“How to Not Write Bad,” Excerpts

My recent book How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Errors and the Best Ways to Avoid Them started out as a series of notes I wrote and posted over the years. Here’s a sampling.

Over two decades of teaching writing, it’s been my experience that most errors fall into a limited number of categories. Interestingly, the categories I’ve observed are not the same as the ones that tend to be listed in most writing-instruction books. For example, such books usually talk about double negatives. I don’t believe I have ever had a student (improperly) use a double negative.

In this space, I propose to list the most common mistakes, category by category, along with some explanation of why they might come about and some suggestions on how to correct them. Many of the illustrations will come from or be adapted from actual student writing.

The document has two main sections. The first, “Errors,” has to do with punctuation, diction, or grammar I believe to be actually wrong. So it’s more or less black and white. The second, “Problems in Style,” gets to more gray areas.

I. Errors

A. Punctuation

1. Commas

a. Gratuitous Comma.

Students seem to reach for a comma whenever they feel any anxiety about a sentence’s syntax, when they find themselves using an unfamiliar word, or when they take a breath: “Approximately, fifteen percent of the class are minority group members.” “Smith described the concert as, ‘a blast.’” “He shares a house with three, senior, pre-med students.” “Class president, Joe Rockwell, presented the award.” “While walking down Main Street, it is hard to ignore all the girls, cradling Coach pocketbooks and wearing giant earrings.” Except for the one after “Main Street” (which leads into a dangling modifier), all the commas in those sentences need to go.

A fairly new but very powerful trend is the insertion of a comma after “And,” “But” or “Yet” when one of these is the first word in the sentence: “But, the president presented a different viewpoint.”

b. Missing Comma.

Really, really common is the omission of a comma after an appositive or a parenthetical phrase. “All residents of Wilmington, Del. were issued paper bags in which to place their leaves”; “Prof. Jackson, who joined the faculty in 1978 is on sabbatical this year.” My students leave out the comma after “Del.” and “1978” at least as much as they (correctly) put it in, and maybe even more so.

Almost as common is neglecting the comma before an adverbial phrase, as in “The football team won yesterday[,] ending a five-game losing streak.”

c. Comma Splice

When I started teaching fulltime, about twenty years ago, the error that I was most struck by was the comma splice, that is, the linking of clauses with a comma instead of a period, semicolon or conjunction. For example: “He was not always this extreme, in fact he started out as a moderate.” These are going stronger than ever; consistently, about a quarter of my students are habitual comma-splicers. Currently quite popular is the incorrect use of however as a conjunction roughly synonymous with but: “The majority of students go away on spring break, however some stay at home.”

2. Semicolon

I’ve learned to pretty much count on it: Virtually any time a student uses a semicolon (s.c), the use is wrong. Sometimes the better choice would be a dash (“More than twenty species were found on the island; an unusual discovery), sometimes a comma (“Although she was unsure what to do after flunking out of school; she eventually came to terms with it”), and sometimes a colon (“Some students’ jeans look like they’ve fallen into a construction site; covered with holes, bleach spots and even some paint”). In fact, there are only two situations where an s.c. is called for. The first is a sentence where the s.c. separates two clauses: “I walked home; the door was locked.” The second is a series where one or more of the elements. “The cities he’s visited include New Rochelle, N.Y.; Sacramento, Cal.; and Tulsa, Okla.” In any other cases, when the urge to use a semicolon comes over you, please lie down until it goes away.

3. Dash. The main problem with dashes is the way people type them. The way to do it is to do two hyphens in a row (that’s the key to the right of the zero, lower case). No space before or after the dash. Most or all word processing programs will magically transform the two little horizontal lines into a single longer one–like this.

4. Quotation marks.

a. Single Quotes

In America (things are different in the United Kingdon), there is only one reason–ever–to use single quotation marks: a quote within a quote. For example, “The guy came up to me and said, ‘Your money or your life.'”

b. Punctuation Inside/Outside Quotation Marks

Again, the rules are different in the U.K. but here, commas and periods always go inside quotation marks, whether the marks are being used to indicate a statement or a title. Thus:

“I’m going home,” he said.
Last night we saw “Hello, Dolly.”

Colons and semicolons go outside the quotation marks, as in:

We saw “Hello, Dolly”; it was really good.

Confusingly, for question marks and exclamation points, the placement depends on whether the sentiment they represent is part of the quote or title, or of the larger utterance. So,

Can you believe he said, “I hate you”?
I absolutely love “Gone with the Wind”!
Bill said, “Will you marry me?”
Charles Kingsley’s most famous novel is “Westward Ho!”

For more on the use of quotations and quotation marks, see “Yagoda’s Rules for Quotes,” elsewhere on this site.

B. Grammar and Syntax

1. Dangling modifiers.

“By including several charts along with the story, readers are encouraged to understand the longterm trends.” “Being the most spectacular event in the nation, newspapers were obligated to devote major coverage to the hurricane.” “By reversing the color scheme, the eye is captured.” “Claiming to be a simple man leading an ordinary life of a male as he enjoys watching football with his buddy’s, Smith’s lifestyle is far from ordinary.” (For buddy’s, see Spellcheck Errors, below.)

The problem in those sentences (and I apologize if I seem to be stating the obvious) is that readers didn’t include the charts; newspapers were not the most spectacular event; the eye doesn’t reverse the color scheme; and Smith’s lifestyle didn’t claim to be a simple man.

