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

Mod_Squad

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)

End With a Flourish: How to compose a powerful final sentence

(A version of this post originally appeared Feb. 2014)

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Many writers spend a lot of time in the early stages of the composition process perfecting their introductory paragraph, taking care to grab the reader’s attention with a great hook and laying out a convincing argument. By the time we get to the conclusion, we often get impatient and don’t spend the time drafting a compelling conclusion. Most often, a conclusion that falls flat isn’t about the content, but it’s more often a problem of last-line syntax.

What do I mean by syntax?

Syntax refers to the arrangement of words in a sentence, or the grammatical structure of a sentence. A particular sentence might have a variety of ways one could order the words and still derive the same meaning. Beginning writers (and even some experienced) sometimes give little thought to word order, and in body of paragraphs, it might not make a great deal of difference for a reader. However, a concluding line needs punch.  The conclusion should not only leave a strong message for the audience, but also communicate that message in a way to create the most emotional impact right down to the final word.

Look at the similar sentences in the examples below:

  • There is no more important issue than this.
  • There is no more important or more urgent issue.

At first glance, both seem okay. Both say about the same thing. But the second is better. Why? Because the final words, “urgent issue” leaves the reader with a more vivid image than the first example which ends with a vague phrase. In Example 1, the concluding word, “this,” a pronoun, leaves no strong image for the reader. The phrase, “There is no more important issue. . .” is placed in the slightly weaker position at the beginning of the sentence, so it offers less impact. We remember best what we read last.

The second example also utilizes parallel structure, “more important or more urgent . . .,” which works to reinforce the writer’s message by the use of repetition.

In the classic style book, The Elements of Style, Strunk and White say that “The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end.” Let’s take a look at two examples:
1)         Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.

2)         Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

 The second example has a greater emotional impact by concluding with the words, “advanced in fortitude.” These are considered emphatic words, or words that should require prominence in the sentence. The first example’s final phrase, “though it has advanced in many other ways,” is a bit vague, the words imprecise, which weaken the message.

Also notice the cadence of each example. Cadence refers to the musicality of language, the rhythm imparted on language which is influenced by how words are arranged in a sentence. In the first example above, “Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways,” has a falling rhythm. The ending of the sentence has no emphatic punch. It just kind of trails off. . .

In the second example, the rhythm has built to a crescendo as we approach the end of the sentence; this is done by placing a short dependent clause in the beginning position (“Since that time”), followed by a dependent clause (“humanity has advanced in many ways”), concluding with a flurry of repetitive, hard consonants, or alliteration, which creates a strong punchy conclusion. The rhythm of this syntax slows the reader down and places emphasis on the final words. Read the sentence again, but this time, read it aloud so you can hear:

Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

Do you hear the power at the end of the sentence? How does it sound different than the first example?

Readers read with their eyes, but we still hear what we read. That’s why all writers should read their work aloud. Even though we read in our head, we don’t get the full effect until we hear the words aloud.

Tips and Tricks

 When attempting to create a powerful concluding line, some words are better left for positions in their respective sentence other than the end. Pronouns and prepositions often weaken a sentence when placed in the final position. One of the most common pronouns that you should avoid placing in the final or power position of a concluding line is “it” – probably the most overused pronoun in student papers.

Think about what idea or image you want to leave the reader with and structure the final sentence accordingly. It’s often simply a matter of putting more thought into your sentence structure. Play around with word order, and read our earlier post on absolute phrases, which explains the different ways phrases can be arranged in a sentence.

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Below are some concluding lines from great literature. Consider why the authors made the choices they did, and how changing the word order might hurt – or enhance – the final lines.

All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.” –Voltaire, Candide

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

It’s old light, and there’s not much of it. But it’s enough to see by. –Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye

It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.   –Toni Morrison, Sula

He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.
–Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.
–Willa Cather, My Ántonia

 

Is that a Word?

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Although I am the last person you’ll find speaking formal, or “proper,” English, I probably do spend more time thinking about grammar and punctuation than the average person. Even though I speak what is considered slang or conversational English, as someone with a background in English, I admit I sometimes notice other people’s mispronunciations. Interspersing slang or colloquialisms in our conversations is a matter of preference and personality. Using made-up words in writing or speech, however, is an error, and that’s different.  Read on to see if you’re guilty of using words that aren’t really words.

Common Errors

“He supposably ended their engagement.”

