It’s All Relative


Crystal Sands
Director, Excelsior College Online Writing Lab




While there is much more to effective writing than punctuation and formatting, clean, clear sentences and proper formatting are essential for effective, written communication. After all, it can be difficult for your readers to understand your writing if they have trouble deciphering your sentences. And, your audience may not understand what information is yours and what is borrowed if you do not format your citations correctly.

So, correctness does count, and though you do not want to worry too much about correctness and formatting during the drafting stages of writing, you do, during the editing process, want to pay close attention to things like comma placement, subject-verb agreement, and your in-text citations.

That stated, have you ever felt confused about the “rules” of correctness because it seems like the rules are always changing? On top of the changing rules you have to keep up with, you also have to be aware that not everyone will agree upon what the rules are at a given time.

Here’s the reality: Correctness is relative to the rhetorical situation. In other words, what may be “right” in some situations may not be right in others.

For example, most academic style guides tell us to use the Oxford comma, the last one in the series before the conjunction.

Example: I am constantly struggling to find my keys, phone, and notebook.

The comma before the “and” in this sentence is the Oxford comma. Even though style guides tell us to keep using it, many fields outside of academia dropped that comma long ago, so you may have professors tell you not to use it. Now, what do you do? Essentially, whether or not you use this comma depends upon the situation.

Greater confusion might arise when it comes to things like APA formatting. Although we have a detailed guide, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, and wonderful resources in our Excelsior College OWL, it is important to realize that APA may not address every single documentation situation you encounter. Also, even when the manual does provide direction on a point, professors sometimes interpret those directions differently.

Here’s an example. The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th edition, instructs us to place two spaces after periods at the ends of sentences for drafts but one space after periods at the ends of sentences for final drafts; however, there is disagreement about what constitutes a “final draft.” Some say it is when the piece is ultimately published. But professors can interpret this differently, so how are you to know? On this point, unless your professor has already made it clear, you would have to ask. Of course, asking a question like this lets your professor know you are on top of these details in APA formatting. It is likely to impress!

The key to remember is that asking questions and making adjustments is a normal part of writing. In many cases, we do not have an official guide to tell us what to do when it comes to writing, so we have to ask questions. Sometimes, even when we have a guide, like the APA manual, we still have to ask questions.

You should use some basic rhetorical tools , which you can learn about in the OWL, to help you ask key questions and use the answers to inform your writing.

You may feel frustrated at times. It may seem like you are never going to get things “right,” as you make adjustments in your writing from one class to the next. But, it is important for you to understand you are growing as a writer as you make these adjustments, ask questions, and do your best to figure out what your audience expects of you.

You are becoming a stronger, more flexible writer, one who will have the skills to succeed professionally when flexibility is a must.