Top Four Spelling / Grammar Issues in Student Writing
Of course, you should be using a spell-checker for your
writing. However, spell-checkers miss plenty of important errors, so you
still need to print the thing and proofread it for errors. The rules of
grammar and style can seem overwhelming at times, so I've tried to distill my
usual objections to student papers in four simple points. Incidentally,
grammar checkers are wrong as often as they are right, so use them with caution.
1. Word Mix-Ups: These are the most common
grammar problems in student papers. For a much more complete list, see
Hensel's page on the subject.
- Its vs. It's: Use it's only to replace the
phrase "it is." Do not use "it's" to
indicate possession, like you usually use apostrophes.
- There vs. They're vs. Their: There is a
place. Their means "of them" and indicates
possession. They're is used only to replace the phrase
- Affect vs. Effect: Affect is a verb, so you can affect
something. Effect is a noun, not a verb. You cannot "effect"
something. Example: A problem that affects us all does so
because each of us will feel its effects.
- Two vs. Too vs. To: Two is the number after
one. Too means "very." To is a preposition
used to indicate direction or intent.
- Due vs. Do: Do is a verb, something you can do.
Due means "because of" or "something that is
2. Sentence Fragments: Your sentence must contain a
subject, a verb, and (usually) a direct object. Check out the Purdue
Online Writing Lab's page on the topic.
3. Agreement in Number/Tense: If your subject is plural,
your verb should be of the plural form. If your subject is singular, your
verb should be singular as well. For example:
- She goes to class. They go to
class. Most people do this instinctively, so it is rarely a problem.
- Any one of the articles is available.
- Each of the nations is seeking its own
It is the last two sentences that usually cause
problems. The subject is one, which is singular, so the verb must
also be singular: is instead of are. The phrase "of the
articles" is not the subject of the sentence. It merely modifies the
word one. In general, watch out for prepositional phrases like
this, as they can cause you to forget that your subject was singular.
Don't be this guy:
Note that agreement in tense is also required,
so avoid statements like, "Jeff is writing a web
page on common writing errors for his students, so he
wasn't paying attention when Katharine walked
up behind him and knocked him out with a frozen leg
of lamb." The first underlined verb should be changed to "was
writing" -- or the second, third, and fourth underlined verbs should be changed
to "isn't," "walks," and "knocks."
4. Punctuation: These are the three most
A. Apostrophe Misuse.
Apostrophes are used for two and only two
purposes. They can indicate possession or they can indicate contraction.
Put them after the full word (and add an s afterward if the word is
singular). Thus, the following examples of incorrect and correct usage:
- The 1990's were a decade of change.
SHOULD BE: The 1990s were a decade of change.
- Nations frequently sign FTA's. SHOULD BE:
Nations frequently sign FTAs.
- A nations power cant make other nations
respect it. SHOULD BE: A nation's power can't make other
nations respect it.
- State's leaders may resort to war to increase their
own popularity. SHOULD BE: States' leaders may resort to war to
increase their own popularity.
B. Comma Abuse, especially the "comma splice."
Some people seem to think of commas as the salt and
pepper of writing, to be sprinkled liberally across the page for flavor.
This really annoys me. Commas do not indicate a "pause" in a
sentence. Instead, they are used to set parts of a sentence off from the
rest. A wonderful little summary of basic comma usage is available on the UNC
Writing Center's page. Pay special attention to the dreaded
"comma splice" (Rule 3), for I absolutely loathe run-on sentences.
C. Capitalization Problems.
You should capitalize the first word of every sentence, all proper nouns (named
people, places, or things), all letters in an acronym (a multiple-word
abbreviation), titles preceding names, and when called for in a system of
citation. Note that while political entities, parties, and other proper
nouns are capitalized, ideologies are not (unless
they contain proper names). So it is correct to write: socialism,
communism, American Socialist Party, Chinese Communist Party, liberal,
conservative, Liberal Party (of the United Kingdom), Democrats, democracy,
conservatism, republic, Republican, etc.
Two more observations: In Britain, they only capitalize the
first letter of an acronym, so NATO (proper American English) is written Nato
(proper UK English). You should write in American English: NATO, POTUS,
ANZUS, SCOTUS, etc. You may also encounter writers that capitalize
apparently random nouns in the middle of a sentence, as in the Declaration of
|We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all men are created equal, that they are
endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable Rights, that among these are Life,
Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Today, we would write this same sentence with only two
capitalized words: "We" and (optionally, depending on one's beliefs) "Creator."
Grammar has changed. When people do this today, they are either trying to
copy or mock the style of earlier English. Unless you have a specific
reason for doing this, don't do it.
