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Bare Bones Writer's Grammar
The dilemma: The research shows that learning prescriptive grammar—especially doing grammar drills, exercises, and fill-in-the-blanks worksheets—doesn’t help improve anyone’s writing: whatever knowledge is gained by such methods simply doesn’t transfer. On the other hand, the two major studies identifying the most common and most serious errors in student writing (Connors-Lunsford and Hairston) reveal that such errors, not surprisingly, do affect students’ grades and their success in both academia and the workplace.
What to do? Linguist Rei Noguchi noticed that high on the lists of errors in both research studies (on the list of the most frequent as well as on the list of the most serious errors students make) were sentence-boundary errors. In order to avoid these errors—fragments, run-ons, and comma splices, primarily—as well as to be able to punctuate effectively and creatively for emphasis, all that writers need to know is a bare bones writer’s grammar.
What bare bones grammar does a writer need to know? That is, what does a writer need to be able to do in order to spot and fix sentence-boundary mistakes?
TELLING SENTENCES FROM NON-SENTENCES
Fragments, comma splices and run-ons are all non-sentences: they have either too few parts or too many to be punctuated as if they were sentences. When you do punctuate them as if they qualified as minimum sentences, your readers can begin to get confused or to lose confidence in your work—or both. A crucial piece of information here is that every minimum sentence must contain or be at least one independent clause. Sentences may contain several independent clauses as long as the boundaries between them are clearly indicated for the reader (we call these compound sentences). They may also contain one or more dependent clauses (in which case, we call them complex sentences). But having at least one independent clause is not optional. Hence,
Noguchi suggests trying out operational or functional definitions (instead of memorizing traditional grammar definitions) in order to tell sentences from non-sentences; if native speakers rely on the underlying knowledge that they already possess, they can easily perform tests on groups of words to see if they qualify as sentences or not. Consider, for example, these functional definitions:
What kinds of functional definitions are possible for sentences?
Or to be exact (since we could of course do these things arbitrarily to any random tangle of words), we need to be able to do these things and recognize the resulting combination of words as English, something that makes sense to us.
Let’s try these tests to see if they can help us tell whether a particular collection of words is a sentence or a fragment (non-English or ungrammatical constructions will be marked with an *):
The example above is a sentence because we can successfully perform all three tests. Not so, however, in the following construction: Whatever you could do to help my sister.
We can hear clearly when we perform that last test how the sentence seems to long for something else in order to make sense. In fact, the tests often seem to point to what’s missing or what is needed for the sentence to become complete. Because the tests don’t work, we know that *Whatever you could do to help my sister is a fragment (it is, in fact, a dependent clause). If it appeared in our writing as an answer to a question (What kind of help would you most appreciate right now?) or if it were clearly an effective fragment in context, punctuated as a complete sentence for emphasis, we should leave it as it is. But if we’ve punctuated it as a sentence without thinking, we might want to reconsider. Oddly enough, in this case, we could make it a complete sentence not by adding things to it necessarily, but by removing things from it. Try all three tests, for example, on You could help my sister. Of course, you can also add words to make it a sentence: I would appreciate whatever you could do to help my sister. Go ahead—try all three tests on that construction too. If you’re a native speaker of English, you instinctively know how to create those constructions; you also know, instinctively, whether they make sense, whether they work or not.
What is it that a native speaker of English does exactly to create these questions? A tag question copies part of the main verb and makes it negative—unless the main verb is negative itself, in which case the tag immediately becomes positive. How do we know to do this? If we’ve been speaking English since birth, we just do. Prove it yourself—tag the following: You haven’t seen that film yet, ____ ___?
A yes/no question is created by moving the first helping verb in the sentence to the very beginning: She would have swum all day if possible thus becomes Would she have swum all day if possible? However, if no helping verb is present, we automatically add a helping verb in order to construct the question: thus, The couple came from Hamburg would become the question Did the couple come from Hamburg? Very few exceptions exist, the main one being forms of the verb “to be”: for instance, I am sick becomes Am I sick?
Be careful not to add or subtract words in order to make the tests work. If you do, you’re in essence supplying whatever is needed to make the clause independent and you’re thus disabling the ability of the tests to discriminate between independent clauses and every other possible collection of words. Look, for instance, at this fragment: *The reason they were late. The “I know (or I believe or I think) that” construction will only work with that fragment if you drop the crucial word “that”: I know the reason they were late. If you insert the “that” back into the sentence, you’ll have the same sensation of needing something more that you had with the fragment above. So keep in mind that you can’t add or subtract words to make the three tests work.
Another important clarification—every dependent clause that is punctuated as if it were independent (that is, as if it were a minimum sentence) would be considered a fragment, but not every fragment is a dependent clause. Clauses always contain both subject and predicate, while some fragments are simply phrases, collections of words without either subject or predicate. Note also that fragments are a problem even if they don’t stand alone; fragments can confuse the reader just as much if they are embedded within longer sentences where they are punctuated as if they formed an independent clause within the sentence. Example: *Jim and Sue were dancing the tango; the reason they were late.
