Tag Archives: punctuation

Why I Hate the Press!

Why I hate the Press!

I know why they do it (most of the time), but it’s still incredibly annoying and confusing.

I’m talking about grammatical mistakes in the papers.

Yes, it’s important for their copy to be readable, but we have rules on capital letters, spelling, punctuation and other grammar primarily to make language more understandable, not less, so there is a price to pay when mistakes are made.

In addition, newspapers these days employ far fewer copy editors to correct mistakes, so journalists are increasingly having to do spell checks and grammar checks themselves – with predictable results!

As a tutor, I’m in a difficult position. On the one hand, I accept that language changes over time, but my job depends on telling my pupils what is right and what is wrong.

I have to draw a line in the sand and tell people what I would do, but that’s based on the education I got forty years ago!

I’m far more comfortable with language changes that happen over a timescale of centuries rather than years or even decades, and I still teach people not to use words like ‘alright’ or ‘onto’ even though most people wouldn’t know what I was on about.

Anyway, feel free to make up your own mind. Here’s a quick list of the ways in which the ‘style guides’ of newspapers and magazines try to change the rules of English in order to make their articles more ‘readable’:

  • Paragraphs only include one or two sentences (meaning that you often have to check back to see who ‘he’ or ‘she’ is).
  • Commas are omitted before the word ‘and’.
  • Commas are omitted after openers/sentence starters/fronted adverbials.
  • Split infinitives are permitted.
  • ‘Sentences’ may start with conjunctions even though they are strictly speaking only clauses.
  • ‘Likely’ may be used as an adverb.

Writers also simply make mistakes, and my pet peeves are the use of ‘centre around’ (rather than ‘centre on’) and words like ‘focussing’ (rather than ‘focusing’).

I’m sure we can all think of a few more examples, but I thought I’d illustrate my point by putting together a list from just one newspaper on just one day – The Daily Telegraph on Thursday 2 September 2021.

Have a look at the quotations and see how many mistakes you can spot!

‘But, now 34 and in the twilight of his career, it is hard to see Solskjaer using Cavani in the sort of wide role supporting Ronaldo that he became accustomed to for a while at PSG in order to accommodate Ibrahimovic centrally.’

This is not a full sentence as it starts with ‘but’. It is actually only a main clause that needs another main clause before it. The other problem is that we don’t know who or what is 34. By the way it’s phrased, it looks like ‘it’ is 34, but that’s impossible, so maybe it’s Solskjaer, but that’s not right either. It’s actually Cavani!

‘The Norwegian has already admitted he “maybe overplayed” Fernandes and Marcus Rashford is currently sidelined until later next month following shoulder surgery after repeatedly being asked to play through the pain barrier.’

The comma before ‘and’ has been left out. This happens a lot in the papers, but you should be able to see from this example how confusing it is. Commas are a signal to pause when you’re reading, but without that pause It seems as though Solskjaer overplayed both Fernandes and Rashford because it looks like a list. However, the word ‘is’ lets us know that we’re actually entering another main clause. This is just plain confusing and results in readers having to reread sentences in order to make sense of them.

‘Any club sanctioned by Fifa would face further disciplinary action if they defied any ban on fielding affected players – although the teams would likely only do so if they planned on trying to overturn such a ban.’

Pronouns are a problem these days, often because writers don’t want to follow the convention of assuming that an individual is male when using the word ‘anyone’ or ‘everyone’. Using ‘them’ or ‘their’ is an ungrammatical cop-out. Here, the writer uses the plural pronoun ‘they’ to refer to the singular noun ‘club’, which is debatable to say the least. I’d say it was grammatically wrong, but I’ll admit that British English (though not American English) treats clubs as plural when using their names, for example in saying that ‘Liverpool have bought a defender’. That’s all well and good, but that’s not the case here. It’s not the name of a club that’s being used, just the word ‘club’. The other problem is the use of ‘likely’ as an adverb. This is a perfectly acceptable American usage, but ‘likely’ has always been an adjective in British English – until recently!

‘He said: “Monetary policy has always influenced fiscal outcomes — interest rate changes influence sovereign financing costs. But, with QE, the character of the relationship has changed.”’

Colons should be used when introducing a list rather than speech, and ‘sentences’ shouldn’t start with the word ‘but’.

‘In 2019, it was condemned by its own former chairman for celebrating the resignation of a Labour MP, who was chair of the party’s friends of Israel group, on its Twitter account.’

