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Welcome to Writing Commons, the open-education home for writers. Writing Commons helps students improve their writing, critical thinking, and information literacy. Founded in 2008 by Joseph M. Moxley, Writing Commons is a viable alternative to expensive writing textbooks. Faculty may assign Writing Commons for their composition, business, STEM/Technical Writing, and creative writing courses. 

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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?

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 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.

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).

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.

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.

What is a pronoun-antecedent relationship?

A pronoun is a part of speech that can replace a noun; its antecedent is the person, place, or thing to which the pronoun refers. Unclear pronoun-antecedent relationships, or those without proper agreement, can leave the reader confused. Writers who strive for clarity in their work should be certain that each pronoun has a clear antecedent and that the pronoun and antecedent agree in person (first, second, or third), number, and gender.

What is a vague pronoun reference?

A pronoun is a part of speech that can replace a noun; its antecedent is the person, place, or thing to which the pronoun refers. A vague pronoun reference might include words such as it, that, this, and which, and can leave the reader wondering what or to whom the pronoun refers. Writers who strive for clarity in their work should be certain that each pronoun has a specific antecedent.

Make your sentences pack a punch. Eliminate unnecessary "to be" verbs.

In our daily speech and in rough drafts, we tend to rely heavily on the various forms of the verb to be.

The verb to be is unlike any other verb because it is inert--that is, it doesn't show any action. For example, in the sentence "The researcher is a professor at Duke" the verb is merely connects the subject with what grammarians call the subject complement. We could just as easily say "The professor at Duke is a researcher" without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Eliminate choppy writing by avoiding unnecessary prepositions.

When used in moderation, prepositions are invaluable: they work as connecting words, linking the object of the preposition to a word that appears earlier in the sentence. Like linking verbs, however, prepositions do not convey action, nor do they subordinate one thought to another. Instead, they merely link chunks of meaning that readers must gather together in order to understand the sentence.

The phrase, "Oh, that's academic!" tends to mean "Forget about it!  That's boring and unimportant!"  Yet that isn't what teachers mean when they ask for "academic writing."  Instead, professors tend to define academic writing as research-based, objective and formal in style and tone, thesis-driven, and deductively organized (that is, where your introduction presents your argument or interpretation and forecasts the organization of your paper).

In what ways have you fulfilled the assignment requirements as they relate to audience, appropriate persona/tone, and rhetorical stance? Why is this word choice/diction inappropriate (conversational) for your audience? What might be more appropriate?

For students and teachers alike, most writing occurs in non-academic settings—notes, e-mails, Facebook posts, blogs, shopping lists, etc. In these writing settings, it is perfectly fine to “write as you speak,” using a conversational tone and slang terms.

Two Types of Essays

Your composition professor has given you an assignment, requiring you to write an essay in which you identify your favorite book and explain why you like it best. Later she assigns an essay in which you take a stand either for or against homeschooling.

Both assignments require you to write a paper, yet the essays called for are in two different genres. Thus, you will need to present your views in two different ways.

You need a good thesis statement for your essay but are having trouble getting started. You may have heard that your thesis needs to be specific and arguable, but still wonder what this really means.

Let’s look at some examples. Imagine you’re writing about John Hughes’s film Sixteen Candles (1984).

You take a first pass at writing a thesis:

Sixteen Candles is a romantic comedy about high school cliques.

The main idea. The argument of an essay. The thesis. It’s a tricky thing to define “thesis” because theses come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. A thesis can be a sentence, two sentences, perhaps even an entire paragraph. Every thesis, though, regardless of where in an essay it appears, does a few important things:

  1. A thesis acts as a unifying idea for every piece of evidence in an essay.
  2. A thesis results from research in addition to the writer’s own beliefs or opinions.

When is a thesis considered weak?

A well-developed thesis statement should clearly and concisely communicate the main point, purpose, or argument of a paper. A weak thesis may be unfocused, incomplete, or inaccurate in some way. Building a focused, accurate thesis can be a challenge, but revising a weak thesis to make it complete and insightful will strengthen the paper’s foundation.

What is a thesis?

A thesis consists of one or two sentences that clearly and concisely summarize the main point, purpose, and/or argument of an academic document. The thesis serves as the foundation—or heartbeat—of a paper; without a thesis, a paper is incomplete and lifeless. Ideally, a well-crafted thesis increases the likelihood that the target audience will engage with the writer’s discussion.

Broadly speaking, the term genre refers to a classification scheme for texts. For example, Netflix, the popular streaming video service, classifies movies by "Action & Adventure, Children & Family Movies, Comedies, Documentaries, Dramas"—and so on. Genres are largely defined by shared textual expectations, such as the voice of the writer (first person or third person) or the need to cite sources (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc).

Understand why analytical and explanatory writing is one of the most important genres of writing in school and professional careers.

Read a variety of analytical and explanatory reports, noting the diversity of audiences, purposes, contexts, media, voices, tone, and personas. Understand the defining characteristics of texts that analyze or explain concepts.

Learn to write convincing evaluations and improve your critical thinking abilities. Evaluate a performance (such as a movie, speech, or play), a visual (such as an ad or artwork), or a text (such as a Web site). Read exemplary evaluative texts, define appropriate assessment criteria, and write a convincing and well-researched evaluation.

Reviews present an author's opinion or interpretation. Writing an evaluative text involves defining criteria and then applying these criteria to assess a subject.