Common Errors in Student Writing

There are many common errors in student writing which can be easily and permanently corrected if you have the motivation to take habitual care to avoid them.

The Apostrophe

Contractions

Quotation

Split Infinitives

Agreement

Misplaced Modifiers

Redundant Comparatives

Dramatic Overstatement

Transposables

"Could have" etc.

Informality

Miscellaneous

The Apostrophe s

is used to indicate a possessive.
This paper's point = The point of (or by, or belonging to) this paper
One's way of life = the way of life of one (person)
James's book = the book of James

The plural possessive

When a word already ends in S, as with most plurals, the apostrophe is added without the S to avoid a rather clumsy double-s sound. So you get s’ rather than ’s. For example,
The point of many myths = many myths' point
(although the point of a single myth is the myth's point)
The message of the prophets = The prophets' message
The papers of the students = The students' papers
Get it right!
There are, of course, exceptions. The life of Jesus is most often written "Jesus' life." On the other hand, as we have just seen, the book of James can be written "James's book." With singular words ending in s there is no set unbreakable rule.

Contractions

When one or more letters are missed out in a contraction an apostrophe is used to indicate the contraction. So
they're here = they are here
you're wrong = you are wrong
(as opposed to your wrong which means the wrong that is yours. Notice that since your is already a possessive it does not need an apostrophe. Generally it is easiest to just avoid using such contractions.) it is a pain = it's a pain (Believe me. I know.)
("It's" is always a contraction, never a possessive. The possessive "its" needs no apostrophe. Similarly “who’s” is always a contraction meaning “who is ..” The possessive “whose” needs no apostrophe.)
These are not mere irrelevant details but help your readers' comprehension. For example, note the way that the apostrophe functions to clarify the following sentences-
"We need a science that knows its moral as well as its intellectual limitations"
“We need a science that knows it’s moral as well as intellectual.”
Understanding and consistently using the accepted convention avoids confusion.

Quotation

When you quote someone, or even give a paraphrase of their ideas, you must cite the source of your material. The style of citation may vary but generally in the humanities, it should inform your reader of the author, the work, and the page from which the original was taken.

In U.S. convention, when you close the quotation the final punctuation always comes INSIDE the quotation marks (with the exception of colons[:] and semi-colons [;]. British and Canadian English does not do this, so you will see it differently in writing with a British or Canadian author or origin. But U.S.A. students should always put punctuation inside quotation marks at the end of a sentence. This is, of course, NOT the case when the sentence does not end at the end of the quotation. The most obvious and frequent example of that is when you end the sentence with a citation. In that case, the period comes after the parenthesis.

For example:
According to Huston Smith (Illustrated World's Religions, 160) “The Five Pillars of Islam are the principles that regulate the private lives of Muslims in their dealings with God.”
According to Huston Smith, “The Five Pillars of Islam are the principles that regulate the private lives of Muslims in their dealings with God” (Illustrated World's Religions, 160).

Split Infinitives

It is often said that the infinitive of a verb--to go, to be, to do, etc.--is a complete form and should not be split up. Thus it would be grammatically incorrect to say "to boldly go where no Star Trekkie has gone before." It would be correct to keep the whole infinitive together and say "to go boldly," or "boldly to go . . ." Many people consider this is to be a significant stylistic writing improvement.

In fact, it is not that simple. (Click here if you want some background on the reasons why.)

The final rule in these matters really ought to be this: "the form which serves the reader or listener best is the one to use." But students should be aware that many people still find the splitting of infinitives (like the use of prepositions at the end of a sentence) to be a sign of inferior grammar.

Agreement

The subject of a sentence must agree with the verb: if the one is plural or singular the other must also be plural or singular. One sheep goes, two sheep go. Also, if you start a sentence using “you” as the subject, then one shouldn’t change to “one” like I just did. (Or vice versa!) If “he” is the pronoun to which the sentence refers, then don’t change to the plural “they” half-way through. (You can use the gender neutral “they” to avoid sexist language, if you like, but be consistent. If you have a plural subject then you must have a plural verb and a singular subject requires a singular verb - we talk, he talks. You would be surprised how often this mistake is made.

Transposables

form/from, for/fro, eat/ate, causal/casual. These errors are becoming more common as students increasingly rely on computer spell checks. They will be penalized.

Redundant comparatives

Bigger means more big, so it is redundant to say “more bigger.” Similarly, fuller, clearer, cleverer, and all other comparatives. Do not write, “more fuller,” “more clearer,” etc.

Dramatic overstatement.

One of the greatest philosophical problems ever discussed, this question has been pondered since the beginning of time by all people everywhere who have ceaselessly asked, why do people exaggerate? You are writing for rational, not dramatic, effect. So avoid such overstatement.