Statement on Inclusive Language
Non-Inclusive Language: This isn't about being
"politically correct," but rather about being precise in your
writing. Using "man" to represent all people is imprecise,
because it can also mean "adult males." Similarly, using
"he" to refer to someone whose gender is unknown also creates a double
meaning that you may not intend. In general, try to substitute terms like
"person" for "man," "humanity" for
"mankind," etc. It is simply more precise and communicates your
meaning more clearly if your audience can distinguish between a sentence that
refers to males only and one that refers to all people. Surprisingly, the
idea that "he" means everyone is actually a fairly recent invention,
dating back little more than 100 years, and now seems to be going out of style
again. Carolyn Jacobson summarizes this issue well. What follows is
from one of her (no longer available) web pages:
By the 18th century, the modern, narrow sense of
man was firmly established as the predominant
one. When Edmund Burke, writing of the French
Revolution, used men in the old, inclusive way,
he took pains to spell out his meaning: "Such a
deplorable havoc is made in the minds of men
(both sexes) in France. . . ." Thomas Jefferson
did not make the same distinction in declaring
that "all men are created equal" and
"governments are instituted among men, deriving
their just powers from the consent of the
governed." In a time when women, having no vote,
could neither give nor withhold consent,
Jefferson had to be using the word men in its
principal sense of "males," and it probably
never occurred to him that anyone would think
otherwise. Looking at modern dictionaries
indicate that the definition that links "man"
with males is the predominant one. Studies of
college students and school children indicate
that even when the broad definitions of "man"
and "men" are taught, they tend to conjure up
images of male people only. We would never use
the sentence "A girl grows up to be a man,"
because we assume the narrower definition of the
word man. The examples below seem disconcerting
precisely for this reason:
* "Development of the Uterus in Rats, Guinea
Pigs, and Men" (title of a research report)
* "The Pap test, which has greatly reduced
mortality from uterine cancer, is a boon to
Even when authors insist that "man" is a general
term of all humans, they can lapse into meaning
it as a term for only males:
* "As for man, he is no different from the rest.
His back aches, he ruptures easily, his women
have difficulties in childbirth . . . "
Once you've started to recognize the problems
that can arise with using "man" as a generic
pronoun, how can you prevent confusion? One way
is by substituting "human," "humankind,"
"people," or another word that does not involve
any specific gender.
The Pronoun Problem
The first grammars of modern English were
written in the 16th and 17th centuries....The
grammars of this period contain no indication
that masculine pronouns were sex-inclusive when
used in general references. Instead these
pronouns reflected the reality of male cultural
dominance and the male-centered world view that
resulted. "He" started to be used as a generic
pronoun by grammarians who were trying to change
a long-established tradition of using "they" as
a singular pronoun. In 1850 an Act of Parliament
gave official sanction to the recently invented
concept of the "generic" he. In the language
used in acts of Parliament, the new law said,
"words importing the masculine gender shall be
deemed and taken to include females." Although
similar language in contracts and other legal
documents subsequently helped reinforce this
grammatical edict in all English-speaking
countries, it was often conveniently ignored. In
1879, for example, a move to admit female
physicians to the all-male Massachusetts Medical
Society was effectively blocked on the grounds
that the society's by-laws describing membership
used the pronoun he.
Just as "man" is not truly generic in the 1990s,
"he" is not a true generic pronoun. Studies have
confirmed that most people understand "he" to
refer to men only.... To push the point further,
check out this sentence: "The average American
needs the small routines of getting ready for
work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or
pulls on his panty hose, he is easing himself by
small stages into the demands of the day." The
first image that comes to mind is a
transvestite, not the average American woman. As
a result of the fact that "he" is read by many
as a masculine pronoun, many people, especially
women, have come to feel that the generic
pronouns excludes women. This means that more
and more people find the use of such a pronoun
Solving the Pronoun Problem
They as a Singular--Most people, when writing
and speaking informally, rely on singular they
as a matter of course: "If you love someone, set
them free" (Sting). If you pay attention to your
own speech, you'll probably catch yourself using
the same construction yourself. "It's enough to
drive anyone out of their senses" (George
Bernard Shaw). "I shouldn't like to punish
anyone, even if they'd done me wrong" (George
Eliot). Some people are annoyed by the incorrect
grammar that this solution necessitates, but
this construction is used more and more
He or She--Despite the charge of clumsiness, double-pronoun constructions have made a comeback: "To be black in this country is simply too pervasive an experience for any writer to omit from her or his work," wrote Samuel R. Delany. Overuse of this solution can be awkward, however.
Pluralizing--A writer can often recast material in the plural. For instance, instead of "As he advances in his program, the medical student has increasing opportunities for clinical work," try "As they advance in their program, medical students have increasing opportunities for clinical work."
Eliminating Pronouns--Avoid having to use pronouns at all; instead of "a first grader can feed and dress himself," you could write, "a first grader can eat and get dressed without assistance."