Common Paper Writing Mistakes Continued: Five More Basic Errors

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In a previous post, I outlined simple mistakes that are made with startling frequency in college papers. Well, that didn’t cover nearly all of the basic flubs I’ve seen over the years.

For some, this will come as new information; for others, this will be an example of a crotchety old man yelling at the ocean. Considering that I’ve often said that I’m basically a twenty-something octogenarian, I’m okay with the characterization.

Here’s the rundown of an extra five errors.

1. Contractions

Every time I search for something like “how to lengthen a paper,” I find several people suggesting that the students should remove all of the contractions in order to boost the word count. And I cringe each time.

Because contractions should never be present in an academic paper anyway. When you’re writing formally, you do not use any contractions (this website and fiction prose don’t count, so nyah-nyah).

This isn’t a case of personal preference. The APA style guide specifically forbids it. In fact, most of them do, except for the Chicago Manual of Style (which you use for History and its related disciplines), but even that tells you to use them sparingly.

The reason behind this isn’t just that people like sounding formal and official. The truth is that a lot of contractions have ambiguous meaning. Take, for example, “I’d.” That can mean either “I would” or “I did.” The reader must then use context to figure out what was meant by the contraction.

Further, some of them could be either a possessive form of a noun or a contraction. For example, “guy’s.” That could either mean “guy is” or “the thing belonging to the guy.” While the context would make the definition clear most of the time, it is never a good idea to make your professor work for it.

While a lot of people recommend that you write conversationally, I disagree when it comes to academic writing. You aren’t crafting a narrative; you are either informing or persuading. This isn’t a dialogue between you and someone else, either; this is a monologue, and you should treat it as though you are addressing someone in a position of power, like the President. (Though one with less street cred than President Obama, who appears to be fairly informal for a President).

Long story short: contractions are a no-no, because they’re unclear at times, and always informal.

Exceptions: Direct quotes. If you’re quoting someone, you should include the contractions, because it isn’t your words. That said, use brackets ( “[” and “]”) to add explanatory words in situations where the meaning is unclear. Example: “He said that she wouldn’t [commit murder].” 

2. Hyphens and Dashes

People have no idea what to do with these types of punctuations. I see dashes and hyphens all over the place, and some people tend to use them interchangeably. They are not interchangeable. 

Generally speaking, hyphens are used to connect a few words together, and dashes are used to connect sentences together.

Hyphens (a single “-” found on your keyboard two keys to the left of “Backspace”) can be used in a variety of ways, but the most common is to link prefixes to nouns– unless they are already linked. For example, “Anti-American” should be hyphenated, while “extralegal” should not. Common prefixes like “Anti,” “Semi,” “Quasi,” and “Pre” are almost always hyphenated.

If you aren’t sure whether a word should be hyphenated or not, type it into Microsoft Word without the hyphen. Usually, it will pick up on the error and suggest the hyphen when you right-click on the offending word. If that doesn’t clear up your concern, Google it. It should return a bunch of results.

Some words are always hyphenated. “Mother-in-law” is a good example, as are two-word numbers like “twenty-seven.” (But not between the number and the modifier, like “hundred” or “trillion”).

The keys to using a hyphen are simple: they only are used between individual words and there are no spaces before or after them. Think of them as compound words that you’re cobbling together with hyphens delineating the separation.

Dashes, on the other hand, are used to indicate a break in the flow of a sentence. They are similar, in a way, to parentheses, but serve the opposite purpose. Parentheses signal extra information that is tangential to the point– that is, things that you should know, but aren’t entirely related. The information inside parentheses is not emphasized.

Dashes, however, do emphasize the information. Their function is to bring attention directly to it. They indicate that the reader should stop the thought that they were processing and chew on some new information. This is different from using commas as a superlative, which offers the fact in the same way as the remainder of the sentence. For example, you can do the following sentence three ways:

Oleander, often considered the Greatest Sorcerer on Yaktobar, was having trouble casting a new spell. (Commas indicating a superlative).

Oleander (often considered the Greatest Sorcerer on Yaktobar) was having trouble casting a new spell. (Parentheses offering information that is relevant, but not necessarily to the topic of the sentence. This indicates something similar to the sentiment behind the phrase “in spite of”).

