Top Twenty Errors in Undergraduate Writing


Readers judge your writing by your control of certain conventions, which may change depending on your audience, purpose, and context for the writing. Whether an instructor marks an error in a student assignment will depend on personal judgments about how serious the error is and what the writer should be focusing on in the draft. Some of the student writing patterns identified here may be considered errors by some instructors but stylistic options by others. Statistically, though, these twenty errors—identified in nationwide research by Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen Lunsford—are the ones most likely to result in negative responses from readers.

-From The St. Martin's Handbook, Sixth Edition, by Andrea A. Lunsford


1. Wrong Word

Religious texts, for them, take prescience over other kinds of sources.

Prescience means "foresight," and precedence means "priority."

The child suffered from a severe allegory to peanuts.

Allegory is a spell checker's replacement for a misspelling of allergy.

The panel discussed the ethical implications on the situation.

Wrong-word errors can involve using a word with the wrong shade of meaning, using a word with a completely wrong meaning, or using a wrong preposition or another wrong word in an idiom. Selecting a word from a thesaurus without knowing its meaning or allowing a spell checker to correct spelling automatically can lead to wrong-word errors, so use these tools with care. If you have trouble with prepositions and idioms, memorize the standard usage.

2. Missing Comma after an Introductory Element

Determined to get the job done we worked all weekend.

Readers usually need a small pause, signaled by a comma, between an introductory word, phrase, or clause and the main part of the sentence. Use a comma after every introductory element. When the introductory element is very short, you don't always need a comma, but including it is never wrong.

3. Incomplete or Missing Documentation

Satrapi says, "When we're afraid, we lose all sense of analysis and reflection."

The page number of the print source for this quotation must be included.

According to one source, James Joyce wrote two of the five best novels of all time.

The source mentioned should be identified: According to Modern Library 100 Best,James Joyce wrote two of the five best novels of all time. (This online source has no page numbers.) Cite each source you refer to in the text, following the guidelines of the documentation style you are using. (The examples above follow MLA style.) Omitting documentation can result in charges of plagiarism.

4. Vague Pronoun Reference

Possible reference to more than one word

Transmitting radio signals by satellite is a way of overcoming the problem of scarce airwaves and limiting how they are used.

In the original sentence, they could refer to the signals or to the airwaves.

Reference implied but not stated

The company prohibited smoking, which many employees resented.

What does which refer to? The editing clarifies what employees resented.

A pronoun should refer clearly to the word or words it replaces (called the antecedent) elsewhere in the sentence or in a previous sentence. If more than one word could be the antecedent, or if no specific antecedent is present, edit to make the meaning clear.

5. Spelling

Ronald Regan won the election in a landslide.

Every where we went, we saw crowds of tourists.

The most common misspellings today are those that spell checkers cannot identify. The categories that spell checkers are most likely to miss include homonyms, compound words incorrectly spelled as separate words, and proper nouns, particularly names. After you run the spell checker, proofread carefully for errors such as these.

6. Mechanical error with a quotation

"I grew up the victim of a disconcerting confusion", Rodriguez says.

The comma should be placed inside the quotation marks.

Follow conventions when using quotation marks with other punctuation. Always use quotation marks in pairs, and follow the guidelines of your documentation style for block quotations. Use quotations marks for titles of short works, but italics for titles of long works.

7. Unnecessary Comma

Before conjunctions in compound constructions that are not compound sentences

This conclusion applies to the United States, and to the rest of the world.

No comma is needed before the word and because it joins two phrases that modify the same verb,applies.

With restrictive elements

Many parents, of gifted children, do not want them to skip a grade.

No comma is needed to set off the restrictive phrase of gifted children, which is necessary to indicate which parents the sentence is talking about.

Do not use commas to set off restrictive elements that are necessary to the meaning of the words they modify. Do not use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet) when the conjunction does not join parts of a compound sentence. Do not use a comma before the first or after the last item in a series, between a subject and verb, between a verb and its object or complement, or between a preposition and its object.

8. Unnecessary or Missing Capitalization

Some Traditional Chinese Medicines containing Ephedra remain legal.

Capitalize proper nouns and proper adjectives, the first words of sentences, and important words in titles, along with certain words indicating directions and family relationships. Do not capitalize most other words. When in doubt, check a dictionary.

9. Missing Word

The site foreman discriminated women and promoted men with less experience.

Proofread carefully for omitted words, and be particularly careful not to omit words from quotations.