The problem here is the use of commas around the relative clause (‘who was chair of the party’s friends of Israel group’). Yes, a pair of commas may be used to fence off ‘extra information’ from the rest of the sentence, but relative clauses following ‘who’ and ‘that’ are a special case. They need commas if you’re describing something or someone, but not if you’re defining something or someone. Here, the writer is defining which Labour MP is meant, so no commas should be used. It’s the same when using ‘which’ and ‘that’. You should use ‘which’ with a comma to describe, but ‘that’ without a comma to define.

‘She put longevity above genuine achievement, and popularity above actually tackling Germany’s real problems.’

This is the reverse of the missing comma I mentioned before. The comma before the word ‘and’ here implies that a new main clause is about to start and that the reader should expect a verb after the word ‘popularity’, but in fact it’s just a list. Again, this causes confusion and reduces readability by forcing readers to reread the sentence to check the meaning.

‘Its economy only survives thanks to her predecessor’s labour market reforms, and the fact that the euro is much cheaper than the Deutsche Mark would have been.’

Again, this is another example of the redundant ‘Oxford comma’ in the middle of a list.

‘Reread some of your old columns, dust out your biography of Churchill, and, above all, stop trying to imitate Angela Merkel.’

This is yet another instance of the misplaced comma before the word ‘and’. I presume the writer means ‘dust off’ rather than ‘dust out’…!

‘Many centre-ground voters, while they may not allow themselves to become over-heated by the subject, will nevertheless acknowledge the fact that allowing such migrants to remain indefinitely in Britain when many thousands of others are rejected after applying through formal channels is unfair and unjust.’

All that’s wrong with this is the tautology at the end: ‘unfair’ means ‘unjust’, so you don’t need both adjectives.

‘It all adds up to an entangling web of sclerotic bureaucratic processes that will do little to actually protect the environment.’

I realise that the need to avoid the split infinitive was based on an arbitrary comparison with Latin, in which the infinitive literally can’t be split because it’s one word rather than two, but the convention is still common enough to make most people shiver when they read something like this.

‘There’s a clear need to reduce emissions to tackle climate change and conserve the environment. But we need an approach that doesn’t borrow tools from the old socialist handbook.’

The second ‘sentence’ is only a fragment as it starts with ‘but’.

‘Countries with the most economic freedom perform 50 per cent better on Yale and Columbia universities’ Environmental Performance Index, while those with controlled economies perform worse.’

‘While’ is a subordinating conjunction and so shouldn’t have a comma before it.

‘In response to climate change, the Adam Smith Institute and the British Conservative Alliance are focusing on three areas. First, a border-adjusted carbon tax that would account for the costs to the environment while encouraging innovation. Second, embracing nuclear energy by addressing the high fixed costs to design. And third, a clean free trade agenda including abolishing tariffs and quotas on environmental goods and joining the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability.’

This is just a list, so the writer should’ve used one sentence instead of piling up sentence fragments that don’t have a subject or a verb. The last ‘sentence’ shouldn’t start with ‘and’ either.

‘Former Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli once wrote, “ I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best ”.’

Here, the comma before ‘Benjamin Disraeli’ shouldn’t be there because he is one of many prime ministers. If there’d been only one prime minister, then there should’ve been commas before and after his name, but there are no circumstances in which you should only have one comma.

‘A number of scenarios could unfold: among them a really bad flu epidemic, a new variant that evades the vaccines, or a brutally cold winter that fills the hospitals.’

The first problem here is the phrase ‘among them’. I’d say it was a grey area, but I would leave it out – the colon should introduce the list itself. The second problem is the comma before ‘or’. Yes, it’s a co-ordinating conjunction (or FANBOYS word), but that just means there should be a comma in front of it if it’s being used to join two sentences together, not when it’s separating items in a list. It’s the same for the word ‘and’ and other co-ordinating conjunctions.

‘Meanwhile the NHS is at full stretch to try to reduce the waiting times on operations and diagnostics, with its capacity is reduced by ongoing Covid precautions.’

First, there should be a comma after ‘meanwhile’ or any other adverb at the start of a sentence. Second, the word ‘is’ shouldn’t be there.

‘GPs are still reluctant to see patients face to face, and this is putting additional pressure on hospitals, with health problems spotted later and multiple problems are piling up.’

This is a similar problem, the word ‘are’ being left in by mistake after ‘problems’.

‘Even pre Covid, winter meant headlines screaming “ NHS in worst crisis ever”.’

‘Pre’ is only a prefix rather than a word, so it needs a hyphen. There is also an extra space left in by mistake before ‘NHS’.

‘So lets remember Disraeli’s wise words.’

‘Lets’ should be written with an apostrophe before the ‘s’ as it stands for ‘let us’.

‘We must rebuild the Nightingale hospitals now, this Autumn, before it is too late.’

While ‘Autumn’ is a proper noun, it is not capitalised in English.

‘Some 15,000 beds was prepared last year under the Nightingale plan.’

‘Beds’ is plural, but ‘was’ is singular.

‘There is a short, sharp army recruitment advert running at the moment. It’s slogan is Fail, Learn, Win.’

This time, the apostrophe is wrong. The word should be ‘its’, meaning ‘belonging to it’. You might also argue that there should be inverted commas around the slogan itself.

‘We were not prepared. So let’s learn the lesson. We must be prepared. Then we can win the battle against Covid.’

I know writers and politicians like short, sharp sentences, but this is getting ridiculous! The writer here manages to make two sentences into four…

‘We must now put many thousands of retired medics doctors, nurses on standby. A Medical Reserve, along the lines of the Territorial Army.’

This comes from the same article, which was full of mistakes. There should be a comma after ‘medics’, and the word ‘and’ should replace the comma before ‘nurses’ as it’s the last item in the list. The last ‘sentence’ has no subject or verb, so it should probably start with ‘It should be’.

‘Some 40,000 retired medics offered to come back to help last year, but only 1 in 8 were engaged due to overwhelming bureaucracy.’

Again, this shows the problem with plurals. The number ‘1’ is obviously singular, so how can you say ‘1 in 8 were engaged’?!

‘Yes it will cost money. But it will be cheap at the price if it helps avoid tier restrictions, more lockdowns, more furlough.’

There should be a comma after ‘yes’ as it’s an interjection, the full-stop before ‘But’ should be a comma, ‘But’ should start with a lower case ‘b’ and the word ‘and’ should replace the comma before ‘more furlough’. Apart from that, it’s fine…!

‘Every winter the NHS needs more capacity, we would have both beds and staff.’

There should be a comma after the phrase ‘every winter’ as it’s an opener, and the comma after ‘capacity’ should be a full-stop – this is known as a ‘comma splice’.

 

Speech Marks

Speech marks, inverted commas, quotation marks, quote marks, quotes, 66 and 99 – does any other punctuation mark have so many names or cause so much confusion…?!

speech marks

Writing a story means striking a balance between what I call The Three Ds: Drama, Description and Dialogue. I’ve read quite a few stories from my pupils in which nobody talks to anyone – which is a bit odd! – but you need to know the rules of punctuation before you start.

  • Start a new paragraph whenever the speaker changes or someone stops talking.
  • Put speech marks before and after the actual words spoken, eg Hello, he said, NOT “Hello, he said.”
  • Start the first spoken word with a capital letter, eg she said, “This needs a capital letter,” NOT she said, “this needs a capital letter.”
  • Put either a comma, question mark, exclamation mark or colon between the speech and the ‘he said/she said’, eg “Don’t forget the comma,” he said, NOT “Don’t forget the comma” he said.
  • Put punctuation that belongs to the speech inside the speech marks, eg “The exclamation mark belongs inside!“, NOT “The exclamation mark belongs inside”! (The only exception comes with inverted commas, which look the same but are used with quotations rather than speech.)
  • Put a full-stop after the ‘he said/she said’ if it comes in the middle of the speech and the first part is a full sentence; otherwise, just put a comma, eg “This is a full sentence,” she said. “This is, too.” BUT “This is not a full sentence,” she said, “and nor is this.”
  • Don’t start the ‘he said/she said’ with a capital letter, even if it comes after a question mark or exclamation mark, eg “Don’t use a capital letter!” he shouted, NOT “Don’t use a capital letter!” He shouted.
  • If a speech lasts more than one paragraph, put speech marks before each paragraph and after the last one but NOT after the ones before.
  • Finally, don’t put ‘he said/she said’ after every single line of dialogue in a long conversation if it’s obvious who is speaking.

