Evaluating Errors

One of the challenges for teachers of composition is deciding how serious an error is. How serious we judge an error to be affects both grading and teaching. We tend to focus a great deal more on serious errors than those we know are minor oversights. This guide is an attempt to “rank” errors as they might be judged in a first-year college composition course. It is only a model and not a definitive guideline for marking student papers.

Using Error “Severity” Levels

There are an infinite number of ways to evaluate student papers. Some instructors use points to indicate how they value specific outcomes, while others give overall grades without rigid “rubric” checklists. Personally, I use a mix of the two, and rubrics change throughout the academic semester to give an increasing weight to critical thinking and reasoning skills. Early papers are used to address issues of grammar, mechanics, and form. The breakdown of errors offered here is also distributed to students as a reminder of things to check when proofreading a paper.

Level 4: Minor Mistakes

Minor mistakes are those errors associated with carelessness or rushing. They are also the errors that slip by when proofreading. We all make these mistakes. Some of us have error patterns at this level. I often miss keys when typing quickly, leading to apparent word errors any elementary student should catch. The challenge for a teacher is knowing if a student has a real problem with “new” versus “knew” or if the error is incidental.

  • Obvious typographical errors
  • Colloquial misspellings and abbreviations (email and text messaging)
  • Minor genre format violations (APA versus MLA, for example)

Level 3: Common Errors

  • Dangling modifiers
  • “I” as an object, instead of “me”
  • Lack of commas after “however” and similar words
  • Misuse of commas in a series
  • Their, these, that, who errors
  • Errors with difficult verbs (confusing similar words)

Level 2: Moderate Errors

  • Verb form errors
  • Tense switching

Level 1: Serious Errors

There are some errors so severe that they indicate a student is struggling with academic composition. Sometimes these errors are the result of being a non-native speaker of English. In other instances, they might indicate a learning disability. Unfortunately, there are also those instances when the errors indicate the student’s previous writing instruction was insufficient.

  • Sentence fragments
  • Run-on sentences
  • Capitalization errors
  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Preposition errors
  • Commas between verbs and complements
  • Adverb misuse / errors in form

For an elementary school teacher, these errors are part of the learning process. For a college or university composition instructor, these errors are serious warning signs that a student is likely to struggle in all his or her courses requiring essays or papers. With the current emphasis on writing across the curriculum (WAC), a student must be able to recognize and correct serious composition errors.


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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 08-Mar-2017
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach