Common Mistakes

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Common Mistakes

Students in English 111 can make any number of errors on their final research paper, but most of them seem to fall into one of just a few categories.  Here's a list:

bulletBibliographies--Some students get confused by having written an annotated bibliography on the same subject as the research paper and make the assumption that the research doesn't need a References or Works Cited page since the Annotated Bibliography counts for that purpose. But this is wrong.  The Annotated Bibliography is a separate research paper from the final formal research paper.  Aside from being on the same topics, neither paper bears any relationship with the other--works cited in the paper do not have to be in the Annotated Bibliography, and works listed in the Annotated Bibliography do not have to be in the research paper.  So, to put it as simply as possible, ALWAYS include a Works Cited or References list with ANY research paper.  This is extremely important because failure to include some form of bibliography means one of two things:
bulletThe student didn't do any research (and fails because the assignment wasn't done).
bulletThe student plagiarized.

 

bulletCitation Format and Style--Check and double check citations, both in-text and in the References or Works Cited list.  Technically, any error in a citation (even missing a period) can constitute a serious breach of citation requirements, and there are professors who live to crucify students for minor mistakes in citation. (Fortunately, there are none on campus--but that doesn't mean that after reading 20 papers with citation errors, paper 21 gets nailed for them.  Everyone has limits, you know.)

The same advice applies to things like margins, page numbers and headers, use of a title page, font choice, font size, paper, and so forth.  Make sure to check the paper against the APA, MLA, or CBE standards listed in their respective manuals (or in a handbook). 

Finally, it bears saying one more time:  Double-space EVERYTHING, and do NOT include an extra space between ANY paragraphs unless you know what it means. (And it does not mean "making the paper look nicer.")

 

bulletProofread, proofread, PROOFREAD.  Here are some common grammar, diction, and punctuation errors frequently made on the final research paper:
bulletUse of an apostrophe to create a plural.  NEVER use an apostrophe to create a plural.  NEVER.  I know that many high school teachers tell students that the way to pluralize  years is with an apostrophe, but this is incredibly confusing in academic writing.  For example, does "1960's movies" mean movies made in the year 1960 or the decade of the sixties?  Use "1960s" when referring to the decade and "1960's" when referring to things that belong to the year 1960.

Also, double check to make sure that atrocities against the language like "city's" for "cities," "dog's" for "dogs," and "TV's" for "TVs" haven't been committed.  Remember, apostrophes indicate possession or contraction.  They are never used for pluralizing nouns; it's one of the few rules in English that has no exception.

 

bulletNow, a word about "it's."  "It's" means "It is" and should probably not be used in the final research paper, since contractions are avoided in Academic English.  IF the possessive form of "it" is required, "its" is the proper form.  This is easy to remember, since no possessive pronouns take the apostrophe:
bulletHis
bulletHers
bulletTheirs
bulletYours
bulletOurs
bulletIts

Pretty straight forward, eh?

 
bulletComma usage remains the bane of most students' existence, and there's really nothing I (or anyone else) can do about it.  I'll be completely honest here and just point out that the part of the brain responsible for learning grammar shuts down around the age of 12.  Really--this is a fact, there's nothing anyone can do about it.  This doesn't mean that if a student who hasn't learned to use commas by the age of 12 is doomed to a life of illiteracy.  It does mean that learning how to use commas (or anything else grammatical, for that matter) does get a lot more difficult.  In fact, after the "grammar part" of the brain shuts down there are only two ways a person can improve their grammar:
bulletTake a foreign language (really)
bulletMake a conscious decision (i.e., CHOOSE) to learn grammar and put some effort into it.  Listening to lectures and doing exercises won't help unless the student actively participates in them.  And let's face it, it's a rare student indeed who really wants to get wrapped up in learning grammar.

So, what can be done about commas and proofreading?  Simple: find someone who knows how to use commas and get them to help with the proofreading of the paper.  Optionally, sit down with a good writer's handbook (like Raimes or Hacker) and go through the paper sentence by sentence, double-checking each one against the list in the book.  (Both Hacker and Raimes have "quick guides" for proofreading comma usage.)

I know this sucks, but I have no tolerance for more than three or four comma mistakes in a a paper.  After that, I start docking the paper points.  (And yes, that's fair.  After all, this is an English class.)

 

bulletOther grammar errors to watch out for include:
bulletImproper capitalization (especially in citations--make sure to double-check the rules, especially if using APA since it's very different than what's taught in high school).
bulletUse of homonyms for the intended word.  Especially common are "there" for "their" or "they're," "wether" or "weather" for "weather" (be very careful with this one, as it can lead to hilarious results), and the every nasty "to" for "too."
bulletRemember, in the USA we put commas and periods before the quotation mark, not after it.  In Canada, the reverse is true.  Also bear in mind that in the US we stopped using the "-st" ending on words around 1750.  Thus words like "amongst" and "whilst" are considered colloquialisms (regional slang variations) and have no place in academic writing.  Use "among" or "while" instead.  Canadians, however, continue to use "-st" to end some words, "amongst" and "whilst" among them.
bulletIf you've been told to read Eat, Shoots and Leaves, bear in mind that the book was written in England and contains rules of punctuation and grammar that are quite simply wrong in American English.  (The author tries to point them out when she runs into them, but she does miss a few.)

 

bulletAcademic English--Double check for inappropriate use of first or second person pronouns (i.e., "I," "Me," "Mine," "We," "Us," "Ours," "You" and "Yours") and slang language (e.g., "kids" when the word "children" is meant).  Try to remember that the language spoken in the dorms isn't Academic English.