Common Stylistic Errors

To help you avoid some of the most common stylistic errors, we have listed a number below, along with quick remedies. Choose from the links at the right.

For any style issues you encounter not addressed on this page (for the proper punctuation of quotes, see this website's Basic Quoting Skills section) consult one of several recommended style manuals:

  • The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 6th ed. New York: The Modern Language Association, 2003.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 2003.

...or try this old stand-by, whose advice is timeless: The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, available online in Strunk's original, less-than-fifty-page version of 1918, at Anyone who's actually read this book is a better writer for it!


Do not switch tense, especially within a sentence. Instead, choose and stick with the tense most appropriate to your subject matter (in history, that tense is most commonly the past tense, as you are dealing with past events).


Key events of 1938 clarified that the world is was on the brink of war:


Verb/Noun Agreement

A plural noun requires a corresponding plural verb, and a singular noun requires a corresponding singular verb. In other words, your nouns and verbs have to "agree." Sticking to the past tense will help you avoid any problems here, but when using the present tense, errors often creep in:


A dictatorship do does not believe in the democratic process.

To this day, scholars debates debate the scope of the Nanking massacre.

To avoid such verb/noun disagreement, double-check that your verbs correspond to your nouns, and vice versa; do not mix and match singular and plural verbs and nouns.


Noun/Pronoun Agreement

Just as your nouns and verbs have to agree, so too do your nouns and pronouns. If a noun is singular, the corresponding pronoun must be too; if a noun is plural, the corresponding pronoun must be as well. Like nouns and verbs (above), so too nouns and pronouns must "agree."


The Nazi party, in their its efforts to undermine the democratic process, suspended the previous German constitution.

Both Hitler and Mussolini believed in his their inherent right to absolute dictatorial leadership.

To avoid mistakes such as the above, double-check that your nouns correspond to your pronouns, and vice versa.



Apostrophes are confusing to some students, but needn't be: their use is governed by a clear set of rules, outlined below, adapted from the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 6th ed, 2003. Sec. 3.2.7 (90 – 91).

An apostrophe is used

  1. to indicate a contraction (= two words merged into one, such as can't for can + not); and
  2. to indicate possession.

1) Contractions

Whenever two words are merged into one to form a shortened form, or contraction, the apostrophe indicates the letters skipped in the process of merging. Please note that contractions are generally avoided in academic writing.


can + not = can't

did + not = didn't

I + will = I'll

it + is = it's

Here are some more: couldn't, wouldn't, shouldn't, hadn't, shan't, don't, could've, would've, should've, etc.

2a) Possession

To form the possessive of a singular noun, add an apostrophe + "s" :


the teacher's

the country's

2b) To form the possessive of a plural noun ending in s, add only an apostrophe:


our allies' priorities

the United States' interests

many countries' views

2c) To form the possessive of an irregular plural noun that does not end in s, add apostrophe + "s":


children's books

women's rights

men's lives

2d) To form the possessive of any singular proper noun (a name), add apostrophe + "s" - even if the name ends in "s":





2e) To form the possessive of a plural proper noun (a name), add an apostrophe only:


the two Roosevelts' joint legacy

the Kennedys' family estate



Homonyms are words that sound the same but have different meanings, and that are (usually) spelled differently. Students often mean one thing, but spell out its homonym by mistake. Here are some classics that have been vexing students for decades:

there, their, they're

  • there is a preposition usually indicating place, as in "over there";
  • their is the third person plural possessive, indicating something belonging to "them," as in "the students handed in their homework";
  • they're is a contraction merging they + are, as in "they're done with their work."

two, too, to

  • two is the numeral "2" written out in letters;
  • too means "also" (as in "me, too") or "excessively" (as in "I ate too much");
  • to is a preposition usually indicating direction or possession, as in "I went to Manhattan" or "that belongs to me."

its, it's

  • its is the third person singular possessive indicating something belonging to "it," as in "the United States remains true to its convictions";
  • it's is a contraction that merges it + is, as in "it's a beautiful day."

your, you're

  • your is the second person singular possessive indicating something belonging to "you," as in "I like your bag";
  • you're is a contraction that merges you + are, as in "you're looking good today."

The list goes on: wear/where/ware; which/witch; heir/air; acts/axe; cast/caste, etc.

Know the difference between homonyms, choose the correct word, and spell it right!



Prepositions are words that establish spatial, temporal, directional, causal or other relations between nouns (or pronouns) and other words in a sentence. They include as on, of, over, beyond, after, above, etc. There are well over 50 such prepositions in English (for a partial list, see ). Their correct usage is among the more difficult aspects of the language, especially for ESL and ELL speakers.

There are no concrete rules on the correct use of prepositions; this is something you will learn only through experience, as you develop a "feel" for the English language: time and experience are the best teachers of the proper use of prepositions.

There is, however, one stylistic rule regarding prepositions: Whenever possible, avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. Instead, place prepositions in the middle, rather than at the end of sentences. Achieving this may involve the use of words like whom, or which.


Hitler carefully chose weaker enemies to go to war against.

Better: Hitler carefully chose weaker enemies against whom to go to war.

The Anschluss was something Hitler and Mussolini disagreed on.

Better: The Anschluss was something on which Hitler and Mussolini disagreed.



Typos sometimes produce words that are spelled correctly, but that are not the word you had in mind. Your spell-check program will not pick up on such mistakes. Avoid them by carefully proof-reading your work during the Drafts and Revisions stage of writing.

Here are some classic typos:

"Untied States" (for "United States")

"pubic" (for "public")

"butt" (for "but"), etc.

You get the idea... re-read your paper carefully so ass to avoid unnecessary typos!