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.
"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
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.
There are four tenses truly worth recommending:
To show continuing current action: I am grovelling.
2) Past tense: I corrected papers. They rebelled.
3) Future tense: I shall give exams. They should attack soon.
4) Perfect tenses: Here things become somewhat imperfect. There are present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect tenses.
Present perfect: something was done before now.
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:
Where is it at?
That is the sister I am so fond of.
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.
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
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:
Ten students reported their assignments were eaten by a dog.
Sojourner Truth could always find her way with the stars.
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:
All things are composed of contradictions; a struggle and unity of opposites.
All unity is temporary; struggle is permanent. This is the primary aspect of any contradiction. Imbalance outweighs symmetry. Contradictions are represented by polarities woven together like the yin and yang symbol in martial arts studios.
If struggle is permanent, our world is thus composed of motion: the contradiction of being there and moving along; nearly simultaneously. You cannot stand in the same stream twice.
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:
Then he said, "I had the privilege of meeting your mother and dad when they had a little chat with Dr. Thurmer some weeks ago. They're grand people."
Grand. There's a word I really hate. It's phony. I could puke every time I hear it. (Salinger, 12).
Now watch Richard Wright work contradictory tensions and the interstices
of choices through his character Bigger Thomas in Native Son.
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:
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