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Common Errors, Sentence Construction

Common Errors in Sentence Construction

Nov 01, 2012 - Posted to  Writing in General
Being able to put together a sentence is a vital part of good writing: errors in sentence construction will not only make your writing difficult to read, but will also make it hard for readers to take you seriously. To help you ensure that your writing is error-free, we've put together a list of the most common sentence construction errors and shown you how to fix them.

How to make a sentence

Before we get started, let's take a look at what makes a sentence. Every sentence needs to have a subject - what the sentence is about - and a verb - what the subject is doing. A phrase that has both those things and can stand alone as a sentence is called an independent clause.
This can be something as simple as "The girl jumped". To make the sentence more specific, you can add other parts of speech like prepositions, appositives, adjectives, adverbs, and direct/indirect objects: "The girl, who was on the track team, jumped over the hurdles easily".
A clause that has a subject and a verb but is not a complete sentence is known as a dependent clause. The clause "After the boy ate dinner" cannot stand alone even though it has a subject (boy) and verb (ate) because it is not a complete thought (what happened after the boy ate dinner?). Dependent clauses cannot stand alone and have to be attached to an independent clause in order to make a complete sentence. For example, you could complete the above sentence by saying "After the boy ate dinner, he went to his room to play". In this example, "he went to his room to play" is an independent clause.
Many of the sentence errors below result from putting clauses together incorrectly. Independent clauses should be joined with a conjunction and a comma or with a semicolon. Dependent clauses are usually joined to independent clauses

Comma splices

When two independent clauses are joined together with a comma it's an error known as a comma splice. To fix a comma splice, add a conjunction (e.g., and, but, or) after the comma or remove the comma and add a semicolon.
Example 1:
Incorrect
The girl wanted to get a dog, her brother wanted to adopt a cat.
Both "The girl wanted to get a dog" and "her brother wanted to adopt a cat" are independent clauses that are complete sentences on their own, so they can't be joined with just a comma.
Correct
The girl wanted to get a dog, but her brother wanted to adopt a cat.
The girl wanted to get a dog; her brother wanted to adopt a cat.
To look for comma splices in your work, look for all the sentences in your paper where you have two parts joined with a comma. If both parts can stand alone as their own sentence, then it's a comma splice.

Run-on sentences

Independent clauses that are strung together without any sort of punctuation are run-on sentences. Run-on sentences can be fixed by dividing them into separate sentences, using a conjunction, or adding a semicolon.
Example 1:
Incorrect
Dinner is ready we'll be eating in just a few minutes.
Both "dinner is ready" and "we'll be eating in just a few minutes" are independent clauses that can stand alone as complete sentences, so they can't be joined without the correct punctuation.
Correct
Dinner is ready. We'll be eating in just a few minutes.
Dinner is ready, and we'll be eating in just a few minutes.
Dinner is ready; we'll be eating in just a few minutes.

Sentence fragments

Sentence fragments are clauses that lack a subject or a verb, and are therefore not complete sentences on their own. They should be rewritten as complete sentences. Often, sentence fragments are dependent clauses that can be combined with nearby sentences to remove errors.
Example 1:
Incorrect
Ashley hasn't arrived yet. The girl who's bringing the cake.
The phrase "the girl who's bringing the cake" isn't a complete sentence because it's missing a verb (what did the girl who's bringing the cake do?). Because it's not an complete sentence it should be rewritten.
Correct
Ashley, the girl who's bringing the cake, hasn't arrived yet.
Example 2:
Incorrect
There are lots of mistakes. If you look closely at her work.
Again, "if you look closely at her work" is not a complete sentence. Every sentence with an "if" needs a consequence, i.e., if something happens, what happens next?
Correct
If you look closely at her work you'll see there are lots of mistakes.

Misplaced commas in a series

When three or more items are listed in a series they should be joined by commas that follow each item except the last one. The comma that comes before the conjunction (known as the Oxford comma or serial comma) is optional: some style guides require it while others allow it to be left out. If it's needed to clarify the meaning of the sentence it should be included.
Example 1:
Incorrect
You should bring a flashlight hiking boots and a camera.
You should bring, a flashlight, hiking boots, and a camera.
The first example is missing all the needed commas. The second example has an unneeded comma before flashlight, the first item in the series.
Correct
You should bring a flashlight, hiking boots, and a camera. [with Oxford comma]
You should bring a flashlight, hiking boots and a camera. [without Oxford comma]

Missing words

Sentences can be incomplete if key words are missing. Below are examples of words that are commonly left out, leading to sentence structure errors. If you're having trouble identifying the missing words, try saying the sentences out loud to see if you can hear the mistakes.
Example 1:
Incorrect
She opened oven and took out bread.
This sentence is missing indefinite articles (a/an/the). Nouns (in this sentence "oven " and "bread") will almost always need one of these articles to make the sentence complete.
Correct
She opened the oven and took out the bread.
Example 2:
Incorrect
By the time she arrived the party, all the food was gone.
Prepositions are words that describe the spatial or temporal relationship between two things. This sentence is missing the proposition "at" which is almost always paired with the verb "arrive".
Correct
By the time she arrived at the party, all the food was gone.
Example 3:
Incorrect
She gave to him.
Direct objects receive the action of the verb. The direct object in the sentence above is missing, so the sentence is incomplete (what did she give to him?).
Correct
She gave the ball to him.

Subject-verb agreement

Verbs need to be conjugated to match the subject of the sentence. Sentences with multiple subjects are a commons source of subject-verb agreement errors. Collective nouns (nouns that describe a group of people or objects) are another common source of subject-verb agreement difficulties.
Example 1:
Incorrect
The chair and the table is for sale.
A sentence with multiple subjects joined by "and" is considered plural.
Correct
The chair and the table are for sale.
Example 2:
Incorrect
Either the chair or the table need to be moved.
Neither the dog nor the cat have been fed.
Subjects that use either/or and neither/nor are considered singular.
Correct
Either the chair or the table needs to be moved.
Neither the dog nor the cat has been fed.
Example 3:
Incorrect
The class are going to be meeting early next week.
When the group is acting together, the verb should be singular. There may be many individual people in the class, but here the class is acting as a single unit.
Correct
The class is going to be meeting early next week.
Example 4:
Incorrect
Members of the football team is allowed to leave class early on Fridays.
If the members of the group are acting separately, then the verb should be plural. Here, the members of the team are being counted as individuals.
Correct
Members of the football team are allowed to leave class early on Fridays.
Example 5:
Incorrect
Every customer in the restaurant know what the specials are.
The modifiers each and every (i.e., each student in the class; every girl on the team) take a singular verb.
Correct
Every customer in the restaurant knows what the specials are.

Appositive phrases

An appositive phrase is series of words that modify a noun but which cannot stand alone as its own sentence. Appositives are added to independent clauses, meaning if you take them out the original sentence is still complete. They should be set apart in a sentence by commas before and after.
Example 1:
Incorrect
The boy's father a doctor at the city hospital rushed to make sure he was alright.
The phrase "a doctor at the city hospital" is an appositive phrase that describes the boy's father. It cannot stand alone. Because it is inside the complete sentence "the boy's father rushed to make sure he was alright", it should be set apart by commas.
Correct
The boy's father, a doctor at the city hospital, rushed to make sure he was alright.
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