What are Standard Writing Conventions?

Conforming to the standard writing conventions make your essays, assignments,

dissertations and exams understandable and easy to read. Writing conventions are the language rules that help your reader understand your text.

Writing conventions bring out the meaning of your text as they guide your readers on how to read the text.

Your text must flow smoothly with commas, periods, hyphens where necessary.

Writing Conventions

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Conforming to the writing conventions ensures that the communication process is made possible.

You must note that the writing conventions are historical agreements by society on how information should be relayed to make sense to the readers.

The agreements were made in the 18th and the 19th century, and they change slightly with time.

There are several reasons why it matters that your text is regarded as correct by your audience:

  • If your writing has numerous errors, a reader may place a negative judgement on your ideas, and in fact, ignore your ideas. There is a perception in academia that individuals who do not write correctly are also not smart; hence, individuals who are not sharp are not even worth paying attention to.
  • When your readers find it hard to read your text, they become confused and could misinterpret your ideas even if they try to figure out what your thoughts, the effort and time consumed take away the enjoyment. In other words, it is not fun to read a poorly written work.

For students, it is not always easy to master all the writing conventions. This is because you will need time to learn the set rules, then edit all your work to conform with the set rules and guidelines in writing.


  1. Conventions of Punctuation
  2. Conventions and Mechanics in Grammar
  3. Conventions of Sentence Formation
  4. Modifier Placement
  5. Conventions of Usage: Pronouns


Punctuation includes:

  1. Periods
  2. Commas
  3. Exclamation Marks
  4. Question Marks
  5. Apostrophes
  6. Closing quotations
  7. Colon
  8. Semicolon
  9. Dashes
  10. Parenthesis

1.Comma (,) Rules

a. Commas are used for a small pause, listing or shifting of a sentence.

For example,

A List

I bought vegetables, milk, bread, and cheese at the store.

NB: Use the word ‘and’ between the last two items of your list.

You can choose to put a comma or not before the word ‘and’ of your list.

A small Pause

Mary, her friend of five years, walked out on her after her alcohol addiction escalated.


b. Commas are also used to separate non-essential phrases, clauses or words.

A non-essential word or phrase means that you can take the whole chunk of a sentence out, and the sentence still works and has meaning.

For example,

Saturday, which also happens to be my relaxing day, is the only available day for a meetup.

Nyeri, which is in central Kenya, is the coldest region in Eastern Africa.


c. Commas are used before a FANBOYS conjunction.

FANBOYS stands for: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So.

The above are connecting words. They combine two sentence chunks that could be sentenced on their own.

For example,

The performance ended, but Mike preferred to leave before getting Lil Wayne’s autograph.

You can ask him, but I don’t think he has an answer.

I don’t have cash, so stop asking for money

When you have any FANBOY clause connecting two sentences that would make sense on their own, use a comma before the clause.


d. A comma is used if the first word of a sentence is a freestanding “no” or “yes.”

For example:

Yes, he was bullied at a tender age.

No, I do not need your assistance.


e. Commas are used to offset appositives in a sentence.

Appositives are synonyms from a juxtaposed phrase or word.

For example:

“While doing my shopping at the mall, I saw a Chihuahua, a type of dog.”

“A type of dog” is the appositive giving more information about “a Chihuahua.”

NB: If the appositive occurs at the middle of your sentence, add a comma at both sides of your phrase.

You do not need to add the comma if the sentence only mentions the month and year.

For example,

A Chihuahua, a type of dog, barked at me.

A Comma is used to offset negation

I saw a huge dog, not a German Shephard when I was on my way to school.


f. Use commas to separate two adjectives if their order is interchangeable

Such adjectives are also known as coordinate adjectives.

A perfect way to determine if a comma is needed in this scenario is to put ‘and’ between the two adjectives. Is the resulting phrase makes sense, then add the comma.

For examples:

She is a strong, healthy woman.

We could also say that she is a healthy, strong woman, or she is a strong and healthy woman.

