Finding Common Errors
Proofreading is primarily about searching your writing for errors, both grammatical and typographical, before submitting your paper for an audience (a teacher, a publisher, etc.). Use this resource to help you find and fix common errors.
Contributors: Jaclyn M. Wells, Morgan Sousa, Mia Martini, Allen Brizee, Ashley Velázquez, Maryam Ghafoor
Last Edited: 2018-01-24 02:17:21
Here are some common proofreading issues that come up for many writers. For grammatical or spelling errors, try underlining or highlighting words that often trip you up. On a sentence level, take note of which errors you make frequently. Also make note of common sentence errors you have such as run-on sentences, comma splices, or sentence fragments—this will help you proofread more efficiently in the future.
- Do not solely rely on your computer's spell-check—it will not get everything!
- Trace a pencil carefully under each line of text to see words individually.
- Be especially careful of words that have tricky letter combinations, like "ei/ie.”
- Take special care of homonyms like your/you're, to/too/two, and there/their/they're, as spell check will not recognize these as errors.
Left-out and doubled words
Read the paper slowly aloud to make sure you haven't missed or repeated any words. Also, try reading your paper one sentence at a time in reverse—this will enable you to focus on the individual sentences.
Sentence fragments are sections of a sentence that are not grammatically whole sentences. For example, “Ate a sandwich” is a sentence fragment because it lacks a subject.
Make sure each sentence has a subject:
- “Looked at the OWL website.” is a sentence fragment without a subject.
- “The students looked at the OWL website.” Adding the subject “students” makes it a complete sentence.
Make sure each sentence has a complete verb.
- “They trying to improve their writing skills.” is an incomplete sentence because “trying” is an incomplete verb.
- “They were trying to improve their writing skills.” In this sentence, “were” is necessary to make “trying” a complete verb.
See that each sentence has an independent clause. Remember that a dependent clause cannot stand on its own. In the following examples, green highlighting indicates dependent clauses while yellow indicates independent clauses.
- “Which is why the students read all of the handouts carefully.” This is a dependent clause that needs an independent clause. As of right now, it is a sentence fragment.
- “Students knew they were going to be tested on the handouts,which is why they read all of the handouts carefully.” The first part of the sentence, “Students knew they were going to be tested,” is an independent clause. Pairing it with a dependent clause makes this example a complete sentence.
- Review each sentence to see whether it contains more than one independent clause.
- If there is more than one independent clause, check to make sure the clauses are separated by the appropriate punctuation.
- Sometimes, it is just as effective (or even more so) to simply break the sentence into two separate sentences instead of including punctuation to separate the clauses.
- Run on: “I have to write a research paper for my class about extreme sports all I know about the subject is that I'm interested in it.” These are two independent clauses without any punctuation or conjunctions separating the two.
- Edited version: "I have to write a research paper for my class about extreme sports, and all I know about the subject is that I'm interested in it." The two highlighted portions are independent clauses. They are connected by the appropriate conjunction “and,” and a comma.
- Another edited version: “I have to write a research paper for my class about extreme sports. All I know about the subject is that I'm interested in it.” In this case, these two independent clauses are separated into individual sentences separated by a period and capitalization.
- Look closely at sentences that have commas.
- See if the sentence contains two independent clauses. Independent clauses are complete sentences.
- If there are two independent clauses, they should be connected with a comma and a conjunction (and, but, for, or, so, yet, nor). Commas are not needed for some subordinating conjunctions (because, for, since, while, etc.) because these conjunctions are used to combine dependent and independent clauses.
- Another option is to take out the comma and insert a semicolon instead.
- Comma Splice: “I would like to write my paper about basketball, it's a topic I can talk about at length.” The highlighted portions are independent clauses. A comma alone is not enough to connect them.
- Edited version: “I would like to write my paper about basketballbecause it's a topic I can talk about at length.” Here, the yellow highlighted portion is an independent clause while the green highlighted portion is a dependent clause. The subordinating conjunction “because” connects these two clauses.
