Students understanding the complexity of language

Chapter 08-04: Punctuation – Patterns of Error


chapter 8: punctuation - patterns of error

All writers should be reflective enough to understand their  strengths and weaknesses as writers, including style and punctuation. This same sentiment should apply to teachers of writing, as well. In  this respect, everyone should develop their reflective skills for determining if they make certain errors consistently. In other words,  you should recognize patterns of error that you make in order to fix  them more effectively.
As a teacher, this means that rather than being a copy  editor on student drafts and marking every, single error, take a broader  perspective to see if you can recognize patterns of error in your  students’ writing, both as individuals and as a whole class. This will  provide you with more effective opportunities for addressing the biggest  or most common punctuation problems that your students might have.
On this page, we discuss some of the more  common patterns of punctuation errors at the sentence, clause, phrase,  and word levels.


Sentence-Level Errors
The three most common sentence-level errors are the run-on sentence, the comma splice, and the sentence fragment.

The run-on sentence is the fusing of two  independent
clauses without using proper punctuation (a period or a  semicolon) or without using an appropriate structure-class word  (coordinator, subordinator, relative, nominal-that, interrogative, or  conjunctive adverb) to create a grammatically correct structure.
  • *Jenny hit the ball she ran to first. – Run-On
  • Jenny hit the ball. She ran to first.
  • Jenny hit the ball, and she ran to first.
  • Jenny hit the ball, then she ran to first.
You should be able to recognize if two (or more) independent clauses are joined incorrectly.
NOTE: just because a sentence is loooooooong doesn’t mean that it’s a run-on sentence. A run-on sentence has a very specific definition: when two independent clauses are fused without proper punctuation.


The comma splice is a variation on the run-on in that it incorrectly separates two independent clauses with a comma.
  • *Jenny hit the ball, she ran to first. – Comma Splice
  • Jenny hit the ball. She ran to first.
  • Jenny hit the ball, and she ran to first.
  • Jenny hit the ball, then she ran to first.
You should be able to recognize if two independent clauses  are joined incorrectly.


Finally, the sentence fragment occurs when  one of the primary clause constituents (subject or main verb phrase) is  missing and it attempts to stand independently. Confusion about  nonfinite verb phrases is probably the biggest culprit in creating  fragments:

  • *The listless, scraping sounds of fingertips against the door. – Fragment (No Main Verb Phrase)
  • *Nothing left for her to glean from their lifeless eyes except that grim reminder. (No Main Verb Phrase)
More commonly, a sentence fragment occurs when a dependent  clause is punctuated like an independent clause. As you know, a  dependent clause cannot stand alone.
  • *After she hit the ball. Jenny ran to first. – Fragment
  • After she hit the ball, Jenny ran to first.
Writers sometimes use sentence fragments for rhetorical effect. While they are not grammatically complete clauses, sentence  fragments can sometimes be appropriate in the context of the purpose,  genre, and audience of a piece of writing. Rhetorically effective and  appropriate sentence fragments typically occur more often in fictional and literary prose, rather than non-fictional and technical prose.
In  the example below from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, the sentence fragments function like indirect discourse to illustrate the yelling figures:
“And as I watched her lengthening out for the test, I saw, but  hoped that she did not see, the bishops and the deans, the doctors and  the professors, the patriarchs and the pedagogues all at her shouting  warning and advice. You can’t do this and you shan’t do that! Fellows  and scholars only allowed on the grass! Ladies not admitted without a  letter of introduction! Aspiring and graceful female novelists this way! So  they kept at her like the crowd at a fence on the race-course, and it  was her trial to take her fence without looking to right or left.”


