Humboldt State University

Avoiding Common Sentence-Level Errors

The Graduation Writing Proficiency Examination is not primarily concerned with grammar, spelling, and usage, but an excessive number of errors in these areas can lower an essay's score enough to differentiate between a passing and a failing score.  The following list, while by no means complete, contains a few of the most common errors found in GWPE essays and in English composition generally.  For a more full treatment of these and other errors, consult a handbook of English--several of which are available in the HSU Library and online.

Sentence-Boundary Errors
The most common errors in basic sentence construction are the sentence fragment, the run-on sentence, and the comma splice.

A
sentence fragment is a word, a phrase, or a dependent clause presented with the capitalization and punctuation appropriate to a complete sentence.  Although sentence fragments are sometimes acceptable, they should usually be avoided.  There are several causes of sentence fragments: lack of a subject, lack of a proper verb, presence of a subordinating conjunction, and so on.

  • And for several hours worked on the car.  (Lacks subject.)
  • Running down the street.  (Lacks subject and complete verb.)
  • Although he wouldn't do it.  (Begins with a subordinating conjunction.)

A run-on sentence consists of two independent clauses run together and punctuated as one sentence:

  • I thought the paper was due tomorrow nobody told me it was due today.  (Period or semicolon required after "tomorrow.")

A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses are separated by only a comma:

  • I thought the paper was due tomorrow, nobody told me it was due today.  (Period or semicolon required after "tomorrow.")

Inflected Possessives
The possessive indicates ownership or possession.  The inflected possessive (as opposed to the of-phrase possessive) is formed in English as follows:

  • The possessive singular is formed by adding an apostrophe (') and an s to singular nouns and most pronouns which do not end in s. If the noun does end in s, add either an apostrophe and an s, or, if the additional s makes pronunciation awkward, add the apostrophe only:
    • the moon's beams
    • Charles's brother or Charles' brother
    • the princess' slipper
       
  • The possessive of plural nouns ending in s (added to form the plural) is formed by adding an apostrophe only.  If the plural form does not end in an s, add an apostrophe and an s ('s):
    • five dollars' worth
    • women's clothing

Usage Errors
Errors in usage are often caused by the confusion of homophones--words that sound alike are but are different in both spelling and meaning--or near-homophones.  The most frequently confused homophones and near-homophones are:

  • advice--a noun meaning helpful information
  • advise--a verb meaning to give helpful information
  • affect--a verb meaning to influence or to display.  Used as a noun in psychology to mean a feeling, an emotion.
  • effect--a noun meaning result.  Used as a verb to mean to cause or bring about.
  • As a general rule, remember that affect is usually a verb and effect is usually a noun.

  • all ready--an adjective meaning prepared

  • already--an adverb meaning prior to a certain time

  • cite--a verb meaning to quote and refer to

  • sight--a verb meaning to see or to aim; a noun meaning an extraordinary visual perception

  • site--a noun meaning a place or a verb meaning to place

  • its--the possessive form of it

  • it's--the contracted form of it is

  • knew--the past tense of the verb to know

  • new--an adjective meaning recently created, unused

  • know--a verb meaning to have knowledge of

  • no--the negative.

  • loose--an adjective meaning free, unconnected

  • lose--a verb meaning to misplace, to be defeated

  • principal--an adjective meaning chief or main; a noun meaning the head of a school, a leading performer, or a sum of money

  • principle--a noun meaning theory, concept, rule

  • their--the third person plural possessive pronoun.

  • there--an adverb designating place

  • they're--the contracted form of they are

  • to--a preposition meaning in the direction of

  • too--an adverb meaning also or excessively

  • two--the number 2.

  • whose--the possessive form of who

  • who's--the contracted form of who is

Twenty Commonly Misspelled Words

  • existence

  • leisure

  • receive

  • forty

  • lose

  • separate

  • friend

  • misspell

  • studying

  • grammar

  • ninety

  • truly

  • independent

  • noticeable

  • writing

  • indispensable

  • occurrence

  • written

  • led

  • precede


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