All About Absolute Phrases

Last week here at Writing Center Underground, we learned about independent and dependent clauses, and the 4 sentence types – Simple, Compound, Complex, and Compound-Complex. Now that we know about clauses and sentence types, we’ll look at absolute phrases.

An absolute phrase combines a noun and a participle with accompanying modifiers or objects. Noun + Participle + Optional Modifier(s) and/or Object(s)

Absolute phrases modify entire sentences, not just one word. They are optional in sentences and can be removed without damaging the grammatical integrity of the sentence, and are always set off with commas (and sometimes dashes).


Her arms folded across her chest, Professor Smith warned the class 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 class 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 class 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:

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

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

Revising with Absolute Phrases

Incorporating absolute phrases into your writing works to break up short, choppy sentences. The example below has combined two sentences by omitting “were” in the second sentence, turning it into an absolute phrase:

The hikers made their way down the wooded trail.

Their boots were caked in mud.

Their boots caked in mud, the hikers made their way down the wooded trail.

In the example below, three sentences are combined:

I went snorkeling in Mexico.

The water was warm.

The sun was bright.

The water warm and sun bright, I snorkeled all afternoon.

In the above example, The water warm and sun bright modifies the independent clause, I went snorkeling in Mexico.

As you can see, absolute phrases are a great way to incorporate variety into your writing. They are especially useful in narrative writing when description is necessary, and when you want to break up short, plodding sentences.







No Research Required: Tips for Writing a Narrative Essay


Narrative or Personal Essays are a common writing assignment in English classrooms. Many freshman will run across this type of writing in college, and for natural storytellers, it can be a fun assignment. If the guidelines ask you to simply retell an event from your past, you already know the information! For a narrative essay, most likely, no research is required. Composing a narrative is simply a matter of putting a story from your past on paper. Sounds easy, right?

Actually, not as easy as it sounds. Move ahead with caution.

One of the biggest problems that arise when composing a personal narrative is not compiling the information; you already know it, as it’s part of your memory. The problems often lie in organizing those memories into a cohesive, well-organizing, interesting story that holds the reader’s attention from start to finish. This is not always so easy.

Once Upon a Time

Logic would tell you that if you want to retell a story or event, you will start at the beginning and conclude at the end. Right? Not necessarily. Taking a story out of chronological order is often the most effective way to hold the reader’s attention, create rising tension, an exciting climax, and conclude with a thoughtful reflection of what it all meant to you. This is what is referred to as the “narrative arc.” This seems logical; beginning, middle, end. Sometimes these narrative essays will incorporate a brief flashback, but never deviate from the chronological retelling of events.

The problem with this kind of storytelling organization is that it can become tedious to a reader. Writers tend to begin too far back, before the actual event even begins, then proceed to tell every detail up to the conclusion. By the time the reader gets to the main event or action, he or she may lose interest. By taking the narrative out of chronological order and begin in the middle of the action, or what writers refer to as in media res, we get off to a swift start that will sustain the narrative through to the end and hook the reader’s interest.

In medias res (or medias in res) is a Latin phrase which simply means the narrative story begins at the mid-point of the action rather than at the beginning. Setting, characters, and conflict can be set up immediately via flashback, conversations, or inner reflection. The main advantage of starting in the middle of the event is to open the story with dramatic action rather than explanation (exposition) which sets up the characters and situation in an exciting and captivating story. The reader is hooked immediately; a “hook” is often a requirement of a narrative essay. Beginning in the middle of action avoids what writers refer to as spinning your wheels or throat clearing; a lot of talk that gets you nowhere.

In medias res often (though not always) entails nonlinear narrative, or non-chronological order; earlier events are condensed briefly in the backstory. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey use this technique to begin with the action of the Trojan War. To Kill a Mockingbird begins with Jem’s broken arm, which doesn’t happen in the narrative until the conclusion. The entire Star Wars series is completely out of chronological order! Think about the stories you’ve read for class; where in the story has the action begun? I’ll bet you’ll find it is seldom in the actual beginning of events.


