Shifts in Perspective

Introduction

A shift in perspective occurs when your use of verbs and pronouns is inconsistent. There are five different shifts to watch out for (three for verbs, two for pronouns).

Pronoun Shifts

Before we look at the two types of pronoun shifts, we need to review a few facts about pronouns.

Pronouns are either singular or plural in number. In addition, pronouns are either first, second, or third person.

An easy way to remember the difference is to say, “I will be the first person to tell you (the second person) that she is the third person.” In other words, the first person is the speaker, the second person is spoken to, and the third person is spoken about.

To make this a bit more visual, here’s a chart of the most common personal pronouns:

Singular Plural
1st person: I we
2nd person: you you
3rd person: he/she/it/one they

If you want some more review, check out our lessons on pronouns.

Shifts in Person

Here’s an example of a shift in person:

Dear fellow graduates, now that we have crossed the stage, you have a bright future ahead of you.

First person pronoun: we

Second person pronoun: you

Presumably this should all be in the first person. However, it’s good to remind ourselves that sometimes a shift in perspective makes sense:

Dear fellow graduates, now that we have crossed the stage, you have a bright future ahead of you. I, on the other hand, have student loans.

Sometimes the speaker actually does have a different point of view.

Shifts in number

Shifts in number are more common, especially in student essays.

Here’s a shift from one (singular) to their (plural):

One should not let their friends pressure them into smoking.

Correct: Kids should not let their friends pressure them into smoking.

Notice that it’s often easiest to shift the whole sentence into the plural. Otherwise you would have to make multiple changes.

Watch out also for groups or organizations that consist of many members but are grammatically singular:

Even though the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has less and less control over its members, rumours circulate that they will try to ramp up the production of oil.

Correct: Even though the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has less and less control over its members, rumours circulate that it will try to ramp up the production of oil.

It’s easy to shift from it to they when dealing with a collective entity.

Verb Shifts

Tense

Avoid awkward shifts in tense. The following sentence, for instance, suddenly jumps from the past to the present tense:

After Toyotomi Hideyoshi died in 1598, the heir to the throne was too young to govern, and the resulting power vacuum leads to the Battle of Sekigahara, in 1600.

By the way, there is no universal consensus on what tense to use in talking about literary texts and other written documents. For instance, historians tend to treat texts and their contents as part of the past, whereas English teachers see the text as timeless, or as immediately present to the reader.

Compare, for instance, the following two sentences:

In Shakespeare’s play, Henry V tells his soldiers before the Battle of Agincourt that “gentlemen in England now a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here.”

According to Shakespeare, Henry V told his soldiers before the Battle of Agincourt that “gentlemen in England now a-bed / Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here.”

Whereas the first sentence describes only the action in the play, the second sentence is much more concerned with historical fact, and so the past tense makes more sense.

Yet there is some leeway here, so be careful when you’re relating literary texts to their historical context, especially when different disciplines have varying conventions.

Mood

A verb comes in one of the following moods:

1. Indicative: a simple statement or question.

We are having a party. (statement)

Do you like our party? (question)

2. Imperative: a command to do something.

Come to our party!

3. Subjunctive: a conditional statement.

Had you been less busy, you could have come to our party. (statement contrary to fact)

I might come to your party if you invite me. (hypothetical statement)

I wish you were here. (a wish)

We hope that you come to our party (a suggestion)

He insisted that she come to the party (a demand)

Clearly, the subjunctive mood is the trickiest one.

Now, experience will tell you that sentences often shift from one mood to another. The key is to avoid unnecessary shifts, as in the following examples.

1. A shift from the subjunctive to the indicative:

I would write a letter to my Minister of Parliament if the cost of ink was not so horrendously expensive.

Correct: I would write a letter to my Minister of Parliament if the cost of ink were not so horrendously expensive.

2. A shift from the imperative to the subjunctive.

Come see our performance of H.M.S. Pinafore, and you should bring your boyfriend too!

Correct: Come see our performance of H.M.S. Pinafore, and bring your boyfriend too!

Voice

Verbs are either in the active voice or in the passive voice. In the active voice the subject of the sentence is doing the action, whereas in the passive voice the action is happening to the subject.

Here’s a sentence with a verb in the active voice:

Kayla read thirteen books on her holiday.

Subject: Kayla.

Active voice: read.

And here’s the passive version:

Thirteen books were read by Kayla.

Subject: Thirteen books.

Passive voice: is sponsored.

It’s useful to remember that the passive voice often leads to a by construction (by Kayla) that tells you who or what is actually performing the action of the verb. Once you find the implied subject, it’s relatively easy to make the sentence active.

If you want to be more direct and concise, try use the active voice. Either way, try to avoid awkward shifts such as the following:

Andrew won the golf tournament. In the process, a new course record was set.

In this example, the second sentence unnecessarily shifts to the passive voice.

And that’s it for shifts of perspective.

Concise Sentences

Introduction

“Brevity is the soul of wit,” said Shakespeare’s Polonius, though he himself was rather pompous and wordy!

This page teaches you how to avoid verbosity (a fancy word for wordiness) and write succinctly.

Be Ruthless

Editing is like going on a diet: you have to cut out all the junk if you want to see results.

For instance, you can often delete the opening sentences of a first draft:

Since humans are primates, their beliefs and assumptions can be explained as the effect of evolution. In other words, human behaviour is not exempt from the law of natural selection. For example, we might seem civilized, but if someone crashes into our vehicle we quickly succumb to road rage. Evolutionary biology can also provide insight into our perception of beauty. Beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder. A symmetrical body, for instance, is desirable because it is an indicator of health and fitness…

If we scratch the text in red then we can start much closer to the actual topic:

Better: Evolutionary biology can provide insight into our perception of beauty. Beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder. A symmetrical body, for instance, is desirable because it is an indicator of health and fitness…

Zooming in as quickly as possible requires a certain mindset. In high-school, students are often taught that any information on a topic is relevant. Just google your subject and gather as much material as you can. If you want to be a strong writer, however, you have to be selective. Every sentence has to build on the last until the essay is somewhat of an architectural wonder.

Take the following sentence:

Children’s literature has the ability to entertain both the children for whom it has been written and the adults who may be reading it.

Most of this sentence is redundant, and a shortened version reveals that the argument is quite simplistic:

Children’s literature provides entertainment for children and adults alike.

The wonderful thing about editing for conciseness is that you discover what you really want to say. (Or sometimes what you don’t want to say.)

Tips

Avoid Overlapping Sentences:

Don’t repeat too much of the previous sentence:

The chameleon uses protective coloration to blend in with its environment. In addition to being able to change its colour, the chameleon also has an extraordinarily long tongue.

Better: The chameleon uses protective coloration to blend in with its environment. It also has an extraordinarily long tongue.

Such overlapping often masks the fact that our ideas are poorly connected. In this case, our edit reveals that there is no adequate transition between the two topics (protective coloration … a long tongue).

Avoid Too Many Doubles

Some writers have a habit of saying everything in twos:

The concept or idea that led to the talent show was the notion that even babies and infants are able to communicate and interact with others.

Better: The talent show was inspired by the fact that even babies can communicate.

Not only did we cut down on the synonyms, but we removed a few other redundant bits too. Remember: be ruthless!

Don’t Dither Around With Verbs:

While you often need a string of verbs, avoid piling it on:

Jamal has a chance to be able to win his badminton match.

Better: Jamal has a chance to win his badminton match.

One main verb is better than a handful.

Avoid Hyperbole

Don’t write as if every sentence requires an exclamation mark. Avoid excessive use of the following intensifiers:

very

so

completely / entirely / essentially / totally

Let the idea speak for itself.

Pick The Right Word

Lazy writers pick the first word or phrase that comes to mind. They’ll write not the same instead of different, or despite the fact that instead of while or although. Try to find the best word for the job.

Avoid Redundancy

Spoken English is full of redundant phrases. Here are a few to watch out for when you write:

absolutely essential (saying that something is essential is enough)

advance planning (all planning is done in advance)

new invention (an invention is by definition new)

currently (context will usually indicate the time frame)

The list goes on, but the point is clear: think carefully about the literal meaning of everything you write.

