Loyola University Chicago

English Tutoring at the Literacy Center

Common Writing Problems & How to Fix Them

Thanks to Professor Allen Frantzen for this extensive guide.

GRAMMAR. A guide to modern English grammar is available.
CITATIONS. Guide to writing correct citations
QUESTIONS? Email J Heckman at jheckma@luc.edu.

Here are brief descriptions of common writing problems. Check them and email any questions you have about how they apply to your work.  You may be required to rewrite certain sentences showing that you understand and can make the necessary corrections. Your paper may have two grades, lower and higher. If you make satisfactory corrections to the problems singled out in comments at the end of the paper, the higher grade will be recorded; if you do not make the corrections, the lower grade will be recorded. The corrections will be due one week after the date on which papers are returned. Problems marked with * will be especially important to correct.

*1. Agreement
2. Awkwardness
*3. Citation style
*4. Clichés
5. Combining sentences
6. Comma splices
*7. Dangling modifiers
*8. Documentation
9. Dummy subjects
10. Edit for economy
11. Emphasis
12. Evidence
*13. Fragments
*14. Generalizations
15. Nominalization
*16. Paragraph design
*17. Parallels
*18. Parenthetical phrases
19. Passive voice
*20. Possessives ('it's')
*21. Pronouns
*22. Punctuation
23. Repetition
24. Redundancy
*25. Run-on sentences
*26. Quotations
*27. Quote marks
28. Subjunctive
*29. Plot summary
30. Thesis & plan
31. Titles
32. Topic vs. thesis
33. Transitions
34. Word choice

   1. Agreement

Check carefully for errors in agreement; don't shift person (especially third person [he, she, it] to second [you]); number, or tense, without reason. If you are using the singular, stick to it unless you have cause to switch to the plural. Example: Everyone should know what they want. Correction: Everyone should know what he or she wants. Watch collectives—e.g., the Socialist Party is "it" not "they"; General Motors is "it" not “they.” Switches in tense are very annoying: "She drove to the mall and looks around for a store."

   2. Awkward constructions

Awkward constructions contain errors in logic or are so imprecise that they can't be readily understood. Sometimes a sentence is awkward because a key term is obscure—e.g., you write that "the poem follows a decision-type format." What is that supposed to mean? If you know what it is supposed to mean, then say it  clearly. Awkwardness is not only a matter of incorrect expression—although errors are awkward, of course. Awkwardness usually indicates a gap in expectations between you and your reader, created when you say something you don't need to, or fail to say something you should, fail to explain something completely. Very often a sentence is marked "awkward" because it is too long; the sentence can perhaps be divided into two sentences for clarity.

   3. Citation Style

Please pay special attention to how you handle quoted material. Look at  a citation style sheet and follow it carefully for books, articles, and websites. Avoid using filler in your citations: e.g., In her article, "The Triumph of Time," Mary McGregory discusses the last act of Hamlet. The reader can see that "The Triumph of Time" is an article (because the title is in quotes; if it were a book, it would be in italics). But why does the reader need to know the title in any case? Include the title only if the location of the reference has something to do with your argument (e.g., if the author said one thing in a book, another in an article, or something like that). Just write, for the above, Mary McGregory discusses the last act of Hamlet. That's all you're saying. My response: "And?" 

   4. Clichés, trite expressions

Trite language belongs to everybody and therefore to nobody in particular, especially not to you.

The #1 cliché in undergraduate writing in English classes is that "the author sends a message." Authors are not radio stations; they communicate complex ideas in complex ways. Only propaganda sends "a message"—and even then it is very difficult to control meaning so tightly that only one "message" is sent. Even a t.v. commercial sends more than one "message." Texts don't "send messages" so much as readers find "messages" in them—but even so, do all readers find the same "message"? It is odd, in this age of the individual, to find students automatically reducing a complex work of art to a single statement—as if everybody who read a text found the same "message" in it; as if the "message" one person found were the only "message" to be found. Do you really think so? There are better ways to address the main point you think the author is making, the argument the author makes, the author's rhetorical objective, and so on. As soon as you get away from the mechanical model (sends a message), you have to think about what you want to say the author is doing.

