Email Grammar and Style

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Email Grammar and Style


Parts of your email essay may have grammatical or stylistic problems. If I don't have time to explain them to you fully, I will put a number after the sentence or section that needs work. The number corresponds to the problems listed below. You can raise your grade by correcting any of the grammatical problems in your email posting: simply hit the reply button, scroll down to the sentence that needs work, and revise it right on the screen. Then send the message back to me.

1. You have not used proper quoting form. See Quoting Properly to correct your essay and raise your grade.

2. You have used pronouns (he, she, her, his, it, its, they, them, their) and/or demonstratives (this, that) unclearly. All pronouns must refer to a preceding noun that is the same in number.

XX Because Aphra Behn lived in Surinam, they know what it's like.

CC Because Aphra Behn lived in Surinam, she knows what it's like.

XX Because Aphra Behn's novel is meticulous, they describe plantations accurately.

CC Because Aphra Behn's novel is meticulous, it describes plantations accurately.

XX Because Oroonoko's master is so nice, he isn't hurt by him.

CC Because Oroonoko's master is so nice, he doesn't beat Oroonoko.

XX Johnson says that Shakespeare's readers "may be cured of his delirious ecstasies by reading human sentiments in human language."

CC Johnson says that Shakespeare's readers "may be cured of [their] delirious ecstasies by reading human sentiments in human language."

or

CC Johnson says that the reader of Shakespeare's works "may be cured of his delirious ecstasies by reading human sentiments in human language."

Always use "this" or "that" with a noun or a phrase:

X Before he left the court, Oroonoko's friend promised to protect Imoinda. This gave Oroonoko confidence.

C Before he left the court, Oroonoko's friend promised to protect Imoinda. This belief in her safety gave Oroonoko confidence.

X The governor wanted to punish Oroonoko publicly. That made him cruel.

C The governor wanted to punish Oroonoko publicly. That desire to humilate the African King in front of his people made the governor cruel.

3. You are using the English language in a way that it can't be used, perhaps in an attempt to write in academic style, perhaps because you didn't have the time to rewrite the sentence even though you knew after writing it that it made no sense, or perhaps because you are so involved in thinking about your ideas that you forgot to make your words clear. Read the sentence out loud. Would you ever say such a thing in talking with a friend? While it is true that language written in an essay is more formal than spoken language, the following rule is also true: if you would NEVER say such a thing (because people wouldn't understand what you meant if you did), then don't write it!!

It takes time to write a sentence that people can understand. Every sentence you write must be crafted. It is rarely the case that an adequate sentence flows immediately from your pen. I only write proficiently because I revise almost every sentence (I revised the sentence you are now reading 8 times). (P.S. I would appreciate hearing from you about any sentence in my handouts that is difficult to understand, preferrably with your suggestions for revision.)

4. Word choice error: look up the word indicated. What does it mean, and how is it used? Write a sentence or two using the word while looking at its definition. If I offered alternative word choices, look up those words and do the same thing.

5. Your short essay presents personal opinion instead of an argument. An argument consists in the statement of an idea and support of that idea by facts (by quoting passages from a text you are reading, or citing statistics, etc.). An argument presents not just your own personal preference ("I like chocolate ice cream") but rather something that all readers will know to be true if they carefully consider the facts (or quotations) that you present. An argument isn't pure fact, but rather a way of viewing the facts: someone will be able to disagree with you. However, the person who disagrees will do so not by presenting their own opinion ("Well, I like vanilla ice cream"), but rather by presenting more facts (other quotations from the same text) and/or other ways of understanding the facts you have cited.

6. Make certain that you adequately introduce and explain each passage that you quote. Here are some examples of adequate introductions and explanations:

Intro.:John Dashwood reveals his selfishness while thinking about how much money he would give to his stepmother and stepsisters:

Quotation:[H]e finally resolved that it would be absolutely unnecessary, if not highly indecorous, to do more for the widow and children of his father than such kind of neighbourly acts as his own wife pointed out. (13)

Explanation:This suggests that John Dashwood is the kind of man who just needs any poor reason to excuse himself from any action that will not benefit him directly.