Final Thoughts

While a text often resembles an overgrown garden, sometimes an editor can go too far. It’s good to cut back on verbiage (just as on foliage), but if you use a machete you end up with a rock garden.

There is something abundant and organic to your personal style. Don’t be satisfied with just being concise.

Appendix

Here’s a list of some other words and phrases that often create unnecessary padding:

For the most part
Per se
Due to the fact that
The point is
Apparently
Actually
Literally (as in It is literally time to go home)
Basically
As mentioned previously

Introduction

Overview

If you’ve made it through the section on parts of speech (see the video above for a thorough review), then you’re ready to tackle sentence structure.

This section has three parts. First we’ll talk about the different components of a sentence. How do you find the subject of a sentence? What is a phrase or a clause? How can you combine these into complete sentences?

After that, we give some constructive advice about how to make your sentences more stylish and concise.

Finally, we’ll help you learn what sentence errors to avoid.

The Goal

Much of this material is challenging, so take your time and do the exercises. The reward is worth it though: some time spent learning about sentence structure will make you a much better writer.

Finding the subject

Introduction

Figuring out what the subject of a sentence is can be surprisingly difficult. Take a complex sentence like the following:

Starting in 2011, the civil war in Syria led to sustained conflict between the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and various militia groups (including Isis).

How do you even begin to find the subject of the sentence? What if the sentence contains more than one clause? Why should you care about the subject of the sentence?

Let’s see if we can answer these questions and provide enough practice to let you find the subject with confidence.

(As for our difficult example, the subject is “the civil war,” and soon you will know exactly why).

Subject and Predicate

Every sentence consists of least a subject and a predicate. A complex sentence with multiple clauses may have more than one subject and predicate.

The subject is what the sentence is about; the predicate describes the subject:

Subject + Predicate
I love strawberries
Henry laughed his head off.
The Tornado has crossed the state border.

As an aside, it’s a curious fact that back in the Middle Ages some scholars argued that the subject and predicate are analogous to feminine and masculine gender roles.[i] The predicate was said to be masculine because it contains the verb (the action) and because it modifies and fixes the meaning of the feminine subject. So there you go–even grammar has its battle of the sexes!

Defining the subject

In the previous section we gave a simple definition of the subject: it’s what the sentence is about. In practice, that definition is too vague.

A more precise definition is as follows: the subject is the part of the sentence that is doing the action of the main verb. The subject is usually a noun or pronoun, but it can also be a longer phrase.

Let’s look at an example:

The students represented Kiribati at the Model United Nations Conference in New York.

Step 1: Find the main verb: represented.

Step 2: Ask the right question: who or what is doing the action of the verb?

Step 3: Apply this question to the sentence: who or what represented Kiribati?

Step 4: Answer the question: The students.

The subject of the sentence is therefore the students.

If you follow this procedure rigorously you will be much more successful. There are just a few tricky cases (described below) where you need to know some extra rules.

Simple and Complete Subject

We can make a useful distinction between the simple and the complete subject. The complete subject is the subject and all its modifiers. The simple subject is the core idea without all the description:

Hans Zimmer’s dramatic sound track to the movie Inception remains one of my favourite compositions.

Complete subject: Hans Zimmer’s dramatic sound track to the movie Inception.

Simple subject: sound track.

If you’re having trouble seeing the difference, it may help to break down the subject further:

Parts of the Subject Parts of Speech
Hans Zimmer’s Noun acting as adjective
dramatic Adjective
sound track Noun
to the movie Inception Prepositional phrase

Being able to spot the simple subject will help you take apart sentences more easily.

Multiple clauses

So far we’ve looked only at sentences that contain a single subject. Yet if the sentence has multiple clauses it will also have multiple subjects. That’s because every clause has its own subject (and verb).

Here’s an example of two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (and):

Reginald blew the whistle and the game was over.

In this case each independent clause could be its own sentence. But even dependent clauses contain a subject and a verb:

Though the woolly mammoth is extinct, it remains a beloved subject of cartoonists.

Dependent clause: Though the woolly mammoth is extinct.

Subjects: the woolly mammoth, it.

And if we want to get really fancy we can have numerous clauses (and subjects) in a single sentence:

When I was younger, my family doctor, who struggled with back pain herself, suggested that I make an appointment with a chiropractor.

Subjects: I (was), my family doctor (suggested), who (struggled), I (make).

For now we will ignore these more complex sentences, but when you’ve mastered subjects you can go on to study clauses in more detail.

Tricky subjects

If you want to be an expert at finding the subject then you may want to familiarize yourself with some instances where the subject is harder to spot.

Linking verbs

Linking verbs are not traditional action verbs, and so it’s easy to overlook them when you’re trying to find the main verb.

The most common linking verb is to be in all its many forms (is, are, were, etc.). A linking verb is followed by a noun or an adjective that describes the subject:

Martha is sick.

Jason was goalie.

Linking verbs also follow more complex subjects:

The day before Christmas is my birthday too!

The global shift to renewable energy is inevitable.

In both examples the linking verb is is and the subject is highlighted.

Verbals

When you’re looking for the main verb of the sentence, watch out for verbals (especially present participles and infinitives). They may look like action words, but they will never be the main verb unless they’re part of a verb phrase.

In fact, verbals are often part of the subject of the sentence:

Signing your child up for every last sport may be detrimental to your own health.

To think kind thoughts shouldn’t be so hard.

For the sake of clarity we’ve highlighted the complete subjects. The main verbs are may be and shouldn’t be.

Expletives

Be careful with sentences that start with there is or there are. These are called expletives and they don’t contain the subject of the sentence:

There are three burgers left.

There is a strange man at the door.

To find the subject you should ask “who or what is/are there?” The answers are three burgers and a strange man.

Imperatives

When a sentence is a command (and imperative), the subject is implied:

Show me the money!

Question: who or what will show me (the money)?

Answer: you.

The subject is therefore a person who may not be named in the sentence.

The passive voice

Don’t be fooled by the passive voice. Take the following sentence:

The accident was caused by the bus driver’s son.

If you ask “who or what was caused?” you will get the correct subject (the accident), even though in reality it was the son who caused the accident. In other words, if the verb is passive then the action happens to the subject.

Reverse order

In English, most sentences follow a particular order, with the subject coming before the main verb. Occasionally the order is reversed:

Among the ingredients is stardust.

In this case the subject is “stardust.”


Notes

[i] For more detail, see Alan of Lille’s De Planctu Naturae (The Plaint of Nature). For a scholarly treatment, check out Jan Ziolkowski’s Alan of Lille’s Grammar of Sex: The Meaning of Grammar to a Twelfth-Century Intellectual (1985).

Independent and Dependent Clauses

Introduction

Clauses are large grammatical units composed of many parts of speech. At the core they generally contain a subject and a verb, as well as any number of modifiers.

Here are some examples of clauses:

When the weather improves a bit

I love pogo sticks

Have you met my friend James?

Although in principle I like the colour mauve

Each of these clauses consists of a number of parts of speech and phrases that together make up an idea. Some of the examples can be complete sentences by themselves and others cannot.

When a clause can stand by itself it is called an independent clause. When it has to be connected to another clause, it is a dependent or subordinate clause.

Independent clauses

An independent clause normally has a subject and a main verb and can function as a complete sentence. Here are a few examples:

I love online learning.

Subject: I.
Verb: love.

Tears trickled down his cheeks.

Subject: Tears.
Verb: trickled.

The cat ate the goldfish.

Subject: The cat.
Verb: ate.

While this may seem basic, the one thing that gives students trouble is when you use a coordinating conjunction to connect clauses:

Stalagmites grow up and stalactites hang down.

I couldn’t decide betwen Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw, so I bought them both.

In these cases you should not consider the coordinating conjunction as part of either clause. It just sits in between the independent clauses.

As you’ll read below, the opposite is true of subordinating conjunctions.

Dependent clauses

A dependent clause cannot be a complete sentence by itself. That is because it starts with a word that connects to a main clause. Often the word is a subordinating conjunction or a relative pronoun:

Subordinating conjunction: when, while, although, because, since, etc.

