Common Sentence Errors and How to Avoid Them

Explore the nuances of sentence errors in writing, distinguishing between their detrimental impacts in professional contexts and their educational value in learning. This article summarizes common sentence errors, presents tips for identifying errors in your own work, and revisits Mina Shaughnessy's influential views on error handling in basic writing, highlighting the importance of errors in the developmental process of writing skills

An illustration of a professor looking up from his phone to see a student's text: "Let's eat grandpa!" This illustration highlights a punctuation error and its humorous potential for misunderstanding.

What are Sentence Errors?

Sentence errors are deviations from the norms of Standard Written English, including grammar and mechanical rules, that disrupt the clarity, coherence, and flow of discourse. These errors violate established discourse conventions, affecting the text’s brevity, unity, and simplicity. By failing to adhere to grammatical standards and mechanical precision, such mistakes make it challenging for all readers to grasp the intended message and hinder the text’s ability to engage effectively within the academic and professional contexts where these standards are expected.

What Are Common Sentence Errors?

  1. Run-On Sentences:
    • Definition: These occur when two or more independent clauses are connected improperly without appropriate punctuation or conjunctions.
    • Error: “She enjoys blogging it is a way for her to share her ideas.”
    • Corrected: “She enjoys blogging because it is a way for her to share her ideas.”
  2. Sentence Fragments:
    • Definition: Fragments lack a subject, a verb, or a complete thought, making them incomplete and confusing.
    • Error: “Even though she loves reading.”
    • Corrected: “She bought a new book even though she already loves reading.”
  3. Comma Splices:
    • Definition: This error involves using a comma to join two independent clauses without the aid of a coordinating conjunction.
    • Error: “He writes every day, he does not publish often.”
    • Corrected: “He writes every day, but he does not publish often.”
  4. Parts of Speech Errors:
    • Definition: Mistakes in the use of parts of speech can alter the meaning of a sentence or make it grammatically incorrect.
    • Error: “She adapted quickly to the cold weather.” (Assuming ‘adapted’ is used incorrectly instead of ‘adjusted’.)
    • Corrected: “She adjusted quickly to the cold weather.”
  5. Parts of a Sentence Errors:
    • Definition: Errors in constructing complete sentences, such as missing subjects or predicates.
    • Error: “Running into the room, the painting was crooked.”
    • Corrected: “Running into the room, she noticed the painting was crooked.”
  6. Modification Errors:
    • Definition: Misplaced and dangling modifiers. Misplaced modifiers are not clearly connected to the word they modify, and dangling modifiers have nothing to modify.
    • Misplaced Modifier Error: “She nearly drove six hours to see her friend.”
    • Corrected: “She drove nearly six hours to see her friend.”
    • Dangling Modifier Error: “After reading the novel, the movie was disappointing.”
    • Corrected: “After reading the novel, she found the movie disappointing.”
  7. Parallelism Errors:
    • Definition: Failing to maintain the same grammatical structure in a list or series.
    • Error: “She likes cooking, jogging, and to read.”
    • Corrected: “She likes cooking, jogging, and reading.”
  8. Coordination or Subordination Errors:
    • Definition: Improper use of coordinating or subordinating conjunctions can create unclear or awkward sentence structures.
    • Error: “He wanted to go for a walk, but it was too cold, so he needed a coat.”
    • Corrected: “He wanted to go for a walk but needed a coat because it was too cold.”
  9. Diction Problems:
    • Definition: Using the wrong words or phrases can lead to unclear or incorrect expressions.
    • Error: “He did good on the test.”
    • Corrected: “He did well on the test.”

How Can I Identify Sentence Errors in My Work?

  1. Reading Aloud:
    • Reading your text aloud can highlight awkward phrasing, run-on sentences, or fragments that are less obvious when reading silently.
  2. Understanding Error Types:
    • Learn about common errors like run-on sentences, comma splices, and sentence fragments. Recognizing these will help you quickly spot and correct them in your writing.
  3. Error Highlighting:
    • Use colors to mark different types of errors—yellow for punctuation mistakes and blue for subject-verb disagreements. This method helps isolate issues, making them easier to manage.
  4. Practice with Examples:
    • Regularly work on exercises that contain deliberate errors. Correcting these can enhance your ability to identify and fix similar mistakes in your own writing.
  5. Pattern Recognition:
    • Pay attention to the errors you often repeat. For example, if you frequently misuse commas, make a mental note to double-check comma placement in future drafts.
  6. Sheet of Paper Technique:
    • Cover your text with a sheet of paper, revealing one sentence at a time as you read. This technique forces you to focus on each sentence individually and can greatly increase your attention to detail.
  7. Seek Feedback:
    • Get input from peers, coworkers, and mentors. Fresh eyes can often catch mistakes you might have overlooked.
  8. Set Specific Goals:
    • Define clear, attainable objectives for each editing session, such as correcting verb tense errors or ensuring that all lists maintain parallel structure.

Are Errors Always Bad?

Sentence errors are often perceived negatively because they can obscure meaning and disrupt communication. In professional and academic contexts, frequent errors might suggest a lack of professionalism or attentiveness, potentially undermining the writer’s credibility. Errors may also be viewed as an indicator of a writer’s educational background, signaling a lack of understanding of Standard Written English norms.

This perception is based on the expectation that written communication in formal settings should adhere to established grammatical and syntactic standards to ensure clarity. Errors in such environments can become problematic, leading to misunderstandings or confusion, and may cause the reader to question the writer’s competence or thoroughness. For instance, in business communications, academic papers, or published works, maintaining high linguistic correctness is crucial as it directly impacts effectiveness and professionalism.

However, it’s important to recognize that in the context of learning, as discussed by Mina Shaughnessy in her work “Errors and Expectations,” errors made by basic writers are not necessarily a sign of incapacity but are typical of beginners learning a complex skill. These errors are part of the learning process where writers begin to internalize the conventions of written language. Educators are encouraged to view these errors as opportunities for teaching and clarification, rather than mere failures. Shaughnessy’s approach suggests that errors should be used constructively in educational settings to guide teaching strategies and help students improve their writing skills.

“Students make errors in the process of learning, and as they learn about writing, they often make new errors, not necessarily fewer ones. But knowing basic grammatical terminology does provide students with a tool for thinking about and discussing sentences. And lots of discussion of language, along with lots of reading and lots of writing, are the three ingredients for helping students write in accordance with the conventions of standard English.”

NCTE’s Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar,
Some Questions and Answers about Grammar, NCTE

Thus, while sentence errors can indeed hinder clarity and thus be seen as ‘bad’ in formal and final writing contexts, they are not ‘bad’ in the educational sense where they serve as useful indicators of a student’s current understanding and challenges. Recognizing and addressing these errors can lead to improved skills and confidence in writing.

Recommended Resources

CCCC Statement on Ebonics. Conference on College Composition and Communication. 6/30/21

Students’ Right to Their Own Language. Conference on College Composition and Communication. (April 1974, reaffirmed November 2003, annotated bibliography added August 2006, reaffirmed November 2014)

Why is Grammar Important? NCTE Position Statement (National Council of Teachers of English. 7/1/2002.


NCTE’s Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar. Some Questions and Answers about Grammar, NCTE. 71/2002

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