Apostrophe Errors

Apostrophes are used almost exclusively for two purposes:

Contractions 

(two words squeezed together to form one).

Correct apostrophe placement = insert where letters are left out:

They don’t care.   
(don’t = do + not)

They’re my friends.  
(They’re = They + are)

 

Noun possessives 

(nouns—not pronouns—to which something/someone belongs).

Correct apostrophe placement = after the noun possessor(s) and before the possessive -s if one is needed.*

This is Sarah’s sweater. 

Sarah’s = it belongs to Sarah

The girls’ locker room stinks.

girls’ = it belongs to the girls

Click here for simple, step by step instructions on correct apostrophe and -s placement for noun possessives.

Fragments

A fragment is a group of words punctuated as a sentence but lacking completeness.

Correct it by adding to it the group of words, usually found in the sentence directly before or after the fragment, that makes its sense a complete thought.

Fragment

Corrected

When I got home. I made myself a Pepsi float.

When I got home, I made myself a Pepsi float.

Can't recognize your own fragments unless someone else points them out? Click here for hints on how to break the fragment habit.

Run-ons, Comma Splices, and Fused Sentences

Run-ons, comma splices, and fused sentences are all two or more sentences inadequately or inappropriately joined together. Acceptable ways of joining sentences together include:

  • Comma plus coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, so, for)
  • Semicolon by itself or with a subordinating conjunction.
  • Make one of the sentences into a clause dependent upon the other and punctuate appropriately.

Correct any of the three errors by locating where one sentence ends and the next begins, then adding an appropriate conjunction and/or punctuation. Do not expect to use the same method of correction for every instance of error, however, because the best way of joining two sentences is determined by the context and style of the passage in which they are found. In modern American English, semicolons are generally only used when the two sentences being joined are very short and/or very closely connected in form and meaning.

Run-on

We went to Springdale and we were disappointed.

Comma splice

We went to Springdale, we were disappointed.

Fused sentence

We went to Springdale we were disappointed.

 

A few possible corrected versions:

We went to Springdale, and we were disappointed.

We went to Springdale; we were disappointed.

We went to Springdale; consequently, we were disappointed.

When we went to Springdale, we were disappointed.

We went to Springdale, and boy were we disappointed! 

Subject/Verb Agreement Errors

Singular nouns must have singular verbs; plural nouns must have plural verbs.

Incorrect

Corrected

He make the bed every morning.

He makes the bed every morning.

We was best friends.

We were best friends.

One of the pillows are torn.

One of the pillows is torn. 

Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement Errors

A pronouns must agree in gender and number with its antecedent, the recently mentioned noun or pronoun to which it refers. There are several errors that result from not following this rule.

Sexist usage

Gender non-specific antecedents are particularly troublesome, since there is no singular, gender non-specific, personal pronoun in English. In the past, the masculine personal pronoun (he, him, his) was used in such cases, but this is now regarded as incorrect usage. It is also incorrect to substitute the plural gender non-specific pronoun their for the singular, although this is the most common solution in informal speech.

Incorrect

Reason

A person needs to get his life together. 

person is gender non-specific; his is gender specific = sexist usage

A person needs to get their life together. 

person is singular; their is plural = agreement error in standard, edited English

A person needs to get his/her life together. 
               or
A person needs to get his or her life together.

Both constructions are awkward and formulaic sounding and draw attention toward the nonsexist usage issue and away from what the sentence is saying.

In correcting such gender related pronoun/agreement errors, consider both what exactly you’re trying to say and any relevant issues of gender discrimination. Correction generally involves rewriting the whole sentence—and perhaps surrounding sentences as well. A rule of thumb: go plural, go specific, or omit (if the pronoun is unnecessary), depending on your purpose.

Repair Strategies

A few possible corrections

Pluralize the singular antecedent.

People should get their lives together.

Use one.

One should get one’s life together.

Specify the antecedent, and use a gender appropriate pronoun.

My sister should get her life together.

Incorrect use of second person "you"

A common but less recognizable form of pronoun/antecedent agreement is the use of you to mean someone other than the reader. For very informal spoken or written English, this may be acceptable, but in formal English it is not. Writers make this error for a variety of reasons. To correct, rethink the sentence and identify the actual agent of what is said in the sentence or select one of the strategies above. 

