University of Minnesota

Online Grammar Handbook




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1. My paper is due tomorrow.  How do I start?

2. I can't think of a good subject! 

3. I hate writing (or) I only have one hour.  What if I copy a paper from the
Internet?  Or what if I just find one or two things on the Internet and rewrite them in my own words?

4. Where can I find a one-on-one tutor?

5. My professor just says I need to revise a lot.  What does that mean?

6. My professor tells me my writing needs a lot of improvement but won't tell me
how.  Should I just I give up?

7. Why won't my professor let me prove anything with Wikipedia, scripture, famous quotes, a dictionary, or an encyclopedia?

8. My professor says I have a big problem with "___" in my writing.  What the heck is "___"?




1. My paper is due tomorrow.  How do I start? Try one of these:

  1. Reread your assignment two more times--and actually take notes on it.

  2. Check some starting methods in Chapter 2.

  3. Check out what others have done in Chapter 12 or Chapter 20: click on the type of paper you need, and follow the most explicit directions or example you can find.

  4. How soon is "tomorrow" coming?  If there's time, ask your professor--or ask a tutor in your tutoring center.

  5. Ask your friends in this order: i. those who've had the course and got A's or B's;
    ii. those who've had the course; iii. anyone alive you can find.

  6. Write anything and, tomorrow, show your rough draft and beg for an extension.

2. I can't think of a good subject!  Try one of these:

  1. Most professors don't bite (or if they do, they're not infectious), so ask them.  (It's better to annoy a professor a little than be totally unknown to him or her.)

  2. For a general or starting writing class: Take your assignment to your school's writing or tutoring center and ask a tutor to help guide you in developing your own ideas.

  3. For a writing assignment in a specific discipline (e.g., literature, philosophy, or one of the sciences): Take your assignment to your school's subject-oriented tutoring center and ask a tutor in that subject.

  4. Ask a favorite professor, a friend, or someone who gets A's or B's in the subject or class.

  5. Take the assignment to a librarian and give the librarian his or her thrill of the day by asking for help in choosing a subject (and tell them you only have 15-30 minutes before they give you 10,001 sources or 101 ways to search the web). 

3. I hate writing (or) I only have one hour.  What if I copy a paper from the
Internet?  Or what if I just find one or two things on the Internet and rewrite them in my own words? 
Consider these:

  1. Whoa--you're tempted to be very bad.  It does sound quick and easy....

  2. But you better think again.  First, doing either of these options is the "P" word: "PLAGIARISM."  (See Chapter 16.)  Using someone's words without quotation marks and giving them credit is plagiarism.  Even using someone else's ideas is plagiarism unless you give them credit.
    To college professors and administrators--and the legitimate business world--plagiarism is a forbidden act.  Plagiarists are given F's on papers, flunked out of classes, thrown out of schools, kept from receiving scholarships, placed on academic probation, tossed off school teams, and, in the professional world, fined or removed from jobs, and sometimes even sued for millions of dollars.  If you're caught, your name can be worse than mud, and the results can follow you through life and future attempts at employment. 
    I personally have seen or heard of the following incidents:
    (i.) a full-scholarship college athlete nearly lose his scholarship and position on the team for plagiarism of two papers
    (ii.) a starting-level professional placed on six months' probation with loss of 10% of his salary and a reprimand in his permanent file for copying another company's secret documents and writing them as his own
    (iii.) several students automatically flunked from a course for not giving credit to their sources
    (iv.) a student placed on academic probation for presenting another person's paper as his own
    (v.) a student who was kicked out of school after several incidents of cheating

  3. Second, there's no good reason to skip writing lessons.  You need plenty of practice because virtually all surveys show that 50-90% of professional people's time is spent writing.  You may end up not just looking dumb but losing out on jobs and promotions if you can't write competently.  Usually, the better you write, the better your salary and jobs.

  4. Third, you may still have a part of your mind asking, "Who's going to find out this  one time?" 

  5. So, fourth, the answer is, "Your professor easily can."  And if he or she even suspects plagiarism, she will not only investigate it carefully but also may ask other professors to help her.  The great majority of professors have ways of discovering your plagiarism by using web searches or special software programs, many of which are free: just try, for example, doing a web search for "detecting plagiarism."  Professors--who usually are pretty smart--usually work hard at trying to catch plagiarists. 

  6. Fifth, professors often can actually tell by the style of your writing, your bibliography sources, and even the way you use punctuation that you've copied someone.  Sometimes they can even tell what school you attended before theirs, just from your writing style--and they may know what is NOT your old school's writing style.

  7. Sixth, do the paper--even if it is bad or just a rough draft.  Then show it to the professor, ask for an extension, and offer to take a one-letter-grade penalty.  If you're too late to turn in anything at all, apologize to the  professor afterward, ask if you can still turn a paper in for a reduced grade.              
    The worst that can happen is that the professor will say "no." The professor will still remember you as a student who at least tried. And some professors may, instead, say "maybe": they may have some flexibility--if you apologize and if you, yourself, take the initiative to ask for more time, another chance, or extra credit. 

