Common mistakes and grammatical errors.




Proper form, correct grammar, spelling, syntax, and punctuation are part and parcel of FORMAL WRITING.  If you desire to inform someone or to convince them you must use standard conventions of communication.  The brilliance of your ideas and the validity of your arguments will be lost if your written work is filled with common mistakes and grammatical errors.




1.) Avoid the passive voice by using the active voice whenever possible.


passive: “The French were finally defeated and expelled from Vietnam by the Viet Minh forces at Dien Bien Phu. ” ( 18 words)


active: The Viet Minh forces finally defeated and expelled the French from Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu. ” ( 16 words)


passive: “On January 27, 1973, the Paris Peace Agreement was signed.”


active: “On January 27, 1973, the belligerents signed the Paris Peace Agreement.”


2.) Especially avoid these phrases: it is, it was, there is, there is, there are, there was, and there were.

wrong: “It is without a doubt that Levy’s purpose is . . .”


right: “Without a doubt, Levy’s purpose is . . . ”


wrong: “There are several themes that run through the book.”


right: “Several themes run through the book.”


3.) Avoid the excessive use of adverbs (usually words ending in “ly”). If you use them too often they lose their impact.


wrong: “Levy’s thesis is clearly twofold. ”


right: “Levy’s thesis is twofold. ”


4.) Avoid including subsumed information.


wrong: “Frank Church grew up as a young boy on an Idaho farm.”


right: “Frank Church grew upon on an Idaho farm.” The words “as a young boy” are subsumed.


wrong: “In the years between 1861 and 1865 Americans fought a civil war.”


right: “Between 1861 and 1865 Americans fought a civil war. The words “In the years” are subsumed.


wrong:  Author Paul Kennedy wrote in his book The Rise and Fall of Great Powers that the US was engaged in imperial overstretch.


right: Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers argues that the US was engaged in imperial overstretch.  The words  “Author” and “in his book” are subsumed.



5.) Avoid split infinitives.


wrong: “to briefly summarize”


right: “to summarize briefly” (following Guidelines #3 and #4, the alert writer would simply say “to summarize” since “summarize” implies “briefly”)


6.) Do not use contractions.


wrong: “they don’t”


right: “they do not”


7.) Do not use “etc.” Write out your ideas precisely and completely.


8 ) Do not end a sentence with a preposition (some of the most common prepositions are: of, in, on, with, by, and at).


9.) Never use the phrase “the fact that.”


10.) Avoid excessive use of the word “because.”


11.) Avoid beginning a sentence with the words “This” or “That,” and in particular never begin a paragraph with either of these words. Use the words “this” or “that” ONLY when their referents are absolutely clear to the reader.


12.) Technically, the words “that” and “which” are not interchangeable. Use “that” when a phrase is integral to the sentence; use “which” when a comma (or commas) sets a phrase off from the rest of the sentence.


example: “Fortunately for the colonists, they unwittingly landed in areas that had recently experienced precipitous population loses among Indians.”


example: “Militia laws detailed the required weaponry, which underwent a rapid evolution in the New World.”


example: “Armor, which made it difficult to traverse rugged terrain and pursue Indians, disappeared. ”


13.) Avoid using unnecessary prepositional phrases. For example, “the roar of the guns of the artillery” could be written as “the roar of the artillery’s guns.”


14.) Nouns and pronouns must match. If you use a singular noun, you must use a singular pronoun. A plural noun requires a plural pronoun.


wrong: “As the regiment marched by, they cheered their officers.”


right: “As the regiment marched by, it cheered its officers.”


better yet: “As the regiment marched by, the soldiers cheered their officers.”


  1. When you first mention a person name in the text, give his or her full name and identify the person’s title or position. Subsequently, you may use just the individual’s last name. Please note that this rule does not apply to citing scholars in literature review or as a secondary source. You should just use the last name of the Author.


wrong: “On September 1862 Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.”


right: “On September 1862 President Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. ”


  1. Avoid using 3- or 4-word verbs.


wrong: The Yankees continued to shoot at the rebels until they surrendered.”


right: “The Yankees shot at the rebels until they surrendered. ”


17.) In formal writing do not use personal pronouns, such as I, me, my, our, us, and we.


