WRITING EXAM –
LEARN TO DO A QUICK CHECK FOR COMMON MISTAKES AT THE END
“Whenever you do something you’ve never done before, don’t panic. You can do it. Look at it very carefully. Make notes. Draw pictures. Take it apart slowly. Take your time. Carefully watch how things go together.” An old Austrian Watchmaker quoted by Julian Kalmar, Founder, The Happiness Campaign.
A sentence is a bit like an old-fashioned clock, it is made of small parts that must all fit together perfectly if it is going to give accurate information.
Many students have asked me to help them improve their writing. They often tell me that they can do their grammar exercises as well as reading and understanding English quite well.
However, when it comes to writing they have a big problem. They know what they want to say and they think they are doing OK but when the composition comes back from the teacher it is covered in red pen and the marks are very disappointing. Not just disappointing, but also worrying because here in Greece where I teach it is very important for students to pass their English examinations and they can’t do that if they cannot improve their writing.
This mini-course is the result of all the time I have spent helping people to correct their mistakes and learn from them. It will take you a bit of time to work through but you will learn to look at your writing in a new way that will help you make fewer mistakes. Take that time – you will find it worth it!
Think of the problem like this:
Just as a clock is made of many parts that must fit together exactly if it is going to tell the right time, your composition is made of parts too. The first set of parts includes paragraphs and sentences. Then each sentence is made of letters, words and phrases. You can’t just throw all the letters, words and phrases in together and hope for the best. You have to spell correctly, use correct grammar and punctuation and link everything together just right or you might easily end up saying exactly the opposite to what you mean.
Just like a clock, sometimes it is the very smallest parts that make all the difference. If they are not the right parts in the right place the clock – or the sentence – will not work.
Checking and correcting will be easier if you have written in pencil and left room between each line so that you can put corrections or new things in.
By studying this tutorial you will learn to look at your writing systematically, as a teacher does, and spot the most common mistakes that YOU make that lose marks.
The Quick List:
1. Check Task
2. Check subject of sentence – singular or plural, countable or uncountable
3. Different kinds of Subjects
6. Verbs – correct tense, singular or plural, does it need “s”? Check spelling. Passives for formal letters.
7. Word order of question forms
8. Using There is/are/was/were
9. Gerund or Infinitive
10. Connective words
11. Adjectives end in ‘ful” not “full
12. Adjective or Adverb
13. Articles and prepositions
CHECK THE TASK
Make sure that you have included everything that you have been asked to write about in the task BEFORE you write your conclusion. If you made good notes and circled key points before you started it shouldn’t be too difficult.
Have you followed the correct format? Have you written in the correct style, formal or informal? If formal, make sure you have no short forms (eg don’t, isn’t), try not to use phrasal verbs but choose a synonym instead. Can you make any sentences passive? It’s a good idea to demonstrate that you can use this form and other more complex grammar. When you are studying an advanced grammar form think of ways in which you could USE it to enhance your formal writing and ask your teacher questions about how normal it is to hear people say or write the kind of sample sentences you see in the unit. Develop good judgement about the use of advanced and formal grammar.
For instance, nowadays you don’t need to turn every sentence into a passive form, and in real world writing it is even less necessary than it is in exam work. Look at BBC News writing for a good guide to modern style that is clear, concise and not over-heavy on old-fashioned formal writing. You cannot find a better style guide to modern formal writing. Here is the index page for the BBC’s Country Profiles. Look at the use of the passive in one or two of them and you will get a good idea of when to use it:
Here’s a great page about using the passive instead of the active in formal writing:
Think about Sentence Structure
The first thing to remember is that all sentences must have a subject and a verb. Look at the examples of the 5 different kinds of sentences on this webpage:
Look at your work. Using your ruler, take one sentence at a time. Look for the Subject first:
Identify the subject. There are many different types, not just nouns and pronouns. The subject of your sentence might be a name, a noun, a subject pronoun (I, me, you, he, she, it, we, they) or an indefinite pronoun (someone, anyone, no-one, everyone and all the other words like that – don’t forget ones that end in ‘thing’ or ‘where’).
