How to Identify Sentence Fragments

 

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A sentence fragment is simply an incomplete sentence, meaning, more words are needed to make a complete thought, sort of like a puzzle missing some pieces. Even though it sounds simple, fragments are one of the most common sentence-level errors for English language writers. To identify a sentence fragment, let’s do a short review on exactly what qualifies as a sentence.

A complete sentence requires an independent clause. An independent clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb. For example, “John drives racecars” is a complete sentence. Even though it’s short, it has a subject (John) and a verb (drives). When you read an independent clause, you don’t require additional information to complete the thought. Below are other examples of short, independent clauses:

  1. The boat sank.
  2. Sara hates bowling.
  3. His shirt is torn.
  4. A storm is coming.
  5. She pet the dog.

A sentence is a group of words that contain at least one independent clause. All of the examples above are complete sentences, and all independent clauses.

A fragment, in contrast, is a group of words without an independent clause. It may look like a sentence, and even be quite long, but it is not a complete thought. In everyday speech, we often talk in fragments, but in writing, a fragment is an incomplete thought, often lacking a subject or verb. Below are some examples of sentence fragments:

  1. Even though I drove downtown.
  2. Being quiet in the library.
  3. Cars honking all night long.
  4. Stinging jellyfish on the beach in Florida.
  5. Smothered in gravy with a side of bacon.

The sentences above begin with a capitalized word and end in a period, but it takes more than that to make a complete sentence!

If we were going to turn the previous examples into independent clauses or complete sentences, we would need to add either a subject, a verb, or both.

  1. Even though I drove downtown, I couldn’t find the bookstore.
  2. I am being quiet in the library.
  3. I heard cars honking all night long.
  4. Stinging jellyfish swarmed on the beach in Florida.
  5. I ate biscuits smothered in gravy with a side of bacon.

What other ways could you create complete sentences in the examples above to correct the fragments?

Identifying Fragments in Paragraphs

It’s often easier to identify sentence fragments when they stand alone, but it gets more difficult when they’re hidden in a paragraph. Can you identify the fragments in the following paragraph?

American football is a sport played by two teams. With eleven players on each team. It’s played on a rectangular field with goalposts at each end. The offense, which is the team controlling the oval-shaped football. The offense attempts to advance down the field by running or passing the ball. While the defense, which is the team without control of the ball, aims to stop the offense’s advance. The offense must advance at least ten yards in four downs, or plays. If the offense succeeds in advancing ten yards or more and are given a new set of four downs. They will maintain possession and attempt to move the ball down the field. Attempting to score a touchdown, worth 6 points, or a field goal, worth 3 points.

Could you identify all of the fragments? Check below to see if you were correct. The red bold sentences are fragments:

American football is a sport played by two teams. With eleven players on each team. It’s played on a rectangular field with goalposts at each end. The offense, which is the team controlling the oval-shaped football. The offense attempts to advance down the field by running or passing the ball. While the defense, which is the team without control of the ball, aims to stop the offense’s advance. The offense must advance at least ten yards in four downs, or plays. If the offense succeeds in advancing ten yards or more and are given a new set of four downs. They will maintain possession and attempt to move the ball down the field. Attempting to score a touchdown, worth 6 points, or a field goal, worth 3 points.

Tips for Avoiding Sentence Fragments

  1. Read your sentence out loud. You’ll hear a sentence-level mistake when you’ll often overlook it when reading silently.
  2. Does each sentence have a subject and a verb? If you are unsure, identify the subject – a person, place, or thing being discussed – and verb – a physical or mental action, or state of being.
  3. Watch for sentences that begin with “-ing” phrases (being, thinking, doing); these often create sentence fragments.
  4. Sentences that begin with words that denote time – while, during, after, since, before, etc. – will always require (at least) one dependent clause and one (at least) independent clause. Make sure the thought is complete.

