Common composition errors
"You know I'm awfully in love with you, Henry. I've meant everything I've said. . . . You won't ever let anything or anyone come between us?"
"I'd like to see them try!"
His kisses left her surer of his love than his grammar.
--Jessie Redmon Fauset, Comedy: American Style (1933)
"Every body does and says what they please."
--Lord Byron (1820)
The Good Writing and Process sections of the The Guide offer constructive suggestions to the writer preparing to write or the writer grappling with a work in progress. The Grammar and Usage page offers some intellectual perspective on issues surrounding the way speakers speak and writers write.
You are probably reading the present page because the paper you completed has been returned to you and you wish to correct errors or avoid them in your next assignment. If you're a particularly assiduous writer, you may be here in hopes of identifying a few last errors in the penultimate draft of a not-yet-submitted writing project. In any case, you are past the speculative and planning stage of writing and are looking for some quick and specific fixes.
If your work has errors in thinking or organization, you would benefit from re-reading the Good Writing pages, particularly the page on Organization. You might also find it helpful to review the checklists below. If it's errors in usage, style, spelling, or punctuation that you need to fix or hope to avoid, skip down to the list of selected errors below.
A persuasive essay - the kind most often assigned in college - must have an argument. A topic is not an argument; your argument is what you have to say about your topic. It is typically expressed in a sentence or two near the beginning of your essay: the thesis.
Your main argument and the subordinate arguments that support it should display critical thinking. A critical thinker backs up every significant claim in an essay with adequate evidence and logical reasoning; scrutinizes his or her assumptions about the topic, refusing to take as "obvious" assumptions that are open to question; shows an awareness of other points of view; and addresses objections by refuting or conceding them.
Looking back at a piece of writing you've completed, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Does my essay have a thesis?
- Is my thesis clear?
- Have I supported my thesis with adequate evidence?
- Are my arguments logical?
- Have I combed my writing for unexamined assumptions? Have I forced myself to supply a reason for any premise that is important to my argument?
- Have I anticipated objections to my argument and addressed those objections?
As critical thinking requires that you treat assumptions and claims with logic, good organization demands that you use logic in ordering your ideas and arguments. You should apply care to the ordering of sentences in paragraphs and the ordering of paragraphs in the essay as a whole.
Looking back at a piece of writing you've completed, ask yourself the following:
- Does my introduction lead naturally, gracefully, expeditiously into my thesis? Have I provided an invitation to my essay without wasting the reader's time with extraneous information?
- Does the order of my ideas and evidence reflect logical reasoning rather than, say, the order in which I thought of the ideas and found the evidence?
- Are sentences and paragraphs joined by clear, logical transitions? (Transitions such as "Also..." and "Another important point..." will make an essay read like a list rather than an argument.)
- Does my conclusion follow logically from the evidence I've presented? Does it advance a claim that would have been impossible to advance without this evidence?
The individual sentences of an essay deserve to be constructed with as much care as the paragraphs and the essay they compose. Carefully constructed prose is not only more attractive but more effective in communicating ideas. Ask yourself the following?
- Have I eliminated the unnecessary and redundant words that make writing wordy?
- Have I minimized my use of the passive voice?
- Have I rewritten sentences with piled-up prepositional phrases?
- Have I made the main actor in each sentence the grammatical subject and put the main action of the sentence in the predicate?
- Have I paid attention to the rhythms established by sentences?
Grammar and Usage
Good student writing adheres to the conventions of Standard English. It's customary to refer to such writing as "grammatical," although as The Guide's page on Grammar and Usage explains, when used in this way the term "grammatical" is, from a linguist's point of view, a misnomer.
So much confusion surrounds the concept of "good grammar" that a few important points, in addition to those offered on the Grammar and Usage page, must precede any consideration of common errors:
- Users of a language exhibit many small-scale variations in the way they form words and construct sentences, just as they display obvious varieties of accent. British and American English do not share identical grammatical conventions, and the spread of English around the globe has produced many additional geographical variants among speakers and writers of the language. Even at home we find diversity, particularly in spoken English. Southern speech, for example, has some recognizably distinctive grammatical features, such as the plural you (y'all). English, a linguist would say, has many "varieties" or "dialects."
- With language, as with other social conventions, we are often tempted to label the unfamiliar as "wrong" or "silly" or "vulgar" or even "barbaric." It's telling that this last word derives from bárbaros, the ancient Greek label for non-Greek speakers. In much the same spirit as the Greeks, many people mistakenly suppose that the terms "dialect" and "accent" describe the linguistic habits of others but not themselves. The truth is that dialect and accent are inescapable features of everyone's speech. At the same time, every variety of English exhibits internal grammatical consistency.
- Linguists give the name "Standard English" to that variety which holds the place of greatest social privilege. Standard English is no more grammatical than nonstandard varieties of English; however, it is the variety most commonly employed in business, government, and academe, and for this simple reason it is the appropriate variety for most student writing.
- Most errors in student writing are errors of usage or style rather than true grammatical errors. (Consult the page on Grammar and Usage for an explanation of the difference and a discussion of the rational basis for certain usage preferences.) Usage and style errors may interfere with clarity, directness, and economy of communication, or they may make a writer's sentences aesthetically objectionable.
Common errors of usage, style, spelling, and punctuation
This section of The Guide has moved to the wiki.