Sample Questions

Format and put the correct punctuation and capital letters into the following lines of speech:

  1. I say john what time is it she asked
  2. hello she said my name is tara
  3. what are you talking about he cried I never said that
  4. hello he said whats your name Sarah she said Im Alan Nice to meet you you too
  5. I hate chocolate she said I only really eat chocolate ice-cream

Commas

Commas

Comma or apostrophe?

If you had the chance to take a contract out on one punctuation mark, most people would probably choose the comma. Unfortunately, that’s not possible although modern journalists are doing their best to make it into an optional extra!

Punctuation should be there to help the writer and the reader, and the comma is no exception. If I know the rules for using commas, I expect one in certain situations and not in others. If there isn’t one when there should be, or there is one where there shouldn’t be, then I end up getting confused.

I may even have to re-read the passage to make sure I understand it. There are certainly ‘grey areas’ when even experts don’t know whether a comma is required or merely optional, but those should be the exception rather than the rule.

You might say that nobody has the right to decide what grammatical rules are ‘correct’ and that the plethora of rules I go by were taught to me back in the 1970s, but clarity comes first in my view, so here goes…

  • Lists are the obvious example of using a comma. In the old days, people used to use what’s called an ‘Oxford comma’ before the word ‘and’, but we don’t any more, eg ‘I went to the market and bought apples, pears and bananas’. There are some circumstances when using the Oxford comma makes the sense of the text clearer, but most people would agree that you don’t need it. The list may also be a list of adjectives before a noun, eg ‘It was a juicy, ripe, delicious peach’.
  • Conjunctions (or connectives) make two sentences into one ‘compound’ or ‘complex’ sentence with two separate clauses.
    • Coordinating conjunctions‘ are used to make a ‘compound’ sentence when the clauses are equally important, and the two ‘main clauses’ should always be separated by a comma, eg ‘The sun was warm, but it was cooler in the shade’. There is a useful way of remembering the coordinating conjunctions, which is to use ‘FANBOYS’. This consists of the first letter of ‘for’, ‘and’, ‘nor’, ‘but’, ‘or’, ‘yet’ and ‘so’. If a FANBOYS word is NOT used to separate two clauses, then you don’t need a comma, eg in lists.
    • Subordinating conjunctions‘ are used to make a ‘complex’ sentence when there is a main clause and a subordinate clause. (Subordinate just means less important.) If the sentence starts with a subordinating conjunction, the clauses need a comma between them, eg ‘Even though it was very hot, he wasn’t thirsty’. However, if the subordinate clause comes at the end, there is no need for a comma, eg ‘He wasn’t thirsty even though it was very hot’. There are lots of subordinating conjunctions, such as ‘after’, ‘although’ and ‘because’, but the easy way to remember it is to ask yourself if the conjunction is in FANBOYS. If it is, it’s a coordinating conjunction; if it’s not, it’s a subordinating conjunction. Alternatively, subordinating conjunctions are sometimes known as ‘WABBITS’ because some of the commonest ones start with those letters (when, where, while, after, although, before, because, if, though and since).
  • Which (but not that) needs a comma before it when used as a relative pronoun, eg ‘The sky, which was tinged with orange, was getting darker before sunset’ or ‘He looked up at the sky, which was tinged with orange’. If you don’t know whether to use which or that, the word ‘which’ describes something, whereas the word ‘that’ defines it. The rule about commas also applies to ‘who’ when it comes to describing people, although you still use the same word whether you’re defining or describing someone. Relative pronouns such as ‘which’, ‘that’ and ‘who’ all create a relative clause, which is a type of subordinate clause, so the sentence will be a complex sentence.
  • Openers are a useful way of starting a sentence, usually in order to specify a particular time or place, eg ‘At half-past three, we go home to tea’ or ‘At the end of the road, there is a chip shop’. The subject of the sentence (ie the noun or pronoun that governs the verb in the main clause) should come first. If it doesn’t, you should put a comma after whatever comes in front of it.
  • Direct speech needs something to separate what’s actually said from the description of who said it, and this is normally a comma (although it can sometimes be a question mark or exclamation mark if it’s a question or a command), eg
    “Hello,” he said.
    …or…
    He said, “Hello.”
    The tricky bit comes when the description of the speaker comes in the middle of what’s being said. Here, the rule is that a comma should be used after the ‘he said’/’she said’ if the speaker hasn’t finished the sentence yet, eg
    “On Wednesday evening,” he said, “we’re planning to go to the cinema.”
    When the sentence is over, though, you need a full-stop afterwards, eg
    “I like chocolate biscuits,” she said. “They’re so delicious.”
  • Vocatives and interjections and are simply interruptions to a normal sentence – usually when someone is speaking – to incorporate a name or an exclamation, such as ‘well’ or ‘now’. They should therefore be separated with one or more commas – even if that leads to a long list of words followed by commas, eg
    “Well, now, Mum,” he said, “let me explain.”
  • Certain adverbs fall into the same boat, such as ‘however’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘furthermore’ and the humble ‘too’, and should be separated by commas, eg ‘She played on the swings and the roundabout, too.’
  • Extra information (or ’embedded clauses’ or ‘interrupters’) is sometimes added to a sentence to describe something or someone. If the sentence would still make sense without it, you should put commas before and after the phrase to separate it from the rest of the sentence, eg ‘He stood, cold and alone, before his fate.’ A tricky example of this is when you introduce people with a description of who they are, for example by saying ‘his best friend, James, is coming for dinner’. This is extra information, so there does need to be a comma before and after the word ‘James’. However, that’s only because the meaning is NOT changed by adding his name: nobody can have more than one ‘best friend’, so it HAS to be James, and including his name therefore makes no difference as to whom we’re talking about. If you said ‘his friend James is coming for dinner’, on the other hand, you shouldn’t put commas around ‘James’ because James is not the man’s only friend – or let’s hope not, anyway!  That means adding the name ‘James’ DOES. change the meaning of the sentence, so it’s no longer just extra information.
  • Eg and ie are useful shorthand to mean ‘for example’ (exempli gratia in Latin) and ‘that is’ (id est) and should be preceded by a comma, eg ‘He knew lots of poetic devices, eg metaphors and similes.’
  • Names and places sometimes need a comma to separate their different parts. If the day comes after the month and before the year, it should have one, eg ‘December 7, 1941′. If someone has a qualification or letters after his or her name, you should use a comma, eg ‘John Smith, PhD’. If a town is followed by a state or country, the state or country should be separated by commas, eg ‘He lived in Lisbon, Portugal, for five years.’
  • Numbers need commas to separate each power of a thousand. Start on the right at the decimal point and work left, simply adding a comma after every three digits, eg 123,456,789.0.
  • Repetition of a word or phrase also demands a comma, eg “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward…”

