Finding and Fixing Surface Errors

Finding and Fixing Surface Errors

The most common surface errors that MS Word doesn’t catch – besides misused homophones and homonyms – are ones related to commas. Word tries to help with commas, but most of its suggestions are awkward and quite a few are flat out wrong. So take a few minutes to review some of the most commonly missed or misused commas.

The Use, Misuse, and Abuse of Commas

The Post-Appositive Comma

“Ms. Jones, the executive director of the Save the Something-Or-Other Fund noted that supporters donated nearly $2 million in 2013 to competing causes.”

An appositive is a word or phrase describing another noun. In this case, “the executive director of the Save the Something-Or-Other Fund” is an appositive describing “Ms. Jones” – it provides more detail about her. In standard written English, a comma follows the appositive and separates it from the rest of the sentence. This appears to be the single most frequently omitted comma in native English speakers’ writing. If the appositive is long enough that it needs interior punctuation of its own, it probably needs to be a separate sentence.

Items in a Series

“Some people find inspiration in cooking their families and pets.”[1]

I may not like some of my family members, but I don’t think I would cook them. Most of the ones I’d be willing to cook would be too bitter, tough, or rotten to be worth eating. And I would never cook my pets; half the dogs’ weight is fur, and the meat that’s left wouldn’t be worth the effort. Always separate items in a list with commas, and note that the comma comes after the item (i.e., after cooking and families), and not after the conjunction. Conjunctions in a series may include or, nor, or but not as well as and. When one or more of the items in a series includes commas, separate the elements with semicolons.

A Special Case: The Oxford Comma

"[H]ighlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector."[2]

The so-called “Oxford comma” (or serial comma) separates the penultimate item in the series from the conjunction and final item in the series. Some style manuals call for omitting it, but I for one find it crucial to most lists where the items are more than one word long. In this example, omitting the Oxford comma implies that “an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector” is an appositive describing “Nelson Mandela.” What we meant was no such thing; the demigod and collector are items in the series that are distinct from and unrelated to Nelson Mandela. The Oxford comma precedes the coordinating conjunction (and, or, or but). The Chicago Manual of Style, APA style manual, American Political Science Association (APSA) style manual, and Strunk and White all mandate use of the Oxford comma.

Compound Sentences

“Compound sentences contain two different subject-verb pairs, and the two halves would each make sense as a stand-alone sentence.”

The previous sentence and this one are compound sentences, so they require a comma before the coordinating conjunction. (Remember: and, or, but, nor, so.) Compound sentences differ from sentences with compound predicates, which have a single subject and two or more verbs. “I read for my research methods class and worked on my psychology paper” has a compound predicate – one subject (I), two verbs (read, worked). Compound predicates do not normally take a comma before the conjunction unless the comma is justified by a different rule.

  • “I read for my research methods class, which was actually kind of interesting, and worked on my psychology paper.” (commas set off an appositive clause)
  • “I read for my research methods class, worked on my psychology paper, and still had time to watch my favorite show on TV.” (commas separate elements in a series)
  • “I lived in Bethesda, MD, and worked in Washington, DC.” (commas separate state abbreviations from surrounding text)

Other Surface Errors


Homophones are words that sound the same but have different spellings. Believe it or not, I’ve seen all of the following pairs of words confused in college student work.

  • I read the book. The apple is red.
  • I went to the store. He went to the store, too.
  • It looks like it’s going to rain. Queen Elizabeth II’s reign has lasted over 60 years.
  • The weather report looks good. I don’t know whether he will attend.
  • The populace protested in the streets. Chongqing is the most populous city in the world.
  • He can sing ‘til the cows come home. A farmer must till the land.
  • The building collapsed under the weight of the upper floors. I had to wait to see the doctor.
  • Her dress is very plain. I got on the plane.
  • The sight of the Grand Canyon took my breath away. The site of the County Fair has yet to be determined.
  • A wave of revolutions occurred in late 1989 and early 1990. The dean was unwilling to waive the requirement.
  • The Security Council adopted a resolution. He sought [legal] counsel before deciding to evict the tenant.
  • The zoo’s male gorilla died last month. The insurgents’ guerilla tactics rendered conventional warfighting plans ineffective.
  • My grandmother dislikes seeing idle hands. Superwoman was my idol when I was little.
  • Homographs usually have dual meanings. Aaron Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel and killed him.