Relative pronoun: who, which, whose, whom, what, that

Dependent clauses that start with a relative pronoun are called relative clauses.

A dependent clause, then, cannot be a sentence by itself:

While I shot the sheriff

Which everyone saw

Who talked to me

Note that the relative pronoun not only connects the dependent clause, but often also acts as its subject.

Now let’s see how we can add these dependent clauses to a sentence:

As my father used to say, the apple does not fall far from the tree.

The capybara, which is native to South America, is the largest rodent in the world.

Note that in the second example the dependent clause interrupts the main clause and provides more information about a noun phrase (“The capybara”).

We all combine clauses intuitively, but recognizing how it works will help you write balanced and complex sentences.

Implied Clauses

In addition to the regular clauses discussed so far, we sometimes come across sentence elements that function like clauses but are missing a clear subject or verb. It may be helpful to think of these as hidden or implied clauses (though neither is strictly a technical term). Typically these are dependent clauses, and they come in two kinds: non-finite and verbless.

Non-Finite Clauses

Regular clauses have a finite verb as the main verb. A finite verb can be conjugated for different subjects and can show tense. For example, notice how the verb changes in form when we write “I swim,” “he was swimming,” and “they swam.”

By contrast, non-finite verbs do not change form. In our Parts of Speech section, we used the word “verbals” for non-finite verbs, and although grammarians argue about terminology, all we need to know is that they are roughly the same.

Non-finite clauses, therefore, do not contain a regular verb but include an infinitive, present participle, or past participle. In each case, there is no other verb (as in “he was swimming”) that would make the verb phrase finite.

There are four types of non-finite clauses.

1. Infinitive.

The main thing is to look confident.

Mentally we can reconstruct the non-finite clause as “he looks confident.” Even though the subject is missing and we have an infinitive (“to look”), we can recognize the similarity to a clause.

2. Bare Infinitive.

A slight variation is the bare infinitive, where the word “to” is left out:

He bade me go home right away.

3. Present Participle.

In the following sentence we can easily imagine that the opening clause could be written as “Since he tied the knot”:

Since tying the knot, John oozes confidence.

4. Past Participle.

Finally, in this non-finite clause we do have a subject (“canal”), but a past participle (“frozen”) instead of a regular verb:

With the canal frozen over, I am skating to work.

It should be pointed out that it can be difficult to decide if something is a non-finite clause or just a phrase. The two overlap significantly, so it may depend on what grammatical function you are focusing. For example, in the sentence “I love skiing” it is generally better to treat “skiing” as a gerund that forms the core of a noun phrase. That makes more sense than treating it as an entire non-finite clause.

The main take-away is that if a non-finite verb (and surrounding words) functions like a dependent clause, then you may want to classify it as such.

Verbless Clauses

Another implied clause is one where the verb is missing:

With her ex-husband in jail, Mary felt free as a bird.

Most verbless clauses are missing some form of “to be.” We could easily write “When her ex-husband was in jail,” or even “With her ex-husband being in jail.”

Conclusion

The main thing to remember is that a clause normally has a subject and a verb. It can either be a complete sentence by itself (independent clause) or needs to be attached to another clause (dependent clause). Sometimes we also have clauses that are missing some elements (like verbs) or use a non-finite verb instead of a finite one. In our quizzes we will ignore these exceptions, but it is helpful to be aware of them.

The Structure of Clauses

Introduction

In our first lesson on clauses we explained that every clause needs at least a subject and a verb. In addition, if a clause can be a sentence by itself then we call it an independent or main clause. If not, it’s a dependent or subordinate clause.

In this section we will look at the main ways in which a single clause is put together. These patterns apply to independent and dependent clauses.

Key Patterns

Subject + Verb

The simplest sentences contain at least a subject and a verb:

You drive.

They laughed.

In these examples the verbs are intransitive because they lack a direct object.

Subject + Passive Verb

The verb can also be in the passive voice:

A deal was made.

The Robinsons were shipwrecked.

Subject + Verb + Direct Object

If the verb is transitive, it can take a direct object. The direct object is the noun or pronoun that receives the action of the verb:

Jen boarded the double-decker bus.

Eugene and Quentin played hide and seek.

Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object .

If the clause has a direct object, it can also have an indirect object. The indirect object is the noun or pronoun for or to whom the action is done:

He gave me a compliment. (to me)

Bob taught Gary some dance moves. (to Gary)

Indira bought her friend some flowers (for her friend)

Note that the preposition to or for is left implied.

Subject + Linking Verb + Subjective Complement

If your verb is a linking verb, it will be followed by a word that describes the subject. We call this word (and its modifiers) the subject complement.

Sometimes the subject complement is an adjective:

She seemed angry.

The trout tasted great.

At other times the complement is a noun:

Karen was a cheerleader.

The Oilers are a scrappy hockey team.

If you want the technical terms, we call these complements predicate nouns and predicate adjectives.

Subject + Verb + Direct Object + Objective Complement

If you’ve just read about the subject complement, you will be happy to know that the objective complement works the same way—the only difference being that it describes the direct object:

Sometimes the objective complement is an adjective:

The coach called the loss embarrassing.

Hannah found her dinner and her boyfriend cold.

At other times the objective complement is a noun:

Management named Cindy Rella the new coach.

The disaster left Jerry a nervous wreck.

There or It + Linking Verb + Subject

The final pattern inverts the regular order of the sentence:

There is hope.

It is a good sign.

Conclusion

The patterns found on this page will help you understand the structure or skeleton of individual clauses. Of course, when you read actual sentences these patterns will not show up as clearly. You will have to disregard phrases and modifiers that add colour to the sentence. With a bit of practice, however, you will be able to see how each clause is put together.

Phrases

Introduction

Whereas clauses are larger units that usually contain at least a subject and a verb, phrases are smaller parts of the sentence.

Sometimes they are essential to the structure of a clause (e.g., a noun phrase that functions as the subject), and sometimes they just provide some extra information (most prepositional phrases).

As we review the different types of phrases, please note that one phrase can include another. For example, we can categorize swimming in the ocean as a participial phrase (swimming is a present participle), even though it includes a prepositional phrase (in the ocean). At times a phrase can even be interpreted as a clause if it takes on a similar function.

Types of Phrases

Noun Phrase

A noun phrase is any noun or pronoun along with its modifiers:

The school children
Yesterday’s newspaper
An old and rusted slinky

Verb Phrase

A verb phrase is any number of verbs working together:

Had been sleeping
Will contact
May have written

Verb phrases often contain adverbs that change the meaning of the phrase:

Has never lost
May not trespass
Am always looking

As the last example shows, verb phrases may include verbals (looking is a present participle), but a verbal by itself is not a verb.

Prepositional Phrase

A prepositional phrase always starts with a preposition and ends with a noun or pronoun (and its modifiers) that is called the object of the preposition:

Through the wheat field

Preposition: through

Object of the preposition: the wheat field

Here are some more examples of prepositional phrases:

During the year
Despite complaints
In the summer

Verbal Phrases

There are three types of verbal phrases: participial phrases, gerund phrases, and infinitive phrases. Each is explained below.

Participial Phrase

Participial phrases start with either a present or past participle. Here are some examples of each.

Phrases with present participles:

Lounging by the pool
Chasing a butterfly
Watching silently

Phrases with past participles:

Struck by lightning
Driven to succeed
Loaned out

Gerund Phrase

A gerund phrase is a present participle (and its modifiers) that acts like a noun. It can take on a variety of jobs in the sentence. Here are a couple of examples:

Practicing helped a lot. (subject)
I love reading. (direct object)

Infinitive Phrase

An infinitive phrase is the infinitive and its modifiers:

To sing
To walk all that way
To mix peanut butter and jam

The infinitive phrase can also function in various ways:

To give to charity is a noble thing. (subject)

The neighbours have promised to stop playing the drums at night. (direct object)

Appositive Phrase

An appositive phrase is a phrase that renames an earlier noun or pronoun:

My best friend, Nick Palacio, loves scuba diving.
We watched Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.

