Grammar Help


An abbreviation is a short form of another word: "Dr." for "Doctor," "N.J." for "New Jersey," "vol." for "volume." A pronounceable abbreviation formed from initials without periods (e.g., NASA) is called an acronym.

It is better to avoid abbreviations in formal and business writing. However, there are occasions when abbreviations are acceptable:

> for times and dates ("a.m.," "p.m.," "B.C.," "A.D.")

> for names and places usually abbreviated ("St. Louis")

> for professional references, especially if repeating the full name would be awkward (e.g., "NICU" instead of "Newborn Intensive Care Unit")

In a case like the last example, however, always let your reader

know what the abbreviation stands for the first time you refer to it:

"The Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is the most heavily staffed unit in the hospital."


William and Mary Morris, "Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage," p. 2

Strunk and White, "Elements of Style," p. 81

Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 568-71

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An adjective describes (modifies) a noun or any noun word group. Typical adjectives are "old," "funny," "five," and "lost." Adjectives and adverbs are the only parts of speech in English that describe.

Avoid using adjectives to describe actions (verbs), adverbs, or other adjectives. That is the job of adverbs. In the sentence, "The machine works

perfect," the adjective "perfect" should be the adverb "perfectly." "Perfectly" describes how the machine works, an action, not the machine itself.

"She sings beautiful." [incorrect]

"She has a beautiful voice." [correct]

Use "good" as an adjective, not an adverb.

"She is in good health." [The adjective "good" describes "health."]

Use "well" as an adverb except when you mean "in good health":

"She is well."["Well" is an adjective describing her health.]

Otherwise, use "well" only as an adverb.

"She writes well."["Well" is an adverb describing how she writes.]

An adjective usually comes before the word it modifies ("amusing person," "cranky armadillo").

The exception to this occurs when an adjective follows a linking verb:

"He is serious."

Here, the adjective "serious" describes the subject "He."


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 184-85

Gordon, "The Transitive Vampire," pp. 49-58

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An adverb describes a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. Many adverbs end in "-ly" ("rarely," "quickly"), but many do not ("often," "very," "too").

Be careful not to confuse adverbs and adjectives.

"She sings beautiful." [incorrect]

"She sings beautifully." [correct]

"I did good on the test." [incorrect]

"I did well on the test." [correct]

An adverb describes (verbs, adjectives, other adverbs) by telling how, how much, when, or where.

"She runs quickly." [The adverb "quickly" tells how she runs.]

"My dog eats too much garbage." [The adverb "too" tells how much garbage.]

"She tickled him yesterday."[The adverb "yesterday" tells when she tickled him.]

"We dance there."[The adverb "there" tells where we dance.]

Adverbs don't always have a fixed location. The adverb "suddenly" can describe the verb "appeared" from any of the following positions:

"Suddenly, the man appeared at the door."

"The man suddenly appeared at the door."

"The man appeared suddenly at the door."

However, avoid splitting verb phrases by placing

adverbs within them. Instead, place the adverb

before the verb phrase:

"He should probably tell her." [incorrect]

"He probably should tell her." [correct]

"She might also be considered a suspect." [incorrect]

"She also might be considered a suspect." [correct]

Many adverbs end in "-ly" ("slowly," "bravely," "fiercely"), but almost as many do not ("here," "often," "seldom," "so," "very," "not," "too"). Don't be fooled

by an adjective that ends in "ly" ("lovely," "friendly"). The best way to identify an adverb, or any part of speech, is to recognize what it does in a sentence.


Gordon, "The Transitive Vampire," pp. 49-58

Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 185-87, 293-96

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An archaic word or expression is one no longer in use. Words like "whilst" and "oftimes" and phrases like "not a whit" were common once but are now outdated.

Avoid archaisms. Chances are good that they'll only confuse your reader. As the "Longman Guide to English Usage" notes, "Skilled writers may occasionally make good use of archaisms in poetry or in humorous writing, but they are inappropriate in normal prose."


Greenbaum and Whitcut, "Longman Guide to English Usage," pp. 54-55

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The three articles in English -- "a," "an," and "the" -- appear at the beginning of noun phrases ("a book," "an old and tattered book").

Use "a" before nouns that begin with a consonant sound: "a brick," "a mouse," "a landscape."

Use "an" before nouns that begin with a vowel sound: "an idea," "an elephant," "an omelet." Notice the awkward, hiccupping effect produced by trying to say "a idea" or "a elephant."

Use "a" before words that begin with "h" if you can hear the "h" ("a horse," "a house," "a hand"). If the "h" is silent, use "an" before the word ("an hour," "an honor").

"A" and "an" are called indefinite articles because

they refer to general, nonspecific people, places, things, etc. ("a car," "an idea"). "The" is called the definite article because it refers to a specific person, place, thing, etc. ("the car," "the idea").


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 178-79

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Always capitalize the first word of each sentence, the pronoun "I," any proper noun, and the adjective form of proper nouns (such as "Canadian" and "Shakespearean").

Don't capitalize a common noun like "horse" or "house" unless it begins a sentence. The following list offers more specific help.


PEOPLE'S NAMES [Groucho Marx, Jim Thorpe, Toni Morrison, Batman]

NAMES OF PLACES[St. Louis, Niagara Falls, but not "downtown"]




NAMES OF DAYS AND MONTHS[Saturday, December]

NAMES OF COMPANIES AND ORGANIZATIONS[The New York Times, Reference Software, Inc., Greenpeace]

TITLES OF WORKS ["Hamlet," "The Yellow Wallpaper," "Wuthering

Heights," "It's a Wonderful Life," "Paradise Lost"]

TITLES OF PEOPLE[King James, Senator Smith, Professor Carroll]




Brusaw, et al., "Handbook of Technical Writing," pp. 2-7

Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 556-63

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Colloquial language, which includes slang and informal diction, is fine in speech but inappropriate for most nonfiction writing. Its appearance suggests you may not be able to express yourself formally.

Expressions such as "off the wall" and "chill out" are obviously slang, but be wary of less obvious examples of informal writing like the following.

"Don't try and convince me I'm wrong."[Substitute "try to."]

"The issue is not all that important."[Substitute "unimportant."]

"She's not about to change her mind."[Substitute "not ready to" or "won't."]

"Don't miss out on this opportunity."[Delete "out on."]

"We have less trees than the neighbors."[Substitute "fewer."]


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 437-38

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Comma Splice or Fused Sentence

The comma splice and the fused sentence join two complete thoughts incorrectly.

The comma splice attempts to join the two thoughts with only a comma:

"Everyone disagreed with him, he didn't care."

The fused sentence does the same thing but without any punctuation:

"Everyone disagreed with him he didn't care."

Both errors can be very confusing to your reader.

You can correct comma splices and fused sentences by any of the following methods:

a) Put a period between the two thoughts and make two sentences.

["Everyone disagreed with him. He didn't care."]

b) Use a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, so, for, yet) between the two thoughts.

["Everyone disagreed with him, but he didn't care."]

c) Subordinate one of the complete thoughts by placing a subordinator (although, because, since, when, etc.) in front of it.

["Although everyone disagreed with him, he didn't care."]

d) Put a semicolon between the two thoughts.

["Everyone disagreed with him; he didn't care."]

e) Combine the two independent clauses by rewording.

["He was indifferent to their opinions."]


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 318-32

Gordon, "The Transitive Vampire," pp. 111-16

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Commonly Confused

Some words and phrases are often confused due to

similar meaning, sound, or spelling (such as

"accept/except" and "advert/avert").

The words in this category are usually the same part of speech (such as "principal/principle"). Spell check can't tell from the context which is the correct word, so all instances of the words in this rule class will be flagged, which may lead to false errors.

You can turn off proofreading for any instance of these words by selecting the option, "Ignore this phrase from now on." You also can ignore all errors of this type by turning off the entire rule class.

Many other words that are similar in meaning or spelling, such as "its" and "it's," are distinguishable by parts of speech and are flagged under the "Homonym" or "Similar Spelling" rule classes.