  8. And seventh, in the professional world to which you are headed, a bad memo or report usually is better than no performance at all.  And even no performance may be forgivable at least once.  But faking it--plagiarism--ruins your rep, and often your job, forever.

4. Where can I find a one-on-one tutor? Here are some options:

  1. #1 RULE: Ask well in advance!  You need plenty of time to make the appointment, go to it, and/or get a response.  Do it preferably a week or more ahead of time, but at least two to three days.

  2. ONLINE TUTORING--NATIONAL: There are very few national or regional online tutoring services that are free to anyone.  You might find something at the International Writing Centers Association website.

  3. ONLINE TUTORING--FOR A FEE: There are several web-based services that offer online tutoring for a fee.  Some are better and some less so, and much depends on what you want, to.  Many of them offer generic checking of a paper for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and generic organization.  If you have specific needs for organization, content, or higher-level disciplinary writing, you may have difficulty finding a fee-based tutor for them. To look at a list of fee-based tutors, use a web browser to search for these phrases: "writing tutor" or "writing tutor college."

  4. ONLINE TUTORING--LOCAL: Your best bet is to find your own college or university's "writing center," "tutoring center," or "learning center."  Try a web search with your school's name and city and one of these phrases.  If you are not connected to a college, call your nearest large city or county library: larger libraries often have some kind of tutoring service.  Your college, university, or nearby large library may or may not have an online service: just call or email and ask.  You may be able to find a tutoring center near you listed at International Writing Centers Association.

  5. IN-PERSON OR TELEPHONE TUTORING:  See above, "b.," and call or email about when you can set up an individual appointment.  Sometimes, if you are unable to travel to the tutoring site, you can ask to receive tutoring by phone if you can also email the tutor your paper before your appointment.

  6. FRIEND/RELATIVE:  While friends or relatives may be open to helping, when you ask them you should also find out whether they have either received an "A" in the same class AND are excellent at this particular problem (grammar? organization? or what?), and often it pays to ask two or three friends/relatives to help so that you get multiple perspectives.

  7. FORMER PROFESSOR: A number of students ask former English professors (or professors in the appropriate disciplines with great writing skills) to help them.  It doesn't hurt to ask--and the great majority of professors will perceive your asking as a compliment, even if they can't find the time.  So feel free to ask!

5. My professor just says I need to revise a lot.  What does that mean?

Whoa, first cool down.  It's you're lucky day--the professor is NOT out to get you (in 95% of cases).  He or she just wants you to...wait for some revising!  Maybe even a lot.  This applies to about 95% of people 95% of the time in new writing situations.  Here's what to do: 

  1. Ask the professor what he/she wants.  If needed, ask for an office appointment.  (Professors are paid to do this stuff--you should be asking if you need the help.

  2. If the professors says to go to the writing or tutoring center, that's cool.  That means he/she trusts the writing tutors to help you and feels you'll get excellent help there.

  3. Or, on your own, find out about the writing/tutoring center and go.  Those who get tutoring are the good students who, according to surveys, end up with "A's" and "B's."  (The students with C's or lower tend to avoid writing tutors.)

  4. Ask a couple of friends or a former professor or teacher to read your paper.

  5. Ask your professor again.

  6. Once you have some key words or phrases for what you need, look them up in this grammar handbook (use "Find" in this browser's tools functions), or look them up by searching for them on the web.

  7. And when you get the chance, ask your professor. 

  8. If your professor can't explain what you need to do, then see a writing tutor and/or see "6" below!

6. My professor tells me my writing needs a lot of improvement but won't tell me
how.  Should I just I give up?
I'm very sorry this is happening.  It's possible your professor doesn't know how to tell you what is wrong, or just doesn't have enough time.  Here are some possible solutions:

  1. If you're serious about giving up, then ask yourself whether you can give up for the entire term: can you drop the course at this point in it without incurring a serious penalty or problem?  Where, when, and under what conditions will you retake the course if it is required?

  2. If you cannot drop the course, then don't give up on the assignment or the prof.  Figure out how to work with him or her, or the writing assignments.

  3. One option is to try asking your professor more specific questions such as "What is the part that needs the most work?" or "Could you go through a paragraph with me and show me what I need in it?"

  4. Another option is to request a time for you to meet with him or her in her office.

  5. If you are afraid of the professor or feel you need a go-between to help translate to you what the professor wants, bring a friend.  Most professors are fine with that.

  6. Know that it is usually better to annoy a professor (slightly) than to let yourself be totally ignored, especially if the professor has misjudged you or doesn't understand you.

  7. Also remember that you (or someone for you) is paying money for him/her to teach and help you.  The great majority of professors are required to have office hours specifically so they can answer students' questions and offer them help.  And the great majority of professors really do want to help their students succeed.

  8. Ask for a sample or several samples of good student writing of the kind he/she wants!  It's a reasonable request, no matter what the answer.  If your professor cannot or will not provide examples, then download several different examples of sample papers from Chapter 12 or Chapter 20 of this Online Grammar Handbook, show them to your professor, and ask which one is the best.

  9. Ask around among others taking the class and see if you can get copies of two or three previous assignments that received "A's" or "B's."

