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Top Writing Errors and How to Avoid Making Them

written by: Larry M. Lynch • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 1/5/2012

Writing in English need not be an excessively difficult challenge. If you can avoid the most common errors in writing in English as discussed in this article, your English writing should improve almost immediately.

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    Academically near the top of most of her classes, her jaw dropped when she saw the red-circled grade at the top of her English essay paper.

    “I thought I’d done much better than this,” she remarked. “I really need some English writing help.”

    If you too share difficulties in writing English, here is some English writing help.

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    Common Errors and English Writing Tips

    While there can be a broad range of difficulties and errors in writing in English made by both native and non-native speakers of the language, there are some kinds of errors which predominate writing in English. Here are some of the most common errors in writing English and English writing tips on how to avoid them.

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    1. Subject to Verb Agreement

    In writing English, sometimes proper subject to verb agreement is not followed. In English, the verb is conjugated in relation to the person and number of the related or implied pronoun. So, using the verb “to be,” for example, the correct conjugations are “I am,” “you are,” “he/she/it is,” “we are,” and “they are.”

    • INCORRECT: “I are a student.” “They is at home.” or “She are good in English.”
    • CORRECT: “I am a student.”
    • CORRECT: “They are at home.”
    • CORRECT: “She is good in English.”

    The third person singular form of present tense verbs can be especially troublesome when writing English. English present tense verbs typically get an “s” or “es” ending.

    • INCORRECT: “He like play soccer.”
    • CORRECT: “He likes to play soccer.” or “He likes playing soccer.”
    • CORRECT: “She wishes they were at the beach.”
    • CORRECT: “Larry dances salsa really well.
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    2. Verb Gerund - Infinitive Confusion

    In addition to normal conjugation for expression of tense and person, verbs have two additional, commonly used forms. They are the gerund and the infinitive. The infinitive verb form begins with “to” plus the base form of the verb (to dance) and is used for more defined, concrete actions or intentions. The infinitive is used to show purpose or function. The infinitive can also be used to say why a person does something. For example:

    • “A graph is used to show data"
    • “They went to bed to sleep.”

    The gerund, or present participle, form uses the base form of a verb with an “ing” ending (dancing) and has a more abstract function. The gerund is used as an object of some verbs to show purpose or function and after “like” or “enjoy.”

    A common error in writing is to misuse these verb forms as in these examples:

    • INCORRECT: “I like to dancing.”
    • CORRECT: “I like to dance.”
    • CORRECT: “I like dancing.”

    The two forms, infinitive with “to” or the gerund form (“-ing”) with “for,” are also used to express purpose or use of an item.

    • INCORRECT: “A watch is used for to tell the time.”
    • INCORRECT: “A watch is used for tell the time.”
    • INCORRECT: “A watch is used to telling the time.”
    • CORRECT: “A watch is used to tell the time.”
    • CORRECT: “A watch is used for telling the time.”
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    3. Plurals of Irregular Nouns

    English is loaded with rule exceptions and irregularities. One of these which is most troublesome to English language learners is the plurals of irregular nouns. One group of these irregular nouns which frequently cause errors in writing are nouns which end in “ch,” “sh,” “x,” “s,” or “o.” The plural of this group of nouns is formed by adding “es.”

    • INCORRECT: watchs, dishs, boxs, kissis, potatos
    • CORRECT: watches, dishes, boxes, kisses and potatoes

    Another set of plural nouns which end in “y” are also irregular. These generally form the plural by dropping the “y” and adding “ies” as with the nouns baby, candy, and city.

    • INCORRECT: babys, candys, citys, countrys
    • CORRECT: babies, candies, cities, countries
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    4. Use of “A” or “An” and “The”

    In Spanish, for example, most nouns carry an article, either masculine “el” or feminine “la.” In English, however, this is not the case. Nouns normally receive a definite determiner ("the," "this," "that," "these," "those") or an indefinite article (“a” or “an”) when a quantity is indicated or a distinction is made between general and specific. Generally, nouns which begin with a consonant sound get the article “a” as in "a table," "a house," "a car," or "a student." Generally, nouns which begin with a vowel sound receive the article “an” as in "an apple," "an elephant," "an octopus," "an ice cream cone," or "an umbrella." There are a few exceptions: we write “an MP3” because the letter “m” in the acronym has the vowel sound of “e.” Some nouns are exceptions: “a unicorn” and “a university” are two examples because both begin with the consonant sound "y."

    • INCORRECT: “This is an hat.”
    • CORRECT: “This is a hat.”

    Use of the Definite Article “The”

    Another frequently misused article when writing in English is the definite article. “The” indicates a specific or only entity or thing. It is used when a particular person or object is being referred to. Also, “the” is used when using the superlative. “The” can also be used for a singular countable noun. For example:

    • “I want the red apple, not the green one.”
    • “Please close the window.”
    • “The Houston Rockets are the best basketball team.”
    • “The clock is on the wall.”
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    5. Improper Use of “Some” or “Any”

    For small, indefinite quantities or amounts, English uses the nonspecific object pronoun quantifiers “some” and “any.” The English writing rules generally are as follows. Use “some” in positive statements and in questions when the expected answer is “yes”. For example:

    • “We need some eggs”.
    • “Could we have some coffee please?”

    Use “any” in a negative statement or most questions. Also use "any" with “if” and words such as "never," "hardly," "without," "refuse," and "doubt," which have negative connotations. For example:

    • We don’t have any coffee.
    • Do we have any sugar?
    • They never have any fun.

    Although most words can take both "some" and "any" depending on context, these two words can be used incorrectly. For example:

    • INCORRECT: “We don’t need some bread.
    • INCORRECT: “We need any milk.
    • CORRECT: “We don’t need any bread.
    • CORRECT: “We need some milk.

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    Follow and Succeed

    Writing in English need not be a self-defeating cause if you follow these English writing tips to help to improve your English writing and English grammar usage. While there are numerous other aspects which should be considered, paying attention to these commonly made errors in English will offer rapid improvement in your English writing skills.