Are dangling modifiers sabotaging your work? Comma splices undermining your ideas? As a graduate Teaching Assistant, I hate to see otherwise good papers plagued by bad grammar and other completely avoidable problems. Often, students focus on larger issues: crafting a strong argument, working effectively with sources, and organizing paragraphs. These elements are all fundamental. Once your paper has taken its basic shape, however, you should leave time to proofread and clean up your writing. Clear, concise, error-free writing allows your ideas to shine. In this article, I go through some common writing mistakes and teach you how to fix them. I then offer a few tips for proofreading effectively.
#1: Dangling modifiers
“After hiking through the forest, dinner was waiting on the table.” Can you spot the problem? The introductory phrase “After hiking…” modifies “dinner”—so the way the sentence is written implies that dinner somehow took a hike through the woods. In fact, the sentence is missing the implied subject of “hiking.” Who was hiking?
Correct: “After hiking through the forest, I was glad to find dinner ready and waiting.” Or: “After hiking through the forest, Alexis found dinner waiting on the table at home.” Or: “Christopher took a long hike through the forest and returned home to find dinner waiting on the table.”
#2: Word mix-ups
Then or than? Less or fewer? Affect or effect? Complement or compliment? Principle or principal? Capitol or capital? Adverse or averse? Alot or a lot? Regardless or irregardless? There are so many words and phrases that lend themselves to confusion.
Correct: When in doubt, look up the word(s) in question. You’ll learn that you can compliment your friend on her new bag, which complements her outfit. Also, beware fake words! “Alot” and “irregardless,” for example, are not real words, so don’t use them.
#3: Sentence fragments
“Because of the thunderstorm.” “Before heading to work.” “While enjoying a good novel.” Sentence fragments might be just fine in conversation, or even sprinkled judiciously throughout informal writing such as a blog post. You can also find perfectly acceptable sentence fragments in many novels thanks to poetic license. When you’re writing an academic paper, however, you should avoid incomplete sentences that lack an independent clause.
Correct: “I took the bus to work because of the thunderstorm.” “Before heading to work, I ate an omelet.” “I like to drink coffee while enjoying a good novel.”
#4: Unclear pronoun references
“Tara and her sister Clara are very close. Whenever she goes to Japan, she sends postcards home.” Who exactly is “she”? Tara or Clara? “She” could conceivably refer to either sister. Make sure your pronouns refer clearly to their antecedents.
Correct: “Tara and her sister Clara are very close. Whenever Tara goes to Japan, she sends postcards home to Clara.”
#5: Comma splices
“I saw a movie, it was really good.” Both parts of this sentence are independent clauses that can stand on their own. You therefore can’t just separate them with a comma. Either make each component its own sentence, use a semicolon instead of a comma, or add a conjunction.
Correct: “I saw a movie. It was really good.” Or: “I saw a movie; it was really good.” Or: “I saw a movie, and it was really good.” Or: “I saw a really good movie.”
Many of these issues can be prevented if you thoroughly proofread your work before submitting it. I know how tempting it is to skip the final proofread. Maybe you’ve already spent long hours painstakingly researching and writing your paper, and you’re sick of looking at it. Maybe you’ve procrastinated and finished your paper at the last possible minute, leaving you with no time for editing and proofreading. Or maybe you assume that spellcheck will catch everything.
Whatever your reasons, I can only advise one thing: Proofread anyway! Ideally, start your work well before the deadline so that you can take a break from your paper draft and return to it with fresh eyes the next day. Make important structural edits first, since there’s no point refining prose that might ultimately end up deleted. Then, once the paper has fully taken shape, proofread it.
While you’re proofreading, don’t try to skim or speed read. You’re likely to miss simple errors and typos that way. Instead, I recommend reading your paper aloud. Your ears will not only catch mistakes, but also alert to you to stylistic weaknesses. Are your sentences uniformly short and choppy? Do you use the same word five times in one paragraph? Do you notice any awkward phrasing? Reading aloud helps you detect all sorts of common writing mistakes.
How you present yourself as a writer is extremely important for building credibility. Don’t let the five common writing mistakes described above weaken your argument or distract from your main point. With a little attention and careful proofreading, you can produce clear, well-written papers that showcase your arguments and ideas.