However, sentences with non-coordinate adjectives do not need a comma. For example,

“We rented a cheap summer house for our holiday.”

in the above case, we cannot interchange the adjective “cheap” with “summer resort”.

If the above adjectives are interchanged, the sentence will lose its meaning.


g. A comma is used to separate elements in a full date (weekday, month and day, and year).

For example:

February 12, 2019, was the day he was born.

NB/ Separate the combination of those elements from the rest of the sentence with commas.

Commas are used before a sequence of three numbers when noting down a number larger than 999

For example: 23,973

However, this rule does not apply to years or house numbers.


h. A Comma is used in enclosing a degree or title.

For example,

Barkley Jones, D.D.S., held a briefing with the shareholders of the company.


i. Use a comma when closing letters and after the salutation.


Dear Sir,


Yours Faithfully,

Jacob Jones


j. Use a comma between cities and states, cities and counties, and states and countries.

For example:

Kampala, Uganda


k. When in doubt, take it out.

When you are not sure, always lean towards pulling it out.


2. Period Rules (.)

A period is also known as a full stop in British English.

It is a small dot punctuation mark.

A period ends of an imperative or declarative statement.

In other words, a period ends a complete idea.

Do not put a space before a period. Instead, space is needed after a period.

Besides, it is a requirement that you start the sentence after the period with a capital letter.

When to use Periods

a. Use periods at the end of a sentence that is meant to command or instruct.

For example:

Iron your clothes before you put them back in the wardrobe.

Close the door behind you.


b. Periods are used at the end of an indirect question

For example:

I have a question I need to ask you.

My father used to wonder why my room was always cluttered.

The coach asked Andrew why he was late for practice.


c. Periods are used in sentences that make statements

For example:

Our dog is white in colour.

John wants to be a doctor after school.


d. Periods are used with abbreviations

For example,

3 p.m.

Washington, D.C.

NB: If the abbreviation ends at the end of a command, an indirect question or a statement, the period ending the abbreviation also completes the sentence.

However, although acronyms, such as NATO, WHO, and RADAR, are also abbreviations, they do not usually require periods.

NB/ Exclamation marks and question marks replace and eliminate periods at the end of a sentence.

For example,

Did you get your money?

Get out of here immediately!


3. Apostrophe Rules (‘)

a. Used in contractions to replace missing letters.

For example:

She doesn’t smoke.

Don’t eat that cake, it is stale.

Other contractions include:

Can’t, rock ‘n’ roll, ’tis, should’ve, etc.

b.Apostrophes are also used to show that something belongs to someone or rather to show possession.

For example,

Why are you wearing Barkley’s shoes?

Maribel’s and Cesar’s homes are both lovely

The boss’s husband

A man’s hat

NB: If the ‘s’ after the noun is pronounced, use an apostrophe.

For example,

Boris’s barbecue was amazing

Also, if you need to make a letter plural, then add an apostrophe.

For example,

How many a’s are in the word astigmatism?


4. The Exclamation mark (!)

An exclamation mark is also known as an exclamation point.

An exclamation mark shows emotions such as shock, surprise, anger, or command.

They are commonly used after interjections.

Interjections are phrases or words that are used to exclaim, protest or command.

Examples of interjections include, wow, oh, and boy.

For example,

Boy! I wish I did the assignment earlier.

Wow! This food is super delicious.

Sometimes you can use an exclamation mark together with a question mark, also known as an interabang.

For example,

Why are you doing this to me!?

The above example shows that I sound upset, but at the same time, I am also asking you a question.

NB: You should rarely use an exclamation mark in academic writing. Only use it when it is necessary.

5. Question Mark (?)

A question mark is used at the end of an interrogative question.

An interrogative question is a question that poses a question to the readers.

Question marks are used in cases where either direct or indirect questions are being asked.

It is also important to note that an interrogative question has its subject and verb inverted.

For example,

Are you coming?

Do I need to repeat the question?

