The 3 Most Common Errors in Writing in English

While writing affords an infinite number of ways to make mistakes (such as tone shifts, mood shifts, problems in pacing and plot for fiction, problems in logic and support for non-fiction, and so on), there are three areas that account for more than their fair share of errors in writing in English, from the perspective of one who has graded thousands of pieces of student writing (that is to say, my perspective!!!).

These errors are confusing shifts in point-of-view, unjustified verb tense changes, and careless mistakes with the little words.

1. Confusing shifts in point-of-view. As writers know, point-of-view (or perspective) is one of the most valuable tools for conveying mood, tone, meaning and purpose. The most commonly used perspectives are 1st person singular (I) and third person (either omniscient or limited). Rarely is a serious work in 2nd person (you); this is used mostly for ads and instruction manuals "You should try the new Coca-Cola"; "You now insert tab A into slot B."

Advantages of 1st person singular include immediacy, the ability of the reader to easily identify with the author, and instant informality. Here are the first sentences of the novel Rebecca:

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . . I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions . . . There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand."


Advantages of 3rd person, on the other hand, include the establishment of authority, the ability to show events from more than one point of view (either limited to one or two characters, or omniscient, which means all-knowing), and a more formal tone. Here are the first sentences of the Book of Genesis:

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. ... "

The Opening of Genesis Chapter 1 from a 1620-21 King James Bible by Classical Steve
What's annoying to the reader is the unnecessary shifting of point-of-view, jumping from one to another with no explanation or transition. (look for an example of such shifting in this post!!!) Some books use multiple narrators for a reason; the Poisonwood Bible is narrated by a mother and her daughters, to show a family in a crisis of imperfect communication. Each chapter is headed accordingly, so the reader is not lost between voices.



Shifting perspectives in error, for no purpose, can occur when an author rewrites a book, or parts of it, and overlooks the original point-of-view; it also can happen when a text is written in sessions and the author forgets to reread what's already written. In any case, a bit of careful proofreading should correct this very common error.

2. Unjustified verb tense changes. With 12 verb tenses, English offers just the right tense for every need. Consider sentences such as "After I moved to India, when I had no longer been living in Bolivia  for six months, I received a phone bill. This burns me." Four verbs, in three tenses, in two sentences. Why not say "After I had moved to India"? Look it up! Anytime a writer is describing actions in the past that either continue into or affect the present, verb tense becomes complex. "I have been living with James in Australia for two years, and I had not noticed his lies." Is this sentence possible? Perhaps while giving testimony in court? If there's room for doubt, look up all verb tense choices (try http://www.chompchomp.com/).

3. Careless mistakes with the little words. All the little words that connect the heavy hitters in sentences need to be the right little words, or the sentence is misleading or awkward. Often writers focus on the heavy hitters: verbs and adverbs, nouns and adjectives. "He talked animatedly about his new game". "Her devastating smile won many hearts." But without the correct use of connecting words (conjunctions--and, but, etc.), transitional words (conjunctive adverbs--then, still, and so on), prepositions (words that indicate relationships in time and space--on, in, after, before, and so on), and articles (special adjectives--a, an, the) sentences are dead in the water (this is a boat metaphor). To bring meaning to a sentences involves more than stringing together pretty phrases. A sentence has much in common with a train, in that the words (cars) need to be in the right order or the train cannot function correctly (this is a train metaphor). Such silly errors as repeating a little word ("Jamie went to see the the Who") should get caught by spel-chek (an abominable word, but a handy tool) but sometimes slip by (this is personification).

Japanese Shinkansen 500 train
So...proofreading after writing should uncover most instances of all three of these common errors, but does not. Reading aloud is usually the best way to find them, as the ear may hear what the eye may not see; reading is based on visual pattern recognition rather than reading each word individually--the brain sees groups of letters and changes them into word groups, according to fixed patterns, and can be fooled. Of course, this method works best for people who routinely speak with correct grammar and usually converse with other people who do the same.

In any event, carelessness in these areas can bring a good piece of writing to ruin. It's worthwhile to make a particular effort to be sure written work does not contain any of these three common errors.






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