You can find more examples of homophones, along with their cousins homonyms and homographs, at


“He is washing the dishes and drinks his coffee.”

Problems with parallelism occur when verb tense or form changes during a single sentence. To correct this, simply use both verbs in the same form: He washes the dishes and drinks his coffee, or he is washing the dishes and drinking his coffee. Be aware that English has two common versions of present tense: he drinks (simple present), and he is drinking (present progressive).  Likewise, there are multiple forms of past tense (washed, has washed, have been washed, etc.). Whichever you choose, you should normally use the same form throughout the sentence. The best way to catch these is by reading aloud. Double-check long sentences for consistency in verb form.


“The team is doing their victory dance in the end zone.”

Problems with agreement commonly involve disagreements in number or gender. In the case of this example, “the team” is being treated (correctly, in American English at least) as a singular noun. We can tell this because the verb form is third person singular, “is doing,” instead of third person plural, “are doing.” The use of the singular verb means we need the singular possessive pronoun its, rather than the plural possessive, their. In general, collective nouns such as team, class, United States/Nations, etc., are treated as singular in American English. In British English, the plural form is more common.


Identify the error associated with each statement below and correct it.

  1. We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.
  2. Let’s eat Grandpa!
  3. Stop clubbing, baby seals.
  4. One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas, how they get into my pajamas I’ll never know. (Source: Groucho Marx)
  5. Despite protests from the United Nations, and the European Union, the United States is not limiting their use of drones in combat, and refuses to consider it.


[1] This quote came from a photoshopped-magazine-cover-blurb-gone-viral; the original referred to celebrity chef Rachel Ray and appeared on the October 2010 issue of Tails magazine.

[2] This is an actual unfortunate quote from a British daily newspaper (The Times, “Planet Ustinov", Nov 22, 1998). That said, I should note that conventional written British English uses the Oxford comma much less frequently than contemporary standard written American English. In the Times’ defense, their own house style manual mandates against the use of the serial comma. That doesn’t stop the outcome from being funny, though.

[3] You’ve probably heard of homonyms, words that are spelled the same but which have multiple meanings: to scale vs the bathroom scale, a fair price vs go to the fair, suit yourself vs wear a suit, to lean over vs lean meat, etc. Usually homonyms are different parts of speech. Homographs, on the other hand, are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings - The drum majors lead the band. The pipes are made of lead.

The Nerd Words

Article 2: The Nerd Words

One thing I like about most undergraduate papers is that you can certainly tell the student was trying when s/he wrote it. Unfortunately, many of these students tried far too hard – and more often tried too hard at sounding ‘academic’ rather than tried too hard on the content. No matter your high school preparation, you are still just beginning to learn to write in a style appropriate for the social sciences and at a level appropriate for university work. It’s not just you: Most people, about 85% or so, are also in the same position and must learn to adjust their writing styles as well. As I often tell students, fight the urge to use pompous writing, large words, and enormous sentences. Papers are a place for you to demonstrate your understanding of the material and your ability to communicate in a written form – they are not a place for you to demonstrate your large vocabulary, grammatical gymnastics competence, skill at locating obscure facts and musty sources, or ability to manipulate margins and font sizes.

            A critical component of many of the problem papers I see is the set of expressions I call the ‘nerd words.’ These are terms that often get dropped into sentences in an effort to sound “more academic.” What undergraduates don’t realize, though, is that they’re using these words four or five times more frequently than most scholars. Even worse, we can eliminate almost all nerd words in undergraduate papers without changing the sentences’ meaning at all. In other words, they are totally unnecessary. To avoid this, I set a quota for my students (and often myself!) of normally one nerd word per 200-250 words of paper. This is about 1-2 per page, or one every paragraph or so. Even then, I tend to go back through and make sure that every single one is absolutely necessary to making my point.

