TOP WEAKNESSES IN STUDENT PAPERS:
A guide to corrective deductions on your papers
Robert Oscar López
The table below reviews the most common weaknesses in student papers, offers ways to fix them, and lists the editorial codes to mark your essays.
Clutter: Too many words that don’t convey information, and clog the sentence.
Edit. Before you turn the paper in, do a careful review, sentence by sentence. Cut out clauses that don’t say anything important. If you find yourself short on pages after doing this edit, that means you aren’t addressing anything important; you’ve only fulfilled the minimum page requirement with useless junk. Make relevant points and convey information to get to the minimum.
Inaccurate statements: Referring to the text carelessly, and saying that it says something it doesn’t say. For example, “Helen accuses Hecuba of lying.” Helen never accuses Hecuba of lying, though you might be led to believe so if you are typing quickly and aren’t looking carefully at Trojan Women.
Check in with the text before you finalize your paper. For each reference to the text, verify that you are being accurate.
Fused sentences/comma splices. Grammatically invalid inclusion of two complete sentences when there should a period and new sentence, or a connector like a semicolon or the word “and.” If there is no comma at all, it is called a fused sentence. If there is a comma, it is called a comma splice. For example: “Pericles speaks to the Athenians they don’t listen though.” “Pericles speaks to the Athenians, they don’t listen though.”
Proofread. Learn the grammatical rule and apply it. You should not turn in rough drafts that haven’t been proofread. If you are scared you may miss the error, then try an easy shortcut trick: Force yourself to limit each sentence to only 12 words or fewer. You may not catch all your mistakes, but you will reduce the frequency of them.
FU or CS
Not enough introductory context. Jumping into an argument without letting the reader know what text you are discussing or why it matters. This is a more serious problem in longer papers than in daily assignments.
Check your introduction before turning in a longer paper. Disregard the fact that your original draft was answering a specific question. Pretend you are introducing the paper to someone who knows nothing about our class.
Pronoun/antecedent problems. Using a pronoun with an unclear antecedent, or mismatching a pronoun with its antecedent.
Make sure that every pronoun matches the antecedent it replaces in:
We’ve gone over this in class, but if you need more review, see me in office hours.
*[If the error consists of the student using “they,” “them,” “their” or “themselves” to refer to a singular antecedent, the penalty rises to -5]
Verb tenses. Mixing the past tense and the historical present.
Proofread. We’ve gone over this in class, but if you need more review, see me in office hours.
Proofread. Buy a dictionary if you tend to confuse two words with similar spellings but conflicting meanings, such as “compliment” or “complement.”
Weak adverbs and modifying clauses. Weighing down otherwise strong sentences with useless or limp adverbs and modifying clauses, such as “just” “significantly” or “in a ----- manner:”
Cut. Commit to never using the lame adverbial/modifying clauses below at all, because they are clichéd, weak, and irritating:
4) in a ---- manner
Use the following adverbs sparingly:
Nonsensical conjunctions and prepositions. Inserting connectors that render the sentence illogical. For example: “The Athenians held a trial in which they had to listen to arguments in.”
Proofread and pay attention to syntax. If you have a hard time trying to spot these errors, try shortening your sentences. Ban the following deadweight phrases that tend to convolute a sentence:
1) in which
2) due to the fact that
3) as to the fact that
5) by --------ing
6) to where
Come up with more to say. There’s no way around the fact that 3 pages for a 4-page assignment do not provide enough information to qualify for the basic needs of the essay.
Paper returned without being read; must be resubmitted for next class period.
General problem with syntax.
Sentence fragment. A string of words that the student has presented as a separate sentence, even though it is missing some key elements that are necessary for it to be a complete sentence. This is often a problem with phrases that begin with “that” which appear incorrectly to some students as complete thoughts rather than fragments of a compound sentence.
Proofread. Pay special attention to any sentences that begin with “that.”
Parallelism. Listing a “series” in which the elements in the series suddenly shift into conflicting roles within the sentence. For example: “I ate white toast, wheat cereal, and drank orange juice.” All three elements in the series – white toast, toast cereal, and drank orange juice – should technically be things that you ate. You don’t eat “drank orange juice.”
Be careful with any series including more than two phrases. Make sure that each item plays the same role in the sentence. If you can’t make the series work, break it up. Write: “I ate white toast and wheat cereal. I also drank orange juice.”
Apostrophes and plurals. For example: “Socrates argument was weak and the god’s did not defend him.” If you can’t see the errors in the sentence above, see me in office hours.
Poor nuance. Choosing words that are technically correct but weak, vague, inappropriate, repetitive, or unnecessary. This is particularly bad in introductions and conclusions.
Get a thesaurus and expand your vocabulary. Put thought into the right word to express what you want to say – not only its grammatical correctness, but its abstract appropriateness.
Dangling modifiers (either abverbs or modifying clause). These happen when there is an adverb or an entire clause (usually separated by a comma) that should be modifying the action undertaken by a nearby subject; yet the nearest subjects in the sentence are not undertaking the action that adverb or modifying clause is supposed to modify. For example, if you say “hopefully the rain will stop,” hopefully is a dangling adverb because technically it should describe way the rain will stop. It is of course impossible for rain to stop falling in a hopeful manner, since rain is incapable of experiencing hope. Another example would be “looking at this from another angle, Aeneas had a right to leave Dido.” Looking at this from another angle is probably describing the attitude of the essay’s author, and does not describe Aeneas’ state of mind as he left Dido.
Proofread, and try to match adverbs and clauses that describe actions (verbs) effectively to the nearest subject. You may need to add in a hypothetical subject to make it work. For instance, to solve the problem of “Looking at this from another angle, Aeneas had a right to leave Dido” you could adjust the sentence to say, “Looking at this from another angle, a reader would just as easily surmise that Aeneas was in his rights when he left Dido.”
Hyphens. Either a missing hyphen or a hyphen where it should not be. For instance, it is wrong to write that “twentieth century novels were long” because a hyphen is necessary when an adjective-noun combination describes another noun. The correct form would be “twentieth-century novels were long.” On the contrary, it is wrong to say, “novels were long in the nineteenth-century,” since in that phrase the adjective-noun combination does not describe another noun. The correct form would be “novels were long in the nineteenth century.”
Proofread and learn the rule over time.
No works-cited list.
Do a works-cited list, darnit!
Wrong MLA formatting.
Learn the MLA rules.
-.25, in minor cases
-2, if the problem is severe (such as failing to cite)
Paper returned for rewriting, in the case of a longer paper.
Specified in margins.