Example (accept/except): "We will accept all your proposals except the third one."


Strunk and White, "Elements of Style," pp. 39-65

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Avoid using double comparatives and superlatives, such as "more better" and "bestest."

The terms "comparative" and "superlative" describe the intensity levels of adjectives and adverbs.

There are three such levels of intensity: the positive (or uncompared) level, the comparative level, and the superlative level. Typical adjectives look like this in their three forms:

Positive: slow, big, difficult, happy

Comparative: slower, bigger, more difficult, happier

Superlative: slowest, biggest, most difficult, happiest

Note that you form the comparative by adding "er" to the end of an adjective or by placing "more" before it. You form the superlative by adding "est" to the end of the adjective or by placing "most" before it.

The choice of whether to use "more"/"most" or "er"/"est" depends mostly on the number of syllables in the word. For adjectives of one or two syllables, use the "er"/"est" suffixes:



For adjectives of three or more syllables, use "more" and "most" before the words:

outlandish/more outlandish/most outlandish

decisive/more decisive/most decisive.

Sound also plays a part in such a decision, however. A word like "restful," even though it has only two syllables, sounds awkward with an "er"/"est" ending. Always choose the less awkward alternative, but never combine the two forms, as in the following:

"Biff is more slower than Bob." [incorrect]

"Biff is slower than Bob." [correct]

"She is the most happiest person I know." [incorrect]

"She is the happiest person I know." [correct]

For adjectives that end in "y," always replace the "y" with an "i" and add "er" or "est":



Always form the comparative and superlative of adverbs by preceding them with "more" and "most":

easily/more easily/most easily

carelessly/more carelessly/most carelessly.

"Less" and "least" correspond to "more" and "most" and form negative comparisons: "less likely," "least available." There are no suffixes (like "er"/"est") to indicate the negative comparative or superlative.

A few adjectives and adverbs are irregular and do not follow the standard pattern:





badly (adverb)/worse/worst


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 297-99

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Conjunctions connect words, phrases, and clauses to each other. There are two major types of conjunctions: coordinating conjunctions and subordinating conjunctions.

Coordinating conjunctions [and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet] always connect the same parts of speech:

"salt and pepper" [noun and noun]

"win or lose" [verb or verb]

"merciless but just" [adjective but adjective].

"So" and "for" can only connect independent clauses to each other, not words or phrases.

Coordinating conjunctions can also operate in pairs with other words. When they do this, they are called "correlative conjunctions":

"NEITHER blackmail NOR whining could change his mind."

"BOTH ducks AND geese are waterfowl."

Other correlative conjunctions are "either/or," "not only/but," and "whether/or."

Some of the most common subordinating conjunctions are "although," "because," "if," "since," "unless," "until," and "whenever." Subordinating conjunctions are a type of subordinator and always begin dependent clauses. They ensure that the dependent clause is incomplete. The thought following the subordinating conjunction would be complete if the subordinating conjunction weren't there.

"Although the report was brief." [dependent clause - incomplete thought]

"The report was brief." [main clause - complete thought]


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 189-90

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Doubled Word or Punctuation

Doubled words and punctuation marks are almost always errors. They are usually caused by typing mistakes, as in the following sentence:

"He went to the the store."

They can also be caused by incorrectly placing a period after an abbreviation like "etc.":

"He'd already read Dickens, Balzac, Woolf, etc.."

In some instances, a doubled word is justified even if slightly awkward:

"I can't believe that that is the reason he resigned."

"What it is is shameful."

However, doubled punctuation marks are always errors.

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Double Negative

Double negatives are two negative words in the same thought. This is nonstandard in business and formal writing.

Any two of the following negative words in the same clause will trigger the double negative error:

no, never, not, none, nothing, hardly, scarcely, barely.

Delete one of the negatives as in the examples below:

"She does not have no money." [incorrect]

"She does not have any money." [correct]

"She has no money." [correct]

"I can't hardly wait." [incorrect]

"I can hardly wait." [correct]


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," p. 295

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When you quote, you must use the author's exact words. However, you may omit material from the middle of the quotation, as long as you let your reader

know by using an ellipsis.

An ellipsis is three spaced periods [. . .]. It tells the reader you have omitted one or more words from the material you are quoting.


The committee's ideas, most of them useful, have less to do with overhauling management than improving attitude.

As the report notes, "The committee's ideas . . . have less to do with overhauling management than improving attitude."

You usually don't need to use the ellipsis at the beginning or end of quotations (since there will almost always be material that comes before or after the quotation). However, when you're ending your sentence with a quotation that is clearly unfinished, an ellipsis makes your reader's job easier:

He saw "the pins, the balls of yarn, old spools. . . ."

(Notice that a fourth period is added to the ellipsis to close the sentence.)

Make sure you don't use punctuation from the quotation before or after the ellipsis, such as [,. . .] or [. . .,].


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 551-52

Jordan, "The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage," p. 205

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End-of-Sentence Preposition

Writers, teachers, and critics once considered ending a sentence with a preposition a serious writing fault, but this is rarely the case nowadays. Ending with a preposition does, however, lend the sentence an informal tone. Consider rephrasing when using a formal writing style.

The traditional argument is that ending a sentence with a preposition is "un-Latinate" and clumsy. English, though, is a very different language from

Latin, and the attempt to force it to follow Latin standards often produces unnecessary problems.

An end-of-sentence preposition can sometimes make a sentence flat and ugly:

"Home is where he was at."[Compare "He was at home."]

But a sentence like the following would suffer if one tried to obey the rule and relocate the preposition:

"He asked the stranger where he was from."

Winston Churchill's remark that this rule "is nonsense up with which I will not put" wryly illustrates the awkwardness of straining too hard to follow the rule.

Many writers think that the best advice is to aim for clarity and grace and let the prepositions fall where they may.


William and Mary Morris, "Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage," pp. 482-83

Brusaw, et al., "Handbook of Technical Writing," p. 516

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End-of-Sentence Punctuation

Only three punctuation marks can end a sentence: a question mark, an exclamation point, and a period.

"There's a moon out tonight?"

"There's a moon out tonight!"

"There's a moon out tonight."

If you end a sentence with a question mark or an exclamation point, never follow it with a period. If you end your sentence with a quotation, never punctuate

inside and outside the second pair of quotation marks. In other words, don't write --

"All the world's a stage.".

Periods belong inside the second pair of quotation marks. Question marks and exclamation points belong inside the second pair of quotation marks --

a) if they are part of the quotation:

She enjoyed reading "What Makes Sammy Run?"

Our theater company is staging "Oklahoma!"

-- or

b) if they apply to the tone of your sentence:

Who wrote "What Makes Sammy Run?"

I just got the lead role in "Oklahoma!"

Question marks and exclamation points belong outside the second pair of quotation marks if they apply to your sentence but not to what you're quoting:

Who wrote "East of Eden"?

Have you read "Frankenstein"?

I was so scared when I read "Frankenstein"!


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 476-79

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Some of the rules in this class have more to do with purity of style than clarity of communication. Others pertain to content but are so often misused that correct usage has become questionable. While some writers see such "formalisms" as unnecessary, others see them as distinctions that protect the language from erosion.

Whether you choose to observe the following rules or not depends upon your audience and your own preferences. If you do choose to follow them, keep

this rule class turned on.

What follows is a list of some of the most common "formalisms" and a brief discussion of their importance.


Because conjunctions connect words, phrases, or clauses, some writers feel that a conjunction (like "and" or "but") should not begin a sentence since there is nothing yet to connect.

However, the conjunction at the beginning of a sentence still connects: it connects the thought from the previous sentence to the thought that follows the

conjunction. Since sentences do not exist in isolated units but are dependent on each other, there is no reason why connections cannot cross sentence

boundaries. As with any formalism, the only question worth asking is, "Do my content and clarity suffer if I break this rule?"


