English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Grammar Guide, by Al Drake

Al Drake | Cyber Cafe | Thurs. 6-7 | 714-434-1612

fragment (frag) | tense (tense) | verb agreement (#) | parallelism error (prl)

comma splice (splice) | misplaced modifier (mod) | passive (voice)

pronoun (pron) | word choice (?) | word form (form) | needs rephrasing (x)

quotation (quot) | MLA rules (MLA) | comma (,)


Fragments (frag): A sentence without both a subject and a verb is a fragment. Example: “Because of the snarling dog.”

Verb Tense (tense): Although you will often find yourself beginning an essay with (and perhaps including later as well) several past-tense references to historical events outside the assigned text, you will find it best to shift quickly into the present tense when referring to statements that an author or character makes. Notice how, in the examples below, the writer shifts smoothly from past to present tense in the first paragraph, employing towards the end an -ing verbal to avoid what otherwise might have been an awkward tense shift. 

Segregation or the rule of Jim Crow began around 1880 and continued right through the 1960's in the southern United States. This system of enforced and nearly total separation between the region's two main races kept African Americans from truly capitalizing upon the freedom they had won during the Civil War period. To explain segregation's powerful grip upon the thoughts, emotions, and actions of those who lived under it, Richard Wright, in his autobiographical essay “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” (1937), narrates a series of tightly linked experiences from his childhood and adolescence that reveal the logic of perpetual fear underlying the reign of Jim Crow.

In Section 1, Wright recounts the first experience that shaped his understanding of relations between black and white southerners. He describes the “skimpy yard [. .] paved with black cinders” (1388) in which he and his childhood companions used to play. As Wright tells it, he thought that his surroundings were as fine as any other. But such a state, the reader may guess, cannot last long. The trouble begins when Richard and his friends meet up with some white kids from across the tracks. These white children fight in a way that gives Richard his first taste of the inequality in power and accountability between the two races in the South. Wright recalls the progress of the fight as follows: “We doubled our cinder barrage, but they hid behind trees, hedges, and the sloping embankments of their lawns. Having no such fortifications, we retreated to the brick pillars of our homes. During the retreat a broken milk bottle caught me behind the ear, opening a deep gash which bled profusely” (1388). The effect of this battle on the other black kids, explains Wright, is devastating, and they run away, leaving him to tend to his bleeding face. .  

While it would be acceptable to cast the second paragraph in the past tense, the result below is less vivid:

Innocently, Wright thought that his surroundings were as fine as any other. But the trouble began when Richard and his friends met up with some white kids from across the tracks. These white children, he explains, fought in a way that gave him his first taste of the inequality in power and accountability between the two races in the South. 

Agreement (#): A verb must agree with the number of the subject that governs it: “She sells seashells by the seashore,” not “She sell seashells by the seashore.” 

Parallelism Errors (prl): Place similar elements of a sentence in the same grammatical form; that is, keep constructions parallel. Incorrect: “Douglass learns to hate his master and scheming to become literate.” Since the writer wants the subject “Douglass” to govern both verbs, the verbs must be parallel in form: “[Douglass] learns” and “[Douglass] schemes.”

Comma Splice (splice): A comma splice occurs when a writer fails to place a conjunction or semicolon between independent clauses (clauses that could stand as complete sentences):

“This is my worst error, I cannot stop making it.” Correction: “This is my worst error because I cannot stop making it” or “This is my worst error; I cannot stop making it.” Run-ons are similar except that they have no punctuation at all between the clauses. 

Misplaced Modifier (mod): This error consists in placing modifiers where they look as if they are modifying the wrong words or phrases. A closely related error is the dangling modifier, which shows up at the beginning of sentences. The first problem appears in the following sentence, in which we cannot tell whether the neighbor informed me about the expensive headache or caused it: “Yesterday, I was told that a brick had been thrown in my window by my neighbor.” Dangling modifiers at the beginning of sentences often result in downright silliness. Here is a real gem uttered by a natural scientist during a television program: “Like many modern caribou, I believe that the dinosaurs migrated in winter.” Corrected, the sentence reads: “[I believe that] dinosaurs, like modern caribou, migrated in winter” or “Like modern caribou, dinosaurs may have migrated in winter.” The dangling participle is a subspecies of misplaced or dangling modifier: “Rolling around in the drawers, I found my watch.” 

