Confessions of an English Tutor: The Two Writing Errors EVERYBODY Makes

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Confessions of an English Tutor: The Two Writing Errors EVERYBODY Makes

Note from Nick: Today’s post is a whopper — It’s a guest post from Jessica Ruane, and it’s a really helpful post if you’re interested in grammar, sentence structure, and the nuts and bolts of writing (and you should be!). Let us know in the comments what you think of this, and if we should continue posting some more content like this!

I was an English tutor at a community college for many years. The school I worked at was the most culturally diverse campus in southern California, and I can honestly say that I’ve seen it all when it comes to good and bad writing. I’ve read plagiarized papers, helped English learners from other countries who were still learning the Roman alphabet, and worked with hundreds of students who freely admitted to me how much they “hate writing”. No matter how different the needs of each and every student was, I started each session by saying, “Writing is an absolute beast, but once you understand what you’re dealing with, it’s easy to tame.”

I’ve read A LOT of people’s writing at every level, from basic ESOL to honors British lit. One day, I realized that I was repeating the exact same instructions over and over because EVERYONE MAKES THE SAME MISTAKES. Whether a student was a Somalian refugee or a 45 year old native English speaker, I kept seeing the same two grammar mistakes over and over. Everywhere I looked there were run-ons and fragments.

I also read a lot of published work. Writers should read when they aren’t writing. To my horror, I realized that my students weren’t the only ones who struggled with the art of a sentence. I found fragments in newspapers and run-ons in my favorite books. So, I decided to do something about it beyond organizing workshops and study groups at my school. I needed to reach a larger audience if I was going to win this war I’m waging against run-ons and fragments. I’m starting my battle with this blog entry. So, without further adieu, here is how to avoid these two super common writing blunders straight from the horse’s (I mean tutor’s) mouth.

Super Common Writing Error #1: The Run-on Sentence

By far, the hands down most frequent grammatical error writers make is the run-on sentence. When we communicate verbally, intuition guides when we pause. This is an efficient strategy for talking, but writers can’t afford to just go with their gut.

When you are writing, if you have two independent clauses that are improperly joined, this is a run-on sentence. Believe it or not, you actually did learn this is elementary school, you just don’t remember. But don’t worry, I’m here to remind you.

What is an independent clause?

An independent clause (IC) is simply a complete sentence. A complete sentence contains: 1) a subject, 2) a verb, and 3) is a complete idea. A common misconception that writers have about run-on sentences is that they are always long. This is not necessarily true. For example: John eats, Joe sleeps. Even though this sentence is only 4 words long, it is still a run-on because it is two independent clauses improperly joined by a comma.

Types of run-ons

There are two kinds of run-on sentences. They are both equally bad.

  1. Fused Sentence: Two independent clauses slammed together with no punctuation. How rude! Our equation for a fused sentence will be: ICIC.
  2. Comma Splice: Two independent clauses improperly joined by a comma. Nice effort, but a comma is not strong enough punctuation to separate these feisty independent clauses. Our equation for a comma splice will be: IC,IC.

Basically the moral of the story here is that independent clauses are like betta fish. If they are too close to one another, they kill each other, and everyone is sad. Give your ICs the space they need by combining them correctly.

How to combine independent clauses

You may be thinking, “Well why don’t you just make each IC its own separate sentence?” You could do that, but stylistically this is a poor solution. It would reduce your writing to short staccato sentences which would make you sound like a third grader. John sleeps. Joe eats. We walk. These technically are grammatical sentences, but you probably want to evolve your writing past elementary school.

  1. Separate independent clauses with a semicolon I almost hesitate to offer this up as a solution because semicolons are one of the most widely abused punctuation tools. You should only use a semi-colon if the ideas in your clauses are highly connected. You could say, “Some people only drink beer; others will drink just about anything.” In this case, the ideas are closely related enough to justify using a semicolon. I always liked to tell students, “Semicolons are like a strong spice. It’s fine to sprinkle a few here and there, but overdoing it will ruin the dish.”
  2. Combine ICs with a coordinating conjunctionYou can use a special type of word called coordinating conjunctions (cc) to combine two independent clauses. The English language contains 7 coordinating conjunctions: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So. A common acronym for remembering coordinating conjunctions is FANBOYS. Insert a comma and a coordinating conjunction between two independent clauses to fix a run-on sentence. For example, “John eats, and Joe sleeps.” Hooray! We fixed our run-on! Our equation for this will be: IC,cc IC.
  3. Make one of your INDEPENDENT clauses a DEPENDENT clauseLike relationships, combining clauses works best when one is independent, and the other is dependent. This creates a nice balance, and avoids power struggles.This can be tricky so please listen closely. A dependant clause (DC) is made by adding a SUBORDINATING conjunction to the beginning of an independent clause.Unlike COORDINATING conjunctions, SUBORDINATING conjunctions are numerous and do not come in a neat little package for us like the FANBOYS acronym.Don’t worry. Stay with me. Examples are coming.

