Common Errors in Psychology Writing

Writing is always about purpose and audience. To write well, the writer must have an awareness of what he or she wants to say and with whom he wants to communicate or whose thinking she wants to influence. And, like it or not, we are often judged by the language we use to convey our ideas—whether in written or oral form. To help you become a better writer in general, and specifically in the field of psychology, we have identified common errors students make in the hopes that you will avoid making them. The following are some common writing errors found in previous papers.

Affect and effect

Affect is either a noun or a verb. Example: “Her affect was flat.” (noun) or “I want to affect a change with my.....” (verb).

Effect is a noun. Example:  “The effect was great.”

Number agreement between pronoun and referent

For example, “How a child reacts to their parents....” is incorrect because “child” is singular, but “their” is plural. Another example:  “As a child gets older they are able to ....” is also incorrect because “child” is singular and “they” is plural.

If possible, change the referent to plural, e.g., “How children react to their parents...” and “As children get older they are able to.....”

If it’s not possible to change the referent to plural, then use the singular form of the pronoun and alternate between masculine and feminine forms, or use “he/she” (which is not preferred).

Possessive of “it”

It seems that an apostrophe would be used for the possessive of “it,” for example, “It’s wet shining little nose ....,” but no apostrophe is used with “it.” (However, there is an apostrophe used when you are contracting “it is.” For example, “It’s a beautiful day.”)

Possessive and number

Be aware of number (singular or plural) in indicating possessive.  For example, “...the mother’s baby...” (singular); “.... the mothers’ babies....” (plural); “....the children’s attachment strategy ....” (“children” is already plural, so the apostrophe is before the “s”).

Use of “and” and “&” for references within the text of your paper

When not in parentheses, use “and,” e.g., “Smith and Kline (2007) hypothesized....”

When in parentheses, use “&,” e.g.,  “...concluded that there were no sex differences on the dependent measure (Smith & Kline, 2007).”

et al. (and others) 

There is a period after “al.,” but not “et.” For example, use “et al.” List all authors in a reference the first time it is cited, and use et al. in later references to the same article.

Use of “subjects”

Avoid the use of the word “subjects.” The preferred choice is to be more specific in the description (e.g., “children” or “adolescents”) or use the generic term “participants.”

Use of “e.g.” and “i.e.”

e.g. means “for example.” (Note: this is not inclusive).

i.e. means “that is.” (Note: this is inclusive).

Writing in the first person plural (i.e., “we”)

Example of poor usage: “His observations showed many of the same attachment types we find in human relationships.”

Change to: “His observations showed many of the same attachment types found in human relationships.”

Writing in the second person (i. e., “you”)

Example of poor usage: “You want to be careful in making determinations of a        mother-infant dyad’s attachment quality…”

Change to: “A student of attachment theory will want to be careful in making….”

Example of poor usage:  “If you want to learn about attachment theory, you might   start by reading…”

Change to: “Basic information about attachment theory may be found…”

Use of “who” and “that”

Use who for human beings; use that or which for animals and for things.

Example of poor usage:  “The dogs who came when called were rewarded.” And “The people that voted for this candidate were surprised.”

Change to: “The dogs that came when called were rewarded.” And “The people who voted for this candidate were surprised.”

Use of “their,” “there,” and “they’re”

Their is the possessive. It indicates that something belongs to them. For example: “My friends lost their luggage.”

There refers to a place, either concrete or abstract. For example: “The water fountain is over there.” Or, “There are many effective ways to study.”

They’re is the contraction of they and are.  For example: “They’re the ones who make mistakes.”

Use of “than” and “then”

Than is a conjunction and is used in comparisons. For example: “I am taller than she is.” Or “These data are more robust than the data we collected previously.”

Then is always about time. For example, “We collected data, then we analyzed it, and finally we drew conclusions.” Or “Do this step first, then do the following.”

Use of chat abbreviations and text messaging

While APA acknowledges the use of some abbreviations such as state names (AZ, AK, CA, etc.), commonly accepted words (IQ, REM), names of tests (MMPI, WISC IV), or Latin abbreviations (etc., i.e., and e.g.), chat abbreviations or text messaging such as OMG or LOL are never appropriate in professional writing.

Using the word "well" to start a sentence

For example: “Well, the results did not come out as expected.” When speaking informally this is acceptable, but not in writing.