When composing your own essay, there is no right technique on how to organize it, but one tool writers use once a solid draft is complete, is scissors. Print your draft on one side, and cut each paragraph into its own page. One you have all of your paragraphs cut up, lay each out in front of you. Try to envision where the narrative could be re-arranged, and play with the organization. When you chopped up your essay, did you notice a lot of paragraph breaks, or two double spaces between paragraphs (white space)? If you tend to use a lot of paragraph breaks with no discernible reason, maybe that paragraph is in the wrong place in the narrative. Place the end at the beginning. Place the beginning in the middle. If a paragraph doesn’t fit, maybe it’s not needed. Maybe you’ll find a gap in time or action that needs more information to clarify details of the event.

Once you shift your perspective to consider other possibilities of organization for your narrative other than chronological, you may find that the first two pages of your narrative are unneeded. You will hook the reader more quickly by eliminating non-essential details and placing him or her immediately into the action, which will improve the narrative arc and set you on course for a narrative essay that your reader can’t put down.



The Basics of Paragraph Structure


A paragraph is simply a group of related sentences comprised of a single topic. Creating a good paragraph structure helps your reader easily follow the piece of writing. If your paper is full of wonderful ideas, but the ideas are not presented in a well-organized, coherent, logical order, then your reader will become frustrated and most likely stop reading.


The most important rule to follow when creating paragraphs is to remember that one paragraph contains one idea. Following that one simple rule will prevent most, if not all, problems with paragraph structure. Novice writers often try to include as much information as possible in one paragraph, which creates a jumbled mess of ideas that are hard, if not impossible, to follow. If you begin a new topic, begin a new paragraph.


Since your paragraphs will have one main idea or point, the paragraph will include supporting details, but those supporting points will be directly related to the paragraph’s main idea. It’s okay to have several supporting points in one paragraph, as long as they are directly related to the main idea or point of the paragraph.


  1. Your paragraphs should be unified. When paragraphs are unified, they have a clear focus. The paragraph begins with one main idea, the idea carries throughout the paragraph, and the conclusion of the paragraph maintains focus on that one controlling idea, and avoids wandering off-track or introducing new or unrelated information.
  2. Your paragraphs should be cohesive. A cohesive paragraph is one that makes the information easily understandable. The words and ideas flow logically with smooth transitions from sentence to sentence. The one main idea you began the paragraph with continues from sentence to sentence. Transitional words guide the reader through the paragraph for a fluid reading. A reader should be able to quickly read the paragraph and be able to easily summarize what it is about.
  3. Your paragraph should be fully developed. The one main idea or topic in the paragraph should be adequately discussed, leaving nothing in question. Fully developed, however, doesn’t mean wordy or redundant. In contrast, a paragraph that is too short will leave questions in the reader’s minds about the main idea. In most college-level writing, paragraphs of 2 or 3 sentences, especially in research papers, or are often not fully developed.


If you want to discuss a new idea or make a new point, start a new paragraph. In longer research papers, you might need to start a new paragraph if the main point in the paragraph becomes extended with supporting, related explanation or research.

You can also start a new paragraph if you want to contrast ideas or offer opposing viewpoints to your main point. Even though the ideas are related, creating separate paragraphs of contrast help the reader to follow your line of reasoning and prevents paragraphs from becoming too long and confusing.

An introduction to an essay will always be in its own paragraph; similarly, always begin a new paragraph for your conclusion. Both the intro and conclusion may have multiple paragraphs, depending on the essay’s length and the writer’s purpose, but intro information and concluding information should never be integrated in body paragraphs.

To test your paragraphs, have a peer read each carefully and ask him or her to identify the controlling idea, and evaluate the unity, cohesiveness, and development of the paragraph. If the paragraph cannot be read fluidly and be easily understood, revise.

Good paragraph structure is an essential element to good writing and a strong composition. Make sure each sentence in a paragraph only discusses one main idea or point, creating a unified, cohesive, fully-developed paragraph. Well-constructed paragraphs lead to well-constructed papers.



What Makes Good Writing and How to Make Your Writing Better


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.