Also, look out for indefinite words that indicate a group like A few, some…… and others (all plural) and also None (of…) and Most (of….) which are singular.
Gerunds and Infinitives can also be subjects of sentences.
It could possibly be a name and a noun together (Harry the Cat went to the shops. Her mother, Mrs Mason, was a very nice woman).
If you have a name or a noun you don’t need a pronoun so don’t write “My sister, she likes watching TV and her school grades they are good”.
THESE PAGES ARE A VERY SIMPLE REVISION OF ALL THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF SUBJECTS
Is your subject singular or plural, countable or uncountable? Don’t forget it could be an uncountable noun that is plural in your language but singular in English: advice, money, information, luggage, furniture) Or even a “collective” noun like “the police” or “cattle’ (a group of cows) which is plural in English. (Look! The police are coming!).
Remember that no-, any- and every- words are singular.
If it is a plural noun make sure the spelling is correct especially if it ends in “y” – baby, babies, boy, boys etc.
Is your subject a phrase that contains a verb? eg “The blonde woman who is standing over there speaks French” “The ginger cat that stole the fish is sleeping in the sun” “The place where I was born is a long way from here”. If so make sure that you are clear which verb that follows (if any)belongs in the phrase and which one is the main verb of the sentence. Both of them have to be correct and they might be in different tenses or persons.
If you use two subjects linked by the word ‘and’ then you use a singular verb afterwards.
Don’t repeat a noun or name, use a pronoun instead unless it is really not clear who or what you are referring to. Pronouns must agree with the noun they are replacing.
When Sally went on holiday she wrote to her sister every day. She loves writing letters to tell all her news. However, Tom only phoned his family once.
When Sally went on holiday she wrote to her sister every day. Tom, on the other hand, only phoned his family once. However, Sally loves writing letters but Tom doesn’t enjoy it much and his family doesn’t mind.
So next look at the verb (s) in your sentence
Is it in the right tense? You can easily use more than one tense in a sentence. If it is an irregular verb have you used the correct form and spelling.
Try to use a passive form if you are writing formal English. For instance in an informal letter you might want to use this Conditional sentence: “If you follow my advice I am sure everything will turn out for the best”. That’s a nice way to finish an advice letter. However, to make it more formal (for instance when writing to the editor of a newspaper) you could say the same thing with a passive verb. “If my advice is followed I am sure that there will be a successful outcome”. Notice in the first example I used a fairly colloquial idiom whereas in the second version I used a more formal term.
When you have decided on the tense of your verb you want to check whether it is singular or plural. It must match the subject so this is why it is important to check whether your subject is countable or uncountable or collective. If it is 3rd person singular – a he she or an it, an everyone or a no-one (and the rest!) then in SOME tenses (not all) you have to remember the “s”. You need the ‘s’ in the 3rd person singular (he, she, it) in:
a) the Present Simple, (walks),
b) any present verb using an auxiliary (is, does, has)
c) Past Continuous of the verb to be (was). (1st person singular also)
d) The verb “be” is also different in the first person Present Simple (I am) but I think you know that!
If you have to give your verb an “s” watch out for”
verbs ending in –y (carry, carries, study, studies) (most common mistake)
verbs ending in –y after a vowel (enjoy, enjoys, play, plays)
verbs ending in –tch, sh, ss ch, th, which need “-es”
HERE IS A VERY USEFUL PAGE ON WHEN TO USE THE LETTER ‘S’ that will save you losing lots of marks in your writing!
Should your verb be followed by the gerund or the infinitive? There is no easy way around it, you have to learn them! I suggest that you don’t try and learn them both together but take a day to concentrate on gerunds and a day to work on infinitives so you can keep the groups of verbs that belong with each of these separate in your mind.
One of the biggest problems people have with English verbs is caused by the verb ‘Be’. People think they know it but they don’t. The problem is not just that it is very irregular in its basic forms but that the negative and question forms work COMPLETELY DIFFERENTLY from other verbs. Use my lesson THE MOST IRREGULAR VERB OF ALL (sorry it’s not here yet – I’ll get it ready soon!) to study it carefully even if you are an advanced student. You will be glad you did.