Quiz

Put the correct punctuation in the following sentences:

  1. I like music shopping and dancing
  2. The food was good but he didn’t like the service
  3. The book arrived after she went to the shops
  4. He put on a jacket that was thick enough to keep out the cold
  5. She called her mother which is what she usually did on Sunday evenings
  6. At the end of the road he saw a fox
  7. These apples are expensive he said
  8. What are you doing she cried I need those biscuits for the charity bake sale
  9. When Im on my own she admitted I watch a lot of daytime TV
  10. Could you help me please David he asked
  11. Fortunately he was experienced enough to avoid capsizing the boat
  12. He stood nervous and bashful in front of the prettiest girl hed ever seen
  13. He loved 19th Century novels eg Emma
  14. She was persona non grata ie she wasnt welcome
  15. He lived in Paris France
  16. The Germans invaded Poland on September 1 1939
  17. He watched 1001 Dalmations
  18. All he could see was rain rain rain

Remember the Iceberg!

Remember the iceberg!

What, that tiny thing…?

To pass Common Entrance, you have to remember the iceberg.

Only a small part of any iceberg is visible above the waves, and only a small part of any answer to a question is visible in the text.

To discover the rest, you have to ‘dive in’ deeper like a scuba diver…

There are two main types of English question at 11+ and 13+: reading comprehension and composition.

Most 11+ papers last an hour or an hour and a quarter, and the marks are equally divided between the comprehension and the composition. That means half an hour or so for the comprehension.

The 13+ exam is a little different and may involve two papers, one covering a prose comprehension and the other a poetry comprehension and a story.

Whatever the format, it’s very important to read the instructions on the front cover. They will tell you exactly what you have to do and – crucially – how much time to spend on each section.

When it comes to doing a comprehension, I recommend a five-step process:

  1. Read the passage
  2. Read the questions
  3. Read the passage again
  4. Answer the questions
  5. Check your work.

Read the Passage
(5 mins)

The text is usually taken from a short story, a novel or a poem.

Whatever it is, the most important thing to do is to make sure you understand it and remember the main points.

Don’t just read it as fast as you can to get it over and done with, but take your time and read it as if you were reading aloud.