- Edited version, using a semicolon: “I would like to write my paper about basketball; it’s a topic I can talk about at length.” Here, a semicolon connects two similar independent clauses.
- Find the subject of each sentence.
- Find the verb that goes with the subject.
- The subject and verb should match in number, meaning that if the subject is plural, the verb should be as well.
- An easy way to do this is to underline all subjects. Then, circle or highlight the verbs one at a time and see if they match.
- Incorrect subject verb agreement: “Students at the university level usually is very busy.” Here, the subject “students” is plural, and the verb “is” is singular, so they don’t match.
- Edited version: “Students at the university level usually are very busy.” “Are” is a plural verb that matches the plural noun, “students.”
Read through your sentences carefully to make sure that they do not start with one sentence structure and shift to another. A sentence that does this is called a mixed construction.
- “Since I have a lot of work to dois why I can't go out tonight.” Both green highlighted sections of the sentence are dependent clauses.
- Edited version: “Since I have a lot of work to do, I can't go out tonight.” The green highlighted portion is a dependent clause while the yellow is an independent clause. Thus, this example is a complete sentence.
Look through your paper for series of items, usually separated by commas. Also, make sure these items are in parallel form, meaning they all use a similar form.
- Example: “Being a good friend involves listening, to be considerate, and that you know how to have fun.” In this example, “listening” is in present tense, “to be” is in the infinitive form, and “that you know how to have fun” is a sentence fragment. These items in the series do not match up.
- Edited version: “Being a good friend involves listening, being considerate, and having fun.” In this example, “listening,” “being,” and “having” are all in the present continuous (-ing endings) tense. They are in parallel form.
- Skim your paper, searching for pronouns.
- Search for the noun that the pronoun replaces.
- If you can't find any nouns, insert one beforehand or change the pronoun to a noun.
- If you can find a noun, be sure it agrees in number and person with your pronoun.
- “Sam had three waffles for breakfast. He wasn’t hungry again until lunch.” Here, it is clear that Sam is the “he” referred to in the second sentence. Thus, the singular third person pronoun, “he,” matches with Sam.
- “Teresa and Ariel walked the dog. The dog bit her.” In this case, it is unclear who the dog bit because the pronoun, “her,” could refer to either Teresa or Ariel.
- “Teresa and Ariel walked the dog. Later, it bit them.” Here, the third person plural pronoun, “them,” matches the nouns that precede it. It’s clear that the dog bit both people.
- “Teresa and Ariel walked the dog. Teresa unhooked the leash, and the dog bit her.” In these sentences, it is assumed that Teresa is the “her” in the second sentence because her name directly precedes the singular pronoun, “her.”
- Skim your paper, stopping only at those words which end in "s." If the "s" is used to indicate possession, there should be an apostrophe, as in “Mary's book.”
- Look over the contractions, like “you're” for “you are,” “it's” for “it is,” etc. Each of these should include an apostrophe.
- Remember that apostrophes are not used to make words plural. When making a word plural, only an "s" is added, not an apostrophe and an "s."
- “It’s a good day for a walk.” This sentence is correct because “it’s” can be replaced with “it is.”
- “A bird nests on that tree. See its eggs?” In this case, “its” is a pronoun describing the noun, “bird.” Because it is a pronoun, no apostrophe is needed.
- “Classes are cancelled today” is a correct sentence whereas “Class’s are cancelled today” is incorrect because the plural form of class simply adds an “-es” to the end of the word.
- “Sandra’s markers don’t work.” Here, Sandra needs an apostrophe because the noun is a possessive one. The apostrophe tells the reader that Sandra owns the markers.
Writing Essays for Exams
While most OWL resources recommend a longer writing process (start early, revise often, conduct thorough research, etc.), sometimes you just have to write quickly in test situations. However, these exam essays can be no less important pieces of writing than research papers because they can influence final grades for courses, and/or they can mean the difference between getting into an academic program (GED, SAT, GRE). To that end, this resource will help you prepare and write essays for exams.
Contributors: Kate Bouwens, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-02-14 03:30:10
What is a well written answer to an essay question?
