Top Ten College Student Errors

1. Wrong word
2. Missing comma after an introductory element
3. Incomplete or missing documentation
4. Vague pronoun reference
5. Spelling (including homonyms)
6. Mechanical error with a quotation
7. Unnecessary comma
8. Unnecessary and missing capitalization
9. Missing word
10. Faulty sentence structure
11. Missing comma with a nonrestrictive element
12. Unnecessary or missing apostrophe (including its/it’s)
15. Fused (run-on) sentence
16. Comma splice
17. Lack of pronoun-antecedent agreement
18. Poorly integrated quotation
19. Unnecessary or missing hyphen
20. Sentence fragment

This list is the result of a recent updating of a survey first done in the late 1980s. Here’s a kind of explanation or summary from one of the researchers:

First, with the help of technology, spelling errors have dramatically declined. But the study also found that wrong-word errors–for example, the kind that result when a student spells definitely incorrectly and allows a spell-checker to change it to defiantly–are the new number one error. Second, new problems related to research and documentation appear in the top twenty today. In 1986, no documentation mistakes appeared in the top twenty because students were writing personal narratives or were doing close readings of a literary text. Today, students are writing research-based essays and arguments, which demand at least some use of sources–and hence a completely understandable increase in errors related to the use of those sources.

Perhaps most importantly, the research points out that students today are writing longer, more complex work for their college courses (more than twice as long, on average, as essays written in 1986)–without a significant increase in the rate of error.

Andrea A. Lunsford, Lundsford Handbook Website

I think this is useful information, particularly for students, who might use the list as a starting point for their own revision process. Dr. Lunsford’s summary is persuasive as well. The details of the research project don’t seem to be available on the site. I would love to see this research correlated with the socioeconomic changes of the last twenty years.

I wonder, too, about the demographic profile of the essays the researchers used. Were they mostly PhD granting institutions or did they also include community colleges and the so-called comprehensives? And, finally, I wonder if it is at all possible that the research included samples from the emerging (alternative or second) system of online writing education? My guess is that it did not. How do we know that final papers are due soon? My geeky friends check the statistics on the popular search engines.

One good place is the Yahoo Buzz website, which is a kind of blog about the Internet company’s various projects and related interests. Gordon Hurds notes that the use of particular search terms rise sharply around this time of year. “Search is indeed a useful tool, but it’s no replacement for the real thing. No matter how much you search for “spark notes” (+202%), “cliffs notes” (+186%), and the like, none of that will replace actually reading “The Great Gatsby” (+174%).” F. Scott Fitzgerald was never my favorite, I wish more folks were teaching Dorris Lessing or Octavia Butler.


About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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