Always remember the basic rule that if your sentence is asking a question, it must finish with a question mark. Otherwise, the sentence will seem confusing to your reader.

6. Colon (:)

Colons introduce related information. Find below key rules in the use of colons:

a. Used for introducing items or lists.

For example,

This summer I want to visit three cities: London, Barcelona, and Paris.

I asked her to buy four items at the store: Juice, groceries, bread, and butter.

I have three items in my car boot: my suite case, ball, and a pair of shoes.

b. A colon can also be used between two sentences whenever the second sentence illustrates or emphasizes the first.

For example,

Our vacation in Egypt was the best: we visited the red sea and the pyramids.

Urbanization has led to numerous problems: air pollution increased crime rates, and a shortage of housing for families.

As seen from the example above, the sentence before the colon introduces a general idea which is ‘numerous problems’.

The sentence after the colon explains what these problems are.

c. Use a colon when introducing extended quotations.

For example,

Abraham Lincolns philosophy of commonsense can be summed up as:

“Common sense is cultivated primarily by thinking consistently, analytically, and logically, to reduce the pain of frustration and secondarily to increase success and please in work to live.”

d. Use a colon to introduce a bulleted or numbered list.

For example,

There are five biggest cities in South Africa:

  • Johannesburg
  • Soweto
  • Cape Town
  • Durban
  • Pretoria

e. Use a colon following a salutation (also known as a greeting) in Formal letters.

For example,

To Whom It May Concern:

Dear Mr Jones:

f. Colons are used to express time and also in titles.

With numbers, colons are used in separating units of time. For example, 3:29:00 expressing, three hours, twenty-nine minutes, and zero seconds. Colons are also used in bible verses, for example, Mathew 4:21.

Colons are also used to separate titles from subtitles.

For example,

How to Tame a Wild Tongue: Borderlands La Frontera

NB: The best way to know if you’ve used a colon properly is to ask yourself whether the content preceding the colon can stand on its own, that is, the words that come in from off the colon. If the words do not make a complete thought, then you may be misusing the colon.

Also, the first word after a colon should be in lower case if at all the words after the colon forms a dependent clause. In other words, if the words after the colon cannot stand on their own, then always ensure that they are in lower case.

If the clause after the colon is independent, you may choose to have it in capital or not.

Whichever approach you choose to follow, always ensure that you are consistent.

7. Semicolon (;)

 A semicolon is used to join closely related ideas. They are most similar to a period and can be used at the end of a sentence.

However, the difference is that, by using a semicolon, the writer shows that the ideas before and after a semicolon are connected.

Using a semicolon brings a link to your ideas, a prerequisite to writing clearly and efficiently.

The use of a semicolon makes your writing seem sophisticated.

Key Rules in Semicolon use:

a. Use a semicolon between items in a series or list if any of the items have a comma.

For example,

On our trip to Africa, we will be visiting Zanzibar, Kampala; Nairobi, Lagos, and Cairo.


b. Use a semicolon between independent clauses that are connected by transitional phrases or conjunctive adverbs.

For example,

However, they choose to talk, people are given the right to talk; as a result, most people misuse the freedom of speech.

NB: Delete the conjunction every time you choose to use a semicolon

Conjunctions such as but, or, and are also used to join sentences. However, you should not use conjunction together with a semicolon.

In other words, a semicolon is used in the place of a conjunction.

C. Use a Semicolon to Give a Wily Wink.

A semicolon is used to make an emoticon such as 😉

d. Use a semicolon before words such as however, namely, that is, for example, e.g., and for instance, when they introduce a complete sentence.

Be sure to include a comma after these terms and words.

For example:

Bring your clothes for laundry; however, do not bring your jeans wear and jackets.

NB: Do not capitalize words after a semicolon.


8. Hyphen (-) Rules

A hyphen is a punctuation mark that is used to:

a. make compound words made up of two or more other adjectives.

For example:

It is a four-hour drive to the city.