This is one of the most common errors I hear in speech, and it often transfers to writing because it’s so darn common. It’s an error because supposably is not, has never been, a word. It’s supposedly.

 

“I am quitting my job irregardless of the consequences.”

This might be the second most common error, after supposably. Irregardless is not a word either. It’s regardless, which means “irrespective” or “nevertheless.” It could have started from the related meaning to “irrespective,” but that’s a guess.

 

“For all intensive purposes, I think my political views are the same as yours.”

This use is so common in speech that it has worked its way into written English. But it’s still an error. The correct phrase is “for all intents and purposes,” which translates to “for all practical purposes.”

Interestingly, the origin comes from King Henry VIII in 1546. The first recorded use was in an Act of Parliament, which reads, “to all intents, constructions, and purposes.”

 

“I will do my upmost to help support the president.”

This one is a bit tricky. In this example, “upmost” is describing the degree or quality that this person hopes to support the president. It should say, “I will do my utmost to help support the president.

Though “upmost” is a word in British and some English dictionaries, it’s used as a shortened version of “uppermost,” an adjective meaning “highest” or “top,” as in, “We are on the upmost floor of the building.” However, according to many grammarians, this is an old, archaic word that is only now used when the writer actually means utmost.


Not So Common Errors

“I pulled out the letters from my chester drawers.”

I recently read a student’s narrative essay that described his room’s “chester drawers.” This is one of those errors that we translate from spoken to written word, though even saying “chester drawers” will raise eyebrows in certain circles. It’s chest of drawers, which makes a lot more sense.

 

“I was hired to type, file, answer phones, excetera.”

This is a word that worked its way in to written form from mispronounced speech. The correct use is et cetera, which is Latin for “and” (et) “the rest” (cetera). The abbreviated version – etc. – is often used in academic essays, but many instructors will request you to omit its use when possible. If you are writing out a list of 3 or 4 items and feel “etc.” is needed, it most likely isn’t. Just write out all the items instead.

 

“I have two expressos every morning.”

Okay, I admit I’ve pronounced it with an “x” forever, but I don’t drink it, so no barista has ever corrected me. However, I’ve seen it infiltrating writing, so we have to stop. It should be, “I have two espressos every morning.” Most people, like me, pronounce it with a hard “x” – EXpresso, but it should be an “s” – espresso. But I’ll bet you coffee aficionados knew that.

 

Final Thoughts

It’s shocking how quickly erroneous speech patterns can begin to creep into our written phrases. Even though we speak imperfectly, most serious writers agree on correct and preferred forms of a word. Carefully consider if your usage and spelling are correct before you turn in your final essay. You’ll undoubtably – I mean undoubtedly – have a better final paper!

 

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.

ACTION!

Active and Passive Voice

At the heart of every good sentence is a strong, precise verb; the opposite is true as well–at the core of most confusing, awkward, or wordy sentences lies a weak verb.

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Many beginning writers and most scientists use passive voice in their writing.

On the other hand, passive voice is used by beginning writers and scientists in their writing.

Both sentences above say the same thing, but the first sentence is clearer and more to the point. Why? Because the first sentence uses active voice, the subject, “writers and most scientists,” is doing the action, “use passive voice.” The second sentence is passive; the target of the action, “passive voice,” is moved to the subject position.

Get Active!

Active voice places the subject first, followed by the verb and object, as in

Joe loves Mary.
 S      V       O

If the positions of subject and verb were reversed, the sentence would say

Mary was loved by Joe.

The subject of the sentence becomes Mary, but Mary isn’t really doing anything. Joe is doing all the work, and is placed last. Poor Joe.

Notice again the differences in the following active and passive sentences:

Active: Prof. Ford graded the essays.
                        S                 V                O

 Passive: The essays were graded by Prof. Ford.

Because passive voice sentences add words and change the normal doer-action-receiver of action, they make the reader work harder to understand the intended meaning. Passive constructions are by their very nature wordier than active constructions, which also can lead to confusion.

Converting Sentences to Active Voice

If you have a sentence with a “by” phrase, such as, “The boy was bitten by the dog,” rewrite the sentence so the subject comes first, followed by the verb:

The dog bit the boy.

If the subject of the sentence is not given, try using a noun or noun phrase for a more general term, such as “researchers,” or “the study,” or “experts in this field.”

On the other hand, if you wanted to change Whitney Houston’s classic song (and active voice title), I Will Always Love You, to passive voice, it would be You Will Always Be Loved By Me.
And that just sounds silly.