In these examples, the appositive is a noun phrase. But you can use other phrases as appositives too:

My dream, to make it to the NBA, is what keeps me going. (infinitive phrase)

Matthew’s special talent, bouncing on his head on the trampoline, gives him a unique perspective on life. (participial phrase)

Appositives are great for inserting some extra information in a sentence.

Absolute Phrase

Absolute phrases are the trickiest to identify. These phrases are not closely connected to the rest of the sentence; they don’t describe a specific word, but modify the whole sentence. They add extra information and are usually separated by commas (or dashes).

At the heart of an absolute phrase you will find a noun or pronoun and some modifiers.

Very often the modifier is a participle:

The tide coming in, most beachgoers were packing up.

Absolute phrase: The tide coming in.

Here are some more examples:

The semester finished, Karen sold all her textbooks.

Absolute phrase: The semester finished.

The ice finally frozen over, we went skating.

Absolute phrase: The ice finally frozen over.

Another way to form an absolute phrase is to add an adjective to your noun or pronoun:

Her skin sweaty and hot, Tamara looked forward to having a shower.

Absolute phrase: Her skin sweaty and hot.

In many of these examples we could add the word being (Her skin being sweaty and hot), but you can usually do without.

You’ll also notice how close these phrases are to being a clause. All you have to do is add a conjunction and change the participle to a finite verb:

When the ice finally froze over, we all went skating.

Conjunction: When.

Finite verb: froze.

And the final thing to observe is that the absolute phrase can also come at the end of the sentence.

Sentence Classification

Introduction

Once you know the difference between an independent clause and a dependent (or subordinate) clause, you can see the basic structure of each sentence. This page will teach you a few labels you can use to describe the various combinations of independent and dependent clauses.

Some teachers think these labels are essential. We disagree. The main thing is to know that clauses can be combined in some rather complex ways.

Sentence Types

Simple Sentence

A simple sentence consists of just one independent clause:

Mary had a little lamb.

Compound Sentence

A compound sentence consists of two independent clauses. These can be joined by a coordinating conjunction or a punctuation mark such as a semi-colon, colon, or dash:

Mary had a little lamb | and | its wool was white as snow.

Mary had a little lamb | ; | its wool was white as snow.

Mary had a little lamb | — | she kept it for its wool.

Complex Sentence

A complex sentence consists of one independent clause and any number of dependent clauses:

Wherever Mary went, | the lamb would go as well.

In this example, the first clause is dependent and the second is independent.

Compound-Complex Sentence

Finally, a compound-complex sentence consists of two independent clauses and any number of dependent clauses:

Although the children loved the lamb, | the teacher disapproved of lambs | so | she told Mary to take it home.

In this example, the first clause is dependent, whereas the last two (joined by a coordinating conjunction) are independent.

Stylish Sentences

Introduction

Crafting a great sentence is not just a matter of avoiding errors. This page provides some constructive advice about how to make your sentences flow naturally.

Tips for Better Sentences

Choose a Clear Subject

Some writers try to squeeze too much into the subject of the sentence:

The etymological connection between Sambucus nigra (the elderberry tree) and the anise-flavoured liqueur Sambuca is not well-known.

Subject: The etymological connection between Sambucus nigra (the elderberry tree) and the anise-flavoured liqueur Sambuca

Verb: is

Here’s the same sentence, but with a simpler subject:

Not many people know that Sambucus nigra (the elderberry tree) shares its etymology with the anise-flavoured liqueur Sambuca.

In other words, choose a simple subject (people) over a complex and abstract one.

In addition, select specific verbs (know, shares) to make your description as vivid as possible.

Pick the Right Verb

As mentioned, don’t settle for vague verbs. For instance, it’s easy to form sentences with the verb “to be”:

The farmer is in his field.

The Danes are the highest-taxed people in the world.

Now let’s substitute a more specific verb:

The farmer plows his field.

The Danes pay the highest taxes in the world.

So check your writing and choose the best verb for the job.

Find Your Voice

Another way to make your writing more direct is to write in the active voice:

Passive voice: Citroëns are rarely bought by North Americans.

Active voice: North Americans rarely buy Citroëns.

Don’t overdo it though. The passive voice exists for a reason. It demonstrates how someone or something is affected by a particular action. Pick the voice that makes the most sense.

Avoid Expletives

An expletive is not only a swear word (which you should avoid too), but it is also a particular grammatical construction. It’s a word (there or it, followed by a form of “to be”) that helps us to form a complete sentence but contains no meaning itself:

There were many people who were shocked by her performance.

It is to be expected that students plagiarize if there are no penalties in place.

Often you can shorten such sentences:

Many people were shocked by her performance.

Without penalties in place, students will plagiarize.

So save expletives for when you want to emphasize (or introduce) the subject. Otherwise, be succinct.

Vary the Length

Public speakers know the power of a short sentence. Here is an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (1963):

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

(For the full text, see www.americanrhetoric.com)

While written prose does not need to be quite as dramatic, the same rhetorical principle applies. If you vary your sentence length, you give the reader a chance to take a breath.

It’s like going downhill on a bike. It’s nice to coast for a bit.

Be Positive

Watch out for double negatives and, where possible, use positive constructions:

That is not an unattractive proposition.

Better: That is an attractive proposition.

Here’s another example, just for kicks:

It is not inconceivable that we could conceive. If we are not infertile, we will call our child Vizzini.

Better: It is conceivable that we could conceive. If we are fertile, we will call our child Vizzini.

Focus on Your Main Clause

It’s all too easy to relegate the most interesting details to subordinate clauses:

In my friend’s culture, the wedding ceremony is quite elaborate, as it includes painting the bride with henna and showering the bride and groom with money.

Main clause: the wedding ceremony is quite elaborate.

Where possible, try to incorporate such vivid and colorful details in the main clause:

Better: In my friend’s culture, the elaborate wedding ceremony includes painting the bride with henna and showering the bride and groom with money

Think About Beginnings and Endings

Consider where you want the emphasis of a sentence to fall. Many sentences place the emphasis at the beginning or the end:

Initial emphasis: High rates of HIV/AIDS have had a powerful effect on the average life expectancy in places such as Botswana and Swaziland.

Final emphasis: This whole week I’ve been dealing with a massive headache.

Having some idea of where the emphasis lies can help you develop a sense of rhythm in a paragraph.

Don’t Tack on Extra Information

Too many additions and extensions can spoil a house. It’s the same with sentences. Particularly after a longer quotation you’re usually best off starting a new sentence:

According to Hugh Simpleton, a minimalist is someone who “gets rid of the clutter in order to find him or herself,” a definition that I’ve adopted as my mantra.

This is not bad, but often it’s a good idea to split up long sentences:

 According to Hugh Simpleton, a minimalist is someone who “gets rid of the clutter in order to find purpose in life.” I’ve adopted this definition as my mantra.

Use a period and let the reader breathe a little.

Connecting Sentences

Introduction

A period at the end of a sentence is like a dam in a river: it creates an artificial barrier that interrupts the flow. Yet water cannot be contained forever, and in the same way our ideas overflow each individual sentence.

This is what making writing so difficult: how do we take a complex argument and split it up into so many smaller units? This page will teach you some strategies for connecting your sentences in a natural way.

The Challenge

Take a look at the following sentences and how they connect to each other:

In 1946, George Orwell wrote “The Politics of the English Language.” The essay argues that much of our writing is imprecise and pretentious. The reason that Orwell argues this is that in his experience people are lazy when it comes to picking the right word. An example of such laziness would be when we pick what Orwell calls a dead metaphor. An example of a dead metaphor would be when you say, “these hemorrhoids are a real pain in the neck.” This is a dead metaphor because hemorrhoids are not literally a pain in the neck.

The writing in this passage is rather laboured. Each sentence overlaps with the previous one, as if we continually need to pick up the thread again.

Such a writing style is not unusual among university students, and it’s caused by two contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, students tend to construct each sentence as a separate idea, not fully realizing that with a bit of editing sentences can be combined or split up. We can see that in the first sentence, which contains very little content and can easily be combined with the second one:

Original: In 1946, George Orwell wrote “The Politics of the English Language.” The essay argues that much of our writing is imprecise and pretentious.

Revision: In his essay “The Politics of the English Language” (1946), George Orwell argues that much of our writing is imprecise and pretentious.

