Avoiding Common Problems: Writing in Eighth Grade

Mr. Oncay's Language Arts

  • We will add to this throughout the years.

These rules apply to FORMAL essay writing (not fiction or informal writing).


Here is a list compiled by Mr. Oncay and his students as they identify common writing problems that we are learning to correct in eighth grade. These rules apply to formal writing at school. All of your writing for your English teacher from this grade up should be formal.

1. Do not write run-ons. [Two independent clauses smashed together improperly.]

A run-on is NOT a just a long sentence. Long sentences are great sometimes. Sometimes, they can become "wordy," but that is not a grammar problem.

Bad: Bob is a fireman he has red pants. (run-on)

Good: Bob is a fireman, and he has red pants.

Bad: Bob is a fireman, he has red pants. (run-on or sometimes called a "comma splice.")

Good: Bob is a fireman. He has red pants.

2. Do not cause "get" problems. [Using "get" as slang.]

"Get" should only mean "receive" in formal writing. Using it as slang is not formal.

Bad: Joe is getting angry.

Good: Joe is becoming angry.

Bad: When I got into the car, I was tired.

Good: When I stepped into the car, I was ready.

3. Use commas after introductory elements. [words, phrases, or clauses]

If a word, phrase, or clause introduces the sentence, set it off with a comma. Some books will argue that this comma is not necessary after an introductory word or short phrase. I would disagree. Use logic: If you leave the comma out of that spot, you are sometimes wrong. If you always use it in that spot, you are never wrong.

Bad: Suddenly Tom laughed. [word]

Good: Suddenly, Tom laughed.

Bad: During the night a raccoon stole our food. [phrase]

Good: During the night, a raccoon stole our food.

Bad: When the sky darkened I found my umbrella. [clause]

Good: When the sky darkened, I found my umbrella.

4. Do not use contractions in formal essays.

I realize that this whole page is including contractions. It is a note page, so it is informal. If I write an essay or paragraph for my Language Arts teacher, I would avoid contractions because that is formal writing. Sometimes, one or two contractions is acceptable, but it is easier to simply avoid them.

Bad: This wasn't my first time traveling to Arizona.

Good: This was not my first time traveling to Arizona.

Bad: Here's a list of places that I have visited.

Good: I have visited all the places on the following list.

5. Know how to place a comma in a compound sentence.

This is currently the most common problem that costs the most points in my class. If you write two independent clauses and want to connect them together, you have to include a comma and a conjunction.

Bad: The boy was eating a shoe and his mother stopped him.

Good: The boy was eating a shoe, and his mother stopped him.

Bad: I found a wallet and because I am honest, I gave it to the owner.

Good: I found a wallet, and because I am honest, I gave it to the owner.

Bad: I kicked the ball, and jumped the fence.

[NOT a compound sentence so shouldn't have a comma.]

Good: I kicked the ball and jumped the fence.

6. Avoid questions. [Don't ask the reader any questions].

I realize that somewhere along the way, you learned a lesson about possibly using a question as a way to "engage" the reader or start a "hook" for your paper. Again, this might work for an infomercial but not a formal essay. If you are trying to make an argument, don't allow the reader to disagree. If you ask a question, the reader might see that question and think, "Actually, I disagree with you," and that will throw off the way that he/she reads the paper.

Bad: Have you ever met the president? 

[The reader might think, "No, and I don't like him either."]

Good: Meeting the president is an incredibly rare opportunity that very few will ever know.

Bad: Do you think it is important to recycle? 

[The reader might think, "No, and now I don't care about your essay either."]

Good: Since mankind has existed, more than half of the world's trees have been destroyed, and it will take better recycling to protect what is left.

7. Do not refer to your own essay.

It's not a report for a committee. It's an essay.

Bad: In this essay, I will tell you about farms.

Good: The importance of American farms is sometimes overlooked.

Bad: The main points are listed in the previous paragraph.