If you don’t understand something, re-read it and look at the context.

For example, it might say there are dozens of ‘delphiniums’ in the garden.

You might not know what delphiniums are, but it’s pretty obvious they must be plants or flowers!

To make sure you’ve got the main points of the story, it’s a good idea to ask yourself the W questions at the end:

  • Who are the characters?
  • What are they doing?
  • Where is the story set?
  • When is it set?
  • Why are they doing what they’re doing?
  • How are they doing it?

It might help to tell yourself the story – just to make sure everything makes sense.

Read the Questions
(1 min)

Once you’ve read the passage, it’s time to read the questions so that you know what to look out for when you read the passage a second time.

Again, understanding and remembering them are more important than sheer speed.

If it helps, you can ask yourself how many questions you can remember after you’ve read them.

Alternatively, you can underline key words and phrases in the questions to help you focus on what you have to do.

Read the Passage Again
(5 mins)

Reading the text twice is probably a good compromise between speed and memorability.

It also gives you the chance to underline or highlight the answers to any of the questions you happen to find.

Some people suggest only reading the passage once, but that means you wouldn’t know it well enough to answer any questions off the top of your head.

If you can’t do that, you’ll end up having to hunt through the text for the answers, so you’ll have to read most of the passage three or four times anyway!

Answer the Questions
(15-30 mins, depending on the length of the exam)

You’ll probably have around 15 minutes to answer the actual questions.

There are usually 25 marks available, which means around 30 seconds per mark.

The number of marks available for each individual question will tell you how much time you have to do each one, eg two minutes for a four-mark question.

Answering the questions is obviously the most important job, and there are a few things to remember…

Answer Each Question in the Same Way

Try to be consistent in the way you answer the questions, and make sure you do all the things you need to do:
a) Read the question carefully.
b) Read it again (and again!) if you don’t understand it.
c) Check the mark scheme to work out how many points and pieces of evidence you need.
d) Scan the text to find the answer, underlining any words you might need.
e) Write down the answer.
f) Read it through to make sure you’ve actually answered the question correctly and you haven’t made any silly mistakes.

Read the Question Carefully

You’re never going to get the right answer to the wrong question, so make sure you understand exactly what you need to do.

If that means reading the question two or three times, then that’s what you’ll have to do.

Make Sure You Answer the Question

I often see pupils writing down facts that are true but don’t actually answer the question.

For instance, if the question asks how Jack feels after losing his dog, it’s no use saying he cries – that’s not a feeling.

It’s a bit like writing “2 + 2 = 4”. Yes, that may be true, but it’s completely irrelevant!

Use the Mark Scheme as a Guide

Most exam papers will let you know the number of marks for each question, so you should bear that in mind when writing your answers.

There’s no point spending ten minutes on a question that’s only worth one mark, and it would be daft to write only one sentence for a question worth ten marks.

You should also try and work out how many ‘points’ and pieces of ‘evidence’ you’re being asked for:

  • A point is the basic answer to a question, and it might be a fact, a reason or an explanation.
  • A piece of evidence is usually a quotation that backs up whatever point you’re trying to make.

Working out the mark scheme can be a bit tricky as there are three possibilities for the breakdown of marks:

  1. Points only
  2. Evidence only
  3. Points and evidence

You just have to read the question and see what makes the most sense.

Here are a few tips:

  • If the question asks you to ‘refer to the text’ in your answer, that’s code for saying you need evidence.
  • If the question asks you to explain a quotation, that means you’ll just need points because they’ve already given you the evidence. Try making a point for every keyword in the quotation.
  • If there’s an odd number of marks, you probably won’t need to provide a mixture of points and evidence. In that case, you’d end up with a point without any evidence or evidence without any point!

Follow any Instructions to the Letter

All these hints and tips are useful, but they are only general rules.

Occasionally, examiners will let you off the hook and tell you that you don’t need to use full sentences, eg for the meanings of words.

Just be sure to follow what they say.
If you’re told to answer a question ‘in your own words’, that means you can’t use any of the words in the text.

The only exceptions are ‘filler’ words such as ‘the’ and ‘of’ or words that don’t have any obvious alternative, eg ‘football’ or the names of the characters.

You need to show that you understand the passage, and you’ll actually be marked down for using quotations – even though that’s what’s usually needed.

Look in the Text

Even if you read the text twice, you can’t possibly expect to remember the answers to all the questions and all the quotations to back them up!