Passive Voice (voice): Unless you are trying to cover up your responsibility for an oil spill, use the passive voice sparingly. Write, “Father, I cannot tell a lie; I chopped down the cherry tree.” Do not write, “the cherry tree has been rendered inorganic by an unknown male Caucasian minor with wooden teeth.” Use the passive only when you need to emphasize the object receiving some action: “The plane had been thrown off course!” or, “The car was ripped apart by a powerful bomb!”

Pronoun Problem (pron): Pronouns without a recent antecedent (a prior noun) are vague. Avoid using pronouns like “it” and “this” to replace nouns that you have never specified accurately or at all. An example: “Green anole lizards require a semi-tropical environment, escape with alarming frequency, and cringe when you approach them. It makes them hard to take care of.” Cast the second sentence more accurately: “These three factors make them hard to take care of.” Also avoid losing track of proper nouns. “Bob went home because he was tired” is a clear sentence since “he” clearly refers to “Bob.” However, if you had not mentioned Bob recently, or if you had also mentioned another man in the meantime, the pronoun “he” might be confusing. 

A second possibility is that the number of your pronoun is incorrect. Do not write “If a person understood the problem, they would take action.” A singular antecedent noun like person calls for a singular pronoun. Writers sometimes justify such inconsistency to avoid sexist language, but a better solution would be to use the plural: “If people understood the problem, they would take action.” 

Finally, pronouns are redundant when you use them inaccurately and unnecessarily: “In Oscar Wilde's essay, he says that a man's being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.” Here the pronoun “he” can only refer back to the noun phrase “Oscar Wilde's essay.” “Oscar Wilde's essay,” however, is not a he. And if you had instead written “In Oscar Wilde's essay, it says,” the pronoun “it” would refer to nothing at all. The correct way to cast the above sentence would be, “In his essay, Oscar Wilde says that a man's being a poisoner is nothing against his prose.”

Word Choice Error (?): Word choice errors refer to language that does not suit the intended purpose. The problem ranges from words that are somewhat inadequate for the meaning you intend to words that do not make sense at all in connection with the ones next to them. Time to get out the dictionary or use your computer's thesaurus.

Word Form Error (form): A word form error means that you have written the right word in the wrong form. A few examples: “understandment” for “understanding”; “she pures her water” for “she purifies her water”; or “non-violence protest” for “non-violent protest.” Another error is to use the singular where you need a plural noun, or vice versa. A third possibility is that you need the possessive form of a noun or that the possessive form you have written is the wrong number. Possessive nouns require an apostrophe: “Hilda's house,” “the Johnsons' apple pie.” Notice that the plural requires an apostrophe after the s instead of before it, as in the singular. The word “it's” is not possessive; the apostrophe indicates a contraction of “it is.” The possessive form is “its.”

Tangled / Padded / Vague Phrasing (x): Tangled, padded, or vague phrasing usually occurs when you don't yet know what you mean or how the sentence you are writing fits into the rest of the paragraph. Until you know these things, patches of your writing may be disorderly, repetitive, and needlessly complex. Clauses, phrases, and unwieldy, abstract words may pile up in no particular order. 

In thesis paragraphs especially, vague phrases often function as place-markers, to be replaced later with more specific phrases once the writer has figured out what scheme he or she has really followed in the main essay. Here is an example of such place-marking language:

“Malcolm X employs motivational methods to promote his views about injustice. .”

To correct a vague or confusing thesis, examine the rest of your paper carefully to see what you have actually done. That tactic works wonders, and you may be able to transform the abstract sentence above into something more like, “Malcolm X analyzes the segregated South's stranglehold on African Americans with a defiant and yet shrewd attitude. He intends to convince his audience that they need to stop being conned and start transforming themselves in their own and others' eyes.”

