A Few Bugs in English Writing

A friend of mine, when I was at college, asked me, “What’s your score in Writing?” I plainly replied “A”. What about yours?” My friend cynically responded, “Don’t ask me about that. It’s lame. I know why, though. I’m poor at grammar while the lecturer, you know, gets crazy about it.”

This situation typically happens in academic settings when students are expected to be able to write standard and legible English essays in order to pass a particular course or even degree. Students oftentimes feel stuck with writing because they are terrible with grammar. They think of English grammar as ‘a bug’. They often claim that grammar always ruins their fluency. They further argue that what is apparently needed in real-life communication is not grammar. Instead, communication is all about getting across ideas. Is it true?

Well, irrespective of whether or not grammar is a necessity in communication, what strikes the students when writing or speaking in English is a few (not to mention some or in fact many) seemingly unavoidable errors. Like an earthquake in Jogjakarta or Tsunami in Aceh (Indonesia), those errors can be typified as ‘a national emergency’ because they seem to have been fossilized or ingrained by most English students in Indonesia. I am not making a generalization. Let’s suppose so truthfully. What’s more, a linguist in Indonesia once reveals that the errors are becoming typical characteristics of a possibly new emerging English variety i.e. IndoEnglish. A variety that is characterized by ‘commonly accepted errors’. Erroneous, right?

Anyhow, the concept of error is a fuzzy one. It most probably necessitates a more technical explanation from linguistics point of view. Too delicate. Forget it. What concerns me at present is any deviations from the internationally accepted standard use of English particularly in English writing. You indeed have the rights to express yourself in any way you wish, not necessarily stick to the Standard use. But, if you don’t want to be said ignorant or even less educated by sophisticated English users such as professional writers, teachers, editors, and the like, you’d better not fall into the non Standard use (the errors) because you don’t know the better one.

Let me list a few identifiable errors that frequently bug my students especially when they write a research paper.

1. Combining singular and plural forms in the same sentence.

e.g. Each respondent was asked about their opinions.

Right: Each respondent was asked about his and her opinions.

2. Using an unnecessary comma.

e.g. The data are collected, and then analyzed.

Right: The data are collected and then analyzed.’

3. Writing fragmented sentence.

e.g. For days interviewed the subjects.

Right: For days I interviewed the subjects.

4. Confusing the use of “its” and “it’s”.

e.g. It’s aim is to describe the classroom interaction.

Right: Its aim is to describe the classroom interaction.

5. Using an apostrophe to indicate a plural form of a word.

e.g. The subject’s of the research were observed for several days.

Right: The subjects of the research were observed for several days.

6. Using “he” or “she” when referring to both sexes (men and women)

e.g. Before interviewing the subject, the researcher asked him to complete a questionnaire.

Right: Before interviewing the subject, the researcher asked him or her to complete a questionnaire.

Right: Before interviewing the subject, the researcher administered a questionnaire.

Ups. I hope that’s not exhaustive. Though I have yet to conduct particular research on this matter, the above list of errors is worth considering. So, ponder upon this! Beware of the bugs!

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