quickly, you put down the best word that you can think of at the time. When you proofread the first draft those words should catch your eye because the meaning of the sentence will be a bit jumbled.

This also can happen if you try to make your paper sound more academic than it needs to be. You should use formal English, but not to excess.

Some similar words that are often confused and used improperly include these:


Errors in capitalization almost never change the meaning of the sentence, but they are a distraction to the reader and indicate a lack of effort on the writer's part. Check with The Chicago Manual of Style or whatever style guide you are told to use to verify your capitalization. These are some of the main capitalization rules to remember:

  • Capitalize the first word of every sentence.

  • Capitalize the first word of long quotations that are set off.

  • Capitalize all names of people.

  • Capitalize the days of the week and the months of the year.

  • Capitalize the names of holidays.

  • Capitalize the main words in a title, but not prepositions, articles, or conjunctions.

  • Capitalize place names and country names.

  • Capitalize the points of a compass.


You can easily check your punctuation by reading each sentence separately. Don't try to read through the paper in sequence while checking for punctuation. You need to do this very slowly, one sentence at a time.

Use exclamation marks and question marks very sparingly, if at all. Your research paper should not “shout” to the reader or pose questions. In a research paper you make statements, which means that most sentences can end in a period.

The more common errors come with some of the other types of punctuation, and you should always confirm the correct punctuation rule with the style guide you are using. Here are a few brief guidelines:

  • Use commas after every item in a list and before a joining word in a long sentence. (“The top spice exports from India include pepper, turmeric, ginger, and cardamom.”)

  • Use quotation marks at the beginning and end of every direct quote. (“Mr. Whitby said, ‘The food was very bland, lacking completely in spice of any kind.’”)

  • Use colons to introduce lists. (“You will need the following materials: an old tie, some polyester stuffing, and four small pieces of felt.”)

  • Use semicolons to link two complete but related sentences. (“He had very large feet; his shoes had to be custom made.”)

  • Use parentheses, or brackets, to separate a group of words from the rest of a sentence. (“The dog (a Rottweiler) had ten puppies gathered around her.”) Use brackets when you want to put parentheses inside parentheses. Some citation styles require the use of angled brackets around e-mail or Web site addresses.

  • Use hyphens to form some compound words. (“She was their key decision-maker while only in her mid-twenties.”)

People usually have difficulty with one or more specific types of punctuation. Concentrate on catching those, but watch for others as well.

Common Grammatical Errors

Though automated grammar check in a word processing program picks up some errors, it also skips many of them, and frequently flags items that are fine. It is up to you to check for grammatical errors. While there are a multitude of grammatical errors, some are more common than others. Check the style guide to confirm the proper grammatical form. You may also want to check a guide that focuses on grammar, such as Grammatically Correct, by Anne Stilman, or Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White.

Most people tend to make the same mistakes repeatedly. These may be certain grammatical errors, words you always misspell, or words you commonly misuse. Take note of these mistakes, and watch for them specifically whenever you proofread a paper.

Students quite often use a comma to join two independent clauses. You should use either a period or a semicolon to join these. For example, it is correct to state “We camped at this spot often; it was secluded yet close to everything we wanted.” Papers also often contain sentence fragments and run-on sentences.

A sentence fragment is only part of a sentence. If it were read by itself without the sentence before or the sentence after, it would make no sense. All of your sentences need to be complete. A run-on sentence is one that could easily be split into two or more complete sentences. It contains no punctuation to indicate any pause when it is being read. It should be split up into as many complete sentences as possible.

Avoid wordiness. Sometimes students also use sentences that go on and on explaining something that could be explained in a simple, direct method. Some examples and descriptive language help to fully explain a thought, but you should keep the focus in your sentence and avoid rambling.

Also, make sure that all of the subjects and verbs are in agreement. This means that they are either singular or plural, not a mixture of the two, and that they are both referred to in the first person, second person, or third person. For instance, use “The girls dressed up in costumes from the Renaissance,” not “The girls dressed up in a costume from the Renaissance.”

A final common grammatical error is the misplaced modifier, which causes misinterpretation of the entire sentence. For example, if you state that “The car barely missed the old cow as it sped across the field,” you are suggesting that the cow is speeding across the field, not the car. A better construction would be “The car sped across the field, barely missing the old cow.” The modifier should always appear as close as possible to the words it is modifying. Then there will be no confusion as to what it is modifying.

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