Common essay errors

I spend a lot of time marking essays and writing comments, and a large proportion of that time and effort is spent on grammatical and stylistic errors. I keep threatening to have rubber stamps made for the more common ones, which underlines the sad fact that an awful lot of these errors are common to an awful lot of students.

This checklist of the top ten common student essay errors, then, is an attempt to proactively treat your essay: if you look through this list and make a serious effort to avoid the errors it contains, I’ll have a lot more time to look at the content of your work, your argument and insight, rather than mechanistic mistakes. This will not only make me a lot happier, it will also give you a better chance to improve your essay-writing. It will also improve your mark: you are penalised for grammatical errors in an English essay. Writing correct English makes everyone happier, especially you. And you can feel the warm glow of pride which says you are not part of that awful horde of students whose abuse of the innocent apostrophe is hastening my decline…

1. Poor page layout and paragraphing.

2. Plagiarism.

3. Incorrect referencing.

4. Contractions, abbreviations and slang.

5. Incomplete sentences.

6. Spelling errors and word misuse.

7. Unformatted titles.

8. Incorrect use of apostrophes.

9. its/it’s

10. “that of”

1. Page layout and paragraphing.

This is not strictly grammar, but I spend a lot of time correcting it. Please note the following:

  • Margins should be at least 2cm wide. (In MSWord, you change this in the File menu, Page Setup option, Margins box – the first one).
  • Font should be 12 point, and preferably Times New Roman rather than something fancy. (In MSWord, highlight your whole essay (CTRL-A), and change the font settings in the frames just above the page.)
  • Lines should be DOUBLE-SPACED! (In MSWord, highlight your entire essay (CTRL-A), go to the Format menu, Paragraph option, and change Line Spacing from Single to Double).
  • Do not use point-form in an English essay; your sentences should flow.
  • Paragraphs should be complete and unbroken. You can use one of two formats: either leave an extra line at the end of every paragraph, OR start a new line and indent it one tab. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES MIX THE FORMATS!

2. Plagiarism.

Academic writing often requires you to read the critical works of other writers, and to incorporate their ideas into your essays. If, at any stage and in any way, you use an idea from a critical reading, and do not acknowledge that the idea is not your own, you are guilty of plagiarism. This is a horrible academic crime, and if you do it knowingly, deliberately and on a large scale, you could be expelled. In your essays, you must ALWAYS make perfectly clear WHICH IDEAS ARE YOURS and WHICH CAME FROM SOMEWHERE ELSE.

There are several errors which students consistently make. In the examples below, I’m quoting from the following Terry Pratchett extract:

Many things went on at Unseen University and, regrettably, teaching had to be one of them. The faculty had long ago confronted this fact and had perfected various devices for avoiding it.

But this was perfectly all right because, to be fair, so had the students…

And therefore education at the University mostly worked by the age-old method of putting a lot of young people in the vicinity of a lot of books and hoping that something would pass from one to the other, while the actual young people put themselves in the vicinity of inns and taverns for exactly the same reason.

(Terry Pratchett, Interesting Times).

  • DON’T assume that putting the source details into your bibliography is enough. You need to do that, but you also need to show which idea is someone else’s at the point in the essay when you use the idea.

  • DON’T assume that you don’t need to reference someone else’s idea when you’ve put it into your own words. Paraphrase of someone else’s idea doesn’t make it your idea.



Students at Unseen University prefer to avoid lectures and go to the pub.

Pratchett suggests that students at Unseen University prefer to avoid lectures and go to the pub.
  • DON’T use someone else’s exact phrasing without inverted commas. If you use their phrase, you need to show that it is a quote, so put it in quotation marks.


Students at Unseen University prefer to avoid lectures and put themselves in the vicinity of inns and taverns.

Even this is wrong:

Pratchett suggests that students at Unseen University prefer to avoid lectures and put themselves in the vicinity of inns and taverns.

Pratchett suggests that students at Unseen University prefer to avoid lectures and “put themselves in the vicinity of inns and taverns”.
  • DON’T assume that changing one word in a phrase makes it your own wording. If the phrase is recognisable as coming from your source, quote it accurately and put it in quotation marks.