The #2 cliché in undergraduate writing in English classes is that someone "could / could not identify with" a character. Characters are tools; you should think of a character as an "it," not a "he" or a "she." A character is a device used by an author for manipulating ideas and for setting ideas and emotions into a fictional context. You can or cannot "identify" with the character, as you wish, but you should realize what you are saying, which is that you do or don't agree with what the author is using that character to say and / or show. If you think "identify with" means anything else, you're suggesting that you think literary characters are real people. Literary characters might have been real people once, but they aren't when you are reading about them. In general, trite expressions are revealing of an uncritical disposition. For example, people may "iron out their differences," may "drift apart," may find revising their essays "as easy as rolling off a log." But these tired expressions simply replace your own thoughts and reactions with prefabricated slogans and catch-phrases. Your language should be appropriate to your subject, and it should be your own. The stuff of great satire, after all, is a scene in which characters speak in nothing but clichés—all form, no content.

   5. Combining sentences

Combine short sentences into longer, more varied structures; avoid choppy effects. Example of choppy effects: "This is the ultimate difficulty. It developed from the evasion of responsibility for decades. Now the price has to be paid. We must come to terms with the it." Try something like: "This, the ultimate difficulty, developed because our predecessors evaded their responsibilities for decades. Now we have to pay the price." Note that subordinate clauses help combine sentences—here instead of a list of short sentences we get a clear cause/effect process.

   6. Comma Splices

Independent clauses, or complete sentences, should not be strung together with commas. A comma cannot ordinarily separate two independent clauses (i.e., complete sentences). That error is called a "comma splice." For example, "The book is on the desk, it once belonged to my father." or "The merchant repeats himself many times, he does not have a good memory." The comma in each example should be replaced with a semi-colon or period; a dash is also possible—but not always recommended. Or, remembering that variety in sentence length and rhythm is important, use subordination: "The book, which once belonged to my father, is on the desk." "Because he often repeats himself, we see that the merchant does not have a good memory."

   7. Dangling modifier

A modifier dangles when it does not modify the noun which immediately follows it. You might as well have written, "Looking out the window, the leaves began to fall" or "Sitting in the bathtub, the telephone rang." The introductory elements, "Looking" and "Sitting," cannot modify "leaves" and "bathtub." Leaves do not look and telephones do not sit in tubs. Keep these admittedly silly examples in mind, especially if your sentence is something like, "Reading the poem carefully, irony shows what the author intended." Irony does not read poems. "Reading the poem carefully, we see that the author's irony suggests is intent."

   8. Documentation

Be sure that you understand the documentation system, MLA, used in this course; never manufacture your own style for notation. If you do not understand the system we are using, please ask; you are assumed to understand and have a copy of the Department of English statement on use of sources. Be warned that documentation is expected whenever you cite some else's words or ideas. There are ample warnings on the syllabus about fair use of other people's work and academic dishonesty. You are responsible for asking questions if you are unsure about fair use of sources; you cannot plead ignorance. By attending class once and signing in, you indicate that you understand and agree to abide by Department and University regulations on use of sources. No excuses. Plagiarism is academic dishonesty and will result in a student’s failing the paper or the entire course.  See the Department of English website for examples of what is and what is not the correct use of sources.

   9. Dummy subjects

Be careful about overusing dummy subjects—beginning sentences with "It is" or "There is/There are"; these are "dummy" subjects because they stand in for real subjects. The reader should not have to guess what your "it" refers to or where your "there" can be found. Sometimes it is not easy to avoid the dummy subject—perhaps this sentence is a case in point, but I could have written, "Sometimes the dummy subject is not easily avoided"—a bit shorter and more compact. When you see that you use "It is" or "There is/are" often, rethink the sentence and try to eliminate the dummy subject.

   10. Edit for economy

Edit for economy. Learn how to omit needless words and get to the point. For "She fell down due to the fact that she hurried" write "She fell because she hurried." Be concise; don't take ten words when you need only five. But being concise does not mean being abrupt; say only what needs saying, but say all that needs to be said. Wordiness results from redundant expressions and/or repetition; both problems can be corrected once you realize that you must search for them. Note too that wordiness may result from uncertainty about what you want to say. Learn to recognize this "exploratory style" as a stage in writing a good sentence, as part of the process, but not the final form. Revise the evasive, indecisive quality out of your prose.

   11. Emphasis

Structure sentences so that the important words and ideas stand out. Put important ideas and words in slots which stress their value. Sometimes by reversing the order of clauses you can shift the focus of the sentence to the main idea away from a less important one. For example, "We learn that he values nothing more than success when we see him kill his own brother." This sentence would be more emphatic if we reordered the clauses: "When we see him kill his own brother, we learn that he values nothing more than success" (emphasis falls on "brother" and "success").

