Editing Your Application Essays: 4 Common Grammatical and Punctuation Errors

With a day to the Early Decision and Early Action submission deadline, you may still be putting the final tweaks on your Personal Statement and early school supplementary essays.

Have you avoided the following common grammatical and punctuation errors?

Subject-Verb Disagreement

Spotting a subject-verb disagreement can be tricky because what appears before you is a complete sentence (it contains a subject and
verb and communicates a complete thought or idea). But in order for the sentence to be grammatically correct, the subject and verb must agree with one another on one specific thing: time tense. A singular subject agrees with a singular verb, and a plural subject agrees with a plural verb.

The most common subject-verb agreement error is forming the verb according to the noun that directly precedes it.

The uninhibited enthusiasm of the puppies were exhausting. 
The uninhibited enthusiasm of the puppies was exhausting. 
This year’s changes to the municipal government’s fiscal policy is concerning. 
This year’s changes to the municipal government’s fiscal policy are concerning.

Run-on Sentence and Comma Splice

When two independent clauses are joined with a comma, the result is a comma splice. When two independent clauses are mashed together without appropriate punctuation, the result is a run-on sentence.

I shook from the cold my toes just about fell off. 
I shook from the cold, my toes just about fell off. 

I shook from the cold, and my toes just about fell off. 

I shook from the cold; my toes just about fell off. 

I shook from the cold. My toes just about fell off. 

That vs. Which

Clauses are groups of words that contain, at the least, a subject and a verb. Clauses can be independent (they can stand on their own as a sentence) or dependent (they rely on another clause or clauses to make sense). Most often, your sentences will be combinations of clauses. A common error when combining clauses is to mistake the roles of that and which.

When deciding which word to use, ask yourself: Will taking out the words following that/which change the meaning of the sentence? If so, then use “that.” If not, use “which” and precede it with a comma.

The painting that made her name was stolen.
I surveyed his collection of mugs, which he kept neatly arranged by color, and then picked up the pineapple-shaped one.

Hyphen vs. En-dash vs. Em-dash

There are three kinds of dashes: the hyphen (-), the en-dash (–), and the em-dash (—). A common error is placing a hyphen in place of either the en-dash or the em-dash. A hyphen is used in compound words, such as “a dog-friendly hotel.” An en-dash represents a number range.

Ramil and Anastasia bake 10–12 trays of cookies a day.
The bakery’s profits plummeted in the years 2012–2015.

An em-dash indicates a dramatic pause. An em-dash may be used instead of a colon to introduce a word or group of words, instead of a comma to emphasize what follows, and in place of a semicolon. A pair of em-dashes can also be used in place of restrictive commas ( , … ,) or parentheses.

And in the garden they saw—a dragon.
When they spoke to Esdaran—who was a dragon—they learned of the hidden ruins.

To decide whether the em-dash or a pair of em-dashes is justified, substitute “Wait for it…” for the em-dash(es) to see if the sentence calls for the added drama.

For more editing tips, check out our essay editing guide:

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