Be sure to answer the question completely, that is, answer all parts of the question. Avoid "padding." A lot of rambling and ranting is a sure sign that the writer doesn't really know what the right answer is and hopes that somehow, something in that overgrown jungle of words was the correct answer.
Don't write in a haphazard "think-as-you-go" manner. Do some planning and be sure that what you write has a clearly marked introduction which both states the point(s) you are going to make and also, if possible, how you are going to proceed. In addition, the essay should have a clearly indicated conclusion which summarizes the material covered and emphasizes your thesis or main point.
Do not just assert something is true, prove it. What facts, figures, examples, tests, etc. prove your point? In many cases, the difference between an A and a B as a grade is due to the effective use of supporting evidence.
People who do not use conventions of language are thought of by their readers as less competent and less educated. If you need help with these or other writing skills, come to the Writing Lab
How do you write an effective essay exam?
- Read through all the questions carefully.
- Budget your time and decide which question(s) you will answer first.
- Underline the key word(s) which tell you what to do for each question.
- Choose an organizational pattern appropriate for each key word and plan your answers on scratch paper or in the margins.
- Write your answers as quickly and as legibly as you can; do not take the time to recopy.
- Begin each answer with one or two sentence thesis which summarizes your answer. If possible, phrase the statement so that it rephrases the question's essential terms into a statement (which therefore directly answers the essay question).
- Support your thesis with specific references to the material you have studied.
- Proofread your answer and correct errors in spelling and mechanics.
Specific organizational patterns and "key words"
Most essay questions will have one or more "key words" that indicate which organizational pattern you should use in your answer. The six most common organizational patterns for essay exams are definition, analysis, cause and effect, comparison/contrast, process analysis, and thesis-support.
- "Define X."
- "What is an X?"
- "Choose N terms from the following list and define them."
Q: "What is a fanzine?"
A: A fanzine is a magazine written, mimeographed, and distributed by and for science fiction or comic strip enthusiasts.
Avoid constructions such as "An encounter group is where ..." and "General semantics is when ... ."
- State the term to be defined.
- State the class of objects or concepts to which the term belongs.
- Differentiate the term from other members of the class by listing the term's distinguishing characteristics.
Tools you can use
- Details which describe the term
- Examples and incidents
- Comparisons to familiar terms
- Negation to state what the term is not
- Classification (i.e., break it down into parts)
- Examination of origins or causes
- Examination of results, effects, or uses
Analysis involves breaking something down into its components and discovering the parts that make up the whole.
- "Analyze X."
- "What are the components of X?"
- "What are the five different kinds of X?"
- "Discuss the different types of X."
Q: "Discuss the different services a junior college offers a community."
A: Thesis: A junior college offers the community at least three main types of educational services: vocational education for young people, continuing education for older people, and personal development for all individuals.
Outline for supporting details and examples. For example, if you were answering the example question, an outline might include:
- Vocational education
- Continuing education
- Personal development
Write the essay, describing each part or component and making transitions between each of your descriptions. Some useful transition words include:
- first, second, third, etc.
- in addition
Conclude the essay by emphasizing how each part you have described makes up the whole you have been asked to analyze.
Cause and Effect
Cause and effect involves tracing probable or known effects of a certain cause or examining one or more effects and discussing the reasonable or known cause(s).
- "What are the causes of X?"
- "What led to X?"
- "Why did X occur?"
- "Why does X happen?"
- "What would be the effects of X?"
Q: "Define recession and discuss the probable effects a recession would have on today's society."
A: Thesis: A recession, which is a nationwide lull in business activity, would be detrimental to society in the following ways: it would .......A......., it would .......B......., and it would .......C....... .
The rest of the answer would explain, in some detail, the three effects: A, B, and C.
Useful transition words:
- for this reason
- as a result
- "How does X differ from Y?"
- "Compare X and Y."
- "What are the advantages and disadvantages of X and Y?"
Q: "Which would you rather own—a compact car or a full-sized car?"
A: Thesis: I would own a compact car rather than a full-sized car for the following reasons: .......A......., .......B......., .......C......., and .......D....... .
