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Sentence-Level Mechanics (Grammar)

How might you address the pronoun reference problems that occur throughout your essay?

Thomas was always unprepared for class. It made his teacher increasingly mad.

Thomas was always unprepared for class. This made his teacher increasingly mad.

The highlighted words represent vague pronouns because a reader cannot tell to which noun the pronoun in each example is referring. By definition, pronouns, which take the place of a noun, cannot refer to an idea expressed in an entire sentence or statement; instead, a pronoun must refer back to a specific noun.

As a student embarking on your academic career, most papers that you will be asked to write will be academic papers. These academic papers include clear and direct language with a purpose to communicate to your readers your intended message. Clear and direct language should be used to avoid any confusion.

Readers do not want to have to play guessing games with your paper to figure out your main points and arguments, and readers should not have to work hard to figure out what you mean. While much of the success of a well-written essay has to do with having an insightful thesis that is well supported with a cogent synthesis of evidence or sources with appropriate transitions and a logical progression, style and grammar should not be overlooked.

A single relationship lies at the heart of every sentence in the English language. Like an indivisible nucleus at the center of an atom, the subject-verb pair unifies the sentence. It can be surrounded by any number of modifying words, taking on new shades of meaning, but no matter how many adjectives, adverbs, and independent clauses become attached, the basic unit remains. The subject-verb pair guarantees that the sentence means something. Without this core, a sentence fragments and loses its power to speak. Indeed, a sentence only becomes complete when it contains at least a subject and a verb.

A verb denotes action, existence, or occurrence. A subject denotes the person or thing that performs the action, the person or thing that exists, or the incident that occurs. For example:

Why eliminate unnecessary “to be” verbs?

When a writer consistently uses unnecessary “to be” verbs, the writing can sound dull and lifeless. Flat, wordy writing may cause the reader to lose interest. As a writer learns to substitute stronger, more expressive verbs for “to be” verbs, the enlivened writing is likely to hold the reader’s interest more effectively.

How can you revise your sentences to eliminate unnecessary “to be” verbs?

  • Circle or highlight forms of “to be” verbs in your sentences and paragraphs: is, am, was, were, being, been
  • Look for the “doer” in your sentences: Who is performing the action?

Create a persuasive, dynamic voice by packing your sentences with verbs rather than nominalizations.

You can imbue your language with a sense of vigor by eliminating unnecessary nouns and choosing powerful verbs. When editing, consider changing Latinated nouns--that is, nouns that end with -ance, -ing, -ion, -tion, or -ment into verbs.

Why is it important to avoid unnecessary shifts in verb tense?

The verb tense expresses a sense of time in a sentence, paragraph, paper, or longer work. Generally, the writer should establish the time perspective (past, present, or future) in the opening sentence and maintain that tense consistently throughout his or her work.

Although there are occasions when a shift in tense is appropriate, unnecessary and inconsistent shifts—especially within a sentence—are distracting to the reader and can cause a break in overall coherence.

What are pronouns and antecedents?

pronoun is any word that stands in for a previously stated noun, and an antecedent is whatever noun a certain pronoun represents. Using pronouns helps make writing less wordy and repetitive, improving style and expressing the same ideas in fewer words. For example, a piece about “George Washington,” the first president of the United States, does not need to repeat this full name every time it appears, but can instead refer to the antecedent “George Washington” with the pronoun “he”:

When George Washington was asked to run for office, he initially refused.

What is a modifier?

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes, strengthens, or clarifies another word (or group of words) in a sentence. When a modifier is placed in its proper position in a sentence, a sense of clarity is established for the reader.

What is a misplaced modifier?

A modifier may be considered misplaced when it is not in the correct position in the sentence in relation to the word (or words) being modified. Misplaced modifiers can weaken or twist the intended meaning of a sentence, thus creating a sense of ambiguity or absurdity.

What is subject-verb agreement?

In a sentence, the form of the verb changes, or is conjugated, to reflect the relationship between the subject and the action being performed. To bring the subject and verb into agreement, they must correspond in number (singular or plural) and person (first, second, or third).

What is a modifier?

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that describes, strengthens, or clarifies another word (or group of words) in a sentence. When a modifier is placed in its proper position in a sentence, a sense of clarity is established for the reader.

What is a dangling modifier?

A modifier may be considered dangling when the word that is meant to be modified is missing from the sentence. A dangling modifier can weaken or twist the intended meaning of the sentence, thus creating a sense of ambiguity or absurdity.

Pronouns are an important part of speech because you use them frequently. And you should use pronouns because they serve important purposes. However, you need to make sure when you use pronouns, you’re using them effectively.

The main purpose of a pronoun is “to replace” a noun. The noun a pronoun replaces is called an antecedent. Pronouns, though, need to be coordinated with their antecedents. If they’re not, confusion quickly emerges for readers.

A pronoun is like a backup quarterback. When the starting quarterback is injured, the backup steps in.

Mechanical issues such as grammatical errors can do more than just make your work appear sloppy: they can even change the meaning of your sentences, thereby confusing your reader. Thus, in the editing stage of the drafting process, it is important to polish your draft for grammatical mistakes and other "local" issues. While the principles discussed in this section are certainly not exhaustive, they address the most common grammatical mistakes found in student writing. Reviewing them in conjunction with other grammar rulebooks will provide you with the necessary tools to conclude your writing project with a clean, polished product.

Why is it important to follow capitalization rules?

Following capitalization rules helps to maintain order in written text and makes it easier to distinguish one word from another. When capitalization rules are followed carefully, this adherence to the accepted conventions of the English language strengthens the writer’s credibility.

What words should be capitalized?