Uses for Passive Voice

Passive voice isn’t always a bad thing. Fiction writers often utilize passive voice. The writer of a murder mystery might want to show a scene of a homicide. He or she might write, “The bartender was murdered,” instead of “Somebody murdered the bartender.”

The difference is subtle, but in the passive sentence “The bartender was murdered,” the focus is on the bartender. In “Somebody murdered the bartender,” the focus would be on the unknown somebody. Passive voice can be a good tool if you want to create a sense of mystery in your sentence. However, when writing nonfiction, as in a narrative essay, you want your writing to be clear.

Another place you’ll find mostly passive voice construction is in scientific writing. The reason for this is that scientists are expected to sound objective, so they take themselves, the subject, out of their sentences: “The DNA was tested.” By whom? We don’t know, as the subject, or the person who tested the DNA, is not known. This vague language is expected in science writing, but lacks the clarity needed for most other writing purposes.

It’s important to remember that passive sentences aren’t incorrect; it’s just that they often aren’t the best way to phrase your thoughts. Sometimes passive voice is awkward and other times it’s vague. In addition, passive voice is usually wordy, so you can tighten your writing if you replace passive sentences with active sentences.

 

 

 

 

 

Five-Dollar Words: Defining Academic Vocabulary

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Recently I was thumbing through a new writing textbook and came upon a glossary of vocabulary. As I skimmed through the pages, it became clear that, though I had heard some of these terms referenced at one time or another, I wasn’t exactly sure what some of them meant. As an instructor, writer, and writing consultant, I thought if I didn’t know what some of these words meant, then I would bet $5 students might not know what some of these five-dollar words meant either.

Students whose first language is not English have an additional burden of learning a foreign language in addition to learning the sometimes foreign language used in college classrooms. You might find that you are familiar with some of these terms listed below. You might find that the term sounds familiar, but you might not be able to define its meaning. Some of the words below might actually look like a foreign word!

A few of the terms below are specific to English academic writing and arguments in particular. Many of the terms may have a slightly different meaning in another language. You may never run across some of these words again in your academic career. Some of the terms are common in academic classes and critical to know; some terms are useful but not critical; and some are interesting, but not really useful (http://www.u-46.org/roadmap/files/vocabulary/acadvoc-over.pdf).  If you recognize any of these terms from previous classes, it might very well turn up again, so it never hurts to be prepared.

Vocabulary List

Allegorical: from “allegory”; a poem, play, picture, etc. in which the apparent meaning of the characters and events is used to symbolize a deeper moral or spiritual meaning; a symbolical narrative. 

Antithesis: the direct opposite; opposition; contrast. The antithesis of an argument paper is the opposite position of the thesis (anti-thesis).

Assonance: the use of a repetitive vowel sound in successive words or stressed syllables, as in a line of verse. Examples are time and light or shade and made.

Collocation: arrangement of words in a sentence, specifically what nouns go with specific verbs; a co-occurrence of lexical (see below) items, as perform with operation or commit with crime.

Enthymeme: syllogism (see below) or other argument in which a premise or the conclusion is unexpressed; in an enthymeme, part of the argument is missing because it is assumed.

Expository: expounds, sets forth, or explains; a type of essay that informs reader through exposition or explanation.

Gerund: a word with characteristics of both a noun and a verb (by adding the “ing” suffix to the noun);  Reading is easy.

Idiom: a language, dialect, or style of speaking peculiar to a people; unpredictable meaning for words used:  “It was raining cats and dogs.”

Infinitive: the simple or basic form of the verb, as come, take, eat, used after auxiliary verbs, as in I didn’t come, I can’t eat, or this simple form preceded by a function word, as to in I want to eat.

Lexical: the words (or vocabulary) of a language, generally distinguished from its grammatical and syntactical (see below) aspects.

Nominalization: to convert (another part of speech) into a noun, as in changing the adjective lowly into the lowly or the verb legalize into legalization.

Participle:  a form of a verb that is used to indicate a past or present action and that can also be used like an adjective.

Peremptory: leaving no opportunity for denial or refusal; admitting of no contradiction.

Syllogism: deductive reasoning; an extremely subtle, sophisticated, or deceptive argument; a formal argument in logic that is formed by two statements and a conclusion which must be true if the two statements are true.

Syntax/Syntactical:  the organization of words in a sentence; the rules and principles that govern the sentence structure of any language