Write-Speak: Correcting Faulty Sentence Constructions

 

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When I was an undergrad writing major, I was told “Write like you talk.” If I were writing a work of fiction that needed realistic dialogue, writing like I talked worked great. But in all other forms of writing, if I were to write like I talked, it would look something like this:

“It’s like where you go. . . I mean. . . it’s when you turn left. . . like. . . up in the house when the corner turns . . .”

Or

“I can’t believe my Royals. . . Like. . .Oh my gosh! They were all going crazy. . . like, when they won. . . I was where I couldn’t talk, I was so excited!”

If you listened to just about any casual conversation, you would hear patterns of inconsistency (and really bad grammar!). Many, if not most, of our spoken sentences would be fragments or incomplete sentence structures. We talk it bits and pieces, and mix sentence constructions without even knowing it. Many of us intersperse our spoken sentences with numerous “filler” words, such as “like” in the examples above. So you can see how difficult it becomes to maintain consistency in our writing. Recognizing these patterns of inconsistencies is the first step to editing these incomplete structures.

Inconsistent Subjects & Predicates

Identifying the subject and predicate can be the first step toward identifying sentence inconsistencies. In the examples below, the subject and predicate don’t fit together grammatically or just don’t make sense:

EX.
From all his hard work helped Karl graduate.

When you read the sentence, you might “hear” something is wrong, but might not be able to identify the problem. The sentence begins with the prepositional phrase, From all his hard work, which acts as the subject of the verb. This is not a grammatically correct construction.

Revised:

All his hard work helped Karl graduate.

That sounds better.
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Look at the following problem example, where you’ll see an issue with inconsistent subject/predicate:

EX.

A characteristic that I admire is a person who is generous.

The subject of the sentence is “characteristic.” The verb is “admire.” But “a person” is not a characteristic, so this statement isn’t logical.

Revised:

A characteristic that I admire is generosity a person who is generous.

“Generosity” is a characteristic that can be admired in a person.

 

See if you can catch the faulty predication in the following example:

EX.

A compromise between the mountains and the beach would be an ideal place to vacation.

If you said that the subject of the sentence – “compromise” – cannot be an “ideal place,” you would be correct. It isn’t logical.

Revised:

A place combining features of the mountains and the beach would be an ideal place to vacation.

OR

The ideal place to vacation would be a location combining features of the mountains and the beach.

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Keep Consistent Grammatical Patterns

Mixed Structures

One of the most common inconsistencies is what is referred to as a mixed construction. In mixed constructions, the grammatical pattern used in the first part of a sentence is not carried through in other parts of the sentence, creating an illogical sentence. The speaker of the sentence sets out to say one thing and switches to something else, resulting in confusion:

EX.

The fact that I get up at 5:00 a.m., a wake-up time that explains why I’m always tired in the evening.

The subject of the sentence, The fact, is followed by a dependent clause, that I get up at 5:00 a.m.; a predicate (verb or verb phrase) is needed to complete the independent clause. However, the sentence is mixed with another dependent clause, a wake-up time that explains why I’m always tired in the evening, which creates a fragment.

Revised:

The fact that I get up at 5:00 a.m., explains a wake-up time that why I’m always tired in the evening.

OR

The fact that I get up at 5:00 a.m., a wake-up time that explains why I’m always tired in the evening.

Another mixed sentence can occur with is when and is where, as in the following examples:

An examination is when you are tested.

An examination is where you are tested.

Think about what the subject actually is in this sentence. Examination is a test. Examination is not a time or place. When should only be used when referring to time. Use where only when referring to a place.

Revised:

An examination is a test of what you know.
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The ability to identify subjects and predicates is helpful in avoiding faulty sentence constructions, but sometimes we just know something doesn’t sound right when we read it. Carefully reading through your sentences to see if they are logical is the first step to editing out sentence-level inconsistencies.