Perhaps the best general tip I can offer is read your paper out loud. Read the whole thing out loud in the polishing stages, but read small sections of it out loud even in the drafting stages when you start to get confused about your meaning or direction. Tangled, bloated, or vague language seldom sounds right when we speak it, but it often slips by on the printed page, especially when we ourselves have written it. Padding describes the problem especially well in reference to small units of unnecessary words. Worrying about padding in your early drafts will cause writer's block, but once you are happy with your paper's content and structure, get rid of unnecessary words. Phrases like “due to the fact that” should make way for simpler ones like “because,” and passive-voice constructions like “it can be observed that” should make way for straightforward assertions such as “Malcolm X states that . .” Also, avoid overusing the verbs “to be” and “to have” in place of more active, specific choices. A sentence like, “He is manager at the store in Costa Mesa” may not be ungrammatical, but it is more emphatic and efficient when recast with an active verb: “He manages the store in Costa Mesa.” Avoid phrases like, “is when,” “there is,” “it is,” etc. because these are signs of padding.

My favorite example of padding, needlessly difficult phrasing, and vagueness all wrapped up in one is George Orwell's bureaucratic modernization of a fine and simple passage from the Bible (Ecclesiastes 9:11):

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

You get the point: it must invariably be taken into account that counterproductive deployment of passively constructed locutions and proliferation of polysyllabic prolixity exhibits the tendency to generate downwardly gravitating assessments of educational production. Simplify, simplify, simplify!

Quotation Problem (quot): Do not insert a quotation into a sentence without introducing it and making sure the reader understands its context in the assigned work. The main reason to insert a quotation is that it needs close examination, although to a limited extent quoting is also appropriate simply to convey an event or to provide context for another passage you are examining. Below is a sample paragraph in which the author introduces, contextualizes, and analyzes the quotations as appropriate :

Soon the young Douglass, pursuing his strategy of almost “stealing” the knowledge that the Aulds have forbidden him to seek, manages to get hold of one of Master Hugh's old school books called the “Columbian Orator.” One speech that makes a strong impression on him is by Sheridan arguing in favor of Catholic emancipation in England. Like the book's speech about a slave who wins freedom by reasoning with his master, this oration provides Douglass with a language for expressing his increasing discontentment with his situation. In Chapter 7, Douglass explains the most immediate lesson he learned from this oration:

The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder. What I got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights. The reading of these documents enabled me to utter my thoughts, and to meet the arguments brought forward to sustain slavery. (128)

But as with the other dialogues Douglass reads in the “Columbian Orator,” there is a down side to the ability he gains as an opponent of slavery. With the consciousness of his right to freedom comes anger at the white masters and misery over his inability to become free. Writing almost twenty years later, he describes the immediate effect of his learning: “It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. [. .] In moments of agony, I envied my fellow-slaves for their stupidity” (129). The depth of Frederick's “agony” indicates that he has learned a still deeper lesson from the “Columbian Orator” than is at first evident: his own experiences as a child have already begun to teach him just how different his own quest for freedom will be from that of the slave who gains his freedom by the power of reason alone, and not by his failed attempts to run away. . [the analysis continues]. 

Direct quotations are not the only kind of reference a writer may make; paraphrases are occasionally appropriate. Here is how to refer indirectly to a work while maintaining MLA standards: Writing almost twenty years later, Douglass says that the immediate effect of his learning was to make him understand how miserable he was, and how far from obtaining any relief (129). After having introduced your quotations or paraphrases, provide their sources in a separate “Works Cited” page as shown elsewhere in this guide.

Modern Language Association Rules (MLA): Something is wrong with the formatting of your paper. Please refer to the MLA template page I handed out in class. For convenience, I list below some of the most common problems, along with some obvious abbreviations that I sometimes use to specify the exact problem:

Page # Omission (MLA pg): You have omitted the page number either from the top of your own essay or from quoted material. Always number your own pages, and always provide the page number in parentheses for material you quote.

