What does “The Top Twenty” study reveal about writers today?

Gary Chadwell, Featured Blogger

By Gary Chadwell, Consultant and Author, Collins Education Associates

The rules identified as essential conventions at Level C (high school) of the Collins Writing Program’s newest product, Check Mate, were influenced by Andrea Lunsford and Karen Lunsford’s study, “Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.” In their 2006 study, Lunsford and Lunsford look at essays of college freshmen from across the country and the kinds of mistakes they make with writing conventions.

They identified The Top Twenty, the most common writing errors made by first year college students. The study was actually an update of a similar study done in 1986 by Robert Connors and Andrea Lunsford. The list affirms what many high school English teachers see every day in their students’ compositions. It also contains a few surprises, especially when compared to the findings from twenty years earlier. First, here is The Top Twenty.

The Top Twenty

  1. Wrong word
  2. Missing comma after an introductory element
  3. Incomplete or missing documentation
  4. Vague pronoun reference
  5. Spelling (including homonyms)
  6. Mechanical error with a quotation
  7. Unnecessary comma
  8. Unnecessary and missing capitalization
  9. Missing word
  10. Faulty sentence structure
  11. Missing comma with a nonrestrictive element
  12. Unnecessary shift in verb tense
  13. Missing comma in a compound sentence
  14. Unnecessary or missing apostrophe (including its/it’s)
  15. Fused (run-on) sentence
  16. Comma splice
  17. Lack of pronoun-antecedent agreement
  18. Poorly integrated quotation
  19. Unnecessary or missing hyphen
  20. Sentence fragment

The most common mistake, “Wrong word,” didn’t move up the list from the 1986 study. It wasn’t even on the 1986 list! The researchers explained that this was because of the pervasive use of word processing among contemporary students. Technology helped to reduce the number of spelling errors, but it significantly increased the wrong-word errors. This occurs when a writer spells a word incorrectly (such as the word “initiate”) and permits the spellchecker to change it to a different word (“initiative,” for example).

Comparing the 2006 findings with earlier studies, the researchers made other observations:

  • Essays were longer. On average, essays were two-and-a-half times longer in the 2006 study than in the 1986 study. Lunsford and Lunsford also cited similar studies done in 1917 and 1930 and compared the average lengths of papers analyzed in the four studies.

Year of Study/Average Length of Paper
1917/162 words
1930/231 words
1986/422 words
2006/1,038 words

  • Shift to research and argumentation. In the previous study, a wide variety of writing assignments were analyzed, but the majority of the papers were personal narratives. In 2006, only 9% of the papers were personal narratives. Instead, the 2006 study indicated a seismic shift toward expository writing assignments. In fact, 54% of the assignments were classified as argumentation- or research-based writing. This shift in the types of assignments given also influenced The Top Twenty, as errors related to documentation either appeared or moved up on the list.
  • Very few text messaging shortcutsFor those who worry that instant messaging lingo, shortcuts, and abbreviations spell the ruin of formal writing, this finding will encourage you: The study showed virtually no IM shortcuts used.
  • Little increase in rate of errors. Another encouraging finding was that, even though students wrote significantly longer essays in 2006 than in the previous studies, the rate of error did not increase significantly. Again, using the four comparable studies, the researchers revealed little change in error frequency.

Year of Study/Errors Per 100 Words
1918/2.11
1931/2.24
1987/2.26
2007/2.45

With the accelerating advances in technology, the next study of students’ error patterns may reveal some surprising changes. In the meantime, The Top Twenty serves as an excellent guide for teachers on where to place their instructional efforts with writing conventions.

To learn more about Essential Conventions Check Mate click here.