Philosophy

The twenty most common errors in college writing were identified by Andrea Lunsford and Robert Connors in research examining thousands of student essays in the late 1980s. Explanations of the errors have been adapted from The Everyday Writer by Lunsford and Connors (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997, pp. 11–14).

1. Missing comma after an introductory element
Many sentences begin with one or more introductory elements—clauses, phrases, or single words that lead into the main body of the sentence. To show where an introductory element ends and the main part of the sentence begins (thus helping your readers move more easily through the sentence), insert a comma after the introductory element. If the sentence includes multiple introductory elements, use a comma after each one.

Many sentences begin with one or more introductory elements-clauses, phrases, or single words that lead into the main body of the sentence. To show where an introductory element ends and the main part of the sentence begins (thus helping your readers move more easily through the sentence), insert a comma after the introductory element. If the sentence includes multiple introductory elements, use a comma after each one.

Incorrect: To tell the truth after reflecting on the matter I'm really not sure whether religion gives my life meaning.

Correct:   To tell the truth, after reflecting on the matter, I'm really not sure whether religion gives my life meaning.

2. Vague pronoun reference
Readers should be able to easily identify a pronoun's antecedent (that is, the specific word or phrase to which the pronoun refers). If the antecedent is unclear (either because there is more than one possible pronoun reference or because the word to which the pronoun refers is implied but not actually stated in the text), you need to make the reference more explicit.

Reference implied but not stated
Incorrect: I think that the root of most race relations conflicts in America is that they are not just different races but competing power groups.

Correct:   I think that the root of most race relations conflicts in America is that the groups in conflict are not just different races but also competing power groups.

Possible reference to more than one word
Incorrect: The notion of personal freedom strikes me as an illusion. Those who claim they have it don't seem to know what to do with it.

Correct:   The notion of personal freedom strikes me as an illusion. Those who claim they have such freedom don't seem to know what to do with it.

3. Missing comma in a compound sentence
When two independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as separate sentences) are joined by a coordinating conjunction such as and, but, so, yet, nor, or for, precede the conjunction with a comma to signal a pause between the two parts of the sentence. The pause gives pace to the sentence and helps prevent sentence misreadings.

Incorrect: As a high school student, I was threatened with suspension for my refusal to participate in a civil-defense drill and I have been a conspicuous consumer of my First Amendment liberties ever since.

Correct:   As a high school student, I was threatened with suspension for my refusal to participate in a civil-defense drill, and I have been a conspicuous consumer of my First Amendment liberties ever since.

Note: Be sure to distinguish between compound sentences, as defined above, and sentences that have two or more predicate phrases but only one subject. Sentences with a compound predicate do not take a comma between the two parts of the predicate. For example:

Incorrect: In high school, I refused to participate in a civil-defense drill, and consequently was threatened with suspension.

Correct:   In high school, I refused to participate in a civil-defense drill and consequently was threatened with suspension.

4. Wrong word
Most instances of this error arise from confusion or carelessness regarding homonyms or other words that either sound similar or have similar meanings. Wrong-word errors may also result from overly casual use of a thesaurus.( Be sure to consult a dictionary if you're not sure of the exact meaning of a word you find in a thesaurus.)

Incorrect: Their are very strong reasons for protecting even racist speech.

Correct:   There are very strong reasons for protecting even racist speech.

5. Missing comma(s) with a non-restrictive element
Non-restrictive elements are words, phrases, and clauses that provide relevant information in a sentence but are not essential to the sentence's basic meaning. Non-restrictive elements in a sentence should be set off (on both sides) with commas. In the following example, the non-restrictive element is underlined.

Incorrect: Racism's effects on minorities especially are harmful to the future of American children.

Correct:   Racism's effects, on minorities especially, are harmful to the future of American children.

6. Wrong or missing verb ending (-s or -es, -d or -ed)
In spoken English, we sometimes either omit verb endings altogether or pronounce them inaudibly, but standard written English requires their use even when other information in the sentence implies these endings. Make sure that subject and verb agree (plural or singular) and that you are using the correct verb tense. (See also #10.)

Incorrect: With enough time, perseverance, and compassion, as you'll discover, even closed minds can be open to suggestions.

Correct:   With enough time, perseverance, and compassion, as you'll discover, even closed minds can be opened to suggestions.

7. Wrong or missing prepositions
A sentence's meaning may change depending on the preposition you use in conjunction with a verb or as part of a prepositional phrase. For example, the act of comparing things to one another involves looking only for similarities among them; the act of comparing things with one another means registering both their similarities and their differences. The acts of meeting at or in an intersection have different implications, as do the acts of talking around, about, or through an issue.

