Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, Whose Mistakes Are Worst of All?
In their responses concerning blunders in written work, the copyeditors tended to focus on errors of grammar, spelling, and usage, while the teachers were inclined to concentrate on the specifics of writing. Following each “complaint” are some suggestions for eliminating these mistakes from your work.
Comments from the Copyeditors' Camp
Take a look at this list of errors that copyeditors say frequently arise in material they check.
Simple misspellings. If you're working on a computer, send your material through a spell check. Your computer won't catch all of your mistakes (you have to do
Omitted words or words put in the wrong place after cutting and pasting the text. If, through some great mystery, what you're sure you've written isn't what appears on the page, read, reread, and then (surprise!) reread your material — especially after you've cut and pasted.
Using the passive voice when the active voice would be appropriate — and would read better, too. Look through your completed material for sentences written in the passive voice. Unless there's a particular need for the passive voice, rewrite the sentence in the active voice. (Remember that in the active voice the subject performs the action of the verb.)
Improper use of apostrophes (especially plural versus possessive).Review Chapter 3 on the use of apostrophes. Look at each one you've written and ask yourself if you've used it correctly in a contraction or in showing possession. Pay particular attention to apostrophes used with
Use of they to refer to a singular word (e.g., the child … they/their). Study each
Gratuitous capitalization (sometimes dubbed “decorative capitalization”). Some writers think something is given greater importance or specificity if it's capitalized, even if it isn't a proper noun. Copyeditors say the problem is that writers think anyone or anything that is referred to with some precision seems to get capitalized: job titles (Caseworker, Commissioner, Director), agencies (the Department, the College), or particular fields or programs (Child Welfare, Food Stamps). If you see many capital letters in your writing, take a look at each capitalized word and see if a particular rule applies to it. If not, use lowercase for the word.
Comma complaints. A few of the transgressions that deal with commas are these:
misplaced or omitted commas, often resulting in ambiguous sentences
commas inserted between a month and year (September, 2008)
commas dropped after parenthetical phrases (such as, “Barack Obama, Senator from Illinois said he …”)
commas misused with restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses (no commas before
which; commas before thatused unnecessarily)
commas inserted between the subject and the verb (e.g., “The speeding car, was seen going through a red light”)
commas used too frequently, even in positions that no style guide would accept
If these mistakes look familiar, review the section on using commas (Chapter 3). Remember that commas are used for particular reasons, so make sure that you have a reason for each time you used a comma.
Number disagreements — either subject-predicate or antecedent-pronoun.
Look for each verb and its subject (or each pronoun and its antecedent); then check to see if
Omission of a colon after the greeting in a business letter. If you're writing a business letter, put a colon after your greeting; if you're writing any other kind of letter, use a comma.
And the most common error: mistakes in word choice. If you look through the following list of common mistakes and you recognize ones you often make, look up the correct usage and then develop mnemonics to help you remember. The most common mistakes in word choice are these:
whichfor thatand vice versa
affectfor effectand vice versa
they're, their, and there
utilize(a coined word for this phenomenon: abutilize)
between you and Iinstead of between you and me
compare towhen compare withis correct
convince someone to(rather than persuade someone to)
itsfor it'sand vice versa (by far the most common mistake)
Testimony from Teachers in the Trenches
English teachers identified these common problems in writing assignments:
Difficulty grasping the concept of a topic sentence. A topic sentence is the main sentence of the paragraph, one that all other sentences support or elaborate on. Determine your paragraph's topic sentence; then read every other sentence separately and ask yourself if it elaborates on the topic sentence. If it doesn't, eighty-six it.
Trouble focusing on the subject at hand. Go back through your paper and read each sentence separately. Ask yourself if each sentence deals with the topic sentence of its paragraph and also if each sentence relates to your thesis sentence. If you've strayed away from either your topic or your thesis, delete or reword the sentence.
No transition from paragraph to paragraph in language or thought. Review the section on transitional words and expressions (Chapter 12). As you reread your work, locate where you move from one point to another or from one example to another; then use appropriate transitional words or phrases to make a meaningful connection.
Inconsistency in verb tense (especially present and past tense). Go back and determine which tense you've used. Unless you have a reason for a tense change, reword the sentences that change tense.
Reliance on the computer spell check for proofreading. Although spell checkers are helpful, all they can do is offer suggestions about what you
Comma splices. For example: “I went to the store, I bought a jug of milk and a six-pack of cola.” Review each comma in your work.
Sentence fragments. Read each sentence separately and ask yourself if the words in that sentence make sense when you read them alone. If they don't, your “sentence” is a fragment.
Confusion of homophones. Homophones are words that sound alike but have different meanings and perhaps different spellings, like
No sense of who the audience is. Be sure you're clear about who your intended audience is (that is, to whom or for whom you're writing). Then make sure that each sentence addresses that audience. Common problems arise in the tone used (for instance, don't use language or reasoning that insults people if you're trying to persuade them to your line of thinking) and in addressing someone who isn't part of the audience (for instance, writing “When you take freshman English … ” when the audience — in this case, the instructor — isn't taking freshman English).
Colloquial usages that are inconsistent with the rest of the writing or inappropriate for the type of writing. Look through your writing for slang words or idiomatic phrases. Unless your work calls for a relaxed or conversational tone (and your instructor or supervisor agrees that tone is necessary), reword your piece and use more formal language.
No sentence variation (writing only noun-verb-complement sentences).Review the section on types of sentences in Chapter 8. Reword some of your sentences so they begin with phrases or dependent clauses. Also try combining two related sentences into one to create less monotonous sentences.
Not following directions. Realize that you're not making up the rules for the assignment, and that — strange as it may seem — your teacher or supervisor probably has a reason for every direction that he or she has given. Keep the directions in mind as you write a rough draft, and then reread them after you've completed your assignment. If you've “violated” any of the directions, rewrite those parts.
Use of generalities, instead of specifics. Your paper must detail any general statements you make. One way to generate details or supporting evidence is to ask
Use of “non-sentences” that have lots of fluff but little substance. (For example, “Language is important to everyday life and society.”) Look for generalizations, clichés, and platitudes in your work. Reword your sentences to be more specific, to be less hackneyed, or to give more details.
Point of view that changes (sometimes first person, sometimes third) or is inappropriate (usually second person). Check each sentence of your manuscript and determine its point of view. If you've changed from one point of view to another without a reason, reword your sentences. Also, check to see if using first or second point of view is permitted (third person is the only point of view allowed in many formats of academic writing).