Return to the Basics
This OER college composition writing style guide is intended to help students and instructors with the main components of the essay writing process. A basic knowledge and proficiency of English vocabulary, grammar, and syntax are necessary to enroll in, and succeed in these courses. Most colleges have tutoring centers and other support services through the library and various campus services to assist students who need additional support with English grammar. A focus on process more than product is one way to support students in this area. The more we help them develop the content of what they want to say, the more the words will come. And when they don’t come, we can guide them to the resources that will help them polish and amplify the skills they are learning through the writing curriculum.
Here are a few resources to help with the major components of English grammar, syntax, and vocabulary:
Grammar and Style: General Resources
This text isn’t meant to be a grammar and style handbook, but we know that many writers have one or two (or three!) editing problems they would like to work on. In this appendix, you’ll find some helpful tips for several common editing issues as well as references and links to other resources.
Top Ten Errors List
Teachers and editors don’t completely agree on the most common errors or even the most serious errors. Robert Connors and Andrea Lunsford completed a study in 1988, titled “Frequency of Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research,” that compared the types of errors students made most often and what teachers marked most often, going back to studies from the early 1900s and forward. What they found was that, while errors may have been called something different in 1917 than in 1988, the kinds of mistakes that students make are still largely the same. Here’s our own top ten errors list. To get on this list, a type of error must either make it difficult for a reader to understand the writing OR it must be the kind of error that irritates readers (what teachers call a “stigmatized” error).
- Comma splice: Two independent clauses (complete sentences) joined with a comma.
- Fragment: A dependent clause or a phrase punctuated as if it were an independent clause; an incomplete sentence.
- Run-on sentence: Two independent clauses joined with no intervening punctuation (i.e., run together).
- Verb form or verb tense error: A verb that is in the incorrect form or in the wrong tense.
- Missing comma: No comma after an introductory element; no comma in a compound sentence; no comma after a non-restrictive element/non-essential element; no comma before the last item in a list (the Oxford comma).
- Wrong preposition: The preposition chosen is incorrect.
- Misplaced modifier: A modifier, such as an adjective, adverb, or modifying phrase, that is placed too far from the word it modifies, seeming to modify another word.
- Unclear pronoun: Using a pronoun, such as he, she, they, etc., when it’s not clear what noun the pronoun is replacing.
- Apostrophe error: Using an apostrophe when one isn’t needed or leaving out the apostrophe when it is needed.
- Misspelled homonym or homophone: Using a word that sounds like the intended word, but spelled differently and with a different meaning.
Using a Checklist
You can use the suggested resources in this appendix to look up the kinds of errors that you make from this list—or just search online for that error. There are, of course, other kinds of errors: wrong word choice, spelling errors, capitalization errors, etc. What we suggest is that writers make their OWN list of errors that they make frequently and use that as a checklist for correcting their own mistakes, systematically (see the section “Revising,” especially “Editing,” “Proofreading,” and Using Technology to Edit”). Below is an example of an editing checklist for academic essays that you can personalize.
Editing Checklist for Academic Essays
- All papers are in MLA format
- Appropriate headings and page numbering are used
- Margins are correct: 1/2 inch from top to right header, 1 inch all around
- Spacing is set to double, with no extra line spaces between headings and title, title and body, or between paragraphs
- Within the essay, parenthetical citations are used (Lastname 13).
- A works cited page is included when appropriate, with all necessary information.
Mechanics: Spelling, Punctuation, Grammar, Syntax
- Did I run spell-check?
- Did I check homonyms? (Example: to, too, and two)
- Did I look up difficult words?
- Did I proofread aloud to catch obvious errors?
- Are all sentences complete (subject & verb, complete thought)?
- Did I use one verb tense throughout (unless there was a good reason to switch)?
- Did I use present tense verbs to discuss texts?
- Have I checked for run-on sentences and comma splices? (Run-on: two independent clauses put together without any punctuation; Comma splice: two independent clauses put together with only a comma in between.)
- Does my paper flow when read aloud? Did I use different sentence lengths and styles?
Making and Using a Log of Your Mistakes
According to Cogie, Strain, and Lorinskas, authors of “Avoiding the Proofreading Trap: The Value of the Error Correction Process,” one way to ensure that you find your own errors and correct them is to keep an editing log. To make an editing log, create four columns. Label each column: Error Example, Name of Error, Explanation, Correction Example. When you are editing your work and find a mistake, jot down the word, sentence, or phrase that is problematic in the first column. Then use your editing resources to figure out what that kind of error is called, and write that label in the second column. In the third column, write out what you need to find a solution, whether that’s a definition, an explanation, a page number in a book or an online link. Finally, in the last column, write out the corrected word, phrase, or sentence.
Here’s an example:
|Error Example||Name of Error||Explanation||Correction|
|Honesty is it’s own reward.||Apostrophe error||“It’s” means “it is”; use “its” for the possessive.||Honesty is its own reward.|
Once you’ve logged the same error multiple times, you may find that you’ve learned how to fix it. Even if that’s not the case, you now have your very own resource for making corrections.
Tips for Writing Complete Sentences
Several of the most common errors have one thing in common: they are mistakes about sentence or phrase boundaries and what punctuation to use. To understand how to write complete sentences or fix errors related to making complete sentences (fragments, comma splices, run-on sentences), we need just a little shared grammar vocabulary.
Independent Clause: An independent clause is a unit of meaning with a subject and a verb that can be punctuated as a complete sentence. Native speakers of English will usually recognize an independent clause by itself as a complete sentence. Independent clauses can be joined together; they can also be joined with dependent clauses and also with phrases. Independent clauses begin with a capital letter and end with a period, question mark, or exclamation point.
How do we know if something is an independent clause?
- Make a yes/no question out of it?
