Why worry about tricky errors that students make all the time?

When your teachers mark work from each class, they keep coming across the same kinds of errors. This drives them crazy!
Of course, this may be exactly why you keep making these errors. However, in your final exam papers, these problems may annoy your examiner and cost you valuable points. How much of a risk do you want to take?

Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic
Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic

Have a look at each section below to see if any of these problems occur in your own writing.
Then follow the links to see if you can work out what is going wrong, so that at least one problem is resolved.

Problem pairs

Often similar-looking words cause confusion. These problem pairs of words have very different meanings and you mislead your reader if you choose the wrong one, such as:
  • there / they're / their
  • its / it's
  • affect / effect
  • always / all ways
  • there for / therefore
  • everyday / every day

Look at these resources and quizzes to sort out this problem:

Who, which or that?

  • You need to first decide whether you are writing about people or things: Who or whom are used with people, rather than which or that.
    Example: The woman who just came in... OR The scientist whom he admired...
  • Then, if you are writing about things, you need to decide whether the extra bit you are adding (after which or that) is actually defining or restricting the object you are writing about.
  • Look carefully at the sentences below. They look much the same, but mean quite different things.
    (1) Elephants, which have big ears, live in Africa. (2) Elephants that have big ears live in Africa.
    The first of these sentences wrongly implies that ALL elephants have big ears. In fact, only African elephants do. Indian elephants have small ears. In the first sentence the clause "WHICH …" adds information about elephants in general. In the second sentence, the clause "THAT …" restricts which elephants we're talking about, limiting the category of elephants to only those with big ears
  • There is a simple rule for choosing between "which" and "that":
    (1) Use "which" if a group of words just adds extra information (and note how this is surrounded by commas).
    (2) Use "that" if the group of words more clearly defines or restricts which thing you are writing about.
    Example: That (+defining or restrictive clause) The book that I need is not in the library.
    Example: Which (+ non-defining or non-restrictive clause) The books, which are on the table, need to be returned to the library.
  • Try a quiz to see if you are clear about this rule.

Verb tenses

It is important to keep verb tenses consistent right through a piece of writing; otherwise, you confuse your reader about when things happen.
You may also have problems with forming verb tenses if you are an ESL-background writer. To check if this is the case, this quiz might help.

Incomplete sentences

Run-on sentences and sentence fragments do not make complete sense. The easiest way to check for these is to read each single sentence unit starting from the end of the essay and working back to the beginning. This stops you from reading more into each sentence than it actually includes.
  • Example of a run-on sentence: The boy ran into the house, he shouted at his brother. (This called a comma splice, where you join two ideas by a comma, when really a coordinating conjunction such as and or then should be added or he shouted changed to shoutingto make a well-constructed sentence)
  • Example of a sentence fragment:
  • Usually, you fix a run-on sentence by cutting it into two sentences or changing the wording or punctuation. You fix a fragment by joining it onto the sentence that comes before or after the fragment.
  • Try this quiz to see if you recognise incomplete sentences.

Dangling pronouns

  • Sentences that use it..., them..., this...may create confusion if it is not clear what the pronoun links back to. The noun and its pronoun need to be close enough together so that there is no ambiguity.
  • Examples: (1) He took the lollies from the children and ate them ( Did he eat the lollies or children?) (2) When she admitted that she had been shoplifting, this upset her mother. (Was her mother upset because she was shoplifting or only because she told people?)
  • Try the quizzes relating to Faulty Pronoun Reference on this website.

These are only a few of the common problem areas. For more see http://monster-island.org/tinashumor/humor/writing.html




I used this when on prac with Year 7's.