Ayer's Common Errors
This handout is designed to enable you to edit more efficiently. It does not provide a comprehensive list or explanation of all grammatical errors or stylistic conventions but briefly addresses the problems I repeatedly see semester after semester in college writing. For fuller explanations and examples, refer to the grammar and style sections of our website (under "Writing Resources"). Use this handout when proofreading an almost-final draft of a piece of writing. Determine which errors you are in the habit of making and reread your draft several times searching for those specific errors.
* The examples marked with an asterisk have been taken (or adapted) from Infinite Jest. a remarkable novel by David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown & Company, 1996) and are indicated by page number.
To be a sentence, a word group must consist of at least one full independent clause. An independent clause has a subject and verb and either stands alone or could stand alone. Words such as after, although, because, before, if, unless, until, when, where, who, which, and that usually begin subordinate clauses.
The blue sky is glossy and fat with heat. A few thin cirri sheared to blown strands like hair at the rims. (15)*
I am debating whether to risk scratching the right side of my jaw. Where there is a wen. (4)*
In both examples the first word group is an independent clause, and the second segment is a fragment: a phrase in the first example and a dependent clause in the second. You may revise them by attaching the fragment to the independent clause:
The blue sky is glossy and fat with heat, a few thin cirri . . .
I am debating whether to risk scratching . . . jaw, where there is a wen.
Verbs must agree with their subjects in number (singular or plural) and person (first, second, third).
The disorder I've caused revolve all around. (13)*
In this example, "disorder" is a singular noun; thus add an "s" to the verb "revolve" to make it agree in person (third) and number (singular).
Treat most indefinite pronouns anybody, anyone, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, none, no one, someone, something as singular. Everyone on the team supports the coach; each of them has a candy bar.
Six Common Comma Errors
1. Comma Splice
This error consists of independent clauses separated only by a comma:
There's more to life than sitting there interfacing, it might be a newsflash to you. (15)* [revision]It might be a newsflash to you, but there's more to life than . . . [another revision] There's more to life than . . . interfacing; it might be a newsflash to you.
The two clauses must be firmly separated, either by a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, not, for, so, yet) or by a semicolon).
2. Omitting a comma after an introductory word, phrase, or clause.
As the floor wafted up and C's grip finally gave, the last thing Gately saw was an Oriental bearing down with the held square; he looked into the square and saw clearly a reflection of his own big square pale head with its eyes closing as the floor finally pounced. (981)*
The introductory clause As the floor wafted up and C's grip finally gave should be followed by a comma to signal that the reader will pause before completing the sentence.
3. Failing to use commas to set off elements in a series.
This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside. (3)*
The series of participial phrases
walled . . .hung . . .windowed . . .insulated
should be set off by commas.
4. Omitting a comma before a coordinating conjunction joining independent clauses.
. . . when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining, and the tide was way out. (981)*
In this sentence we have three independent clauses he was flat . . .; it was raining; the tide was way out joined together by the coordinating conjunction "and." Place a comma before each coordinating conjunction.
5. Omitting a comma with a non-restrictive word, phrase, or clause
Because the information the non-restrictive element contains is not essential to the meaning of the sentence and may be omitted without loss of meaning, the non-restrictive element is enclosed by commas.
. . . and in that most maternal of reflexes she, who feared and loathed more than anything spoilage and filth, reached to take out whatever her baby held out--as in how many used heavy Kleenex, spit-back candies, wads of chewed-out gumin how many theaters, airports, backseats, tournament lounges? (11)*
Because the description of the mother's fears provides interesting but not essential information, it is enclosed by commas.
6. Using a comma with a restrictive word, phrase or clause
Because the information the restrictive element contains is essential to the meaning of the sentence, omitting it distorts the meaning; therefore, do not use commas.
The Dean with the flat yellow face has leaned forward, his lips drawn back from his teeth in what I see as concern. The phrase with the flat yellow face is essential to the meaning of the sentence because it distinguishes this particular Dean from his colleagues.
It's vs. Its
"it's" means "it is." "Its" indicates possession.
It's [It is] a sad day when a nation cannot take care of its [possessive] poor.
Fused or Run-on Sentence: When a writer puts no mark of punctuation between independent clauses, the result is a fused sentence:
Power tends to corrupt absolute power corrupts absolutely
[revision] Power tends to corrupt, but absolute power corrupts absolutely. He has some trouble communicating he's communicatively challenged no one is denying that. (14)*
[revision] He has some trouble communicating because he is communicatively challenged; no one is denying that.
[another revision] He has some trouble communicating. No one is denying that he is communicatively challenged.
Shift in Verb Tense
Maintain consistent verb tenses to establish clearly the time of the actions being described.
He cranks the condo's AC way down at night and still woke up soaked, fetally curled, entombed in the kind of psychic darkness where you were dreading whatever you think of. (42)*
The present tense verbs cranks and think of do not go together with the past tense verbs woke up and were dreading.
To revise the sentence, put all the verbs in the present tense:
He cranks the condo's AC way down at night and still wakes up soaked, fetally curled, entombed in the kind of psychic darkness where you are dreading whatever you think of.
Error in Pronoun Agreement
Pronouns should agree with their antecedents (the word to which the pronoun refers). The following indefinite pronouns should be treated as singular:
anybody, anyone, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, none, no one, someone, something.
Everybody has his or her opinion.
To avoid the clumsiness of his or her, rephrase the sentence like this:
We all have our own opinions.