Indent Long Quotations (MLA >): Here is what the MLA Handbook, Section 2.7.2 says about indenting long quotations: “If a quotation runs to more than four typed lines [within your own essay], set it off from your text by beginning a new line, indenting one inch . . from the left margin, and typing it double-spaced, without adding quotation marks” (73). Notice when reading the sample below that you do not indent or justify text from the right margin:

Carlyle constantly asserts that work of almost any kind, if both employer and employee take the right attitude toward it, can serve as the spiritual center of both the laborer's and the master's universe. In Book IV, Chapter 4 of Past and Present, he makes this assertion to the Captains of Industry with greater force than ever:

Look around you. Your world-hosts are all in mutiny, in confusion, destitution; on the eve of fiery wreck and madness! They will not march farther for you, on the sixpence a day and supply-and-demand principle: they will not; nor ought they, nor can they. Ye shall reduce them to order, begin reducing them. To order, to just subordination; noble loyalty in return for noble guidance . . Work, the grandest of human interests, does now require it. (317-18)

This passage shows that Carlyle means to organize and spiritualize capitalist production, not to overturn the hierarchy-bound relation between capitalist and worker. [. . the analysis continues.]

Italicize Book Titles, Enclose Short Works in Quotations (MLA ital): Italicize (or underline if you're using an old-fashioned typewriter) the titles of books, epics, and plays, not journal articles or short poems. Also underline or italicize foreign terms: reductio ad absurdum; coup; sprezzatura.

Works Cited List (MLA cit): Modern Language Association (MLA) Format for Citations and Works Cited Lists. Notice that if the citation runs more than one line, you indent subsequent lines five spaces:

a) Books in a Works Cited list:

Dryasdust, Oliver. Boring Trivia about Eighteenth-Century Historical Epics. New York: Barney and Ignoble, 1989.

b) Articles in a Works Cited list:

Contraree, Mary Q. “The Sociology of Incoherent Drivel in the Minor French Symbolists.” Second-Rate Periodical 44 (1977): 125-46.

c) Anthology selections in a Works Cited list:

Wright, Richard. “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.” 1937. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Eds. Henry L. Gates, Jr. and Nellie Mackay. New York: Norton, 1997. 1388-96.

Comma (","): Explanation of terms: An independent clause is a string of words that has its own subject and verb and that can stand as a sentence. A dependent clause also has its own subject and verb, but it cannot stand alone as a sentence—its meaning depends on its relation to another clause. (A phrase is to be distinguished from a clause in that it does not have both a subject and a verb.) Here is a partial list of structures that require a comma:

a) Indep. clause + indep. clause requires a comma before the coordinating conjunction: “I went to the movies, but Jane went to the library.”

b) Dependent clause + independent clause requires a comma: “Because I was late for class, the instructor marked me absent.”

c) Independent clause + dependent clause does not require a comma: “The instructor marked me absent because I was late.”

d) Prepositional phrases require a comma: “After the movie, Bob went home.”

e) Conjunctive adverbs like “however” and “nevertheless” require a comma unless they join independent clauses, in which case a semicolon would be the appropriate punctuation:

“The star of the show, however, was ill.” Or

“The star was ill; however, the show must go on.”

f) Commas are required around non-restrictive phrases or clauses (modifiers not vital to a sentence's basic meaning). In the first of the following two sentences, the writer implies that he has but one son, so the name is hardly essential to his meaning; in the second, however, the name “Charles” is essential to the writer's statement—he wants us to understand that although he has more than one son, he is only complaining about one of them at the moment:

“My son, Charles, never mows the lawn.” Or

“My son Charles never mows the lawn.” 

g) A series of words, phrases, or clauses—if not internally punctuated—demands a comma:

“My car, radio, and computer broke down on the same day.” Or

“Machiavelli wrote plays, advised the Florentines, and advanced political science.” Or again,

“During the Lisbon earthquake, bells tolled, fires raged, and crumbling churches crushed the faithful.”

h) Coordinate adjectives (adjectives separately modifying the same noun) call for a comma:

“It's going to be a long, hot, depressing day.” Or

“We have suffered an unmitigated, shameful defeat.”

But if the noun phrase contains an inseparable adjective, be careful:

“Giovanni is a fine Italian restaurateur.” Or

“Sally is an average working woman.”

Sources for this Guide 

Gibaldi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, Fourth Edition. New York: MLA, 1995.

Harris, Muriel. Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar and Usage. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1991.

Kane, Thomas S. The New Oxford Guide to Writing. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.

Reagan, Sally Barr et al. Writing From A to Z. Mountain View: Mayfield, 1994.