2. Telling run-ons and comma splices from sentences—locating clause boundaries
As our sentences get longer and more complex, our skill at identifying and marking sentence boundaries for our readers needs to grow as well. We can’t just be working with capital letters and periods all the time. No one wants to be limiting all their sentences to the length of Jim and Sue can dance the tango or They were late just in a vain attempt to avoid run-ons or comma splices.
There are many options for forming readable combinations of independent and dependent clauses. But all of these choices (comma, semicolon, colon, dash, comma with coordinating conjunction, and so on) are of no use whatsoever if you can’t tell a dependent clause from an independent clause in the first place. The three tests we’ve been talking about above will not only help us identify independent clauses; they’ll also help us locate the boundaries of each independent clause. Keep in mind that every sentence has to include at least one independent clause, but it may contain several as long as they’re clearly punctuated. Locating clause boundaries is essential if we want to be able to spot and fix run-ons and comma splices, as well as fragments embedded within longer sentences.
Since an independent clause is a construction that can stand alone and can be punctuated as a sentence, it has clearly defined left and right boundaries that can be located using two of the tests we’ve used above:
Take a look at the following sentence (slanted marks // shown at the beginning indicate the left boundary and marks // shown at the end indicate the right boundary):
Even though this is a complex sentence, with an embedded dependent clause (neither of whom Ted knows), the two tests still work well to reveal the left and right boundaries of the independent clause/sentence. Notice that the same verb (did) shows up in each question created:
The Tag Question gets added at the end of any construction that is a clause; it copies the main verb in the sentence or creates a stand-in for it, like “did.” The Yes/No Question moves the verb (or part of the verb) to the beginning of the sentence; thus the leftmost boundary of the sentence is the word next to which the verb moves, usually the subject of the sentence. In the sentence above, we have a compound subject, the man and the woman, since both of them came from a place called Hamburg. Obviously, the verb moved and the verb copied must be the same for both Yes/No and Tag Questions; if different verbs are needed for those two questions, we should be on the alert for a possible run-on or comma splice, as in the following example:
In this sentence, the verb moved and the verb copied are different (“had” in the first part of the sentence, “were” in the second part). So even though both tests seemed to work at least a little bit, each one only applied to part of the whole construction; the different verbs made that obvious. Since we can’t establish clear boundaries, we can safely assume that the construction is not a single sentence, that at least two independent clauses are present.
In performing these tests, we also notice that one part of the sentence feels like a statement and the other part feels like a question. In that situation, we realize we have a run-on: we need to separate off the question and punctuate it as an independent clause. We have several options for doing this, but in this case, we’ll try a semicolon:
If—as in the following example of a run-on or fused sentence—we have more than two clauses strung together, we may have to keep working at the construction with tag/yes/no tests until we don’t have any more sentences left that feel as if they’re part statement and part question:
Once you have identified each independent clause, choose what seems the most appropriate punctuation for the pace and meaning of your sentence. We could use semi-colons to mark the sentence boundaries clearly: Brazil won the World Cup in soccer in 1994; France won it in 1998; then Brazil won it again in 2002. Of course, with such short independent clauses, we could arrange them in a series without confusing the reader; putting an “and” after the second comma would accomplish this easily: Brazil won the World Cup in soccer in 1994, France won it in 1998, and then Brazil won it again in 2002. But as our independent clauses get longer and more complex and require internal punctuation of their own, stringing three or more of them together with commas quickly becomes impossible.
TELLING WHAT’S STRUCTURALLY ESSENTIAL TO A SENTENCE
1. Locating Subject and Predicate
Check out the brief definitions of subjects and predicates in the glossary on this website—but it turns out, luckily, that yes/no questions are useful tests for locating the subject of a clause. We instinctively move the verb, in the yes/no question, to the left of the subject (or at least we move part of the verb to that position). So in the sentence Brazil won the World Cup in soccer in 1994, Brazil is the subject because part of the verb (which was won or did win) moved to the left of the word Brazil in the yes/no question (Did // Brazil win the World Cup in soccer in 1994?).
Note that in this second example, some writers might well use a passive construction if, in context, they wanted to emphasize the new information by putting it last: The magic stone was picked up by a small boy, who then carried it into town in his pocket, unaware of its dangerous powers. Blanket condemnation of passive sentences is not helpful, obviously, since it ignores the fact that passive constructions are sometimes effective rhetorical and stylistic choices that writers make for good reasons.
The last piece of essential grammatical information you need is about the internal structure of a sentence. In every sentence/independent clause, there are required elements and optional elements; required elements rarely move around in a sentence and they cannot be deleted. If you try to delete an required element, you will have non-English. Optional elements can be deleted or sometimes moved around (especially if they describe how or where or when or why something happened), yet a recognizable English sentence will still remain; these optional elements are called modifiers.
English grammar is a fascinating subject of study for its own sake, but a bare bones writer’s grammar is all you really need in order to diagnose the most problematic errors in your own writing, to edit your work independently. It’s also all you need to make sense of most writing handbooks as you look for help with the questions about mechanics, usage, and punctuation that will always come up as you write and revise and proofread your work.