Grammar rules

If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

Have you noticed that “overlook” and “oversee” have opposite meanings, but “look” and “see” mean the same thing?

English is often considered one of the most difficult languages to learn. One reason for this could be some of the tricky grammar rules (or, rather, exceptions to the rules).

When you’re writing an academic paper, it’s worth bearing some of these in mind so the first draft of your manuscript is clear and ready for editing or proofreading. Here we take a look at three aspects of English grammar you’ll need to tackle in your writing.


In a research paper it’s important to get your tenses right, to be clear about when things happened – or are going to happen. Making sure you use the same tense throughout your article is one way to ensure clarity – if you talk through your research in the past tense, make sure you stick to that.

There are four types of past tense in English; switching between these in your writing can make it tricky for the reader to follow.

  • Past simple: we incubated the culture
  • Past continuous: we were incubating the culture
  • Past perfect: we had incubated the culture
  • Past perfect continuous: we had been incubating the culture

Past tense spelling can also be tricky; if “fought” is the past tense of “fight” why is “lit” the past tense of “light”? Be sure to use spell check!


Punctuation can be deadly: it makes the difference between “Let’s eat, Granny!” and “Let’s eat Granny!”

That’s a lighthearted example, but it shows how a simple comma can change the meaning of a sentence. Keeping your sentences short and simple is one way to make sure readers understand your meaning.

Apostrophes are particularly tricky for native and non-native speakers alike. The general rule is they are used for two purposes:

  1. To show possession – the plant’s leaf
  2. In abbreviations – that’s instead of that is; the ’ replaces the missing letter

For plurals – including numbers – you never use an apostrophe. Think apples, not apple’s and 1980s, not 1980’s.

Word types

An estimated 50% of the English language is made up of nouns – names for things, people and places. These words tend to be the simplest to get right, it’s the other words in the sentence that can be challenging. Here are some examples.

  • Articles: “the” is for referring to something specific (“we ran the experiment”) and “a” or “an” are for general things (“aluminum is a metal”). “An” is used in front of a word that starts with a vowel sound (“an electric charge” or “an FWCI”) and “a” is used for words that start with a consonant sound (“a light pulse”).
  • Verbs: make sure you’re using the right tense (see tenses above) and use spellcheck!
  • Prepositions: is the beaker on the bench or at the bench? Is the ladder against the wall or beside it? Prepositions tell you where something is, and using the right one is vital for guiding the reader through your research. If you’re not sure, check it with your editor.

English might be challenging, but it’s not impossible. The important thing is to make sure your meaning is clear – that makes the research you present in your paper understandable and reproducible.