It’s a 3-dollar meal

b. Compound words made with numbers almost always have hyphens.


They have a four-year-old Chihuahua.

c. Hyphens are also used with certain prefixes

such as:




For example:

His ex-girlfriend has been promoted.

d. If you add a prefix to a proper noun or number, you also need a hyphen.



Post-2018 politics

e. Hyphens are used with fractions and compound numbers.


Two-thirds of the population.

However, if you are not sure what to do, just write the number.


Speech Marks (”’ or “”).

They both serve the same purpose. However, use the double when quoting what someone has said.


He stood up and said, “I want my money before the end of the day.”

Before a speech mark, you can put a comma, a colon or nothing (most efficient).

Whichever style that you choose be consistent.


a. Speech marks can be used to express sarcasm, irony, and scepticism.

For example,

Paying 2000 dollars for ‘Luxury Economy’ was a very good idea.

The above statement shows that there was nothing luxurious about the plane journey.

b. Speech marks can be used to refer to words as words.


Why did you use ‘vicissitudes’ here?

‘Vicissitudes’ is a difficult word to spell

the above words are used indirectly to refer to words themselves rather than ideas.


Use double speech marks to quote what someone has said and

Single speech marks for everything else.



Subject-Verb Agreement Rules

Complete sentences complete at least one subject and one verb. The number of its subjects and verbs must be in agreement.

a. A singular verb that ends with letter s describes the action of a singular noun.


The cow grows

Subject-verb agreement is straight-forward except for compound sentences.

b. Compound subjects with conjunctions such as ‘NOR’ or ‘OR’ use singular verbs.


Neither the cow nor the grass grows

On the other hand, compound subjects with the conjunction “AND” use plural verbs.


The grass and the cow grow.

c. If there is only one subject and more than one verb, the verbs throughout the sentence have to agree with the subject.


Questionnaires are a way to collect information and allow researchers to gain an excellent understanding of their dissertation.

d. For sentences beginning with ‘there are’ or, ‘there is’, the subject must follow the verb. If there is no subject, the verb agrees with what follows the verb.


There are many factors of students failing

There is a lot of government support for the project

e. Collective words represent a group of items or people; however, they are considered singular, and they take a singular verb.

Examples of collective nouns include group, team, family, class, and committee.

Example in a sentence:

The team meets (singular verb) every Sunday.

The band sings (singular verb) on Friday.


f. The singular verb form is usually reserved for time or other units of measurement.


Three grams of salt will be sufficient for preparing the soup

Five minutes is a short time in a mathematics exam.


g. Indefinite pronouns usually take singular verbs.


Nobody wants to be hated

The exceptions to the above rule include:

“few,” “many,” “both,” “some,” “all,” and “several.”

the above exceptions always take the plural form.

For example:

Few were left at work that fateful day

Both are good for consumption

h. Some countable nouns such as goods, earning, surroundings, contents, proceedings, valuables, and odds take a plural verb.

For example:

Locally produced goods have shorter supply chains.

The earnings for this month exceed expectations.



Sentence formation looks into how a sentence is structured, and how clauses and phrases are used in the creation of simple or complex sentences

Before we start looking into the different forms of sentences, let’s look into a few basic rules of a standard sentence:

  • A new sentence must always begin with a capital letter.
  • A sentence contains a subject that is only given once.
  • A sentence ends with punctuation.
  • A standard sentence usually follows the order, Subject + Verb + Object
  • A sentence must have a verb or a verb phrase
  • A sentence must be a complete idea, that is, a sentence is an independent clause.

Types of Sentences

a. Simple sentence

A simple sentence contains only one independent clause. The independent clause has a subject and a verb. However, it may also have modifiers and an object.


I love music.

She completed her assignment.

They studied mathematics for many hours.

b. A compound sentence

A compound sentence contains at least two independent clauses.

The two independent clauses could be combined with a semicolon or a comma with a coordinating conjunction.


I love music, and I love to listen to it often.