Here are some common subordinating conjunctions:

after notice how just as
although if unless
as lest until
as if in order to when
as long as rather than whenever
as much as now that where
as soon as provided (that) whether
as though since while
because so that why
before than supposing
even if that if only
even though though now that

To review, a dependent clause is just an independent clause with one of the words listed above at the beginning. For example, “Before I lose my mind.” This is a dependent clause because the word “before” is a subordinating conjunction and “I lose my mind” is an independent clause. Subordinating conjunction + independent clause = dependent clause. Our equation for this will be: DC, IC. OR IC DC.

Back to our original run-on. “John eats, Joe sleeps.” This can be fixed by changing it to,  “While John eats, Joe sleeps.” OR “John eats while Joe sleeps.” It doesn’t matter whether the first or second clause is dependent! Just as long as there is one IC and one DC.

** Notice how if the DC comes first, you need a comma. If the IC comes first, a comma is not necessary **

So, to recap there are 4 ways to fix run-on sentences:

  1. Separate two ICs with a period (IC. IC). (I don’t recommend using this strategy very often. However, if you have a lot of long confusing sentences, it might be a good idea).
  2. Separate two ICs with a semicolon (IC; IC).  (Remember to use them sparingly!)
  3. Combine two ICs with a coordinating conjunction (IC, cc IC).
  4. Make one of your independent clauses a dependent clause (DC, IC) OR (IC DC).

Let’s review that again

A run-on sentence is two independent clauses (ICs) that are improperly joined.

  • IC IC = Fused Sentence — BAD
  • IC, IC = Comma Splice — BAD

When independent clauses are properly used, they create grammatical sentences.

  • IC. IC = Third grade writing level, but still grammatical
  • IC; IC = Good
  • IC, cc IC = Good
  • DC, IC = Good
  • IC DC = Good

Super Common Writing Error #2: Fragments

Whew! That was a lot of information! It was necessary to get all that out of the way because you have to understand run-ons before you can tackle the next biggest writing error that English tutors see — FRAGMENTS! I can’t tell you how common fragments are even among professional writers. (I know what intentional, poetic fragments are, but I’m not talking about the kind of fragments that authors write on purpose).

Fragments are simply incomplete sentences or ideas. Although they might not be as complex as run-ons, they are just as distracting for readers.

There are 2 types of fragments

  1. Missing either a subject OR a verb - A complete sentence must contain two things — a subject and a verb. This is not negotiable. Sometimes writers get drowsy and start poppin off periods all over the place. Be careful! Just like run-ons aren’t always long, fragments aren’t necessarily just sentences that are just too short.

Here are some flowery phrases that are still technically fragments:

The long and winding road missing a verb

The girl with gap teeth and a spray tanmissing a verb

Might have been listening to the neighbor’s argument missing a subject

Will have been at the store, down the street and around the corner, for 5 hours, waiting for the pharmacist to fill the prescriptionmissing a subject

These sentence fragments can all be fixed by just adding either the missing verb or subject.

  1. Dependent clausesLike needy people, dependent clauses can not stand alone on their own. You must attach an independent clause in order to complete the idea. Even though it contains a subject and a verb, the subordinating conjunction at the beginning makes the clause dependent on more information in order for it to make sense.

Some examples of dependant clauses are:

Because it was raining outside

Since I don’t have any money

After I lit the house on fire

Before it’s too late

Careful writers! Even though these clauses contain a subject and a verb, they all begin with a subordinating conjunction which means they must have an independent clause attached to them. Let’s give these poor little dependent clauses what they need and attach independent clauses.

Here are some ways we can complete those clauses:

Because it was raining outside, I stayed home.

Since I don’t have any money, I stole his wallet.

After I lit the house on fire, I felt guilty.

Before it’s too late, I need to go back to school.

Remember, it doesn’t matter whether the first or second clause is dependent! We could switch the ICs and DCs around and the sentence would still work.

I stayed home because it was raining outside.

I stole his wallet since I don’t have any money.

I felt guilty after I lit the house on fire.

I need to go back to school before it’s too late.

Isn’t that cool? English grammar can be fun if you understand it! Just remember, if your dependent clause comes first, you need a comma. If your independent clause is first, the comma is not necessary.

Writing is Harder Than Talking

People often mistakenly associate writing and speaking as similar skill sets. The reality is that this assumption cannot be further from the truth. The ability to talk and learn spoken language is something that every person on the planet is hard-wired to do. Speaking is as natural an act to us as walking; it occurs naturally, at an early stage in our lives, and develops without instruction. Unless a person was born with a physical or mental condition that prevented him or her from developing language, every human being is born with an innate ability to speak.