Good: Therefore, due to revenue, a constant food supply, and jobs for many workers, farms are important.

8. Do not begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions. [fanboys]

In some magazines and newspapers, you might see a sentence starting with "but" or "so," but this is more of a style to save for journalism or informal works. Avoid this in formal essays.

[fanboys = for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so]

Bad: It was a good year. But the next year was even better.

Good: It was a good year, but the next year was even better.

Bad: So, the giant returned without his gold.

Good: Unfortunately, the giant returned without his gold.

9. Use formal word choice. [Do not use wimpy word choice or slang.]

Do not use "mom" (use "mother"). Do not use "kids" (use "children"). Remember, these rules apply to formal writing. You might use some of these more casual words in fiction writing or poetry, but not in formal essays.

Bad: The room became really dark.

Good: The room became extraordinarily dark.

Bad: My brother always puts his stuff on my bed.

Good: I often find my brother's belongings on my bed.

[Words that are often banned: a lot, stuff, things, really, lots, humongous, okay . . .]

10. Do not write how you speak.

I use this code (DWHYS) when I have a student who tries to write like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Never make up words that don't exist in formal essays. Do not write with all the strange words and phrases that other teens use.

Bad: Then Hermione was like very annoyed.

Good: Then Hermione was very annoyed, and she had a good reason because Ron is dense.

Bad: Well, the next day, Ron Weasley was acting kind of strange.

Good: The next day, Ron Weasley was acting somewhat strangely.

12. Check your paper for spacing problems.

This is an incredibly common problem lately. These cost points in my class.

Bad: Before dinner,Alex set the table.

Good: Before dinner, Alex set the table.

Bad: Tom exploded becau se he ate Mentos and drank Coke.

Good: Tom exploded because he ate Mentos and drank Coke.

12.1: Use one space after periods.

Although it breaks my heart to admit it, the Modern Language Association currently has "one space after periods" as the correct formatting. Many people older than 35 years old learned to put two spaces after periods, so it has been difficult to train my speedy typing. If you are writing for your English teacher, use MLA format.  

Bad: It was the strangest class ever.  Mr. Oncay taught everyone how to blow their noses.

Good: It was the strangest class ever. Mr. Oncay taught everyone how to blow their noses.

[Note: Recently (2016), APA changed back to "two spaces after periods." That is a different style of formatting that you might often see in history or science classes. Follow whatever your teacher wants.]

13. Know the rules when working with quotation marks.

13.1: Quotation marks always come in pairs. Remember to use them at the beginning and the end of the quoted material.

Bad: When I saw him, Zack said hi.

Good: When I saw him, Zack said, "Hi."


13.2: Capitalize the first letter of dialogue.

Bad: Seeing the Ferrari, Josh said, "dude."

Good: Seeing the Ferrari, Josh said, "Dude."

Bad: Mark replied, "why are you so mellow?"

Good: Mark replied, "Why are you so mellow?"


13.3: If the quotation is interrupted in the middle of the sentence, do not capitalize the continuation of the quotation.

Bad: "I tried to leave," explained Maria, "But my mom's lecture took too long."

Good: "I tried to leave," explained Maria, "but the bus took too long."


13.4: If the quotation is integrated into your sentence, capitalize according to its standard rules of capitalization.

Bad: The news reported that "taylor swift's boyfriend was driving the car."

Good: The news reported that "Taylor Swift's boyfriend was driving the car."

Bad: The article said that her "Boyfriend was driving the car" when they left the awards show.

Good: The article said that her "boyfriend was driving the car" when they left the awards show.


13.5: If the final quotation mark occurs in the same place as a comma or period, the comma or period always goes inside the quotation mark.

Bad: Alex watched the "last flight of Canadian geese chasing the sunset".

Good: Alex watched the "last flight of Canadian geese chasing the sunset."

Bad: The collectors call them "vinyl", but I still call them "records".

Good: The collectors call them "vinyl," but I still call them "records."