The writer is struggling with the same lack of a gender non-specific, personal pronoun describe above under the heading "Sexist Usage."

The writer has been told in the past never to say I and is using you to avoid doing so.

The writer intends a general subject but is uncomfortable using the general pronoun one.*

Taking credit for the subject matter is distressing to the writer for some reason.  It may be sensitive personal material, or it may be a sweeping generalization or a flat out lie.  Some writers lack confidence about the truth of what they are arguing.  Using you in place of I is a way of shifting accountability for what is written away from the writer.

For more on the pronoun one and how to use it correctly, click here.

Vague pronoun reference

There is one final pronoun/antecedent agreement error that beginning writers often make: beginning a sentence with the demonstrative pronoun This without there being, in the preceding sentence, a noun or noun clause that could function as the pronoun's antecedent. Example:

Christians, in their zeal to love one another, often avoid confronting one another, even though many biblical writers urge confrontations. This can lead to significant difficulty in arguing effectively and logically. Many Christians never learn how to argue effectively because they feel that arguing is wrong in the first place.

 

The italicized demonstrative pronoun This has no clear antecedent.  To fix the problem, ask yourself what This refers to and substitute it for the demonstrative pronoun. In the example, This seems to refer to something like "Inexperience in confrontations," which could be substituted.  Sometimes all it takes is a noun inserted after This to make the reference clear, as in "This avoidance. . ."  The problem can be avoided altogether by following the advice of many writing instructors of not beginning sentences with demonstrative pronouns at all, but such extreme measures are not necessary as long as you make sure that your antecedent is clearly present in the preceding sentence any time you begin a sentence with This.

Spelling Errors

With the advent of word processing software, there is no excuse for spelling errors in edited prose. All word processing programs have spell checkers which can be turned on or off. When turned on, they work basically like this: they compare the words you type to words in a repository of acceptable words called a dictionary and then alert you in some fashion that a word that is not in the dictionary may be misspelled. Most spell checkers also highlight repeated words. Many spell checkers can also be set to automatically correct certain common typographical errors, such as thier for their. Words such as proper nouns or colloquial expressions that one would not ordinarily find in a book-style dictionary will not be included in the program's dictionary. If the software alerts you that a word that one would expect to find in a dictionary is not in the dictionary, use a book-style dictionary to find out the correct way to spell a word. Also, a spell checker will miss a spelling error that is an actual word but just not the word you need--such as too when you mean to, its when you mean it's, their when you mean they're or there, or from when you mean form

Incorrect Verb Forms

In the English language, a composite language influenced by the grammars of a variety of very different languages, about the only verb rule you can depend on is that the third person singular of the present tense must end in s. There are many different ways to make verbs’ simple past and past participle forms, and a few verbs even have more than one acceptable form. In addition, regional and social and even age dialects often exchange one verb form for another or use forms not acceptable in standard edited English. As a result, writers often get past and past participle forms wrong. A few of the zillion examples of incorrect verb forms include:

They brung their parents.

She give me that paper already.

He would’ve went yesterday, but he didn’t have time.

We already drunk our milk.

This be the best book I ever read.

I seen him shoot that buck myself.

He flinged his shoe out of the car window.

 

If you don’t know the correct form of a verb or if the one you thought was correct has been marked wrong, the easiest way to find out the correct form is to look up the infinitive form of the verb in a dictionary. Depending on the dictionary, the principle forms of the verb are listed after the verb in a certain order (see your dictionary’s introduction for details). After you find the correct form, memorize it. The verb be is an exception to almost any rule, and all its parts should be memorized.

As with your common spelling errors, keep a record of any verb form errors you make, and then learn and memorize the correct form.

Misplaced or Dangling Modifiers

A misplaced modifier is a word, phrase, or clause (usually adjectival) which is located next to something it does not modify and thus seems to modify it, causing confusion and often unintended humor. Multi-word constructions such as participial phrases, elliptical clauses, verbal phrases, and sometimes even prepositional phrases are the most commonly misplaced modifiers. Most misplaced modifiers "dangle" at the beginning or end of sentences, and thus misplaced modifiers are often referred to as dangling modifiers. Sometimes the word actually being modified is located elsewhere in the sentence, and sometimes it is not present in the sentence at all but is elliptical or only implied.

