Tighten Up! Omit Needless Words & Phrases from your Writing

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Many writers, beginning and experienced, often inflate their sentences with unnecessary words, but strong writing is not complicated or wordy writing. Good writing is tight, concise, and to the point. Inflating your writing with superfluous words will lead to confusion in not only your sentences, but can also lead to a confusing message in your essay. Read on to learn how to tighten your writing and improve your sentences.

Eliminate Wordy Phrases

One of the easiest fixes to tighten your writing is to eliminate wordy phrases. Read over your essay to see if a wordy phrase can be reduced to a word or two without changing the meaning:

At the present time  Today our business has no deficit.

The end result is tragic if a patient is not treated swiftly.

The final outcome will be difficult to determine.

Because of the fact that NASA has cut funding, the space missions are in jeopardy.

 

Eliminate Empty or Meaningless Words

Read each sentence carefully to locate words that offer no essential information to a sentence. Some of the most common empty words in student essays are very, really, and definitely.

They were really trying hard to get the bill passed.

The paper was very interesting. 

The research definitely shows that meditation reduces stress.

If you find you use very or really a little too frequently, it’s often a sign that the sentence needs to be rewritten with stronger language. Note the changes in the revised sentence below:

They were struggling to get the bill passed.

The paper was fascinating.

The research confirms that meditation reduces stress.

 

Omit “It is” Constructions

One of the most common sentence constructions found in student writing is beginning a sentence with “It is” or “There are,” both of which create a subject-less, and often confusing, sentence. Look at the sentences below and consider what the “it is” might be referring to:

It is possible that the cause of her headaches is stress.

Revised: The cause of her headaches is stress.

It is worth pointing out that both governors were incorrect.

Revised: Note that both governors were incorrect.

It is clear that research supports his findings.

Revised: Clearly the research supports his findings.

It is often the case that initial experiments fail to prove anything.

Revised: Often initial experiments fail to prove anything.

 

Tighten sentences beginning with “There are” to clarify meaning and improve style by locating the real subject of the sentence. Below, the real subject of the sentences is underlined:

There are numerous reports of widespread corruption.

Revised: Numerous reports suggest widespread corruption.

There are only two questions left to answer.

Two questions are left to answer.

There are numerous studies that show the opposite is true.

Numerous studies show the opposite is true.

 

Before you turn in your final draft, take some time to work on eliminating any redundant, excessive, or unnecessary words or language from your sentences. Your ideas will communicate more clearly, writing will flow more smoothly, which means your ideas will be taken more seriously.

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The Mod Squad: How to Banish Misplaced Modifiers

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A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that offers a description or identifying details of another word in a sentence. A modifier should always be placed by the word it modifies. Let’s look at some examples below to see what happens when modifiers are misplaced.

The waitress received a large tip with a smile.

The previous sentence is an example of a misplaced modifier. A misplaced modifier often causes confusion for the reader. The modifying phrase in this example, “with a smile” modifies “The waitress,” not “a large tip,” so the modifying phrase should be placed next to the word or phrase it modifies to clarify the meaning:

With a smile, the waitress received a large tip.

Sometimes, a misplaced modifier is not only confusing, but can create a ridiculous sentence, as in the examples below:

The children ate the candy they had purchased slowly.

The word “slowly” is modifying “purchased” in the sentence. So it sounds like the children had purchased the candy slowly! What the writer really means is the children were eating the candy slowly.

The children slowly ate the candy they had purchased.

 

The sentence below also sounds a bit confusing, and quite awkward:

The school children saw a fence behind the school made of barbed wire.

Because the modifying phrase, “made of barbed wire” is directly after “the school,” it sounds like the school was made of barbed wire!

The school children saw a fence made of barbed wire behind the school.

 

In some cases, a modifier is sandwiched next to two words that could possibly be modified, creating an ambiguous meaning.

Jason told Alex immediately to call his mother.

Did Jason tell Alex immediately? OR was Alex to call immediately? We don’t know, so the sentence needs revising to clarify:

Jason told Alex to call his mother immediately.

Now it’s clear that Alex is to call immediately.

If the writer meant that Jason told Alex immediately, the sentence would look like this:

Jason immediately told Alex to call his mother.

