A Few Egregious Language Errors Which Every
Educated Person Should Recognize and Eliminate; or,
Watch Out ... He’s Got a Comma Splice Around His Neck!”

by T. E. Roberts, Instructor
University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee

Updated 19 February 2011

Listed here are some common errors found in student assignments. Details on such matters may be found in the online handbook (http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/), and in standard writing manuals. While some errors result simply from writing in a hurry or missing a mistake in proofreading, others may represent a deeper misunderstanding. Respect for language customs and conventions is as much a mark of education as the ability to perform simple mathematical calculations. Tolerance for these and other errors will diminish as the semester proceeds. I allow some leeway on the first assignment so that students can become familiar with expectations in the course. Repeating an error from one assignment to the next may lead to what I call “severe loss of instructor patience” (SLIP).


Š          Comma splice: this means joining two independent clauses together with a comma; this often happens when the word “however” is used. An easy fix is to begin a new sentence with “However” and separate this word from the other words with a comma. “However, he missed the plane.”

Š          Apostrophe: this seemingly unimportant punctuation mark can create confusion if not used correctly. If used in “it’s,” it means “it is.” When referring to possession, “its” never has an apostrophe.

Š          Hyphen: this is needed in compound modifiers such as “end-of-century art movement” or “Bush-influenced domestic policy.”

Š          Dash:  a space plus two hyphens and a space ( -- ). This can be used to introduce an amplifying phrase, or to join two clauses. Example: “The student saw a major opportunity in graduating early -- he could begin his career immediately.”

Wordiness: Writing concisely takes perception to see alternative ways to express a thought, and practice to eliminate unnecessary words. In addition to passive-voice verbs, common phrases that contribute to wordiness are these:

- due to the fact that
- in light of the fact that
- being that

- there (is) (are)
- under these circumstances
- the reason is because

Pronoun References: A common error in student writing is the use of they, their, them when a singular pronoun (he, his, him) is needed. This often occurs after indefinite pronouns such as anyone, everyone, someone, no one, each one. Each of these is singular and requires a singular reference. Modern teachers and editors, recognizing concerns about “sexist language,” may insist on the awkward he/she, his/her, him/her combination in such cases, but I find these forced pairs awkward and bureaucratic-sounding. Use either the masculine or feminine, but not both. Contrary to some feminists’ claims, the masculine he/him/his historically has nothing to do with male biological identity; it simply refers to “a person.” It appears “masculine,” but only in an archaic sense of grammatical gender. This is still evident in languages such as German, which assigns a masculine gender to “moon” (der Mond); the French do just the opposite, calling the moon feminine (la lune). Considering these “genders” in the same way a person is male or female is absurdly ignorant.

Better yet, convert the reference into a plural to eliminate the problem. Instead of “Any person who goes into business for himself/herself ...” write “People who go into business for themselves ...” Another pronoun reminder: in formal professional writing, use that or which to refer to ideas and objects and who or whom to refer to persons.

Subject-Verb Agreement: In U.S. English, a collective noun such as “group” or “band” takes a singular, not plural, verb. It also takes a singular, not plural, pronoun. Other collective nouns treated as singular include company, organization, and management. Example: “The management of ABC Corporation has ensured its survival by use of the golden-parachute tactic.” The British favor just the opposite usage, but don’t let this confuse you; the British claim to have originated English, but in fact English began in the 5th century A.D. as an obscure West German dialect spoken (not written) by a small invading tribe of crude, illiterate, violent, and scruffy Germanic people known as the Anglo Saxons (the ancestors of today’s English soccer fans). Look it up.

Parallelism: When listing items using bullet points or as a series in a sentence or paragraph, put these items in parallel grammatical form. See http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/parallelism.htm for advice and examples. Don’t mix verbs and nouns in such a list.

General Usage Tips

Š          In prose, spell out as words all numbers ten or smaller; use the word percent, not the percent sign (%). An exception to this practice is allowed in a table or chart.

Š          Use either/or, neither/nor, and between only with two items of comparison, never three or more. Use the word among for three or more.

Š          Differentiate ensure, insure, and assure. We ensure a result, we insure an auto against damage, and we assure a person of his safety.

