A Writing Teacher’s Pet Peeves

In my ten years of composition instruction, I have developed a set of pet peeves associated with the body of student writing I have read.  Any of my students reading this should keep in mind that I do not direct this at any particular student — this list is a synthesis of common writing errors that I often find in student papers at every grade level 6-12 and every academic level, including Honors or AP.

  1. Referring to an author by his/her first name only in a literary analysis.  It sounds too much like they’re writing about their old pal Walt instead of the poet Walt Whitman.
  2. Not using proper format.  I require MLA format.  I provide samples.  I correct it. I don’t know how much plainer it gets.
  3. Punctuation of titles.  I admit that I am probably harsher on students than is warranted because punctuation of titles comes so easily to me, but I cannot figure out why students cannot remember that short works go inside quotation marks and longer works are italicized or underlined.
  4. Use of second person in formal composition.
  5. Apostrophes used to designate words as plural.  Why?  Think of the poor overworked little punctuation marks!  Don’t they already have enough to do with possessives and contractions, not to mention quotes within quotes?
  6. Run-ons, comma splices, and fragments.  Subject+verb+complete thought=sentence.  Commas cannot join independent clauses.  Independent clauses cannot simply be mashed together either.  Let me introduce you to the semicolon.  He is your friend.
  7. Strange format decisions.  It is my experience that many young writers do not feel comfortable turning in work unless their own title is somehow different from the essay — a different font, font size, bold font, etc.  Why can’t it just be plain size-12 Times New Roman?
  8. And while we’re discussing titles, how about this attention grabber: “Essay”; or if that doesn’t grab you, how about “Scarlet Letter Essay.”  The title of the novel, of course either in quotation marks or not punctuated at all.
  9. Not reading feedback.  I spend anywhere between 15-30 minutes reading every paper.  Students flip to the grade and ask why they earned that particular grade before reading the half-page to full-page of written or typed comments I attached to the piece.  When this happens, a part of me dies inside.  And I think God kills a kitten, too.
  10. Commonly confused words and nonstandard usage: “loose” for “lose,” “then” for “than”; the whole to/two/too and there/their/they’re.  “Alright.”  “Alot.”  “Can not.”  “Irregardless.”

Professional writers are not exempt.  I had to quit reading the work of a popular writer whose plots I enjoy because I couldn’t stand the fact that she, and apparently her editor, can’t identify a comma splice.

Please don’t think I take a red pen to comments and correspondence.  I don’t think twice about it.  Formal writing, especially published writing, has to meet a different standard.

10 thoughts on “A Writing Teacher’s Pet Peeves”

  1. I teach college freshman composition, and I see the same issues in the essays I read. Would you please give me permission to print out a version of this list to distribute to students?

  2. Amen, sister! Can I add the following to the list:

    1. textspeak-using b/c, w/, or ppl

    2. thinking this is a good thesis statement: In this report, I'm going to talk about…

    If I can think of any more, I'll be back!

  3. I teach 4th grade. I tell my students if they get out of my class learning only one thing, it had better be not to form plurals with apostrophes. That drives me NUTS, and I even see it in newspapers. My other pet peeve is the its-it's problem.

  4. Hi there,

    For an interesting grabber, one of my students wrote the following:

    "BEER! Now that I have your attention."

    Yes, I'm serious. And although I'm an English teacher, I'm not sure I can ID a comma splice without refreshing my grammar rules first.


  5. My list would contain many of the same peeves. Good job.

    I'm glad to hear I'm not alone on these things, because I know so many English teachers (I hesitate to call them writing teachers) who barely bother with much on this list.

  6. Dana: I am glad to read that I am not the only teacher who has the same problems in my classes. I get so frustrated, the to, too, and two errors and the there, their and they're??! My juniors still have the same problem. I also know what you mean when the students immediately flip to the grade not bothering to read any of my comments. I, too, make several comments and take the time to correct mistakes, yet the same mistakes happen over and over. Hmm… I guess our job is never quite finished.

  7. Carol – I find that I don't have many "two" errors – it's the to/too that throws them.

    So much of this mirrors my own peeves…

  8. Carol: Mine don't usually struggle with "two" – it's to/too that throws them.

    *sigh* So many of these mirror my own peeve list…

  9. Your #9 pet peeve was an issue for me, so I stopped writing on the kids' papers. Now I sit them down and discuss the paper with each one, or I provide the score with the rubric and they tell me why they earned the score. It's great. Our conversations have really changed from points to improvement.

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