18.) Be decisive in your writing. Don’t be afraid to take a stand-so long as you can explain why you have taken that stand. Avoid “I think,” “I feel,” “I believe” – JUST TAKE A STAND AND BACK IT UP!!


wrong: “I think President Clinton has the right idea on health care. ”


right: “President Clinton has the right idea on health care reform.”


19.) Note the distinction between “it’s” and “its.”


“It’s” is a contraction for “it is.” “It’s” does not show possession. Example: It’s snowing outside.


Please note that #6 states that contraction should not be used in formal writing. This prohibition extends to the contraction for “it is”-“it’s.”


20.) Avoid one-sentence paragraphs. Combine these with another paragraph.




In general, underline or italicize the titles of works published independently and use quotation marks for the titles of works published within larger works.


Examples:  “Hillary goes to bat on Health Care” appears in the New York Times.


“All Politics is Local” is a chapter from Christopher Matthews’ book entitled Hardball/­How Politics is Played told by One Who Knows the Game.


22.) Strive for an ECONOMY OF WORDS and clarity of expression.


The following exercise will help you to achieve economy and clarity of expression:


Go back through a first draft of your text and force

vourself to eliminate 25% of the words without eliminating ANY of the meaning.





Forty-nine Mark I tanks were used by the British during the Battle of the Somme, the first test of the tanks in action. Owing to the fact that these vehicles had been secretly designed, built and delivered to the battlefield, little was known about them even by the troops who were to us them. Many Questions concerning the new weapon had to be answered and many new problems pertaining to their tactical use, control and supply were hastily solved. Naturally, considerable confusion existed concerning the methods to be used since no precedent or past experience of any kind was available to serve as a guide. (From Armor in Battle. FKSM-17-3-2, March 1986)




The British used forty-nine Mark I tanks during the Battle of the Somme, the tank’s first test in action. Since these vehicles had been secretly designed, built, and delivered to the battlefield, even those troops who used the tanks knew little about them. The novel weapons’ battlefield debut raised many problems regarding their tactical use, control, and supply, but with no precedents to guide them, tankers discovered that resolving these issues was difficult.


Another way to think about world economy and not including subsumbed information: the title above in #21 is better presented as “All Politics is Local” by Christopher Matthews in  Hardball/­How Politics is Played told by One Who Knows the Game discusses…






23.) Avoid excessive quoting. A writer’s purpose is to analyze and synthesize material, which does not require a great deal of quoting. In particular, the writer should rarely use long (or “block”) quotes. Although “rarely” is subject to interpretation, a paper of 5-7 pages should probably contain at most one block quote.


24.) Tie quotations into the text of the paper.


*Do not begin a paragraph with a quote that has not been introduced and that stands on its own.


*Do not use a long quote as a paragraph by itself.


*Never leave a quotation standing on its own as a sentence unto itself–put the quote in context for your reader.


Use quotations to support a point that you are making in your own words. Always be sure to tie the quote into the body of its surrounding text.


wrong: The 1992 presidential campaign was a referendum on governmental inaction. “Voters unequivocally registered their disappointment with the status quo in several ways.” (Jones 1993, 237). The electorate is tired of “business as usual” in Washington.


right: The 1992 presidential campaign was a referendum on governmental inaction. One seasoned observer of both Congress and the presidency argued that in 1992, “Voters unequivocally registered their disappointment with the status quo in several ways” (Jones 1993, 237). In other words, the electorate is tired of “business as usual” in Washington.

25.) Quoted material of 50 or more words. All quoted material of 50 or more words should be indented and single-spaced. Do not use quotation marks. Additional indentation as required to indicate paragraphing in the original text.


Example: (of a quote of more than 50 words that was a separate paragraph in the original



The 1992 elections were a referendum on gridlock. The voters sent a clear signal that they were dissatisfied with “business as usual” in government. One long-time voting analyst has observed:


In 1992 the American voter attempted to redress a deep, personal sense of disgust over governmental inaction. Voters unequivocally registered their disappointment with the status quo in several ways–protest votes for the most successful third party candidate this century, overwhelming support for term limit measures, and popular support for numerous campaigns finance reform laws. Americans sincerely want their government to be part of the solution to the problem and not the problem–a simple fact that often seems lost on political party leaders in Washington. (Jones and Doe 1993, 132.)



These guidelines will help you become a clear and precise writer.

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