Analysis Of Turkish Students' Morphological And Syntactical Errors In Writing
by Ali Karakas

It is widely known that in a large number of settings including Turkey, teaching English is associated with teaching grammar. This is because it is the core element of language teaching and it must be definitely attained by second language (L2 henceforth) learners. However, the notion of grammar itself is too complicated and abstract to conceptualize. Once, it was regarded as 'the science of language' in its broadest understanding (Fowler, 1985). In contrast, it can also, in its narrowest sense, be defined as the combination of words to form phrases and sentences. Although Ur (1996) finds this definition 'over-simplified', he maintains that "it is a good starting point (and an easy way to explain the term to young learners)" (p.75). When the latter definition is adopted, then, the notions of morphology and syntax emerge as two components of grammar. In this case, morphology can be understood as the study of structure and formation of words, while syntax as the study of rules to combine words into phrases and phrases into sentences (Fromkin, Rodman & Hyams, 2007).
Syntax and morphology are of great significance in L2 acquisition because how students' performances are monitored and evaluated, especially at lower levels, are based on their morphological and syntactic productions. To evaluate these productions, teachers generally tend to look into their pieces of writing. However, it is known that students commit many errors while forming sentences due to violation of the rules of syntax and morphology. Therefore, in this paper, it is aimed to identify and analyze the morphological and syntactic errors in a small corpus drawn out from Turkish students' writing samples. Secondly, the potential causes of the errors will be explored with brief explanations.

Literature review

Morphological and Syntactic Errors
Morphological errors maybe portrayed as those which result from the misapplication of the morphological rules in the formation of words. Hsieh, Tsai, Wible and Hsu maintain that "[m]orphological errors indicate the learner's miscomprehension about the meaning and function of morphemes and about the morphological rules." (quoted in Akande, 2005). These types of errors may include such errors as omission of plurals on nouns, lack of subject-verb agreement, the adjective-noun agreement, verb tense or form, article or other determiner incorrect, omitted, or unnecessary. On the other hand, syntactic errors are those which disobey the phrase structure rules and, by this way, violate the formation of grammatically correct sentences. These errors can be exemplified as word order, ungrammatical sentence constructions resulting from faulty use of verbs, prepositions, articles, relative clauses in sentences. These types of errors have captured the attention of a great number of researchers studying in different settings with learners of different backgrounds. Surprisingly, their research, more or less, found similar types of morphological and syntactic errors stemming from similar sources such as mother tongue interference and inconsistency of the rules in the target language. A detailed overview of previous studies related to the topic is presented in the following section.

Previous research on morphological and syntactic errors
The previous literature abounds with studies that have aimed to analyze learners' morphological and syntactical errors along with identifications of the causes. For example, Kato (2006) conducted a study in Japan, in an attempt to identify and classify 148 high school students' errors in their essays based on Ferris' (2005; cited in Kato, 2006) error analysis model, which comprises four main classifications of errors: morphological, lexical, syntactic and mechanical errors. According to the results, the number and types of errors showed differences based on students' proficiency level of English. For instance, lexical errors outnumbered the other types of errors in first-year students' essays, while syntactic errors were the most common in second and third-year students' essays. The study concluded that the most common errors were syntactic caused by such as faulty verb phrase structures including auxiliaries, faulty word order and tense confusion in the conditional use. Kato ascribed the main source of these errors to L1 interference.

In another study carried out in Turkey, Kirkgöz (2010) collected a sample of 120 essays from 86 adult beginner learners whose majors are not English and analyzed the obtained data to categorize the errors and explore the potential sources of them. Her analysis indicated that students' errors fell into two main categories: interlingual and intralingual errors. Under these two main categories, she offered subcategories for each. For example, under interlingual errors, grammatical (pluralization, verb tense), prepositional interferences (addition, omission, misusing) were included while intralingual errors consisted of over generalization, the article use (addition, omission, misuse), spelling and redundancy. According to Gas and Selinker (2008) intralingual errors have nothing to do with mother tongue and results from the target language itself that students are trying to learn. For instance, the verbs do and make are confusing for many Turkish learners as is generally the case for other L2 learners. In contrast, interlingual errors are attributed to L1 interference, which generally takes its source from learners' lack of knowledge in the TL and their reliance on L1 or more accurately on their interlanguage in such cases. Kirkgöz concludes that the possible sources of the errors she identified in beginner adult learners occurred due primarily to L1 interference and secondarily intralingual, TL interference.