By contrast, the second tendency is a kind of overcompensation for having isolated each idea in the first place. Now the student tries very hard to create connections. This is why so many sentences express a cause and effect relationship (“The reason …”; “This is … because”) or use formulaic phrasing (“An example would be”).

Somehow we have to find a balance between these two tendencies.

Parataxis and Hypotaxis

Sentences and clauses are a bit like people: some are entirely self-absorbed, whereas others interact well with others. Sentences that act as if there’s no one else are called paratactic sentences. These sentences don’t use many connecting words or transitional expressions. To be precise, they don’t use subordination; every clause is treated as equally important:

Chameleons are remarkable creatures. They have very long tongues and are famous for being able to change the colour of their skin. They have special cells called chromatophores. Chromatophores contain different pigments. Chameleons change their colour to regulate their body temperature and to communicate with other chameleons.

If your prose is primarily paratactic, it will come across as choppy and it may be difficult for the reader to follow your train of thought.

By contrast, the term hypotaxis refers to a writing style where clauses are subordinated to each other. Hypotactic prose includes more dependent clauses (and, by extension, more conjunctions):

Although AirBnB is often seen as a great company that promotes sharing spaces and having an adventure, it is also responsible for causing a housing crisis in many major cities. Since homeowners can earn more from renting out their home to tourists than to locals, they turn to AirBnB. Not only is this the case while owners are away on a brief holiday, but it has become common for properties to be permanently available on AirBnB.

You’ll notice that this passage is full of subordinating conjunctions (although, that, since). This style creates more connections, but it also has a weakness. If all your prose is consistently hypotactic, it requires more effort to understand. Hypotactic sentences are typically longer and more complex.

The thing to realize, then, is that good writers use a mix of paratactic and hypotactic sentences. Good writers think about such things as pacing and tone, and vary their sentences accordingly. So experiment with parataxis and hypotaxis and you will gain more control of your writing.

Combining Sentences

One of the greatest skills you can develop is being able to merge shorter sentences. The point is not that longer is better. Rather, being able to move sentence parts around allows you to connect and express your ideas more effectively.

Here are a few strategies for making connections.

Subordination

As mentioned, subordination makes your sentences hypotactic. Making one clause dependent on another allows you to create hierarchy and order:

Original: At the outset of World War I, Belgium was a neutral country. Germany asked to move troops through Belgian territory. Belgium refused and was drawn into the war.

Revision: Although Belgium was neutral at the start of World War I, it was drawn into the war when it refused Germany’s request to move troops through Belgian territory.

Notice too that form matches content: the fact that the clauses are all connected mirrors the way one action led to another.

Using Phrases

You can also combine sentences by turning clauses into phrases. Often these phrases will include participles (e.g., training, trained):

Original: Boris trained at high altitude. He shaved a minute off his 5 km time.

Revision 1: After training at high altitude, Boris shaved a minute off his 5 km time.

Revision 2: Having trained at high altitude, Boris shaved a minute off his 5 km time.

 Another effective way to combine sentences is to use an appositive phrase.

Original: Tina Turner is a famous American singer. In 2013 she became a Swiss citizen.

Revision: In 2013, Tina Turner, the famous American singer, became a Swiss citizen.

Incidentally, you can also use a relative clause to insert information in the middle of a clause:

Tina Turner, who has long lived near Zurich, became a Swiss citizen in 2013.

Conjunctive Adverbs

You won’t always want to combine sentences, but you can still connect them in any number of ways. Most often you’ll use a conjunctive adverb or transitional expression.

Daniel wanted to buy a log cabin home. However, his wife preferred something more modern.

We love dining out. Nevertheless, for the sake of our bottom line (pun intended), we are eating at home for an entire week.

The challenge with conjunctive adverbs is that it’s easy to rely on them too much. If every sentence starts with moreover, thus, or therefore, your writing will start to seem stale and formulaic.

So don’t be too heavy-handed in your use of conjunctive adverbs.

Beginnings and Endings

Often it’s possible to connect sentences by repeating a phrase or idea. Notice how the following examples create connections with either the beginning or end of the first sentence:

Some days my arthritis is very painful. Some days I can hardly get out of bed.

Uncle Bramwell let me fly his favourite plane, a fully restored WW II Spitfire. Such an aircraft would fetch millions of pounds at an auction.

When used badly, repetition becomes redundancy. When used effectively, it becomes poetry. If you want proof, read chapter 1 of the Gospel of John.

Anaphora

Another biblical passage that provides a great stylistic example is 1 Cor. 13. The main stylistic technique in this chapter is anaphora, or the repetition of the opening words of successive clauses. Here are just a few verses:

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Cor. 13: 11-12).

What makes this passage particularly poignant is that while the anaphora creates a forward movement, a sense of continuity, there is also a counter movement, a pull in the opposition direction. The contrast between “now” and “then” suggests that things are not the same: much has changed as the speaker has matured.

In academic writing, anaphora is usually more muted, but it can still be an effective technique. Here, for instance, is C. S. Lewis writing about natural law (what he calls the Tao) in The Abolition of Man:

We may legitimately hope that among the impulses which arise in minds thus emptied of all ‘rational’ or ‘spiritual’ motives, some will be benevolent. I am very doubtful myself whether the benevolent impulses, stripped of that preference and encouragement which the Tao teaches us to give them and left to their merely natural strength and frequency as psychological events, will have much influence. I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently. I am inclined to think that the Conditioners will hate the conditioned.

The third time around Lewis changes the phrase and turns from doubt to greater certainty.

Conclusion

There are other strategies for connecting sentences. You can use parallel structure. You can ask questions about what you’ve just said. There’s no need then to get stuck in a rut—move around the pieces until you’re happy with the result.

To practice what you’ve learned, print out our Combining Sentences Exercise or do the exercise on hypotaxis and parataxis.

Parallel Structure

Introduction

Parallelism occurs when at least two parts of a sentence (clauses or phrases) have a similar form.

Here’s an example:

I love swimming, but I don’t like snorkeling.

Each clause uses a present participle (swimming, snorkeling) to create symmetry.

If the sentence had been I love swimming, but I don’t like to snorkel, it would be a case of faulty parallelism. Most cases of parallelism involve either a list or some form of comparison.

Recognizing faulty parallelism

The following examples illustrate some common causes of faulty parallelism.

Comparison

When we compare things, we often use conjunctions. What’s connected by the conjunctions needs to be parallel.

Monetarism is an economic policy that seeks to control the supply of money and preventing excessive inflation.

Correct: Monetarism is an economic policy that seeks to control the supply of money and to prevent excessive inflation.

At the same time, there’s no need to be too much of a stickler about parallelism. It may sound more natural to drop the last to and leave it implied.

Watch out especially for correlative conjunctions. Here’s an example:

Mrs. Twinklestar not only taught the children the history of windmills, but also the story of Don Quixote.

Correlative conjunction: not only … but also

Correct: Mrs. Twinklestar not only taught the children the history of windmills, but also read the story of Don Quixote.

Correct: Mrs. Twinklestar taught the children not only the history of windmills, but also the story of Don Quixote.

As you can see, when the correlative conjunction comes first then we need two verbs (taught, read), whereas if the verb comes first then the correlative conjunction can tie together the objects of the verb.

Lists

Lists are another form of comparison. Try to make sure that the items in the list have a similar structure:

In The Open Society & Its Enemies, Karl Popper argues that modern fascism has antecedents in Plato’s ideal republic, Hegel’s conception of history, and in the communist theories of Marx.

Correct: In The Open Society & Its Enemies, Karl Popper argues that modern fascism has antecedents in Plato’s ideal republic, Hegel’s conception of history, and Marx’s communist theories.

Correct: In The Open Society & Its Enemies, Karl Popper argues that modern fascism has antecedents in Plato’s ideal republic, in Hegel’s conception of history, and in Marx’s communist theories.

As you can see, either add “in” to every item in the list or only at the beginning.

Prepositions

Watch out when you use prepositions:

She went to the bookstore to buy books on fishing, coding, and on breastfeeding.

Correct: She went to the bookstore to buy books on fishing, coding, and breastfeeding.

