Grammar and Writing Guide
February 17, 2012
In April, 2003, The National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges published a provocative report entitled “The Neglected “R:” The Need for a Writing Revolution.” This report was written in response to the growing concern within the education, business, and policy-making communities that the quality of writing in the United States was worsening each year. According to the Commission, more than 50 percent of first-year college students are unable to produce papers relatively free of language errors, including but not limited to punctuation and subject-verb agreement. And yet, mastery of basic grammar and usage are the writing skills college instructors most want from incoming freshmen. A study conducted by American College Testing (ACT) reported that only 69 percent of teachers consistently and actually provide rigorous instruction in grammar and usage. The National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) attributes this lack of teaching to the misconception that grammar is restrictive and harmful because it takes away the freedom for students to simply write. However, according to Martha Kolln, author of Grammar Alive!, “students who understand the tools of writing and who possess the confidence that accompanies this understanding will write more effectively than students who lack a vocabulary for thinking about language in a conscious way.” With more than 90 percent of mid-career professionals citing the “need to write effectively” as a “skill of great importance” and fields like engineering emphasizing written materials as being essential by-products of technical work, writing has become, indeed, not a “frill for the few but an essential skill for the many.”
Certainly, the scope of grammar as a discipline is an extremely complex, detailed, and long-reaching one. However, according to Constance Weaver, author of Grammar for Teachers: Perspectives and Definitions, students need only master a minimal number of grammatical concepts and terms to achieve writing success—in the classroom, on standardized tests, throughout college and beyond. The goals of this guide are to provide writers with a brief overview of the importance of grammar, to offer a list of common grammatical errors/issues, and, finally, to familiarize writers with a variety of online tools and resources.
Common Grammatical Issues
Run-on sentences contain two independent clauses—two sentences that can stand on their own, but have been “fused” together instead of being properly connected. For example, “Freedom and transcendence are two themes found in Emily Dickionson’s early poetry, she elucidates these themes primarily through the use of metonymy.” This run-on sentence is also an example of a comma-splice, when two complete sentences are linked by a comma, but should be separated, either by inserting a period or, if appropriate, the semi-colon. Either punctuation could be used in the above example.
When you use a comma to connect two independent clauses, it must be accompanied by a conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so). Example: “I wanted to go to the party, but I had to study instead.” Notice the two independent clauses (complete sentences) on either side of “but.” These complete sentences require the use of the comma in order to properly link them together. More specifics on the use of the comma will be given further in this article.
Often run-on sentences occur with transitions such as however, moreover, nevertheless. Example: “The forecast had been calling for rain, however, we awoke to a brilliantly shining sun.” To correct this sentence, insert a period where the first comma is placed, begin a new sentence, and make sure to keep the comma after the transition.
The correct use of the comma is a grammatical issue that continues to be problematic for students. As mentioned above, the comma is required when using conjunctions. In addition, a comma is needed for introductory phrases or words that come before the main clause. For example, “While I was on vacation, the school found a substitute teacher.” Common starter words for introductory clauses that should be followed by a comma often include after, although, as, because, if, since, when, while. One word introductory phrases such as well, yes, however need a comma immediately following. “Well, I was worried about you” or “Yes, I can make that appointment.”
A comma is also needed in order to separate a series of adjectives or nouns. “He was a compelling, charismatic professor” or “The penetrating, blinding, relentless sun gnawed at them throughout the day.”
Commas are used to set off all geographical names, items in dates, and titles in names.
Examples: “Baltimore, MD;” “January 20, 1997;” “Nancy Weils, PhD, will be giving the speech.”
Proper use of articles is another common grammatical mistake. The English language uses “the” and “a/an.” “The” is a definite article. It refers to a specific member of a group. Example: “I just heard the most beautiful symphony this year!” “A/an ” refers to a non-specific member of the group. “Let’s go to a play,” which means “any” play will do among the many from which one could choose.
Misplaced modifiers have a way of inserting themselves where they are not wanted. Modifiers such as only, just, nearly, barely are ones that are commonly misused. Example: “He barely kicked the soccer ball ten feet.” Here, barely is attached to “kicked the ball” when it should be attached to “ten feet.” Corrected example: He kicked the soccer ball barely ten feet.”
Dangling modifiers: If we begin a sentence with a modifying phrase, we must make sure that logically, the thing that follows can be modified by the phrase. Example: “Deciding to join the Peace Corps, the recruiter eagerly shook Morgan’s hand.” The sentences makes it sound as if they recruiter is joining the Corps. Revise to: “The recruiter shook Morgan’s hand once Morgan decided to join the Peace Corps.”
Parallel structure, or parallelism, refers to using the same pattern of words to show that two or more ideas have the same significance. Example of a non-parallel sentence: “Joe likes biking, reading and to swim.” “To swim” should change to “swimming” in order to be parallel. Another example: “The teacher wrote the student report quickly, efficiently, and in a thorough manner.” The latter bold part of the sentence should be revised to thoroughly.
Pronoun/Antecedent agreement is another common grammatical issue. A pronoun is word that replaces a noun: it, she he, they. An antecedent is the word, phrase or clause to which a pronoun refers. Pronoun antecedent agreement is when the pronoun agrees in number (referring to singular or plural) and person (referring to first, second, or third person) with its antecedent. Incorrect example: “When an employee does not agree with their boss’ decision, the employee should not support that decision.” “An employee” is singular and the antecedent “their” is plural. Revised example: “When employees do not agree with their boss’ decision…” Now, the two are in agreement.
The following are resources available for writers to master areas of grammar and usage pertaining to academic writing.
Grammar and Usage
The following sites are excellent tools for mastering the basics of grammar and usage, including sentence fragments, subject verb agreement, prepositions, participles and verb tenses. Download and print useful handouts, search specifically for areas in which you need support, and submit grammar related questions for a quick and comprehensive response.
The following sites are useful for writers in order to improve their style, incorporate varied and descriptive word choice, refine thesis statements, and develop skills for paragraphing, proofreading and revising.