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.

Quick Tips for Organizing your Research Paper


If you’ve ever tried writing a research paper, you know that organizing the masses of information you’ve compiled can be a daunting task. If you’ve waited until the last minute to begin writing the paper (sound like you?) below are some quick tips on how you might put it all together.

Note that there is not one correct way to organize a research paper. The most important thing to consider is first your assignment guidelines. Does your instructor ask you to place your thesis at the conclusion of the introduction, or wait until you’ve set up your points of argument? Do the requirements call for a pro/con paper, a problem/solution, or another type of format? Is your audience hostile or sympathetic to your position? Although these are questions you might want to consider before you move forward, below is a basic formula for organizing the classical argument.


Don’t discount the importance of a title. The title acts as an introduction to the introduction. It should reflect the content of the paper and can be a title-subtitle style, such as

Devastating Beauty: How Print Media Contributes to Negative Self Image of Teens

The title-subtitle format is effective if you want your audience to know exactly what the content of the paper will be about. In the previous example, the writer could also simply use the title Devastating Beauty, which piques the readers’ interest without giving it all away.


The intro to your paper will offer background information about the topic, establishing common ground with the audience. Intros often contain emotional appeals to garner interest from the reader. You’ll want to introduce the problem before you state your thesis, which traditionally, comes at the end of the introduction. Hopefully you have your thesis, and it’s clear, concise, and proposes an argument.

Reason Paragraphs

Once you have your main argument or thesis claim, you must then explain the “why?” behind the argument. One easy way I teach my students to build their argument is with “because clauses.” A “because clause” answers “why?” as in the example below:

Thesis: The portrayal of young women in fashion magazines contribute to poor self-image of teens

Reason: because the images are unrealistic and unattainable.

This reason or “because” will be the basis for the first point of argument, so the next few paragraphs will contain research and support to prove this claim.

Most assignments will require at least 3 main points or reasons, but they will all follow the same pattern: expand the thesis with a reason or because clause. So a simple graphic outline of the body will look something like this:

Reason #1:   (thesis with because clause)

Research & statistics in support of reason #1

Reason #2:    (thesis with because clause)

Research & statistics in support of reason #2

Reason #3:    (thesis with because clause)

Research & statistics in support of reason #3


Opposition: The Counter-argument

Once you’ve laid the groundwork for the claim and reasons, you’ll now introduce the antithesis or opposition. For a fair and balanced argument, you must consider what the other side believes. An audience will give more credibility to writers who offer a fair treatment of both sides, not just his or her own side. The opposition may concede a point, showing sympathy and understanding. This doesn’t weaken your argument; it actually makes it stronger if you can offer an effective rebuttal. The rebuttal is your answer to the opposition’s objections.

Opposition 1:

Some people disagree, believing that the portrayal of young women in fashion magazines actually helps improve teens’ body image (insert explanation and  information explaining this point).

Rebuttal 1:

However, recent research has shown that exposing young women to images of thin, attractive models increases body dissatisfaction and other negative feelings (Rogers).

The opposition section may counter-argue one reason, all three reasons, or the overall argument. So it might, be outlined like this:

Opposition #1
Rebuttal #1

Opposition #2
Rebuttal #2

Opposition #3
Rebuttal #3


Now all you have to do is bring it all home. Close the argument in a memorable and satisfying way. reinforce your thesis, offer a call to action, a warning, or a solution. This is the last opportunity to get your message to your audience, to convince them of the importance of your argument.




An informal outline of the entire process would look something like this:

Introduction (background, history, problem; conclude with thesis statement)

Reason #1 (because why?)

Reason #2 (because why?)

Reason #3 (because why?)

Opposition #1 (counter-argument)

Rebuttal #1 (refute the counter)

Opposition #2 (counter-argument)

Rebuttal #2 (refute the counter)

Opposition #3 (counter-argument)

Rebuttal #3 (refute the counter)

Conclusion (reinforce thesis; call to action; warning)

This is only one way to organize a classical argument. Read your assignment directives and follow the guidelines carefully. Take care to develop each point fully, integrate your research carefully, and treat the opposition fairly, and you’ll find you’ll be on the way to a successful research paper.