Articles

Be consistent when you add articles (a, an, the) to the items in a list:

My friend Jack owns a turntable, an old cassette player, and surround sound system.

Correct: My friend Jack owns a turntable, an old cassette player, and a surround sound system.

That

Often two parts of a comparison start with that:

Kenneth said that he would come camping with us and he would bring some firewood.

Correct: Kenneth said that he would come camping with us and that he would bring some firewood.

Bulleted lists

Faulty parallelism is especially common when the items of a list are placed on separate lines. This is quite common in bureaucratic writing:

The governmental subcommittee on jargon-free communication has the following key objectives:

  • Facilitating clear communication with all stakeholders
  • We will initiate a review of all press releases issued by the previous government
  • Craft letters of apology to anyone negatively impacted by the utilization of jargon

Here is a corrected version:

The governmental subcommittee on jargon-free communication has the following key objectives:

  • Facilitating clear communication with all stakeholders
  • Initiating a review of all press releases issued by the previous government
  • Crafting letters of apology to anyone negatively impacted by the utilization of jargon

Obviously there is a lot more rewriting we could do here, but creating some parallel structure is a decent start.

Caution

Don’t overdo it. If a sentence is short, or the tone is more casual, you can cut back on the parallel elements:

She not only bought me a coffee, but also a cookie.

After all, normally you wouldn’t say, “She not only bought me a coffee, but she also bought me a cookie.”

Subject Verb Agreement

Introduction

The subject and the main verb work as a team. That’s why they have to match in person and number.

Take the following sentence:

Bob drives a truck.

Bob is a third person singular noun, and so the verb (drives) is singular. This harmony between subject and verb is called agreement.

Mistakes often occur when the verb doesn’t come right after the subject:

Incorrect: Each of the soldiers in captain Corcoran’s company were awarded the purple cross.

In this case the verb should be was awarded, as each is singular. There are plenty of other tricky cases, and we’ll review them one by one.

The Rules

And

Whenever you connect two nouns with and, you end up with a plural subject. In such cases the verb should be plural too:

Sonja and Jason were overjoyed that their names are anagrams of each other.

According to Nietzsche, socialism and Christianity have a lot in common.

There is, however, an exception to this rule. Sometimes a compound subject refers to a single thing, in which case it takes a singular verb:

The conductor and harpsichordist was Ton Koopman.

My muse and inspiration is, as always, my dear wife Catherine.

As you can see, in each case the subject actually refers to just one person.

Tip: Watch out for phrases such as along with and as well as. These prepositional phrases are not part of the subject and do not function like and to form a compound subject.

Here’s an example:

Sarah, along with the rest of her siblings, has the measles.

Or and Nor

You can also use or and nor to connect the parts of the subject.

When you use one of these conjunctions as part of your subject, the verb should agree in number with the closest noun in the subject:

In Mongolia, an Ovoo or Obo is a sacred stone cairn.

Neither William nor his teammates were able to explain why the coach’s tires were slashed.

A cookie or some crackers are great. Thank you!

Neither Larry nor Lucifer is a good name for your son.

The examples also show that if the subject contains both singular and plural nouns it usually sounds most natural to place the plural noun last, closest to the verb. Compare the following sentences:

Neither the principal nor the teachers are going to the conference on bullying.

Neither the teachers nor the principal is going to the conference on bullying.

The first option is preferred.

The same principle applies if the nouns in the subject change not in number but in person. In the following example, the subject consists of a third person noun (Amelia) and a first person pronoun (I):

Neither Amelia nor I am happy about the divorce.

While this is grammatically correct, it sounds terribly awkward, so you may want to rephrase anyway.

Collective Nouns

Collective nouns refer to a single group that contains multiple people or objects. For example, a crowd is singular even though it contains numerous people.

Collective nouns normally take a singular verb:

The board of appeal has made its decision.

The class was dismissed.

Very rarely a collective noun can take a plural verb:

The jury are going home to their families.

In such cases we’re talking about the individual members of the group.

More Tricky Nouns

In addition to collective nouns, there are some other nouns that also take unusual forms.

1. First of all, nouns like scissors, pants, or glasses are plural, even though they refer to just one thing:

My glasses are missing.

However, if you use the word pair with them then you’ll need a singular verb:

A pair of binoculars was found in the washroom.

2. Watch out as well for nouns that end in s, but are actually singular. Here are some common categories and examples:

illnesses: measles, diabetes

subjects: linguistics, economics, classics, physics

games: billiards, darts

other: politics, species, news

These nouns generally take a singular verb:

Billiards was never included in the Olympics.

Your next news is at seven.

3. A few of these nouns (e.g., news) also belong to yet another tricky group: uncountable nouns. Even though they refer to a quantity of something, we cannot divide them into their component parts. Here are some examples of uncountable nouns:

Milk
Luggage
Music
Money
Water

Such nouns also take a singular verb:

The water tastes funny.

Our elevator music consists of the soundtrack to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

4. Finally, a few nouns borrowed from Latin and Greek that end in a are considered plural:

Criteria
Phenomena
Strata

Don’t assume, though, that a final a means the word is plural. An amoeba, for instance, is a single cell. In addition, words like media and data can be singular or plural, depending on the context.

Reversed Order

Sometimes the verb comes before the subject. However, the same rules for agreement still apply:

In that dilapidated house lives a dissipated poet. (a poet lives)

Watch out especially for expletives (phrases like there is, there are, and it is). Here the real subject comes after the verb:

There are three deer grazing in the backyard. (subject: three deer)

There is a small chance that it might rain. (subject: a small chance)

It is time to curb spending. (subject: time)

Be careful, though, when the verb is followed by two singular nouns that together form the subject:

There is a Jehovah’s Witness and a Mormon at the door.

In such cases the verb is usually singular. On the other hand, if you reverse the sentence (which may sound more natural), then the verb becomes plural:

A Jehovah’s Witness and a Mormon are at the door.

Indefinite Pronouns

Often the subject will include an indefinite pronoun. The tricky thing is that a few indefinite pronouns can be singular or plural:

all
any
more
most
none
some
such

When checking for agreement, watch out especially for the indefinite pronouns in the last column. The following examples show how these pronouns can be singular or plural:

All of the money is spent. (money is singular)

All of the shows are sold out. (shows is plural)

Some of the money is already allocated. (some refers to a single amount of money)

Some of our members object (members is plural)

In these cases, context is everything.

The trickiest indefinite pronoun, though, is none. Literally it means not one, and so should be singular, yet we often use it to mean not any, in which case it would be plural. That’s why both of the following sentences are correct.

None of the sheep in the pasture has been sheared yet. (meaning not one)

None of the sheep in the pasture have been sheared yet. (meaning not any)

Number

When we use the word number in the subject, it’s the article (a or the) that determines whether the subject is singular or plural:

A number of doves were acting hawkish. (plural)

The number of Sumatran rhinos is dwindling rapidly. (singular)

In these examples, a number means some or quite a few, whereas the number refers to a single amount.

The same rule applies to words such as minority and majority.

Relative Pronouns

The relative pronouns who, which, and that allow you to relate extra information.

They typically refer back to a previous noun phrase (the antecedent) and are followed by a verb:

My new tutor is Jenny’s father, who speaks fluent Italian.

In this case who refers back to father (singular), and so the verb speaks is also singular.

Watch out especially for phrases that start with one of. In such cases the verb can be singular or plural, depending on what it refers back to:

I learned how to dress one of those mannequins that are on display in the store window.

I learned how to use chopsticks from one of my friends who is Taiwanese.

In other words, it’s up to you to figure out what the real antecedent is.

Linking Verbs

When you use a linking verb, make sure it agrees with the preceding subject, and not with the subject complement:

My art project is a sculpture and a painting of my boyfriend.

On a side note, you can often replace linking verbs with more specific verbs. In this case you might pick consists of.

Titles

If you mention a title or draw attention to a particular word then you should make the verb singular:

The Grapes of Wrath is rather depressing.

I think that Dances with Wolves presents a romanticized view of native Americans.

The word ultracrepidarians refers to people who offer their opinion on matters they know little about.