            You will notice that a lot of these words are conjunctive – connector words or terms that let you establish relationships between words and clauses. This is deliberate. Another prominent concern for problem papers is the ‘everlasting sentence,’ which runs on for ages at a time. (I once received a paper with a one-sentence paragraph that took up eight typed lines.) By limiting your use of conjunctive expressions, you will force your writing- and your thinking – into a more linear form, which will help your argument stand out much more clearly. You can make the same connections between the words and the thoughts using things like verb and modifier choice instead of adverbial clauses.

The Nerd Words:

such that



in/with regard(s) to

due to




in accordance with

thereby, whereby











arise (and forms)

as to

Responding to Peer Review: The Revision Memo

Responding to Peer Review: The Revision Memo

When peer review leads to invitations to revise-and-resubmit, editors commonly request that a revision memo accompany the returned paper. Faculty increasingly request revision memos as a result of student peer review processes as well. The revision memo specifies how the author(s) responded to the reviewers’ and editor’s feedback. Even if a revision memo is not explicitly requested, submitting one with any R&R is good professional form. This is especially true if the reviewers’ recommendations included conflicting feedback or other significant stumbling blocks such as conceptually or methodologically impossible suggestions. You will get more of these than you might expect, simply because not all of us are experts in any particular methodology or conceptual field.  

Most revision memos briefly discuss any global adjustments then respond in bullet form to specific recommendations from individual reviewers. I recommend addressing anything the editor explicitly required first, then consider the remarks of each reviewer. Reviews are anonymous, but the files are usually identified as “Rev1, Rev2,” etc., and you can reference these in your memo. Focus on significant changes, not correcting typos or otherwise line-editing; that said, reducing the manuscript length by a significant amount is worth noting. Some journals send revision memos with the revised manuscript to the second-round reviewers; at other journals, they’re for editorial use only.

You should address each significant reviewer recommendation in your memo, but remember that this is your paper. You do not have to do anything to it that you do not want to, but accommodating reviewer requests where feasible is both expected and a good way to increase the chances of publication. If you choose not to act on a particular recommendation, you should explain your justification in your revision memo, and in many cases, you should add a footnote to the paper containing the suggestion and why you chose not to do it. Remember that the editor and reviewers had good reasons to request what they did; you need to have equally good reasons to not accommodate their requests. No such publicly available data exist, the requested options are not possible with the model employed (i.e., you can’t employ clustered standard errors in seemingly unrelated regression models or use logit as the first stage of a selection model), no additional cases meeting those criteria exist, or similar matters constitute appropriate justifications. An editor may have explicitly required certain revisions as conditions of publication, but even there, if you have significant reasons not to do these – as in, the suggestion is methodologically impossible or conceptually invalid – you can choose not to do these things if you provide sufficient justification. I suggest contacting the editor directly to discuss these situations. She may request that instead of you doing the required revisions, you discuss in the paper or in a footnote why this is not possible. 

At the student level, insufficient time to conduct requested additional research is usually an acceptable explanation, particularly if it requests the addition of several variables (in quantitative or qualitative work) or new cases (in qualitative work). At the professional level, this is generally not an appropriate response. If the feedback asks you to essentially start over or collect massive amounts of new data simply for a secondary robustness check, you can usually express this (politely) to the editor and indicate that while it is possible, it is not feasible in the time allowed for the R&R (if a deadline is expressed), that you have other support and robustness checks for the questioned variable, or similar things. If the editor explicitly required that you address or act on these particular suggestions, you will want to contact the editor directly and discuss the situation. It may be possible to consider acceptance on the basis of the existing data, or with limited additional data collection in the timeframe allowed for revision, but these will generally require negotiation. Be prepared for the editor to say no; depending on your timeline, you may choose to withdraw the paper from consideration at the initial journal and begin the review process anew at a different journal. You’re essentially betting that the review process at the second journal will take less time than doing the requested additional work, but sometimes that’s a risk you may need to take.