Dangling or misplaced modifiers

Avoid ambiguous constructions. For example, there will be a lecture on smoking as a cause of cancer in the Orr auditorium, I opened the door in my pajamas, etc.

“Could have” etc.

The past tense is usually formed with the verb “to have:” I give, I have given. We do not say “I of given money to charity,” but “I have given money to charity.” This may sound silly; but it is just as incorrect to say “I should of given money to charity” when it is in fact, “I should have given money,” or “I would of liked to give” instead of “I would have liked to give” etc. It’s “could have,” “would have,” “should have.”

Informality

It’s sort of like a real bummer when people write like as though they were just talking right to you and making stuff up like they had never really thought about it before they did. This can be very effective as dialogue in creative writing but is not acceptable in research writing.

Miscellaneous

That vs. who/who vs. whom

“Who” is the correct pronoun for persons or any word that refers to people. “That” is used for things, objects, events--non-persons. So it's “everyone who” does things and “events that” happen. NOT “people that ...” but “people who ...”; NOT “everyone that ...” but “everyone who ...”, etc.

“Whom” is the accusative case, that is, it is used for the object of a sentence, not the subject of a sentence.
So it is people who do things and other people to whom things are done; people who meet you and people whom you meet, etc.

Based on ...

A base is something that things stand on and hopefully do not come off, and certainly do not come "off of." Thus something is based on something else and NOT based off (of) anything.

“Changing the Subject”

The subject of your sentence is the person or thing who is doing the action of the sentence. Generally it is better not to change that subject. If you start with “one” as the subject of your sentence, don't change it to “you” or “they.”

Underline or Italics

Underlining is conventionally used as a substitute for italics when italics are unavailable, for example in either typewriting or handwritten documents. Since in most fonts in computer generated, word-processed documents italics are readily available you should always use them for book and journal titles, emphasis, etc. So there is no need to use underlining at all and you should avoid it.

Technical Spelling

There are many unusual names, technical terms, and foreign language word necessarily involved in college study. Have the respect for the subject to check the spelling of its technical language and to get it right. Points will also be subtracted for for mistaken homonyms: words with the same sound but different meanings, especially “there” and “their.” (There are students who will reduce their grades by ignoring this simple instruction.) Another example is that the similar spelling of the metal lead and the verb to lead has led to some difficulties. Remember that "lead" is not pronounced led except when it’s a metal .

Cannot is usually one word

I cannot do it is different from I can not do it. The negative particle “not” could be ambiguous: does it negate the ability or does it negate the accompanying verb (to do)? To avoid this, the affirmation of inability is written as one word: “cannot.” Note an example from the 3rd way of Aquinas’ “Five Ways:” “there are things which exist which can not exist . . .” It would be self-contradictory to say “some things exist and cannot exist.” What about “I can not think of the answer” and “I cannot think of the answer.”

It’s “one AND the same” (NOT one in the same).

Such things as these may be taken for granted (not taken for granite), but they really do improve the comprehensibility of your writing.


From the New York Times: Grammarians have argued until they were blue in the face that you can't really split an infinitive, since "to" isn't part of the infinitive. Sometimes it's not present at all. In a sentence like "I helped him to break the code," the "to" could easily be dropped. And in sentences like "I let him break the code" and "I saw him break the code," the infinitive (break) must go it alone.

Technicalities aside, what we call a split infinitive has been around a lot longer than its detractors. Writers used it with impunity from the 1300s until well into the 19th century. All that changed in 1864, when the dean of Canterbury, Henry Alford, published a widely popular grammar book called A Plea for the Queen's English. Alford, a classics scholar who sought to civilize the English of Shakespeare and Milton by imposing on it the rules of Latin grammar, couldn't bear to see an adverb slip between "to" and an infinitive. (Latin infinitives, you see, have no such prepositional markers.)

As early as 1868, grammarians were challenging Alford's edict, arguing that one can't graft Latin sentence structure onto English, a language that's essentially Germanic. But the damage had been done. The ban on splitting infinitives was firmly planted in the popular imagination. So were other leftover Latinisms, including the prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition."

The Guardian Newspaper says on the subject: "It seems that the forces of conservatism have not been keeping up with the game. Had they done so, they would have known that the splitting of infinitives now has the sanction of most good grammarians. Fowler, the nearest thing they have to a bible, withdrew its ban on the practice decades ago. Last year Oxford University Press published a new dictionary in which split infinitives were not just condoned but encouraged. The rule in these matters ought to be this: the form which serves the reader or listener best is the one you should go for." So Captain Kirk was right all along...to boldly split what no man has dared split before...

(With thanks to James Kitcat [jkitcat@ennov.com] who brought this material to my attention.)



brennie@westminster.edu