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Show Your Brilliance: Writing Errors to Avoid

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Imagine a student paper that begins like this:

It’s important to realize that honoring place is a tenant of many religions, and one should include worship spaces whilst writing about “scared things”. Amongst the many furnishings of a church, it’s interesting to pay attention to the alter. The history of church architecture lead to larger and more elaborate worship spaces with more ornate alters. A church historian said, “Larger alters changed the relationship between scared time and scared space”.

Things That Annoy Me

I admit that this example may be a bit of exaggeration on my part, but it demonstrates some of the most common annoyances I encounter in student papers for my Religious Studies classes. Like all readers, I have my preferences and annoyances, and many of the latter show up regularly in student papers that I read:

  • It’s important to realize — Don’t tell readers what is important, make it important for them.
  • a tenant of many religions — A common mistake, either as misspelling or ignorance, to substitute “tenant” for “tenet.” Yes, some religions may have rental properties with tenants, but almost always the intention here is for the tenets, i.e., important principles or beliefs, of a religion.
  • whilst writing — Although “whilst” may be grammatically correct when used as a conjunction or relative adverb, its use remains infrequent in U.S. English. For a while (never a “whilst”) it seemed that nearly every student inserted “whilst” whenever possible, but it has been falling off a bit in the last couple years. I suspect it has something to do with the Harry Potter generation.
  • “scared things”— Sacred misspelled as “scared” may be the most common spelling error in Religious Studies papers. Most often it is nothing more than a typo not caught by the spellcheck, although sometimes, as in this example, the persistent misspelling may indicate a great fear of all things sacred.
  • things”. — This may be the most common difficulty in all of undergraduate writing: how to punctuate a quotation. In conventional U.S. English, periods and commas always go inside the closing quotation mark. But no matter how often I point out this error or mark them down for it, many students persevere. Maybe it’s genetically imprinted.
  • Amongst — Same as whilst: can we just use among and while?
  • it’s interesting to pay attention — Like the problem with importance, same with interest: Don’t tell readers it’s interesting, make it interesting for them.
  • the alter — Maybe the second most misspelled word in Religious Studies (or perhaps third behind “tenet”), “alter” for altar. But some students refuse to alter their ways, even when I threaten to sacrifice them at the altar.
  • history of church architecture lead to — The past tense of the verb “to lead”  is “led,” not “lead.” I imagine writers get this wrong because of confusion with the past tense of the verb “to read,” which cannot be “red,” as it becomes colored by other meanings of that word.
  • A church historian said — Besides previously mentioned misspellings and the punctuation error that show up again in this final sentence, the annoyance here is the absence of a citation. Where can I see if this is what the church historian said?

Annoyances Detract from Your Brilliance

I read a lot of student papers each semester, and for the most part, I am very pleased with the writing. Most students write well, understand the concepts and make compelling arguments. Rarely do annoyances show up together in a single paragraph like this imaginary example. And ultimately they are just that, annoyances. It would be a disservice to my students if these were all I was looking for in their papers. Critical thinking, logical argumentation, supporting evidence, insightful conclusions are all far more important than proper grammar and conventional usage. Yet, annoyances are distractions, and too many of them in a paper can detract from the genius, or at least the competence, of a student’s work. Conversely, a polished paper illuminates the brilliance of the writer’s mind.

So I urge all writers, avoid the annoyance and show your brilliance. ♨

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