  10. It may help you to read "The Temple of Dr. Doom."

  11. If you try everything and discover you really are dealing with a jerk, remember--he is your jerk.  You aren't responsible for him, but he is responsible for your grade, so you'll need to do the best you can to work with him.  (Consider it good practice for dealing with unavoidable unpleasant people in the future.)

  12. If all else fails, almost all schools have a secrecy policy that enables you to go to a dean to ask for help without your name being released to anyone, including the professor, unless you give your permission.  You can always ask the dean first about the secrecy policy before you reveal the name of the professor.  If you have the very occasional really bad situation that affects a large number of people in your class unfairly, then develop a petition and take as many people as you can with you to the dean. 

7. Why won't my professor let me prove anything with Wikipedia, scripture, famous quotes, a dictionary, or an encyclopedia? Here's why--three different sections with three different answers:

  1. WIKIPEDIA:  It's really cool for checking out definitions and general ideas as a start.  However, you have to treat it like you would some ideas from a wide variety of your own friends.  Some of the articles are written by experts.  Some are written by people that know almost nothing.  And some are written by people who know almost nothing but think they are experts.  This is exactly why professors do NOT like Wikipedia to show up in any college research paper, even a rough draft. 
    Instead, the highest kind of scholarly articles and books are called "peer-reviewed," "refereed," or "juried."  This means that a panel of scholars (from two to five or more, depending on the academic journal) have carefully examined the article or book and have determined that it is of high enough quality to publish.  Wikipedia lets anyone upload a new article or change in it, and if others do check it and change it, there is no note about their level of scholarly excellence. 
    In many fields, specifically proven facts also are considered of highest value.  But even "facts" have to be proven, first.  If you can find a "fact" in at least three highly respected sources without the sources mentioning where the facts came from (or mentioning the same place), then likely what you have found is fact.  Wikipedia does not always do this, either, because it lets anyone state "facts."
    So, Wikipedia might be a good place to start a search for information, but you can never trust the source of the information.  And neither can your professors.  So, use it if you want, but check out the info elsewhere--and use sources that professors consider more accurate.

  2. SCRIPTURE or FAMOUS QUOTATIONS:  It also can be very cool--lots of great lessons, stories, and advice.  However, scripture can be used to prove almost anything.  It is, therefore, not useful in scholarly papers for proving a point--someone else can just quote some other part of some other scripture to prove the opposite.  In fact, scripture in most papers is like using famous quotes: college professors don't really want famous quotes because they don't really prove anything: someone can prove the opposite--or several differing points of view--by quoting some different famous quotes.
    The exception for scripture is if you are actually researching the scripture itself.  For example, perhaps you are taking a religion course and are trying to explain several potentially opposing points of view that, say, Moses, Mohammed, or Buddha might have expressed about a specific subject like, perhaps,  "a man's duty to woman."  Then you might offer several different passages from different parts of scripture to illustrate several possible interpretations.
    Likewise, famous quotes sometimes are acceptable to some professors as an interesting way to start or end a paper--an introduction or conclusion.  But they better really nail your subject or your conclusion.  Likewise, if you are in a highly religious school, some of your instructors might appreciate an interesting scriptural quotation in your introduction or conclusion--again, though, only if they are highly applicable.  Ask the professor before trying it!  But whether you use famous quotations or scripture, never let them replace scholarly or factual quotations and paraphrases.  What scholars and researchers have said--not famous quotations or famous scripture--that will prove your points in a scholarly, collegiate way..

  3. DICTIONARY or ENCYCLOPEDIA: Does the professor need a definition of something?  It's highly unlikely in undergraduate and even most graduate papers.  If he/she doesn't, then don't provide it.  The tone and style you are supposed to adopt in college is that of an expert writing for other experts in the same field of study.  If those experts (and your professor) don't need a definition, then don't have it.  The same goes for most general encyclopedia articles, as well--they are too general and obvious to professors and similar scholars.  Exceptions, though, are what are called "subject encyclopedias/dictionaries."  For example, The Encyclopedia of Behavioral Psychology or The Oxford Shakespeare Dictionary may sometimes be quoted or paraphrased.  Ask your professor!  They are sources that may hold descriptions unknown to or debated by experts in the same or related fields. 

8. My professor says I have a big problem with "___" in my writing.  What the heck is "___"? Choose one or more ways of finding out what "___" means:

  1. Ask him/her.

  2. Go back to the home page of this site and, in the tools function of your web browser, find the "Find" function.  Click on it and look at each instance in the OGH of use of this word.

  3. Do a word/phrase search for it in your web browser using Google, Bing, or some other search engine.

  4. Ask around.

  5. Ask a different professor.

  6. Make a librarian's day--go ask him or her what it means.  She may not know, but she'll probably know where to find out.

  7. Tomorrow, ask your professor.



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Editor: Richard Jewell, Inver Hills College, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU)   

Originally published by the Univ. of Minnesota English Department's Composition Program Web Site.

First date of publication: January 1, 2001.  This edition: August 1, 2012.  Most recent updates in this page: August 1, 2013

URL:  Also available at


To contact the author, go to Contact Richard Jewell.  
Requests, reports of broken links, and suggestions are welcome.


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