Oleander–the Greatest Sorcerer on Yaktobar– was having trouble casting a new spell. (Dashes indicating that we are supposed to treat the new information as very important, and it gives a slightly different meaning: the takeaway is that the spell must be incredibly complex if Oleander can’t cast it).

They can also come at the end of a list that opens a sentence. For example:

Eyes, ears, nose, mouth– Mark tried to cover them all.

But you wouldn’t do it at the end of a sentence, because it would look weird.

Mark tried to cover them all– eyes, ears, nose and mouth.

Technically it’s not incorrect, but avoid it. It’s kind of frowned upon.

Dashes are made in Microsoft Word and most other word processors in one of two ways: either you simply put two hyphens without a space, or hold the “Alt” key and type “0150” on the number pad (and the number pad only; it won’t work on the number row).

On a Mac, just hold the “Option” key and type a hyphen.

I use dashes a lot, as you might have noticed in my prose, but in academic settings I keep it to a minimum. You can still use them, just don’t go crazy with it. And, most importantly, you should know the difference between hyphens, dashes and…

3. Ellipses

Known commonly as “dot-dot-dot,” ellipses (…) actually aren’t used to connect thoughts together.

I had one student who had thirty or forty ellipses in each of her papers. She used them… as connectors… rather frequently.

She wasn’t too happy when I disabused her of the notion, because she liked them an awful lot. Then I explained to her that ellipses actually indicate omission, not connection. They function as a signal that something isn’t here that should be, but was left out for other reasons such as relative irrelevance.

In fiction, it’s often used to indicate pauses. “Oleander stood, wondering… what could that possibly be?” In academic writing, however, ellipses should not be used this way. I mean, are you going to imply to your professor that you’re hesitating? Of course not!

The meat of your papers should be ellipsis-free. Those thoughts should not have anything omitted. If they do contain omissions or pauses, then they either shouldn’t be there or you shouldn’t tell anyone that they are incomplete. Remember, your papers are there to demonstrate mastery, not hesitation.

That said, ellipses are invaluable when it comes time to quote sources. You can use them to truncate the material and list only what is relevant. For example, if you were writing a paper that quotes this section of this post, you can put:

“Ellipses actually indicate omission… [of] something that isn’t here… for other reasons such as relative irrelevance.”

Big chunks were taken out to strip the quote down to only what is pertinent to the point. This is a great way to get around those massive (and ugly) block quotes that tend to screw up the flow of the paper.

The grammar of the ellipsis is a little fluid. There are a few ways to use them, and they’re all technically correct. You can put a space before and after it (” … “), you can have no spaces (“…”) or you can put a space either before or after it (“… “). I favor the last example, and the MLA style guide agrees with me, but it’s really personal preference.

If you’re using an ellipsis to indicate omission at the beginning of a quote, (the first word or words were taken out) then I recommend formatting it like this:

“…[A]lways remember that ellipses are responsible for as many as three hundred deaths per year.”

The brackets around the first letter indicate that it wasn’t originally capitalized in the text, signalling a lead-in that is absent in the quote. This is the clearest way to do it, though you can always avoid capitalizing at all and still get away with it.

Quotes that end with an omission don’t need an ellipsis. Simply hack off the quote with normal punctuation and continue in your own words, as I demonstrate in this article on quote integration.

So yes, use your ellipses, but they should really be as restricted as possible to quotes and quote alone.

4. Modifiers that Dangle, Modifiers that are Misplaced

Ambiguity is the enemy of academic writing. Nobody wants it. The object is to be as clear as possible when you write (discounting poetry, which seems hellbent on deception as its main point).

So why do I see so many sentences that can be construed in multiple ways?

Sentence modifiers are words or phrases that, as their name indicates, modify or describe something. For example, in the following sentence:

“Oleander accidentally ignited his beard.”

“Accidentally,” an adverb, functions to describe “ignited.” Adjectives, adverbs, and their clauses can all be modifiers.

