There is noteworthy stigma linked to written sentence fragments and the inappropriate use of verb tenses. "They wasn't," or "She am," used unwittingly, is a signal to the powerful of an outsider's voice. While some forms of English might not disapprove, it remains that a multi-lingual approach recognizes the importance of awareness of the terrain.

Most writing manuals here turn to an extensive lesson on parts of speech and follow that up with charts of sentence diagrams.

Let us instead try some exercises.

Is: "Simplicity! Simplicity! Simplicity!," (Thoreau) a sentence?

No. "Simplicity! Simplicity! Simplicity!," is a series of sentence fragments--by a fellow who could get away with it.

How about: "I think, therefore I am,"? (Descartes)

Yes. Descartes used a subject and a verb, twice actually.

Complete sentences have subjects ("I") and verbs ("think").

You probably knew that. But your speech doesn't reflect it. A lot of speech is composed of sentence fragments.

"Eat yet?"

"Yup. Ate pizza. Only thing to eat in State College."

When you were told to listen for potential errors in your writing, you may have been led to believe that spoken and written symbols are equivalent. Clearly, they are not--and many errors stem from expecting to hear something that is silently written.

Run-on sentences and sentence fragments, common in speech, are outlawed in formal writing. Research demonstrates that these two errors are both common and highly penalized. (Noguchi)

A run-on sentence is made up of two or more sentences held together without punctuation.

Many run-on sentences can be solved with a comma, colon, or a period.
  Dependent units of language, ...when he arrived at the Little Big Horn...are not sentences; they are fragments chopped off from the source of their life, the initial subject and verb.

The easiest way to treat a fragment is to attach it to the idea that generated it. For most people, the problem is not how to carry out that operation; it is how to recognize the amputated fragment.

Try to apply a slightly different visual approach to decoding; perhaps somewhat like watching body language as you listen. That means a visual check for punctuation, the completion of a sentence, tense, voice, and number agreement--a check that goes beyond spell-checking.

So, you need a noun and a verb; unless you are Thoreauvian.

The subject and verb must exist in the same time frame.

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There are four tenses truly worth recommending:

Wandering around the tenses within a sentence or a paragraph places your reader in a time machine out of control: it is confusing. For the most part, keep your reader in the same time zone.
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Prepositions show a relationship between a noun or a pronoun and some other word in a sentence. Prepositions are often short, single words: at, by, in, up, down, out, around, above, through, behind, in front of. Never end a sentence with a preposition. Fortunately, the language police have limited enforcement powers. But a middle-class native speaker's ears will frequently grate at the sight or sound of sentences concluding with prepositions.

Again, the issue here is sound and sight. Consider:

Who says, "That is the sister of whom I am so fond," other than William Buckley? This construction is more a sign of ownership of a Martha's Vineyard villa than appropriate grammar. The issue here, as with split infinitives, is more one of care and licentiousness than an unyielding rule.
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Syntax Strategies

Once you understand the basics of writing and know what you want to say, you have to figure out how to put it all together. A good rule of thumb is to vary your sentence structures. A paper full of long complex sentences is difficult to get through. Works that repeat the same simples structures over and over get repetitious and lose the reader's attention.

To keep your reader interested, make your writing active. Try to avoid the passive voice: The pie was eaten by mother. Instead change to: Mother ate the pie. The latter sentence is much more direct.

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Finding the right word

Facts are stubborn things, simultaneously unconditional (the water is 38 degrees) and changing (temperature is always relative and transforming). Choosing signs to represent ideas which in turn represent things external to us is a difficult process. One challenge that is often encountered is that we seek to be concrete and flexible at the same time.

The key suggestion is: Find a way to write things, not words. You can plumb for words on the computer with the thesaurus and the dictionary, but spell-checks and the limited thesaurus on Word-Perfect and Micro-soft Word often do not have the depth you need.

Use the dictionary. The Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary is the accepted standard cited in the APA Style Manual. It is helpful in spelling and may give you clues for a further search. The Doubleday Rogets Thesaurus in Dictionary Form is a useful aid. The Oxford English Dictionary is a vital source in determining word derivations.

Clarity, if that is your goal, is found in simplicity and conciseness. Your reader should not have to puzzle over your sentences like a crossword. But the slash and burn technique advised in many manuals, an approach urging the elimination of all but the most sparse word necessities, misses the possibilities of ambiguity in life.

Both the renowned educator, Henry Giroux (Border Crossings), and the author of popular fiction, Toni Morrison (Jazz), create scenes thick with ambivalence, a marvelous symmetry of tentativeness and certainty. Besides, "Four-score and seven years ago," is hardly a minimalist approach.

Still, if complaints from professors are a reliable indicator, it is true that wordiness persists as a major problem in student writing. If you feel ambivalence, the advice here is to express it vividly and cut pitilessly.

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If finding just the right word is a substantive problem, the agreement of several words is a formal problem. This applies especially to pronouns meeting verbs, and subjects balancing with verbs. Specifically:

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Paragraphs are determined by transitions in thought and the visual impact of print. On the one hand, extremely long paragraphs are dizzying; on the other hand, short paragraphs look choppy. Moreover, a paragraph often signals a new step in the development of meaning.

Most paragraphs are helped by a topic sentence which organizes the structure of the idea beneath the print. This assists the reader--and you.

To write a good paragraph is to come to understand the basics of writing a good paper. You must sift your ideas, pick a central thought that drives your work, ascertain the contradictions underlying the position, work them through, and carry on in reasonably logical order.

Note the way David Bradley develops his point in this paragraph from The Chaneysville Incident:

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All things are composed of contradictions; a struggle and unity of opposites.

To grasp only polarity and miss the interrelationships of a contradiction (on the globe, east must become west), or to ignore the specific interstices (which are intervals between closely spaced things) between poles is to grossly over-simplify what is at work.

Good writing recognizes opposition and carefully studies the particularities of the spaces between the poles. It is in the interceding details that we often find the greatest meaning. Write things, not words. Good writing requires and creates reasoned thought. It is the exploration of the gray areas.

In coming to understand a thing, our perception moves from its appearance to its essence--usually from the general to the specific and back again. Our theories rise, first, out of our practice. Our comprehension develops from the general to the specific, passing quickly from one to the other. If you wish to know an apple, you must seek to change it, perhaps by biting into it and tasting it. Repetition of this process is often key to learning--as many teachers know. Again, write things, not words.

Here are four examples from literature that combine these thoughts.


From a less formally literary, but no less vivid, angle:


Now watch Richard Wright work contradictory tensions and the interstices of choices through his character Bigger Thomas in Native Son.

Finally, observe John Dewey's scholarly effort to describe the spiralling process of education itself.
  Each of these writers, though very different in style, capture some of the central contradictions of our world. By giving concrete words to these rather abstract tensions, these opposing forces become things with which the reader must in turn struggle.
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The Particular and the General

Human perception moves from the exterior of a thing to the interior. Profound thinking grasps that the essence of a thing is internal, but that the exterior can be important. Consider the folk saying, "Beauty is but skin deep."

In addition, our understanding moves from a general grasp of a thing to its particularities, and we then correct our initial generalization and recreate it. Most students go to a new class with general expectations, find their expectations met with certain new realities, and reform their opinions.

Listen to Truman Capote describe the specific details of a young Marlon Brando in one of his first roles:

Capote writes things, not words; then relates his specifics to his theme.
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