 

More Practice

Correct the following fragments:

  1. Growing up in a large family in the Appalachian Mountains. He feared that a college education would be an impossibility.
  2. Scientists have repeatedly warned us. To stop polluting our water before it is unsafe for human use.
  3. After delaying several weeks, Jeff finally began his paper. On the same subject of legalizing marijuana in the US.
  4. The planet Venus, known to have a rough surface scarred by volcanoes and quakes.
  5. Opera is one of the most appealing of the arts. Although it is also one of the most complex and difficult.
(Exercises from Reviewing Basic Grammar: A Guide to Writing Sentence and Paragraphs; 7th Edition)
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The Art of Writing an Argument

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If you’re a high school or college student, at some point you’ve most likely been assigned an “Argument Essay.” While most of us know the simple definition of argument, many individuals new to academic writing are often confused as to what exactly defines an argument. Defining what an argument is not is a great place to start.

An argument is not a debate. Politicians debate, hoping to come out a winner. With an argument, there are no winners and losers. The foundation of an argument is a desire for truth. For an argument to be successful, there must be cooperative inquiry, or consideration on both sides of a position. The outcome of a successful argument is to find the best solution to a problem as well as the best course of action.

In writing an argument, finding solutions to conflicts or complex problems and an effective course of action, the writer must appeal to reason. You, in writing an argument, can only present an effective argument if you clarify and support the reasons you present in favor of your position. This is often referred to as the “because clause” that supports the claim.

Often when closely studying reasons, the writer will re-examine their own line of reasoning as well as their long-held beliefs and assumptions. They might have to rethink their line of reasoning if their argument is not persuading their intended audience. As the argument becomes clearer, the writer can begin to more effectively appeal to their audience’s values and beliefs, and develop reasons that appeal to that audience.

Let’s break this down into a common dispute. A sixteen-year-old wants to stay out as late as she wants. The parents say no. A dispute ensues.

Daughter: BUT I’M SIXTEEN AND ALL MY FRIENDS STAY OUT AS LATE AS THEY WANT!

In this line of reasoning, the unstated assumptions are that (1) The age of sixteen automatically renders teens responsible enough to stay out late and (2) this family’s rules should be dictated by what other family rules are. Not a very effective argument. Why? A poor line of reasoning.

What might be a better line of reasoning to convince the intended audience (parents) that their sixteen-year-old should stay out so late?

Taking the values and beliefs of the audience into consideration, the daughter might appeal to their assumption that she is too young or immature to stay out so late.

Daughter: I should be allowed to stay out late on a trial basis because I need the opportunity to demonstrate my maturity and show you I won’t get into trouble.

In this example, the daughter needed to clarify her reasons to appeal to the values of her intended audience, her parents.

The parent in the example held an underlying assumption that the daughter was too young and immature to stay out so late. Once the daughter appealed to this belief with a more effective line of reasoning, her audience could be more effectively persuaded.

Consider your topic, and especially how you are going to appeal to your intended audience. What are their underlying values and beliefs? How will your line of reasoning best appeal to those values and beliefs.

Practice creating effective supporting reasons for an extremely disagreeable audience with the claims below.

  1. Video game manufacturers should be allowed to sell games without restrictions on age.
  2. The Electoral College is obsolete and should be abolished.
  3. Medical marijuana should be legalized nationally for distribution and use in all 50 states.

 

Works Consulted: Writing Arguments. Ramage, Bean, Johnson. Pearson Education, New York, 2004.  

 

 

Writing the Response Essay

To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.
– Kenneth Burke

 

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In college, you will probably be expected to write a paper in response to another text often referred to as a Response Essay. The text could be in the form of a newspaper or magazine article, a government or business report, a book, or even visual texts, such as magazine advertisements. (For our purposes here, we will not be covering responses of literary texts.)

Instructors often assign response essays to not only encourage a deep reading of a text, but also empower students to form critical opinions of their own in response to others’ opinions. Responding to texts requires students to carefully consider how they feel about often controversial issues, perhaps issues students have never considered before. Often, the outcome for students of writing response essays can be a new understanding and appreciation – even a passion – for a topic.