Students at Unseen University prefer to avoid lectures and put themselves in the vicinity of pubs.

Even this is wrong:

Pratchett suggests that students at Unseen University prefer to avoid lectures and put themselves in the vicinity of pubs.

Pratchett suggests that students at Unseen University prefer to avoid lectures and “put themselves in the vicinity” of pubs.
  • DON’T rely too heavily on outside sources in your essays. If your essay is only other people’s ideas cobbled together, you won’t get good marks for it. Think for yourself, and use other sources only to back up what you say, or to provide an opposing point of view.
  • Especially, never, ever, EVER use essay sites such as Sparknotes as references in your own essays. They do NOT count as good academic sources; generally, the kinds of websites you reference in your academic essays should be academic sites, i.e. other universities, mostly with a .edu extension. Quite apart from this, the essays on Sparknotes and other essay sites are often very bad; you will lose rather than gaining marks by citing them.

3. Incorrect referencing.

Even when students are meticulous about acknowledging which ideas are theirs and which originate elsewhere, they frequently make errors in the format of referencing. You need to do two things when you reference a critical source:

  • You need to note the idea at the point in the essay when you use it; and
  • You need to provide a bibliography (or footnote) with the full reference for the source you have used.

There are several ways of referencing; different conventions exist, among them MLA convention, Harvard convention and the Chicago style. In the English department at UCT it doesn’t matter which one you use, but you must use it consistently throughout your essay.

Referencing in the body of your essay

At the point where you use the idea, the important things to include are:

  • the author’s surname;
  • the page reference (even if you have paraphrased);
  • some way of distinguishing between several works by the same author, if you have used more than one. Some conventions require you to include the year of publication, others allow you to quote the title.
  • If you are using a footnote citation, all the information (author, year, title, place, publisher, page reference) should go into the footnote.

Referencing in a bibliography

The bibliography is an alphabetical list by author of the sources you have used. Again, there are different formats which are acceptable, but the same information must be present in each. This is:

  • The author’s surname and initials or first name.
  • The year of publication of the work.
  • The title of the work; either the book title, or, if it is a chapter in a collection, or a journal article, the title of the article (in quotation marks) AND the title of the book or journal it comes from (underlined or italicised).
  • The place of publication, i.e. a city name.
  • The name of the publisher.

If you include websites, there is a slightly different format; you must include:

  • The FULL URL of the website; cut and paste this from your browser, there is nothing more irritating to a marker than having to try and find a site from an incorrect URL. This must include the full address of the actual page you used, not the general site address.
  • The NAME of the general site (e.g. The Victorian Web, AND the title of the specific page or article you used.
  • If you can find it, the AUTHOR of the particular page. If you can’t find a specific author, it’s usually a good hint that it’s not a suitable academic source.
  • The DATE of the article (usually a year); often this is included as a copyright date at the bottom of the article, together with the author’s name.
  • the DATE on which you accessed the page (day, month and year). This is because the Web is a changing medium; just because you found the article today doesn’t mean it’ll be there in a week.
  • It is never ever acceptable to reference a web page simply with the URL. Bad. Very bad.

4. Contractions, abbreviations and slang.

Academic essays are a formal mode of expression. This means that you use English which is much more formal than the language you would use in everyday conversation or, heaven forbid, e-mail or SMSes. You should never use slang phrases or contractions in an academic essay. I’ve listed some common ones below, but avoid anything similar.

As well as contractions and slang, please note that it is not appropriate to use numerals in an essay: talk about the nineteenth century, not the 19th century.

Other abbreviations that are inappropriate include vs, etc., i.e.



can’t, don’t, wouldn’t, haven’t, it’s

cannot, do not, would not, have not, it is

over the top

excessive, extreme

nice, cute

attractive, pleasant

getting stuck into

becoming involved with, engaged in, absorbed in

in a big way

powerfully, to a large extent


versus, as opposed to


among other examples


that is, in other words

5. Incomplete sentences.

Sentence construction is, apparently, a dying art. I see more mangled, fragmented, incomplete, crippled sentences than I do almost any other error. Please bear in mind the following basic rules for non-mutilated sentences:

  • Every sentence needs a verb. If it lacks a verb, it is not a sentence.
  • “Verb” here means MAIN VERB, which cannot be in a tense or form which renders it a dependant clause rather than a main clause.


