Common Composition Errors Helping ENGL 1030 Students Discover & Prevent Common Writing Errors

Welcome to Common Composition Errors. This page was created as my final project in ENGL 8850; however, I hope that it will also prove useful for ENGL 1030 students and instructors!

During my time as a tutor in the Clemson Writing Center, I observed that many students (at the 1030 level and beyond) often make very similar errors. These errors are easily fixable if the student is aware of what they are and how they can be avoided. The goal of this blog is to identify some of these common errors and provide students with the tools to remove these errors and improve their writing.

I hope that this resource will prove helpful for you!

Carley Robertson

Lesson #1

Scare Quotes

So what is it? Scare Quotes are basically unnecessary quotation marks around a phrase. These quotation marks are not needed because the phrase is not a direct quotation from a source. Students often use scare quotes around a common saying or a phrase that we might put air quotes around if we were speaking in person.

Here are some examples:

  • Prince Charming presents himself as "good" guy.
  • Mulan appears to be "one of the guys."
  • Woody "accidentally" lets Buzz fall out of the bedroom window.
If you want to see more funny scare quotes, The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks ( has a great collection!

So how do you fix/avoid this error? The best way to avoid this problem is to only use quotation marks around information that you can cite. Direct quotations from your primary and secondary sources are always good. If it's just a word or phrase you want to emphasize, there is no need for quotes.

Lesson #2

Punctuating Quotes & In-Text Citations

So what is it? MLA style strikes fear into the heart of every composition student. It can be frustrating to remember how the in-text citations work, but in my experience, many students make it more complicated than it actually is. The key is to ensure that your reader is able to find where your information came from.

Here's a few things to remember:

  • The in-text citation usually comes at the end of your sentence in parentheses and should contain the author's last name and the page number. For example, (Smith 47).
  • In MLA style, there is no comma in between the author's last name and the page number.
  • If you use the author's name in the sentence, you do not necessarily need to put it in the parenthetical citation. For example: Smith argues "blah blah blah" (47).
  • As shown in the example above, if the quote comes at the end of the sentence, the period goes after the citation.
  • Some sources, like online web pages, do not have page numbers. In this case, use the author's last name and n.p. (which stands for no pagination).

These are the basics but there are always sources that can complicate the normal form. If you have questions about whether or not your in-text citations are correct, use resources like the Purdue OWL website to check your work. This website also has a detailed description of how your citations on your work cited page should look!

Lesson #3


This one is pretty easy, but also really difficult to catch. Academic writing does not use contractions (like don't, isn't, would've, etc.). Even when we know this, it is easy for these to slip into our essays, simply because this is how we speak. Also, we often do not catch contractions when we reread our essays to edit.

Some tips to fix this problem:

  • Scan through your paper backwards. When you are not reading the content of the paper and just looking at the individual words, it is much easier to find contractions.
  • Print out your paper and mark the errors like your professor would. Although it is still possible to read over the contractions, it is much easier to catch errors in print than on a computer screen.
  • Have someone else read your paper. It is always a good idea to have a fresh set of eyes on your work. They will almost always catch an error that you would not have caught otherwise. You can use a friend, but I recommend making an appointment with a Writing Center tutor.

Lesson #4

Ambiguous Pronouns

By ambiguous pronouns, I simply mean that these pronouns have multiple possible antecedents; therefore, it is unclear as to what these pronouns refer.

For example, if you are talking about two male characters in a sentence and you say he or his, your reader may not be able to determine which character you are referring to. Thankfully, this is an easy fix.

  • Before - Mark and John asked his mom if they could go out and play.
  • After - Mark and John asked Mark's mom if they could go out and play.


One of the most common ambiguous pronouns is this. We commonly use it to condense complex ideas or to refer to quotes, but it can easily confuse the reader. Especially keep an eye out for sentences that begin with this. These sentences usually make it difficult for a reader to understand your ideas.

For example, if you have a sentence that says, "This shows the character's strong moral center," the This could mean the entire paragraph before, an entire lengthy quote, the last part of a quote, etc.

An easy way to fix this problem is to use this as a determiner with a singular noun following it, instead of as a pronoun. So "This shows the character's strong moral center" becomes "This interaction shows the character's strong moral center."

While this change might seem insignificant, it will make a big difference in the clarity of your writing.

Lesson #5

Lengthy Quotes

If you are using long quotes (by this I mean quotes that are three lines or longer), here are some helpful tips:

  • Quotes that are that are longer than three lines have special formatting. These quotes are called block quotes.
  • Note from the above video that block quotes are indented over and do not have quotations around them.
  • Of course, do not forget your citation at the end of the quote!
  • When you resume writing, go to the beginning of the next line with no indent.
  • If you are quoting poetry in a block quote, format the line breaks the way they are in the source.
  • It is okay to use a lengthy quote, but do not just use block quotes to fill up space and get you to your length requirement. Every quote you choose should be absolutely necessary. Ask yourself: Does this information need to be said in these exact words or can I paraphrase? Do I need this entire quote or do I only need one portion of it?
  • Try to have as at least much of your own words as you do quotations. This means if you have a four line block quote, you should have four or more lines of your own words/analysis, too.

Lesson #6

Integrating Quotes

One way to make your writing clearer, or flow better as we often say, is to ensure that the quotations you use are properly integrated into the rest of your essay. More simply: do not simply drop quotes into the middle of your paragraphs.

