Common problems in grammar
Several common grammatical problems occur in academic writing:
- Sentence faults—comma splices, run-on sentences, sentence fragments
- Problems with pronouns (please also see our handout, Pronouns)
- Inconsistency in voice or point of view
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Most sentence faults and problems with punctuation are the result of a lack of understanding of how the parts of a sentence fit together.
Sentences are made up of phrases and clauses. Phrases are centred around nouns (in the van, by early morning). Clauses are centred around verbs (she runs the marathon; when he saw the ruins). Sentences are constructed from two types of clauses: main (or independent) clauses and subordinate (or dependent) clauses.
A main clause contains a subject (noun) and a predicate (verb) and expresses a complete thought.
Decision-makers must carefully examine only the best options.
A subordinate clause contains a subject and a verb but does not express a complete thought.
Because the policy options are so numerous…
(Besides because, other words that begin subordinate clauses include although, since, when, while, and despite.)
Combining clauses is what sentence building is all about.
Joining a subordinate clause with a main clause requires only a comma:
Because the policy options are so numerous, decision-makers must carefully examine only the best options.
Difficulties arise when two main clauses are joined together. Options for punctuation include the following:
- A period: Policy options are numerous. Decision-makers must carefully examine only the best options.
- A semi-colon: Policy options are numerous; therefore, decision-makers must carefully examine only the best options.
- A comma with a coordinating conjunction: Policy options are numerous, so decision-makers must carefully examine only the best options.
Other coordinating conjunctions are and, but, yet, or, nor and for.
Do not use a comma to join two main clauses in a sentence: for example, Policy options are numerous, decision-makers must carefully consider only the best options. A comma is too weak a form of punctuation to use in this case.
A common comma splice error occurs when two main clauses are joined with a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, thus, etc.) and only a comma.
Incorrect: The proposed policies are not necessarily right, however, they have survived much careful scrutiny.
Correct: The proposed policies are not necessarily right; however, they have survived much careful scrutiny.
Run-on: Joining two main clauses with no punctuation is called a run-on or fused sentence.
Incorrect: The employers and staff conducted successful negotiations thus they were able to agree on a contract beneficial to all.
Correct: The employers and staff conducted successful negotiations; thus, they were able to agree on a contract beneficial to all.
A sentence fragment occurs most often when a subordinate clause is incorrectly used as a sentence on its own.
Incorrect: Although their co-workers were opposed.
Correct: Members of the staff decided to cross the picket line, although their co-workers were opposed.
When a main clause is added to the sentence, the fault is corrected.
Problems with pronouns
(Please also see our handout on Pronouns, which includes helpful tips for using pronouns clearly and inclusively.)
A common grammatical error occurs when the pronoun in a sentence does not agree with its antecedent. The need to use non-sexist language—to avoid a sentence such as Every employee should hand in his report by Friday—gives rise to the following kind of error:
Every employee should hand in their report by Friday.
This sentence is incorrect because the singular subject every employee does not agree with the plural pronoun their. Below are some possible solutions to correct the error:
- Use the plural as in All employees should hand in their reports by Friday
- Use an article such as A successful manager knows the organization instead of A successful manager knows his organization.
- Repeat the noun by saying The Branch will provide each new employee with training on the equipment. If the employee is already familiar with the equipment, training will be optional rather than …If he is already familiar with the equipment, training will be optional.
- Reword the sentence, as in The editor should work alone to verify all details rather than The editor should work on his own to verify all details.
- As a last resort, use he or she, his or her or him or her as in Put each employee’s evaluation in his or her personal file instead of Put each employee’s evaluation in his personal file. Try to use this construction sparingly.
A second problem with pronouns—the use of broad references with this, that, and it—often causes confusion for the reader.
When you use this, that, or it by itself, make sure the reader fully understands what the pronoun renames and replaces. Make sure the pronoun reference isn’t ambiguous (i.e., that the pronoun doesn’t refer to more than one thing). If the pronoun refers to a noun that has been implied but not stated, you can clarify the reference by explicitly using that noun.
Vague: With the spread of globalized capitalism, American universities increasingly follow a corporate fiscal model, tightening budgets and hiring temporary contract employees and teachers. This has prompted faculty and adjunct instructors at many schools to join unions as a way of protecting job security and benefits.
Clear: With the spread of globalized capitalism, American universities increasingly follow a corporate fiscal model, tightening budgets and hiring temporary contract employees as teachers. This trend has prompted faculty and adjunct instructors at many schools to join unions as a way of protecting job security and benefits.
*The possessive pronoun “its” never takes an apostrophe. “It’s” is a contraction for “it is.”
Incorrect: The company’s name is included in it’s logo.
Correct: The company’s name is included in its logo.
Inconsistency in voice
A final grammatical problem is lack of consistency of voice or point of view. Again, the subject must agree with all of the pronouns in a sentence.
Incorrect: If one is a decision-maker, they must carefully consider all best options.
Correct: If one is a decision-maker, one must carefully consider all best options.
Incorrect: Canadian citizens enjoy many civil rights and freedoms. We are able to travel and speak freely; they can even criticize the government without negative repercussions.
Correct: As Canadian citizens, we enjoy many civil rights and freedoms. We are able to travel and speak freely; we can even criticize our government without negative repercussions.
Care should be taken to ensure that the point of view is consistent throughout the piece of writing.