An interesting thing about dangling modifiers is that a rather select group of students commits them: the minority who would even attempt such a complex sentence. Another interesting thing is that, much more so than the other errors on my list, they show up in well-respected publications, such as The New Yorker (“Like a bad French movie, Jones’s life began to intersect with [another person’s]…”), The New York Times Book Review (“rather than providing the meticulous examination of the process of looking …, we are treated to rhetorical flights that provide little perspective of any useful kind”) and The Chronicle of Higher Education (“Having made it successfully through all three gantlets, all of the rejections I experienced along the way have become only vague memories”).

C. Diction, or Choice and Use of Words

1. Spellcheck errors.

If these existed twenty years ago, the only perpetrators were very early adopters. Today, of course, spell-check utilities lull students and others into a false sense of security, leaving homonyms or near homonyms of the intended word unsullied by a wavy red underline. Cataloging this kind of mistake can be great sport; I treasure the article about a board of education meeting that mentioned the “Super Attendant of Schools,” the one that talked about a “sequence-covered dress,” and the one on drug problems that referred to a “heroine attic.”

If you stare at them long enough, some of these actually seem to make a kind of sense, as in “The storm wrecked [as opposed to wreaked] havoc.” One student wrote, “You can get a descent car for $2000”–but that seems an awful lot for an auto that only goes downhill. In an essay on the episode where Dick Cheney accidentally shot a friend, a student wrote, “The ranch owner reported the incident to local papers rather than the White House Press Core [corps],” and someone else reported, “ My friends and I watched last episode of ‘Friends’ for the final fair well.”

And some such errors are so inviting that they now outnumber correct usages, at least in my students’ work. I expect to read that something peaks (rather than piqued) the interest, that a person poured (rather than pored) over a book, that an action lead (rather than led) to negative consequences. That’s not even getting into all the homonymic apostrophe confusion described in “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”: who’s/whose, it’s/its, you’re/your, buddy’s/buddies.

It’s very hard to avoid making this kind of mistake, for the simple reason that you probably won’t know that you’re making a mistake. My suggestions are, first, if you have any doubt about the spelling of a word, DO NOT RELY ON SPELLCHECK. Consult a dictionary, preferably a paper one, and check not only the spelling but the definition. Second–and this is the best overall advice for people who want to become good writers–is read as much edited prose as you possibly can. (If you’re just reading blogs and e-mail, you will just encounter a lot of the same mistakes.)

2. Wrong word. The spellcheck errors get the headlines and the laughs, but a more common and insidious problem is word choices that are off, sometimes by just a hair, sometimes by a Beatles wig and a full beard. Too often, reading student papers is like listening to a routine by Norm Crosby, the malapropeptic comedian who referred to having a good “rappaport” with a like-minded friend. Here are some real-life examples, with what I guess to be the right word in brackets:


  • “Of the many things the students aspired [expected] to see, a terrorist attack was not one of them.”
  • “…the drop in candidates can be accredited [attributed] to…”
  • “Stories about the hurricane invade [dominate] the entire first section of the newspaper.”
  • “No one can blame [accuse] John Henrickson of being an apathetic college student.”
  • “The vast proportion [majority] of students is enrolled in the College of Arts and Science.”
  • “She said it was her father’s participation in the Army which possessed [inspired, motivated] her to join the College Republicans.”

Then there’s this one, which seems to encapsulate all the problems students are having: “The land, which is currently occupied with [by] older, run down homes, will be rejuvenated [I’m not sure what the right word is—I just know that rejuvenated isn’t it] to fit the positive stigma [image] that the city manages [is trying] to uphold.”

3. The Epicene Pronoun.
A student wrote, “He speaks passionately on the issue forcing anyone he talks to, to reconsider their stance.” Other items in this document deal with the missing comma after “issues” and the unnecessary one between the two “to”s; but what about the use of the plural “their” as a pronoun representing the singular anyone? Before 1975 or so, standard usage dictated “his.” Since then it has respectfully requested “his or her.” Many people (including me) try hard to avoid the choice by rewriting the sentence to something like “…all the people he talks to to reconsider their stance.”

The fact is, however, that the use of the third-person plural to indicated an undetermined singular (sometimes called “the epicene they”) has a long pedigree, including use by such authors as Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde and Sting (“If you love someone, set them free”); is today used in speech all but the prissiest Anglophones; and has even been endorsed for writing by some respected authorities. The 14th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, published in 1993, stated, “the University of Chicago Press recommends the revival of the singular use of they and their.”

My own sense is that this usage isn’t widely acceptable in prose yet, but will be soon. The trouble with my students is, first, that they are so quick to use the epicene they even when the gender of the antecedent isn’t in question: “I talked to my friend, and they said they would get back to me.” Second, they love to use they as a pronoun for (singular) businesses, institutions, rock groups, sports teams, restaurants and stores—in cases, that is, where it is clearly the appropriate pronoun. For example, “Every college has their trends.” “The school has been working hard to reshape their image.” “California Burrito has announced they are opening next week.” That’s not acceptable in writing of any degree of formality.

II. Problems in Style

1. Sentence construction.

A. “There is/there are.” There are few weaker ways to start a sentence than the words “there are.” We all do it because it comes naturally, but it’s usually easy to revise for the better. In a lot of sentences, you just delete the “There are” and a relative pronoun. For example, “There are five poets who have given readings at the school this year” becomes “Five poets have given readings at the school this year.”

My rule of thumb is that such sentences are okay if you can replace the “is” or “are” with “exists” or “exist.” E.g.: “There are twenty-five three-star restaurants in Rome.” No problem.

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