   12. Evidence

Your paper must supply evidence for your argument. In the main, this should come from the primary text/s you cite. If you think a passage reveals an important idea about the aspect of the work you discuss, you should cite it. Just as it's important to avoid paraphrasing a work (summing up its plot), it's important to select evidence carefully (don't string quotes together one after another to fill up space with redundant examples). Your paper must argue the details of the text, not general ideas; the more detailed the evidence, the more persuasive the case. Your evidence will reveal your sensitivity to language and how authors use it.

   13. Sentence fragments

A fragment is a group of words or a phrase (a dependent clause) used as if it were a complete sentence (an independent clause). A fragment can be a dependent clause—a clause which must depend on, be connected to, a main or independent clause to form a complete sentence. "His first novel." is a fragment; "It was his first novel." is a complete sentence. "That he would leave soon" is a dependent clause and a sentence fragment if used as a complete sentence. "He decided that he would leave soon" is complete—here the dependent clause, "that he would leave soon," is linked to an independent clause ("He decided"). Sometimes fragments are used for effect—as in "She left the house in good order. Or so she thought." But don't take a chance unless you're sure you need the effect of the fragment. See #1 above.

   14. Generalizations

General statements have the unexpected effect of undercutting the writer's authority and causing the reader to question his or her judgment. "Since time began," one might write, "women have been deprived of all their rights." One would immediately focus on the word "all" and take exception to such a statement—the sentence tries to claim lots of ground but overreaches, and in the end it has very little authority; "since time began" is another gross generality: a statement about all time is likely to require qualification. General statements tend to be abstract, categorical, and liable to be false.

   15. Nominalization

Reduce wordiness by writing with strong verbs rather than weak verbs and nouns. Verbs should convey the main idea and action of the sentence. Using nouns to name actions and weak verbs when strong verbs could carry the action (and meaning) of the sentence is called "nominalization." Instead of saying "The resolution to the problem can be seen in author's attempt to reconcile..." try: "The author resolves the problem by reconciling..." Here, "resolves" replaces "resolution" and accompanying baggage.

   16. Paragraph design

Every paragraph needs a central idea; the definition of a paragraph is A distinct passage or section of a discourse, chapter, or book, dealing with a particular point of the subject, the words of a distinct speaker, etc., whether consisting of one sentence or of a number of sentences that are more closely connected with each other than with what stands before and after. (Oxford English Dictionary) A paragraph a page long does not have ONE key idea but probably contains several somewhat related ideas run together. Examine the structure of every paragraph before you hand in a paper. What's the topic sentence? How do subsequent sentences relate to it?

   17. Parallel constructions

Employ parallel constructions for parallel ideas. Parallel constructions are easy to read and often express ideas elegantly and effectively. Strive to create them when they serve your purpose. Example: "His objective was to win, but playing fair also mattered to him." Correction: "His objective was not only to win, but also to play fair." Make nouns parallel to nouns, verbs to verbs: "The author shows the reader the path to being virtuous rather than to vice." Correct: "the path to virtue rather than to vice."

   18. Parenthetical phrases and restrictive clauses

Parenthetical expressions—phrases in apposition to a subject or to another phrase—must be set off by TWO commas, not one. For example, "In the third chapter, which he actually wrote first, the author claimed to have discovered the cure for cancer." (Incorrect: "In the third chapter, which he actually wrote first the author . . . .) The "which" clause is set off by commas correctly here. These are also known as "nonrestrictive clauses" since they do not define the noun modified but add extra information.

   19. Passive voice

Watch overuse of the passive voice (structures in which the subject receives rather than initiates or performs the action: The ball was caught). Sometimes the passive is necessary and helpful, but too often it is abused and it obscures the real subject and action of the sentence. The passive voice also becomes general and vague. It's usually better to write about people who do things than things which are done by an undefined somebody, especially if the whole point of writing is to write about people who ACT. "The ball was caught" may be the better way in some contexts, but "She caught the ball" describes the meaningful action more effectively.

   20. Possessives and plurals

Contractions are a matter of correctness rather than style. The plural of man is men, and the possessive of men is men's, not mens'. Don't confuse "it is," contracted as "it's," with "its," the possessive adjective. Example of the confusion: The cup lost it's handle. For "it's" here read "its." Don't confuse the possessive with the plural, either: Example: The boy's came home late. Read "boys." The possessive of "their" is theirs, not "their's."

