Common grammar problems

Contributor: J. Herrick, Writing Program, J-herrick@northwestern.edu
Posted: 2009

Common Grammar Problems
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By now, each of you has developed your own pattern of grammatical or punctuation errors.  You probably make only one or two kinds of errors, but you may make them repeatedly.  I will point these out to you on your first portfolio submission, and you can then look for and proofread for these errors in all your writing.  

Here are the three most common kinds of errors made:

Missing comma after an introductory element.  Commas group words into units of meaning.   Often a sentence will begin with an introductory element—a word, or phrase, or clause, usually setting up the condition under which the main action of  the sentence takes place (time, place, etc.).  So that these words are read as a unit of meaning and are not confused with the main action of the sentence (the main clause), they need to be separated off from the rest of the sentence with a comma.  This prevents misreading or confusion.

Examples:

o    Frankly, we were baffled by the committee’s decision.   (Here the introductory element is a word.)

o    To tell the truth, I have never liked the Yankees.  (Here the introductory element is a phrase.)

o    In fact, the project will be brought in on time.  (Here the introductory element is again a phrase.)

o    Because the widget is too big for the current package, the packing will need to be redesigned.  (Here the introductory element is a clause.)

o    When we get the results of the beta trials, we will meet with the second end-user panel. (Here the introductory element is a clause.)

Run-on sentences.   While many people think that a run-on sentence is simply a sentence that runs on too long, it really is two independent clauses (that could correctly be punctuated as two separate sentences) that are punctuated as one sentence.  Therefore, the reader can easily become confused about which is the main clause of the sentence.

The most common ways this happens is when a coordinating conjunction is used to join two independent clauses but the necessary comma has been left out.

There are seven coordinating conjunctions (and, but, so, for, nor, or, yet).

Examples:

o   Incorrect (a run-on): The project is currently behind schedule but we should be able meet the final deadline.  

There are several ways this run-on can be corrected.   The simplest would be to simply add the necessary comma.

o   Correct:   The project is currently behind schedule, but we should be able meet the final deadline.

Or, you could make one clause a dependent clause.

o   Correct:   Although the project is currently behind schedule, we should be able to meet the final deadline.

Or, you could substitute a semi-colon for the coordinating conjunction.

o    Correct:  The project is currently behind schedule; we should be able meet the final deadline.

Note:  To substitute a comma for a semi-colon would create another kind of run-on known as a comma splice.  

Another type of run-on sentence occurs when two independent clauses are joined by a subjunctive adverb, such as “however” or “therefore,”  separated only by a comma or surrounded by a pair of commas.

o    Incorrect (a run-on):  The project is currently behind schedule, however,  we should be able meet the final deadline.

There are two ways to correct this kind of run-on. You can separate the clauses into two complete sentences. 

o    Correct:   The project is currently behind schedule. However, we should be able meet the final deadline.

Or, you can precede the adverb with a semi-colon and follow it with a comma. 

o    Correct:   The project is currently behind schedule; however, we should be able meet the final deadline.


Fuzzy pronoun reference.  Because pronouns take the place of a noun, it must be clear to the reader just what noun each pronoun refers to; otherwise the reader has trouble following the meaning of your sentence.  Usually a reader will assume the pronoun refers to the last noun that was mentioned.  If the pronoun doesn’t refer to the last noun mentioned, it is often better to simply repeat the noun.  

The two most common kinds of vague pronoun reference are:
    1.  The pronoun might refer to more than one noun.

Example:  Transmitting radio signals by satellite is a way of overcoming the problem of scarce airwaves and limiting how they are used. 

Does "they" refer to the noun "signals" or "airwaves"?

Better: Transmitting radio signals by satellite is a way of overcoming the problem of scarce airwaves and limiting how the airwaves are used.  


   2.    The noun that the pronoun is referring to is implied but not explicitly stated.

Example:  Marketing decided to delay the release of the project as a result of early test findings.  This was the cause of the problem.

What was the cause of the problem? Marketing’s decision or the early test results?  Unclear. 

Better: Marketing decided to delay the release of the project because of a problem found in early testing.

Or

A problem was caused by Marketing’s decision to delay the release of the project as a result of early test findings.



Proofreading for these errors, should clean up most of your grammatical and punctuation errors.