Journalism 133: Prof. Craig: Most Common Grammar Errors

Most Common Grammar Errors

A study of error by Andrea Lunsford and Robert Connors shows that 20 mistakes constitute 91.5 percent of all errors in student writing.  Attending to these 20 errors covers a lot of ground in assuring that writing will be clear and easy to read .

Below is an overview of these errors, listed according to the frequency with which they occur.

1. Missing comma after introductory phrases.

For example: 

After the devastation of the siege of Leningrad the Soviets were left with the task of rebuilding their population as well as their city. 
(A comma should be placed after "Leningrad.")

2. Vague pronoun reference.

For example: 

The boy and his father knew that he was in trouble. 
(Who is in trouble? The boy? His father? Some other person?)

3. Missing comma in compound sentence.

For example: 

Wordsworth spent a good deal of time in the Lake District with his sister Dorothy and the two of them were rarely apart. 
(Comma should be placed before the "and.")

4. Wrong word.

Get in the habit of looking up commonly confused words such as accept/except, affect/effect, capital/capitol, principle/principal, lie/lay, etc.  Also beware of homographs (words that share the same spelling, regardless of their pronunciation) and homophones (words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of their spelling).  For example, common homographs are the different words spelled "bow"; common homonyms are to/too/two. 

5. No comma in nonrestrictive relative clauses.

Foe example:

My brother in the red shirt likes ice cream. 
If you have TWO brothers, then the information about the shirt is restrictive, in that it is necessary to defining WHICH brother likes ice cream. Restrictive clauses, because they are essential to identifying the noun, use no commas. However, if you have ONE brother, then the information about the shirt is not necessary to identifying your brother. It is NON-RESTRICTIVE and, therefore, requires commas: "My brother, in the red shirt, likes ice cream."

6. Wrong/missing inflected ends.

"Inflected ends" refers to a something you already understand: adding a letter or syllable to the end of a word changes its grammatical function in the sentence. For example, adding "ed" to a verb shifts that verb from present to past tense. Adding an "s" to a noun makes that noun plural. 

7. Wrong/missing preposition.

Occasionally prepositions will throw you. Consider, for example which is better: "different from," or "different than?" Though both are used widely, "different from" is considered grammatically correct. The same debate surrounds the words "toward" and "towards." Though both are used, "toward" is preferred in writing. When in doubt, check a handbook.

8. Comma splice.

A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses are joined only with a comma. For example: 

Picasso was profoundly affected by the war in Spain, it led to the painting of great masterpieces like Guernica.
A comma splice also occurs when a comma is used to divide a subject from its verb. For example: 
The young Picasso felt stifled in art school in Spain, and wanted to leave.
The subject "Picasso" is separated from one of its verbs "wanted." There should be no comma in this sentence.

9. Possessive apostrophe error.

Sometimes apostrophes are incorrectly left out; other times, they are incorrectly put in (her's, their's, etc.) For example:

Its about time you showed up for class. 
This should be "it's," because in this instance it is a contraction for "it is."  This is as opposed to:
The team's championship win was it's finest hour.
In this case, this should be "its" because it does not mean it is.  The possessive apostrophe applies to specific people ("It's Melissa's birthday") or entities ("It's a dog's life"), not the generic "it."

10. Tense shift.

Be careful to stay in a consistent tense. Too often students move from past to present tense without good reason. The reader will find this annoying.  For example:

While Jones was taking a bath, the thief entered through the bathroom window.
The tenses must agree -- either "While Jones was taking a bath, the thief was entering through the bathroom window," or "While Jones took a bath, the thief entered through the bathroom window."

11. Unnecessary shift in person.

Don't shift from "I" to "we" or from "one" to "you" unless you have a rationale for doing so. For example:

In doing chemistry experiments, one should read the directions carefully.  Otherwise you may have an explosion.
The generic "one" and the specific "you" should agree -- change both to "one" or "you."

12. Sentence fragment.

Silly things, to be avoided. Unless, like here, you are using them to achieve a certain effect. Remember: sentences traditionally have both subjects and verbs. Don't get in the habit of violating this convention.

13. Wrong tense or verb form.

Though students generally understand how to build tenses, sometimes they use the wrong tense, saying, for example:

In the evenings, I like to lay on the couch and watch TV.
"Lay" in this instance is the past tense of the verb, "to lie." The sentence should read: "In the evenings, I like to lie on the couch and watch TV." (Please note that "to lay" is a separate verb meaning "to place in a certain position.")

14. Subject-verb agreement.

This gets tricky when you are using collective nouns or pronouns and you think of them as plural nouns.  For example: 

The committee want a resolution to the problem.
Mistakes like this also occur when your verb is far from your subject.  For example, "The media, who has all the power in this nation and abuses it consistently, use their influence for ill more often than good." (Note that "media" is singular in the first clause and plural in the second.)

15. Missing comma in a series.

Whenever you list things, use a comma until the "and" before the last noun. For example:

For breakfast I had toast, milk, fruit and bacon and eggs.
Here there should be a comma after "fruit." Some grammar texts insist on a comma after each noun ( referred to as the "Oxford comma") but common journalistic practice is to omit this. 

16. Pronoun agreement error.

Many students have a problem with pronoun agreement. They will write a sentence like: 

Everyone is entitled to their opinion.
The problem is, "everyone" is a singular pronoun. In this instance you would have to use "his" or "her."  To avoid gender and grammar issues, one common journalistic way around this is to pluralize the initial noun, which results in something like "People are entitled to their opinions."

17. Unnecessary commas with restrictive clauses.

Students often toss commas into sentences where they create unnecessary restrictions.  For example:

I am the one, who filed the complaint.
There's no need for a comma here.  See rules in item #5.

18. Run-on, fused sentence.

Run-on sentences are sentences that run on forever, they are sentences that ought to have been two or even three sentences but the writer didn't stop to sort them out, leaving the reader feeling exhausted by the sentence's end which is too long in coming (such as this one).  Fused sentences occur when two independent clauses are put together without a comma, semi-colon, or conjunction. For example: 

Researchers investigated several possible vaccines for the virus then they settled on one.

19. Dangling, misplaced modifier.

Modifiers are any adjectives, adverbs, phrases, or clauses that a writer uses to elaborate on something. Modifiers, when used wisely, enhance your writing. But if they are not well-considered - or if they are put in the wrong places in your sentences - the results can be less than eloquent. Consider, for example, this sentence: 

The professor wrote a paper on sexual harassment in his office. 
Is the sexual harassment going on in the professor's office? Or is his office the place where the professor is writing? One hopes that the latter is true. If it is, then the original sentence contains a misplaced modifier and should be re-written accordingly: "In his office, the professor wrote a paper on sexual harassment." Always put your modifiers next to the nouns they modify.

Dangling modifiers are a different kind of problem. They intend to modify something that isn't in the sentence. Consider this: 

As a young girl, my father baked bread and gardened.
The writer means to say, "When I was a young girl, my father baked bread and gardened." The modifying phrase "as a young girl" refers to some noun not in the sentence. It is, therefore, a dangling modifier. Other dangling modifiers are more difficult to spot, however. Consider this sentence: "Walking through the woods, my heart ached." Is it your heart that is walking through the woods? It is more accurate (and more grammatical) to say, "Walking through the woods, I felt an ache in my heart." Here you avoid the dangling modifier.

20. Who/which/that.

Use "who" when referring to persons; use "that" when referring to things.  The word "which" denotes an independent clause, which means it should always be proceeded by a comma (as in this sentence).