 

Misplaced modifiers become more complicated when modifying phrases or clauses are placed between main sentence elements, as in the example below:

The cost of attending college, because of inflation and reduced federal support, has risen sharply in recent years.

This sentence is a bit awkward, as the modifying phrase is longer and more complicated. The sentence can be clarified by moving the modifying phrase to the end:

The cost of attending college has risen sharply in recent years because of inflation and reduced federal support.

The example below is also a bit awkward with the modifying phrase in between the subject and predicate:

Anthony could have, if he had not been arrested, played in the championship game.

In this example, moving the modifying phrase to the beginning helps to clarify the sentence:

If he had not been arrested, Anthony could have played in the championship game.

As you can see, misplaced modifiers can not only cause confusion for the reader, but can also sound quite ridiculous! Carefully read your sentences to make sure your sentences are clear and free of misplaced modifiers.


Now you try!

Can you identify the problems below? Reword the following sentences to correct misplaced modifiers.

  • Emma Sue was delighted when Mr. Nguyen returned her perfect calculus test with an ear-to-ear grin. 
  • Attached to the email, Charlotte sent her boyfriend Byron another photographic self-portrait with eerie red eyes. 
  • While Marina’s tail flopped against the wood, which was long, scaly, and metallic blue, she asked poor Tommy the reason for his pain. 

 

(exercises from http://www.chompchomp.com/modifiers01/modifiers01.01.htm)

Pesky Prepositions

(This post originally appeared Jan. 2014)

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Prepositions are important structural words that create a relationship between a noun or pronoun and another part of a sentence, expressing a relationship between time, space, and other senses. Prepositions are one of those parts of speech that garner little attention, but can cause all sorts of trouble, especially for English language learners.  We say we are at a café to visit a friend who was in the hospital. We watch a show on TV but at a movie theater. They sit on the couch, while he sits in the chair, but she lies in bed!

Below is a list of some of the most commonly used prepositions:

about, above, after, against, along, among, around, as, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, down, despite, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, near, of, off, on, onto, out, over, past, since, through, to, toward, under, until, up, upon, with, without.

What makes prepositions so confusing is that many prepositions have a wide range of meaning, depending on how they are used in a sentence. Note in the following example how English uses in and on:

The apples are in the bowl.
The apples are on the table.
I spilled apple juice on my dress.

Many languages don’t use prepositions at all, and some languages, such as Spanish, would use the same preposition (en) in all of the previous examples.

I learned to remember space-related prepositions by thinking about what a squirrel can do to a tree. A squirrel can go
around a tree
behind a tree.
below a tree.
beneath a tree.
in a tree.
onto a tree.
over a tree.
toward a tree.
up a tree.
under a tree.

In the squirrel examples above, the preposition shows the relationship between the squirrel and the tree (object of the preposition).

The squirrel prepositions are, as noted, space-related prepositions, as they show the object (tree) in relation to space. Prepositions can relate to time, place, and movement.

Prepositions for Time:

In                     In January, 1978, the Midwest suffered a terrible blizzard.

On                   On Monday, we’ll begin a new unit.

At                    At midnight, the ball will drop in Times Square.

For                  He waiting in line for two hours.

Since             I haven’t been back home since 2008.

When referring to a month or year, we don’t use “on,” unless the specific day is given:

On January 21, we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Prepositions for Place

In                     We were riding in the car.

On                   Leave the book on the table.

At                    She is waiting at the entrance.
You could also ride on a car, but that means you would literally be on the outside of the car:
The beauty queen rode on the car [in the parade].

You could leave the book in the table, if you are placing it inside a drawer:
Leave the book in the table[’s drawer].

You could be waiting in the entrance, which would mean you are inside:
She is waiting in the [theater’s main] entrance.


Prepositions for Movement

To                   He went to the movie. OR
He came from the movie.

Into                 She stepped into the bathtub. OR
She stepped out of the bathtub.

Toward         The baby crawled toward his mother. OR
The baby crawled away from his mother.

One of the most common problems with prepositions occurs when prepositional phrases are strung together to create an overly complicated sentence:

It is a matter of the gravest possible importance to the health of anyone with a history of a problem with disease of the heart that he or she should avoid the sort of foods with a high percentage of saturated fats (from writing.wisc.edu).