10. Faulty Sentence Structure

The information which high school athletes are presented with mainly includes information on what credits needed to graduate and thinking about the college which athletes are trying to play for, and apply.

A sentence that starts out with one kind of structure and then changes to another kind can confuse readers. Make sure that each sentence contains a subject and a verb, that subjects and predicates make sense together, and that comparisons have clear meanings. When you join elements (such as subjects or verb phrases) with a coordinating conjunction, make sure that the elements have parallel structures.

11. Missing Comma with a Nonrestrictive Element

Marina who was the president of the club was the first to speak.

The clause who was the president of the club does not affect the basic meaning of the sentence: Marina was the first to speak.

A nonrestrictive element gives information not essential to the basic meaning of the sentence. Use commas to set off a nonrestrictive element.

12. Unnecessary Shift in Verb Tense

Priya was watching the great blue heron. Then she slips and falls into the swamp.

Verbs that shift from one tense to another with no clear reason can confuse readers.

13. Missing Comma in a Compound Sentence

Meredith waited for Samir and her sister grew impatient.

Without the comma, a reader may think at first that Meredith waited for both Samir and her sister.

A compound sentence consists of two or more parts that could each stand alone as a sentence. When the parts are joined by a coordinating conjunction, use a comma before the conjunction to indicate a pause between the two thoughts.

14. Unnecessary or Missing Apostrophe (including its/it's)

Overambitious parents can be very harmful to a childs well-being.

The car is lying on it's side in the ditch. Its a white 2004 Passat.

To make a noun possessive, add either an apostrophe and an s (Ed's book) or an apostrophe alone (the boys' gym). Do not use an apostrophe in the possessive pronouns ours, yours, and hers. Useits to mean belong to it; use it's only when you mean it is or it has.

15. Fused (run-on) sentence

Klee's paintings seem simple, they are very sophisticated.

She doubted the value of medication she decided to try it once.

A fused sentence (also called a run-on) joins clauses that could each stand alone as a sentence with no punctuation or words to link them. Fused sentences must be either divided into separate sentences or joined by adding words or punctuation.

16. Comma Splice

I was strongly attracted to her, she was beautiful and funny.

We hated the meat loaf, the cafeteria served it every Friday.

A comma splice occurs when only a comma separates clauses that could each stand alone as a sentence. To correct a comma splice, you can insert a semicolon or period, connect the clauses with a word such as and or because, or restructure the sentence.

17. Lack of pronoun/antecedent agreement

Every student must provide their own uniform.

Pronouns typically must agree with their antecedents in gender (male or female, if appropriate) and in number (singular or plural). [Note, not in St. Martin's Guide: However, they can be used to agree with a singular antecedent in order to use inclusive or gender-neutral language.] Many indefinite pronouns, such as everyone and each, are always singular. When a singular antecedent can refer to a man or woman, either rewrite the sentence to make the antecedent plural or to eliminate the pronoun, or use his or her, he or she, and so on. When antecedents are joined by or or nor, the pronoun must agree with the closer antecedent. A collection noun such as team can be either singular or plural, depending on whether the members are seen as a group or individuals.

18. Poorly Integrated Quotation

A 1970s study of what makes food appetizing "Once it became apparent that the steak was actually blue and the fries were green, some people became ill" (Schlosser 565).

"Dumpster diving has serious drawbacks as a way of life" (Eighner 383). Finding edible food is especially tricky.

Quotations should fit smoothly into the surrounding sentence structure. They should be linked clearly to the writing around them (usually with a signal phrase) rather than dropped abruptly into the writing.

19. Missing or Unnecessary Hyphen

This paper looks at fictional and real life examples.

A compound adjective modifying a noun that follows it requires a hyphen.

The buyers want to fix-up the house and resell it.

A two-word verb should not be hyphenated. A compound adjective that appears before a noun needs a hyphen. However, be careful not to hyphenate two-word verbs or word groups that serve as subject complements.

20. Sentence Fragment

No subject

Marie Antoinette spent huge sums of money on herself and her favorites. And helped to bring on the French Revolution.

No complete verb

The aluminum boat sitting on its trailer.

Beginning with a subordinating word

We returned to the drugstore. Where we waited for our buddies.

A sentence fragment is part of a sentence that is written as if it were a complete sentence. Reading your draft out loud, backwards, sentence by sentence, will help you spot sentence fragments.