- Make a tag question that can attach to the end of it?
- Precede with the expression “I believe that”?
- Recognize that it still makes sense in English?
Dependent Clause: An independent clause is a unit of meaning with a subject and a verb but that cannot be punctuated as a complete sentence. A dependent clause can be joined with an independent clause, using the right punctuation, to make a complete sentence.
How do we know if a clause is dependent? It can’t pass any of the tests in the preceding definition for an independent clause.
Phrase: A group of words that that form a unit of meaning but do not contain both a subject and a verb and do not make a complete sentence. Phrases can be strung together; phrases can be joined to clauses.
How do we know if a group of words is just a phrase and not a clause? We can check to see if the phrase contains both a subject and a verb. If so, it’s a clause and not a phrase. See explanations below for subjects and verbs.
Subject: A subject is a word or group of words that works with the verb in a sentence to make up a basic unit of meaning. Many subjects are nouns or pronouns, but other kinds of words and even phrases and some clauses can be subjects. The subject of a sentence is not the topic of the sentence.
First, how do we know if a word is a noun? Try these tests:
- Can we put it in a frame sentence, such as “The (insert word) seems important.”?
- Can we make it plural by adding –s or –es?
- Can we make it possessive by adding -‘s?
- Can we place “a” or “an” in front of it?
- Can we place “the” in front of it?
- Sometimes, but not always: Can we add a suffix such as –ship, -ence, -tion, or –ism to the end of the word?
How do we know if a noun (or another word or phrase) is the subject of a sentence?
- In statements, what noun (or word/phrase acting as a noun) comes before the verb?
- In questions, what noun comes after the verb or part of the verb?
Verb: A word that signifies action, existence, or occurrence; a word that can be changed in form to indicate the time of the sentence.
How do we know if a word is a verb?
- Can we change the form to indicate tense (change ending to –ed, -en, -ing, -es, -s)?
- Can we place a pronoun, such as “he” or “they,” in front of it, and it makes sense?
- Can it be preceded in its basic form by “must,” “can,” or “will”?
- Can it be negated: “I did not (verb)”?
- Can it be made into a command? (Example: “Speak!”)
- Can it fit into a frame sentence? “We should (verb) it.” –or- “We should (verb).”
- (Sometimes) Can we add prefixes and suffixes such as dis-, -ate, -ize?
How do we know if the verb (or word/phrase acting as the verb) is the main verb of the sentence?
- Does the verb (and possibly its related words) come after the word(s) that you believe are the subject?
- Does the verb pair up with a noun (or words acting like a noun) to make the main part of the sentence?
To improve your punctuation, practice with clauses and phrases.
First, try combining clauses with the correct punctuation. Here are the most common ways to join clauses. The examples below are demonstrated with these two clauses: “The two cats were constant companions. They truly loved each other.”
- Comma + FANBOYS (coordinating conjunction: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so): “The two cats were constant companions, for they truly loved each other.”
- Semicolon: “The two cats were constant companions; they truly loved each other.”
- Semicolon with adverbial conjunction (semicolon words such as however, nonetheless, moreover). Semicolon words do not make a sentence dependent on another sentence (do not turn a complete clause into a dependent clause): “The two cats were constant companions; moreover, they truly loved each other.”
- Colon (rare): “The two cats were constant companions: they truly loved each other.”
- Make one sentence dependent on the other by adding a subordinating conjunction (dependent word such as while, though, when, if). Dependent words turn a sentence into a dependent sentence (a dependent clause): “Though the two cats were constant companions, they truly loved each other.” -or- “The two cats were constant companions because they truly loved each other.”
Notice that the way you choose to join the clauses can emphasize a certain meaning, so make your choices carefully.
Next, practice correctly punctuating with commas.
Listing comma: This comma is used to separate the items in a list of two or more. (The comma that comes before the final item is called the Oxford comma, and it is always used in academic writing. It can often be left out in informal writing as long as the meaning is clear; it is usually left out in newspaper articles to save space.) Here’s an example: “I bought bread, peanut butter, and jelly to make sandwiches.”
Compound sentence comma (two independent clauses joined together): See the example in the previous section, Comma + FANBOYS. NOTE: Don’t add a comma every time you use “and” or another coordinating conjunction. Make sure first that the two things you are joining are actually two independent clauses. You can do that by looking at the words before “and” to make sure they make up a complete sentence, and then do the same with the words after “and.”
Introductory comma: This comma is used after an introductory word, phrase, or clause. If the introductory element is very short, the comma is optional. Example: “After the storm, the spider carefully rebuilt its web.”
Interrupting comma: This pair of commas is used to mark interruptions within a sentence—as long as the interruption is not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Example: “I wonder, you know, if you really love me.”
Restrictive element: an essential element, whether a clause or phrase. Removing the essential element would change the meaning of the sentence. Restrictive elements/essential elements do NOT need commas. Here’s an example: “The monster that swallowed Los Angeles died of indigestion.” The phrase “that swallowed Los Angeles” can’t be removed from the sentence because essential in identifying which monster.
Non-restrictive element: a non-essential element, either a clause or phrase. Removing the non-essential element does not change the meaning of the sentence. These elements need commas. One way to remember that is to think of comma handles so that you can lift the element in and out of the sentence. Here’s an example: “My third sister, who lives in Salem, is the baby of the family.” The phrase “who lives in Salem” could be removed from the sentence because it’s not essential in identifying which sister—we already know she’s the third sister.
There are other ways to use commas; these are just the most common uses.
Best Editing and Grammar Resources (a Links List)
Here are some of my favorite online resources. You can search for a specific topic or just browse to find great resources about writing and editing.
(adapted, in part, from The Word on College Reading and Writing by Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear. This OER text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.)