Neither of the girls wants to relinquish her power.
The definite pronoun her, refers to the indefinite pronoun neither, which is singular.
Vague Pronoun Reference
The pronouns "this," "that," or "which" should not refer vaguely to earlier word groups or ideas but to specific antecedents. Either replace the pronoun with a noun or provide an antecedent to which the pronoun clearly refers.
These chairs were molded orange plastic; three of them down the room were occupied by different people all of whom were
holding empty prescription bottles and perspiring freely. THIS would have been bad enough, but in the end chair, right up
next to the strap-secured head of my stretcher, was a T-shirted woman with barnwood skin and a trucker's cap and a bad
starboard list . . . (16)*
In this passage, readers cannot tell whether "THIS" refers to the orange plastic chairs, to the fact that three of them are occupied, that their occupants seem to be drug addicts, or that they are perspiring. The pronoun seems to refer vaguely to the whole scene. While such vagueness may be effective in a novel, by contributing to the reader's sense of the the character's voice, it tends to dull the impact of an essay.
Misuse of "However"
In formal writing, sentences should not begin with "however." When followed by an independent clause, "however" is preceded by a semicolon and followe by a comma.
She wanted to go to London; however, her company insisted she remain in Tiajuana.
It is usually more effective to use active voice, making clear who is the agent of the action.
I am rolled over supine on the geometric tile. (13)*
We do not know who rolled him over.
My head is cradled in a knelt Director's lap, which is soft, my face being swabbed with dusty-brown institutional paper
towels he received from some hand out of the crowd overhead. (13)*
Here the author may be using the passive voice to achieve a specific effect--the narrator's almost infantile passivity; such an effec may be powerful in a novel but will most likely weaken an argument.
Avoid superfluous words; be concise; make every word count.
Choose the word that precisely expresses your intended meaning. Be sure that you understand all the connotations of the word.
You have to love old-fashioned men's rooms: the citrus scent of deodorant disks in the long porcelain trough; the stalls with
wooden doors in frames of cool marble; these thin sinks in rows, basins supported by rickety alphabets of exposed plumbing;
mirrors over metal shelves; behind all the voices the slight sound of a ceaseless trickle, inflated by echo against wet porcelain
and a cold tile floor whose mosaic pattern looks almost Islamic at this close range. (13)*
The writer chooses words here that evoke the tawdry splendor of the public toilets of the past: their look and smell, sound and texture.
The coach, in a slight accent neither British nor Australian, is telling C.T. that the whole application-interface process, while
usually just a pleasant formality is best accentuated by letting the applicant speak for himself . . . I presume it's probably
facilitate that the tennis coach mistook for accentuate, though accentuate, while clunkier than facilitate is from a phonetic
perspective, more sensitive, as a mistake. (6)*
Here the narrator makes fun of the coach's lack of facility with the English language and parades his own linguistic ability.
Expressions that are recognized as single units in a specific language but either do not follow conventional syntactic patterns or have a meaning different from the literal. For example, the sentence You must be pulling my leg! implies that you are teasing me rather than yanking my limb.
Other idioms are less extreme, as in the following examples:
Tartuffe's motives focused more towards other people's fortunes.
[The idiom is focus on, rather than focus toward; even if we correct the idiom, however, the sentence is imprecise. The writer seems to mean that Tartuffe is motivated by greed.] Tartuffe also alludes that Elmire is perfect, like God.
[The idiom is allude to, rather than allude that ] Tartuffe also alludes to Elmire's perfection, which is Godlike.
[another revision] Tartuffe also alludes to the idea that Elmire is perfect, like God.
an infinitive construction is considered a single unit (e.g., to think or to drive). Do not insert words between "to" and the verb.
He therefore desires to eventually get there.
[revision] He therefore desires eventually to get there.
[or] He therefore desires to get there eventually.
So Elmire was forced to secretly counteract her husband's judgment.
[revision] So Elmire was forced to counteract her husband's judgment secretly.
are indicated by apostrophe s for a singluar noun and by s apostrophe for a plural noun.
Both character's main objective is to appear misleading
by telling Mariane not to believe her own fathers words.
In this example, Both tells us that the noun character must be plural; thus, the correct form is Both characters'; if Mariane has only one father, the correct form would be father's words; if Mariane has two or more fathers, however, the correct form would be fathers' words.
periods and commas go inside quotation marks;
"You didn't see what happened in there," a hunched Dean responds.
"I do things like get in a taxi and say, "The library, and step on it." (12)*
colons and semi-colons go outside quotation marks;
"My transcript for the last year might have been dickied a bit, maybe, but that was to get me over a rough spot. The grades prior to that are de moi"; Hal tried futilely to explain his situation to the Academic Dean. (10)*
question marks and exclamation points go inside quotations marks if they are part of the quoted material; if not, they go outside the quotation marks.
"What in God's name are those . . . ," one Dean cries shrilly, "those sounds?" I'm raised by the crutches of my underarms, shaken toward what he must see as calm by a purple-faced Director: "Get a grip, son!" (13)*
Using Quotations Effectively
Introduce quotations: tell who is speaking or writing and establish a context for the quotation.
Integrate quotations smoothly into the sentence.
Always comment on quotations: direct the reader's response to them.
It is usually better not to end a paragraph or a paper with a quotation. The last word should be yours.
In general, use the present tense in writing literary essays. It is more direct and more vivid.