13.6: If you have dialogue inside a quotation, use apostrophes to set off that dialogue, but ONLY in this situation.

Bad: Ellie explained, "I tried to convince Jamie to hurry, but she said, "I'm too sleepy."

Good: Ellie explained, "I tried to convince Jamie to hurry, but she said, 'I'm too sleepy.'"

Apostrophes are NOT quotations marks: 

Bad: His 'plane' was actually a stick, but the little boy liked to use his imagination.

Good: His "plane" was actually a stick, but the little boy liked to use his imagination.

13.7: If a question is located in quotation marks, the question mark should be placed inside the quotation marks. If a question occurs outside the quotation marks, place it outside.

Bad: Aditya asked, "Have you heard the news"?

Good: Elisha asked, "Do you want to see the movie?"

Bad: Did you read Johnson's article called "Computers in the Modern Age?"

Good: Have you read Emily Dickinson's poem called "There is no Frigate"?


13.8: If two characters are having a discussion, use a new paragraph when you switch speakers (if those lines of dialogue happen consecutively).

Good example:

The girls complained about each other in mean barbs back and forth. Finally, Lisa spoke up and said, "Well, I just can't listen to this ridiculous conversation."

               "What do you mean?" asked Samantha, who was the loudest of them all.

           "I mean, that you're all so rude, talking behind each other's backs. I'm not going to be a part of this. I've had enough of our so-called friendship."

           "Whatever," snipped Ellen.

14. Do not speak to the reader.

It's not an infomercial. Avoid the word "you" when writing formally.

Bad: It is even worse when you have to talk to your parents.

Good: It is even worse when I have to talk to my parents.

Bad: Until you read his books, you will not understand this author.

Good: Until a person reads his books, he or she will not understand this author.

15. Stick to a consistent tense.

When writing about literature, always use "eternal present tense." When writing about your personal past, use past tense (which includes past progressive and past perfect). Students often wander into many different tenses when writing, and this causes a deduction in points.

Bad: Although Harry Potter saw the snitch, he did not chase it.

Good: Although Harry Potter sees the snitch, he does not chase it.

Bad: I was hungry, so my mother fills my bowl, and I finally eat.

Good: I was hungry, so my mother filled my bowl, and I finally ate.

16. Spelling problems.

This problem should not require advice, but if I had to give one tip, I would say that you should narrow down to your top problems and make up tricks to help you remember.

Like this: "Then" is a "when."  

Notice how they look similar (use similar letters).  That helps me to remember that the word "then" refers to a continuation in time (a "when").  Then, it is easy to remember that "than" is a word that compares.

Bad: I had more Pokemon cards then Michael had.

Good: I had more Pokemon cards than Michael had.

17. Linking verbs must link.  

Again, some might argue that this is not a true "grammar" problem, but I would say that knowing how to complete the link is critical to the flow of your writing.

Remember: Linking verbs link subjects to predicate nominatives or predicate adjectives.

Example: The sun at its peak is hot.  My mother grew tired of my complaints. Bob was a chef.

Bad: My first example is how I like shoes, and they cost a great deal of money.

Good: First, I like shoes, and they cost a great deal of money.

Bad: The reason was because the referee disqualified our team.

Good: The referee disqualified our team, and that was the reason that we left.

Bad: Another problem was when squirrels stole the bird food.

Good: Another problem happened when the squirrels stole the bird food.

18. Ban cliché phrases.

Please stop using any of the following:

all in all

butterflies in my stomach

dark and stormy

fast as a cheetah

clear as a bell

as you can see

against all odds

as luck would have it

in summary

to sum up

red as a tomato

[and many more to add....]

tall as a giraffe

light as a feather

rumbled like thunder

quiet as a mouse

buzzing like a bee

19. Do not interrupt yourself with parentheses in formal essays.

Bad: I wandered along the beach for an hour (I think).

Good: I wandered along the beach for what felt like an hour.

Note: As mentioned, know the difference between formal essay writing and "creative" writing.