Solutions: Tips for Writing Well

We've corrected the grammar problems in each sentence. If you don't understand why we made these changes, or want more help with adapting them to your own work, come in and see us! We'd be happy to help.  (⇒ signifies the correct sentence.)

  • 1. Every pronoun should agree with their antecedent.

⇒ 1. Every pronoun should agree with its antecedent.

Words such as it, she, he, and they are pronouns. A pronoun takes the place of a noun. That noun is known as the pronoun's antecedent. Both the antecedent and the pronoun must agree. A singular noun cannot be replaced by a plural pronoun.

  • 2. Sentence fragments. Watch out for them.

⇒ 2. Watch out for sentence fragments.

It is a rule of grammar that every sentence must have a subject and a verb. “Sentence fragments” in the first example has neither a subject nor a verb.

  • 3. It is advised that the passive voice of verbs be employed sparingly, and only when no better alternative is seen.

⇒ 3. The instructor advised her class to avoid passive voice.

In the first sentence, there is no actor. There is nothing to tell us WHO is giving the advice. Instructors hate this. Always be clear about WHO is DOING what.

  • 4. Proofread every sentence for misspellings amd typos.

⇒ 4. Proofread every sentence for misspellings and typos.

Writing is the culmination of your thinking. It represents you when you are not there to represent yourself. You should therefore always proofread as well as spell-check.

  • 5. Its essential to use apostrophe’s correctly.

⇒ 5. It's essential to use apostrophes correctly.

There are two basic rules to using apostrophes. An apostrophe can indicate that letters are missing -- as with the first “it's” which is a contracted form of it is. It can also signify possession. If we wrote “The dog's ball bounced across the grass,” for example, the apostrophe would tell you that the ball belongs to the dog.

  • 6. Ordinarily, you shouldn’t abbrev.

⇒ 6. Ordinarily, you shouldn't use abbreviations.

If you think something is worth writing down, it's worth writing down in full. Abbreviations suggest that you didn't want to invest the time and effort it takes to write out a complete word.

  • 7. As a rule, never use a preposition to end a sentence with.

⇒ 7. As a rule, never end a sentence with a preposition.

Prepositions are words such as above, before, between, during, from, in, into, of, since, through, to, until, and with. A preposition joins words or phrases together. In the first example above, “with” does not lead to a concluding word or phrase. In the second example, “with” connects “sentence” to “preposition.” “With” connects rather than concludes.

  • 8. When writing, participles ought not to be dangled.

⇒ 8. Do not dangle participles in your writing.

⇒ 8. Do not speak like Yoda.

In the first example of this sentence, the participle is the word “dangled.” A participle acts as an adjective describing a noun or pronoun. We edited the sentence to make it clearer in example two, and removed the participle altogether. A good rule of thumb for spotting dangling participles is to ask yourself “do I sound like Yoda?” If you do, something needs to change.

  • 9. People like you and I should have no problems with grammatical case.

⇒ 9. People like you and me should have no problems with grammatical case.

“I” always refers to the subject of a sentence. “Me” always refers to the object of a sentence. A quick way to check if you have this correct is to remove the “you” and see if the sentence makes sense. “People like I,” for example, is nonsense. “People like me,” however, is grammatically correct.

  • 10. Take care to never split infinitives.

⇒ 10. Take care never to split infinitives.

An infinitive is the word “to” followed by a verb. In these sentences, the infinitive is “to split,” words that have been separated in the first example by the word “never.” “To” and its accompanying verb should always be together.

  • 11. Do not write run-on sentences since it is bad style and people will not think well of you and who can remember what you said at the beginning of your sentence if you just keep going on and on and on and on?

⇒ 11. Do not write run-on sentences. It indicates bad style and makes it difficult for a reader to absorb all your ideas.

Run on sentences are extremely easy to create. If you have an interesting thought, it's often easy to type until it’s finished without thinking about sentence structure. To combat run on sentences, always proofread your papers, and strive for simplicity. The more simple your expression, the more compelling your argument will be.

  • 12. Avoid redundant phrases that say the same thing over and over again, endlessly repeating a point without adding a single new idea or coming up with anything different.

⇒ 12. Avoid redundant phrases.

Live by this simple rule of thumb: make every word count. Repetition doesn't strengthen your argument, but dilutes it. Simplicity is the key to making a strong argument, and instructors can spot when you're repeating yourself just to fill a page limit.

  • 13. In letters themes reports and the like use commas to separate items in a list.

⇒ 13. In letters, themes, and reports, use commas to separate items in a list.

If you make a list of any type in your paper, you should use commas to separate each word from the next.

  • 14. Don’t be someone whom people realize confuses who and whom.

⇒ 14. Don't be someone who confuses who and whom.

We've done two things in this sentence. The first is that we've simplified it to make the point more clear. The second is we replaced the first “whom” with “who.” Who refers to subjects, whom to objects.

  • 15. In constructing the ideal rhetorical building, if you do not mix metaphors, the fruit of your labors will be a well-tuned sentence.

This sentence is so bad, we just got rid of it altogether. Avoid metaphors since they are unoriginal and imprecise.

  • 16. I never write non-sequiturs; therefore I need to study harder.

A non-sequitur occurs when your thoughts do not connect. In the above sentence, studying harder has nothing to do with whether you write non-sequiturs. The two clauses are completely unrelated.

  • 17. A good writer does not shift tenses back and forth randomly, since it will be bad form and often caused confusion on the part of the reader.

⇒ 17. A good writer does not shift tenses, since it is bad form and causes confusion on the part of the reader.

Again, we simplified this sentence before changing the grammatical problem. We then made the tenses agree by setting everything in the present. We made the verbs agree. You should proofread your papers to look for this problem.

  • 18. Verbs in any essay has to agree with their subject.

⇒ 18. Verbs in any essay have to agree with their subject.

The subject of this sentence is plural – “verbs.” In this sentence, the word verbs is actually a noun. It must agree with its verb, which in this case is the word “have.”

  • 19. If teachers have ever told you, that you don’t put a comma before "that," they were right.

⇒ 19. If teachers have ever told you that you don't put a comma before "that," they were right.

A comma should separate clauses. In the above sentence, the first comma separates words that relate to the same subject. The comma should not keep them apart. The second comma, however, connects two separate clauses.

Some of these tips originally appeared in The Journal of the New England Association of Teachers of English (1979).

Grammar assistance was provided by:

Gordon, Karen Elizabeth. The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of
     Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed
. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.
Hacker, Diana. A Pocket Style Manual. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
Rodrigues, Dawn and Myron C. Tuman. Writing Essentials. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.
Strunk Jr., William and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn and 
     Bacon, 1979.