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13.1: Common Errors in Grammar and Punctuation

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Lesson Objectives

  • Identify and correct subject/verb agreement errors.
  • Identify and correct comma splices.
  • Avoid creating fragments with semicolons.
  • Capitalize titles, names, and events properly.
  • Avoid unnecessary passive voice.

Subject/Verb Agreement

Sometimes a long phrase or clause will separate a subject from a verb. Consider the following error in subject/verb agreement:

  • The play with such true witticisms and parables come highly recommended.

The author has misconstrued the subject as “witticisms and parables” and has thus used the plural form of the verb. You must always identify the actual subject of the sentence—in this case the noun “play.” One way to identify the subject of a sentence is to find the word or phrase that comes before the verb and does not modify anything else. Prepositional phrases can never act as the subject of the sentence, so you can separate them with brackets to find the subject:

  • The play [with such true witticisms and parables] comes highly recommended.

Subjects can be phrases as well. Consider these two examples:

  • To attend a party without pants is quite foolish.
  • Running a marathon is his idea of a vacation!

In the above sentences, the underlined phrases function as subjects. Subject phrases always take singular verbs.

There are also several rules related to the conjunctions and, or, and nor. If the subject is composed of two or more nouns or pronouns connected with an and, then the verb is plural:

  • Her watch and wallet were stolen from the locker at the train station.

When two or more singular nouns are connected by or or nor, use the singular form of the verb:

  • A socket wrench or power drill is a good tool to have in a situation like this.

If one of the nouns connected with or or nor is plural, use the plural form of the verb if the plural noun is closer. However, if the singular noun is closer to the verb, use the singular form of the verb:

  • A power drill or socket wrenches are good tools to have in a situation like this.
  • Socket wrenches or a power drill is a good tool to have in a situation like this.

There are a few exceptions to the rule of subject/verb agreement. Some nouns such as civics, politics, mathematics, measles, mumps, and news take the singular form of the verb:

  • The news is dire.
  • Politics is becoming more optimistic these days.

Review Questions

Circle the correct form of the verb in each sentence.

  1. There is/are fewer criminals on the street since the law was passed.
  2. That may be, but there is/are no evidence that it’s making us any safer.
  3. Mathematics is/are the fundamental language of psychics.
  4. Jerry, who runs around all weekend trying to find great deals at big-box stores, sometimes lose/loses sight of what’s really important.
  5. Civics is/are taught in every high school in America.
  6. The protesters holding that hand-painted sign seem/seems really motivated.
  7. Throwing politicians to the media sharks does/do them some good.
  8. Neither the sword nor the pen is/are most mighty in this situation.
  9. Charity or alms helps/help those suffering most from the recession.
  10. Potassium and water is/are a dangerous combination!

Commas and Semicolons

Avoid using commas to connect independent clauses. Consider the following comma splices:

Example 1 - I finally found my keys, I got to work just in time.

Example 2 - It rained heavily during the afternoon, however we still managed to have a picnic.

Use a period, semicolon, or coordinating conjunction to connect independent clauses:

Example 1 - I finally found my keys, and I got to work just in time.

Example 2 - It rained heavily during the afternoon; however, we still managed to have a picnic.

For a definition and examples of independent clauses, see Chapter 12, Lesson 1. For a definition of and examples of coordinating conjunction, see Chapter 12, Lesson 1.

In most cases, we only use semicolons to connect two independent clauses. Avoid using semicolons to separate words or phrases from the independent clause.

Example 1 - The roof of that car was covered in Astroturf; a strange sight!

Example 2 - Quentin’s father gave him a golden pocket watch; which was a priceless family heirloom.

Use dashes to emphasize or set off a phrase, or use a comma to set off a phrase if you do not want to convey as much emphasis.

Example 1 - The roof of that car was covered in Astroturf—a strange sight!

Example 2 - Quentin’s father gave him a golden pocket watch, which was a priceless family heirloom.

See Chapter 13 to review the uses of the comma, semicolon, and dash.

Review Questions

Each sentence has either a comma splice or sentence fragment. Correct comma splices by replacing them with a period, semicolon, or coordinating conjunction. Correct sentence fragments by either omitting the semicolon completely or replacing the semicolon with a comma or dash.

  1. I gave my mother a box of chocolates for her birthday, she was pleased.
  2. Susan was sitting off in the corner; without a care in the world.
  3. When they were kids they made homemade lemonade, they sold it for two bucks a pop.
  4. Without support from the president; the bill failed to make it through Congress.
  5. Construction continued unabated for more than two months, I wasn’t getting much sleep.

Passive Voice

In English grammar, we make a distinction between active voice and passive voice. In sentences written with active voice, the subject is doing the action.

  1. The student wrote the paper.
  2. Rainwater flooded the basement.
  3. Jose argued that his house was no place for a dance party.

In sentences written with passive voice, the subject is acted upon. Consider the same examples written in passive voice.

  1. The paper was written by the student.
  2. The basement was flooded by rainwater.
  3. That his house was no place for a dance party was argued by Jose.

Compare the third example in both instances: They both have the same fundamental meaning, but the sentence written in passive voice is vague and awkwardly worded, while the same sentence in active voice is clearer and more succinct.

Use the following steps to determine if a sentence is written in passive voice. We’ll use the same example sentence.

Example 1 - The subject is not conducting the action, but is being acted upon.

That his house was no place for a dance party was argued by Jose.

Example 2 - A form of the be verb (am, is, are, was, were) appears with the past participle (-ed or –en) form of the verb.

That his house was no place for a dance party was argued by Jose.

Example 3 - The preposition “by [noun phrase]” either appears in the sentence or can be added. That his house was no place for a dance party was argued by Jose.

See Chapter 12, Lesson 2, for a definition and examples of prepositions and prepositional phrases.

Eliminate passive voice by making the subject the doer of the action. You can convert a sentence to active voice by exchanging the object of the preposition and the subject of the passive sentence

Passive Voice - That his house was no place for a dance party was argued by Jose.

Invert the subject and object, and the sentence changes to active voice.

Active Voice - Jose argued that his house was no place for a dance party.

However, sometimes passive voice is preferable when the object being acted upon is more important or when the doer of action is unknown.

Example 1 - The rainfall total was measured using standard practices.

Example 2 - My car was broken into last night.

Review Questions

Convert the following sentences from active voice to passive voice. If necessary, invent a subject for the active construction.

  1. Mistakes were made by top-level officials.
  2. The electricity was turned off by the power company.
  3. The vase was broken.
  4. The scientists’ assertions could not have been believed.
  5. When was the law implemented?

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