In another context, Saudia Arabia, Noor (1996) recapitulated the syntactical errors of Arabic students by investigating previous studies and identified seven error categories as a result of his review. These are verbal errors, relative clauses, adverbial clauses, sentence structure, articles, prepositions and conjunctions. For each error type, he provided sample examples to illustrate how they actually occurred in authentic sentences and what caused these errors to emerge. He pointed to L1 interference and target language interference as sources of errors, which is in accordance with the findings of other studies.
It has so far been noticed that previous studies haven't gone beyond identification and classification of syntactic and morphological errors. However, just labelling errors and describing probable causes of errors do not draw a picture that can help teachers and learners see the nature of errors and further minimize occurrences of these errors in language production regardless of spoken or written. With this intention, this study will attempt to analyze any significant morphological and syntactic characteristics of writing samples collected from a group of Turkish students.

The Study
The writing samples are of two types. One consists of single-sentence answers given by five first-year students in a Turkish high school as part of an exercise under the topic 'computer games'. The other sample comes from a university student who is required to write at least 100 words about his/her expectations from Erasmus Student Exchange Program. This is a prerequisite for those who want to participate in the exchange program. Sample 1 is presented below together with analyses of morphological and syntactical structures of students' answers.

Sample 1: First-year high school students' answers


Morphological and Syntactical Analyses of Students' Answers
Firstly, I'd like to analyze the answers given to the first question. The question is a yes-no type and additionally asks students to explain their rationale for the preferred answer.

Do you like computer games? Why, why not?

a. S1: Yes, I do. Because of the fun. Yes I do because they are fun. (amended version)
The first part of the answer is syntactically correct. S1 shows that s/he recognizes yes-no questions and accordingly provides an answer using dummy 'do'. If it had been -Yes, I like – it would have been syntactically wrong since the verb 'like' is transitive and requires an object following it. However, the second sentence does not obey the phrase structure rule that (S -> NP VP) sentence is made up of a noun phrase (NP), a verb phrase (VP). But it consists of a PP and a NP, which does not comply with the existing rules. Although semantically the answer might be accepted as true in daily speech, it is erroneous to written language due to the lack of such phrases as NP (they) and VP (are) in the word order. This type of error generally stems from L1 interference, for Turkish syntax allows the omission of subject and verb in sentence formation.

b.S2: [I like computer games]. This is in accordance with phrase structure rules, thus, syntactically correct. S -> NP VP.

c.S3: MC [I like do computer games] SC [because sometimes useful and exciting computer] games.

Unlike the sentences above, this is a complex sentence including one main and one subordinate clause. However, the two clauses are syntactically faulty. The MC includes an additional verb (do). In English, no two main verbs occur together in the same sentence (except do for emphasis). This error probably occurred due to the misapplication of L2 rules drawn from present tense. While 'do' exists in interrogative and negative forms, it doesn't appear in affirmative forms. In SC, the syntactic problem is of types: the first one is mis-word-formation and the second one is a missing verb be. Also, the NP, computer games, in SC can be replaced with the subject pronoun "they". The amended sentence looks like as following: I like computer games because computer games [they] [are] sometimes useful and exciting.

d.S4: MC[Yes I like computer games] SC[because a good way to spend a nice time and fun.]
This is again a complex sentence with one MC and one SC. MC is not flawed but SC is faulty since the sentence lacks NP (they) and aux (are). This type of error results from negative transfer of L1 syntactic knowledge to L2 sentence formation. In the SC after the conjunction, and, the student fails to assign a verb (the right verb for collocation), which breaks the syntactic correctness of the sentence since it is conceived as "spend fun", if the verb "have" is not positioned before the word "fun". The correct form should be as following. Yes, I like computer games because [they are] a good way to spend a nice time and [have] fun.

e.S5: MC[Yes, I like to computer games. SC[because computer games is very fun and exciting.]
In this example, S5 forms a complex sentence, however, separates two clauses with a comma. In the MC, the inclusion of infinitive to is observed. The reason might be overgeneralization of the previously learned rules such as 'like to verb'. However, even in this case, infinitive clause needs a non-finite verb e.g. I like to play computer games. In SC, a very common error type is seen due to a subject-verb agreement which signals a morphological error. Computer games should be followed with 'are'. Such errors occur generally due to the lack of attention and self-monitoring during the writing process. For this sentence, there appears to be two possible amended versions: (1) Yes, I like computer games because they are fun and exciting. (2) Yes, I like to play computer games and they are fun and exciting. However, considering the original question, the former answer sounds more appropriate.

The second question in the exercise intends to elicit information about types of computer games that students like. When compared to the answers to the first questions, syntactic errors decreased in number in the following writing samples.