Even though the title or word contains a plural noun, the verb remains singular.

Pronoun Reference

Introduction

Pronouns require a clear antecedent. The antecedent is the noun (or pronoun) that the pronoun replaces. Most of the time the antecedent comes before the pronoun.

Here’s a sentence where the antecedent is not entirely clear:

The Hoffman kids have a hamster and a sugar glider, but they are always grumpy.

How do you know what they refers back to? Is it the kids or the pets? There is no easy way to tell.

Common problems

The following are the most common mistakes involving pronoun reference.

1. The pronoun refers to the wrong antecedent:

Our sun is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium, but the hot temperatures have ionized it into a state called plasma.

Correct: Our sun is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium, but the hot temperatures have ionized these gases into a state called plasma.

Correct: Our sun is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium, but the hot temperatures have ionized them into a state called plasma.

2. The pronoun has no antecedent:

We studied the old English poem Beowulf, who killed a monster named Grendel.

In this sentence the pronoun who should refer back to the character Beowulf, but he is not mentioned (only the title is).

Be aware too that the antecedent should not be in the possessive case.

Incorrect: In Shakespeare’s sonnets, he often analyzes the effects of time.

Correct: In his sonnets, Shakespeare often analyzes the effects of time.

This is a frequent error in student writing.

3. The pronoun can refer to multiple antecedents:

Karla told Esther that she needed to declutter her house.

Correct: Talking to Esther, Karla said that she needed to declutter her house.

Such a problem is not always easy to fix without rewriting the sentence. Whatever you do, avoid clarifying the antecedent in brackets:

Incorrect: Karla told Esther that she (Karla) needed to declutter her house.

With any of these problems, try find a natural solution. You can add an antecedent, pick the correct pronoun, replace the pronoun with a noun, or rewrite the sentence.

Tips

To prevent problems, try follow these suggestions:

1. Watch out for too much distance between the pronoun and the antecedent.

2. Remember that a reader’s natural tendency is to assume that the antecedent is the last noun mentioned.

Hard cases

Collective nouns

A collective noun is a single group of multiple things or people:

Here are some examples of collective nouns:

Jury
People
Team
Herd
Army
Committee

Collective nouns take a singular pronoun if the emphasis is on the group as a single unit:

The army has sent out its recruiters.

A plural pronoun is appropriate if the focus is on the members of the group. This is especially the case where the members are doing different things:

The Liberal caucus were split over the issues facing them.

If this sounds awkward (it does to us!), then add a plural noun:

The members of the Liberal caucus were split over the issues facing them.

Indefinite pronouns

A lot of pronoun reference problems are caused by indefinite pronouns. As the chart shows, it can be tricky to remember which ones are singular and which ones plural:

Singular Plural Singular or Plural
another both all
anything few any
each many more
much others most
neither several none
someone some
such

Here are some examples of correct pronoun reference using indefinite pronouns (neithereach, and some):

Neither student had seen her grades.

Each of the cars had its tires slashed.

Some of the test subjects reported that their marriages had improved.

These days, many of us use the singular indefinite pronouns as if they are plural (example: everyone):

Popular usage: Everyone dreams of their big breakthrough.

Formal usage: Everyone dreams of his or her big breakthrough.

Grammar books are becoming increasingly accepting of the first version, but in academic writing you’re better off following the traditional rules of grammar.

Gender

The previous example shows that we can avoid sexist language by referring to both he and she (or him and her). However, doing so repeatedly can be cumbersome.

In such cases, rewrite the sentence and use a plural form:

Incorrect: Many an athlete was banned from the Olympics because he or she had tested positive for doping. Each one blamed his or her mistake on his or her coach.

Better: Many athletes were banned from the Olympics because they had tested positive for doping. They all blamed their mistake on their coaches.

A good rule of thumb is that if you have to use he and she (or him and her) twice in close succession it’s time to shift to the plural.

The final word

While vague pronoun reference can be annoying, so is being obsessive about it.

For one thing, in speech we tend to be more casual with pronouns. There are also some expressions where the pronoun does not need to have an antecedent (e.g., It is raining; It was reported).

Also in writing there is no need to start replacing every pronoun with a noun just because there is a hint of ambiguity. A little bit of common sense goes a long way.

Comma Splices and Fused Sentences

Introduction

When a sentence rambles on an on, you might end up with a comma splice or a fused sentence.

There is not much difference between the two:

  • A comma splice occurs when you’ve used a comma instead of a period.
  • A fused sentence is when you squeeze together two sentences with no punctuation in between.

Spotting the Error

You’ll notice these errors particularly if you read the following sentences aloud:

Comma splice: The rain has finally stopped, I think I will go for a stroll.

Fused sentence: The rain has finally stopped I think I will go for a stroll.

Correct: The rain has finally stopped. I think I will go for a stroll.

You can probably hear the break, and when you look closely you’ll notice that there is no conjunction that ties the two clauses together. Each clause is independent (it has at least a subject and a verb), but there is no grammatical connection between them.

Tip

Watch out for sentences with a dependent clause. Sometimes the dependent clause has been connected to two clauses instead of one:

Amsterdam is a beautiful city, though I’m not inclined to visit the Red Light district, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit.

Dependent clause: though I’m not inclined to visit the Red Light district.

Correct: Amsterdam is a beautiful city. Though I’m not inclined to visit the Red Light district, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit.

In this case, the middle clause is mistakenly tied to both the first and last clause.

Clarification

There is one more term that is sometimes used to describe these mistakes. It’s the phrase run-on sentence.

Unfortunately, there is little agreement about what constitutes a run-on sentence. For some people the term refers to any time two clauses are joined without a coordinating conjunction (so both comma splices and fused sentences), whereas others limit it to just fused sentences. Others use it indiscriminately whenever they feel a sentence goes on a bit too long.

For the sake of clarity we will just talk about comma splices and fused sentences.

Fixing the problem

There are three easy ways to fix comma splices and fused sentences. Here they are, starting with the most common solution.

1. Simply put in a period (as in the example above).

2. Use a semi-colon if you think the clauses are closely related.

3. Connect the clauses with a conjunction.

If you decide to use a conjunction (the last solution), you’ll have to decide if the clauses have equal weight. If they do, you can use a coordinating conjunction:

The rain has finally stopped, so I think I will go for stroll.

If, on the other hand, you want to make one clause more important than the other, you can use a subordinating conjunction:

Since the rain has finally stopped, I think I will go for stroll.

It’s all a matter of emphasis.

Short clauses

When the main clauses in a sentence are very short, you can often get away with a comma splice. Here’s an example:

I love your dress, it’s so pretty.

This is not recommended in formal prose, but it’s not uncommon in creative writing, especially in dialogue.

Conjunctive Adverbs

Probably the biggest cause of comma splices is the incorrect use of conjunctive adverbs. These are words like however, moreover, and although. They connect separate sentences rather than two parts of the same sentence:

According to Swiss folklore, William Tell was an expert with a crossbow, in fact, he not only shot an apple off the head of his son, but he also assassinated the man who had ordered him to do so.

Conjunctive adverb: in fact

To fix this sentence you’ll have to insert a period or a semi-colon before the conjunctive adverb. If you want some further instruction on how to recognize this problem, please review the rules for conjunctive adverbs.

Sentence Fragments

Introduction

A sentence fragment is simply an incomplete sentence. Like this one.

Not all sentence fragments are bad. You can use a fragment for stylistic effect. But if you do, you should be deliberate about it.

Most sentence fragments happen because we have a habit of reading a sentence in context. Let’s say you come across the following passage:

Traveling is expensive. But if you plan ahead, you can save yourself a bundle of money. The key? Always pay off your credit card on time.

Only the first sentence is a complete sentence. It’s our mind that connects the ideas. For instance, we easily forget that but usually connects parts of the same sentence. In addition, when we ask questions, we often use sentence fragments.

If you are okay with such a casual approach then you might fix just the first fragment (by combining the two sentences). If you want a more formal tone, then you’ll have to do some further editing. As usual, everything depends on context. Blog posts have different standards than PhD dissertations.