The answer is always in the text, so don’t be afraid to spend a few seconds going back over it. That way, you can make sure you get the answer right and support it with the right evidence.

Use Full Sentences

Even if a question is as simple as ‘What is Jack’s dog’s name?’, the answer should be ‘His name is Rover’ rather than just ‘Rover’.

The only time you don’t need to use a full sentence is either if it’s the meaning of a word or if the question gives you special permission.

Make Sure any Word Meanings Work in Context

Words have different meanings, so you must check to see whether you have the right meaning and the right part of speech.

For example, ‘bark’ can be a verb meaning to make a sound like a dog or a noun meaning the outside of a tree!

Nouns also vary in number, and verbs vary in tense and person, so it’s easy to lose marks by putting down ‘destroy’ rather than ‘destroys’.

Don’t Use PEE (Point, Evidence, Explanation)

PEE is designed to help you write essays rather than do a comprehension.

At Common Entrance, it’s unlikely a question will ask you for a point, a piece of evidence and an explanation.

That would mean two points and only one piece of evidence, which is unbalanced.

It’s also confusing because it suggests that an ‘explanation’ is somehow different from a ‘point’.

This is not true: points can be explanations as well as facts.

Answer ‘How’ Questions by Talking About Language

Comprehensions often start with a simple one-mark question such as ‘In what country is this passage set?’ This is a ‘what?’ question, a question about content, about facts.

However, there is another kind of question, the ‘how?’ question, which is all about language.

Suppose you’re asked, ‘How does the writer explain how Jack feels after losing his dog?’ What do you have to do?

What you definitely shouldn’t do is just describe how he feels.

The question is not ‘What are Jack’s feelings?’

You’re not being asked for facts but for an analysis of the techniques the author uses.

If it helps, you can keep a mental checklist and look for each technique in the passage:
a) Poetic devices
How has the author used metaphors, similes, personification or sentence structure?
b) Parts of speech
What can you say about the kind of adjectives, verbs or adverbs used in the passage?
c) The Three Ds
Has the writer used Drama, Description or Dialogue to achieve a particular effect?

However difficult the question is, just remember to write about language rather than what happens in the story.

Use the Same Tense as the Question

Most of the time, people use the ‘eternal present’ to talk about works of fiction. Sometimes, though, passages are about historical events, so the past is more appropriate.

For example, if the text comes from The Diary of Anne Frank, it wouldn’t make sense to talk about the Second World War as if it were still going on!

So which tense should you use?

The simple answer is to write in the same tense as the question.

That way, you’ll never go wrong.

Don’t Repeat the Question in Your Answer

In primary school, teachers often tell their pupils to do this to make sure they’ve understood the question.

It’s not wrong and you won’t lose a mark for it, but it just takes too long.

I’ve seen children spend a whole minute carefully copying down most of the question before they’ve even thought about the answer!

If it helps, just start writing from the word after ‘because’, eg Jack was crying because…’His dog had just died.’

Just remember you need to use full sentences, so you can’t start with the word ‘because’ (or another conjunction like ‘so’).

The best way is usually to use a pronoun like ‘he’ or ‘she’ – whatever the question talks about, just turn it into a pronoun and start with that.

Answer All Parts of the Question

Examiners will sometimes try to catch you out by ‘hiding’ two questions in one.

You should be careful with these questions, eg ‘How do you think Jack feels about losing his dog, and how do you think you’d feel if you lost your favourite pet?’

It would be easy to answer the first part of the question and then forget about the rest!

Don’t Waste Time With Words You Don’t Need.

You never have enough time in exams, so it’s pointless trying to pad out your answers by including waffle such as ‘it says in the text that…’ or ‘the author writes that in his opinion…’

Far better to spend the time thinking a bit more about the question and coming up with another quotation or point to make.

Use Quotations

Using quotations is tricky, and there are a lot of things to remember.