Too many prepositional phrases create plodding prose and a confusing sentence. Can you identify the subject and verb in the previous sentence? I’m not sure I can!

Revised: People with heart problems should avoid high fat foods.

The subject (people) and verb (should avoid) are much clearer in the revised example. The best writing is concise writing, and prepositional phrases often are crutches we lean on a bit too heavily that create wordiness and confusion.

Placement of Prepositions

You probably learned in high school that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. This is one of those grammar rules that cause disagreement among grammarians. It’s not always so easy to rearrange the concluding preposition to another place in the sentence. Try rewording the following sentences to move the concluding preposition:

1)    The dress had not been paid for.

2)    Tell him he is taking too much on.

3)    We are such stuff as dreams are made of. (William Shakespeare)

4)    All words are pegs to hang ideas on. (Henry Ward Beecher)

5)    That is nonsense up with which I shall not put. (Winston Churchill)

As you can see, even some of our great writers break the rule. Consider this rule a writer’s choice. Whether one considers it right or wrong is a debate we won’t go into. (!)

This is only a tiny bit of all there is to know about prepositions and their uses. As you can see, it takes patience and practice.

Practice!
Fill-in each sentence with a preposition from the list.

Along; down; across; beyond; underneath; after; against

1. I looked ______________________ the hill at the many houses below.

2. Make sure to check ______________________ your bed for your shoes.

3. __________________ we go to the movies, we will go eat at a restaurant.

4. I leaned ______________________ the side of the wall.

5. Can you walk ______________________ with me as we go shopping?

6. If you look ______________________ those trees, you will see a cabin.

7. We will walk _______________________ the street when it is safe. (from englishlinx.com)

Some examples from http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/prepositions.htm

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.
______________________________________________

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.

___________________________________________________

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.
___________________________________________________________

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.

Improving Sentence Style

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Describing good style in writing is one of those things that is hard to explain. Like fashion sense or a winning personality, either you have it or you don’t. But you can learn how to improve your sentence style by following a few easy steps.

Avoid Using Vague Nouns

The words below are examples of vague nouns. Relying on vague nouns often leads to wordy construction, so it’s always best to avoid them if you can:

  • factor
  • aspect
  • area
  • situation
  • consideration
  • case

Examples

Vague: Consumer demand is rising in the area of services.

Precise: Consumers are demanding more services.

Vague: Strong reading skills are an important factor in students’ success in college.

Precise: Students’ success in college depends on their reading skills.

Vague: Photography took on new aspects during the Civil War.

Precise: The Civil War saw the advent of graphic battlefield photography.

As you can see in the examples above, the sentences become wordy and confusing when vague nouns are used. This often can impede rhythm in sentences, which hurts the flow. This means that the reader must slow down to read the sentence, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

 

Incorporate Absolute Phrases

If you’ve ever felt your essay plodding along in a repetitive “subject/verb/object” order, you probably could use some absolute phrases to enliven your rhythm and sharpen your style.

What exactly is an absolute phrase? An absolute phrase is a group of words that modify an independent clause. Just as an adjective modifies a noun, an absolute phrase modifies an entire clause.

Example:

Her arms folded across her chest, Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class.

In the sentence above, the absolute phrase is at the beginning of the sentence – Her arms folded across her chest.

The clause, Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class, is an independent clause, which means it can stand alone as a sentence. The absolute phrase (a dependent clause) is modifying this entire clause.

Building Sentences with Absolutes

Absolute phrases can be arranged in different positions in a sentence. In the example above, the absolute could be placed after the independent clause:

Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class, her arms folded across her chest.

Absolute phrases can also be placed in the middle of a sentence, between the subject and verb:

(S)                                                                                         (V)
Professor Smith, her arms folded across her chest, warned the students not to text in class.

Note that the absolute phrase is set off in the sentence with a pair of commas.

 

Eliminate Wordiness

Do you ever get your essays back from instructors with such comments as, “tighten,” “condense,” or “wordy”? What this means is that you are trying to communicate your point with more words than necessary. For example, note the difference in

“It is the opinion of our professor that we have failed to meet his expectations.”

and

“We have failed to meet our professor’s expectations.”