How to Begin

The first step is the obvious – read the text carefully. But this step is often glossed over too rapidly. It’s not enough to read through a text once; read it enough times that you thoroughly understand the topic, the writer’s opinions, the main ideas, the minor details, and can articulate them without re-reading the text. This may take several reads before you fully understand the entirety of the text.

Annotate, Annotate, Annotate

As you read through the text, note in the margins what each paragraph is communicating. Some instructors will ask to see your annotations to make sure you’re taking notes. One way to gain a thorough understanding of the key points as you read is to note what each paragraph is saying, and what each paragraph is doing.

Annotating what the paragraph is saying is to simply summarize briefly the main idea in each paragraph. This helps you to retain the information and aids you in finding key points. Annotating what a paragraph is doing is to take note of what the author’s intention is. Does the writer argue a main point? Does the author prove his point with facts or statistics or other evidence? Does the paragraph cite background and history? Notice that when you annotate what your paragraphs “does,” you’ll use verbs to show action. This will demonstrate what rhetorical strategies the author is using to build his or her argument, and will play a key role in how you analyze the text.

Identify Major and Minor Details

Once you’ve done a thorough read-through and annotated the paragraphs, it’s a good idea to read again and highlight the details. You might use a color marker to highlight the major details of the paragraph, and then use a different color marker to highlight the minor supporting details. Although this sounds easy, this step is where students often fail. It is imperative to be able to identify the key major details that are moving the argument forward, and differentiate them from the minor details that only offer supporting evidence.

Ask Questions

Now that you have read through the text a few times, you might be thinking about some inconsistencies, contradictions, or lapses in information. This is the time to jot down questions you might have. Are you finding holes in the writer’s argument? Does the writer fail to fully communicate the full scope of the problem, or fall short of explaining other key points? Do you feel the writer is fair and unbiased, or leaning heavily toward one side without giving voice to the opposition? Does anything surprise or puzzle you?

What do YOU Think?

The objective of a Response assignment is to respond, so you’ll be asked to communicate what your opinions are. As you carefully consider your response to the text and author, think about how you feel about the text.

Do you agree or disagree?
What exactly do you agree or disagree with?
Can you recall a similar personal experience or do you have prior knowledge of the topic?
What key ideas might you want to evaluate  more closely?

Once you have a clear idea what you think about what you’ve read, now it’s time to put it all together.

Drafting: Organize your Thoughts

If you’ve followed all of these steps to prepare your response, congratulations! If you’ve taken careful notes, annotated the text thoroughly, and have an informed opinion, you may find you have the skeleton of your response paper written.


Putting it all Together

The Intro

Begin the paper by introducing the author and title of the text, as in the following example:

In Victor Frisk’s article, “No Way Out,” the author states that the US should detain all travelers coming into the country from destinations that have been proved to have Ebola cases within the last year.

This first sentence does many things: it introduces the author; introduces the article title, and gives the author’s main argument or idea.

The following sentences in the intro should briefly summarize the text. This should be a very brief summary of what you read. It’s not unusual for instructors to ask you to skip the summary, so follow your guidelines carefully.

The final sentence in the intro will state your thesis, a concise focused opinion of where you stand. Do you agree or disagree with the author’s premise?

The Body

There are several ways to organize the body of a response. Most instructors ask students to include textual evidence in the body. You might do this by inserting an author quote, contextualizing the quote, then commenting on the quote with your response. Regardless of how you organize it, the body paragraphs should contain only one idea each, and connect back to your thesis. What you include in the body will be determined by your assignment guidelines, but remember to  always relate back to the thesis as you go.

The Conclusion

The conclusion is a restatement of your thesis and how it fits with the original text’s argument. Reinforce your thesis, but avoid restating it word for word. You might leave the reader with a thoughtful comment or question to consider, or a prediction of future consequences or outcomes. Avoid inserting new information or quotes in the conclusion.

Response essays pose special challenges for students, but with several close readings and careful note taking, you’ll be well on your way to a successful paper.

Lasting Impression: Concluding your Argument Essay

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Introductions and conclusions in persuasive papers often cause the most difficulty and angst for beginning writers. If you’ve spent your essay arguing passionately on a topic, you don’t want to fall flat in the end. The conclusion is your final chance to appeal to your audience and make a strong final impression.

