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English Composition 1

Identifying and Eliminating Common Errors in Writing

Sentence Fragments

Definition: A sentence fragment (or incomplete sentence) is almost a sentence but lacks a subject, a finite verb, or a completed thought. Sentence fragments are one of the three serious "sentence-boundary" errors. Often, but not always, sentence fragments begin with "That," "Because," or an "–ing" verb, so you should look for "sentences" that begin with one of these words and "sentences" that lack a completed thought.

Examples:

  1. Working on his homework all afternoon.*
  2. Because she was new in town and had not met any of her neighbors.*
  3. That the dog would have to be put outside while the house was fumigated.*

How to Correct: You can correct a sentence fragment by supplying one or more of the missing elements: the subject, the finite verb, or the completed thoughts. Also, a sentence fragment often can be corrected by using a comma instead of a period to separate the incomplete sentence from the sentence that comes before it or after it.

  1. He worked on his homework all afternoon.
  2. Because she was new in town and had not met any of her neighbors, she had nothing to do Saturday night.
  3. The dog would have to be put outside while the house was fumigated.

Run-on Sentences

Definition: A run-on sentence occurs when two or more sentences are brought together with no punctuation between the sentences. Run-on sentences are one of the three serious "sentence-boundary" errors. (The term "run-on sentence" does not refer to a long sentence! )

Examples:

  1. We listened to music all night my favorite song was "Boogie Fever."*
  2. I took English 1001 last spring it was a great class!*
  3. He used to work at Burger Palace now he works at Taco Land.*

How to Correct: Separate the complete sentences with (1) a period, (2) a semicolon, (3) or a comma followed by a conjunction (such as "but," "and," or "so").

  1. We listened to music all night. My favorite song was "Boogie Fever."
  2. I took English 1001 last spring, and it was a great class!
  3. He used to work at Burger Palace, but now he works at Taco Land.

Comma Splices

Definition: A comma splice occurs when a comma separates two complete sentences. Comma splices are one of the three serious "sentence-boundary" errors.

Examples:

  1. He could not stand the long hours, he quit his job.*
  2. We all watched Titanic, it was a great movie!*
  3. Susan was overwhelmed with work, however she was able to complete her work before she left the office.*

How To Correct: Comma splices can be corrected in several different ways, including

  1. He could not stand the long hours, so he quit his job.
  2. We all watched Titanic. It was a great movie!
  3. Susan was overwhelmed with work; however, she was able to complete her work before she left the office.

Note the last example. If you use a word such as "however," "therefore," or "consequently," and what comes both before and after the word are complete sentences, the punctuation is usually the same as in Example 3 above (; however,).


Comma Splice Quickie from the Writing Center at Ball State University

Mixed Construction

Definition: Mixed construction occurs when one part of a sentence does not logically or grammatically follow another part of the sentence.

Examples:

  1. In Alice Walker’s "To Hell with Dying" is about the love the narrator shares with Mr. Sweet.*
  2. Because of pollution is one reason so many animals are endangered.*

How to Correct: Most often, mixed construction can be corrected if you consider the subject and the verb of the sentence in which mixed construction occurs. For instance, in the first example above, the subject of "is about" is "Alice Walker’s ‘To Hell with Dying,’" not "In Alice Walker’s ‘To Hell with Dying.’" Mixed construction can often be corrected simply with the deletion of a word or two.

  1. Alice Walker’s "To Hell with Dying" is about the love the narrator shares with Mr. Sweet.
  2. Pollution is one reason so many animals are endangered.

Faulty Parallelism

Definition: Faulty parallelism occurs when parts of a sentence that are either in balance or part of a series are not presented with the same (or parallel) grammatical structure.

Examples:

  1. He likes to listen to music, to watch movies, and going swimming.*
  2. She understood how to change the oil and replacing the air filter.*
  3. The assignment required students to identify an important character in the novel, to describe this character’s actions, and explaining how the character’s actions influence the plot.*

How to Correct: To correct faulty parallelism, you first must recognize that you are balancing items in your sentence or presenting two or more items in a series. Separating the different parts of your sentence should help, as in the example below:

The assignment required students . . .