He organized his clothes by colour; then, he did the laundry.

They planted their crops at the right time of the season, but they did not have sufficient fertilizer.

c. Complex Sentence

A complex sentence contains at least one independent clauses and a subordinate clause (also known as a dependent clause) put together.

If a sentence begins with a dependent clause, there has to be a comma after the clause;

If a complex sentence begins with an independent clause, we don’t put a comma to separate the two clauses.


I love to listen to music after doing my homework.

The subordinate clause here is: “after doing my homework”

Because he organized his clothes by colour, it was easier for his girlfriend to do the laundry.

Note the comma in the sentence above because it begins with a dependent clause.

They studied mathematics formulae the whole day as they were very interesting.

Note that there is no comma in the sentence above because it begins with an independent clause.

d. Compound-Complex Sentences

A compound-complex sentence has two or more independent clauses and one or more subordinate clauses.


I love music, and I love to listen to it after doing my homework.

Although he organized his clothes by colour, he decided to arrange them by material type, and he carefully followed his girlfriend’s plan for organization.

NB/ Pay attention to the use of commas in compound-complex sentences. Commas make it easy for the reader to follow the intended meaning of your sentences.


Modifiers are all adjectives and adverbs.

Adjectives modify a noun, e.g.

The white cat.

“white” describes the cat

Adverbs modify a verb, e.g.

He ran quickly.

“Quickly” describes running.

A dangling modifier

A dangling modifier is a modifier without a word to modify.

For example,

Absentminded, forgot to buy fruits at the market.

What does “absentminded” describe?

Does it describe a guy? A fruit? The market?

There’s something critically missing from the above sentence, and that’s the noun or pronoun.

Therefore, “Absentminded” is called a dangling modifier.

A squinting modifier

A squinting modifier is a modifier that is unclear because it could either modify the word before it or the word after it.

For example,

Eating your food quickly causes stomach-ache.

What really causes stomach ache?

Is it the food or eating the food quickly?

It’s unclear whether it is the food or eating the food quickly that causes stomach ache.

That’s what we call a squinting modifier.



Verb tense indicates when something is happening.

Jump- Present

I jumped – Past

I will jump – Future


Mood indicates attitude

Indicative mood

States facts or asks questions e.g.

Are you going to the hospital?

The sky is clear tonight

The Subjunctive Mood

It shows doubt or a wish. In other words, it expresses a fictional condition


I would go to the hospital if I was you

An Imperative Mood

It expresses a request or a command. E.g.

You will go to the hospital.

Please drive the car.

Conditional mood

Depends on a circumstance


I will go to the hospital if you come with me.



A pronoun replaces a specific noun or sometimes another pronoun.

A pronoun can be a person or number.

Personal Pronouns

First Person: this is the speaking person. For example:

I am going to school.

“I” is the pronoun

Second Person: this is the person being addressed. E.g.

You are a naughty girl.

“you” is the pronoun.

Third Person: this is the person being spoken about. E.g.

He stays with his dad.

“He” is the pronoun


Singular pronouns: I, my, mine, me, you, someone, she, it, anyone, herself, himself

Plural Pronouns: Us, ours, they, their, them, we, those.

NB: Sentences that fail to conform to conventions of usage need to be revised.

Such sentences may use pronouns or possessive determinants incorrectly.

Pronoun Clarity

Nouns and/or pronouns replaced are called antecedents.

Certain antecedents require specific pronouns.

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NB: Ideas must be expressed carefully so that pronouns clearly refer to specific antecedents.

Possessive Determinants

There are 13 pronouns used to show possession.

Some of them do not need to modify anything.

These are considered to be strong pronouns: mine, yours, theirs, ours, and hers

There are eight other pronouns that are considered weak because the things that they modify must be mentioned. These eight pronouns function as possessive determinants.

Consider the sentences below:

This is my car

What is your name?

From the above, “this” and “your” are weaker pronouns because they have to match with “car” and “name” respectively.


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