Š          Distinguish between the verbs serve and service. The latter refers to the process of having the oil changed in your car ... or to bringing a bull and cow together in unholy matrimony. If you say your company services customers, you may lose business.

Š          Learn how the verbs effect and affect differ. To effect means to bring about: “The dean effected an important change in the way office space was allocated.” To affect means to influence: “The actor’s performance in Hamlet deeply affected me.” Don’t confuse the noun forms of these words! (See dictionary.)

Š          Spell out an acronym the first time it is mentioned in your submission so the reader knows what it refers to.

Š          Alot vs. a lot: The first is a common misspelling of the second; it's too informal for professional writing.

Š          Between you and I vs. between you and me: The pronoun “me” is required because it is the object of a preposition; using “I” in writing or speaking will brand you as ignorant.

Š          Lay vs. lie: These verbs are confused even by supposedly educated speakers and writers, so those who understand their proper use will be a step ahead; “lay” is normally used as a transitive verb (one that takes a direct object); for instance, “If you lay your head on the pillow, you'll fall asleep”; “lie” is an intransitive verb and thus cannot have a direct object (“If you lie down on the bed, you'll fall asleep”). More confusion: “lay” is the past tense of “lie”: today he lies in a ditch -- yesterday he lay in bed.

Š          Hopefully vs. it is hoped or I hope: This confusion is commonplace but still a sign of ignorance; “hopefully” means “full of hope,” as in “She looked hopefully upon the teacher as a source of forgiveness for her goofing off all semester.”

Š          Who's vs. whose: The first one is a contraction of “who is” or “who has”; the second is a possessive relative pronoun.

Š          There vs. their vs. they're: these homophones are commonly confused; the first is an expletive or adverb; the second is a third-person plural possessive adjective; the third is a contraction of “they are.”

Š          Your vs. you're: The first is a second-person possessive adjective; the second is a contraction of “you are.”

Š          Number vs. amount: The first is used as a collective noun referring to countable items (as in “the number of hours in a day”); the second is a collective noun referring to uncountable items (as in “the amount of lust generated by excessive testosterone”).

Š          Different from vs. different than: The first is standard in U.S. English; the second is preferred by the British. (And don't spell “than” as “then”!)

Š          Verbal vs. oral: The first refers to any communication expressed in words, whether written or spoken; the second refers only to communication expressed in speech. “Verbal agreement” in reference to a spoken agreement is simply wrong.

Š          Imply vs. infer: Only a speaker or writer can “imply”; only a reader or listener can “infer.

Š          Use a colon (:) to introduce a list or amplifying statement; use a semicolon (;) as if it were grammatically a period (full stop). Use a colon after a heading only when what follows begins on the same line as the heading.

Š          The basic rules on comma usage can be learned in about one hour of simple reading, analysis, and memorization. Start here: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/607/1/

Š          Avoid misplaced modifiers: distinguish “He was only in the room a short time” from “He was in the room only for a short time.”

Š          Don’t misuse “like” as a discourse particle in writing or speaking. RIGHT: “He wrote like an angel and talked like a sailor.” WRONG: “The prof was, like, weirded out, dude, when I, like, turned in my stuff late.”

For additional tips, see these links:



1. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.

2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.

3. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.

4. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.

5. Avoid clichés like the plague. (They’re old hat).

6. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.

7. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.

8. Be more or less specific.

9. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.

10. No sentence fragments.

11. Contractions aren't necessary and shouldn't be used.

12. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.

13. Do not be redundant; do not use more words than unnecessary; it's highly superfluous.

14. One should never generalize.

15. Comparisons are as bad as clichés.

16. Don't use no double negatives.

17. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.

18. One-word sentences? Eliminate.

19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.

29. The passive voice is to be avoided.

21. Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary.

22. Never use a big word when a diminutive one will suffice.

23. Kill all exclamation points!!!

24. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.

25. Profanity is for assholes.

26. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth shattering ideas.

27. Use the apostrophe in it's proper place and omit it when its not needed. [“it’s” = “it is” | “its” = possessive form of “it”]

28. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."

29. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it effectively.

30. Puns are for children, not for groan readers.

31. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.

32. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.

33. Who needs rhetorical questions? [A rhetorical question is one asked for effect or to emphasize a point, not to solicit an actual answer].

34. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

35. Proofread every space and letter carefully to see if you any words out.