Here is what non-integrated quotes look like:

Alice does not seem to like the citizens of Wonderland. “It was, no doubt: only Alice did not like to be told so. ‘It really is dreadful,’ she muttered to herself, ‘the way all the creatures argue. It’s enough to drive one crazy!’” (Carroll 44).

As you can see, because the quote is not connected to my own ideas, it is not very clear why I chose that quote or what I think it is saying.

A better way to use this quote would be:

Alice does not seem to like the citizens of Wonderland. She claims that their constant arguing is "enough to drive one crazy" (Carroll 44).

Of course, this is not the only way to integrate quotes into your essay. The video below very clearly outlines four easy ways to integrate quotations into your own writing.

They key is to make sure that you are actually saying something about the quotes you are using. If you are not, then you are not actually analyzing the evidence and you might not need that quote.

Lesson #7

Parallel structure

So what is it? - Parallel structure is a list of two or more ideas that uses the same pattern of words. This assigns the same level of importance to each of the ideas and makes your writing flow really well.

Parallel structure can happen at the word, phrase, or clause level. The ideas are usually joined with a conjunction like "and" or "or."

At the word level, Parallel structure is commonly achieved at the word level through gerunds (the -ing form) or infinitive phrases, but can be achieved in various other forms. Below are examples.

  • Sam likes reading, swimming, and fishing.
  • Sam likes to read, to swim, and to fish.
  • Sam likes to read, swim, and fish.
  • Jess reads quietly, quickly, and accurately

The important thing to remember is to ensure that the form of each of your ideas is the same.

The sentences below are NOT parallel:

  • Sam likes reading, swimming, and to fish.
  • Jess reads quietly, quickly, and with accuracy.

At the clause level, ensure that the phrasing of each clause is the same. This usually means ensuring that each clause begins the same way. Use the same verb style for each clause. Below are some examples.

  • Kate told Joey that he is not motivated, does not try hard enough, and will fail the class.
  • Kate explained that homework is important, that a study schedule is helpful, and that the final test is 30% of the final grade.
  • Joey promised to study, to try hard, and to get a good grade on the test.

Lesson #8


Students often say that conclusions are the most difficult part of a paper to write. With a few helpful tips, we can make conclusions a less daunting hurdle to jump. After all, if you make it to your conclusion, then you are in the home stretch.

  • Do tie all of your points together and wrap up your argument. - Your conclusion is your last chance to really convince your reader of your argument, so take advantage of it.
  • Do not summarize your entire argument. - Your reader just read your entire paper and does not want to read a condensed version of everything he or she just spent the last several pages reading. A summary of your entire paper is not the best use of your conclusion.
  • Try to answer the question SO WHAT? - I know that teachers have said this for years and some students do not quite know what this means. Basically, you want to tell your reader why your argument is important and why they should care. It could be because it gives insight to a character, or perhaps, it speaks to larger themes in the author's work. If you are working on a research paper, why did you choose this topic? Is it relevant to our current political climate? Is the public largely uninformed about your topic? These are just a few of the directions you can take when trying to answer your so what question.

Some Final Helpful Tips

  • Start early! - I know your professors will beat this into you, and for many, it will never sink in. Yes, it is possible to write an essay that will meet the length requirements and the prompt overnight, but will it be a good essay? No. You will be far less likely to catch errors like the ones listed above, and your writing will be far less refined. Your best writing will come from drafting and editing, not from your initial draft.
  • Take breaks! - An advantage of starting writing your essays earlier is that it will allow you to take breaks in writing. It always helps to walk away from an essay and come back to it with fresh eyes. You will be able to catch errors, fix awkward wording, and polish your writing much easier when you have not been staring at the same Word document for hours. Write a paragraph or two and take a break for 15 minutes or so. Write your first draft on Monday afternoon and come back to it on Tuesday night. Find a system that works for you!
  • Ask for help! - Schedule an appointment at the Writing Center. Go to your professor's office hours. These resources are here to help you. Do not be intimidated. All of the Writing Center tutors and all of your professors just want to help you become a better writer, and their assistance is certain to help you improve.
  • Do not let your intro & thesis scare you! - I had so many students come to me in the Writing Center who simply could not get past their intro. They wanted it to be perfect before they moved on, and if they could not articulate a thesis, then they would just stew on it. This is not always the best method. Sure, you need to have some idea of what you are writing before you start, but if you get hung up on the intro, the rest of the paper will never get written. Get some initial thoughts out there, a tentative thesis, or even just a placeholder and then move on. Write your body paragraphs; get your information out there, and then return to your intro and thesis and make it match your information.
  • Do not use "I'm just not good at writing" or "I'm just not an English person" as an excuse - I hear this from students all the time. Of course, the field of English might not be for you. You might not enjoy writing, but it is simply not true that you cannot write. It just takes practice and time. Everyone (English majors, grad students, your professors) has to practice writing, and even with years of practice, it still takes a good amount of time and many drafts to produce a good essay. You can be a good writer, too, if you put in the effort.
  • Just keep writing! - This point echoes the previous two points; however, it is the best advice I can give you. When you think you are stuck and cannot come up with anymore ideas, keep writing! Write down any thoughts that you have about your topic. Even if you end up scrapping 95% of it in the end, the 5% that forms a good idea is worth it. Your best ideas and analysis will also often come from the 5%, but you will never get to some of these amazing ideas if you do not write out the 95% of not so great ideas first.


Created with images by congerdesign - "books study literature"

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.