  • Make sure you use quotation marks (“…”) or inverted commas (‘…’) for anything you copy from the text.
  • Copy the quotation out accurately.
  • Drop the keywords into a sentence of your own, eg Jack feels ‘devastated’ by the loss of his dog.
  • Quotations are not the same as speech, so the full-stop goes after the quotation marks, not before, eg he felt ‘devastated’. ‘Devastated’ is not a full sentence, so it doesn’t need a full-stop after it. The full-stop belongs to your sentence.
  • Don’t just tag a quotation on the end of an answer, eg Jack is really sad, ‘devastated’.
  • Don’t start with a quotation followed by ‘suggests’ because it won’t make sense, eg ‘Devastated’ suggests Jack is really sad. ‘Devastated’ is not a noun or a pronoun, so it can’t suggest anything!
  • If you really want to use ‘suggests’ or ‘shows’, it’s better to start with ‘The word…’ or ‘The fact…’, eg The word ‘devastated’ suggests Jack’s really sad or The fact Jack is ‘devastated’ suggests he’s really sad.
  • If the quotation is too long, you can always miss words out and use an ellipsis (…), eg Liz went to the supermarket and bought ‘apples…pears and bananas’.
  • If the quotation doesn’t use the right tense, you can always change the verb. Just put the new ending in square brackets, eg Jim ‘love[s] strawberries’ instead of Jim ‘loved strawberries’.

Remember the Iceberg!

As you can see from the picture, the vast majority of an iceberg remains hidden from view.

It’s the same with the answers to questions in a reading comprehension.

Don’t be satisfied by what you can see on the surface – that won’t get you full marks.

Like a scuba diver, you have to dive in deeper to find the rest…!

Check Your work
(5 mins)

If there’s one tip that beats all the rest, it’s ‘Check your work’.

However old you are and whatever the subject, you should never finish a piece of work before checking what you’ve done.

However boring or annoying it is, you’ll always find at least one mistake and therefore at least one way in which you can make things better.

In the case of 11+ or 13+ comprehensions, the most important thing is to test candidates’ understanding of the passage.

However, spelling and grammar is still important.

Schools have different marking policies:

  • Some don’t mark you down for bad grammar (although a lot of mistakes won’t leave a very good impression!)
  • Some use a separate pot of marks for spelling and grammar to add to the overall total
  • Some take marks off for each grammatical mistake – even if you got the answer ‘right’.

Either way, it pays to make sure you’ve done your best to avoid silly mistakes.

If you think you won’t have time to check, make sure you manage your time so that you have a few minutes left at the end.

You’ll probably gain more marks by correcting your work than trying to finish the last question, so it makes sense to keep that time for checking.

If you do that, there are a few simple things to look out for.

Check the Answers are Correct and Complete

This is the most important thing to check, and it takes the longest.

Make sure that each answer is correct (by referring back to the text if necessary) and that each part of the question has been covered.

Quite a few of my students have lost marks by forgetting to look at all the pages, so you should always check you haven’t missed any questions.

Check Spelling

This is the main problem that most Common Entrance candidates face, but there are ways in which you can improve your spelling.

  1. Look out for any obvious mistakes and correct them. It can help to go through each answer backwards a word at a time so that you don’t just see what you expect to see.
  2. Check if a word appears anywhere in the text or in the question. If it does, you can simply copy it out from there.
  3. Choose a simpler word if you’re not quite sure how to spell something. It’s sometimes better not to take the risk.

Check Capital Letters

This should be easy, but candidates often forget about checking capitals in the rush to finish.

Proper nouns, sentences, speech and abbreviations should all start with capital letters.

If you know you often miss out capital letters, you can at least check to make sure all your answers start with a capital.

Check Punctuation

Make sure you’ve put full-stops, commas, quotation marks, apostrophes and question marks in the right places.

Commas give almost everybody problems, but you can at least check there is a full-stop at the end of every sentence.

Check Other Grammar

It’s always useful to check for missing words and to make sure everything makes sense.

Grammar may not be the first thing on your mind when you’re answering the questions. However, you can usually spot most silly mistakes if you read through your answers carefully at the end.

Quiz

If you want to test your knowledge of this article, here are a few questions for you.
You can mark them yourselves!

  1. What are the five steps involved in doing a comprehension? (5 marks)
  2. Name three things you should do when reading the text for the first time. (3 marks)
  3. Why should you read the questions before re-reading the text? (1 mark)
  4. What should you be doing when you read the text for the second time? (1 mark)
  5. What are the six steps to take when answering a question? (6 marks)
  6. What are five hints and tips for answering questions? (5 marks)
  7. What are the two types of things that questions might ask for? (2 marks)
  8. What are the two occasions when you don’t need to answer in a full sentence? (2 marks)
  9. Name five poetic devices. (5 marks)
  10. What five things should you be checking for at the end? (5 marks)

Total: 35 marks