How to Use This Handbook

You may use the Handbook on your own when you edit your essays, or your instructor may refer you to specific sections to correct errors in your writing. If using the Handbook on your own, check the Handbook Contents on the previous page, or look in the index for the kind of error you are concerned about.

Your instructor may use the Handbook’s letter-and-number system to lead you directly to information about a specific topic—for example, if your instructor noted “P1-b” in the margin of your essay, it would mean you had omitted a necessary comma following an introductory word, phrase, or clause. The Handbook Contents connects codes to page numbers (in this case, H-51) in the Handbook. As an alternative, you can find P1-b by looking through the tabs at the tops of the pages. Each tab indicates the section code for that page and an abbreviation or symbol for the topic covered. [[LP xref: Delete and close up space.]] If your instructor indicates errors with correction symbols such as frag or ww, you can find the section where the error is covered by checking the list of correction symbols in the back of this book.

When you locate the section that will help you correct an error or make a sentence more concise or graceful, you will find a brief explanation and examples of correct usage, along with one or more hand-corrected sentences that demonstrate how to edit a sentence. Terms are defined in the margin. If your instructor has assigned this book with LaunchPad (an online course space and e-book), use your activation code to practice these skills in LearningCurve, an adaptive, game-like quizzing program that quickly learns what you already know and helps you practice what you don’t yet understand. LearningCurve activities appear in the Handbook and other relevant sections of the e-book.

While developing this Handbook, ten college writing instructors and four professional editors worked together to identify the twenty-five most common errors [[LP xref: Hyperlink FN to pop out text when student mouses over callout.]]* in more than five hundred student essays written in first-year composition courses. These errors are listed below in order of descending frequency. The codes in bold following each error indicate the section number in this Handbook where you can find help with understanding and correcting each error in your own writing.

Top 25 Errors in Student Papers

  1. Wordiness W1-a–W1-c

  2. Misused word W2-a, W2-e

  3. Incorrect or ambiguous pronoun reference G1

  4. Verb tense errors G5-a, G5-b

  5. Missing comma between independent clauses P1-a

  6. Problems with hyphens between compound adjectives M1-a

  7. Missing comma after introductory elements P1-b

  8. Capitalization of proper or common nouns M2-a

  9. Unnecessary comma between compound elements P2-a


  10. Incorrect spacing M3

  11. Missing words E1-a–E1-d

  12. Missing comma with nonrestrictive word groups P1-c

  13. Comma splice or fused sentence S1, S2

  14. Problems in using quotation marks with other punctuation P6-b

  15. Missing or unnecessary hyphens in compound nouns M1-b

  16. Missing comma with transitional and parenthetical expressions, absolute phrases, and contrasted elements P1-d

  17. Problems of pronoun-antecedent agreement G2

  18. Incorrect preposition W2-b, T3

  19. Misuse of who, which, or that G3

  20. Unnecessarily complex sentence structure W1-b

  21. Spelling out or using figures for numbers incorrectly M4

  22. Problems with apostrophes in possessive nouns P7-a

  23. Sentence fragment S3

  24. Missing comma in items in a series P1-e

  25. Unnecessary comma with restrictive word groups P2-b

This list of the top twenty-five errors can be categorized into the following five major patterns of errors. You may find it useful to keep these patterns in mind as you edit your work.

  1. Missing or unnecessary commas (P1-a–P1-d, P2-a–P2-g)

  2. Errors in word choice (W1-a–W1-d, W2-a–W2-d)

  3. Errors in pronoun reference, agreement, or use (G1, G2, G3)

  4. Verb tense errors (G5-a, G5-b)

  5. Errors in recognizing and punctuating sentences—comma splices, fused sentences, fragments (S1, S2, S3)