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Click for Dedication Click for Dedication Part Two: The Marriage of Grammar with Writing

 

The following pages will help you improve your writing. Try working through to the end. If at any time you become confused, click back to Part One for a review. Later, use the table of contents below to jump to separate topics as needed.

 

       
       

1. The “Enemies”

 

How can grammar help us write better? Here are some sample sentences. One is wordy, one concise. In fact, the second is a re-write of the first applying some simple grammatical strategies.

 

A. Jane Smith is a doctor. She is happy when she helps her patients.

B. Helping her patients makes Doctor Smith happy.

 

A. The cheetah easily catches the gazelle, because it is the fastest animal on earth.

B. Being the fastest animal on earth, the cheetah easily catches the gazelle.

 

These two sentences introduce two of the biggest enemies to good writing: linking verbs (is, am, was, were, are, be, been) and the pronoun it. Now before you jump to conclusions, linking verbs and the pronoun it are useful. We simply overuse them both. By limiting your use of linking verbs and it, you will instantly become a better writer. But how?

 

Ok, look at the first sentence.

 

A. Jane Smith is a doctor. She is happy when she helps her patients.

 

Notice the linking verb is in both sentences. That is a problem that you can fix by applying what you know about predicate nominatives and predicate adjectives. In the first sentence doctor is a predicate nominative renaming Jane Smith. You can eliminate the linking verb by saying Doctor Jane Smith. In the second sentence, happy is a predicate adjective describing she. She represents Doctor Smith, and we know that Dr. Smith is happy when she helps her patients. Look at the options you have.

           

When helping her patients, Dr. Smith is happy. Happily, Dr. Smith helps her patients. Helping her patients makes Dr. Smith happy.

 

All of these options appear when you notice the repetition of linking verbs. Notice also how this repetition needs the pronoun she to continue. By eliminating even one of the linking verbs, you will make your writing more concise. Speaking of pronouns, look at the second pair of sentences.

 

A. The cheetah easily catches the gazelle, because it is the fastest animal on earth.

 

Notice the words it is. Whenever you see it is in a sentence, ask the antecedent of it (the antecedent means the word that the pronoun represents). If you can find the answer, get rid of it is. In this sentence, it refers to cheetah (the antecedent). That means you can get rid of it is, which will help clarify the sentence. Look at the example below.

 

First replace the antecedent…

 

The cheetah easily catches the gazelle, because it is the fastest animal on earth.

The cheetah easily catches the gazelle, because the cheetah is the fastest animal on earth.

 

The second part of the sentence describes the cheetah, so let’s put it first.

 

Because the cheetah is the fastest animal on earth, the cheetah easily catches the gazelle.

 

But we are still repeating cheetah…

Since the first part of the sentence is describing the cheetah, we don’t need to include the cheetah in the description. So, let’s put the cheetah after the description.

 

Being the fastest animal on earth, the cheetah easily catches the gazelle.

 

Remember It is not wrong to use it is. There are also times to use linking verbs. Just be aware. We overuse them both. Always test to see if you can eliminate them.

 

 

Look at these two samples. The first uses it is frequently. The second addresses this basic problem. See if you can make any further improvements without changing the meaning of the original.

 

Fred’s favorite activity is to climb the rocks at the state park. Though it is dangerous, it is worth it for Fred. On Saturdays, he gets up early to get the most out of the day. He can climb sometimes for eight hours ­– it depends on the weather. Fred starts each climb at the base of Eagle Cliff. It is the most challenging of all the climbs in the park. Fred knows safety is important, so he always climbs with a partner. The best part of climbing is when he reaches the summit. It is then when he feels that he truly has accomplished something.

 

Fred enjoys climbing the rocks at the state park. On Saturdays, he gets up early to make the most of the day. He can climb sometimes for eight hours ­– depending on the weather. Fred starts each climb at the base of Eagle Cliff, the most challenging of all the climbs in the park. Knowing the importance of safety, Fred always climbs with a partner. The best part of climbing, though, is the accomplishment of reaching the summit.

 


 

 

2. Other problems with linking verbs

 

The term “linking verb” describes the verbs is, am, are, was, were, be, been. Often these verbs are used as auxiliary or helping verbs. Don’t let this worry you. Just realize that they are the enemy to good writing – no matter the label.

 

Look at the following example. Pick out the linking verbs.

 

Jack was pleased by the cheers of the boys. Power was felt in his veins. Ralph was trying to regain the boys attention, but he was unable to do it.

 

 

 

 

 

Jack was pleased by the cheers of the boys. Power was felt in his veins. Ralph was trying to regain the boys’ attention, but he was unable to do it.

 

Notice that the first three was’s have a verb form beside them. The fourth doesn’t. As a rule, remove the verb was and look to the verb around it. Usually, you can convert that verb into another form and rearrange the sentence making it stronger.

 

Jack was pleased by the cheers of the boys. The cheers of the boys pleased Jack. By removing the was, we made the sentence more powerful (and Active).