Distressingly too often, students misplace their modifiers and inadvertently change the meaning of their sentence. (In this case, “misplace” is modified by “distressingly too often!” Isn’t language fun?) For example, take this sentence:

“Oleander got a special table for his young apprentice with short legs.”

Okay, so, what has short legs? The table? Or the apprentice? “With short legs” is placed oddly, so that it could really be applied to either one. As read, it looks like the young apprentice is the one with short legs, and that necessitated the purchase of a special table. However, it’s probable that the author intended to communicate that the table had short legs, and was purchased for the young apprentice.

This appears to have become more common recently for some reason. Students seem to want to change up their default writing style and are trying out things that sound more poetic by flipping around subject and modifiers. Check out this sentence:

“Covered in grease and ketchup, Oleander loved french fries.”

Obviously, the french fries are covered in grease and ketchup, but the sentence construction leads the reader to believe that it is Oleander who is thus slimed.

The most common reason for this is that the writer leaves too much space between subject or object and modifier.

To remedy this, and avoid the problem altogether, try to keep the modified and modifier close together, and don’t invert them. The above example should read something like “Oleander loved french fries covered in grease and ketchup.” Just make sure to keep it active, not passive; “Oleander loved it when french fries were covered in grease and ketchup” implies action being applied to the fries, which is weird, so don’t do that.

Similarly, dangling modifiers leave the modified ambiguous by omission. They are typically found in sentences that begin with a modifier, and the writer tends to forget to reference the subject or object. For example,

“Wishing to impress, the apprentice transformed the table into a large and confused badger.”

The problem here is that there is no clear indication as to who the apprentice is trying to impress. A fix would be to simply place the object in the sentence, writing “Wishing to impress Oleander…”

That’s it for that one. Just make sure that you make your sentences clear as read, not clear through inference. You don’t want to make the reader work for it; they shouldn’t have to if you do your job correctly.

5. Who and Whom and That and Which

Grammar, man. It’s important. It keeps me up at night.

A ludicrously common mistake is when students write “The person that…”

Okay. Let me break this down for all of the psychopaths in the room: PEOPLE ARE NOT OBJECTS. (Unless they are).

The word “that” does not apply to people.

Basically, here is the rule: when referring to people, use “who.” You write “The person/doctor/teacher/engineer/writer/artist who…” 

The rules are a little different for prose, because “that” can be treated as a relative pronoun (and has been so for about a thousand years at least), but by and large, avoid it. Use “who” for people and “that” for things. Just as it sounds ridiculous to say “The forest who we all visited,” it is equally ridiculous to say “We that visited the forest.”

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move on to something trickier: Who and Whom.

It’s not actually tricky. I was just trying to get you interested. I doubt it worked.

Anyway, here it is, plain and simple: “Whom” is an object, “Who” is a subject/part of a modifier.

In layman’s terms, you write “Whom” when something is done to it (“To those whom Oleander wronged”) and “Who” in all other instances, usually active (“Those who wronged Oleander”).

That’s it. That’s the difference.

Now, what about “that” and “which?” Well, they aren’t interchangeable, unfortunately. But it’s actually pretty easy: “which” applies when the information provided isn’t part of a restrictive clause, and a “that” when it is part of a restrictive clause. 

Let’s look at an example:

“The firefly that was in the jar escaped.”

This means that there was only one firefly in the jar. If there was more than one firefly in the jar, this wouldn’t be correct. The word “that” restricts the contents of the jar to a maximum of one firefly— but that doesn’t mean there weren’t sticks and leaves in it. Understand? Now, try this one:

“The firefly, which was in the jar, escaped.”

This means only that there was at least one firefly in the jar. That is all; it leaves the rest of the contents unmentioned. It doesn’t restrict the contents of the jar.

That’s really all there is to it, because there aren’t many other clear rules that differentiate the differences between “which” and “that.”

Oh, and as a brief aside before I wrap up: Whose is the possessive of “who,” not who’s, which is a contraction of “who is.” Don’t mix them up.




So there you have it: five more common mistakes students make on their papers. Don’t become a statistic! Arm yourself with the knowledge found here, and, thus prepared, face down your papers with a stiff upper lip!

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