Common Causes

It’s impossible to predict every kind of sentence fragment. Still, most fragments are the result of just two mistakes. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

Conjunctions

Often a sentence starts with a conjunction that should actually be joined to the previous clause.

I love that the city has approved the building of a funicular. Because now our citizens will learn a new word.

Right: I love that the city has approved the building of a funicular, because now our citizens will learn a new word.
Right: I love that the city has approved the building of a funicular. Now our citizens will learn a new word.

In 1858, Japan agreed to the Harris Treaty. Even though it gave the United States increased access to Asian markets and limited Japanese sovereignty.

Right: In 1858, Japan agreed to the Harris Treaty, even though it gave the United States increased access to Asian markets and limited Japanese sovereignty.

Participles

Fragments also occur if you try to use a participle as the main verb. You may recall that present and past participles are verbals, and therefore cannot function like a regular verb.

A document known as the Donation of Constantine, stating that the Emperor Constantine had given the Pope the power to rule over the western half of the Roman Empire.

Right: A document known as the Donation of Constantine stated that the Emperor Constantine had given the Pope the power to rule over the western half of the Roman Empire.

So watch out for sentences that contain verbals, but no main verb!

Final Advice

The best way to spot fragments is to read every sentence on its own. Print out what you’ve written and read each sentence aloud. When you actually hear what your sentence sounds like, you’ll often be able to tell immediately if you have conveyed a complete thought.

Misplaced Modifiers

Introduction

A modifier is simply a descriptive part of a sentence (basically anything that acts like an adverb or an adjective). You want the modifier to be close to what it describes.

This is how not to do it:

Comedian Quentin Blakely visited our local pub, the one with the pink bathroom, where he performed quite a number.

You can see that the last clause should come right after the word pub, which is what it is meant to describe. If you see no easy way to fit in the other bit (the one with the pink bathroom) then use two separate sentences instead.

Common mistakes

Let’s review the most common causes of misplaced modifiers. Don’t let the range of examples confuse you. In fact, the problem is always the same: some descriptive words are in the wrong place.

Prepositional phrases

You may recall that prepositional phrases act like an adverb or an adjective. It’s important, then, to avoid mistakes like this:

I heard the news about the President’s assassination in my bed.

Correct: While I was still in bed, I heard the news about the President’s assassination.

Participial phrases

Other phrases can be misplaced as well. Here’s an example of a participial phrase that’s out of place:

We saw many paintings walking through the Louvre.

Correct: Walking through the Louvre, we saw many paintings.

Subject and verb

Sometimes there’s too much of a delay between the subject and the main verb:

Our Christmas cactus, which produces the most amazing pink flowers and gives us all joy during the long winter, is in bloom again.

Correct: Our Christmas cactus is in bloom again. It produces the most amazing pink flowers and gives us all joy during the long winter.

Relative clauses

The previous example also shows the problems that relative clauses can create. A relative clause starts with a relative pronoun (who, whom, which, that, whose) or a relative adverb (when, where, why). Here is an example of a misplaced relative clause:

Tim and Irene hired a name consultant to research the name for their baby that they had in mind.

Correct: Tim and Irene hired a name consultant to research the name that they had in mind for their baby.

Apposition

Since appositives also interrupt the flow of the sentence, they too can mess up your syntax:

I did a road trip with Frank Ostrogoth, an expert on Julius Caesar, who drove his Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.

Correct: I did a road trip with Frank Ostrogoth, an expert on Julius Caesar. Frank drove his Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.

Adverbs

Some adverbs are frequently placed too early in the sentence. The main culprit is only:

In my entire life, I’ve only slept in once or twice.

Correct: In my entire life, I’ve slept in only once or twice.

At first glance it may be hard to see what’s wrong. However, the incorrect sentence implies that the speaker has done very little in his or her life. He has done a bit of sleeping in, and that’s all.

Here’s another case of a misplaced adverb:

With my last lottery ticket I almost won a million dollars!

Correct: With my last lottery ticket I won almost a million dollars!

From a financial perspective, there is quite a difference between the two versions.

Expressions

Finally, if you’re using a common expression, don’t insert other words in the middle:

Please don’t put words that I never even said in my mouth.

Correct: Please don’t put words in my mouth that I never even said.

Finish the expression (putting words in my mouth) before you move on. If you find the result awkward, then rewrite some more.

And that’s in fact what you should do with any misplaced modifier. There’s no easy fix. Rearrange the syntax or add another sentence to convey your ideas clearly.

Dangling Modifiers

Introduction

A dangling modifier (sometimes called a “hanging participle”) is a phrase that’s not properly attached to the rest of the sentence. In other words, it dangles.

Let’s find out how we can avoid this problem.

Hanging by a Thread

As you can see from the following example, it’s usually the opening phrase that causes the problem:

Distracted by a text message, the accident propelled John out of his seat and left him dangling from a tree.

When we read an opening phrase, we tend to assume that it tells us something about the first noun in the clause that follows. (If that’s not how you read then it’s time to start.) As a result, the example implies that the accident was distracted by a text message—which of course makes no sense.

More Examples

Let’s take a look at a few more examples to get the hang of things:

1. Blushing furiously, the matchmaker told us we were perfect for each other.

(The implication is that the matchmaker is blushing furiously.)

2. Filled with manure and rotten eggs, Tracy rolled the wheelbarrow to the dung heap.

(The implication is that Tracy is filled with manure and rotten eggs.)

3. To win, the rules will have to be bent a little.

(It sounds like the rules are trying to win.)

4. Swimming in the aquarium, we saw the fish eye us with curiosity.

(The sentence suggests that we are swimming in the aquarium.)

5. Inside the space station, planet earth was illuminated by the sun.

(Surely planet earth is not inside the space station.)

6. Being a little tipsy, the piano wouldn’t stay in one place.

(Only in a Tom Waits song does the piano get tipsy.)

7. Still wearing her lingerie, the lion gobbled up Mrs. Jeffrey.

(Lions don’t usually wear their victims’ lingerie.)

8. The man of the age, everyone wanted to meet Mr. Merdle.

(Not everyone can be the man of the age.)

As you can see from the examples, most often the culprit is a participial phrase (1, 2, 4, 6, 7), though you will also find dangling infinitive phrases (3), appositives (8), and prepositional phrases (5).

The Possessive Case

Before we take a look at how to fix a dangling modifier, there is one last thing to watch out for. Occasionally it looks like the opening phrase is properly attached to the first noun in the main clause, as in this example:

After writing The Tempest, Shakespeare’s retirement from playwriting came quickly.

This sounds right because it was Shakespeare who wrote The Tempest. But here’s the catch: Shakespeare’s name is in the possessive case (the ’s is the clue), which means that grammatically Shakespeare’s is acting like an adjective. The real noun is retirement, and Shakespeare’s is just telling you a bit more about whose retirement this is. That’s why the sentence is actually saying that the retirement wrote The Tempest.

The rule to remember, then, is that the opening phrase must be attached to the first noun of the main clause, which cannot be in the possessive case.

Fixing dangling modifiers

A dangling modifier can be fixed in a number of ways.

1. The best solution is to make sure that the right subject starts the main clause:

Dangling Modifier: Disgusted by greasy cafeteria food, my lunch consisted of a salad and an apple.

Correct: Disgusted by greasy cafeteria food, I brought a salad and an apple for lunch.

2. Another solution—often a clunky one—is to add some clarification to the opening phrase:

Since I was disgusted by greasy cafeteria food, my lunch consisted of a salad and an apple.

This option is less than ideal and can turn the opening phrase into an unwieldy dependent clause.

3. The third option is one that students often turn to, but it’s the one with the lowest odds of success. Sometimes it works to flip the sentence around, though even then you may have to add some words:

My lunch consisted of a salad and an apple, as I was disgusted by greasy cafeteria food.

This last solution works better when the opening phrase modifies the last noun of the sentence:

Dangling modifier: Displaying its feathers, we all took pictures of the Indian peacock.

Correct: We all took pictures of the Indian peacock displaying its feathers.

The key, then, is not to settle on one solution but to assess which one fits the context. If, in the end, you struggle to find an easy fix, your best bet might be rewrite the entire sentence. There may just be a much better way to word things.

Review

Exercises