Correcting generally involves rewriting the whole sentence so as to supply the word modified and locate the modifier directly next to it.

Misplaced modifier

Strategy

A few possible corrections

Weighing ninety-seven pounds, football was too dangerous for James.

Relocate noun modified next to modifier.

Weighing ninety-seven pounds, James found football too dangerous.

Driving down the road, an armadillo was seen.

Supply the elliptical modified word by rewriting the main clause in active voice>

Driving down the road we saw an armadillo.

Coming home late, the house was dark.

Rewrite the participial phrase as a clause.

When we got home, the house was dark.

Parallel Structure

When listing or coordinating words, use the same grammatical form for each unit. Each item must fit into the sentence the same way as the first item named

Parallel structure error

Strategy

A few possible corrections

I like writing in my journal, walking in moonlight, and to ski.

Use either the infinitive or the present participle form of each item listed.

I like writing in my journal, walking in moonlight, and skiing.

My sister's husband is tall, olive skinned, and has a beard.

The third item in the list does not complete the sentence the same way as the first two items.  Rewrite the sentence.

My sister's husband is tall, olive skinned, and bearded.

My sister's husband is tall and olive skinned and has a beard.

My sister's husband is tall and has olive skin and a beard.

Overuse or Misuse of Passive Voice

Consider the following versions of the same basic communication:

Active voice: The boy kicked the doll.
Passive voice: The doll was kicked by the boy.

The "voice" of a verb shows whether the doer or the receiver serves as the subject of the verb. In active voice, the subject is the doer of the action. In passive voice, the receiver of the action is the subject of the sentence. Obviously, passive voice can only be formed when there is a receiver of the action--in other words, with a verb which takes an object (i.e., transitive verb). Passive voice is used to focus the reader's attention of this object rather than on the doer of the action, which in a passive voice sentence is hidden away in a prepositional phrase as the object of the preposition by. The syntax of the passive voice sentence--in which the receiver begins the sentence--makes the receiver of the action so important that it is often possible to omit the doer of the action entirely, as in

Passive voice: The doll was kicked.

The use of passive voice is correct and often expedient when the subject is not known or important, as in

The man was arrested at the border.

However, passive voice is often overused and abused. It is a wordier and less direct way of looking at what happened than active voice and is thus considered to be a weaker and less honest construction than active voice. Some writers use it to Others use it in order to avoid saying "I," having been schooled not to say "I" by teachers of an older school of thinking which sought to downplay the role of the individual writer in what that writer is saying. This avoidance of "I" is especially common in the sciences, perhaps as an effort to divert attention from a fallible reporter or experimenter. Because there is this history of the avoidance of "I" in some academic subjects, or perhaps because the construction is wordier, some writers use passive voice in a mistaken attempt to sound more scholarly. Still others use passive voice to avoid taking responsibility for their own assertions.

Compare:

Weakest–vague and dishonest

Weak–dishonest

Stronger–honest and clear, but unnecessarily wordy and obvious

Strongest–honest, succinct, and confident

Passive Voice, doer omitted

Passive Voice, doer included

Active voice using "I"

Active voice assertion

It is generally thought that cults are dangerous.

It is thought by most people that cults are dangerous.

I think cults are dangerous.

Cults are dangerous.

 

Passive voice is recognizable by its form--a form of the verb to be plus the past participle of the main verb. Most word processing software includes a grammar checker which will flag passive voice. To reformulate a passive sentence in active voice, ask yourself the following question--Who did what?--and then rephrase your sentence in that order in a tense appropriate to the context of the sentence. If the result of this rephrasing is a sentence beginning with an obvious statement such as I think or I believe (Of course you think or believe what you write, since you are the writer!), simply omit those words to achieve a clear, concise assertion.

Overuse of the Verb To Be

Using anything over and over again can irritate or bore the reader, but the repetition of the verb to be is in addition indirect and wordy and often results in the flabby nominalization of what could be strong action verbs. Learn to recognize the tenses of to be, and correct its overuse by reclaiming the action words of the sentences as verbs and asking yourself, as for passive voice, who did what?

Excessive nominalization with to be

Stronger

Strict enforcement of the speed limit by the police is essential in effecting a reduction in traffic fatalities.

Police should strictly enforce the speed limit to reduce fatalities.

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