Why have so many of your teachers insisted that you write grammatically correct sentences? Does that mean that the writing and speaking you do outside of class is incorrect? That depends. Depends on what? If you’d like to consider this, read the article under the bulleted list. If you’d prefer just to review some of the most common grammatical errors that college students make in writing assignments—and how to fix them—read the items in the list. If you’re confident about avoiding common errors and want to push your writing toward greater complexity, check out the articles labeled “Varsity Sentence Practice.”
The language people use to communicate varies from context to context. How you speak and write to friends is probably different from how you speak and write to teachers, employers, and others outside your social circle. Being able to use language appropriate to varied situations is a trait of a skillful communicator.
“Proper” or “correct” grammar refers to a set of rules established and maintained over time that apply to some, but not necessarily all, situations. These rules, and the judgments that they can imply about communicators who choose not to follow them—or don’t know how—have awakened anxiety in generations upon generations of student writers. We might be better off, as linguist, professor, and New York Times columnist John McWhorter suggests, by recognizing that we all use language formally and informally, with these ways—these contexts and who we are within them—determining what’s “proper,” to use McWhorter’s term, or “improper.” Read a poem or novel and you’ll see what are considered “rules” in one context “broken” to eloquent effect in another, just as you might hear yourself “breaking” them in everyday social communication without anyone noticing or caring.
When it comes to college coursework, most student writers can expect professors to grade their writing, to some degree, on how correctly the work was written—that is, to what degree the writing aligns with formal conventions (rules, in other words). An academic essay, by the way, might be considered a form of writing bound by certain conventions (a.k.a. “proper” grammar). Again, how you use language—correctly, incorrectly, and so on—depends on context: the course, the assignment, the professor, your purpose, and your audience.
The articles below (and linked from the bulleted list above) offer examples of the most common grammatical errors that college students make in their writing and some basic rules governing correct writing. These examples cover neither all grammatical errors nor all rules. Consider them a starting point, a foundation upon which to build proficiency at writing with clarity, complexity, and eloquence appropriate to the varied writing tasks that college students encounter.
Note that the articles labeled “Varsity Sentence Practice” focus less on error patterns than on what some writing professors call “mature” structures, structures that offer student writers a way to craft sentences that match the complexity, creativity, and depth of the ideas that the writer wishes to convey. (That last sentence, by the way, contains a mature structure known as a noun-phrase appositive.)
McWhorter, John. “Opinion | Sometimes ‘Proper’ Speech Isn’t Correct Speech.” The New York Times, 17 June 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/17/opinion/proper-speech.html. Accessed 21 July 2022.
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