21 February 2016

Little Notes on Little Errors

Dear Students of Writing,

I love you all. Really, I do. It is a pleasure for me to spend a short time with you each class, assisting you in developing your writing skills and encouraging you to consider writing as an important facet of your adult lives and whatever careers you may undertake upon your graduation. 

To that goal, let me provide you with a short list of problems I constantly encounter and examples that will show you how to avoid those problems. Granted, there are many issues we struggle with in each and every paper, but this short list consists of the problems I find most often semester after semester.

Therefore, I shall expect to never find another example of these particular errors in your subsequent writing. That's a fair deal, is it not?

Little Notes on Little Errors
comma splice sentences
The comma-splice sentence is where two or more complete sentences are joined by a comma. To correct the problem, try one of these solutions:

1) replace the comma with a period followed by the start of a new sentence
2) replace the comma with the word and
3) make the comma into a semicolon

     I went to school in Philadelphia, it was the best year of my life.

You can rewrite the sentence one of these ways:

     I went to school in Philadelphia.  It was the best year of my life.
     I went to school in Philadelphia and it was the best year of my life.
     I went to school in Philadelphia; it was the best year of my life.

(Remember to check the rules of semicolon use below!)

me and my sister / my sister and I
We like to be polite and put others before ourselves, yet this can be confusing when we write the same phrases as subject versus as object.  

For example:

Me and my sister went to the mall.

Should be: My sister and I went to the mall.  [as subject]

They are the best friends of me and my sister.


They are the best friends of my sister and I.

Should be: They are the best friends of my sister and me.

To check the correctness of the phrase, try leaving out the my sister and just use I or me and see how it sounds. Then add back the my sister part.

there / their
It's easy to remember the difference! Think of the I in THEIR as meaning a person! THEIR is a possessive pronoun.  THERE designates a place or state of being.  For example:

I like riding in their car.  Their car is parked over there.

There is nothing better than driving their car!

to / too / two
These words are often confused and spellcheckers won't catch them! For example:

He is good at Math. She is good at Math, too.  [also]

The two books we bought were too expensive!  [number and high amount]

We are going to school to take a class in biology.  [direction and as auxiliary verb]

proper nouns / nouns
We capitalize the names of people, places, and organizations.  However, we do not capitalize the noun when we leave off the particular designating word.  For example:

I graduated from Northeast High School.

(Northeast is the name of the high school so we capitalize the entire name.)

I graduated from high school last year.

(high school is not the name of the school, just what kind of school it is.)

 Don't forget: we graduate FROM high school, not graduate high school. 
Schools do not graduate, only students do.

everyday vs. every day
Everyday is an adjective while every day is an adverb and a noun.

This is my everyday pair of shoes.

Every day I wear the same pair of shoes.

people / things & conjunctions
We like to give people credit for being human so we use who as a conjunction and reserve that for use with things.  For example:

The people who came to school were the happiest.

Cars that crash never work as well as they should.

if / whether
We generally use if in situations where the answer is yes or no

We use whether when we are comparing things that have relatively equal value. 

I want to know if students use "if" too much in their papers.

(The answer is: "Yes, they do.")

I want to know whether students prefer history class or English class.

(The answer is: "They prefer English class.")

amount / number
When something can be counted, such as people, we use number

When something is uncountable, such as water (but not glasses of water), we use amount

The number of people surveyed was one hundred.

The amount of beer we drank was more than we could afford.

then / than
Remember that the word then refers to 
1) a sequence in time, or 
2) a cause and effect relationship.  
The word than refers to a comparison being made.

We stayed at school until five o'clock.  Then we went home.

I'd rather study than watch television tonight.

Originally from the Latin word necius meaning "ignorant, not knowing"
        Old French = simpleminded, stupid
        Middle English = foolish, wanton
        Modern usage = 1. marked by conformity to convention; not unusual
                                   2. pleasant and satisfying

Try to use a more precise word!