Now the item causing the "faulty parallelism" becomes clear. To correct faulty parallelism, rewrite the sentence so that all of the different items are presented in the same way. In the example above, "explaining" should be changed to "to explain."

  1. He likes to listen to music, to watch movies, and to swim.
  2. She understood how to change the oil and how to replace the air filter.
  3. The assignment required students to identify an important character in the novel, to describe this character’s actions, and to explain how the character’s actions influence the plot.

Lack of Subject/Verb Agreement

Definition: Lack of subject/verb agreement occurs when a verb does not agree in number with its subject.

Examples:

  1. One of my teachers are in the office.*
  2. Neither Frank nor Elizabeth are here today.*
  3. No one in the crowd of 10,000 spectators watching the football game seem to understand why the player was penalized.*

How to Correct: To correct a lack of subject/verb agreement, you must identify the subject of the verb and then change the verb to agree with that subject. Do not be fooled by words that may come between the subject and the verb. For instance, in the last example above the subject of "seem to understand" is "no one": "in the crowd of 10,000 spectators watching the football game" is simply clarifying the identity of "no one."

  1. One of my teachers is in the office.
  2. Neither Frank nor Elizabeth is here today.
  3. No one in the crowd of 10,000 spectators watching the football game seems to understand why the player was penalized.

Pronoun Errors

Definition: Pronouns (such as "he," "they," "their," "it") are used to replace nouns, and pronouns must agree in number and person with the noun they are replacing (the words that pronouns replace are called "antecedents"). In other words, "he" must refer to one male, and "they" must refer to two or more people or things. Lack of pronoun agreement occurs when the pronoun does not agree in number or person with its antecedent. Pronoun errors also occur when the writer uses a pronoun whose antecedent is missing, is ambiguous, or is too far removed from its antecedent.

Examples:

  1. When a student gets behind in the course, they have a difficult time completing all of the assignments.*
  2. Judy asked Marie if the instructor wanted to see her.*
  3. When one debates an issue, he must have thorough knowledge of both sides of the issue.*

How to Correct: To correct a problem with pronoun agreement, you must identify the antecedent of the pronoun, and then you must change the pronoun or the antecedent so that each agrees in number and person with the other. If the antecedent may be unclear to readers, you can replace the pronoun with its antecedent, or you might have to rewrite the sentence to clarify your meaning.

  1. When a student gets behind in the course, he or she has a difficult time completing all of the assignments, or When students get behind in the course, they have a difficult time completing all of the assignments.
  2. Judy asked Marie if the instructor wanted to see Marie.
  3. When one debates an issue, one must have thorough knowledge of both sides of the issue.

Note: A common error is the use of a plural pronoun ("they" or "their") to refer to a singular indefinite pronoun (anybody, anyone, everybody, everyone, nobody, no one, one, somebody, and someone.) Each of these indefinite pronouns is singular, meaning a singular pronoun must be used to refer to it. Also, phrases beginning with "every" and "each" are singular, never plural. The following sentences contain errors because of a lack of pronoun agreement:

  1. Everyone is expected to bring their books to class.*
  2. No one can be blamed for their lack of experience.*

To avoid sexist language, "he or she" or "her or his" should be used instead of "he" or "his," but such phrasing is awkward and wordy. Often, a better alternative is to change the antecedent to a plural noun and to use a plural pronoun to refer to it.

  1. Everyone is expected to bring his or her books to class.
  2. Students are expected to bring their books to class.
  3. No one can be blamed for her or his lack of experience.

Apostrophe/Possessive Errors

Definition: There are a few different kinds of possessive and apostrophe errors:

Examples:

  1. All of the student’s were prepared for the exam.*
  2. I waited an hour in the doctors office!*
  3. Marys’ dream is to begin a new life with Frank.*
  4. Its not that I dislike the story; I just do not understand it’s meaning.*

How to Correct: Correcting possessive and apostrophe errors is largely a matter of understanding when you are and are not showing "possession." If you are unsure, try reversing the words in question and then place the word "of" between them; if it makes sense, you need an apostrophe to show possession. For example, do I need an apostrophe for "doctors office"? Is my meaning "[the] office [of] the doctor"? Yes, so I need to write "doctor’s office." Also, remember not to use an apostrophe if you are not showing possession but are simply using a plural form of a word, as in "The doctors arrived at noon." Finally, where you place the apostrophe for a possessive is important: "doctor’s office" means the office of one doctor; "doctors’ office" means that more than one doctor share the same office ("[the] office [of] the doctors").