A very common mistake in writing relates to something that people learn in their first few lessons when they are little children – “There is and There are”. People often get mixed up with “It is and They are”. Here’s an exercise:
The only time you have to worry about objects of sentences is if you are using an object pronoun. They are not all different from the subject pronouns.
Subject pronouns: I, you, he, she, it, we, they
Object pronouns: me, you, him, her, it, us, them
Also notice reflexive pronouns which are used as objects:
myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves
You might find this great exercise on they, them, their and theirs useful:
And while you are thinking about those words you had better do this exercise about the difference in spelling between there, their and they’re as well!
Here is a great revision page for Direct Objects:
Learn them well because they change the meaning of your sentence if you get them wrong. Use them to make your writing clearer to the writer. Think of them as roadsigns to help the reader understand the direction of your thinking. Connective words create transitions in your sentences.
On these pages:
you will find a brilliant tutorial on connective words. It breaks down the most common words into 10 different categories. When you have done the Gallaudet tutorial use this list to see how many of each type you can remember:
Words that Add Information
Words that show Conclusion
Words that Repeat Information
Words that show Comparison
Words that show Contrast or Difference
Words that show a Time Relationship
Words that Limit or Prepare for an Example
Words that show Cause (explain why)
Words that show Effect or Result
Words that show an Obvious Truth or Grant Opposition
ADJECTIVES AND ADVERBS.
Watch out for typical problems like using ‘good’ instead of ‘well’,
One of the most common spelling mistakes in English compositions is writing the –ful ending with two l’s
It’s beautiful,, beautifully (not beautifull!) But it’s beautifully not beautifuly
Learn a list of words ending in -ful
And here are some that end in –less (the opposite of –ful)
Don’t get mixed up between –ed and –ing endings with words like interested and interesting, bored and boring.
I am interested in ecology.
Ecology is very interesting.
Remember the irregular adverbs that examiners love to test. Know what the problem is with hard/hardly, late/lately, fast/fast.
If you scroll down this page you will find excellent advice on word order relating to adverbs and adjectives:
Keep in mind that the two big ideas with articles is General vs Specific and First Mention vs Mentioning something you have already referred to.
There are also some issues related to Geographical names which need to be learned. The simplest thing to remember is that groups of things like mountains and islands or lakes usually need “The” whereas one mountain, lake or island is known by it’s name (just like you or me!).
Rivers, however, need an article (The Thames, The River Seine.) Some, but not all, famous places (eg The Parthenon) need an article.
Actually the same goes for families. Sue, Mike, Lucy and Harry don’t need articles.
The family made up of Sue Whitram, Mike Whitram, Lucy Whitram and Harry Whitram can be called the Whitrams.
There are also some interesting (!) uses of the article when talking about nature and animals. (I’m trying to find a good resource on this!)
Other common mistakes involve groups of people (The Poor, The Elderly etc) and general terms like Culture, Tradition etc although these can use an article if you are referring to specific examples.
Also, watch out for occasions when you refer to institutions like courts, prisons, schools and hospitals. They only need an article if they are being visited for a reason other than their purpose.
Everyone hates them! Everyone makes mistakes.
The most common mistakes are to do with confusing on, at, in and to.
My exercise file ULTIMATE PREPOSITIONS gives you lots and lots of exercises. Practise them again and again until you can do each exercise perfectly without thinking about it. Make sure you say them out loud. Try and think of your own example of each sentence and say it out loud again and again until it is completely automatic for you to say “I am going TO Athens on Saturday. My uncle lives IN Thessaloniki. Our lesson is ON Tuesday AT 3 o’clock.” etc. it’s the only way to makes sure you use the right preposition automatically just as an English person does.
A very common mistake is to confuse for and about. Look those two words up in a good dictionary and really let the two different meanings sink into your mind.
Common mistakes are made with capital letters, commas and apostrophes.
THIS PAGE GIVES A GOOD REVIEW OF PUNCTUATION
Here are two great links to solve problems with Commas:
The following site has really detailed information and exercises: