University of Minnesota
teaching with writing
center for writing

Teaching With Writing.Center for Writing's home page.

Prioritizing common sentence-level errors

Leanne Zainer

North Hennepin County Community College

To my mind, not all sentence-level errors or problems are equal. As a writing and writing-intensive instructor, I’ve found it most productive to focus first on those errors and flaws that impede meaning. Any carelessness in writing can be irritating, but I attempt constraint and limit myself to indicating repeated patterns of significant problems. Once a student masters those, I begin marking lesser errors.

In lower division courses

Errors of greater concern

  • Sentence fragments (incomplete sentences)
  • Run-on sentences (comma splices and fused sentences)
  • Sentence sprawl
  • Sexist language

Errors of lesser concern

A wide range of grammar errors, including misuse of punctuation, misspellings, etc.

In upper division courses

Advanced students are (hopefully) not making the same mistakes as entering students, so I can attend to errors that create confusion within sophisticated arguments. At this level, I’m also concerned–and indicate–if students fail to evidence sentence variety or demonstrate stylistic problems such as wordiness or choppiness in their prose.

Errors of greater concern

  • Unnecessary passive constructions, especially “It is,” “There are,” etc.
  • Unclear pronoun references
  • Restrictive vs. nonrestrictive modifier confusion (including which/that distinction)
  • Misplaced and dangling modifiers
  • Faulty parallelism
  • Incorrect pronoun case

Errors of lesser concern

  • Omitted commas
  • Superfluous commas
  • Apostrophe errors

In multilingual writers’ work

Errors of greater concern

Those identified above, and, in addition:

  • Subject-verb disagreement
  • Subject-antecedent disagreement
  • Verb tense inconsistencies

Errors of lesser concern

  • Articles (a, an, the)
  • Prepositions (of, in, on, etc…)