20 Common Writing Problems*
Prepared by April Shelford
The following is a list of grammar and other writing problems I frequently encounter in student papers. If you do not understand any of them, feel free to ask for an explanation. AU’s Writing Center also has links to two useful grammar manuals under “Additional Resources for Writers.”
Having brought these problems to your attention, I expect you to do everything possible to avoid them. To encourage you, I will adopt the following policy regarding writing errors in your papers: There will be no penalty for three or fewer writing errors per paper. After that, I will deduct 1% from your grade for each error I find. If I find twelve or more errors, you will have to rewrite the paper.
Please note: This list is not exhaustive. If I notice other problems, I will inform you of them, and I will expect you to remedy them in future papers.
Microsoft Word’s grammar checker will detect many of these errors – but not all! You must always proofread carefully.
*In addition to drawing on my own experience, I have compiled this list from the following sources:
Table of Contents
1. Faulty Agreement (Subject / Verb; Pronoun)
3. Apostrophes (Possessives and Contractions)
13. Comma splices
Make sure that subjects and verbs agree in number (singular subject / singular verb, etc.).
Incorrect: Recent discoveries about the weather reveals that several cycles are involved.
Revised: Recent discoveries about the weather reveal that several cycles are involved.
Nouns and pronouns must agree in number (singular noun / singular pronoun, etc.).
Incorrect: A student is free to express their opinion.
Revised: A student is free to express his or her opinion.
Revised: Students are free to express their opinions.
Pronouns must agree with each other.
Incorrect: Once one has decided to take the course, you must remember certain policies.
Revised: Once you have decided to take the course, you must remember certain policies.
2. Verb Tenses
Generally speaking, when writing about events and people in the past, use the past tense.
(Simple past) The humanist scholar, Leon Battisti Alberti, lived in Italy during the fifteenth century.
(Simple past / Past perfect for an event that precedes another) Before he settled in Bologna, Alberti had traveled widely throughout the Mediterranean.
(Simple past / continuous action in the past) While he studied at Bologna, Alberti was constantly reading books and eating peanuts.
When you are discussing an author’s ideas, you may use the present tense. But be consistent!
Incorrect: In his treatise on the family, Alberti discussed the proper relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and servants and masters. He asserts that these relationships are hierarchical, with the husband and father at the top.
Revised: In his treatise on the family, Alberti discusses the proper relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and servants and masters. He asserts …
Revised: In his treatise on the family, Alberti discussed the proper relationships … He asserted that these relationships are hierarchical … [You may use the present tense in “these relationships are hierarchical,” because we can assume that Alberti was discussing an arrangement he believed was appropriate to all times and in all places.]
Apostrophes signal either a possessive or a contraction – but please do not use contractions in papers you write for me!
Examples of singular 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 that belongs to James
Examples of plural possessive:
When a word already ends in s, as most plurals do, add the apostrophe without another s in order to avoid a clumsy double-s sound. For example,
The point of many myths = Many myths’ point
The message of the prophets = The prophets’ message
The papers of the students = The students’ papers
There are exceptions. For example, the life of Jesus is most often written “Jesus’ life.” On the other hand, as we have just seen, you can write “James’s book.” With singular words ending in s, there is no firm rule.
Examples of contractions:
An apostrophe replaces one or more missing letters, for example:
They’re here = They are here
You’re wrong = You are wrong
(Note that “you’re wrong” and “your wrong” have entirely different meanings.)
“It’s” always means “It is.” “Its” always signals the possessive. For example,
“We need a science that knows its moral as well as its intellectual limitations.”
“We need a scientific community that knows it’s moral as well as intellectual.”
“Who’s” is always a contraction for “who is.” The possessive “whose” requires no apostrophe.
Incorrect: In the current conflict its uncertain who’s borders their contesting.
Revised: In the current conflict, it’s uncertain whose borders they’re contesting.
Make sure every sentence you punctuate as a sentence (that is, it ends with a period or question mark) really is a sentence. It must be grammatically complete (i.e., include a subject and a verb), and it must communicate an independent thought that can stand on its own.
Incorrect: (The second “sentence” is the fragment.) Tests of the shroud of Turin have produced curious findings. For example, the pollen of forty-eight plants native to Europe and the Middle East.
Revised: Tests of the Shroud of Turin have produced curious findings. For example, the cloth contains the pollen of forty-eight plants native to Europe and the Middle East.
Incorrect: Scientists report no human deaths due to excessive caffeine consumption. Although caffeine does cause convulsions and death in certain animals.
Revised: Scientists report no human deaths due to excessive caffeine consumption, although caffeine does cause convulsions and death in certain animals.
Incorrect: All of these rules and regulations should be made aware of.
Revised: Athletes should be made aware of all these rules and regulations.
Revised: (This example avoids the passive.) The management should make the athletes aware of all these rules and regulations.
Too many equally weighted phrases and clauses produce tiresome sentences.
Incorrect: (There are no grammatical errors here, but the sprawling sentence does not communicate clearly and concisely.) The hearing was planned for Monday, December 2, but not all of the witnesses could be available, so it was rescheduled for the following Friday, and then all the witnesses could attend.
Revised: The hearing, which had been planned for Monday, December 2, was rescheduled for the following Friday so that all witnesses would be able to attend.
Incorrect: (The following sprawling sentence also contains grammatical errors.) In a period when social hierarchy dominated, through various primary sources, one can find ideas of how relationships proceeded between social classes in Renaissance Italy – such sources of information can be taken straight from those who lived it.
Revised: Primary sources give historians insight into how people related to each other in very different time periods. A comedy written in Renaissance Italy, for example, reveals how hierarchy defined social relationships.
Use active rather than passive verbs. Prefer persons over abstract ideas for the subjects of these verbs.
Incorrect: It is through this essay that the proposed benefits of active exercise for Chronic Lower Back Pain (CLBP) will be examined.
Revised: This essay will examine the proposed benefits of active exercise for Chronic Lower Back Pain (CLBP).
Incorrect: The plan for Moby Dick was first conceived by Herman Melville during a battle between his ship and an English frigate, but the book was written more than thirty years later.
Revised: During a battle between his ship and an English frigate, Herman Melville first conceived the plan for Moby Dick. More than thirty years passed before he wrote the book, though.
Revised: Herman Melville first conceived the plan for Moby Dick during a battle between his ship and an English frigate – but more than thirty years passed before he wrote the book! (Always use dashes and exclamation points sparingly – and only when you really want to set off an idea!)
Place modifiers near the words they describe; be sure the modified words actually appear in the sentence.
Incorrect: When writing a proposal, an original task is set for research.
Revised: When writing a proposal, a scholar sets an original task for research.
Incorrect: Many tourists visit Arlington National Cemetery, where veterans; and military personnel are buried every day from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m.
Revised: Every day from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., many tourists visit Arlington National Cemetery, where veterans and military personnel are buried.
Incorrect: When not in school, my hobbies range from athletics to automobiles.
Revised: When I am not in school, my hobbies range from athletics to automobiles.
Revised: When I am not in school, I devote my time to my hobbies, which include everything from athletics to automobiles.
Be sure you use grammatically equal sentence elements to express two or more matching ideas or items in a series.
Incorrect: The candidate’s goals include winning the election, a national health program, and the educational system.
Revised: The candidate’s goals include winning the election, enacting a national health program, and improving the educational system.
All pronouns must clearly refer to definite referents [nouns]. Use the following carefully in order to prevent confusion: it, they, this, that, these, those, and which.
Incorrect: Einstein was a brilliant mathematician. This is how he was able to explain the universe.
Revised: Einstein, who was a brilliant mathematician, used his ability with numbers to explain the universe.
Incorrect: Because Senator Martin is less interested in the environment than in economic development, he sometimes neglects it.
Revised: Because of his interest in economic development, Senator Martin sometimes neglects the environment.
Incorrect: In the report, it suggests that moderate exercise is better than no exercise at all.
Revised: The report suggests that moderate exercise is better than no exercise at all.
Determine whether the pronoun you are using is a subject, an object, or a possessive in the sentence, and select the proper pronoun form to match.
Incorrect: Castro’s communist principles inevitably led to an ideological conflict between he and President Kennedy.
Revised: Castro’s communist principles inevitably led to an ideological conflict between him and President Kennedy.
Incorrect: Because strict constructionists recommend fidelity to the Constitution as written, no one objects more than they [object] to judicial reinterpretation.
Revised: Because strict constructionists recommend fidelity to the Constitution as written, no one objects more than they [object] to judicial reinterpretation.
Use a comma after each item in a series of three or more.
Incorrect: Many studies indicate favorable results in function, decreased pain and range of motion.
Revised: Many studies indicate favorable results in function, decreased pain, and range of motion.
Use a comma when you join independent clauses with one of the seven coordinating conjunctions (and, or, nor, but, so, yet, for).
Incorrect: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Revised: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Use a semicolon when you join independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction.
Incorrect: Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Revised: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Do not use a comma to separate subject and verb.
Incorrect: His enthusiasm for the subject and his desire to be of help, led him to volunteer.
Revised: His enthusiasm for the subject and his desire to be of help led him to volunteer.
Use a colon to introduce a list or a long or formal quotation after a complete sentence. Otherwise make the quotation part of the grammar of your sentence.
Strunk (1995) asserts that: “Too many programs are already underfinanced” (p. 87).
Strunk (1995) asserts: “Too many programs are already underfinanced” (p. 87).
Strunk’s assertion (1995) that “Too many programs are already underfinanced” (p. 87) is based on questionable assumptions. (Note that there is no comma after “that.”)
Use commas to signal nonrestrictive or nonessential material, to prevent conclusion, and to indicate relationships among ideas and sentence parts.
Incorrect: When it comes to eating people differ in their tastes.
Revised: When it comes to eating, people differ in their tastes.
Incorrect: The Huns who were Mongolian invaded Gaul in 451.
Revised: The Huns, who were Mongolian, invaded Gaul in 451.
Unnecessary commas make sentences difficult to read.
Incorrect: Field trips are required, in several courses, such as, botany and geology.
Revised: Field trips are required in several courses, such as botany and geology.
Revised: Courses like botany and geology require field trips.
Incorrect: He became very angry, when he saw the size of the bill.
Revised: He became very angry when he saw the size of the bill.
Revised: When he saw the size of the bill, he became very angry. (Note: In the last example, use commas to set off a phrase that appears somewhere other than its natural position in the sentence.)
Incorrect: The term, “scientific literacy,” has become almost a cliché in educational circles.
Revised: The term “scientific illiteracy” has become almost a cliché in educational circles.
13. Comma Splices
Do not link two independent clauses with a comma unless you also use a coordinating conjunction, such as “and,” “or,” “but,” “nor,” “so,” “yet.” Instead use a period or a semicolon, or rewrite the sentence.
Incorrect: In 1952, Japan’s gross national product was one third that of France, by the late 1970s, it was larger than the GNPs of France and Britain combined.
Revised: In 1952, Japan’s gross national product was one third that of France. By the late 1970s, it was larger than the GNPs of France and Britain combined.
Incorrect: Diseased coronary arteries are often surgically bypassed, however half of all bypass grafts fail within ten years.
Revised: Diseased coronary arteries are often surgically bypassed; however, half of all bypass grafts fail within ten years.
Readers frequently interpret misspellings as indicating the writer’s ignorance or carelessness. You do not want to give your readers either impression!
Watch for transposables, too, for example, from / form, for / fro, eat / ate, causal / casual. A spell checker will not catch these errors.
Think about the literal meanings of your metaphors, and determine whether they are appropriate. Avoid mixing metaphors and clichés.