 

Power was felt in his veins. His veins felt power. That doesn’t sound good. How about Power surged through his veins. That’s better.

 

Ralph was trying to regain the boys', attention… Ralph tried to regain the boys’ attention…

 

but he was unable to do it. Unable to do it means failed. So let’s combine them…

Ralph tried to regain the boys’ attention but failed. Or Ralph failed to regain the boys’ attention.

 

So let’s put it all together…

 

The cheers of the boys pleased Jack. Power surged through his veins. Ralph failed to regain the boys’ attention.

 

That’s OK, but how about this…

 

Pleased by the boys’ cheers, Jack felt power surging through his veins. Ralph tried to regain the boys’ attention but failed.

 

The next section discusses the elements used to make those final changes.

 

Remember: all these changes began with the identification of the enemy linking verbs. Make that your starting point for all revision.

 


 

3. Using descriptive words to combine sentences.

 

Try the next section. If the terms are too difficult, and you need to review, click on the following links: participles, gerunds, infinitives, adjective clauses, adverb clauses, noun clauses

 

But try to work through the exercises without the review. Don’t let the terms frighten you. Get the concepts. They are more important.

 

Let’s review. An adjective describes a noun or pronoun. We have many types of adjectives to choose from.

 

1. Simple adjective

            green tree, happy person, swift stream

2. Verbal adjective like a present participle

            working model, dancing bear, babbling brook

3. Verbal adjective like a past participle

            exhausted man, frustrated child, entranced puppy

4. Verbal phrases like a participial phrase

            a dying to get in dog, chilled to the bone crowd

5. Subordinate clauses like an adjective clause

            the man, who works on the dock; the song that won first prize

 

How can these help us write better? First, you need to be aware they exist. Adjectives let you describe nouns and pronouns for your readers. But which to choose? Rather than looking at each separately, let’s put them all together by examining some sentences.

 

I have two dogs.

They are sheepdogs.

I keep them in the basement.

Long-haired dogs make a mess when they shed.

 

Look for common words to combine. The word dog is used in each sentence (dogs, they, sheepdogs, them, dogs). Each refers to the same breed – sheepdog. So let’s start there.

 

I have two sheepdogs. (two sentences into one).

I keep my two sheepdogs in the basement. (three sentences into one).

I keep my two long-haired sheepdogs in the basement because they shed profusely. (four sentences into one – changed only one word – profusely from “mess-ily”)

 

That’s what you can do by simply combining sentences with adjectives. Look at the next example.

 

Often in a first draft, writers repeat words and phrases. That’s OK. We’re learning about revision. We’ve already talked about overusing linking verbs and the pronoun it. But how can adjectives help us to eliminate wordiness? Read the following paragraph and look for words that repeat. Remember, a pronoun is a repetition of its antecedent. See how many words you can eliminate by combining duplicated items with adjective elements.

 

Egypt is a strange yet wonderful land. Harlan Smith had a great opportunity to see the country by boat. He traveled for seven days on a Nile riverboat from Aswan to Luxor, Egypt. Traveling by boat can be a slow business, but Harlan had fun each day. He saw the farmland on the banks of the Nile. The land was a lush green. It reminded him of a tropical forest, but this forest is not natural. The farmers have to irrigate every inch of the land they intend to use. Otherwise, it is desert. Unlike U.S. farmers, most Egyptian farmers don’t have tractors to till the soil. They use oxen to do it. The farmers also use donkeys to do just about everything else. They pull carts. They haul firewood up the banks. They transport people up and down the valley. It is not possible to work in Egypt without a donkey.

 

Here’s an example of the first part of the paragraph.

 

In the first two sentences the word Egypt repeats as land and country. The word boat is repeated as riverboat and boat.

 

Egypt is a strange yet wonderful land. Harlan Smith had a great opportunity to see the country by boat. He traveled for seven days on a Nile riverboat from Aswan to Luxor, Egypt. Traveling by boat can be a slow business…

 

The following example merely combined those elements.

 

Harlan Smith had a great opportunity to see the strange yet wonderful land of Egypt by traveling seven days on a slow-moving Nile riverboat from Aswan to Luxor.

 

Finish combining the rest of the paragraph.

 


 

 

4. Using Verbals to combine sentences

 

How can verbals help with combining sentences?

 

One of the best forms to learn is the introductory past participle.

Read the following example. Apply what you already know.

 

Prince Valiant was dejected.

He rode through the crowd with his head down.

 

Two things should leap out. First, Prince Valiant is repeated. Second, the (auxiliary) linking verb was is used. To combine these sentences, look to the verb dejected. That’s a past tense form called a past participle. Put it in front of the sentence and you have…

            Dejected, Prince Valiant rode through the crowd with his head down.

That’s much better. Dejected is an introductory past participle. Now, how to make your writing even better? Look at the prepositional phrase with his head down. That’s describing how the prince rode. Choose a better word or group of words to show him with his head down.