Examples from http://wps.ablongman.com and The Everyday Writer: A Brief Reference.

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Considering the Oxford Comma

 

 

imagesDuring a recent dinner with a group of writers, teachers, and punctuation enthusiasts, a heated debate ensued over the Oxford comma:

 

 

“I never use it.”
“I always use it!”
“I only use it when necessary.”
“It’s always necessary!”
“It impedes the flow of reading.”
“I mark my students’ papers incorrect if they don’t use it!”

Many of us learned in school that the final comma in a series was not necessary. Still others learned they are absolutely required no matter what. So what is the final, definitive rule for punctuating the elements in a series with the Oxford comma?

According to Oxford Dictionaries, the Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) is an “optional” comma separating the last item in a list or series immediately prior to the conjunction (most commonly “and”):

We sell cheese, crackers, and relish.

The flag is red, white, and blue.

My favorite pies are apple, cherry, and chocolate cream.

In the examples above, there really wouldn’t be any confusion if there were no serial comma. They are all simple, straightforward lists, and the meaning would still be clear without it.

To Oxford or not to Oxford?

With all the debate over the Oxford, I decided to do a little research and performed a very unscientific survey of fellow grammar nerds, er, I mean teachers, and the response was overwhelmingly in favor of its use. About half the respondents indicated that they mark it as incorrect if it is omitted, and several said they mark it incorrect because the SAT exam counts its absence as incorrect.

According to Lynn Gaertner-Johnston’s Business Writing website, she surveyed 11 current style guides and found

  • 7 recommend including the comma before the conjunction.
  • 2 (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and Canadian Oxford Dictionary) recommend the comma before the conjunction but acknowledge that some writers omit it.
  • 2 (The AP Stylebook and The Canadian Press Stylebook) leave out the comma before the conjunction unless doing so would cause confusion.

The AP Stylebook noted in the final example above, is used by journalists, newspapers, and many magazines who omit it to save space and improve flow.

The name, Oxford comma, comes from Oxford University Press, where editors and printers required its use. However, not all publishers use it, or use it only when the meaning could be confused without it. For instance, in the example from The Chicago Manual of Style Online,

With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.

there is no comma before the final item in this series “the pope,” so this seems to be saying that the writer is thanking his parents, who are Mother Teresa and the pope!

However, with a serial comma, the meaning changes:

With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa, and the pope.

Now it’s clear that this writer thanks his or her parents, and two other people: Mother Teresa and the pope. This makes more sense!

In the following list of menu side items, you might be confused as to what exactly you are eating, depending on the final comma:

Available side dishes include potato, fries, rice, peas and carrots.

How many items do you have to choose from? Four – or five? Are the peas and carrots one combined side dish, or two separate veggie sides?

If the Oxford comma is used,

Available side dishes include potato, fries, rice, peas, and carrots.

you have five sides to choose from, as the comma communicates that the peas are one item and the carrots are a separate item.

When Additional Words are Needed

An Officer and a Gentleman
An Officer and a Gentleman

 

 

 

 

 

 

Without a serial comma in the following example, the sentence communicates that officer and gentleman are describing John:

I went to see John, an officer and a gentleman.

There is no comma prior to “and,” which indicates that “an officer and a gentleman” describes John. Consider if there were a serial comma:

I went to see John, an officer, and a gentleman.

This could mean that you saw 3 people, one being John, the second, an officer, and the final, a gentleman. However, it could also mean you saw John, who is an officer, and another separate man who is a gentleman. Confusing! To clarify this example, you may need to add more words of description to guide the reader and avoid confusion:

I went to see John, who is an officer and who is also a fine gentleman.

I went to see John, who is an officer, and another man who was a fine gentleman.

Final Thoughts

The most important thing to remember is that regardless if you are a proponent of the Oxford comma or not, writers should always err on the side of what usage communicates most clearly, and in most cases, using the Oxford wins the debate.

 

The Evaluative Essay: What do you think?