Twenty-seven different student errors of maximum atrocity.

I counted twenty-seven different student errors of maximum atrocity.
  • The main verb in a sentence CANNOT be in the continuous form, i.e. it cannot have the -ing ending. The present continuous is a dependent tense, i.e. it must be attached to another clause with a proper, non -ing verb.


Placing themselves in the vicinity of taverns and ale-houses.

Even this is wrong:

The students placing themselves in the vicinity of taverns and ale-houses.

The students placed themselves in the vicinity of taverns and ale-houses.


Placing themselves in the vicinity of taverns and ale-houses, the students became extremely drunk and failed all their courses.

  • A sub-clause is not a sentence. A phrase which begins with or includes “although”, “since”, “because”, “which”, “who”, etc, cannot stand alone: it must be attached to a second phrase which completes the thought (and, usually, which contains the main verb).


The alehouse which the students frequent.

This is the alehouse which the students frequent.


The alehouse which the students frequent is called The Mended Drum.

  • As a random additional point while talking about sentence structure: please watch your tenses! The general convention when undertaking English analysis is to use present tense, and you should make sure that you stick to one tense throughout your essay! Moving from past to present within a few sentences, or sometimes within one sentence, is both inelegant and incorrect.


Pratchett believed that students liked to hang around in pubs.


Pratchett believed that students like to hang around in pubs.

Pratchett believes that students like to hang around in pubs.

6. Spelling errors and word misuse.

In an age of word processing, there is ABSOLUTELY no excuse for misspelling words. Run the spell-checker before you print out your essay. Really, I mean this. You lose marks for bad spelling. I tend to mentally reduce the mark by 1% for every error.

  • You should make sure that your word processor is set to UK English, not American English; American spellings are not correct for the South African context.
  • There is also no excuse for misspelling proper nouns such as personal names, because you should be copying them directly from the text which you are analysing. Errors such as “Jane Austin” for “Jane Austen” make me yelp in anguish and remove 2% from the mark. Check spellings with the original text, continually, while you write.
  • The major pitfall for students, spelling-wise, has become the one which your spellchecker cannot pick up: homophones and basic malapropisms. Homophones are words which sound the same but are spelt differently. Malapropism is the use of a completely incorrect word that often sounds only vaguely similar to the one you actually mean. Both are actual errors of knowledge, rather than errors of carelessness; most students seem to have two or three favourites which they consistently misuse. It is very much to your benefit to work out what your common errors are, and correct them when you write, rather than waiting for the marker to write rude comments all over your essay.
  • I cannot sufficiently overstate the importance of owning a good dictionary and USING IT OFTEN! If you’re not sure of the meaning of a word, LOOK IT UP!
  • Very common and recurring problems include loose/lose, then/than, were/where, ones/once, cites/sites, opposed to/a pose to.


You will loose marks for doing this.

You will not lose marks for doing this.

Spell-check rather then handing in error-filled work.

Spell-check rather than handing in error-filled work.

I correct student errors were I can.

I correct student errors where I can.

Ones upon a time, students used to learn grammar at school.

Once upon a time, students used to learn grammar at school.

This page sites famous author Terry Pratchett.

This page cites famous author Terry Pratchett.

7. Unformatted titles.

The title of a book or article, or even of a poem or story, needs to be distinguished from the rest of your text. This may sound simple, obvious and the kind of thing you learned at school, but you would be shocked and horrified to know how many students don’t bother to format titles correctly.

  • For a start, a title needs initial capitals. Long titles don’t need a capital on every word, conjunctions and prepositions are usually left in the lower case, but quite a lot of article titles capitalise major words. Thus Terry Pratchett’s book is called Interesting Times, NOT Interesting times or interesting times. Lemony Snicket’s series is called “A Series of Unfortunate Events”.
  • The text needs to be separated from normal, non-title text. There are various ways of doing this:
    • Article and poem titles usually go into inverted commas. Thus “Wind” is the title of a poem by Ted Hugues. “Common Student Essay Errors” is the title of this web page.
    • Book or film titles need to be underlined or italicised. Terry Pratchett’s book is called Interesting Times or Interesting Times.