            Dejected, Prince Valiant rode somberly through the crowd.

            Dejected and defeated, Prince Valiant rode through the crowd.

            Dejected, Prince Valiant plodded through the crowd.

            Dejected, Prince Valiant morosely rode through the crowd head hanging.

 

 

The introductory present participle (and phrase) is also helpful. Take the same example sentences.

 

Prince Valiant was dejected.

He rode through the crowd with his head down.

 

A present participle is an –ing form of a verb.

 

Riding dejectedly through the crowd, Prince Valiant…

 

Notice this says the same as the two sentences, but the new sentence is prepared to join with even more information.

 

Participles do not have to be at the beginning of the sentence. In fact, they can be used anywhere to help you combine sentences and improve your writing.

 

Warning: don’t overuse any one form in your writing. Variation is the key to writing. Look at this example.

 

Riding dejectedly through the crowd, Prince Valiant wept. Noticing the fair Winifred on the path, he mustered a smile. Wiping the tears from his cheek, he looked in her direction.

 

Notice how the repetition gets old rather quickly.

 


 

 

5. Using Clauses to combine sentences

 

Get to know “clause” words like since, if, when, although, after, that, who, whose, whatever, though, because. These words (technically called subordinating conjunctions or relative pronouns) introduce adverb, adjective, and noun clauses. But simply put, they define a relationship between parts of a sentence. Read the following sentences.

 

Harlan goes to Centerville High.

He often misses the bus.

He walks to school most days.

 

Notice the relationship in these sentences. Harlan walks to Centerville High School because he misses the bus. One causes the other. Using clauses, you can express exactly what you mean. Look at the possibilities:

            Since Harlan misses the bus, he has to walk to CHS most days.

            When Harlan misses the bus, he walks to CHS.

            Because he misses the bus most days, Harlan walks to CHS.

            If Harlan misses the bus to CHS, which he often does, he walks.

           

Fred likes math.

He studies every night.

Sometimes he doesn’t do well on the Friday tests.

 

            Though Fred likes math and studies every night, he sometimes doesn’t do well on the Friday tests.

            Fred, who likes math and studies every night, sometimes doesn’t do well on Friday tests.

 

Sandra loves to sing.

She sings any time she can.

She is not a very good singer.

 

            Although Sandra likes to sing all the time, she is not a very good singer.

            Sandra likes to sing all the time, though she is not a very good singer.

            Even though Sandra is not a good singer, she sings all the time.

 

Sandra goes to school across town.

Sandra loves nature.

She loves to walk through the park.

 

Since she loves nature, Sandra happily walks through the park to school each day.

 

Now let’s start to combine all the skills you’ve learned. Look at these other solutions.

 

Being a lover of nature, Sandra happily walks through the park to school each day. (using an introductory participial phrase)

 

Sandra, being a lover of nature, happily walks through the park to school each day. (changing the position of the participial phrase)

 

A lover of nature, Sandra happily walks to school through the park each day. (using a noun and a prepositional phrase)

 

As you can see, these tools used together will make you a powerful writer.

 


 

6. Some thoughts on composition

 

1. Be direct. “Vigorous writing is concise,” William Strunk said in his Elements of Style. A bolder statement has never been made about writing. Avoid words and phrases that lead to wordiness.

 

There or this followed by a linking verb. Avoid this construction in a paper. The only permissible use is in a single sentence. Example: There is an exception.

 

But when you continue with the thought…

 

There is an exception to every rule. All English grammar contains this caveat. An easy revision yields…

 

All English grammar contains the caveat that rules have exceptions.

 

There is a weak pronoun. There is not the subject – something else is. Find it, replace it, and be done with it.

 

The word not leads to wordiness. The English vocabulary is rich with negative words. Beware the cheapening of your words by using not.

            Not happy – unhappy, distressed, Be exact. Why are you not happy?

            Not on time – late, tardy…

            Not healthy – sick, ill, infirm…

            Not allowed – refused

            Not up for it – ill prepared, unprepared

            Not to be trifled with – dangerous

            Not able – unable

           

The reason is because can always be replaced by because or some other suitable word. Beware of all the forms.

 

The reason I write is because I need money. – I write because I need money. (or I write to eat.)

 

John said the reason he is late is because his car doesn’t work well. – John is late because his car is unreliable. (or An unreliable car made John tardy).

 

The fact that must always be revised –often omitted.

 

The fact that I’m here shows that I love the opera. – My presence shows my love for the opera.

 

It’s just the fact that I’m fed up with talking about taxes. – I hate talking about taxes.

 

I’d like to call your attention to the fact that I still haven’t been paid for my work. –

Let me remind you that I still haven’t been paid for my work.

 

Links to other works

 

Strunk and White's Elements of Style (the Bible for writers) Words and phrases commonly misused.

 

Michaela Mann's Deadwood Phrases  Phrases we all misuse.

 

Paul Brian's Common Errors in English Usage (indexed with many interesting entries)