Common Grammar Mistakes in College Papers

No matter your degree specialization, writing papers is an important part of doing well in college. Nevertheless, many college students still display incomplete mastery of basic English grammar. Here, in no particular order, are seven of the most common grammar mistakes that appear in college papers:

1. The Comma Splice

An independent clause contains a subject, a predicate verb and expresses a complete thought; two independent clauses must be joined with a semicolon or a conjunction to be correct. Many college students simply join two independent clauses with a comma, thereby creating a run-on sentence. Some students over-correct this error and use a semicolon along with a conjunction, which is also incorrect.

2. i.e. vs. e.g.

The abbreviation i.e. stands for a Latin phrase meaning “that is.” It introduces a clarification, i.e. a statement that explains a previous statement in more detail. The abbreviation e.g. introduces one or more examples, as in “The papers contained multiple errors, e.g. factual inaccuracies, spelling mistakes and incorrect formatting.” College papers commonly reverse these two meanings, using i.e. to introduce a list of examples or e.g. to introduce a clarification.

3. Possessive Plurals

English uses the apostrophe to indicate possessives, as in “The professor’s lecture was interesting.” Making a word plural, in itself, does not require an apostrophe. If a word is both plural and possessive, the apostrophe should be placed after the “s,” as in “Many of the Romans’ roads are still in use today.” College students often incorrectly place the apostrophe before the “s,” which changes the entire meaning of the sentence. Rewriting the previous example as “Many of the Roman’s roads are still in use today” indicates that a single Roman constructed the roads, which is clearly false.

4. Its and It’s

Although apostrophes are usually used to construct possessives, the word “it” is an exception. “It’s” is a contraction meaning “it is,” as in “It’s very hot outside today.” “Its” is the possessive form of “it,” for sentences such as “The professor evaluates each paper on its own merits.” Many college students incorrectly use “it’s” to indicate possession, which is understandable given that most other possessives do use an apostrophe. Nevertheless, this is grammatically incorrect.

5. There, Their and They’re

Although these three words are indistinguishable in speech, they have very different meanings when written. “There” indicates location, as in “The class meets over there.” “Their” is the possessive form of the pronoun “They,” used in sentences such as “The students handed in their homework.” Finally, “they’re” is a contraction meaning “they are,” as in “They’re walking to class now.” Some college papers use these three words interchangeably, creating near-incomprehensible sentences such as “Their walking to there class over they’re.”

6. Effect and Affect

These are two of the most frequently misused words in the English language because their meanings are somewhat nuanced. Effect is usually a noun, as in “Last-minute cramming for the final exam did not have the desired effect.” Affect is usually a verb, as in “Studying will affect your grade on the test.” Since college papers require high-level logical thinking, cause and effect relationships are everywhere, and so these words are used and misused often. Some students even confuse them in derived words: “Effectively” is a word, while “Affectively” is not.

7. Then and Than

The word “then” is used to indicate a progression of time, as in “Jacob finished his paper and then went to sleep.” “Than” is used for comparisons, such as “I scored higher on the second test than on the first.” Often, college students incorrectly use “then” in place of “than,” saying “My grade is higher then yours!” Incorrect uses of “than” also appear from time to time.

About the Author: This article was written by Allie Gray Freeland, Editor-in-Chief of Connect with Allie on Twitter @educationonline or Don’t forget to peruse through our network of associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, and master’s degree programs online!

About Allison Freeland

Allie Freeland is the Editor-in-Chief of She has been a professional writer for a decade and received her bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Minnesota. She brings a wealth of information about higher education, online degrees, college life, and career advice. Follow her on G+.