   21. Pronouns

Beware of vague or confusing pronouns and antecedents. Is it clear to what or to whom pronouns refer? Is the referent suppressed? Example: The disaster was reported in the papers. They still didn't act. Who is "they"? Not papers, surely. If you write "Government officials still didn't act" the reader understands. Be careful, when you begin sentences or paragraphs with "This," that the reader knows which noun "This" refers back to—if I've written "This what?" in the margin, it means that the referent is either vague or unnamed (that it exists somewhere in your mind, perhaps, a collective "This," rather than on paper). The test? Always supply a noun to follow: "This point," for example, "This issue," or whatever. Get into the habit of questioning your use of "This" in the sentence-initial position.

Make sure that a pronoun refers back to the correct noun and that the pronoun is not ambiguous (if two men have just been named, "he" could refer to either one of them. Make sure that you use "who" to refer back to people and "that" to refer back to things. "The woman who wrote the book," not "The woman that wrote the book."

   22. Punctuation

Ordinarily, use commas only where you pause when reading a sentence aloud: "Williams' first book, was very successful." No need for a comma there. Use a semi-colon (;) as you would a period, not a comma. Use a semi-colon to separate items in a list or to separate two closely related independent clauses, not a dependent and an independent clause. Correct: "Williams wrote several books; none of them, however, were as successful as the first." Incorrect: "Williams wrote several books; The Triad being first. Do not isolate a dependent clause by putting a semi-colon ( ; ) before it, e.g., "He walked to school; a triumph over fear." Instead: "He walked to school—a triumph over fear." Use a comma, a colon ( : ), or (less often) a dash ( — ) to integrate that dependent clause into your sentence; a semi-colon is a full-stop, closer to a period than a comma.

   23. Repetition

Edit for economy; remove repetitious words and phrases. Repetition undercuts the progress of the paper and causes the reader to lose interest. Look at each sentence in isolation from its context and learn to identify the new information a new sentence adds to the one before. When there isn't enough—or any—new information, you are repeating the old.

   24. Redundancy

Avoid redundant and obvious expressions. Don't tell the reader what he or she doesn't need to know. Example: "In our modern world of today...." or "The author begins with an introduction...." "Today" and "modern" overlap, and so do "our" and "modern." Likewise, "In Twain's first chapter, he argues . . ." ("Twain's first chapter argues," or "In the first chapter, Twain argues . . . .). Other examples: "Both Smith and Jones took different views of the war." or "Both Smith and Jones took the same view of the war." Both/different and Both/same are redundant. Since Smith and Jones are different people, the reader assumes that they took differing views and has to reread the sentence to see if something has been missed (it hasn't, except by the author-as-editor). Try, "Smith and Jones took different views of the war." Or, "Smith and Jones took the same view of the war."

Another example: "For his young readers, the author must avoid intimidating them by taking too much for granted." Here, "For his young readers" and "them" are redundant. Try: "The author must avoid intimidating young readers by taking too much for granted."

   25. Run-on sentences

Example: Run-on sentence are series of short sentences linked by "and" or some other conjunction these are very annoying to the reader they are easy to fix. Revised: Run-on sentences are series of short sentences linked by "and" or some other conjunction; annoying to the readers, they are easily fixed.

   26. Quotations

Two points here:

* 1) See the citation guide on punctuating quotations. Indent quotes of 5 lines or more; don't italicize them, shrink the font, or anything else; just indent them. If you indent, use quotation marks ONLY if the material is dialogue or direct discourse (otherwise the quotation marks are redundant). In every case, integrate quotations into your prose. Don't turn your paper into a patch-work in which your voice suddenly stops, and, without a transition, another voice begins. Such devices as "According to . . ." and others are useful in bridging your prose and the prose you quote. If you quote a sentence or two from any source, enclose the quoted material within quotation marks (" ") and give the page number outside the quotation marks. Example: The narrator says that Janice stood "at six feet,"with "shining eyes, blond hair, and a warm smile" (323). Do not write "smile, p. 323," since the narrator did not say "page 323." Omit any sentence punctuation before the parenthesis. EXAMPLE: "a warm smile," (323). Omit that comma!

* 2) Use single quotes ( ' ' ) only when you quote something inside a quotation ("The smith objected to the 'silly' game he was forced to play," Austen wrote); you might see single quotes used throughout some articles, but those articles are following a British style sheet, not an American style sheet; British and American usage is exactly the opposite in this matter.

See also the special link to citations above. A note about citations from web sources: If you are quoting SEAFARER, you only need to cite module and part (e.g., Magic, Narrative, part 1; or Rank, Lexicon). For non-Loyola University Chicago-based material (excepting Anglo-Saxon.net), give the full web address: http://www. —and so forth. Web sites cited will be checked.

