Technology Tips for a Better Essay
Technology Tips for a Better Essay: Using "Find" to Fix Your Grammar
Your computer cannot write a perfect thesis statement for you, or make you coffee so you can pull an all-nighter, but there are a number of grammar errors that exist in formal English (used for most post-secondary level essays) that your computer can help you detect. The built-in spell-check and grammar-check can be helpful, but they will not automatically catch some errors. Most software is designed for a much more relaxed business English model, or the errors you have made might be legitimate words, just used in the wrong context.
The Magical "Find" Function
The Find function is available on all modern word processors. Simply put, Find allows you to search for specific strings of characters, spaces included, in the document you are working on. It can be accessed by pressing Ctrl-F or finding the "Find" button in your header bar.
Contractions, Plurals, and their Exceptions
Formal English does not use contractions. Even that last sentence probably sounds odd to your ears if you say it out loud since "does not" is informally spelled "doesn't". This is an easy mistake to make, but it is also an easy mistake to fix. Just use the find function to find every apostrophe in your essay by typing a single apostrophe into the search box. Some of the apostrophes are going to be correct. Any word you come to where the apostrophe is used to denote a possessive (i.e. "John's ball") is still right; the contractions can be changed to full words, and any word that should be plural should have the apostrophe removed.
Exceptions: Remember that "it's" is a contraction of "it is" while "its" is the correct possessive. You will want to search for "its" separately to make sure you are using the right word. Also, plural dates do not use an apostrophe either. For example, referring to the entire nineteen sixties would use the form "1960s", not "1960's".
Quotation Ending Punctuation
Each style manual requires slightly different punctuation when you finish a quotation and cite it. Fortunately, each of them are searchable using "Find"! I have listed the most common styles below:
APA & MLA
APA and MLA in-text citations put punctuation outside of the quotation, after the citation. You can search for these using " " ( " (that is quotation mark, space, open parenthesis). Then you can check that the punctuation is correct. A correct example would look like this:
"The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog" (Seuss, 2007, p. 7).
Chicago footnote citations put punctuation marks inside the quotation, with the footnote marker on the outside. You can search for every footnote marker in your essay by searching for "^f" (you can get that carat mark on a normal US keyboard by typing Shift-6). If you are using an endnote format, those can be found with "^e". A correct example would look like this:
"The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog."1
Sometimes you are using quotation marks to "be more colloquial", writing dialogue, or breaking up a short quotation with words of your own and finishing the citation at the end of the sentence. In these situations you will need to follow your style guide (if it has any requirements) and the type of English you are writing in.
There are two schools of thought regarding punctuation at the end of an ordinary (non-cited) quotation. British English places periods and commas outside the quotation, unless it appears in the original. American English places them inside. Colons and semi colons are placed outside the quotation in both systems, and exclamation marks and question marks are placed according to logic (depending on whether the sentence is an exclamation/question or if just the quotation is). Making sure that this punctuation is consistent is a little more time-consuming, but you can quite easily search each possible permutation of punctuation marks to make sure you have them all correct. So for example, you might search for " :" " (without the spaces) to find any mistakes with colons, and then " ;" " for the semicolons.
There is still a fair bit of controversy about whether one or two spaces should occur after a period, though most formal style guides have settled on one. Regardless, multiple spaces can occur anywhere in the document - I personally find that if I stop for a moment while typing I occasionally insert an extra space - when this happens mid-sentence it can look unsightly. Once again, you can use the Find function to find any double spaces in your document and evaluate if they should be there or not.
Any of Your Other Common Mistakes
The errors listed above are the mistakes that I make most often, or that I commonly see students make, but this method can be expanded to include any unique string of characters you can think of. One of my favorites is homonyms. Do you frequently confuse "weather" and "whether", or "their", "they're", and "there"? Or perhaps you realize at the end of your paper that you have consistently misspelled a complicated name? The Find function can let you search for each of those in turn to evaluate their use individually.
Split Infinitives - Nitpicky Grammar for the Advanced
Split infinitives are a hold-over from 19th century academic writings which occur when an adverb or adverbial phrase is inserted between "to" and a verb. In order to correct this problem, the adverb must be moved elsewhere in the sentence, or the sentence rewritten entirely to avoid it. Wikipedia uses the excellent Star Trek example, "to boldly go where no man has gone before". In formal English, this is incorrect; it should read "to go boldly where no man has gone before". This sounds awkward to modern ears because, technically, English handles split infinitives just fine. They are not a problem for many professors, but the most conservative instructors will still object to them. So, history lesson over, how do we find them? Use the Find function again to search for " to ", complete with spaces on either side. This will show you every time you use the word "to" (and not just any time those two letters appear together in other words). Then you can check to see if there is an adverb between a "to" and its verb.
Conclusion - What "Find" Is, and What It Is Not
All of these tips for using "Find" require you to make judgments based on your knowledge of grammar. They cannot fix your problems for you, only help you identify where they might occur. Nor is "Find" in any way a proper substitute for doing a proper editing pass on your work. It cannot really help with correct sentence structure or anything else that you cannot directly search for. But, with a little understanding of how grammar works and some tech-savvy, you can use these tips to solve five common grammar mistakes in a few minutes that you will then not have to worry about looking for during a proper edit.