Originates from the Democratic O.K. Club of New York City. In the 1840 Democratic Party campaign, Martin van Buren, who was born in Kinderhook, NY (near Albany), was the candidate.  Martin van Buren was affectionately called “Old Kinderhook” and the designation “O.K.” was a secret sign of being a member of the O.K. Club; hence, an accepted person.  (You can hold up your hand in an "OK" sign or gesture, touching the tip of the index finger to the tip of the thumb in a loop with the other fingers extended, and it looks like the letters "OK".)

Proper usage is to write it as: O.K. or o.k.

(Writing it without periods is OK, too, but keep the letters as capitals, in that case.)

okay = spelling of the pronunciation of the abbreviation (used it only in dialogue)

all right
The correct form is: Is everything all rightNOT  Is everything alright?

(Exception: in story dialogue, characters sometimes say: “awright.”)

id est (Latin) = that is (“in other words”); used to introduce a rephrasing of the primary statement

 I have a great respect for her, i.e., I’m impressed by her success.

exempli gratis (Latin) = example for free (“for example”); used to introduce a series of examples relevant to the primary statement

 She played only team sports in college, e.g., softball, soccer, basketball.

et cetera (Latin) = and similar; used to indicate the previous pattern or item continues in a similar fashion. (Note: There is no need to use and with etc. because and is included in the abbreviation etc.)

 She played only team sports in high school: softball, soccer, etc.

possessives & plurals
possessive:                     It's a student’s book.     (it’s = it is [conjunction])

plural:                             Many students have books.   (all the students)

plural-possessive:        The students’ books are expensive.  (more than one student)

: (colon)
A:B  —used to: 
1) list examples originating in statement A, 
2) answer a question posed in statement A; statement B is not a complete sentence

1. I like fruit: apples, pears, and oranges. 
These are the fruit I like: apples, pears, and oranges.

2. Film versions have captured the horror of the monster [how?]: he talks!

; (semi-colon)
A;B  —used to: 
1) rephrase statement A for a particular effect, 
2) connect related statements closer than as consecutive sentences (complementary statements); statement B must be a complete sentence

1. He is the best chef in town; he’s been given many awards.

2. They enjoy dining out at expensive establishments; the thrill of walking out without paying is greater at such restaurants.

Do NOT use for plural forms of acronyms and years; using the apostrophe in such cases makes the acronym or year possessive.

CEOs  (not CEO’s)          CDs  (not CD’s)

1980s (not 1980’s)           1980s  = 1980 through 1989

                                         1980’s = only related to the year 1980

Always use commas with the word “however”!
However, we won’t be showing the whole film tonight.

We won’t, however, be showing the whole film tonight.

We won’t be showing the whole film tonight, however.

[Exception: however as a descriptive term, for example: It will be good however he plans it. = no matter in what way he plans it.]

double negative
As in math, two negatives result in a positive; the same is true in English (but not always in other languages).

We don’t have no more bananas.

We don’t have any more bananas.

No need to use a qualifier when the quality is obvious: large in size, blue in color, fast in speed.

money & time
$12.75 = twelve dollars and seventy-five cents
$12.00 = twelve dollars and no cents X (no need to use cents if 00)
$12      = twelve dollars

10:30 am  = ten-thirty
10:00 am  = ten o’clock X (no need to use minutes if they are 00)
10 am       = ten o’clock

generic “you” & he/she/they
Do not use “you” in academic writing unless you are directly addressing the reader!  If “you” refers to a generic person, use alternate words.
First, you have to go to registration to get your schedule.

First, one has to go to registration to get one’s schedule.

If possible, try using a plural form such as “students” or “people.”

When a student parks on campus they must have a tag on their car.

When students park on campus they must have tags on their cars.
Use “he” and “she” when appropriate but be aware of the awkward effect when the words are compounded.  Or try using a plural noun.
When he or she takes the final exam, he or she must bring a blue book.

When he/she takes the final exam, he/she must bring a blue book.

