Between grammar, mechanics, and style, there are plenty of different ways for students to mess up their writing. Since the full list of mistakes is far too long to cover in a blog article, let’s focus on the 10 most common mistakes made in English (at least, in my experience).
The Top 10 English Errors
1. Run-on Sentences
A run-on sentence is a sentence and then some. It has too many clauses and goes on for so long that’s it’s hard for the reader to understand.
There are a couple of different ways students fall into this trap. The most common way is to join clauses incorrectly. Here’s an example.
- WRONG: After chasing its tail for an hour, the puppy rolled over and collapsed on the ground, it fell asleep immediately.
- RIGHT: After chasing its tail for an hour, the puppy rolled over and collapsed on the ground. It fell asleep immediately.
If students put energy into learning how to join clauses correctly, this common English error will be a thing of the past.
2. Run-on Paragraphs
Run-on paragraphs are like run-on sentences on a larger scale. They’re what happen when a paragraph has too many sentences in it and too many topics. Think of a page with one paragraph filling it. It’s not only hard to follow – it’s so intimidating that most people won’t even try.
Paragraph breaks are essential for writing a piece that’s easy to read and understand. Using them when the topic changes should help students avoid pages of single paragraphs. If that doesn’t help your child, remind him or her that most paragraphs should be about 3-5 sentences long as a rule of thumb. After some practice, he or she can go back to the rule of changing when the topic does.
A fragment is an incomplete sentence (the opposite of a run-on sentence). Fragments usually happen when students start a sentence with a conjunction:
- WRONG: And that’s why most teachers forbid students to start sentences with “and,” “but,” or “because.”
- WRONG: Because that’s when they write incomplete sentences and don’t even know it.
Both of these examples would be complete sentences if they didn’t start with “and” or “because.” Unfortunately, since most people don’t speak in complete sentences, it’s hard for students to recognize these errors. To add to that confusion, it’s pretty common to write with some fragments online (including blogs like this one) and in popular fiction, so it’s what students read, as well.
How can they unlearn these habits? The good news is that learning their clauses and how to join them correctly will help solve this mistake, too (That’s 2 mistakes solved by learning one topic!). Once they learn about clauses, students just have to learn when to use formal versus informal writing. As long as they know to use formal writing at school, they should be fine.
4. Using Big Words Incorrectly
I know that having a good vocabulary is seen as a plus (and I’m not disagreeing); however, because students know that a broad vocabulary is impressive, they often try to use big words for the sole purpose of impressing their teachers or parents.
The problem occurs when they use a word but don’t know what it means. Using a big word incorrectly is less impressive than using a small word correctly.
Maybe, if students hear that enough, they might believe it and remember.
5. Bad Support
Most students struggle with making a point and supporting it. One reason they have trouble is that they tend to get locked in on writing a long quote from the passage or research (which is rarely necessary). I’ve also seen them pick “support” that doesn’t help prove their point, and they often completely skip relating the support to the point (No, it’s not enough to write a quote or fact next to the opinion.).
Solving this one is a little more complicated because there are multiple causes. My best recommendation is to have them practice supporting their thought. Then discuss with the students what they did right and what they did wrong. With the A Grade Ahead English material, I tell my students to compare their answer to the one in the answer key and look for patterns – why was the answer key’s answer better?
6. Circular Reasoning
Logic errors abound in student writing, which is yet another reason that supporting is difficult for them. It’s also why logic puzzles and other exercises that build reasoning skills are so important. This particular one is the most common logic error seen when students try to support an opinion. Instead of using actual support, they try to support the opinion with that opinion.
- WRONG: Diversity is important in schools because it gives students experiences with different cultures. Those experiences are not possible without a diverse student group, which is why diversity is so valuable.
The second sentence is repeating an idea from the first sentence using different words. It does not actually introduce any new information as written, but students do this all the time.
The answer, again, is practice. Students need to practice their logic skills and critical thinking. They also need to practice evaluating support, so working on the last issue will help this one, too!
7. Tense Shifts
When a story shifts from past to present and back when it isn’t supposed to, it gets pretty confusing for a reader. The continuity of when all the parts happened changes, and nothing makes sense.
As a rule, if a story or article starts in a tense, it needs to stay in that tense. The only time that should change is when the narrator begins to discuss an event that happened at a different time than the rest of the story.
8. Pronoun Shifts
The reason pronoun shifts are one of the most common mistakes made in English is that avoiding them requires 1. understanding how pronoun antecedents work and 2. paying close attention to the words that come before the pronoun.
- WRONG: Linda sent her report to Mrs. Worth, and then she started on her chores.
With the way this sentence is written, “she” actually refers to Mrs. Worth. The reader either makes an assumption or is left wondering whether “she” is supposed to mean Mrs. Worth or Linda. Longer sentences with more people involved become even more confusing, which is why understanding and correcting pronoun shifts can be very important.
Some students have an incomplete understanding of how pronouns work, so it’s hard for them to catch errors even if they look. Other students do understand but don’t look. The first step to fixing this problem is reviewing pronoun antecedents, and the second step is to check the writing for errors.
9. Homophone Errors
Homophone errors are the bane of every English-lover’s online existence. They show up on social media posts, in blog articles, in texts, and even in student papers.
Homophones are words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings. Here are some of the worst offenders:
- to / too / two
- your / you’re
- their / they’re / there
- lose / loose
- lay / lie
Most of these can be remembered with a simple tip or definition. For example, when you mean “excessively,” use “too” because it has too many o’s. Another tip is that pronouns never have an apostrophe when they’re possessive – “you’re” and “they’re” are contractions that mean “you are” and “they are.”
If students learn these tips and definitions, they should have little trouble remembering which homophone to use!
Not an English mistake? I beg to differ. In fact, I would say that this is the number one error of all the most common mistakes made in English – when students don’t use the writing skills and knowledge they have.
For example, many students don’t
- punctuate correctly.
- use descriptive language.
- plan their writing.
- research more than 2 sources.
- At all.
I’ve seen students consistently miss the periods at the end of sentences. I’ve seen them use the same subject for every vocabulary sentence and no adjectives or phrases (Until the teacher steps in and makes them). I’ve seen them skip planning and write stream of consciousness with tangents instead of logical support. I’ve seen students use the same resource over and over and completely skip editing.
These are all skills and rules that they have been taught. Many of them take little to no energy. The biggest problem with them, however, is that skipping them makes it hard for the teacher to understand the student’s true skill level. Is the student confused or lazy? It’s not always easy to tell, and assuming one way or the other can lead to other complications.
This one’s not as easy to solve, and the solution is going to vary by student. For some, it helps to remind them that they don’t have to follow formal writing rules all the time – just long enough to do their homework. For others, you might try the idea of putting a little more effort in up front to avoid a lot of work later. And some, honestly, need to know that someone is going to check their work and that there will be repercussions if they’re not doing their best. You know your student(s) better than I do, so pick a method you think fits him or her best.
Well, there you have it. The 10 most common mistakes made in English. Were you surprised? What English mistake does your child make the most?
Author: Elizabeth F., Writer and Teacher at A Grade Ahead