A great conclusion will not only close the essay, but close the sale on your argument. Throughout the paper, you have been selling your audience on your position, and a successful conclusion will tie it all together, leaving your reader at least considering the merits of your argument. Unfortunately, by the time you get to your conclusion, most writers are either exhausted from writing the paper and end it too quickly, or can’t stop arguing their position and backload it with too much new information at the end.

Strategies for Great Conclusions

Generally, conclusions do three things:

  • Reiterates the main idea, re-emphasizing your position
  • Summarizes your argument
  • Provides a warning, explains consequences, poses questions for further study, or delivers a call-to-action – sometimes all of the above.

 

Note, however, that restating, re-emphasizing, and summarizing does not mean repeating word-for-word your thesis statement or other major points. The purpose of the conclusion is to remind the reader of the importance of your argument, synthesizing the information you’ve provided in the body, and show how the points you’ve made throughout your argument all fit together.

Framing Your Argument

If you’ve begun your paper with a scenario or framed it with a story, return to the theme you introduced in the introduction. This frame serves as a thread that ties the two ends (intro & conclusion) together.

An example of a frame for an argument on creating harsher penalties for texting while driving might be beginning the introduction retelling a true story of a car crash caused by texting while driving. The conclusion will come back to that scenario, perhaps completing the story you began telling in the intro, explaining the outcome or consequences. This complete story “frames” the narrative.

Project Outcomes

Another strategy for a successful conclusion might be to ask the reader to consider a future where your proposal has succeeded or your position is the norm. For instance, if your argument was to create more educational funding for job training outside of college, you might project a scenario where previously unemployed and uneducated men and women were now working in occupations with job security and stable wages with benefits.

What’s the “Take-Away”?

When drafting the conclusion, go big and broad. As focused and narrow as the intro should be, the conclusion can provide a larger framework to conclude your essay. Consider the broader implications related to your argument. Elaborate on the consequences of failing to follow through with your proposal or supporting your argument. Leave the audience with a question to ponder or something to think about. This is referred to as a “take-away.” Just as an intro requires a great “hook” to immediately pique the interest of the reader, the conclusion has to leave the audience with something tangible that sticks in their minds, an idea to consider or consequences of failing to act. What’s the take-away for the audience?

Things to Avoid in a Conclusion

In conclusion

I’ve listed this first, as it’s not only the most common, but also the most obnoxious. The most common words used to begin conclusions – that you should never use – are “in conclusion.” This is like putting up a big road sign that we are now reading your conclusion. Although it might be necessary to say the words in a speech, it’s totally unnecessary and almost cliché to use them in an essay. If it isn’t abundantly clear to the audience that we are now reading the conclusion, go back and revise it.

Repeating

You’ve stated your thesis succinctly in the introduction, so avoid repeating it verbatim in the conclusion. This comes across as not only repetitive, but clumsy and awkward.

Research

Hopefully, you’ve laid out your argument in the body of the essay, including strong support with outside sources. Avoid adding more new facts, statistics or quotes in the conclusion. This isn’t the place for more research. If you feel you have more to add to your points, put it in the body of the paper, not the conclusion.

Old Information & Nothing New

I’ll paraphrase an example: “In this paper I argued yada-yada, because of reason 1, 2 and 3. So I hope you’ll agree that you should agree with me. Thank you.”

This type of conclusion is simply repeating everything you’ve just said in your entire paper, adding nothing new. It’s painfully boring and just a bit condescending, as you are  telling the reader what they have just read, as if they don’t know what they’ve just read. Or you’re not confidant you communicated your argument effectively, and if that’s the case, go back and revise.

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Conclusions can be tricky, and by the time we’re done writing a long research paper, they are usually the last thing we want to spend time writing. By considering what impression you most want to leave the audience with, these decisions will guide you to compose a great lasting impression.