What kind of games do you like?

f.S1: The sentence 'I like adventure games' is syntactically in accordance with S-> NP VP.

g.S2: The answer 'I lowe racing games' is the same as the above one as regards to syntax (S->NP VP, VP->N N); however, the faulty word formation "lowe" roots in spelling error. This is a general error particularly among beginner and low intermediate students. The reason lies in that there are differences in the letters of the alphabet of both languages. Turkish does not include the letter "w", so students tend to use "w" interchangeably with "v" assuming that "w" is equated with the letter "v".

h.S3: This sentence 'My favourite computer game is online game' is a literal word by word translation from the student's L1. The learner should clarify the type of the game to make the sentence ambiguity-free by writing "my favourite type of computer game". Secondly, the noun in NP (online game) should be pluralized in order to form a morphologically right word in the sentence. The finalized version of the sentence is "My favourite type of computer game is online games".

i.S4: Only in this sentence, 'I like car race and war games', we have seen a conjunction used to join two NP phrases (NP conj NP). However, the first NP (car race) includes a morphological error, since there is no adjective noun agreement. It should be 'car racing'. The cause of this error is interlingual on the ground that thinking in L1 and then translating into L2 is a common habit among Turkish learners of English. The amended sentence is "I like car racing and war games".

j.S5: I like to adventure computer games. Except for this sentence, the other sentences appear to be syntactically correct obeying the phrase structure rules. However, some of them may semantically sound weird such as the one in
h. In this sentence, the addition of 'infinitive to' before a noun occurs again. This repetitious errors indicate that these learners could not grasp the rule that a transitive verb does not allow a 'to infinitive' to follow itself without another verb following 'to infinitive' and if the transitive verb is being followed by a noun, it does not require a 'to infinitive' in-between. The sentence is amended as "I like adventure computer games".

How often do you play games?

k.S1: I playing computer games sometimes. The sentence is flawed due to the addition of –ing participle to the main verb. The violation of VP disrupts the sentence structure syntactically. Another error is the misplacement of the frequency adverb 'sometimes' in the word order of the sentence. The frequency adverbs normally precede the main verbs and if there is no main verb, then it comes after an auxiliary. For example, I usually get up late and I am always late for school. The improved sentence should be "I sometimes play computer games".

l. S2: I play video games 3 times a week. This sentence is syntactically correct. The constituents of the sentence are an NP, a VP and an AdvP. Since the question asks for the frequency of the game play, the sentence enjoys an AdvP among its constituents.

m. S3: mc[I do once a month play game] sc[because I do generally homework.] Students who formulate a complex sentence tend to show more syntactic errors than those who form simple sentences. In MC, the inclusion of two main verbs (do and play) and the misplacement of AdvP both in the MC (once a month) and SC (generally) corrupt the syntactic correctness of the whole sentence. The addition of "do" is a habitual behaviour among Turkish EFL learners, which results from the inconsistencies of the rules in TL. While asking questions and negating sentences in present simple tense they are required to employ dummy 'do', but why not in affirmative sentences? SC, similar to the error in l, stems from misplacement of frequency adverb. Probably, S3 has not internalized the rules of placing frequency adverbs in the sentence in regards to word order. Moreover, the indiscrimination of plural and singular nouns, which causes a morphological problem, is encountered again in the NP "computer game". The amended sentence might be "I play computer games once a month because generally I do my homework".

n. S4: I play the game for two hours once a week. This sentence structurally appears to be syntactical. However, in NP, addition of a determiner is not sensible since game is not specified and therefore not definite. Accordingly, it should pluralized by adding the inflectional suffix –s to the noun "game". "I play games for two hours once a week" is suggested as the corrected form of the faulty sentence.

o. S5: I play computer game once a day. The sentence is syntactically correct but the phrase 'computer game' is morphologically incorrect since the plurality or singularity is not specified. It should be either 'a computer game' or 'computer games'. The addition of inflectional –s seems more reasonable in this case, "I play computer games once a day".

So far, we have analyzed single sentences which were formed discretely in order to provide responses to the predetermined questions. In Sample 2, we will look at a paragraph written by an Erasmus exchange student candidate who mentions his/her expectations from the exchange program.

Sample 2



As compared to the earlier sentences, these sentences look more complicated and involve more errors. The level of student's proficiency is one factor that can affect sentence formation and its complexity. The first sentence [I want to graduate my English and meet the different people and cultures with Erasmus] includes both finite and non-finite verbs. However, the choice of non-finite verb is wrong and was probably used to mean 'improve'. Yet, syntactically, it does not affect the structure of the sentence but semantically it does. Another error is the addition of a definite article (the) before NP (different people). Since it affects the phrase structure rule of NP, it is counted as a syntactic error. The cause of the error, as Kirkgöz mentioned above, is intralingual, for Turkish has no article among its sentence formation rules. Moreover, the use of conjunction (and) links the noun (culture) to the preceding verb (meet) which makes the sentence ungrammatical due to lack of adjective before the head in the NP (different cultures). Lastly, the misuse of preposition (with instead of through) cause a syntactic error since it is not the right constituent of PP. The correct form of sentence should appear like this: I want to improve my English and meet different people from different cultures through Erasmus.

