Common Errors in Sentence Construction

Common Errors in Sentence Construction

Being able to put together a coherent sentence is a vital part of any piece of formal academic writing.

Errors in the sentence construction will not only make your paper difficult to read but also significantly lower your respect ranking. To help you ensure that your writing is error-free, we've put together a list of the most common grammatical errors, construction mistakes, and the ways to fix them.

Creating a Perfect Sentence

Before we start, we want to take a look at what makes a sentence.

There always has to be a subject - what it is about, and a verb - what the subject is doing. A phrase that has both of those and can stand alone is 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 or 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 a dependent clause. The clause "After the boy ate dinner" cannot stand alone even if it has a subject (boy) and verb (ate) because it is not a complete thought (what followed after the boy ate dinner?). Dependent clauses cannot stand alone and have to accompany an independent clause to make a complete sentence. You could complete the above 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 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 attached 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.

  1. Incorrect
    • The girl wanted to get a dog, her brother wanted to adopt a cat.
  2. 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, meaning they can't be joined with just a comma.

  3. 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, highlight a sentence in your paper where you have two parts joined with a comma. If both parts can stand alone on their own, then it's a comma splice.

Run-on sentences

Independent clauses that are strung together without any sort of punctuation are run-on sentences. Those can be fixed by dividing them into separate ones by using a conjunction or adding a semicolon.

  1. Incorrect
    • Dinner is ready we'll be eating in just a few minutes.
  2. Both "dinner is ready" and "we'll be eating in just a few minutes" are independent clauses that can exist as complete sentences, thus they can't be joined without the correct punctuation.

  3. 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

There are the clauses that lack a subject or a verb and are therefore not complete on their own. They should be rewritten as complete. A sentence fragment may be a dependent clause that can be combined with nearby sentences to remove errors.

  1. Incorrect
    • Ashley hasn't arrived yet. The girl who's bringing the cake.
  2. 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 complete, it should be rewritten.

  3. Correct
    • Ashley, the girl who's bringing the cake, hasn't arrived yet.
  4. Incorrect
    • There are lots of mistakes. If you look closely at her work.
  5. Again, "if you look closely at her work" is not complete. Every sentence with an "if" needs a consequence, i.e., if something occurs, what goes next?

  6. 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 combined 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.

  1. Incorrect
    • You should bring a flashlight hiking boots and a camera.
    • You should bring, a flashlight, hiking boots, and a camera.
  2. The first example is missing all the needed commas. The second example has an unneeded comma before "flashlight," the first item in the series.

  3. 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 certain keywords 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Incorrect.
    • She gave to him.
  • Direct objects receive the action of the verb. The direct object in the sentence above is missing, thus 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 common 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.

A sentence with multiple subjects joined by "and" is considered plural.

  • Incorrect.
    The chair and the table is for sale.
  • Correct.
    The chair and the table are for sale.

Subjects that use either/or and neither/nor are considered singular.

  • Incorrect.
    Either the chair or the table need to be moved.
    Neither the dog nor the cat have been fed.
  • Correct.
    Either the chair or the table needs to be moved.
    Neither the dog nor the cat has been fed.

When a group is acting together, the verb should be singular.

  • Incorrect.
    The class are going to be meeting early next week.
  • Correct.
    The class is going to be meeting early next week.

There may be many individual people in the class, but here the class is acting as a single unit.

  • Incorrect.
    Members of the football team is allowed to leave class early on Fridays.
  • Correct.
    Members of the football team are 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.

The modifiers each and every (i.e., each student in the class; every girl on the team) take a singular verb.

  • Incorrect.
    Every customer in the restaurant know what the specials are.
  • Correct.
    Every customer in the restaurant knows what the specials are.

Appositive phrases

An appositive phrase is a 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. It is necessary that they are set apart in a sentence by commas before and after.

  • Incorrect.
    The boy's father a doctor at the city hospital rushed to make sure he was alright.
  • Correct.
    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.

Train Yourself to Be Grammar Savvy

These are only a few of the all possible mistakes, but there are countless other nuances you need to pay attention to when you are in the process of creating your text (relative clauses alone are scary!). Simply memorizing the textbook rules is not enough! You have to put theory to practice, constantly evolving and building yourself to be an expert in academic writing.

Start by proofreading not only your own texts but also everything you notice around you. Develop a habit of reading when you're commuting because it sure needs analysis!

Signs and posters, ads in the subway, popular and scientific magazines, etc. The latter will be particularly useful for you as these journal articles utilize the language you need to implement in your own writing. They also touch on topics you can benefit from. Many things at the beginning of such publications have the most relevant and helpful insights into the world of grammar and information about everything you may need! The result of the study of these sources will do a lot of good for you!

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