Keeping Unbiased Language in your Argument Essay

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When choosing a topic for your argument essay, it’s always best to choose an issue that you’re interested in and passionate about. There’s nothing worse than spending an entire term researching and writing about something that you have little interest in. But it’s also just as important to be fair and unbiased as you write your essay. The language you choose to communicate your points can work to either persuade – or alienate – your audience.

While it’s okay to feel excited or even enraged about a topic, your audience requires careful respect and consideration. Too much wrath and fury, or on the other side, too much praise and approval, will cause your reader to doubt your reliability, and could turn your audience against you.

Avoid Moralistic Language

A fine line exists between persuasive and opinionated, and it all comes down to word choice. In order for readers to feel sympathetic toward your position, a balance must be struck. In the example below, consider how your reader will react:

An added tax should be placed on all surgery drinks, including sodas, and is the only way to encourage healthy alternatives.

At first glance, many health-conscious readers might think this is a good idea. Added federal and state taxes are placed on another unhealthy – though popular – product, cigarettes, so why not sugary drinks?

But this statement implies that all surgery drinks harm our health. Most fruit juices, however, have as much, if not more, sugar than a can of Coke! But some fruit juices have no sugar added; the sugar content comes naturally from the fruit. Are fruit juices high in sugar? Yes. Is fruit juice as harmful as soda? Many would heartily disagree, and juice-drinking readers might feel targeted.

Avoid Superlatives and Exaggerations

Note the use of “only way” in the above example. The phrase, “is the only way to encourage healthy alternatives” implies that higher taxation will automatically push consumers to choose healthier options. The language of “the only way. . .” is a superlative that might turn off a reader by the moralistic tone. It could be one way, but not necessarily the only way.

Superlatives are terms that suggest the highest degree of something, such as
the best way
the worst way
should always
should never

Using superlatives paints the writer into an absolute corner and has no room for compromise.

Alternative: An added tax should be placed on all surgery drinks, including sodas, and could be one way to encourage healthy alternatives.

Example: Legalizing marijuana is the best way to decrease prison overcrowding.

Alternative: Legalizing marijuana might be one way to decrease prison overcrowding.

Example: Embryonic cell research is the perfect solution for finding a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Alternative:  Embryonic cell research is one of the best options to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Notice the difference in tone? Superlatives and exaggerations come off as dramatic and often biased and opinionated. By simply changing the language, your reader will be more apt to consider your points and consider your position as credible, whether or not they agree with you in the end.

When constructing an argument, consider how your language might be interpreted by varying audiences. While those who agree might not be offended, neutral or opposing audiences might be turned off by the language and opinionated tone.

 

 

 

 

Stay Positive! How to Avoid Negative Statements for Stronger Writing

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Any type of writing, whether it be for an English class argument essay or an email, will benefit from positive statements. This doesn’t mean to look on the sunny side, but to eliminate negative constructions and use definitive statements in your writing.

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Elwyn Brooks White 

William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White, in their still-popular, The Elements of Style, urge writers to,

“Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.”

Strunk and White know what they are talking about, but most of us don’t, so let’s break that down.

A definitive statement is a direct, succinct, clear declaration. Look at the two examples below:

a. He was not very often on time.                  b. He usually came late.

It’s obvious that the first example is not only unclear, but wordy and hesitant. Most of the time, a positive, definite statement is shorter, and in academic writing, this is a good thing. Writers should always strive to avoid wordy sentence constructions, which can lead to confusion.

Let’s look at another example from Strunk and White:

a.  He did not think that studying  Latin was much use.

b.  He thought the study of Latin useless.

In both first (a.) examples above, the writer has used a negative (not), which weakens the message (and the writer’s authority). The sentence communicates what is not, as opposed to what is.

Let’s look at another example from a college paper:

The argument in favor of stricter environmental waste laws might not seem to possibly be enforceable.

This sentence has more than one problem, so let’s take a closer look.

The sentence, like the examples above, uses a negative – “might not seem.” Like the previous examples, changing it to a positive will strengthen the sentence immediately:

The argument in favor of stricter environmental waste laws is not enforceable.

The previous version was not only negative, but also indefinite. What does the writer mean? We’re not sure!

