Error Analysis in Writing
Initial error marking
Error pattern analysis starts with the teacher or editor identifying errors.
1. If at all possible, make a photocopy of the piece of writing. You need to have
a copy you can mark up, and it's disconcerting for writers to see all the
markings you'll make as you get started with the analysis.
2. Read through a paragraph or a page without marking anything just to get a
feel for the number and range of errors. Depending on the number, decide if
you can mark all errors in one pass or if you'll need multiple passes.
3. Go through the first paragraph slowly, marking as many errors as you can
find. Ignore stylistic choices but note word choices that are wrong. Ditto with
Checking Error Marking
4. Go back through paragraph 1 looking for additional errors. You will almost
certainly find one or two. If you find more than that, assume that you'll have
work in multiple passes to identify all the errors.
5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for the next paragraph.
6. Now that you're sure about how many passes through the text you'll need to
spot all the errors, continue to mark all the errors you can find through at
least two full pages of the text.
Clustering errors into patterns
7. Take quick stock of the kinds of errors that you've found. Cluster errors into
groups--word choice, sentence punctuation (fragments, comma splices, run-
ons), sentence structure (sentence appears to start in one direction and ends
up somewhere else), agreement, reference, modification (misplaced words
and phrases), internal punctuation (comma use, dashes, apostrophes),
spelling, idiomatic lapses, missing or misused articles.
8. Read through the remaining text to see if you spot new kinds of errors and
mark those. Don't mark exhaustively any of the categories you've already
Ranking errors to edit
Now comes the tricky part--moving from grossly identifying error into setting
up a plan to teach students how to edit for those errors. My rule of thumb is
to start with the errors that are most confusing or distracting for readers--
sentence punctuation, subject-verb agreement, and garbled sentence
structure. Especially with native speakers who are inexperienced or basic
writers, these are most likely to be the errors that mark them as ineffective
writers. Native speakers trying to impress readers with a big vocabulary are
most likely to have word-choice and spelling errors, but they may also
misuse semicolons; of these, the word-choice and sentence-punctuation
errors are the most significant. For non-native speakers, subject-verb
agreement, verb tense, and article errors are typically the most noticeable
Even though you may have a pet peeve about a particular kind of error, try
to put that aside to focus on the errors that most readers will find disruptive
of communication. Those are the errors to start with.
9. Go back through the paper and rank the errors in terms of their
disruptiveness. At this point, it's often useful to make lists on a second
sheet of paper or to work with a grid that will help you organize the
errors you spot.
Don't forget to try this step with your sample paper.
Highlighting a particular error
10.Now highlight one particular kind of error. Maybe mark sentence-
punctuation errors with yellow highlighter and subject-verb agreement
errors with blue. Don't worry about all the various ways that students
create, say, sentence completion problems at this step because you'll
do that later. You're looking for large categories of errors now to try to
assess the kinds of explanations you'll need to start with to help
students learn to edit for the errors they make.
Determining patterns of errors
11.Once you've got one or two categories of the most disruptive errors
highlighted, look to see if there are any patterns within these types of
errors. For example, you may notice that the student uses
coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for, yet, so)
interchangeably with conjunctive adverbs (therefore, then, however,
etc.). They aren't interchangeable in formal, edited American English,
but explaining the difference to students is fairly easy. One entire sub-
category of error might disappear with a two-minute explanation.
Similarly, perhaps all the subject-verb agreement errors occur when
the student is trying to avoid "he" or "she" as the subject of the
sentence. By trying to avoid an apparently sexist usage, the student
keeps shifting from "he" to "they," and the verbs don't always reflect a
singular or plural subject. Giving the student 20 seconds of advice
about changing the entire passage to plural forms (just use "they"
throughout) may fix the problem.
Second level ranking of errors
12.If you spot patterns within the categories, note how many different
kinds of errors there are within the category. You may find as many as
five or six sub-categories of error within some of the more inclusive,
larger categories like sentence-punctuation errors.
13.Note an example that illustrates each of the sub-categories you think
you want to take up with the student.