Use "between" when referring to two people or items, "among" when referring to more than two. Because this distinction relates to content, it is one you should observe.


A dangling modifier is an error that occurs when the implied subject of one clause clashes with the stated subject of another. For instance, according to the following sentence,

"Standing in front of the old house, the memories came flooding back,"

the "memories" were standing in front of the old house. According to this sentence,

"Although only fifteen inches long, the nurse declared that the infant was in good health,"

the nurse was only fifteen inches long.

Though they often make for good comedy, dangling modifiers are real errors because they interfere with your content. Correct them by making sure that the

implied subject of the first clause begins the next one. The above sentences would be corrected as follows.

"Standing in front of the old house, I felt the memories come flooding back."

"Although only fifteen inches long, the infant was in good health according to the nurse."

You can also correct such sentences by inserting a stated subject in the first clause or by general rewording.


"Disinterested" means "impartial"; "uninterested"

means "not interested." These words obviously have very different meanings and should not be used interchangeably.


Many people use "hopefully" to mean "I hope," but its correct meaning is "with hope." Thus, the sentence,

"Hopefully, Biff will arrive on the next train,"

should mean that Biff will arrive, filled with hope, on the next train. Unfortunately, the correct use of "hopefully" is becoming rarer.

This is an important concern because it has to do with content, not merely style. As readers, we naturally hope that an author knows what he or she is saying.

Avoid misusing "hopefully" except in informal circumstances.


Few people today are aware of words like "datum," but such distinctions are still recognized in more formal writing styles. A few of the most common

examples of Latin singulars and plurals follow.

alumnus - singular (masculine)

alumni - plural (masculine, masculine and feminine)

alumna - singular (feminine)

alumnae - plural (feminine)

datum - singular

data - plural

medium - singular

media - plural

stratum - singular

strata - plural


"Who" is always a subject, "whom" an object. Thus, in the question "Who do you want it for?" the pronoun "Who" should be "whom" because the person in question is receiving, not doing. Many feel comfortable using "whom" only when it follows a preposition ("To whom it may concern," "someone for whom I have great affection"), but it's far more reliable to take a moment to understand whether the person represented by the pronoun is acting or receiving action.

This distinction should be preserved in formal use.


Williams, "Style," pp. 192-96

William and Mary Morris, "Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage," pp. 482-83

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A homonym is a word that sounds like another word with a different meaning and spelling. Some of the most frequently confused homonyms are it's = contraction of "it is" its = possessive form of "it"

their = possessive form of "they"

there = refers to a place

they're = contraction of "they are"

threw = past tense of "throw"

through = passing in and out of something; done with

to = preposition [to the store] or infinitive [to laugh]

too = means "also" or "overly"

two = the number "2"

who's = contraction of "who is," "who has"

whose = possessive form of "who".

If you are unsure about the distinction between other homonyms, consult your dictionary.


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 458-63

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Incomplete Sentence

All Standard and Formal writing styles in Spell check require that sentences be complete. To be complete, a sentence must have

> a subject (a noun or pronoun)

> a verb

> the ability to stand alone coherently.

If it is missing one of these, the result is an incomplete sentence (also called a sentence fragment).

Incomplete sentences are grammatically incorrect.

More importantly, they can confuse your reader.

You can correct most incomplete sentences by one of the following methods:

Connect the fragment to the sentence before or after it.

"Bob decided not to study marine biology. Because he'd never been in the marines." [incorrect]

"Bob decided not to study marine biology because he'd never been in the marines." [correct]

Supply the fragment with its own subject and/or verb.

"He has several favorite pastimes. For example, swimming, knitting, and tickling the dog." [incorrect]

"He has several favorite pastimes. For example, he enjoys swimming, knitting, and tickling the dog." [correct]

Combine and reword the fragment and sentence before or after it.

"People who think directing traffic is fun. They have never stood in a busy intersection." [incorrect]

"People who think directing traffic is fun have never stood in a busy intersection." [correct]


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 304-12

Williams, "Style," pp. 170-71

Gordon, "The Transitive Vampire," pp. 107-10

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Incorrect Verb Form

Even if they agree with their subjects, verbs can take nonstandard forms which you should avoid.

Perhaps the most common of these is the "ize" suffix which, when attached to a noun or adjective, creates a verb (for example, "prioritize"). Avoid such artificial verbs. They are a form of jargon and will therefore exclude part of your audience. Keep in mind, however, that many legitimate verbs, like "realize" and "sympathize," end in "ize."

Another common incorrect verb form is the confusion of "of" for "have" in phrases like "should of" and "could of." The correct form is "should have" and

"could have." This confusion is due to the similar sound of "have" and "of." Other examples of incorrect verb form follow.

Instead of: "finalize"

Use: "complete," "finish"

Instead of: "if that was"

Use: "if that were" (subjunctive mood)

Instead of: "reoccur"

Use: "recur"

Instead of: "suppose to"

Use: "supposed to"


William and Mary Morris, "Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage," p. 223, 512.

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The infinitive, also called infinitive phrase, is "to" plus the base form of a verb ("to run," "to be"). Use only the base form of the verb after "to" ("to laugh," not "to laughs").

When an infinitive is the subject of your sentence, always match it with a singular verb:

"To err IS human."

"To leave now SEEMS rude."

Be careful not to confuse an infinitive with a present participle, as in the following examples.

"I hope visiting my Aunt Gert this summer."[Replace "visiting" with the infinitive "to visit."]

"He enjoys to talk with people."[Replace "to talk" with "talking."]

Certain verbs, like "decide" and "expect," invite infinitives to follow them:

"He decided to ask for a raise." "I expect to graduate in June."

"I want to see the Grand Canyon."

Remember also that "to" can be a preposition. If it is followed by a noun or pronoun, "to" is a preposition. If it is followed by the base form of a verb, "to" is beginning the infinitive phrase:

"to propose" [infinitive]

"to the moon" [prepositional phrase]

"to see" [infinitive]

"to him" [prepositional phrase]


William and Mary Morris, "Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage," pp. 317-18

Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 342-43

Williams, "Style," pp. 196-97

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Long Sentence

Long sentences can make your reader's job unnecessarily difficult.

While not every sentence needs to be, or should be, four or five words long, sentences such as this one that make your reader wait too long for such vital

information as the main clause or the verb to a subject that appeared some thirty words before are tedious and confusing. In a sentence like the last, the reader notices the sentence's length, not its content.

Avoid excessively long sentences. If you do write one, perhaps for sentence variety, take pity on your reader. Give the most important information first, and keep your subjects and verbs fairly close together.


Brusaw, et al., "Handbook of Technical Writing," pp. 625-26

Williams, "Style," pp. 108-19

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Noun Phrase

A noun phrase consists of a noun and its modifiers acting as a subject, object, or complement. Most noun phrase errors are due to missing words, number disagreement, and scrambled word order. The following list highlights

the major error types.

Missing modifier before a noun.

["He let out dog."]

Missing modifier in a compound noun phrase with nouns of differing number.

["Our softball team consists of eight boys and girl."]

Number discrepancy.

["A family with five boy moved in next door."]

Scrambled word order.

["His time for the race sets a new record track."]

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Number Style

Depending on the writing style you've selected, Spell check suggests spelling out numbers from zero to nine or from zero to ninety-nine instead of referring

to them as figures (1,2,3, etc.).

If you are writing in the Report and Fiction writing styles, spell out numbers from zero to ninety-nine. In all other writing styles, spell out only the numbers from zero to nine. Whichever style you're in, however, avoid mixing spelled-out numbers and figures in the same sentence or paragraph. Use figures if one or more numbers falls outside the range required by your writing style.


"He ordered 450 sandwiches, 56 side orders of potato salad, and 3 ducks."

The following are other rules governing the use of numbers.

Spell out any number that begins a sentence or clause.

["Thirteen people joined the dance troupe."]

Use figures when you refer to dates, times, addresses, measurements, fractions,

identification numbers, chapters, and pages.

["We read Chapter 21, pp. 303-351, on August 19."]

Use a hyphen between spelled-out two-word numbers.

["twenty-three," "forty-six," "ninety-nine"]

Unless the numbers involved are statistics, spell out round numbers ("thirty thousand" instead of "30,000," "five hundred" instead of "500") unless doing so

conflicts with another number rule.


Brusaw, et al., "Handbook of Technical Writing," pp. 440-43

"The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage," pp. 144-45

Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 572-73

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Object of Verb

An object is a noun or pronoun that follows a transitive verb. Be careful not to give an intransitive verb like "arrive" or "cough" an object.

A direct object receives the action of an action verb. An indirect object tells to whom or for whom an action was done. To identify a direct object, ask whom?" or "what?" after the verb. Your answer, if the verb is transitive, will be the direct object.


"I called Lou." ["Lou" = direct object.]

"He needs attention." ["attention" = direct object]

"Sarah asked a question." ["question" = direct object]

If we change the last sentence to read, "Sarah asked Jim a question," "Jim" is the indirect object because the action was done "for" him. The question "for

whom?" or "to whom?" will produce the indirect object just as a "whom?" or "what?" question will produce the direct object.


"She bought her dog diamonds." [Bought what? diamonds (direct object)]

[Bought diamonds for whom? dog (indirect object)]


Brusaw, et al., "Handbook of Technical Writing," pp. 445-46

Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 194-95

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Overstated language is wordy, vague, and often pretentious.

Some writers mistakenly believe that inflated diction gives their writing an air of authority and sophistication. But the best writing is the clearest, and

clarity comes from simplicity. Consider the silliness of a sentence like this:

"The council's postulation that canines of an unrestrained nature have bedecked the community with malodorous substances has been the raison d'etre of the recent legal imposition: namely, that said canines be severely limited as to their freedom and that such limitation manifest itself in the physical

form of a wire run or leash."

Translated, this sentence merely means, "The council recently passed a leash law." There is no reason to subject your reader to such an assault.

Overstated language makes your reader's job difficult and undermines your credibility. Take the following steps to keep your writing clear.

> Avoid lofty, pretentious diction

> Avoid using foreign expressions unnecessarily

> Choose the active voice whenever possible

> Always choose a word over a phrase (e.g.,"law," not "legal imposition")

> Replace abstractions with concrete language


Strunk and White, "The Elements of Style," pp. 21-25

Williams, "Style," pp. 85-86, 104-06

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Paragraph Problem

The most common paragraph problem is the one-sentence paragraph. This is not an error in journalism, advertising, and fiction. In most writing styles, however, excessively short (or excessively long) paragraphs indicate a lack of focus.

Paragraphs and sentences communicate ideas, but they do so on different levels. The paragraph conveys a general thought which each of the sentences within it should support. In a paper arguing against capital punishment, each paragraph would present one reason why capital punishment should be abolished. The sentences within each paragraph would support that one reason. A one-sentence

paragraph blurs this distinction between sentences and paragraphs and inadequately develops its point.

A one or two-sentence paragraph in most writing styles almost certainly belongs to the paragraph before or after it. Similarly, an excessively long

paragraph is probably overlapping ideas.

Always ask yourself, "What is the specific purpose of this paragraph?" If you cannot provide a clear answer, chances are you need to combine paragraphs or break up lengthy ones.


Strunk and White, "The Elements of Style," pp. 15-17

Williams, "Style," pp.42-43

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Passive Voice

Passive voice is the form of a verb that stresses the action over the subject. ("The ball was thrown by Charles.") In the passive voice, the subject is acted

upon rather than acting. The passive voice is unnecessary in most cases and can weaken your content.

The passive voice emphasizes the action of a sentence and makes the subject secondary. In the passive voice, the actual subject, the "doer" of the

action, is either missing from the sentence --

"The ball was thrown."

"The report was presented."

-- or appears in a prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence:

"The ball was thrown by Joe."

"The report was presented by the department."

You should avoid the passive voice for most writing styles. It is wordier than the active voice (because it requires a verb phrase), vaguer, and, at its worst,

deliberately deceptive. However, some fields, notably the sciences, require the passive voice for the impersonal description of a process. Choose the voice most appropriate for your audience.


Brusaw, et al., "Handbook of Technical Writing," pp. 704-07

Strunk and White, "Elements of Style," pp. 18-19

Williams, "Style," pp. 22-27

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A preposition is a word that shows the relationship between a noun or pronoun and other words in a sentence. Prepositions include such words as "with,"

"from," "to," "at," "of," and "by" and take nouns or pronouns as their objects.

Preposition errors are caused by mismatching certain prepositions with other words or phrases.

Besides their use in prepositional phrases, prepositions can also accompany other words. The correct choice of preposition is largely idiomatic.

For example, since it is correct to say "according to," it might seem that it should also be correct to say "in accordance to." However, the correct preposition after "in accordance" is "with." In such a case, the only way to know the correct preposition is through repeated use. Other examples follow.

Instead of: "authority about"

Use: "authority on"

Instead of: "comply to"

Use: "comply with"

Instead of: "desirous to"

Use: "desirous of"

Instead of: "prefer A over B"

Use: "prefer A to B"

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Pronoun Case

Pronoun case errors can confuse your reader and distort your meaning.

There are three cases in English: subjective, objective, and possessive. Pronouns in the subjective case act as subjects. Pronouns in the objective case act as direct objects, indirect objects, and objects of prepositions. Pronouns in the possessive case indicate ownership and usually act as adjectives. The following will help to identify the case of pronouns.

Subject pronouns: I, he, she, we, they Object pronouns: me, him, her, us, them

Possessive pronouns: my, mine, your, yours, his, her, hers, its, our, ours, their, theirs

The sentence, "He handed the report to Jim and I," has a pronoun case error because "I" is a subject pronoun trying to be the object of the preposition "to." The correct pronoun is "me."

In such a sentence, where there is more than one subject or object, block out the other subjects or objects. This will make the case of the pronoun in

question clearer.


"Wilson expects Jean and I to reorganize the committee."[Omit "Jean and."]

The sentence, "Wilson expects I to reorganize the committee," is ungrammatical. The pronoun "I," always a subject pronoun, is unable to act as the direct object of the verb, "expect." The sentence should read, "Wilson expects Jean and me to

reorganize the committee."

What follows is a list of rules for correct pronoun case usage and examples.

Use "who" and "whoever" as subject pronouns. Use "whom" and "whomever" as

object pronouns.

"My rich uncle says he'll give his money to whomever he wants."

"Here's the man who saved my life."

Use subject pronouns after linking verbs.

"The ones responsible are she and I."

"I'm calling for Mr. Duffy."

"This is he."

Use subject pronouns after "than" or "as" when an implied verb could follow the


"He is more desperate than I (am)."

"She likes squid more than I (do)."

Be careful, however, not to convey a different meaning than you intend by confusing subject and object pronouns. Contrast the above sentence with

the following:

"She likes squid more than me."

This last sentence means that "She" likes squid more than she likes me. When in doubt which pronoun to use, see if you can insert an implied verb after the

pronoun in question.


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 248-53

Pronoun Number Agreement

Pronouns must agree in number with the nouns or pronouns they refer to (called "antecedents"). A singular pronoun must reflect a singular antecedent; a

plural pronoun must reflect a plural antecedent.

When the numbers of the antecedent and pronoun do not agree, the result is a pronoun (or number) error, as in the following:

"In this tropical paradise, a PERSON can really lose THEMSELVES."

The simplest way to fix such an error is to make the pronoun and antecedent plural. This solution sidesteps the problem of using masculine (or feminine) pronouns generically.

Another solution is to use "he or she," or, for the above sentence, "himself or herself." This has the disadvantage of being awkward, especially upon repeated use.

A third solution is simply to reword the sentence in such a way as to avoid the need for a pronoun:

"In this tropical paradise, cares and responsibilities disappear."

The following rules offer help for different types of problems.

Use a plural pronoun for antecedents joined by "and."

"Laurel and Hardy made THEIR best films for Hal Roach Studios."

Use a singular pronoun for antecedents joined by "or."

"Either Ralph or Sam left HIS shoes in the sink."

When pronouns joined by "or" or "nor" differ in number or gender, make the pronoun agree with the closest antecedent:

"Neither the twins nor SHEILA has HER passport."

"Neither Sheila nor the TWINS have THEIR passports."

Use a singular pronoun for most indefinite pronoun antecedents.

"Everyone needs to pay for HIS OR HER ticket."

"Someone is taking more than HIS OR HER share."

Indefinite pronouns are words like "someone," "anyone," "everybody," and "nobody." Most indefinite pronouns are singular, but some, like "none," "some," "any," and "all," can be singular or plural, depending on context:

"Some set their goals impossibly high."

"Some of the difficulty has its origins in misunderstanding."

Use a singular pronoun when "each" and "every" precede singular nouns joined by


"Every language and culture has ITS own richness."

"Each child and adult should do HIS OR HER best."


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 284-88

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Punctuation lets your reader know how to read what you have written. Punctuation marks are somewhat like traffic signals: both give order to what would otherwise be chaos. What follows is a list of the major punctuation marks and their functions.

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Apostrophes have two purposes:

1) For use in contractions, to represent a missing letter or letters. For instance, the apostrophe in "I'm" represents the missing "a" ("I am"); the apostrophe in doesn't" represents the missing "o" in "does not."

2) To show possession. To make a noun (or nonpossessive pronoun) that does not end in "s" possessive, add apostrophe and "s" ['s]. If the word does end in "s," simply add an apostrophe after it.

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The colon has one purpose: to separate the general from the specific. (The preceding sentence is itself a good model for colon use.)

In the above sentence, the general information is "one purpose." To learn what that one purpose is, we need to look to the right of the colon. The colon, in essence,

"promises" to specify the general information that comes before it. You should always be able to pick out the word or phrase that represents the general information:

"There is only one reason [General] he feeds the homeless: money."[Specific].

"Two subjects [General] plagued her throughout college: math and gym."[Specific].

Note: The "General" part must be a complete thought; the "Specific" part may be but does not need to be. Never put a colon where you couldn't put a period, as in the following example:

"My favorite colors are: red, yellow, and black." [incorrect]

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Use a comma according to the following four rules:

1) After an introductory word, phrase, or clause

2) To separate items in a series [a,b,c, and d].(Note: do not omit the comma before the "and" which closes the series. Although some writers disagree on this point, this comma tells the reader that "c" and "d" are separate items, not halves of one item. This is especially helpful when the items in a list consist of more than one word, e.g., Laurel and Hardy.)

  1. Before a coordinating conjunction but only when the conjunction connects two complete thoughts

4) Before and after nonessential words, phrases, and clauses. (If the nonessential element begins the sentence, consider it introductory (rule #1); if the nonessential ends the sentence, the period replaces the second comma.)

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The semicolon has two purposes:

1) To separate two complete thoughts (equivalent to comma plus conjunction; see comma rule #3)

2) To separate items in a series when there is any question where one item ends and another begins.


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 481-532

Questionable Usage

Words and phrases of questionable usage may be either incorrect or less preferred than a more standard alternative. The following are common examples of such errors. When in doubt, consult your dictionary.

Instead of: dreamt

Use: dreamed (in U.S.)

Instead of: inferior than

Use: inferior to

Instead of: irregardless

Use: regardless

Instead of: one's self

Use: oneself

Instead of: orientate

Use: orient

Instead of: preventative

Use: preventive

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Question Mark

Use a question mark after any direct question.

"What will you be wearing tonight?"

"He asked, 'When is the report due?'"

Do not use a question mark after indirect questions.

"He asked if there were any dip left."

"They wondered whether or not to adopt the new plan."

Remember that a direct question asks a question, and an indirect question tells that a question was asked. Remember too not to place a period or comma before or after a question mark.

If you're quoting a question, the question mark belongs inside the second pair of

quotation marks:

He asked, "Have you seen my armadillo?"

Place the question mark outside the second pair of quotation marks if the question is

yours and not part of the quote:

Who was it who said, "Give me liberty, or give me death"?

If you're asking a question and you're also quoting a question, place the question mark inside the second pair of quotation marks. Never double punctuate by placing one question mark inside the second pair of quotation marks and one outside.


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 477-78

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Quotation Marks

Quotation marks [" "] operate in pairs. They tell your reader that the words in between are someone else's exact words, written or spoken. Always be sure to

close a quotation with the second pair of quotation marks.

You can introduce a quotation in one of four ways:

1) With a colon, if what precedes the colon is a complete thought

He spoke as if possessed: "Out of my sight!"

2) With a comma after a verb that implies a "that" clause (or, in the case of

questions, an "if" clause)

Hopkins writes, "Nothing is so beautiful as Spring."

3) With a "that" after the verb (no comma -- "that" substitutes for the comma and

vice-versa. See above example.)

Hopkins writes that "Nothing is so beautiful as Spring."

4) By blending the quoted words in with your own E.M. Forster declares that the people he most admires "represent the true human tradition."

Note that it is unnecessary to put a comma before this quotation. In such cases, when you're trying to decide how to punctuate, treat the quoted words as if they were your own.

Avoid beginning a sentence with a quotation and making a quotation its own sentence. Provide a context for a quotation before you give it.

Punctuate the end of quotations as follows.

> Place commas and periods inside the second pair of quotation marks.

> Place semicolons and colons outside the second pair of quotation marks.

> Place question marks and exclamation points inside the second pair of quotation marks if they are part of the quotation, outside if they are yours and do not apply to the quotation. If you and the quotation are asking (or exclaiming), place the question mark (or exclamation point) inside the second pair of quotation marks. That single punctuation mark applies to you and the quotation. Never double punctuate (e.g., ?"? or ?".).


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 534-42

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A redundant phrase says the same thing twice. "Frozen ice," for example, is redundant because there is no other type of ice. Similarly, "illegal crime" and "free gift" should be revised simply as "crime" and "gift."

Avoid redundancies. They clutter your writing and undermine your credibility as a writer. Correct redundancies by deleting the unnecessary word in the phrase.

Instead of Use

"add on" "add"

"join together" "join"

"past history" "past"

"recur again" "recur"

"red in color" "red"


William and Mary Morris, "Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage," pp. 512-13

Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 368-69

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Relative Pronoun

Many people use the relative pronouns "that" and "which" incorrectly to begin clauses.

1) Use "which" to begin clauses that are not essential to the meaning of a sentence. "That" is always incorrect in the following construction:

"Her new red car, that she bought last week, is already rusting." [incorrect]

2) Use "that" to begin clauses that are essential to the meaning of the sentence. These clauses aren't set off from the rest of the sentence by commas. (Note: Spell check flags these errors in the "Formalisms" rule class.)

3) Use "who" to refer to people in either type of clause.

Always set off nonrestrictive (nonessential) clauses with commas. Do not set off restrictive (essential) clauses with commas.


"Biff's new movie, which is being released this summer, is about the McCarthy era."

[nonrestrictive, requires commas]

"The issue that began the Civil War was the debate over slavery." [restrictive, no commas]

"The man who rescued a basset hound from a burning building is receiving a medal for

heroism." [restrictive, no commas]

"Sid's girlfriend, who tried to kill him last year, has agreed to marry him." [nonrestrictive, requires commas]


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 264-65

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Run-on Sentence

A run-on sentence is simply one that runs on too long. This error is usually due to using conjunctions to connect an excessive number of clauses in a single sentence, as

in the following example.

"He loved the penguin and wanted to marry her, BUT he feared their differences would drive a wedge between them, SO he kept his feelings to himself EVEN THOUGH they threatened to overpower him and interfere with his work, YET he could think of no other solution, FOR he knew their love could never be."

Break up such sentences by replacing some of the conjunctions with a period and beginning a new sentence.

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Second-Person Address

The second person ["you"] is considered informal. It seems to presume an intimacy towards the reader which is inappropriate in formal writing; it is also too easily repeated, and overuse can threaten to bury the reader under an avalanche of "yous." If you are writing in a style such as "Memo," "you," of course, is not only allowed but may be essential. In formal writing styles, however, try to find an alternative to this overused pronoun. Two possibilities follow.

1) Substitute the third person ("he," "she," "it," "they," or any noun which could be represented by these pronouns) for the second person. A sentence like

"When you walk down the avenue, you can see many varieties of flowers"

can be reworded to read,

"When one walks down the avenue, one can see many varieties of flowers"


"When people walk down the avenue, they can see . . . ."

Obviously, however, "one" and "people" can be just as repetitive as "you." For this reason, the second possibility is usually preferable.

2) Reword to avoid the need for pronoun reference altogether. The above sentence

could simply read,

"Many varieties of flowers line the avenue."

Notice that such a revision also improves the sentence by eliminating its wordiness.


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," p. 263

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Sentence Variety

Repetition of sentence parts or sentence structures can make your writing monotonous. You can keep your writing fresh and your readers interested by varying the following.

Introductory words. Are you using an introductory word (like "However" or "Obviously") to begin every sentence? Even if you vary the particular word, using any introductory word to begin all or most of your sentences is repetitious.

Your Subjects. Identify your subjects. Do they change, or are you repeating the same subject sentence after sentence?

Your verbs. Are many or most of your verbs merely forms of "to be" (am, is, are, was, were) or "to seem"? Keep these to a minimum. Action verbs will diversify and animate your sentences better than an "is" or an "are."

Pronouns. Even if your pronoun references are clear, sentences filled with "hes," "shes," or "its" have no sparkle. Try to vary your word choices and strike a balance between your nouns and pronouns.

Sentence Structures. The same sentence structure (for example, dependent clause/main

clause) will quickly drive your reader mad. No particular structure is "bad," but the repetition of the same structure soon becomes tedious.

Sentence Lengths. Writing filled with only long or short sentences will either lull your readers to sleep or give them whiplash. (Keep in mind, however, that writing styles will dictate the length of your sentences to some degree. "Technical," for example, will use longer sentences than "Advertising.") Strive to vary the length of your sentences; spare your reader the monotony of either extreme.

Prepositional Phrases. Try to avoid long strings of prepositional phrases when you can. You can turn some prepositional phrases into possessives, some into adverbs, and reword or omit others.


Change "choice of the people" to "the people's choice."

Change "the charm of it" to "its charm."

Change "in a sudden manner" to the adverb "suddenly."

Change "jolly by nature" to "jolly."

Consecutive Nouns. Overusing nouns can deaden your writing and produce sentences like this:

"The proposal for the allowance of additions to the number of ramps providing accessibility for citizens with disabilities has met levels of resistance."

Such a writing style is certain to lose your reader. You can salvage the above sentence by turning some nouns into verbs and others into adjectives, as in the


"The proposal to allow additional access ramps for disabled citizens has met some


Notice that reducing the number of nouns in a sentence makes it clearer and less wordy.


Brusaw, et al., "Handbook of Technical Writing," pp. 625-29

Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 398-415

Williams, "Style," pp. 159-161

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Sequence of Tenses

When an independent clause contains the modal auxiliary "would have," always use "had" (not "would have") in the accompanying "if" clause.


"If I would have noticed that your hand was stuck in the jelly jar, I would have helped you." [incorrect]

"If I had noticed that your hand was stuck in the jelly jar, I would have helped you." [correct]

"I would have told you if I would have known." [incorrect]

"I would have told you if I had known." [correct]


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," p. 236

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Similar Words

One way to misspell a word is to mistake it for another. This may be because the word you misspell looks or sounds like the word you have in mind.

Words that look alike may have the same letters in common, only arranged slightly differently, perhaps because you've mistyped them. Words that sound alike, also called homonyms, often present the most difficulty. It may be helpful to distinguish such words by means of a mnemonic (or memory) device.

Perhaps the best-known of these is "the princiPAL is your PAL."

What follows is a very partial list of the most frequently confused words. When in doubt, consult your dictionary.













Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 458-462

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Split Infinitive

An infinitive, or infinitive phrase, is "to" plus the base form of a verb: "to see," "to run," "to feel." Avoid "splitting" infinitives by placing a word or phrase

between "to" and the base form of the verb. Instead of: "I had failed to, for some reason, notice him."

Use: "For some reason, I had failed to notice him."

Instead of: "He likes to occasionally play billiards."

Use: "Occasionally, he likes to play billiards."

Sometimes, however, it's more awkward not to split the infinitive. In a sentence like this "He decided to really read the books he had only skimmed."

the split infinitive both sounds better than any of its alternatives and places the emphasis of the sentence where it belongs. Rely upon your judgment and your ear in making such decisions.


William and Mary Morris, "Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage," pp.317-18

Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 342-43

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Split Words

Split word spelling errors divide single words like "someone" into two: "some one." Some of the most common examples of this error are the following:

any more

can not

every one

off shore

some one

what ever

with out.

This is an easy error to make since these expressions also exist as single words. Be careful not to join words that should be separate:

"Every one of these tricks will entertain everyone."

"If there are any more disruptions, we won't have a festival anymore."


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," p. 463

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Subject-Verb Agreement

Subjects and verbs must agree. You can correct disagreement errors by changing the number of the verb or of the subject. Specific help for types of subject-verb disagreements follows.



Prepositional phrases begin with a preposition like "of," "at," and "in" and end with a noun or pronoun called the object of the preposition. Be careful not to confuse the object of a preposition with the subject of a clause or sentence. For instance, in the following sentence--

"Each of them is distinct."

--the subject is "Each," not "them" (which is the object of the preposition "of"). Similarly, in the sentence--

"The suggestions in his proposal have merit."

--the subject is "suggestions," not "proposal."

Confusing subjects with objects of prepositions is easy to do because our "ear" can mislead us. It is tempting (to use the above sentence as an example) to try to make "have" agree with the noun closest to it -- in this case, "proposal" ("proposal has"). Be careful!

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Sometimes, there may be more than one subject in a clause or sentence. Two or more subjects joined by "and" require the plural form of a verb:

"Biff, Butch, Spike, and I ARE Scout leaders."

Remember, the pronoun substitute for these subjects would be "They" ("They are"). The exception to this rule occurs when plural subjects refer to the same person or thing:

"My best friend and college roommate IS arriving this weekend."

Plural subjects joined by "or" will take the singular form of a verb because the subject is one or the other, not both (or all):

"Either Sally or Sheila IS in charge of the department."

When you connect subjects with any of the following

or, nor, either/or, neither/nor, not (only)/but(also)

the verb should agree with the subject closest to it:

"Neither armies nor a DICTATOR KILLS the desire for freedom."

"Not only Jim but also the TWINS ARE coming."

"Not guns but FOOD IS needed."

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The usual word order in English looks like this:

Subject - Verb - Object (or Complement).

However, sometimes the verb comes before the subject in a sentence like this:

"There are several reasons for his strange behavior."

In such a sentence, the verb "are" comes before the subject "reasons." "There" and "here" are adverbs; they will never be subjects. Don't be fooled by them or by other adverbs which may begin a sentence, as in the following:

"Never are [V] we [S] safe from our own fears."

You won't see many sentences like the one above, but sentences beginning with "There is (are)" or "Here is (are)" are quite common. The subject in such a sentence will always be the first nonpossessive noun or pronoun.

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Linking verbs act like equal signs. They link the subject to a word that names or describes that subject. A linking verb is a form of "to be," "to become," "to seem" (always) and "to appear," "to look," and "to feel"(sometimes) -- to name only the

most common.

Sometimes, when the linking verb links the subject to a noun, the subject and noun disagree in number. Always make the verb agree with the subject, not the noun, as in the following examples:

"His CHILDREN ARE the JOY of his life."

"The JOY of his life IS his CHILDREN."

"The ALPS WERE the hardest PART of the journey."

"The hardest PART of the journey WAS the ALPS."

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The number of most pronouns is clear. However, certain pronouns may give you some difficulty when you try to match them with your verbs. The following lists may be helpful.

> Always Singular: he, she, it, another, anybody, anyone, anything, each, each one, everybody, everyone, everything, either, neither, nobody, no one, nothing, one, somebody, someone, something, whatever, whichever, whoever

> Always Plural: we, they, both, few, others, several, these, those

> May Be Singular or Plural: all, any, more, most, none, some

The pronouns that vary in number are singular or plural depending on the word, phrase, or idea to which they refer. For example, in the sentence--

"SOME of the people ARE hungry."

--"some" needs the plural verb "are" because "some" refers to the plural word "people." However, in the sentence--

"SOME of the food HAS been eaten."

--"some" needs the singular verb "has" (been eaten) because "some" refers to the singular word "food." Compare other examples:

"ALL of the choices ARE absurd."

"ALL of the money IS missing."

"NONE of the major polluters HAVE been arrested."

"NONE of the oil HAS been cleaned up."


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 270-83

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Subordination errors make it unclear to your reader which information you consider primary and which you consider secondary.

Subordination is a way of assigning secondary importance to a part of your sentence. It lets the reader know that the information being subordinated is not as important as the information in your independent (or main) clause.

The primary way to subordinate information is to place it in a dependent (or subordinate) clause. This type of clause is unable to stand on its own because it

begins with a word known as a subordinator which ensures the incompleteness of the clause.

"Although it rained." [dependent clause]

"It rained." [main clause -- complete thought]

Subordinators fall into two groups:

  1. Subordinating Conjunctions: after, although, as, as if, as soon as, because, before, even though, if, in order that, once, provided that, since, so that, though, unless, until, when, whenever, where, wherever, while

2. Relative Pronouns: that, what, whatever, which, whichever, who, whoever, whom, whomever, whose

A dependent clause can be in any part of the sentence. However, the rules for punctuating vary according to the location of the dependent clause. If the dependent clause begins your sentence, treat it as introductory and place a comma after it:

"Whenever the phone rings, Biff sneezes uncontrollably."

If the dependent clause is in the second half of your sentence, there is no need to place a comma between it and the main clause:

"Biff sneezes uncontrollably whenever the phone rings."

In both sentences, the primary information is "Biff sneezes uncontrollably."

You can also subordinate information by placing it between pairs of commas, within parentheses, or within pairs of dashes. This punctuation tells the reader that the words within are nonessential (or "nonrestrictive").


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 378-385

Gordon, "The Transitive Vampire," pp. 97-106

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Tense Shift

The tense of a verb shows the time of its action or condition. Tense errors are caused by using the wrong tense or by unnecessary tense changes in a given thought.

Form the present tense of a regular verb by using its base form (or infinitive) or by adding "s" to it (e.g., "walk," "walks"). Form the past tense of a regular verb

by adding "ed" (e.g., "walked"). Form the future tense by preceding the base form with "will" (e.g., "will walk"). Some verbs, however, are irregular:


to go go,goes went will go

to be am,is was,were will be

to catch catch(es) caught will catch

Most business and formal writing styles call for the present tense. However, you should stay in whatever tense you choose unless necessity demands otherwise. It is necessary, for instance, to change tenses in the following example:

"In 'Shooting an Elephant,' George Orwell WRITES of his experiences in Burma when he

WAS an Imperial police officer."

In the following example, however, the tense shift is unnecessary and therefore incorrect:

"The preliminary report IS concise, but the recommendations on page three NEEDED

more elaboration."

Use the present tense when writing about ideas or anything written (e.g., books, articles, reports, poems).


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 224-32

Strunk and White,"The Elements of Style," pp. 31-32

Shertzer, "The Elements of grammar," pp. 27-31

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Avoid using trademark names in most cases.

A trademark is the name a company gives to one of its products, for example, "Coca Cola", "Scotch Tape", "Band-Aid." Companies register these names in order to

protect their exclusive use of them. For this reason, and for reasons of precision, you should not use trademark names or confuse them with the type of product they


Instead of: Coca Cola, Xerox, Scotch Tape

Use: cola, photocopy, tape


William and Mary Morris, "Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage," pp. 589-90

Jordan, "The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage," p. 209

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Unbalanced (), {}, [], or "

Use parentheses, square brackets, curly braces, and quotation marks in pairs. Spell check flags these symbols when they do not appear to be part of a pair.


Use parentheses to surround incidental material. Frequent use can make your writing seem disorganized. Instead, try to rephrase the sentence and avoid the parenthetical remark.

Instead of: "Penelope Panache bought roller skates (bright red ones) for her mother-in-law."

Use: "Penelope Panache bought bright red roller skates for her mother-in-law."


Square brackets and curly braces are rarely used in business writing.


Strunk and White, "Elements of Style," p. 36

"The AP Stylebook," p. 272

"The Chicago Manual of Style," 5.97-101.

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Vague Adverb

Certain adverbs, like "really," "fairly," "pretty," and "naturally," serve no clear purpose. While such words are not incorrect, they are vague and too informal for

most writing styles. Consider omitting such adverbs or replacing them with more concrete words and phrases.

Instead of: "The weather has been fairly mild."

Use: "The weather has been mild."

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A clause is a word group containing a subject and a verb:

"It [subject] rained [verb] last night."

"We [subject] went [verb] to the movies."

There are two types of clauses: independent and dependent.

An independent (or main) clause can be a sentence by itself. It is also the main clause of any sentence containing more than one clause. A dependent (or subordinate) clause, however, lacks a complete meaning and depends on an independent clause for


After it [subject] rained [verb] last night, [dep. cl.]

we [subject] went [verb] to the movies. [ind. cl.]

Like an independent clause, a dependent clause contains a subject and a verb. But, unlike a independent clause, a dependent clause cannot stand on its own because it begins with a part of speech known as a subordinator. A subordinator always makes the thought that follows it incomplete. (Some common subordinators are "although," "as

soon as," "because," "if," "since," "so that," "that," "unless," "until," and "whenever.")

Any complete thought (or independent clause) can be made into a dependent clause by beginning it with a subordinator. For instance, if you place the subordinator "as soon as" in front of the following complete thought--

"He finished tickling the armadillo."

--the sentence becomes a dependent clause beginning with the subordinator: "as soon as he finished tickling the armadillo." Remove the subordinator from any dependent clause, and the dependent clause becomes an independent clause, or complete thought.

There are two types of dependent clauses: adjective (relative) clauses and adverb clauses.

There are two types of subordinators: relative pronouns and subordinating conjunctions.

Relative pronouns begin adjective (relative) clauses, and subordinating conjunctions begin adverb clauses.

Avoid using dependent clauses as sentences, especially in formal and business writing. Connect the dependent clause to the complete thought before or after it.


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 202-06

Shertzer, "The Elements of Grammar," pp. 7, 46-47

Gordon, "The Transitive Vampire," pp. 97-106

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Identifying Parts of Speech

These are the major parts of speech with a brief explanation of their function.

NOUN:Names a person, place, thing, creature, quality, emotion, idea, and measurement. Nouns fall into three major types. A common noun names any person, place, thing, etc. A proper noun names a particular person, place, thing, etc. A collective noun names a group but usually acts as a single unit.

Common noun: city, author

Proper noun: Boston, Mark Twain

Collective noun: team, audience


Substitutes for a noun. Pronouns are of several types.

Personal: I, me, you, he, him, she, her, it, we, us, they, them

Possessive: my, your, yours, his, her, hers, its, our, ours, their, theirs

Indefinite: anybody, anyone, anything, nobody, no one, nothing, somebody,

someone, something, everybody, everyone, everything, both, few, any,

some, one, another, many, most

Demonstrative: this, these, that, thoseReflexive: myself, yourself, ourselves,

themselves (all "-self" or "-selves" words)

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


Describes a noun or a pronoun. Adjectives precede the word they're describing unless they follow a linking verb (for example, "She seems confident"). To be certain if a word is an adjective, place it before a common noun like "car" or "person." If the

combination is illogical (like "an often person"), the word in question is not an adjective but another part of speech, probably an adverb.


red car, sixteen tons, wingless bird, faded color


Describes a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. If the adverb is describing an adjective or another adverb, it directly precedes those words. However, if

an adverb is describing a verb, it may take one of several possible positions. In the following sentences, the adverb "sometimes" describes the verb "make" from different locations:

"Sometimes, people make mistakes."

"People sometimes make mistakes."

"People make mistakes sometimes."

Many adverbs end in "ly" (quickly, suddenly, tactfully), but almost as many do not (often, not, too, very, seldom).


Shows the action (action verb) or state of being (linking verb) of the subject (a noun or pronoun):

They laugh. ["laugh" = action verb]

I think. ["think" = action verb]

He is dedicated. ["is" = linking verb]

You seem worried. ["seem" = linking verb]

Linking verbs are usually forms of "be," "become," "seem" (always) and "look," "taste," "feel," and "sound" (sometimes). Action verbs can show mental or emotional "action," not just physical action. Verbs like "consider" and "intend" are action verbs. Verbs

must agree in number with their subjects: "He laughs," not "He laugh."

Verbs can combine with auxiliaries (had, will, should) to form verb phrases.


"To" plus the base form of a verb: "to be," "to tickle,"

"to run."


Shows relation between a noun or pronoun and other words in a sentence. Prepositions begin prepositional phrases which end with a noun or pronoun called the object of the preposition. Some of the most common prepositions are "at," "by," "for," "from," "of," "to," and "with." The prepositional phrase must be at least two words long, but there can be adjectives and adverbs between the preposition and its object. There may also be multiple objects, as in the following example: "with Spike, Roxanne, Sally, Bart, and Babette." ["Spike," "Roxanne," "Sally," "Bart and "Babette" are all objects of the

preposition "with."]


A word that connects words, phrases, or clauses. There are two major types of conjunctions: coordinating conjunctions and subordinating

conjunctions. Coordinating conjunctions are seven: "and," "but," "or," "nor," "for," "so," "yet."

Subordinating conjunctions are numerous, but the most common are "although," "because," "if," "once," "since," "unless," and "until."


There are three articles in English: "a," "an," and "the." "A" and "an" are called indefinite articles, and "the" is called the definite article. Articles are also

referred to as determiners or limiting adjectives.


The main noun or pronoun in a clause or thought. Every complete thought must have a subject (and a verb).


A noun or pronoun that directly [direct object] or indirectly [indirect object] receives the action of an action verb. An action verb that requires or allows an

object is called transitive . An action verb that cannot take an object is called intransitive.


Follows a linking verb and names or describes the subject. A complement that names the subject is called a predicate noun. A complement that describes the subject is called a predicate adjective. In the sentence, "She is a doctor," "doctor" is the

complement (predicate noun). In the sentence, "He is anxious," "anxious" is the complement (predicate adjective).


In the following sentences, each word is identified as a part of speech.

"The man lifted the two children."

The = article

man = subject (noun)

lifted = verb (action)

the = article

two = adjective (describing "children")

children = direct object (noun)

"She seemed sad today."

She = subject (pronoun)

seemed = verb (linking)

sad = complement (predicate adjective)

today = adverb (describing "seemed")

"Biff ate two meals quickly and then felt ill."

Biff = subject (noun)

ate = verb (action)

two = adjective (describing "meals")

meals = direct object (noun)

quickly = adverb (describing "ate")

and = conjunction (connecting the two verbs)

then = adverb (describing "felt")

felt = verb (linking)

ill = complement (predicate adjective)

Identifying Sentence Elements

There are three word groups in English: phrases,

dependent clauses, and main clauses.

A phrase is the least complete of these. It will never have a subject or a verb in it. A clause (dependent or main) will always have a subject and a verb in it. A main clause is the most complete word group and can stand on its own as a complete thought.

A dependent clause will have a subject and verb but will be unable to stand on its own because it always begins with a subordinator which makes the thought following it incomplete. If you remove the subordinator, the dependent clause becomes a main

clause. If you place a subordinator before a main clause, the main clause becomes a dependent clause. Some common subordinators are "although," "as," "because," "if," "since," "that," and "when."

There is no rule governing the position or number of clauses or phrases in a sentence. As long as there is a main clause, clauses and phrases can be anywhere in a given sentence.

What follows is a breakdown of the structures of sample sentences.

"The man removed his hat after a while."

Phrase = after a while

Dep. clause = none

Main clause = The man removed his hat

"During the electrical storm, while Aunt Edie was baking bread, the dog began running

madly around the house."

Phrase = During the electrical storm / around the house

Dep. clause = while Aunt Edie was baking bread

Main clause = the dog began running madly

"Although penguins can't fly, they can drive."

Phrase = none

Dep. clause = Although penguins can't fly

Main clause = they can drivePrepositional Phrase

The typical prepositional phrase is two to four words long and looks like this:

"upon the desk"

"to him"

"against the oak tree."

Prepositions are numerous, but some of the most common are "across," "at," "for," "from," "in," "of," and "with."

Prepositional phrases begin with a preposition and end with a noun or pronoun called the object of the preposition. Between the preposition and its object, there may also be adjectives and adverbs. Prepositional phrases also act as other parts of speech. For example, in the sentence,

"He ran through the wooden door,"

the prepositional phrase, "through the wooden door," acts as an adverb, telling us where he ran.

Prepositional phrases frequently refer to time and location:

"after the first act"

"during the rainstorm"

"by the stairs"

"under the bridge"

"past noon"

"past the sign."

Be careful not to confuse the object of a preposition with the subject of a sentence. In a sentence like the following --

"The number of homeless people rises everyday"

-- you might be tempted to make the verb "rises" agree with "people" and write "people rise."

However, "people" is the object of the preposition "of," and the object of a preposition can never be the subject of a sentence. Put another way, it's not the

people doing the rising; it's the number.

Also be careful to distinguish the preposition "to" from the "to" that usually begins an infinitive. To avoid confusion, look at the word following "to." If it is a verb,

then "to" is beginning an infinitive phrase. If it is not, then "to" is acting as a preposition:

to leave = infinitive

to the store = prepositional phrase

to him = prepositional phrase

to see = infinitive

Remember that a prepositional phrase, or any phrase, can never contain a subject or a verb.


Troyka, "Handbook for Writers," pp. 187-88

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Relative Clause

A relative (or adjective) clause is a type of dependent clause. It always begins with a relative pronoun ("who," "whom," "whose," "which," "that"), which is a type of subordinator.

When a clause is essential to the meaning of a sentence, it is called "restrictive." "Nonrestrictive" clauses are not essential to the meaning of a sentence. Using Active VerbsActive verbs are single word action verbs that make for a more forceful writing style than forms of "to be," "to do," or "to have." There is nothing wrong with such

verbs, of course, but when they appear more than occasionally, they can dilute the strength of your writing. Consider the following passage:

"He was in agreement with their ideas, but he was not fond of pushy people. Consequently, he was not usually at their meetings."

Grammatically, there is nothing wrong with these two sentences, but contrast the strength and economy of the above passage with the following:

"He agreed with their ideas, but he disliked pushy people. Consequently, he usually

avoided their meetings."

The content of both is the same, but the second passage is more compact and more forceful. The single word "agreed" replaces the wordy "was in agreement with"; "disliked" replaces "was not fond of"; and "avoided" replaces "was not usually at."

Don't attempt to avoid forms of "be," "do," and "have," but when you can replace them with active verbs, doing so will strengthen your writing.

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