Incorrect: When we compared the early theories to the later ones, we found surprising similarities as well as vast differences about them.

Correct:   When we compared the early theories with the later ones, we found surprising similarities as well as vast differences among them.

8. Comma splice
Inexperienced writers sometimes combine two or more independent clauses (clauses that are capable of standing independently as separate sentences) into a single sentence by inserting a comma between the clauses. This error can be corrected in several ways: (1) by separating the clauses into stand-alone sentences; (2) by replacing the comma with a semicolon; (3) by following the comma with a coordinating conjunction such as and, but, so, yet, nor, or for; or (4) by rewriting the sentence to subordinate or eliminate one of the independent clauses.

Incorrect: To believe that freedom of expression is universally available is naïve and unrealistic as the old saw goes, "the right to a free press belongs to those who own the press."

Correct:   To believe that freedom of expression is universally available is naïve and unrealistic. As the old saw goes, "the right to a free press belongs to those who own the press."
or
To believe that freedom of expression is universally available is naïve and unrealistic; as the old saw goes, "the right to a free press belongs to those who own the press."
or
To believe that freedom of expression is universally available is naïve and unrealistic, for as the old saw goes, "the right to a free press belongs to those who own the press."
or
To believe that freedom of expression is universally available is naïve and unrealistic, as acknowledged in the old saw that "the right to a free press belongs to those who own the press."

9. Missing or misplaced possessive apostrophe
Possessive nouns (nouns that indicate possession of something else) generally have an apostrophe-s ending if singular (e.g. sociologist's or Davis's) or just an apostrophe if plural (e.g. sociologists' or Davises'). Possessive personal pronouns ( hers, his, ours, theirs, yours, its), however, do not take apostrophes.

Incorrect: 2 Live Crews artistic world view must be criticized on the basis of a civilly responsible resistance to the bands' rap narrative.

Correct:   2 Live Crew's artistic world view must be criticized on the basis of a civilly responsible resistance to the band's rap narrative.

10. Unnecessary shift in tense
Unless you have a clear reason for doing otherwise, use the same tense for all verbs both within and across sentences.

Incorrect: Last year, I was delighted to hear that the journal to which I'd submitted my essay on the origins of love and hate finds my reflections worthy of publication.

Correct:   Last year, I was delighted to hear that the journal to which I'd submitted my essay on the origins of love and hate found my reflections worthy of publication.

11. Unnecessary shift in pronoun
When you use a pronoun reference in a sentence, make sure that you use the same pronoun for all subsequent references in the sentence. The most common example of pronoun shifting is the shift between one and I, you, or we.

Incorrect: When you learn more about the war in Chiapas, one will be appalled.

Correct:   When you learn more about the war in Chiapas, you'll be appalled.

12. Sentence fragment
A sentence fragment is an incomplete portion of a sentence that is punctuated as a full sentence. To correct this error, incorporate the fragment into the preceding or subsequent sentence, or rewrite the fragment to include subject and predicate. In some types of writing (for example, in fiction and journalistic writing), authors may incorporate fragments as a stylistic choice. In academic writing, however, the use of fragments is far less common.

Incorrect: In one version of the story, an evil genius promises "the mother of us all" if she eats the fruit of the tree. She will be like God, knowing good and evil.

Correct:   In one version of the story, an evil genius promises "the mother of us all" that if she eats the fruit of the tree, she will be like God, knowing good and evil.
or
In one version of the story, an evil genius makes a promise to "the mother of us all." He tell her that if she eats the fruit of the tree, she will be like God, knowing good and evil.

13. Wrong tense or verb form
The verbs in a sentence must clearly communicate whether the condition or action being reported in the sentence is happening in the past, present, or future; whether the action is definite or conditional; and so on. Be on the alert for irregular verbs (verbs that don't follow the standard pattern for indicating tense) that have been treated as regular verbs.

Incorrect: For centuries, people believed the world is flat, but they would have been sorely mistaken.

Correct:   For centuries, people believed the world is flat, but they were sorely mistaken.

14. Lack of subject-verb agreement
The verb form used in a sentence may vary depending on whether the subject is singular or plural and whether the sentence is written in first-, second-, or third person. When you are looking for subject-verb agreement errors, be mindful that the noun closest to the verb may not be the subject.

Incorrect: That set of beliefs fly in the face of reason.

Correct:   That set of beliefs flies in the face of reason.

When the subject consists of two or more nouns connected by and, the subject is generally plural. However, when all parts of the subject refer to the same thing or person, the subject is considered singular (see the second example following).

Correct:   The men and women who belong to that sect still practice traditions that many of us today consider sexist and discriminatory.

