Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Top Ten Most Common Writing Mistakes

1. comma splice
2. sentence fragment
3. misuse of the spell checker
4. lack of subject/verb agreement
5. not understanding the possessive case
6. writing to "you"
7. no thesis statement
8. writing the introduction at the end of the piece.
9. not citing sources
10. vagueness

1. comma splice
Pick out a long sentence from your paper, and look at where you put the comma. Read the first part of the sentence. Could it stand by itself? Does it have a subject, verb, and complete idea? Now look at the last part. Is it also a complete sentence (also known as an independent clause)?

If you have two complete sentences on either side of a comma, then you have a comma splice. Teachers hate these.

Example: "I ate tabouli yesterday, it's my favorite food."

To fix it, you have five choices:

1. Split up the sentences with a period.

Example: "I ate tabouli yesterday. It's my favorite food."

2. Use a semicolon instead of a comma.

Example: "I ate tabouli yesterday; it's my favorite food."

3. Add an "and" (or "but," "or,") after the comma.

Example: "I ate tabouli yesterday, but I actually hate the taste of it."

4. Use a conjunctive adverb ("therefore," "instead") with a semicolon and a comma.

Example: "I ate tabouli yesterday; however, it is not my favorite food."

5. Make one part of the sentence not an independent clause (a dependent clause), by adding a subordinating conjunction like "because," or "although."

Example: "I ate tabouli yesterday because it's my favorite food."

*note: if the dependent (subordinate) clause comes at the end of the sentence, you don't need a comma. If it comes at the beginning, you do need a comma.

Example: "Because I ate tabouli yesterday, I have a stomach ache today." -- OR -- "I have a stomach ache today because I ate tabouli yesterday."

2. sentence fragment
Look for a sentence in your paper that begins with "That," "Because," or "Which." Subordinate conjunctions (ex. "because," "although") and relative pronouns (ex. "that," "which") are the most common beginnings of fragments.

Example: "Although it has stopped raining."
A sentence needs three things in order to be complete:

1. A subject. The subject is the person or thing that is doing the action. The subject is often the first noun or pronoun of the sentence.

Example: "The flood destroyed my house. It is now under water."

*note: The subject cannot be inside of a prepositional phrase.

Example: "In my house (noun), the water was rising."

2. A verb. The verb is either the action or the being of the sentence.

Example: "The flood destroyed my house. It is now under water."

3. A complete idea. A sentence that has a noun and a verb but is not a complete idea is called a dependent clause, and cannot stand by itself.

Example: "Since the flood destroyed my house."

This clause is a dependent, or subordinate, clause because it has a subject ("flood"), a verb ("destroyed"), and a subordinate conjunction ("since"). It cannot stand by itself because it doesn't make sense. It leaves us with a question in our minds.

Example: "Since the flood destroyed my house." (Well, what happend then?)

The main reason people write sentence fragments is that, in their minds, the fragment is connected to the previous or the subsequent sentence.

Example: "The flood destroyed my house, and it is now under water. Although the rain has stopped."

This is easy to fix. All you have to do is take out the period after "water."

Example: "The flood destroted my house, and it is now under water although the rain has stopped."

3. misusing the spell checker
Don't simply tell the spell checker to correct everything it comes across. It will only tell you if there is such a word in English, not whether the word is used properly.

Actual examples I have seen:
"...which literally peals the rubber right off."
"The bride whore white."
Don't let this happen to you. Make sure you double-check the spell-checker.

4. subject/verb agreement

Many peoples is having problems with this area. They writes as they speaks, which don't usually work, unless they be a professor.

Example: My friends is going to the game.
"Friends" is plural, and "is" is singular. They don't match up. Either make "friends" singular or "is" plural.

Example: My friend is going to the game.

Example: My friends are going to the game.

In English, verbs have five qualities: person, number, tense, voice, and mood. In choosing a verb, you must choose the correct person (I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they), the proper number (one or more-than-one), the proper tense (when the action is happening), the proper voice (active or passive), and the proper mood (a fact, a command, or a wish). For example, the third person plural, present tense, active indicative of "to come" is [they] "came." The second person singular, past tense of "to be" is [you] "were." For a more complete explanation of verb tense, person, and number, see handout on verb conjugations.

5. possessive case
What is the difference between "the giraffes," "the giraffe's" and "the giraffes'"? The first is plural (more than one giraffe), the second is possessive (something belongs to the giraffe), and the third one is plural and possessive (something belongs to more than one giraffe).

Example: "The giraffes ate my sandwich." (More than one giraffe ate my sandwich.)

Example: "The giraffe's baby ate my sandwich." (One giraffe has a baby that ate my sandwich.)

Example: "The giraffes' baby ate my sandwich." (Mama and papa giraffes' baby ate my sandwich.)

6. writing to "you"
In formal writing, it is better not to use "you."

Example: "Writing gives you a headache."

Who is you? Me personally? It gives ME a headache? Find another way to express this idea, by using the third person singular impersonal ("one"), or by specifying your target group.