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If you were considering going to a movie, you might first consider if it’s to your taste. You might read some reviews or ask some friends if they thought the film was action-packed or slow moving, or if it was realistic or too futuristic for you. If your friend told you that the movie you were considering seeing was bad, you would want to know why. Maybe his or her idea of “bad” is that the movie was character-driven, as opposed to action-packed, but maybe you prefer character-driven movies.

As you can see, “bad” is totally subjective. You need specifics. How is your friend judging the movie? Does he or she have solid reasons and evidence to back up his or her opinion?

Everyone has an opinion, but in evaluative writing, it’s not enough to just present an opinion. The writer has to understand who his or her audience is and know what criteria are important for that specific audience.

Parts of an Evaluation

The judgment acts as a thesis for an evaluative essay. This judgment provides specific reasons based on carefully chosen criteria. The criteria are a set of standards based on your topic and audience.

Using our movie example above, a judgment might look like this:

Although the film, The Hobbit, is targeted for children, all audiences can appreciate and enjoy the movie because of its special effects, unique characters, and engaging storyline.

This thesis is a judgment (all audiences can appreciate and enjoy the movie) of the movie based on 3 criteria: because it has inventive special effects, unique characters, and engaging storyline.

When deciding on the criteria you’ll use to support your judgment, you’ll want to choose criteria which speaks directly to your audience. The criteria in our example, inventive special effects, unique characters, and engaging storyline, was chosen with an audience in mind who are adult movie-goers. Children probably wouldn’t care about all these criteria, nor would people who aren’t interested in movies. If you were to argue that The Hobbit is a bad movie because you don’t like fantasy-adventure tales, that’s more opinion, and the criteria help keep the judgment unbiased and balanced.

As you build support for your judgment, you will show evidence, possibly in the form of examples for each reason. Evidence is important, as it establishes credibility with your audience, so presenting a well-thought out judgment and criteria with strong evidence shows you are offering a fair and balanced judgment.

In most cases, each body paragraph will present one separate criteria, offering effective evidence in the form of examples from research, or even visual examples. In our movie example, you might use a film shot to illustrate a point. Depending on the requirements of your assignment, you’ll probably need to include research and cite those sources, but if you were writing an evaluation for a blog or magazine, citations won’t generally be necessary, though you should always name sources in a signal phrase.

Final Thoughts

We evaluate every day, whether we think consciously about it or not. We’re always making judgments, and considering how we make those judgments forces us to reason out our opinions. It’s not unusual to discover that perhaps our opinions are built on a flimsy foundation. Evaluative writing forces us to analyze not only what we pass judgment on, but how we pass judgment.

 

(Some examples from The St. Martin’s Guide to Writing)

 

Integrating Research into Your Writing

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For many student writers, deciding on what source material to use in your research paper can be a daunting task. For a longer research paper, the amount of time you’ll spend sifting through source material can feel overwhelming, and then deciding from each source what is important enough to use in your paper is another formidable task. Some sources you’ll find can be useful for providing background or history on your topic. Other sources might support your thesis or illustrate a point. Depending on the differing  purposes of how you will use the source material can often guide you in determining if you will directly quote, paraphrase, or summarize the source material.

Any type of source material, regardless if you summarize, paraphrase, or directly quote, must be integrated smoothly into your writing. Research that is stuck in to random paragraphs without careful integration with your own voice runs the risk of sounding like it doesn’t belong, creating paragraphs that are choppy and difficult to read, or worse, plagiarized. Writers who aren’t used to utilizing outside sources often have a difficult time making outside research sound like it belongs in their research paper, but with careful preparation, your sources should flow smoothly into your text.

How to Decide between Direct Quote, Paraphrase, or Summary

According to The St. Martin’s Handbook, direct quotes grab the reader’s attention more effectively than paraphrased information might. You “hear” the information in the original author’s voice, which makes it more compelling than simply a paraphrase. A direct quote also works best if you really want to emphasize the author’s opinion, or if the author is a respected authority on the subject.

