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Five common grammar errors most students make, and how to avoid them

Updated on January 29, 2014

Common Grammar errors

If you want to improve your grade by 5-10 percent on your winter term papers, then you need to avoid these five common grammar mistakes my students make on their assignments.

  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Sentence fragments
  • Run-on sentences
  • Comma splices
  • Apostrophe misuse

Subject-verb agreement

What is it: When you use a singular subject and plural verb or a plural subject and a singular verb, you are making a subject-verb error. Perhaps this is intuitive for native English speakers, but it isn't always for second language speakers. Many of my students are not native English speakers.

Why we make this mistake: You may have written quickly, you may have some confusion with collective nouns that take singular verbs and singular sounding plural nouns or you may need to brush up on the different forms of regular and irregular verbs.

Why this is a problem: Subject-verb agreement errors give your writing an awkward tone. Naturally, any awkwardly worded work will simply not get a good grade, whether it is for an English class or any other course. Try to treat all your courses like an English course. Your professors and tutors will love you for handing in readable work.

How to correct subject-verb agreement errors: Practice makes perfect. You can find practice exercises for every point of grammar online. Try reading your work out loud and identify places that sound funny.That's where your errors are. Check and double check the rough spots. Also, be sure you've learned the rules of regular and irregular verbs. Some verbs in the third person end in 's' (which to some people has a 'plural sound').

  • Error: The children wants to play. The word children is plural but sounds singular, so the singular verb used here is incorrect.
  • Corrected: The children want to play. The verb want is plural and agrees with the subject, "children".

Sentence fragments

What is it: A sentence fragment is a phrase that lacks one or more of the following: subject, verb and a complete thought. Here are some examples:

  • Because he fell asleep
  • Especially the younger one
  • The guys smoking the big cigars

Why we make this mistake: Once again, the culprit is quick writing and lack of editing. The fragment sometimes occurs like a hiccup after someone writes a regular sentence. You had just one more thing to say. Also, we talk in fragments (our daily dialogue is less formal) and have a tendency to write the way we speak. Texting also has been influencing people's writing.

Why this is a problem: Sentence fragments make your work look sloppy. Remember, the college classroom is not the same as the chat-room, so you need a bit more formality and respect for the rules of grammar.

How to correct fragments: Attach the stray phrase to the nearest sentence you can logically join it to and change a bit of punctuation.

  • Error: Because he fell asleep. He arrived late to school.
  • Correction: Because he fell asleep, he arrived late to school.

You may also want to change a bit of wording to integrate the fragment with the other text.

Run-On Sentence

What is it : A run-on sentence goes on and on. It has too many main clauses and no punctuation, and all the clauses clauses collide into each other the way two cars do on an icy winter day. It's as if the sentence has not brakes.

Here's a simple example: It was a freezing cold day I stayed indoors all day all I did was browse the Internet Where's the punctuation? Right! There is none. The sentence has no "brakes" .

Why we make this mistake: My theory is that students make run-on mistakes because they are writing quickly, are not clear about what they want to say, ramble on a bit and have forgotten what a sentence is (see the section on fragments).

Why this is a problem: When a sentence has no full stops (periods, semi-colons), your reader will become confused quickly. Anything that forces your reader (in this case your professor or tutor) to work hard to figure out what you're saying will result in a lower grade.

Trust me on this one. Think of the person marking your stuff who has a stack of papers and how refreshed he/she will feel to read your cleanly written paper. It takes a much shorter time to assign an A (the paper usually reads well and easily) than to assign a lower grade. I have to evaluate the frustration factor or count errors. So ensure a smooth read by editing out your run-on errors.

How to correct run-on errors: First, identify the independent clauses (those phrases that can stand alone and have a subject, verb and are a complete thought. Next, consider using some simple punctuation. In many cases, a period will do (not a comma please! I'll talk about why not next). A semi-colon will also work if the two independent clauses are connected.

If you wish to have a smoother coherence, consider joining two independent clauses with a co-ordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so), or a subordinating conjunction (after, before, since, because etc.; there are many of them).

  • Error: It was freezing cold day I stayed indoors all day all I did was browse the Internet
  • Corrected: Since it was a freezing cold day, I stayed indoors, and I all I did was browse the Internet. ( I used both subordinate and co-ordinate conjunctions. There are other possibilities).

The notorious comma splice,a common grammar error

What is it: Comma splices occur when you substitute a comma for a period.

Why we make this mistake: As with run-on errors, some students are a little confused about independent clauses (essentially mini sentences or simple sentences with one subject, verb and complete thought). He/she goes on and on thinking that putting a comma will separate the thoughts as a period does. I had one student who once submitted a report where all paragraphs were punctuated by commas!

Why this is a problem: Comma splices create confusion and a bad reading experience. No, it's not artistic expression (not on a term paper). You are telling your reader you don't know what a sentence is! Punctuation is meant to provide visual cues to the reader to slow down or pause.

How to correct : Correcting comma splice errors is similar to correcting run-on errors. Simply replace the comma with a period or semi colon, or add a coordinating conjunction to the comma, or use a subordinate conjunction for one of the independent clauses.

  • Incorrect: It was snowing today, school was closed . (The comma is incorrectly placed here).
  • Correct: It was snowing today, so school was closed (co-ordinate conjunction "so" added). Also try this: Since it was snowing today, school was closed (subordinate conjunction "since" added). It was snowing today. School was closed. (Here I used a period, but the flow is choppy. It's still grammatically correct).

Apostrophe errors

What is it: Apostrophes tell the reader that a letter or two has been left out of two words which then become a contraction ((e.g.) can't is really cannot ). English also uses apostrophes for possession: (e.g) the sailor's boat, the dog's collar, the cat's tail.

Why we make this mistake: Some people are confused between using an 's' for plural and one for possessive and use and apostrophe instead to pluralize (many houses' on the block) or forget to use an apostrophe to indicate possession (the boys toys).

Why this is a problem: Apostrophe errors make your writing look careless, sloppy and even stupid (what, he doesn't know that you don't use an apostrophe for the plural? ).

How to correct: Learn the difference between plurals and possessives.

  • Error: Many houses'; the boys shovel
  • Correction: Many houses; the boy's shovel.

Also, be sure you know the difference between pronoun possessives and contractions. Sometimes pronoun possessives sound as if they need an apostrophe when, in fact, they don't.

  • No apostrophe: the pronouns his/hers/yours/ours/theirs/its
  • Apostrophe contractions: it's (it is)/you're (you are)/they're (they are)/there's (there is).

Grammar mistakes on video

To sum up

Recognizing these problem areas will help avoid these top five grammar errors that students make and improve your grade on a paper. So, brush up on your grammar, and don't forget to edit your work!

What are your problem areas in writing papers for college?

Submit a Comment
  • grammarguide profile image


    7 years ago from Bangkok, Thailand

    Great write-up Rhonda. I'll be following you from now on :-)


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