Not formatting titles correctly is a foolish, careless, thoughtless error which wastes a great deal of my marking time. It’s a very simple rule. Apply it. Go on, I dare you.

8. Incorrect use of apostrophes.

Apostrophes are the bane of students and markers alike. There are two basic things to remember about apostrophes in academic essays:

  • Apostrophes can be used to denote contractions, i.e. a missed-out letter, as in “it’s going to rain” for “it is going to rain”. You should NEVER have to use them in this sense, since contractions are out of place in formal, academic writing – see above.
  • Apostrophes are used to denote a possessive, i.e. something belonging to someone or something else.
    • A singular noun takes an apostrophe and an s to denote the possessive. This also applies to singular nouns ending in ‘s’. Thus “Pratchett’s novel” but also “Dickens’s novel”, since there is only one of either Pratchett or Dickens.
    • A plural word ending in ‘s’ simply takes an apostrophe, NOT an additional ‘s’. Thus “the two writers’ novels have points of similarity.”
    • Irregular plurals which do not end in ‘s’ often take an apostrophe and an ‘s’, e.g. “the children’s games”, “women’s studies”.
    • APOSTROPHES ARE NEVER USED IN A NON-POSSESSIVE PLURAL! Using an apostrophe in a non-possessive plural is a hanging offense, or should be.
    • APOSTROPHES ARE NEVER, EVER USED IN A VERB ENDING! English has many verb endings which end in “s”. These are not possessives, ever, under any circumstances. “She walk’s” is so wrong it gives me actual pain to contemplate it.
    • Nouns ending in a vowel NEVER EVER TAKE AN APOSTROPHE IN A SIMPLE PLURAL! “Zulu’s” and “banana’s” is dead wrong unless you’re talking about things belonging to either the Zulu or the banana; don’t do it.


Terry Pratchetts novel

Terry Pratchetts’ novel

My cats name is Fish.

My cats’ name is Fish.

Terry Pratchett’s novel

My cat’s name is Fish.

I spend a lot of time correcting student’s errors.

I spend a lot of time correcting students’ errors.

Knight’s in shining armour

Knights in shining armour

The Zulu’s were a warlike nation.

The Zulus were a warlike nation,
Shaka Zulu’s nation was warlike.
  • I recommend, for a humorous look at heinous apostrophe crime, Bob the Angry Flower, see Bob’s Quick Guide To The Apostrophe, You Idiots!

    9. its/it’s

    When I die and the autopsy is performed, they will find the words “IT’S=IT IS. ITS=POSSESSIVE” engraved on my heart. It’s the favourite student error of all time, and the one for which I am definitely going to have a rubber stamp made, sometime, with bright red ink.

    • “It’s” is a contraction, it means “it is”, and you shouldn’t be using it in an academic essay, so that bit is easy.
    • “Its” as a possessive (something belonging to it) is an IRREGULAR CONSTRUCTION, i.e. it does NOT follow the usual apostrophe rules. Unlike other singular possessives, “its” DOES NOT TAKE AN APOSTROPHE. “Its” means “belonging to it”.


    The book does not live up to the description on it’s cover.

    The book does not live up to the description on its cover.

    10. “that of”

    I have included this in a little section on its own, because it annoys me. Students often seem to feel that their language needs to be more complex in order to sound academic, and they try to achieve this complexity by adding random phrases to make sentences more elaborate. “That of” is a favourite example, and its use is almost always horribly incorrect.

    • Don’t feel you have to make your language more complex, for a start. If you write simply, clearly, correctly and without slang phrases, you’ll be fine.
    • “That of” cannot simply be added to a phrase, because it is used only to be more specific about a general idea you have already introduced. If you have not already introduced the general idea in your sentence, you cannot use “that of.”


    I very much dislike that of over-elaborate language.

    A common student error is that of over-elaborate language.


    The error of over-elaborate language is linked to that of grammatical incorrectness.
  • Comments are closed.