Notes on Common Writing Errors

Charles Sullivan

Contents with abbreviations I use in editing


Dangling Participles (dp)

I use the notation dp  to mark dangling participles.  Any verb needs a subject. A participle (such as the first –ing verb in each of the sentences below) will take the first noun following the comma as its subject, whether or not that is what you intend.   

Incorrect:
Coming back from class, a thunderstorm suddenly erupted.   
Correct:
Trying to measure the voltage, we found we needed to increase the gain on the oscilloscope.
For more on this, with wonderful examples, see the note on dangling participles  in Strunk and White's wonderful classic short book, The Elements of Style. (The full text is online.)

Joining Sentences--avoiding the comma splice (cs)

I use the notation CS or "comma splice" to mark places where two sentences are joined with only a comma.  Joining sentences with only a comma is grammatically incorrect.  I usually do not mark a specific correction, because there are many valid alternatives.  For example, the incorrectly joined pair of sentences:
The system was linear, homogeneity was found to hold true.
could be correctly replaced with any the following:
The system was linear; homogeneity was found to hold true.
The system was linear.  Homogeneity was found to hold true.
The system was linear and homogeneity was found to hold true.
The system was linear, leading us to expect homogeneity, which was in fact found to hold true.
One common error is related to a more subtle point: However cannot be used to join two sentences; it is generally considered an adverb rather than a conjunction.   The following is incorrect:
The system was thought to be linear, however homogeneity was not found to hold true.    
It could be correctly replaced with any the following:
The system was thought to be linear; however, homogeneity was not found to hold true.    
The system was thought to be linear.  However, homogeneity was not found to hold true.    
The system was thought to be linear, but homogeneity was not found to hold true.    
Problems with comma splices are common in referencing figures.  For more on this and suggestions on ways to avoid it, see my notes on Referencing Figures in Technical Documents.

Assuming Prior Familiarity (apf)

A large part of the difficulty in writing well is figuring out what your reader knows or does not know, and explaining everything that is needed, but avoiding unnecessary repetition.  I've used "apf" to mark problems where the text assumes the reader has prior familiarity.

One easy way that I can spot problems with apf is by looking for places where new concepts are introduced with "the".  After you've introduced the concept of an ailufhel, you can then talk about "the ailufhel". But if the first time you've said anything about an ailufhel, you refer to it as "the ailufhel" that to me is a red flag indicating that you haven't thought through how to introduce and explain all the new concepts, and you are chatting with the reader as if the reader had been working side-by-side with you throughout the project that culminated in this paper.   A good technical paper is the polar opposite of that:  It is a carefully and elegantly structured exposition of the new ideas, organized in such a way as to make it accessible to anyone with the appropriate general technical knowledge.

If I mark "apf" next to "the ailufhel," it might seem that you can fix it just by changing "the" to "an".  But that is only the tip of the iceberg.  Unless you are not a native English speaker, you wouldn't have said "the ailufhel," unless you were writing with the wrong mindset.  You need to write with an awareness of what the reader does and does not know.  So you probably need to rewrite the whole paragraph or section with that in mind.

Affect vs. Effect

For your convenience, I have reproduced below the entries from the American Heritage Dictionary on these commonly confused words, with the relevant portions in bold.  The American Heritage Dictionary is available online.

af*fect (1)
Part of Speech: transitive verb
Inflected Form: -fect*ed, -fect*ing, -fects.
               Sense: 1. To have an influence on; bring about a change in.
                         2. To touch or move the emotions of.
                         3. To attack or infect, as a disease.
 Part of Speech: noun
               Sense: 1. (Psychology)
                          1. a. A feeling or emotion as distinguished from cognition, thought, or action.
                          1. b. A strong feeling having active consequences.
                          2. (Obsolete A disposition, feeling, or tendency. )
        Etymology: Latin afficere, affect-: ad-, to + facere, to do.
               Usage: Affect (1) and effect have no senses in common. As a verb, affect (1) is most
                          commonly used in the sense of "to influence" (how smoking affects health ). Effect
                          means "to bring about or execute": layoffs designed to effect savings.


 ef*fect
 Part of Speech: noun
               Sense: 1. Something brought about by a cause or agent; result.
                         2. The way in which something acts upon or influences an object, as in: the effect of a
                              drug on the nervous system.

                         3. The power or capacity to achieve the desired result; influence.
                         4. The condition of being in full force or execution, as in: goes into effect tomorrow.
                         5. a. Something that produces a specific impression or supports a general design or
                              intention, as in: sound effects.
                         5. b. A particular impression, as in: an effect of spaciousness.
                         5. c. The production of a particular impression, as in: She cries just for effect.
                         6. a. The basic meaning.
                         6. b. Intention; purport.
                         7. effects. Movable goods; property.
 Part of Speech: transitive verb
  Inflected Form: -fect*ed, -fect*ing, -fects.
               Sense: 1. To produce as a result; bring into existence.
                         2. To bring about.

               Idiom: in effect.
               Sense: 1. In fact; actually.
                          2. In essence; virtually.
                          3. In active force; in operation.
               Idiom: take effect.
         Definition: To become operative.
        Etymology: Middle English < Old French < Latin effectus, past participle of efficere, to accomplish:
                          ex-, out + facere, to make.

Capitalization

Only capitalize words that need to be capitalized.  If you capitalize words just because they are Important, you risk looking like a Pompous Fool.

Its vs. It's

One of these is a contraction of "it is"; the other is a possesive pronoun or adjective.  How do you remember which is which?  You can't write a contraction without an apostrophe, whereas possesive prounouns and adjectives (such as his, her, and hers) never use apostrophes.