Correct:   The sect's founder and leader promotes traditions that many of us today consider sexist and discriminatory.

When the subject consists of two or more nouns connected by or or nor, verb agreement should be with the subject noun that is closest to the verb.

Correct:   Neither the leader nor his followers adhere to the principal of free speech.

15. Missing comma in a series
To avoid potential sentence misreadings, always insert a comma between the last two items in a three-or-more-item list.

Incorrect: Some of the people who have written about ecology are Leopold, Muir, Snyder and Moore.

Correct:   Some of the people who have written about ecology are Leopold, Muir, Snyder, and Moore.

16. Lack of agreement between pronoun and antecedent
When you use a pronoun (such as you, him, she, their, it) in place of the noun to which it refers (called the pronoun's antecedent), make sure the pronoun agrees with its antecedent in both gender and number.

Incorrect: Aristotle and Socrates regarded himself primarily as a teacher.

Correct:   Aristotle and Socrates regarded themselves primarily as teachers.

Note also that the words each, every, one, and (often) either and neither are singular and therefore require singular pronoun references. Also, singular noun antecedents joined by or or nor require a singular pronoun.

Incorrect: Each philosopher regarded themselves as a teacher.

Correct:   Each philosopher regarded himself as a teacher.

Incorrect: Neither Aristotle nor Socrates felt that they had all the answers.

Correct:   Neither Aristotle nor Socrates felt he had all the answers.

Some noun antecedents (for example, "philosopher" or "reader") are non-gender-specific; that is, they may refer to both males and females. When you use this type of antecedent in its singular form, your pronoun references to the antecedent must acknowledge both genders. You have several options for establishing pronoun agreement with non-gender-specific nouns: (1) For every pronoun reference, use "him and her, "she and he," etc. Some writers find this awkward and choose instead to alternate between male and female pronoun references either paragraph-by-paragraph or section-by-section. (2) You can change the sentence wording to make the antecedent (and therefore the pronoun) plural. (3) You can simply get rid of the pronoun. All three solutions are illustrated here.

Incorrect: Every degree candidate must demonstrate his proficiency as a critical thinker.

Correct:   Every degree candidate must demonstrate her or his proficiency as a critical thinker.
or
All degree candidates must demonstrate their proficiency as critical thinkers.
or
Every degree candidate must demonstrate proficiency in critical thinking.

17. Unnecessary comma(s) with a restrictive element
Restrictive elements are essential to the basic meaning of the sentence. They should not be set off from the rest of the sentence through the use of commas. In the following example, the restrictive clause is underlined. In other words, not all students disagreed with the theory of evolution; and only those who did got up left the room.

Incorrect: The students, who disagreed with the theory of evolution, got up and left the classroom.

Correct:   The students who disagreed with the theory of evolution got up and left the classroom.

18. Fused sentence
Fused, or run-on, sentences occur when clauses that could stand alone are joined with no linking words or punctuation. Correct this error in one of four ways: (1) Separate the clauses into two (or more) sentences; (2) insert a semicolon between the clauses; (3) insert a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction (e.g. and, but, so, yet, nor, for) between the clauses; or (4) rewrite the sentence to subordinate or eliminate one of the independent clauses.

Incorrect: We learn about life through our surrounding environment these learned lessons are only part of what shapes our future however.

Correct:   We learn about life through our surrounding environment. These learned lessons, however, are only part of what shapes our future.
or
We learn about life through our surrounding environment; these learned lessons are only part of what shapes our future, however.
or
We learn about life through our surrounding environment, but these learned lessons are only part of what shapes our future.
or
Although we learn about life through our surrounding environment, these learned lessons are only part of what shapes our future.

19. Misplaced or dangling modifier
To prevent sentence misreadings, place modifying words and phrases as close as possible to the word or words they modify.

Incorrect: The girl had a hard time visualizing the ethical wrong-doing of her action while stealing the candy.

Correct:   While stealing the candy, the girl had a hard time visualizing the ethical wrong-doing of her action.

20. Its/It's confusion
Its indicates possession; it's is a contracted form of it is.

Incorrect: Sexism, in all it's many forms, affects both genders; its an insidious societal problem.

Correct:   Sexism, in all its many forms, affects both genders; it's an insidious societal problem.


Some of these sample sentences were adapted from Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy by Lee G. Bowie, Meredith W. Michaels, and Robert Solomon (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1996). Handout prepared by Matthew Shenoda and Jaimie Phillips, Oregon State University, 1998, and revised by Tracy Ann Robinson. With thanks to Dr. Lani Roberts, OSU Department of Philosophy, for her sentence content review.