When students take the final exam, he or she must bring a blue book.

When students take the final exam, they must bring a blue book.

 Use “he” or “she” when referring to a same-sex group.

          Sisters in my sorority must always have their pledge card with them.

A sister in my sorority must always have her pledge card with her.

Write out numbers which would be a single word (one hyphen is allowed).

It’s one in a million.            NOT  It’s 1 in 1,000,000.   NOT   It’s one in 1 million.

There are 25 of us.              NOT  twenty-five

He was born in 1978.          NOT  nineteen-hundred seventy-eight

[Exception #1: In a research paper it is better to use all digits/numerals in paragraphs where you are writing a lot of statistics.]

Combinations of numbers and words are permitted:

The budget this year is 1.5 million dollars.


The budget this year is $1.5 million.

[Exception #2: When characters say numbers in dialogue (but not when quoting someone in a research paper) the number is written out no matter how long the words may be. Same applies to abbreviations, like Dr., Mr., and Mrs.]

           As I counted the 25 dollars in my hand, I called to Dr. Smith: “Doctor Smith! I’ll be there at seven-thirty with twenty-five dollars!”

Never use two words when one good word will do.
We spent the class talking about poetry.

We spent the class discussing poetry.

That game show is kind of like my Ethics class.

That game show is similar to my Ethics class.

Never use a colloquialism when a standard word is available.

Nowadays, people can fly there in two hours.

Today, people can fly there in two hours.

Oftentimes, we get a cappuccino after class.

Often, we get a cappuccino after class.

commas &  lists
Though it is not incorrect, it is better for the sake of clarity to use a comma before “and” when listing items.
We went to Kansas City, St. Louis, and Chicago.

quotation marks
“  ”
‘   ’
In American English, double quotation marks are the primary marks and single quotation marks are used when necessary within the double quotation marks.

Periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks, no matter whether it is a quotation or a word marked for emphasis.

Question marks that occur within a quotation remain inside the quotation marks; otherwise, question marks (as well as colons, semi-colons, dashes, and exclamation points) go outside of the quotation marks.

Quotation marks are also used: 
1) to indicate a word is used as the word itself and not as part of the sentence; 
2) to emphasize a word or phrase for its satirical nature or its unusual usage; 
3) to mark the title of an essay, story, article, or song; or 
4) to mark a phrase as a common expression.

Some examples: 

Mr. Smith said, “Jones told us Bob’s ‘got a fine head on his shoulders.’”
Mrs. Brown told Henry to get his “newfangled contraption” out of the way.
“There’s no excuse for not knowing,” cried his father.
“Is there any of that pie left?” he asked.
In his essay “What’s Wrong With Interjections?”, Peter Jones responds candidly: “Balderdash!”
His colleagues insisted that he retract his ‘claims,’ the journal reported.
Isn’t “quotation” a better word to use than “quote”?
“Quotation marks” are what this punctuation is correctly called.
His actions show him to be a “boy who cried wolf”!
The contract was unreadable, full of errors and “doublespeak.”

PLEASE NOTE that the above notes are intended for academic writing in particular and everyday writing in general. 

Writing fiction or poetry or something of a creative nature will entitle you to break some or all of the above "rules" if done so in order to achieve a particular rhetorical effect, to stay in the character's way of thinking or speaking, to elicit a certain emotional response from readers, or to demonstrate your innate rebelliousness. These creative means are not intended to be used in the writing of standard academic essays and/or research papers which may be assigned in any course. 

Talk with your instructor to determine the limitations, if any, on the correctness of your writing in the vernacular known as Standard Edited English. Thank you for your attention.

Have an amazingly awesome day! (Write something.)

(C) Copyright 2010-2016 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. Quote: "They are the best friends of my sister and I.

    "Should be: They are the best friends of my sister and me.

    "To check the correctness of the phrase, try leaving out the my sister and just use I or me and see how it sounds. Then add back the my sister part."

    That's a good trick Professor! I will use it!