14.Rank the sub-categories in some order, most likely how you can use
one explanation to build up for a second sub-category. For example, if
the writer uses all connecting words in the same way, you will
probably need to start by explaining the different kinds of connectives
in English sentences. Then you can build--eventually--to your
explanation of when to use semicolons with certain kinds of connecting
Finally! Working with the student
Finally, you get to move from error pattern analysis per se into teaching
strategies for editing. Again, some simple rules of thumb will get you started
with this process, but you'll want to shape your entire approach on the
student's individual situation.
Evaluate the student's ability to recognize the most disruptive error
15.Make sure you have an example of the most disruptive error and of
the first sub-category from which you want to build your explanations.
Ask the student to read the sentence to see if he can spot any
problem. (You'll want to do a bit of diagnosing at this stage to find out
what the student knows and how negative his attitudes are toward
editing.) Sometimes, students, especially native speakers, are more
likely to "hear" a problem than see it, so be sure to have these
students read sentences aloud.
a. If the student can tell you how to fix the problem, have him do
that and then go to the next example of the same sub-category
of error. If the student can correctly identify and edit this
example and one more, the problem is most likely to be one of
monitoring for the error, not of misunderstanding the
grammatical and conventional uses of written English. Ask the
student how he ordinarily proofreads and suggest that he make
a separate proofreading pass looking for this type of error.
b. Even if the student can correctly identify the first sub-category
of error, don't assume that all the sub-categories will be equally
obvious to the student. Go through at least one example for
every sub-category of the kind of error before you move on to
the next kind of error.
Start with basic explanations and move to error correction
2. If the student can't identify the problem, mis-identifies some other
problem in the sentence as the major problem, or just looks blank,
you'll need to start with some basic explanations and work your way
toward more complexity over time.
3. After you've explained the problem, show the student how to edit to
correct the first sentence. Ask the student to identify the error and edit
the second example of the same type of error. (If the student still
can't fix the error, try another variation of your explanation and work
with more examples.) As soon as the student can fix two or three
errors in a row, have her fix one more with you watching. Then ask
her to fix the remaining sentences with the same type of error in the
two-page sample you marked. If the student can do those without
your intervention, have the student look for additional errors of the
same type in the next page or so of the text.
4. When the student is confident of both finding and fixing errors of this
sub-type, move to the next sub-type.
As you can imagine, for students with multiple, serious errors, this
approach is time-consuming and can feel extremely tedious. But our
goal is to help writers do this editing on their own, not to do it for
them, and this approach is just about the only way to help them learn
to edit the common errors they make in their own writing. Most
classroom explanations of grammar and editing fail to teach much, if
anything, because students don't see those errors in their own
Limit what you try to cover in one session. Explaining one big
category is plenty to cover in a session. Or if you are working
with a student who has four sub-types of sentence-punctuation
errors, you might be able to cover two, but probably not more
than that. Make sure he understands that working through all
the categories could take several weeks.
Keep checking on what the student understands and can do. Ask
the student to explain the concept back to you in her own
words. Ask the student to write a new sentence using the
concept correctly. Don't just assume that she has understood
everything you've said, because she may be pattern-matching
on the wrong pattern as she edits sentences. Although students
will often balk at it, work hard to get them to explain to you in
detail what they're thinking as they're editing after they seem to
have the concept under control.
Only if a student needs more practice after you've gone through
all the examples of a type of error in his paper should you turn
to the handouts or textbooks for exercises when you're doing
this type of teaching. Students are often much more proficient
at spotting errors in texts they haven't written and will miss
exactly the same problem in their own papers time and again.
Possible Categories for Extended Error Pattern Analysis in Writing
Basic word order (including direct and indirect questions)
Basic modification (clauses, phrases, words)
Advanced sentences (parallel structure, variety, etc.)
Basic sentence-internal punctuation (between coordinate clauses, in series, with sentence openers, with
Regular standard inflections
Basic agreement (subject-verb and pronoun)
Basic tense formations
Special usage (case with pronouns, agreement in unusual contexts, etc.)
Key sound-letter correspondences (including troublesome vowels)
Basic spelling patterns (doubled consonants, silent e, etc.)
Confused connotation (the thesaurus complex)
Word-class shifts (courage/courageous, e.g.)
Roots, prefixes, suffixes
Academic terms (abstract or technical vocabulary, Latin/Greek terms)
(Adapted from Errors and Expectations)