Incorrect: Like a bolt from the blue the idea grabbed him, and it soon took its place as one of his hobby-horses.
Revised: The idea excited him as soon as he heard it, and it soon became an obsession.
Incorrect: One of the greatest philosophical problems ever discussed, this question has been pondered since the beginning of all time by all people everywhere who have ceaselessly asked, why do people exaggerate?
This is a joke, of course, yet students routinely begin history papers with assertions about all times and all places or gross generalizations about a particular time period. Such statements are impossible to prove, or they are so obvious as to be banal. They do not make your ideas sound more important, but they can make you look pompous.
Incorrect: Women have come a long way over the course of time. In the twenty-first century, women are viewed as equal to men on most levels. They can work outside the home, they can appear in public, and they can do anything that they can imagine.
Do not delude yourself that, because you live in the present, you can speak authoritatively about every aspect of it. Is the above statement true of all places in the world? Is it even true of all places in the United States where, arguably, women have made the most progress in gaining equal treatment? Would everyone agree? Who is doing the viewing? Why “most levels”? Do not waste time with such padding in the short papers you write for me. Get to the subject!
Do not use “fancy” words for their own sake or because you think they make your ideas sound more important. Also, do not use a word if you do not know what it means.
Incorrect: Explaining the rationale for treatment can help distil patients’ fears.
Revised: Explaining the rationale for treatment can help dispel patients’ fears.
Incorrect: Visiting the scene of the accident had a dramatic affect on the woman’s opinion of the driver.
Revised: Visiting the scene of the accident had a dramatic effect on the woman’s opinion of the driver.
Students are often sesquipedalians. (Don’t know what it means? Look it up!) Also, some words become fashionable for unknown reasons, and they become so overused that they become meaningless. A current example is “icon.” Please find out what it means, and then use it properly and rarely. Also, before you use the following words, make sure that you know what they mean: exemplify, ideology, depict, represent, discourse, manifest, societal.
Know the difference between “effect” and “affect.” “Effect” is most often a noun (the effect), and “affect” is almost always a verb. Other pairs commonly confused include: lead / led, accept / except, advise / advice, than/ then. Also use “they’re / there / their” properly.
Incorrect: The recession had a negative affect on sales.
Revised: The recession had a negative effect on sales.
Revised: The recessions affected sales negatively.
Not a great sentence, but a correct use of “effect” as a verb: The recession effected great changes in sales.
Avoid using “impact” and “reference” as verbs.
Be concise. Be precise.
Incorrect: It is evident that this term is associated with much ambiguity. Many concepts and ideas come to mind upon first hearing this phrase; however, a true grasp of its meaning is quite difficult to establish. Despite this ambiguity …
Incorrect: A definition that can be employed usefully, according to LaPlante et al. (1993), states that “assistive technology …”
Better: LaPlante et al. (1993) state that “assistive technology …”
Wordy: He made reference to the rise in prices.
Better: He referred to the rise in prices.
Note: The same generally applies to “make mention of,” “took note of,” etc.
Cite the source of your material when you quote someone AND when you paraphrase his or her ideas.
When you close quotations, the final punctuation always comes INSIDE the quotation marks, except for colons [:] and semi-colons [;].
20. Revise and Proofread (not a problem, rather an admonition)
A friend of mine once said, “There’s no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” Last minute efforts leave no time for seriously reconsidering what you have written and revising. At the beginning of the semester, you know your assignments in all your courses. Try to plan your time so that you are able to go through at least one draft of a paper.
The fact is, students generally hand in drafts rather than finished, polished papers. Drafts are fine – in fact, a draft is how many of us think through a problem or a question. What this means, though, is frequently the last paragraph or two of the paper represents the end of the thought process – and where the paper should begin. Sometimes an efficient means of revising a paper is to begin the paper with a version of your draft’s conclusion.
You need distance from your work in order to proofread it. Make sure that you have some time, even if just a few hours, to set your work aside before proofreading.
Read your paper aloud. That will help you to pick up writing errors.