Example: "Writing gives one a headache." (very formal)

Example: "Writing gives students a headache." (vague, and generalizations are not good.)

Example: "Writing gives them a headache." (too vague)

Example: "Writing gives me a headache." (first person singular)

Try to stay away from first person singular, unless you are doing some sort of personal testimony or journal. "I" is very personal, and not usually appropriate for formal writing.

Example: "Writing gives us a headache." (first person plural)
The first person plural can work in certain situations, especially if you are writing from personal experience, or feel strongly about the topic.

7. no thesis statement
Read your introduction. Do you find a clear position about a topic, which will be supported in your writing? Or have friends read your first paragraph, then ask them what you are going to write about. If they can't tell you, you have no thesis statement. The purpose of the thesis statement is to let the audience know what your topic is and what your position on that topic is. If we don't know what you're writing about, or what you want to say about the topic, we are not going to be interested in reading your paper.

Example: "Have you ever wanted to be a movie star? People like John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer are rich and famous, and kids all over the world want to be like them. They ride everywhere in limousines, never have to go to the grocery store, and get to have vacation on deserted islands. But of course they have to give out autographs too, and avoid the paparazzi."

Where is the thesis statement here? It usually appears toward the end of the introduction, often as the last sentence. Is this person going to write about autographs and paparazzi? Most likely, he or she is going to write about the lives of movie stars. But without a thesis statement, the essay will wander, with no goal or point. This person could add a thesis statement to the end of the introduction such as: "Even though many people would like to live like a movie star, that lifestyle is not easy."

8. writing the introduction at the end of the piece.
This is especially a characteristic of first drafts. Writing is often a process of figuring out how one thinks/feels about a subject, or of exploring the complexities of certain issues. This is why people "write to get it all out" in journals or the like. Look at the conclusion of your paper, and see if it isn't clearer, better worded, and more energetic than your introduction. Try taking some or all of the conclusion and using it for the introduction. Then reread your paper and make sure all your topic sentences relate to your new thesis statement and your argument makes sense. Write a new conclusion, one that goes beyond simply restating the introduction and gives your paper a bigger relevance beyond your topic, or suggests future trends for your topic.

9. not quoting sources
Just because information on the internet is not published in a book, doesn't mean it doesn't need to be cited as a source when you use it in your writing. Papers (or paragraphs, or sentences) plagiarized from internet sources, or any sources, are easy to spot. Suddenly the level of language jumps up three notches, the grammar mistakes disappear, and the writing style changes. Teachers are particularily suspicious of papers with no citations, or only one or two. They know you must have gotten the information from somewhere -- why didn't you give credit to the source?

Doing research and citing sources is simple. Read as many sources as you can, until you have a general knowledge of your topic. Decide what you want to argue, and write your thesis statement. Think of a few supporting points from your general knowledge. Develop your supporting points, and put in quotes or statistics to make it sound like you did some research.

A paper without citations of sources means one of two things:
- The information is entirely your own discovery. (not likely)
- The information is so general it is useless to write about it.

Some students feel that there are only so many ways to write something -- that if they just rearranged the words "it wouldn't sound as good," and they're exactly right. The point is not to rearrange words because that means you're only using someone else's idea, instead of thinking for yourself. Write what YOU want to write, and use quotes from other people's work to show how THEY agree with YOU, not how YOU agree with THEM.

Some students don't like the idea of "arguing a point" because they feel they have nothing to contribute, or they don't know if their idea is good or not. Don't worry. No one expects you to make an original contribution to human knowledge at this point. The goal is to get practice writing research papers, so that someday you will know how to write down that contribution to human knowledge you will eventually want to make.

10. vagueness
Be specific with your words, especially with people.

Example: "Technology benefits us."
Who is "us"? Does technology benefit every person in the entire world? What kind of technology? Narrow your focus to a specific group of people, and a particular kind of technology.

Example: "Aerospace technology benefits residents of the Space Coast."

Another example: "There are hot dogs for dinner."
"There is/are" means simply, "there exist(s)." Unless you specify a place, you are writing "there exist (somewhere in the entire scheme of reality) hot dogs for dinner." This is a meaningless thing to say because it is obvious. Specify a place or situation.

Example: "There are hot dogs for dinner at my house."

Better: "We are having hot dogs for dinner at my house."
Try not to start a sentence with "there" if at all possible.


  1. Hello all,

    There is/are

    > We are having hot dogs for dinner at my house.

    Can I write

    - We are having hot dogs for dinner at my house. There are so many foods which were made from hot dogs.

    Anyway, should I avoid "there is/are" in the writting ?

  2. "There are so many foods which were made from hot dogs" is grammatically correct but does not make much sense - poor word choice - and is not good style.

    You can make different MEALS with hot dogs - NOT different foods.

    "There is..." and "There are..." are very convenient structures to use when you are learning a language. But yes - avoid them when you can. You can still use them some. Just don't overuse them or depend on them too much.


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