Academic writing should be strong and to the point, avoiding words like may, might, seem, possibly, probably. Indefinite constructions communicate the writer hasn’t thought out her opinions, or can’t decide on which side of the fence to sit. In the revised version, we have eliminated the wishy-washy construction, “might not seem to possibly. . .”.

The argument in favor of stricter environmental waste laws is not enforceable.

This statement is strong, bold, forceful, and the reader knows she can trust the writer.

Positive, definitive statements communicate that the writer knows the facts, has strong opinions, and has done their homework. Practice revising your sentences in the positive, definitive form for stronger, bolder writing.

 

Sources:
Strunk, William Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. Macmillan, 1959.

5 Best Websites for College Writing Help

It’s 2:00 am, you’re home, in your room, in front of a blank computer screen, and your English Composition assignment is due the next day. You haven’t even started. You’re stuck and have a thousand questions, but the campus Writing Center isn’t open until Monday. You need help, and fast.

Sound familiar?

Never fear! Online help is here! Below is a rundown of the best of the best websites to answer your writing questions.

1. Purdue Owl Writing Lab (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/)

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Purdue is the go-to source for students and often listed as a source in class syllabi. You can find help on anything from grammar and mechanics, the writing process, thesis statements, outlining, paragraphs, quoting, research, evaluating sources, MLA, APA, ESL – the list goes on and on. To see a comprehensive list of available online help, click on the sitemap.

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If you’re not sure how to format a research paper, Purdue Owl offers several sample papers with instructional notations, as seen above.

2. LEO – Literacy Education Online – (https://leo.stcloudstate.edu/index.html)

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Affiliated with the Writing Center at St. Cloud University, LEO offers an exhaustive list of lessons and handouts. On the homepage, you’ll find easy to navigate links that are listed by the problem a writer might be having, such as I want to make sure my ideas are logical; I’m not sure about where commas go; or I’m writing a research paper and want help with online sources. Each link will take you to additional, detailed links for specific help within each topic.

You could get lost in all the information LEO provides. Start with The Write Place Catalogue for a list of general topics and go from there.

3. Daily Grammar (http://www.dailygrammar.com/)

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This lesser-known website does a great job of simplifying complex grammar subjects in fun, easy-to-understand lessons. If you’re looking for exercises to improve your grammar, Daily Grammar has loads of lessons and quizzes. Perfect for ESL students, the site offers 440 lessons and 88 quizzes. Have no idea what a compound sentence is? They also have a helpful Glossary of definitions to grammar terms.

Daily Grammar also has a blog where lessons are posted Monday-Friday, with a quiz on Saturday. This is a great website for all ability levels.

4. Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips (http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/writing)

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Grammar Girl is popular with students for its humorous, easy-to-understand explanations of grammar rules. Though it’s not the easiest to navigate, you can find short articles on simple topics, such as Cannot,’ ‘Can Not,’ or ‘Can’t’: What’s the Difference? or Affect Versus Effect, and even How to Write Good Survey Questions.

While you won’t find handouts or quizzes, Grammar Girl offers a lot of useful information not only on grammar rules but loads of examples of idioms useful for ESL students.

5. Hemingway (http://www.hemingwayapp.com/)

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We had to include one writing app, and Hemingway is getting decent reviews. It works like spellcheck, but is focused on style.

It does a great job of highlighting sentence-level problems, such as overly complex sentences and poor word choices. Do you tend to overuse adverbs? Hemingway will highlight those in blue. Have a problem with passive construction or confusingly-worded sentences? Hemingway will highlight those in yellow.

I pasted the above paragraph into Hemingway, and here’s what it told me:

 

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The awkward adverb is highlighted in blue, and the entire sentence is highlighted yellow, indicating I might need to shorten or reword it.

The app also gives an assessment of the reading level of your writing, and posts the numbers of words, sentences and paragraphs. Although MS Word has some of the same functionality, Hemingway allows you to paste your writing right into the app and gives you immediate feedback, including why the changes are suggested, making it a nifty learning tool as well.

What are your go-to websites or apps for writing help?