The second sentence is tighter, uses fewer words, and is stronger and more direct. Just remember, if you can communicate your point in fewer words, do it. Less is more.

Consider the following redundancies in italics:

Ex. 1:

It is absolutely essential that all students meet with their advisor on a regular basis.

If something isessential,” can it be any more essential withabsolutelyin front of it? Probably not.

Ex. 2:

The advance preview of Transformers scored big at the box office.

You might have seen this one in film reviews, or even on E TV. If a movie is a preview, doesn’t that mean it is in advance of the release?

Ex. 3:

In my personal opinion, everyone could benefit from eating more chocolate.

Everyone, at one time or another, has at least said this, if not written it. So what is wrong with this example? If it is your opinion, isn’t it personal?

Ex. 4:

The final outcome of the Literature exam was better than I expected.

The outcome of something is always final, right?

These are all examples of redundant words that create inflated sentences. Carefully edit your final drafts to make sure you’re not redundant.

Avoid Dangling Modifiers

A modifier is a word (or group of words) that qualifies or adds to the meaning of other parts of the sentence. A dangling modifier is created when the modifier is joined to the wrong words in the sentence.

To correct, make the “doer” of the action the sentence’s subject, as in the example below:

Wrong: Coming over the hill, the barn was seen. Who saw the barn?
Correct: Coming over the hill, we saw the barn.

Wrong: Having arrived late for practice, a written excuse was needed.

Who arrived late? This sentence says that the written excuse arrived late. The possible revision might look like this:

Correct: Having arrived late for practice, the team captain needed a written excuse.

The main clause now names the person (the captain) who did the action in the modifying phrase (arrived late).

 

Choosing the best words to express your ideas in the best possible way sounds easy, but often is more difficult than we think. Improving your writing style may take some time and effort, but by following a few simple rules, your writing will become more readable and your style will be the envy of your peers!

 

(Sources: Purdue Owl, Essentials of English Grammar, writing.wisc.edu/Handbook.)

ACE IT! 5 Tips on Writing a Winning Scholarship Essay

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When presented with the task of writing a scholarship essay, many hopeful students panic. Writing an essay for a class and grade is one thing, but writing an essay for money can be off-the-charts stressful. By following a few basic principles of scholarship essay writing, you’ll be on your way to a winning essay.

ACE IT:

  1. Audience

Every scholarship has its own unique requirements. Just as you shouldn’t take the shotgun approach to resumes, blanketing every company in town with the same resume, you shouldn’t use the same essay for every scholarship you are applying for. Every scholarship provider wants students to meet their specific criteria. If the provider offers specific questions, be sure you are focusing your essay or responses to appeal to that specific provider. Submitting a cookie-cutter essay when you are competing with possibly hundreds of equally qualified applicants will immediately put you at a disadvantage. Know who you are submitting to. Do a little research on the provider, and if the scholarship is in someone’s honor, consider referencing the person to personalize your essay.

  1. Confidence

As you compose your thoughts, communicate a confident, but sincere message. This is all about tone. You want to sound self-assured, but you don’t want to sound like a braggart. Be passionate in your response. If you are applying for a nursing scholarship, you can bet all the scholarship essays will be from caring and compassionate applicants. Confidently communicate what is unique about you.

Don’t be shy about listing your accomplishments. This isn’t bragging; it’s being honest and assertive. If you list specific accomplishments, the deeds will speak for themselves without a lot of fluffing.

  1. Edit

Obviously your essay should be error free. But editing also means choosing your words wisely. Most scholarships have a word or character limit. You absolutely don’t want to waste one single word. After you write your essay and have worked it over, put it away for a day or two and revisit it with fresh eyes. Do you repeat yourself? Do you have a tightly focused, well-organized essay? Avoid vague descriptions or generalized statements. If you are telling a story, use vivid language and descriptions. Be concise, specific and of course, error free.

  1. Instructions

Are you answering a series of specific questions, or are you simply writing a straightforward essay? If you are to answer questions, make certain you understand what is being asked and that you are specifically addressing this question.