Two patterns of development:
- Full-sized car
- Compact car
- Full-sized car
- Compact car
Useful transition words
- on the other hand
- unlike A, B ...
- in the same way
- while both A and B are ..., only B ..
- on the contrary
- while A is ..., B is ...
- "Describe how X is accomplished."
- "List the steps involved in X."
- "Explain what happened in X."
- "What is the procedure involved in X?"
Process (sometimes called process analysis)
This involves giving directions or telling the reader how to do something. It may involve discussing some complex procedure as a series of discrete steps. The organization is almost always chronological.
Q: "According to Richard Bolles' What Color Is Your Parachute?, what is the best procedure for finding a job?"
A: In What Color Is Your Parachute?, Richard Bolles lists seven steps that all job-hunters should follow: .....A....., .....B....., .....C....., .....D....., .....E....., .....F....., and .....G..... .
The remainder of the answer should discuss each of these seven steps in some detail.
Useful transition words
- first, second, third, etc.
- following this
- after, afterwards, after this
- simultaneously, concurrently
Thesis and Support
- "Discuss X."
- "A noted authority has said X. Do you agree or disagree?"
- "Defend or refute X."
- "Do you think that X is valid? Defend your position."
Thesis and support involves stating a clearly worded opinion or interpretation and then defending it with all the data, examples, facts, and so on that you can draw from the material you have studied.
Q: "Despite criticism, television is useful because it aids in the socializing process of our children."
A: Television hinders rather than helps in the socializing process of our children because .......A......., .......B......., and .......C....... .
The rest of the answer is devoted to developing arguments A, B, and C.
Useful transition words:
- for this reason
- it follows that
- as a result
A. Which of the following two answers is the better one? Why?
Question: Discuss the contribution of William Morris to book design, using as an example his edition of the works of Chaucer.
a. William Morris's Chaucer was his masterpiece. It shows his interest in the Middle Ages. The type is based on medieval manuscript writing, and the decoration around the edges of the pages is like that used in medieval books. The large initial letters are typical of medieval design. Those letters were printed from woodcuts, which was the medieval way of printing. The illustrations were by Burn-Jones, one of the best artists in England at the time. Morris was able to get the most competent people to help him because he was so famous as a poet and a designer (the Morris chair) and wallpaper and other decorative items for the home. He designed the furnishings for his own home, which was widely admired among the sort of people he associated with. In this way he started the arts and crafts movement.
b. Morris's contribution to book design was to approach the problem as an artist or fine craftsman, rather than a mere printer who reproduced texts. He wanted to raise the standards of printing, which had fallen to a low point, by showing that truly beautiful books could be produced. His Chaucer was designed as a unified work of art or high craft. Since Chaucer lived in the Middle Ages, Morris decided to design a new type based on medieval script and to imitate the format of a medieval manuscript. This involved elaborate letters and large initials at the beginnings of verses, as well as wide borders of intertwined vines with leaves, fruit, and flowers in strong colors. The effect was so unusual that the book caused great excitement and inspired other printers to design beautiful rather than purely utilitarian books.
From James M. McCrimmon, Writing with a Purpose, 7th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980), pp. 261-263.
B. How would you plan the structure of the answers to these essay exam questions?
1. Was the X Act a continuation of earlier government policies or did it represent a departure from prior philosophies?
2. What seems to be the source of aggression in human beings? What can be done to lower the level of aggression in our society?
3. Choose one character from Novel X and, with specific references to the work, show how he or she functions as an "existential hero."
4. Define briefly the systems approach to business management. Illustrate how this differs from the traditional approach.
5. What is the cosmological argument? Does it prove that God exists?
6. Civil War historian Andy Bellum once wrote, "Blahblahblah blahed a blahblah, but of course if blahblah blahblahblahed the blah, then blahblahs are not blah but blahblah." To what extent and in what ways is the statement true? How is it false?
For more information on writing exam essays for the GED, please visit our Engagement area and go to the Community Writing and Education Station (CWEST) resources.