  1. All of the students were prepared for the exam.
  2. I waited an hour in the doctor’s office!
  3. Mary’s dream is to begin a new life with Frank.
  4. It’s not that I dislike the story; I just do not understand its meaning.

Note: A common error is confusion over "its" and "it’s," but knowing which word to use is simple if you remember that "it’s" always means "it is" or "it has." "Its" is used to show possession; "it’s" is never used to show possession. In addition, students will sometimes use its', with the apostrophe after the "s," but this form does not exist.

Misplaced/Dangling Modifiers

Definition: A "modifier" is a word or phrase that "modifies" or changes another word or phrase. A modifier is misplaced if it modifies the wrong word or phrase. A modifier is "dangling" if the word or phrase that is supposed to be modified does not appear in the sentence.

Examples:

  1. Looking out the window, the snow continued to fall.*
  2. After biting two children, the police took away our German Shepherd.*
  3. Although expensive and well planned, she was disappointed by her vacation to Hawaii.*

How to Correct: If a sentence begins with a modifier followed by a comma, whatever word or phrase is being modified must immediately follow the comma. If the modifier is "dangling," the writer needs to supply the word or phrase that is being modified.

  1. Looking out the window, he saw that the snow continued to fall.
  2. After biting two children, our German Shepherd was taken away by the police.
  3. Although expensive and well planned, her vacation to Hawaii was disappointing.

Note: Misplaced modifiers usually will convey a meaning that the writer did not intend. For example, the sentence "After biting two children, the police took away our German Shepherd" means that the police bit two children and then took a dog away. In the third example, "she" is being described as "expensive and well planned"!

Another modifier problem is the "squinting modifier." In this case, the modifier could refer to two different elements in a sentence, causing possible confusion for readers. An example is "This student only turned in the extra credit assignment." Notice that the sentence can convey two different meanings: "Only this student turned in the extra credit assignment" (no other student turned in the extra credit assignment), or "This student turned in only the extra credit assignment" (the student did not turn in any other assignments). The placement of the word "only" in the original sentence causes it to be a squinting modifier. Note how the confusion is cleared up when the word "only" is moved closer to the word or phrase it is modifying.)

Inaccurate Word Choice

"Inaccurate Word Choice" indicates errors in word choice, usually errors involving words in English that are commonly confused. A few of these commonly confused words are listed below. If you have problems with inaccurate word choice, you should use a dictionary to figure out the meanings of the words that are giving you trouble.

Commonly Confused Words

accept/except

advice/advise

affect/effect

allude/elude

among/between

are/our

eminent/imminent

fewer/less

further/farther

illusion/allusion

infer/imply

in turn/intern

it’s/its

lay/lie

led/lead

lose/loose

past/passed

precede/proceed

sight/site/cite

their/there/they’re

then/than

to/too/two

weather/whether

were/where

who/whom

who’s/whose

your, you’re


One of the most common problems involving inaccurate word choice is the use of the word "of" where "have" is needed, as in "I would of done that," which should be "I would have done that."

"Inaccurate Word Choice" may also refer to the use of

Semicolons Errors

There is one main situation in which semicolons (;) are used, and that is to separate two complete sentences that are closely related in meaning. To some extent, periods and semicolons are interchangeable; in some situations, you can use one or the other. Semicolons and commas are not interchangeable. If you can replace your semicolon with a comma, you have used the semicolon incorrectly. (Note: There are some exceptions to this rule of semicolon usage, but they are so rare that they seldom come up in student papers.)

Semicolons should never be used to create a "pause" longer than that created by a comma.

Spelling Errors

"Spelling Errors" is self-explanatory. Use a spell checker and a dictionary.

Typographical Errors

"Typographical Errors" is self-explanatory. Proofread carefully.

Other Errors

Other errors that might come up in an essay include the following:

This page was last updated on May 22, 2012. Copyright Randy Rambo, 2011.