Most scholarships have word limits and other guidelines. Don’t get thrown in the “NO” pile because you failed to follow the instructions. If it says it should be typed, double-spaced, then type and double-space it. If the word limit is 500 words, don’t submit a 510-word essay.

  1. Thesis

Even though this isn’t exactly an academic essay, a scholarship essay should still have a controlling idea. Once you understand the instructions, consider what the objective of your essay is. When answering essay questions, a one-sentence answer to the essay question acts as your thesis, with the remainder of the body examples or support for that answer.

Avoid the clichéd sob story. Scholarship committees are often turned off by this type of essay, as they feel a bit emotionally manipulated. Even though many scholarships are based on financial need, you’ll still be judged by your merits. What have you accomplished despite challenges or obstacles?

 

ACE IT

Composing a winning scholarship essay takes some planning, but by following a few basic guidelines, you’ll go to the head of the pack. Remember you could be competing against hundreds, in some cases thousands, of equally qualified applicants. You want to stand out from the crowd, but in a good way! Even though you may be one of thousands, you are still unique, with experiences and knowledge that no one else possesses. Make sure the reader gets a sense of who you are and leave them with a positive, inspiring image of yourself. Make them remember you.

And one last word: many scholarships – too many – go unused due to lack of applicants. Too many students don’t even apply, thinking they have no chance, so why bother? Scholarships are like the lottery: you can’t win if you don’t play. Only it doesn’t cost you anything but a little time and effort to apply.

A Match Made in Heaven: Subjects and Predicates

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We learned last week that failure to include a subject or verb in a sentence will cause a sentence fragment. Even when subjects and verbs are both present, you still may not have a grammatically correct sentence. Subjects and verbs must fit together grammatically. When they don’t, the sentence has a mixed structure, or faulty predication.  A mixed construction is a sentence with parts that do not logically fit together.

Faulty Predication

A predicate is the part of the sentence that makes a statement about the subject, and the main part of the predicate is the verb. Sentences must be logical, meaning the predicate must have the ability to act on the subject. Faulty predication is created when the subject can’t logically do or be whatever the verb says it’s doing or being. Consider the sentence below:

EX:

  • A quality that I admire is someone who is patient.

“Someone” is not really a “quality,” so this sentence isn’t logical. This is considered faulty predication because the subject (quality) isn’t consistent with the predicate (is someone who is patient).

  • A quality that I admire is patience.

Is patience a quality? Yes. But note that a person can be patient; a quality is patience. The only way to correct the sentence is to change the form of the word, patient.

EX:

  • The rules of the game expect all players to be in full uniform.

“Rules” can’t “expect” anything, right? Rules can require:

  • The rules of the game require that all players be in full uniform.

Trouble with Linking Verbs

Another illogical construction with faulty predication is using when, where, and because immediately after the linking verb “is.”

EX:

  • An idiom is when a word or phrase has an unpredictable meaning.

In the previous sentence, the subject, “idiom” is a noun. The sentence is illogical, because a noun must follow the linking verb “is.” When used as a linking verb, “is” must join two nouns:

  • An idiom is a word or phrase with an unpredictable meaning.

The same rule applies to “where” in the following sentence:

EX:

  • The summit is where a mountain is the highest.

Omit  “where” and follow “is” with a noun:

  • The summit is the highest point of a mountain.

EX:

  • A gulf is where a portion of ocean or sea is partially surrounded by land.
  •  A gulf is a portion of ocean or sea partially surrounded by land.


Reason. . . is Because

Using “is because” following “reason” creates a confusing structure. It’s redundant, as the meaning of “because” is “the reason that.” It’s not only illogical, but confusing:

EX:

  • The reason I like to play tennis is because it keeps me in shape.
  • I like to play tennis because it keeps me in shape.

EX:

  • The reason I went to work early was to catch up on emails.
  • I went to work early to catch up on emails.

Both of these examples are corrected by removing “the reason” and the linking verb preceding “because.”

Finding these types of sentence-level errors is tricky, and they are often overlooked in academic papers. Read sentences carefully, paying close attention to the subject and predicate of each sentence. You can also try using MS Word’s FIND tab to locate illogical constructions such as “is when,” “is where,” and “reason. . . is because.” When working to eliminate faulty predicate construction, nothing works better than a close reading.

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