The second sentence that the student produced [I will meet the new friends and the different education system in foreight country] is long and a compound sentence. The absence of articles in L1 confuses the student about when and how to use it. They also cannot attribute a meaning to this structure since there is no equivalent meaning in Turkish that can explain it. The misuse of articles deteriorates the phrase structure rules with an unnecessary inclusion of determiner (the) in NPs (new friends & different education system). Since the second sentence cannot take the verb "meet a different education system", the possible word might be "understand". Also, the definite article used wrongly should be replaced with an indefinite article to make the sentence free from syntactic error. As a result, the grammatical form should be 'understand a different education system'. The correct form of the sentence should appear like this: I will meet new friends and understand a different education system in a foreign country.

The following sentence [I will graduate my confidance with Erasmus] is indeed not syntactical and the meaning is unambiguous because of the wrong word choice (graduate could be replaced with increase, build or gain). The choice of wrong preposition distorts the nature of PP i.e. syntax of the sentence. The correct form of sentence should appear like this: I will increase my confidence through Erasmus. The tendency for the preposition "with" can be explained as an L1 impact as the translation of the preposition (with) encompasses the meaning of "through" in L1. Therefore, they think they think they can use "with" actually for the function of "through" in such similar phrases.

[I will explore different places] an(d) [maybe change my thought] This sentence indicates that this learner has trouble in using inflectional –s. In the first sentence, the student correctly applies the rule, yet in the second sentence fails to add plural –s after the word thought. However, syntactically, the sentence is correct except for the absence of the letter (d) in 'and' and wrong word choice (thought). It had better to be replaced with "ideas" by omitting the adverb "maybe" and the verb "change" to convey the intended meaning. Then, the sentence "I will explore different places and ideas" seems reasonably more standard as compared to the original one.

The fifth sentence [finally I will be some difficulty] [because [I don't live hostele] seems on the surface syntactic but includes errors related to tense and article. Moreover, in the first sentence, the verb "be" is a wrong collocation for the following phrase "some difficulty". The right is to be "Finally, I will have some difficulty". The second issue takes its source in wrong verb tense, a syntactic error. The perception of present perfect is rather complex for Turkish students due to the lack of an equivalent tense in their L1. The correct form should be 'I haven't lived in any/a hostel'. The last sentence [I will be happy with this choce] consisting of NP and VP followed by PP, is syntactically correct but the formation of the word 'choce' is morphologically wrong since student's suffixation for noun lacks the suffix –ice (cho-ose +ice).

Discussion and Conclusion

Although a number of syntactical and morphological errors have been detected in both Sample 1 and 2, the students, in general, succeeded in forming morphologically correct words and syntactically grammatical phrases and sentences. Considering the length they have been learning English, moderately 6 years, it might be, first, thought that the students have serious problems in generating words and combining them into phrases and finally into sentences, which might range from a very simple to highly complex ones. As put by Dulay and Burt (1973), irrespective of length of language learning, students are challenged in learning particular morphemes (cited in Akande, 2005) and syntactic rules. Even if they learn the rules of morphology and syntax, it does not guarantee that learners will grammatically apply the rules into their writing.

The common problems highlighted in the analyses of the students' samples consisted of omission of phrases, particularly NP and VPs in sentence formation, unnecessary addition of dummy"do", wrong word choice, especially adverbs, addition of "to infinitive", lack of subject verb agreement, faulty adjective formation, addition of –ing to the main verb, omission of plural -s, and prepositions, and misuse of definite and indefinite articles. The error types do not differ from those that previous studies identified. Likewise, the causes of the errors were frequently named as the same sources: L1 interference and intralingual.

The implications of the study for the language teacher are multifaceted. Having been identified, these errors can be eradicated or at least minimised through precautions by teachers. These might include giving students corrective written feedback either overtly or covertly. For example, the errors might be highlighted by underlining it, or the correct form may be provided with an implicit explanation. Another way of raising students' awareness is to encourage them read graded books that fit into their proficiency levels. This is because the exposure to correct forms of words, phrases and sentences are more likely to be absorbed by students through peripheral learning. Above all, it largely depends on teachers' creativity to take the right action to minimize above stated error types.


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Ali Karakas is a Research Assistant  at Mehmet Akif Ersoy University, Burdur, Turkey. He holds BA in ELT at Uludag  University,Turkey and is currently an Integrated PHD student in Southampton University, UK . He can be contacted at the following email address:

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