Identifying Patterns of Error in College Writing

Identifying Patterns of Error


Academic writing is a particular dialect that, in general, should adhere to the guidelines of Standard Written English.  Though many people fear that their writing is riddled with errors that violate the guidelines of Standard Written English, this is most often not the case.  Instead, most people struggle with two to four errors, which they make consistently. Identifying what these specific errors are allows one to then determine what “patterns of error” exist, and to actively work to correct these issues.  Grammar, as we know, is an extremely complex subject. And, as we've discussed, as a native speaker of a given language, you already possess an extremely advanced understanding of the most complex elements of grammar in your “native tongue.”  Linguists often divide the universe of grammar into two categories: descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive Grammar is what linguists study and is a large and often fascinating subject having to do with the study of how language IS USED and the structures on which it relies.  Prescriptive Grammar is generally what people think of when they think of grammar. For, prescriptive grammar is not about the study of how language functions, but a set of rules for how language SHOULD BE USED according to a set of prescribed guidelines, for instance those of Standard Written English.  


Students often feel overwhelmed by the long list of prescriptive grammar issues that they must attend to when adhering to the guidelines of Standard Written English.  Should you wish to become an expert as a prescriptive grammarian in your native language, I would encourage you to study the many different rules that apply. For our purposes, we will think about error in SWE as falling into two major categories: 1/ Sentence Integrity  and 2/ Diction. In the first category, sentence integrity, we will focus on five common types of errors; in the second category, we will also focus on five types of common errors. Most people consistently make two to four errors in total. This means that by identifying the errors that you make consistently, you will then be able to more readily locate and correct them during your revision processes and, eventually, possibly even eliminate these errors from your writing entirely.  Always remember: You do not make hundreds of errors in your writing; you make two to four consistent errors that are repeated throughout your writing. Please also keep in mind that errors can be interesting! Sometimes what is on the page is actually more interesting and thought-provoking than what you “meant to say”!


There are two broad categories that most errors in Standard Written English fall into:  sentence integrity, meaning, complete sentences, and diction, or word choice:  


Sentence Integrity:  Some Common Errors


1/ Sentence Fragments

The problem:  Waiting silently for its prey.

On the old wooden stool in my grandmother’s kitchen.

2/ Run-on Sentences  

The problem:  To be tough is important for the job because there is a lack of  knowledge among residents to follow all of the garbage rules.

3/ Fused Sentences

The problem:   Gestures are a means of communication for everyone they are essential for the hearing impaired.

4/ Comma Splices

The problem: Gestures are a means of communication for everyone, they  

are essential for the hearing impaired.


5/ Sentence Tangles/Syntax Issues/Shifts in Sentences

The problem:  To be tough is important for the job because there is a lack when among residents to follow all of the garbage rules.


Diction:  Some Common Errors


1/ Non-Parallel Ideas or Items in a Series

The problem:   Cross training involves a variety of exercises, such as running,  swimming, and a bike ride.


2/ Shifts in Tense or Point of View/Faulty Theme/Rheme Patterning

The problem:   One week our class met to practice rescuing a victim trapped in a  wrecked car. Our instructor gives us grades based on your speed and your skill.


3/ Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers

The problem:  Upon entering the doctor’s office, a skeleton caught my attention.  


4/ Repetition

Try not to repeat words or similar forms of words in a single sentence.  Though there will be times when this is impossible, always give it a try.  It is also a good idea to, whenever possible, to vary the structure of consecutive sentences.

The problem:

In a sentence: Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte, is an important book because it  provides a lot of important statistics.

In consecutive sentences:  1/ This chapter is well-researched and supported by  many statistics. This chapter is meant to be informative and allows the reader to  realize that a lot goes on after he or she has dragged the trash to the curb. 2/ There  is a lot of interesting information in this book. Royte puts it in a manner that is interesting.


5/ Ambiguous or Incorrect Word Choice

The problem:   Royte dictates the character traits of sanitation workers.

      The doctor predicted me with bronchitis.

Example of the power of word choice:  “I remember when I was a kid I loved writing.  I had a journal. OK. I’m lying. I had a diary, and I would always write in    my diary when something exciting happened in my life.”   

Ambiguous Pronoun Reference is one important area of diction to work on:

The problem:   She said she liked me and he said she said she was right.  

A Few Guidelines:

  • Make sure that the reader always knows what a pronoun is referring to

  • Make sure pronouns refer to specific antecedents, not to a word that is implied  but not stated

  • Make sure the pronouns  this, that, and which refer to specific antecedents.  If you find that a pronoun reference is vague or unclear, try replacing the pronoun with  a noun or add an antecedent that clearly refers to the pronoun

  • Review relative  pronoun usage (who, that, which, etc.).