A paraphrase works well if want to use the details of a passage that needn’t be used in its entirety. You can take the important details, put them in your voice, and avoid including irrelevant or extraneous information.

A summary, in contrast to a paraphrase, can be used when you have found a longer passage that has an important main point, but the details are less important for your purposes.

Integrating Quotes

Quotes of 4 lines or less (MLA) can be presented in your text with a signal phrase, followed by an in-text citation. The signal phrase (According to Smith . . . ; Ford states that . . .) introduce the source for the reader:

The work of writing only begins with the first draft. Natalie Goldberg, in Writing Down the Bones, says that “It is a good idea to wait awhile before you reread your writing” (162).

Note that in the previous example, there is no comma after “that” as it reads as a continuous thought. If the attribution ended with verbs such as says or stresses (as the example below) it would have a comma immediately after the verb:

Goldberg stresses, “The writer takes the reader’s hand and guides him through the valley of sorrow and joy without ever having to mention those words” (68).

In academic writing, quotes must be smoothly integrated into the surrounding sentences and linked to those ideas. As you include your source material into your paragraphs, consider, what is the connection I need to make?

The following example fails to introduce the source effectively (or at all). There is no signal phrase in the sentence:

In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman dreams the wrong dreams and idealized the wrong ideals. “He has lived on his smile and on his hopes, survived from sale to sale, been sustained by the illusion that he has countless friends in his territory, that everything will be all right . . .” (Brown 97).

This is considered a dangling quote. The quote makes up the entire sentence with no signal phrase or other contextualizing information. Below is an example of the same source utilizing a signal phrase:

In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman dreams the wrong dreams and idealized the wrong ideals. His misguided perceptions are well captured by Brown: “He has lived on his smile and on his hopes, survived from sale to sale, been sustained by the illusion that he has countless friends in his territory, that everything will be all right . . .” (Brown 97).

In this example, the signal phrase His misguided perceptions are well captured by Brown ends with a colon, as it is a complete sentence.

As you learn to integrate sources, you’ll become more familiar with the use of the many different signal verbs. Deciding what signal verb to include in your introductory phrase will be dependent upon how you choose to use it. Do you agree with the source? Disagree?

Many different signal verbs are founds in introductory phrases, including the more common says, asserts, claims, describes, disputes, responds, and states. There are numerous signal verbs, and choosing which to use will help you illustrate the author’s opinion as well as your own.

Signal Phrase with Paraphrases and Summary

When you’ve chose to paraphrase or summarize, you’ll use your own words, structure and style to communicate the source information. Before you paraphrase or summarize, take great care to read the passage carefully and make sure you clearly understand its meaning before you put it into your words. You must prove to your readers that you understand the material. Your reader is relying on you to interpret the information accurately.

Even when you paraphrase or summarize, you’ll still introduce your source in a signal phrase. In the examples below, the writer includes the name of the source, even though it is a paraphrase and not a direct quote. By doing this, the reader knows the information is coming from research and not the writer:

In Talking from 9 to 5, Deborah Tannen explains that for women in the workplace, the situation is changing, whether we talk about it or not (130).

Nickerson argues that clear communication hinges upon what an audience does and does not know. It is crucial to assume the audience has neither too much nor too little knowledge of the subject, or the communication may be inhibited by either confusion or offense (737).

Remember, you must identify the source of any paraphrase or summary, just as a direct quote; even unintentional failure to cite any type of source is a form of plagiarism. As you choose the source material you want to integrate into your paper, keep careful records of where you retrieved the information and any information you’ll need to cite it. It’s much easier and less time consuming to take down all the information as you go than to try and dig it up again and compile it when you’re done.

By following a few simple steps as you work to integrate your outside source material, your research will flow naturally and your voice will take center stage, as it should.