Written language exists on the complete other end of the spectrum. Whereas spoken language is produced spontaneously, written language requires methodical planning and time consuming execution. Spoken language utilizes paralinguistic techniques such as body language and hand gestures to communicate. In contrast, a writer cannot rely on this type of added support to convey a message to an audience. The differences between these two forms of communication are virtually endless, but we can draw a singular conclusion from them. The takeaway here is that writing is a skill that must be taught to us, and comes with a greater level of difficulty. This of course means that there are more opportunities to make mistakes when writing as opposed to speaking. Writing is a process, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Nobody gets it right the first time —  just ask my editor!

Jessica Ruane is a freelance blogger from San Diego, California currently writing for Instant Checkmate. Her primary areas of focus include education and writing. To follow Jessica and Instant Checkmate’s works, please follow her on Twitter or check her out  on LinkedIn.

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  • Daphne Gray-Grant

    This is an excellent explanation of two common errors in English. (Jessica, I agree – I see these mistakes all the time.) But if your students HATE writing, don’t you think it might be because they are scared of making mistakes? This is the type of teaching error that I see all the time!

    I think it’s far more important to encourage students to speak and to write and not to worry about mistakes until they get to the editing stage of their writing. The FEAR of making mistakes is a huge barrier to most writers. It’s important to keep reminding writers that (a) editing is an essential stage of writing, and (b) they should NEVER edit WHILE they write. 

    • http://www.livehacked.com/ Nick Thacker

      I never hated writing for the fear of making errors — it was because I never enjoyed the topic. I can’t remember ever having a “free writing” assignment… it was always a persuasive essay on such-and-such that I didn’t care about.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1072361918 Jessica Ruane

    Hi Daphne, thank you for leaving such a thoughtful comment. I couldn’t agree with you more on the importance of encouraging students to write freely, and without regard to mistakes. At writing center I worked in, we constantly stressed to our students that writing is a process, and that they should strive for progress not perfection in their writing.

    Unfortunately, many students have a lot of fear and insecurity when it comes to their writing. The “teaching error” you mentioned is an all too frequent occurence which leaves students feeling ashamed of their skills, and disconnected in the classroom. I think it is incredibly important that teachers strive to create a safe space within the classroom where students feel supported and comfortable.

    Writing teachers should always reinforce higher order concerns and focus on the ideas being expressed before honing in on grammar and spelling. I have worked with so many students who were victims of a professor’s overzealous use of the red pen and seen how damaging criticism can be to a student’s motivation and progress.

    Thank you for adding to the conversation!
    -Jessica-

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1072361918 Jessica Ruane

    Hi Daphne, thank you for leaving such a thoughtful comment. I couldn’t agree with you more on the importance of encouraging students to write freely, and without regard to mistakes. At writing center I worked in, we constantly stressed to our students that writing is a process, and that they should strive for progress not perfection in their writing.
    Unfortunately, many students have a lot of fear and insecurity when it comes to their writing. The “teaching error” you mentioned is an all too frequent occurence which leaves students feeling ashamed of their skills, and disconnected in the classroom. I think it is incredibly important that teachers strive to create a safe space within the classroom where students feel supported and comfortable.
    Writing teachers should always reinforce higher order concerns and focus on the ideas being expressed before honing in on grammar and spelling. I have worked with so many students who were victims of a professor’s overzealous use of the red pen and seen how damaging criticism can be to a student’s motivation and progress.
    Thank you for adding to the conversation!-Jessica-

  • Liz Carmichael

    Um… It’s – without further “ado” not “adieu”. But you’re not writing about spelling ;)

    • Liz Carmichael

       I should add that everything else makes total sense, and how to fix these grammatical errors is made clear.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1072361918 Jessica Ruane

        Thanks for the correction, Liz! It has been duly noted. :)

        • http://www.livehacked.com/ Nick Thacker

          Thanks for the awesome post, Jessica! It’s been pretty well-received!

      • http://www.livehacked.com/ Nick Thacker

        Thanks Liz — it’s always hard to catch everything, you know? Thanks for dropping by!

  • http://3throughhistory.blogspot.com/ Ronald Fischman

    Alas! Writing for the typical community college audience distorts the imagination; Steinbeck would have been SO busted in this classroom! Any discussion of run-ons and fragments should include counter-examples; i.e., And the water pooled on the cracked earth.  Here is an example from The Grapes of Wrath that combines with a series of improper sentences to create a sense of dread and even panic that can’t be treated in an essay on basic grammar!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1072361918 Jessica Ruane

      I completely agree Ronald. But I would argue that you must understand the rules before you can manipulate them. Intentional fragments (like the beautiful example you gave) are very effective but only when the writer has complete and utter contol over their prose.

      Gotta learn the rules, and then you can break them!

    • http://www.livehacked.com/ Nick Thacker

      Love this!

      Thanks, Ronald!

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