   27. Quote marks

Avoid random quotes to set off imprecise or trite language, e.g., Elizabeth might be the queen, but this scene shows that she doesn't "get it." "Get it" is loose slang; try to express this more precisely. She doesn't understand, or doesn't grasp the importance of something. If you use quotation marks, make sure you are quoting a source. Don't use quotation marks to "telegraph" to the reader that you aren't exactly sure what you mean or to allude to a slangy or loose definition and leave matters there.

   28. Subjunctive mood

Learn to distinguish the subjunctive mood from the indicative. The indicative refers to facts, the subjunctive to conditions contrary to fact. Example: "If I were you, . . ." (correct); "If I was you, . . ." (allowed conversationally, but "were" would be better).

   29. Summarizing the plot?

Don't summarize the plot. Summary has a purpose, but only a limited one, in a critical paper; the objective of a critical paper is analysis of the material from a certain perspective. Unless the reader knows what will be argued—which is to say, unless an analytical objective is in view—he or she will have no context for an elaborate discussion of plot summary. Short summaries are necessary to support arguments; but you should expect in this case that your reader knows the material about as well as you do. Set up critical framework that clarifies the objectives of your paper; then, where necessary, fit brief summaries into that framework.

   30. Thesis and plan

Two points here:

1) Every paper must have an identifiable thesis statement. That statement can be more or less direct, but it must be prominent in the paper's first paragraphs. Failure to provide a thesis statement is a strong indication that the paper is a description or a summary rather than an argument. A topic is something you write about; a thesis is an argument about a topic.

2) Along with a thesis, your paper should always convey a plan for pursuing the thesis. It is better to be mechanical (safe) than arbitrary and unclear (sorry) when you indicate the direction of your argument to the reader. A good thesis statement does not necessarily suggest how the argument will be organized. It might seem mechanical to write "First I will, and then I will, etc.," and you can always revise that kind of writing out of later drafts. However, a good structure helps the reader grasp the main points of the paper. Less mechanical ways of generating a plan include such phrases as, "By comparing X to Y in three key instances, I will show that . . .," "In order to explain this claim, I will focus on two aspects of X," and so forth. (Most teachers do not have a phobia about using the first person pronoun, by the way; they expect you to write in your own voice.)

   31. Titles

Be sure you title your paper. A good title will suggest that the paper has a specific focus and will say something about the thesis. Never title a paper something like "Second paper" or "The House of Mirth" (or whatever is the name of the novel or short-story or poem you are writing about). That shows a sad lack of imagination and effort.

   32. Topic vs. thesis

Distinguish a topic—which is simply a subject—from a thesis. A topic can be complex and still be a topic: the need to repent and save the soul is a topic, not a thesis. The need to save the soul before death and judgment is still just a topic. A topic is something we discuss or argue or debate; it is not, itself, an argument, but you can't have an argument without it. A THESIS is defined as "A proposition laid down or stated, esp. as a theme to be discussed and proved, or to be maintained against attack (in Logic sometimes as distinct from HYPOTHESIS; in Rhetoric from ANTITHESIS) 2); a statement, assertion, tenet" (OED). Note: "To be discussed and proved." A thesis requires proof. What proof does "the need to save the soul" require? None. Does any source in Old or Middle English literature say that the soul does not need to be saved? What, then, is there to argue about? If you use a topic as your thesis, all you will do is summarize the work or explain what it already explains (see #23 above, Plot summary).

   33. Transitions

One of your major tasks is to let the reader know what your paper will attempt, and how you will go about it. The reader should not be in doubt about the direction your paper takes. Connections between sentences and between paragraphs should be unambiguously clear, for in order to make those connections, you need transition markers to indicate contrast or qualification; illustration; ("for example, for instance"); development ("furthermore, again also"); conclusion or result ("Consequently, Therefore"), and so forth. Your direction should always be apparent to the reader.

   34. Word choice

The reader depends on the writer's ability to choose words carefully, to say exactly what he or she means. If word choice is inexact, the reader will easily form the wrong impression. And even if the reader can second guess the writer, and think to himself, "Oh, this must mean ——," the reader has a right to be annoyed: he or she shouldn't have to do the writer's work. Be sure you know the meanings of the words you use and be sure that they are appropriate to the context (not too informal or slangy, not pretentious or fancy). Sometimes word choice is a problem because the words are used incorrectly; sometimes word choice is merely inappropriate. Reading aloud is a good way to test word choice. "Unique" is a special case. Remember that you cannot qualify "unique": something either is, or is not, unique, and uniqueness does not come in degrees like smallness does—"quite unique, very unique," and so forth.