Identifying Phrases and Clauses

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Learning the basic rules of sentence construction will help you identify the parts of a sentence that make up the whole. This will help you to avoid punctuation errors like comma splices, as well as give you the knowledge to create more complicated sentence structures, which will improve the style of your writing.

Phrases

A phrase is a group of words that form a single unit in a sentence, but do not include a subject, or a verb, or both. Since a phrase does not have a subject and/or verb, it does not form a complete idea or thought. Since a phrase does not contain a subject or verb, it cannot stand alone as a sentence, and is considered a fragment.

Examples of phrases:

  • closing the door
  • under the tree
  • because of his illness
  • running past the gate

In the previous examples, you’ll see nouns (door, tree, illness, gate) and verbals – or forms of a verb (closing, running) – but the nouns are not functioning as the subject of a sentence, and the verbals have no subject performing the action.

Types of Phrases:

  • Noun: his brand new bike; the stinky old cat
  • Prepositional: over the wall; in the bedroom
  • Verb: will be done; can swim
  • Verbal: There are 3 types of verbal phrases: participial, gerund, and infinitive.
    Participial: The pond, frozen over since early December, is now safe for ice-skating.
    Gerund: Cramming for tests is not a good study strategy.
    Infinitive: My goal is to be a teacher.
    Absolute: I stood on the dock, the lake breeze chilling me to the bone.
    Appositive: The book, a 600-page biography, received great reviews.

Clauses

A clause is a group of words that contain a subject and a predicate. A predicate is a word or phrase that describes the action or state of the subject. Predicates always includes verbs.

Unlike a phrase, a clause can be a complete sentence – if it has a subject and a predicate. This type of clause is called an independent clause, as it can stand alone independently, with no other words or phrases needed to make it a complete sentence.

Examples of independent clauses:

  • Fried green tomatoes are popular in the South.
  • The door remained closed.
  • The car sounded noisy.
  • I stood on the shore.

Unlike an independent clause, a dependent clause cannot stand alone as a sentence, even though it has a subject and a verb. A dependent clause is dependent on an independent clause as part of either the subject or the predicate.

Examples of dependent clauses:

  • while the wind was blowing.
  • which I made by hand.
  • although the room was cold.
  • because the pool was deep.

These examples begin with subordinate conjunctions – while, which, although, because – so do not form a complete thought. When we see subordinate conjunctions at the beginning of sentences, we expect extra information to complete the thought. These dependent clauses require other words to make a complete sentence.

Troubleshooting

Recognizing phrases and clauses will help you to avoid comma splices, fragments and run-on sentences. Look at the sentences below and identify which are complete sentences, and which are incomplete sentences. Can you identify the phrases and clauses?

  1. Driving across town in rush hour traffic.
  2. My head pounding.
  3. I answered the door.
  4. Talking on a cell phone in a restaurant.
  5. Call the babysitter.
  6. Because he wanted to.
  7. I stood silently.
  8. In the darkest corner of the room.
  9. To go to bed after midnight.
  10. Loud singing from the back of the room.
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Constructing Arguments

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If you have been assigned an argument paper, you will be expected to argue a debatable position with a strong claim, clear reasoning, and logical appeals. But how do you know if your topic will make a good argument? Many topics might be interesting, but not all interesting topics are arguable. When constructing an argument, your topic must be more than a statement of fact; it must be debatable.

What is your purpose?

When we think about arguments, we assume our purpose is to win, though there is no way to determine who really wins. A writer can present his or her position with the best reasoning and evidence available, and hope to successfully rebut opposing arguments.

A writer usually tries to convince the reader that his or her argument is compelling enough to change minds. In proposal arguments, the writer might want to enact a solution to a problem, and to do this, the writer will have to convince a reader to change his or her mind.

Another purpose of an argument is to simply explore an issue. A writer whose intention is to explore will examine an idea in hopes of convincing a reader that the ideas are important and beneficial.

Testing your Topic

To test whether or not a topic will work as an arguable thesis, consider if you can answer “yes” to these basic criteria:

  1. Does it present a position that an audience might have differing opinions on?
  2. Does it attempt to change minds or urge a reader to take some sort of action?
  3. Does it address a problem and offer a solution, or does it present a problem where no easy solutions exist?

Examples of an Unarguable Statement:

Litter creates pollution of the environment.

Using our criteria, the statement isn’t trying to convince, present a problem (although technically, litter is a problem), nor is it a statement that others might disagree with. It’s merely an observation.

Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Is there any debate when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed? Is it trying to convince us of anything? This is a statement of fact, and a reader couldn’t debate the statement.

The incidence of breast cancer has risen in the last ten years.

Even though a reader may not know if this is an accurate statement or not, it is easily researchable and not an argument claim.

Examples of an Arguable Statement

Recycling programs, though expensive at first, are ultimately an efficient, cost effective, and environmentally friendly way of reducing waste in our environment.

This statement meets our criteria, as it is presenting a problem and offering a solution. It can be argued, as many opponents believe the cost of implementing a recycling program is too expensive and actually not efficient.
~  ~ ~

Though Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation is believed to have ended slavery, slaves emancipated themselves and forced Lincoln to recognize their de facto freedom.

This is a statement that would illicit disagreement (good!), and is an attempt to change the readers’ minds of a widely held belief, so it definitely meets our criteria.

~ ~ ~

Widely prescribed and highly controversial hormone replacement therapy is the cause of the high rates of breast cancer in women.

This statement is definitely arguable, as many would dispute the cause behind high rates of breast cancer. Others would dispute the assumption that breast cancer rates are any higher than they have always been. This statement addresses a problem that there may be no clear solution to, but it makes an arguable claim.

Formulating a Thesis

Once an arguable claim is made, the next step is to formulate a working thesis. The thesis is a claim with reasons. A reason is often referred to as a “because clause,” as the reason answers the question Why? behind the stated claim.

Reason: Pesticides endanger the lives of farmworkers.

Working thesis (claim with reason): Because they endanger the lives of farmworkers, (reason) pesticides should be banned (claim).


Reason
: Lack of sex education in public schools leads to high rates of sexually transmitted diseases.

Working Thesis: Because of the high rates of STDs among teens, all public schools should offer sex education.


Reason:
The cost of a four-year university degree has become unaffordable.

Working Thesis: Because a college degree has become unaffordable for all but the affluent, tuition costs should be lowered.

~ ~ ~

Once you have a working thesis, you may find you’ll need to alter the language or use qualifiers (may cause…; often leads…) to make it more precise or less susceptible to criticism.

Spending time in the planning stages to identify your purpose, test your topic, and formulate an arguable thesis is essential to constructing a successful argument.

Now You Try

For the broad topics below, formulate an arguable statement and working thesis (claim with reason):

  1. Music downloading
  2. Mandatory military service
  3. The effect of texting on youth’s literacy

 

 

Considering Pronouns and Antecedents

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A pronoun takes the place of a noun, and usually refers to a word used earlier in the text called an antecedent (ante=before).  In the sentence, “The teacher brought her dog to class,” the word her refers back to teacher, so teacher is the antecedent of the pronoun her. It would sound awkward to repeat the noun, “The instructor brought the instructor’s dog to class.” In simple sentences like this, it’s clear what noun the pronoun is replacing.

The pronoun’s antecedent must agree in number, either singular or plural form, with the noun to which it references:

The boy wandered off the path, and he became lost. (singular noun = boy; singular pronoun = he)

The instructors must administer their exams before Friday. (plural noun = instructors; plural pronoun = their)

Of course, the previous examples are simple sentences, and pronoun-antecedent agreement becomes more complicated with more complex sentences.

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Effective writing communicates clearly, and the overuse of pronouns can lead to confusing sentences. Beginning writers often overuse pronouns when using the noun would help clarify the sentence, as in the examples below:

EX:

CONFUSING            After Dave studied with John, he realized he still did not understand   trigonometry.

CLEAR                      After studying with John, Dave realized he still did not understand trigonometry.

CONFUSING            After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered they were full of insects.

CLEAR                      After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered that the flowers were full of insects.

CLEAR                      After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered that the potting soil was full of insects.

CLEAR                      After Susan bought the flowers and potting soil, she discovered that both were full of insects.

 

Avoiding Indefinite Use of It and They

Indefinite pronouns refer to a non-specific person, place, or thing. It and they are often used to make reference to people or situations, but in writing, they sound vague and can lead to confusion. To solve this particular error, name who “they” is:

EX:

VAGUE                      It is said that the unemployment rate is declining.

CLEAR                      The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate is declining.
VAGUE                      They said that the outcome of their research is inconclusive.

CLEAR                      MIT researchers said the outcome of their research is inconclusive.

 

As you can see, the revised sentence is much clearer when the noun is used.

Now you try!

Below are some sentences with pronoun-antecedent problems. Correct the underlined error:

 

______________1. Both the computer monitor and the refrigerator door have its shiny surface smeared with dog snot from our curious puppy Oreo.

______________2. The new and improved laundry detergent restored Hector’s mud-stained pants to its original condition.

______________3. After feeding several quarters into the gumball machine, a person learns that they have little chance of receiving the miniature camera in the display.

______________4. Mrs. Carson, like every other American literature teacher, has their own interpretation of the symbols in Moby-Dick.

______________ 5. A person who eats too many jawbreakers risks loosening their fillings.

 

(Above quiz courtesy of Grammar Bytes)

 

What Makes Good Writing and How to Make Your Writing Better

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As we embark on a new fall term here at Metro Community College and many students will be taking their first college English class, let’s talk about what actually makes good writing. Of course, there are many variables in effective academic writing, but below, we’ll discuss writing in relation to freshman writing expectations.

First Things First: Follow Assignment Guidelines

Has your instructor given you assignment directions, either in the syllabus, or a separate handout in class? Perhaps your instructor will assign reading from your text, and ask you to follow the guidelines in the assigned chapter. Assignment directions should be read, re-read, and critically analyzed if you expect to meet the instructor’s expectations. We see numerous low marks on well-written essays that fail to follow the assignment guidelines. If your guidelines direct you to write a “critical analysis” of a short story, and you write a “summary,” your grade most likely will reflect this oversight.

Use Standard Written English

You might think this is obvious, but many beginning writers fall into slang, colloquialisms, and even text-speak when writing. You most likely know and unconsciously follow the rules of standard written English, but it’s easy to fall into ingrained speech patterns when we write. Slang is perfectly acceptable for conversation, but in writing, it can get in the way of the writer’s message and distract the reader. In persuasive writing, falling into an informal tone or slang will lead your reader to conclude your writing shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Write Effective Sentences

What makes an effective sentence? It’s about choosing the best words, understanding parts of speech (noun, pronoun, verb, adverb), and organizing the words in the most logical order.

In contrast, ineffective sentences often utilize poor word choice, confuse parts of speech, and organize the words in illogical and sometimes grammatically incorrect order.

One of the most common punctuation errors made in freshman writing classes is a comma splice. A comma splice is incorrect punctuation created by combining two independent clauses with a comma to separate the two clauses. An independent clause is a full sentence, containing a subject and predicate (ex. noun, verb, object). If you are not able to identify what parts of speech make up a sentence, you will most likely have grammatically incorrect sentences.

To learn more about sentence-level issues, click here to read more.

Write Effective Paragraphs

Effective paragraphs are unified, focusing on one main point. In persuasive writing, the one main point of the paragraph will support one main idea from your thesis.

An effective paragraph is cohesive, each sentence logically flowing from sentence to sentence. In turn, each paragraph should logically flow one to the next with effective transitional sentences.

Effective paragraphs are fully developed, containing enough information to fully convey the main idea of the paragraph in a thorough way. In research papers, direct quotes are smoothly integrated into the text, and contextualized in the writer’s own words. Paragraphs avoid beginning or ending with direct quotes.

Effective paragraphs utilize topic sentences, commonly the first sentence of the paragraph, though it may come later or be implied. To read more about introductory and concluding paragraphs, click here.

Know Your Audience

Effective writers understand who their audience is and what they know about their topic. If you are writing a persuasive essay to lower the drinking age, a reading audience of your state’s alcohol commission would be persuaded with a different line of reasoning than a group of seventeen-year-olds. Effective writing always takes into consideration who the audience is, what they know, and how they feel about their topic.

Writing is a Process

When we write, we do more than sit in front of a blank computer screen and type. Thinking, planning, drafting, and revising are all part of the process of writing effectively. Most college-level writing classes will expect you to write several drafts of your assignment, and may require you to turn in each draft for assessment. Waiting until the night before the due date to begin writing a college-level essay can be a costly mistake.

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Final Thoughts

If you feel your writing skills are lacking or need improvement, don’t wait to seek help. Your instructor may be able to offer assistance, or visit your writing center for help. You can visit writing centers at any stage of the writing process, even to brainstorm topic ideas.

If you have questions, ask! Guaranteed, if you have a question, others do as well, but may be too embarrassed to ask.

Below, you’ll find links to more online resources.

Purdue Owl Online Writing Lab – A wonderful resource for anything writing-related.

Bedford St. Martin’s – Tutorials on grammar, punctuation, and other writing-related topics.

Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips – A popular and easy-to-understand website on all things writing.

MCC Writing Center – Our own Writing Center’s website with a link to student resources.