Writing the Response Essay

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








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.

Building Paragraphs



Last week here at Writing Center Underground, we discussed how to write a thesis statement for your argument essay, and this week we’ll look at how to structure paragraphs. Organizing information into paragraph format is directly related to the thesis. How? Once you have formulated a working thesis, the next step is to begin formulating the paragraphs, which work to support the thesis by offering details, which may include facts, explanations, examples, and research, if required. A paragraph should convey one controlling idea in support of the main thesis, and no more than one; this controlling idea should relate back to the paper’s thesis.

Below is an example of a working thesis and supporting paragraphs:

WORKING THESIS: Recycling should be mandatory for all businesses.

PARAGRAPH ONE:            . . . because businesses create more landfill waste than individual households.

PARAGRAPH TWO:           . . . because landfill maintenance and administration is much costlier for municipal governments than recycling of domestic waste.

PARAGRAPHS THREE:   . . . because business recycling sets a good example for the community.

In the examples above, each of the paragraphs will directly support the thesis statement with different reasons, also known as “because clauses.” Forming your thesis into a “because clause” paragraph is a useful way to organize the paragraphs, especially for a proposal argument essay.

Let’s break the paragraphs down further. For paragraph one, the topic sentence will be “Recycling should be mandatory for all businesses because businesses create more landfill waste than individual households.” Just as the thesis is the controlling idea for the entire paper, the topic sentence is the controlling idea of the paragraph. The topic sentence works to keep the paragraph focused on supporting that specific reason or because clause. So in paragraph one, you will incorporate details, such as statistics, facts, examples, and research showing support that businesses do indeed create more landfill waste than individuals.

For paragraph two, you will show supporting information including statistics, facts, examples, and research to show that landfill maintenance and administration is much costlier for municipal governments than recycling of domestic waste. For paragraph three, the supporting details will include information that supports that business recycling will set a good example for the community. For each of the example paragraphs, only supporting details that directly relate to each topic sentence should be included. This will help to focus the paragraphs and prevent you from straying off-topic.

As you develop your paragraphs, remember that each should be

  • Unified: All of the sentences in a single paragraph should be related to a single controlling idea (often expressed in the topic sentence of the paragraph).
  • Clearly related to the thesis: The sentences should all refer to the central idea, or thesis, of the paper.
  • Coherent: The sentences should be arranged in a logical manner and should follow a definite plan for development.
  • Well-developed: Every idea discussed in the paragraph should be adequately explained and supported through evidence and details that work together to explain the paragraph’s controlling idea.

(courtesy of The Writing Center, UNC-CH • Chapel Hill, NC)

Steps to Developing Paragraphs

  1. Create a Topic Sentence. The topic sentence of a paragraph works as the controlling idea or thesis of just that paragraph.
  2. Explain the Controlling Idea. Explain how the reader should interpret the controlling idea. This smooths the transition to the supporting details.
  3. Offer Examples of Support. This could take the form of statistics, facts, examples, and research that directly supports or proves the statement or argument you make in the topic sentence.
  4. Explain the Examples. Especially for research or statistics, it’s imperative that the information be explained and contextualized for the reader. It’s not enough to include quotes or stats; they must be fully integrated into the paragraph with explanations and connections to the larger purpose.

Paragraph Length

How long should a paragraph be? In doing a little research of my own, I found several varying answers. Some sources say that a paragraph is a minimum of three sentences. Others say that a paragraph is between seven to twelve sentences. Still other sources say a paragraph should be one-half page in length. However, don’t rely on length alone to determine if a paragraph is complete. A paragraph should be long enough to fully support one main idea with adequate examples of support, and not so short that the main idea of the paragraph isn’t fully illustrated and explained.

Successful paragraphs are built one step at a time. Beginning writers find it easier to first create an outline of each paragraph, which often makes it easier to keep a strong focus and maintain a connection to the thesis. Following a few simple steps will help you build, paragraph by paragraph, a successful essay.