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The Top Twenty: A Quick Guide to Troubleshooting Your Writing

Andrea A. Lunsford, Stanford University

Readers judge your writing by your control of certain conventions, which may change depending on your audience, purpose, and context for the writing. Whether an instructor marks an error in a student assignment will depend on personal judgments about how serious the error is and what the writer should be focusing on in the draft. Some of the student writing patterns identified here may be considered errors by some instructors but stylistic options by others. Statistically, though, these twenty errors – identified in nationwide research by Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen Lunsford – are the one most likely to result in negative responses from readers.

1. Wrong word
  •  Religious texts, for them, take prescience precedence over other kinds of sources.  Prescience means “foresight,” and precedence mean “priority.”
  • The child suffered from a severe allegory  allergy to peanuts. Allegory is spell checker’s replacement for a misspelling of allergy.
  • The panel discussed the ethical implications on of the situation.

Wrong-word errors can involve using a word with the wrong shade of meaning, a word with a completely wrong meaning, or a wrong preposition or word in an idiom. Selecting a word from a thesaurus without knowing its meaning or allowing a spell checker to correct spelling automatically can lead to wrong-word errors, so use these tools with care. Memorize the standard usage of prepositions and idioms.

2. Missing comma after an introductory element
  • Determined to get the job done, we worked all weekend.

Readers usually need a small pause – signaled by a comma – between an introductory word, phrase, or clause and the main part of the sentence. Use a comma after every introductory element. When the introductory element is very short, you don’t always need a comma, but including it is never wrong.

3. Incomplete or missing documentation
  • Satrapi says, “When we’re afraid, we lose all sense of analysis and reflection.263

The page number of the print source for this quotation must be included.

  • According to one source, James Joyce wrote two of the five best novels of all time Modern Library 100 Best.

The source must be identified (this online source has no page numbers).

Cite each source you refer to in the text, following the guidelines of the documentation style you are using. (The examples above follow MLA style.) Omitting documentation can result in charges of plagiarism.

4. Vague pronoun reference

Possible reference to more than one word

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

In the original sentence, they could refer to the signals or to the airwaves.

Reference implied but not stated

  • The company prohibited smoking, a policy which many employees resented. 

What does which refer to? The editing clarifies what employees resented.

A pronoun should refer clearly to the word or words it replaces (called the antecedent) elsewhere in the sentence or in a previous sentence. If more than one word could be the antecedent, or if no specific antecedent is present, edit to make the meaning clear.

5. Spelling (including homonyms)
  • Ronald Regan Reagan won the election in a landslide. 
  • Every where Everywhere we went, we saw crowds of tourists. 

The most common misspellings today are those that spell checkers cannot identify. Spell checkers are most likely to miss homonyms, compound words incorrectly spelled as separate words, and proper nouns, particularly names. After you run the spell checker, proofread carefully for errors such as these.

6. Mechanical error with a quotation
  • “I grew up the victim of a disconcerting confusion,” , Rodriguez says (249). 

The comma should be placed inside the quotation marks.

Follow conventions when using quotation marks with other punctuation. Always use quotation marks in pairs, and follow the guidelines of your documentation style for block quotations. Use quotation marks for titles of short works, but use italics for titles of long works.

7. Unnecessary comma

Before conjunctions in compound constructions that are not compound sentences

  • This conclusion applies to the United States, and to the rest of the world. 

No comma is needed before and because it joins two phrases that modify the                                  same verb, applies.

With restrictive elements

  • Many parents, of gifted children, do not want them to skip a grade.

No comma is needed to set off the restrictive phrase of gifted children, which is                              necessary to indicate which parents the sentence is talking about.

Do not use commas to set off restrictive elements that are necessary to the meaning of the words they modify. Do not use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet) when the conjunction does not join parts of a compound sentence. Do not use a comma before the first or after the last item in a series, between a subject and verb, between a verb and its object or complement, or between a preposition and its object.

8. Unnecessary or missing capitalization
  • Some Traditional  (traditional) Chinese Medicines  (medicines) containing Ephedra (ephedra) remain legal. 

Capitalize proper nouns and proper adjectives, the first words of sentences, and important words in titles, along with certain words indicating directions and family relationships. Do not capitalize most other words. When in doubt check a dictionary.

9. Missing word
  • The site foreman discriminated against women and promoted men with less experience. 

Proofread carefully for omitted words, and be particularly careful not to omit words from quotations.

10. Faulty sentence structure
  • The information which high  High school athletes are presented with mainly includes information on what credits they needed to graduate, and thinking about the college which colleges to try athletes trying to play for, and how to apply. 

A sentence that starts with one kind of structure and then changes to another kind can confuse readers. Make sure that each sentence contains a subject and a verb, that subjects and predicates make sense together, and that comparisons have clear meanings. When you join elements (such as subjects or verb phrases) with a coordinating conjunction, make sure that the elements have parallel structures.

Copyright © 2008 by Bedford/St. Martin's ISBN-10: 0312-48085-7 / ISBN-13: 978-0-312-48085-1

Packaged with The Everyday Writer, Third Edition, by Andrea A. Lunsford (comb-bound): ISBN-10: 0-312-48097-0 / ISBN-13: 978-0-312-48097-4

Packaged with The Everyday Writer, Third Edition, by Andrea A. Lunsford (spiral-bound): ISBN-10: 0-312-48098-9 / ISBN-13: 978-0-312-48098-1

Packaged with EasyWriter, Third Edition, by Andrea L. Lunsford: ISBN-10: 0-312-48099-7 / ISBN-13: 978-0-312-48099-8








There will be more added to the page soon. I hope you learned a few things from Mr. Butler.