I am a Computer Science Graduate currently in my first year of a Physics PhD. My supervisor often asks me to do some written work, for example this week I had to do a book review for the AGU EOS journal. Every time I submit anything to him he comments on my grammar. I was never under the impression that I was that bad, but it takes me so long to write 800 words since I am conscious of it, that I dread to think how long it will take me to write my thesis.

Has anyone else had something similar to this? Especially in the sciences? If so, any ideas of a good book or way of trying to figure out what is going wrong?

Thank you



Books by David Crystal are usually interesting. Try 'Rediscover Grammar'.


Don't take your supervisor's comments too personally; it is surprising how many grammar mistakes we all make.

To find out where you are going wrong, it would be helpful if you asked your supervisor to red-mark some of your mistakes. He's probably also referring to punctuation mistakes.

I would also recommend David Crystal's books, or downloading the podcast 'Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips' from iTunes.

The most common grammar mistake I come across in my own work or other people's work is forgetting to put an apostrophe in 'it's' (when contracting 'it is'), or even using the very sinful phrase 'could of' instead of 'could have'. It is probably these types of minor mistakes your supervisor is picking up on, and after reading a few grammar books you'll become very eagle-eyed about correcting them.

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try reading 'eats shoots and leaves' book - google it, its quite famous. Also, that's what proof readers are for, so maybe hire one, or like me, get your mum to do it, as she went through proper 1950s schooling where they actually explained the difference between subjunctives and past participals!?????


Sneaks - past participles not 'pals'. Tut tut!

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exactly my point :-) This is why I gave up A level French, cos they expected us to know all this stuff like what is the imperfect tense!?? - How am I supposed to know in French if I don't know in English!? Thank god my parents are really nitpicky about SPAG - they will be employed full time proof reading (without pay obviously)

P my country we are still made to go through imperfect tense and all kinds of participles from year 2, kids learn it...urggh...knw it in french tooo :(


Problems with grammar are really common as most schools don't teach it very well. I feel so lucky that my mother is a complete pedant and picked me up on grammar all the time when I was a child making it second nature now. There have been some good books mentioned below. You could also try the Oxford guide to grammar and punctuation (I think there's a really handy pocket version) or Kingsley Amis 'The King's English' for something that's also very readable. Another good way to understand grammar in detail is to do another language in which you have to learn the basics (my PhD is Latin literature and learning Latin at school definitely sorted out the understanding of grammatical terms and so on) - although that's obviously pretty time consuming if you don't need to do it for your work! I wonder if there might be any other grammar books for people learning english as a foreign language (which aren't themselves written in a foreign language) - perhaps a TEFL teaching book or something like that? And people are right about proof reading - sometimes it takes someone who knows what they're looking for, such as a language student maybe. I used to proof read for friends doing science degrees just because it can help coming at it from a different discipline where you will focus on the writing rather than try to understand the content too much! Hope that helps.


You might find that your university has a writing coach who can help you go through your work and correct any frequent mistakes. As an English teacher I can tell you that the most frequent mistakes I come across are;
- confusion between their/there and its/it's (Don't always trust what you read online - the wrong use of "it's" is EVERYWHERE on the internet now!)
- problems with countable and uncountable nouns
- punctuation problems - especially with commas

Hope that helps a bit.


"Elements of Style" by Strunk & White. Small, concise and more importantly, dirt cheap:p ! Went to a writing course a few weeks back and the presenter didn't like "Eats, shoots and leaves" one bit, but it is subjective. I am sticking with "EoS" as it is short and to the point.
Also, for writing technical papers "Fourteen steps to a clearly written technical paper" by Comptom is a good and short paper. Using this and a few more papers in conjunction with EoS.
I do think that you need to assign time to this process (which, of course, won't matter cr*p to your supervisor). Sad but true!

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you can find EoS here

full view for free.

What is a countable noun?


A word of warning with EoS, it's American English, not British English.

Another book to consider is Mind the Gaffe: The Penguin Guide to Common Errors in English by R.L. Trask. This isn't a grammar rule book, but lists in alphabetical order all the common word mistakes.

I liked 'Eat, Shoots and Leaves'...this was the first book I read about grammar, and I found it very understandable.

It's a shame we can't sue the education minister who decided to bump grammar off the curriculum in the 80s and 90s.:-s


My supervisor still moans about my grammar. What is particularly amusing is that when I worked for him (luckily I don't anymore) I corrected his grammar on more than one occasion because some of his writing was almost unintelligible. Some people do like to criticise and feel superior so bear that in mind. Having said that, my writing is a long, long, long way from perfect but I've switched on all the grammar checking facilities in Word which does help. Even if you are using Latex or similar, you could run the written text through Word just to check it. :-)