Dangling and Misplaced Modifiers
dangling modifier is a modifier that  does not refer clearly to what it modifies. Dangling modifiers include  dangling participles and dangling infinitives.
To use a nonfinite verb phrase as a modifier, you can only  delete the subject of the nonfinite verb if it is the same as the  subject of the verb in the main clause. Here are some obvious examples:
  • Unable to start my car, my dog never arrived at the vet’s office.
  • While mixing the martinis, the olives spilled all over the floor.
  • Fully loaded, I can’t carry the suitcase.
To fix dangling modifiers, either rearrange the main clause  so that its subject is the same as the deleted subject, or supply the  subject for the dangling verb form.
  • Unable to start my car, I never arrived at the vet’s office with my dog.
  • While mixing the martinis, I spilled the olives all over the floor.
  • When the suitcase is fully loaded, I can’t carry it.
misplaced modifier is a modifier so positioned that it is difficult to decide what it modifies.
Since nonfinite verb phrases and prepositional phrases can  move around in a sentence, there is the potential for modifying more  than one constituent. For example:
  • They will rebuild the houses destroyed with stricter standards.
  • Mildred went shopping for a dog with a friend.
Fixing the problem is not always easy because simply moving  the phrase around in the sentence oftentimes produces awkward  alternatives:
  • They will rebuild with stricter standards the houses destroyed.
To fix misplaced modifiers, revise the sentence to clarify which  constituent the modifier refers to. If necessary, change the form of the  modifier (e.g. change a prepositional phrase into a participle phrase,  or a present-participle phrase into a relative clause).
  • Using stricter standards, they will rebuild the destroyed houses.
  • Mildred and a friend went shopping for a dog.
In conclusion, remember that a misplaced modifier means that the  referent is present in the sentence but the modifier is in the wrong  place because it is not close enough to the referent to make sense. A  dangling modifier means that the referent is not even present in the  sentence. This is an important distinction to be able to make.


Misuse of Pronouns
Finally, a common pronoun usage error is using only  masculine or feminine pronouns as generic pronouns to refer to anyone,  male or female, in a group of mixed or unknown sex. This sexist use of pronouns can seem to diminish or deny the presence of an entire gender. Traditional usage calls for writers to always use the masculine pronoun 
when referring to someone of unknown gender or a group of mixed gender.  Some writers choose instead to always use the feminine pronoun. This  leads to sentences such as:
  • Give someone a bottle of Irish Mist, and you give him hills that roll forever, lakes that radiate light.
  • A doctor must do what is best for her patients.
  • Each Fortune 500 CEO was given his own spread in a special edition of Forbes magazine.
The simplest way to fix sexist pronoun usage is to revise sentences to eliminate the need for a singular, gendered pronoun. Change  pronoun antecedents to non-gendered plurals:
  • Give your friends a bottle of Irish Mist, and you give them hills that roll forever, lakes that radiate light.
  • Doctors must do what is best for their patients.
  • All the Fortune 500 CEOs were given their own spread in a special edition of Forbes magazine.
A second common pronoun usage error is using singular and  plural pronouns in conjunction, which can lead to number-agreement  problems. When a singular indefinite pronoun is the antecedent, writers  commonly follow it with a plural pronoun. The use of the plural pronoun  is often an attempt to avoid sexist use of the masculine he/his or  feminine she/her. In many respects, this is an acceptable option, and one accepted by a variety of style guides, but it can also lead to grammatical number-agreement errors:
  • Our society has gotten to the point where each person does what’s right in their own eyes.
  • Everyone in the Girl Scout troop took off their shoes.
  • No one in the office would admit that they had crashed the computer server.
For the sake of precision, there are several easy ways to  fix number-agreement errors. First, you can change the antecedent to a plural, so that both antecedent and pronoun are plural. Second, if you know that everyone in the group referred to is either male or female, you can use the appropriately gendered pronoun. Third, you can replace 
the plural pronoun with both singular, gendered pronouns.
  • Our society has gotten to the point where all people do what’s right in their own eyes.
  • Everyone in the Girl Scout troop took off her shoes.
  • No one in the office would admit that he or she had crashed the computer server.
In general, many of these common errors occur because writers do  not take the time (or are not given the time) to edit their writing  closely. Writers should always set aside adequate time to edit for  appropriate punctuation and consistent use of all language elements.