In an effort to provide students with information they can use to make a difference right away in their writing, it’s time to present the Top Ten most common student writing problems.
These are entirely my rankings; they have no scientific or statistical validity whatsoever. I have noted the prevalence of these problems in the hundreds and hundreds of papers and essays I have encountered, not only in my role as writing specialist for ASAP students, but also in more than thirty years as writing teacher and coach, both in and out of academe. I have a hunch that most writing teachers would agree, if not with the exact order of these items, at least with the things I’ve included.
The Top Ten
Contrary to David Letterman’s practice, I’m going to begin with Number One; we will get to the rest of the list in future Wordworks.
Number One: Run Ons
A sentence is a single idea. Some person or thing does something to some other person or thing. (Or some person or thing is whatever he/she/it is.)
“Run On” sentences happen when two ideas are joined together-in a single sentence-without sufficient notice to the reader. They are confusing.
“Listening is a skill and listening skills allow us to make sense of what other people are saying.”
This probably the most common form of run on sentence. Two ideas, “Listening is a skill.” and “Listening skills allow us to make sense of what other people are saying.” are combined using the word “and”.
The fix is simple: put a comma (and the “and”) after the first idea. So:
“Listening is a skill, and listening skills allow us to make sense of what other people are saying.”
“Listening is a skill, listening skills allow us to make sense of what other people are saying.” (You need the “and”.)
“Listening is a skill listening skills allow us to make sense of what other people are saying.” (You need the comma and the “and”.)
BUT YOU COULD, if you wanted to, use a semicolon instead of the , and:
“Listening is a skill; listening skills allow us to make sense of what other people are saying.”
“For some folks, travel is a trip to Europe or to a far away lush resort and others consider travel a two-hour car ride to Mom’s house.”
“For some folks, travel is a trip to Europe or to a far away lush resort, and others consider travel a two-hour car ride to Mom’s house.”
“For some folks, travel is a trip to Europe or to a far away lush resort; others consider travel a two-hour car ride to Mom’s house.”
How amazing would it be if you could take a few minutes before a test to write about your fears? Sounds lame, doesn’t it? Well, what if the process of writing about your fears actually helped you get a better grade on the test? Doesn’t sound that bad anymore does it? According to a University of Chicago study published in the journal Science, students can improve their performance on exams, by writing about their worries just before they take a test. The article is based on research supported by the National Science Foundation.
If you would like to read the entire article you can click on the link below:
Wordworks Quiz I
Certain words and expressions are so often used wrongly that what they really mean gets lost. Here’s a little quiz involving some of those. Give yourself a star if you get all six right!
Answers: 1. b.; 2. c.; 3. a.; 4. b.; 5. d.; 6. a.
“Mnemonics” are little tricks that help us remember stuff. My piano teacher, for example, made me learn the lines and spaces of the Treble Clef: Every Good Boy Does Fine (EGBDF) were the notes represented by the lines, and FACE were those represented by the spaces. (It’s still not clear to me that every good boy does indeed do fine, but, whatever . . . )
Similarly, most of us memorized the little rhyme (“Thirty days hath September . . . “) without which our calendar watches would be hopeless. And who didn’t learn the alphabet as a song?
The nuns taught us the mnemonic for “principal”: the princiPAL of the school is your “pal”, so principal means the leader or the first in rank. (It can be a noun or an adjective.)
“He was fortunate to be promoted from principal to superintendent.” (noun)
“Her principal reason for relocating was to be near her son.” (adjective)
“Principle”, the homonym, means fundamental law or belief or rule. (It can only be a noun.)
“The did their best to base the new online curriculum on sound pedagogical principles.”
Using the right one of this pair also involves remembering which part of speech each one is. Simply: “advice” is a noun; “advise” is a verb.
When you give advice to your daughter, you advise her.
The two words look at things from opposite points of view.
“Comprise” is essentially the equivalent of “embrace”. While “compose” suggests “is an ingredient in” or “is part of”.
“The Center for Professional Studies at Keuka College comprises ASAP and International Programs.”
“ASAP and International Program compose the Keuka College CPS.”
An iconic magazine ad for the Volkswagen Beetle shows a tiny car in the upper left hand corner of an all-white page. At the bottom of the page is the headline, “Think Small.” The idea that something so small could deliver big benefits was exactly tuned to counteract the conspicuous consumption represented by the gas guzzling behemoths coming out of Detroit back then. They sold a lot of cars. Here’s the ad.
Generally speaking, the simpler and more direct you can make your writing, the better it will be. There is real power in brevity. That observation extends to words, too.
Two-letter words, in fact, can carry quite a load of meaning, more than you might imagine for such little things. They can also make our writing crisper and more interesting to read.
(By the way, I was astonished to learn that “Aa”, “Jo”, “Ka”, and “Ta” are legal Scrabble words. Who knew?)
This little word can do a lot of work, making it clear that one thing follows from another. For example, when you’ve finished quoting or referring to a source in a research paper, start the next sentence with “so” to make it clear you’re done with the source and are now drawing your own conclusions.
“The average American child spends more than 40 hours per week watching television” (Holmes & Watson, 2006, p. 18). So it’s not that surprising that academic performance has been declining.
It is always clearer and more precise to make positive statements: expressing what is rather than what is not. “No” allows us to express negatives positively, as it were.
“He did not have any more patience with the situation.”
“He had no more patience with the situation.”
“Thomas Hardy did not write any novels after Jude the Obscure.”
“Thomas Hardy wrote no novels after Jude the Obscure.”
Expressing cause and effect can sometimes be tricky. Perhaps the simplest way is by using “as”.
“As more than half of the class failed to show up, the instructor had no choice but to cancel.”
(Beware of the colloquial “being that” or “being as”; they are conversational, but should never be used in formal writing. “As” does the job admirably.)