Are there specific grammatical errors that plague writers more often than others?
That’s a question a pair of researchers wanted to answer, so they evaluated the writing in over 100 articles submitted (though not necessarily accepted) to the journal Research in the Schools over a 6-year period. They analyzed the writing according to American Psychological Association (APA) style rules that govern much academic and professional writing. The researchers then published their findings in the Journal of Educational Issues.
The most common errors they uncovered are presented in the chart below.
Not all errors are errors
We should note, however, that not everyone would entirely agree with this list of errors based exclusively on APA style guidelines.
For example, the single most common issue was the use of colloquial words and phrasing. This includes jargon and clichés that we frequently advise against ourselves. As the researchers write, “The problem with using colloquial words/phrases is that not only does their use typically lack descriptive precision but also its meaning can end up being lost in translation.”
True! However, they also counted “conversational” wording as colloquial, which would significantly inflate the error rate. They offered the example of “The researcher ran her analysis” versus “The researcher conducted her analysis.” In a scholarly document published in an academic journal, that intense degree of scrutiny might be appropriate; but a business trying to speak to ordinary consumers might find a conversational tone appropriate to their branding.
Other errors include grammatical rules that face widespread disagreement. Look at the second most common error, split infinitives (“to quickly write” instead of “to write quickly”). Not everyone agrees that this is an error at all! Even the Oxford Dictionary disagrees: "There is no real justification for [this] objection, which is based on comparisons with the structure of Latin. People have been splitting infinitives for centuries, especially in spoken English, and avoiding a split infinitive can sound clumsy. It can also change the emphasis of what's being said."
This study has multiple implications
1. Errors are very common.
Even if we discount some of the errors, one thing stands out: errors are simply very common. Remember, these are scholarly articles generated by highly educated individuals. If even they face error rates this high, others should certainly expect to deal with grammar issues in their own writing. In a professional organization, this means writers should never treat the first draft as the last draft. Every piece of writing needs to be proofed at least once, preferably by two or more reviewers.
2: Errors negatively impact outcomes.
The researchers were looking at manuscripts that had been submitted but not yet accepted for publication, and they found that manuscripts with more errors reduced the likelihood of acceptance for publication by a statistically significant margin. It’s easy to extrapolate from this to other settings: a business proposal that’s riddled with errors, for instance, is not likely to instill confidence in the prospective customer or lead to a sale.
3. Education in writing is critical.
Writing is a soft skill that’s not always adequately considered, tested, or verified before someone is hired, even though it’s a skill that is critical to success in the business world. Organizations and managers should prioritize writing ability and skill when making hiring decisions. However, if current employees need skills’ development in this area, organizations should not hesitate to provide the training they need. Writing instruction will pay dividends in terms of better quality and time saved in unnecessary revisions avoided.
4. Use of a style guide can be very helpful.
Another way to minimize the incidence of errors like these is to use a style guide that spells out what the organization considers to be an error. Issues like those listed are more likely when employees aren't familiar with specific rules and don't know the organization's preferences. A style guide yields clarity and consistency and will improve adherence to the grammatical rules about which the organization cares.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.