Intro.:Throughout the novel, John and Fanny Dashwood prove again and again how selfish they are. For example, later in the novel Miss Steele reveals that her sister Lucy is engaged to be married to Fanny's brother Edward Ferrars:

Quotation:[Fanny] scolded like any fury and soon drove [Lucy] into a fainting fit. . . . Mrs. Dashwood declared that they should not stay a minute longer in the house. . . . Then she fell into hysterics again, and [John] was so frightened that he would send for Mr. Donavan. (207)

Explanation:This passage shows that Fanny Dashwood is only concerned with her reputation, as it would be very unfit for her brother to marry someone with no money. She has no concern for her brother's feelings, only for her own status.

7. Unnecessary tense shifts:

Argumentative essays are almost always written in what is called "the historical present." That is, since the text you are discussing is being and will continue to be read for a long time, you can talk about it as still saying in the present what it says. Thus, the sentence "Johnson argues that the best literature is realistic" is preferrable to "Johnson argued that . the best literature is realistic." Sure, Johnson wrote the Preface to Shakespeare many years ago, but since it is still being read, he is still arguing something about Shakespeare.

Either the past tense or the present tense is technically correct, although using the present tense is better. Whichever you decide to use, however, you must be consistent. Don't switch from past to present, or present to past, for no reason.

9. Punctuation Errors: See Commas.

10. For A. Sentence Fragments, B. Fused Sentences, and C. Comma Splices.

A. Fragmented: After a long hesitation, we decided to go into the house. A house which was haunted.

The phrase "A house which was haunted" cannot stand on its own as a sentence; it is only a fragment of a sentence.

Solution:

Use a Resumptive modifier:

After a long hesitation, we decided to go into the house, a house which was haunted.

("A house" resumes discussing the idea or thing with which the sentence almost ended. This is a great structure—try using it just for fun.)

B. Fused: The prosecution could not present reliable witnesses the case was dismissed.

Two sentences have been fused together into one.

C. Spliced: The prosecution could not present reliable witnesses, the case was dismissed.

Two sentences have been spliced together with a comma.

There are many possible solutions to both problems, fused sentences and comma splices.

Separate the two sentences that have been fused or spliced together using a period:

1. The prosecution could not present reliable witnesses. The case was dismissed.

Use a semicolon to separate them:

2. The prosecution could not present reliable witnesses; the case was dismissed.

3. The prosecution could not present reliable witnesses; therefore, the case was dismissed.

Add a subordinating conjunction (in 4, "so"; in 5, "Because"):

4. The prosecution could not present reliable witnesses, so the case was dismissed.

5. Because the prosecution could not present reliable witnesses, the case was dismissed.

11. Dangling Modifers: An introductory modifying clause modifies the subject of the main clause:

XX Stuffed and ready to go, Grandma put the turkey in the oven.

This sentence says that Grandma was stuffed and ready to go. It needs to be revised so that the modifying clause, "stuffed and ready to go," refers to the turkey rather than Grandma:

CC Stuffed and ready to go, the turkey was placed into the oven by Grandma.

That sentence is not particularly great stylistically and may need to be revised, but it now makes sense grammatically.

CC After stuffing it and covering it with butter, Grandma put the turkey in the oven.

The subject of the main clause, Grandma, is the one who performs the action of the verbs in the introductory modifying clause: she stuffs and covers the turkey.

12. Misplaced Modifiers:

XX John took a bath in the pond with the baby, covered with dirt from digging all day.

CC Covered with dirt from digging all day, John took a bath in the pond with the baby.

The modifying clause or phrase needs to be moved closer to the noun it modifies (above, "John") or it will seem to modify another noun ("baby").

13. Define your terms:

Do not quote a dictionary unless you are trying to establish what a word meant during another age. Define them indirectly:

General Zaroff is barbaric because of his willingness to murder without conscience.

Your reader now knows that, for you, being willing to murder is a sign of being uncivilized, "barbaric." It will probably take your whole essay to define "barbarism," and indeed, making you think about what we should mean by the words "barbaric" and "civilized" is one reason that the story, "The Most Dangerous Game," was written. An excellent essay would tease out of the text numerous attributes of the "barbaric" person.

14. Look at the subject, verb, and object of your sentence. In English, we cannot say, "The cows row green." The subject of the sentence (cows) cannot perform the action specified by the verb: cows cannot row boats! And the object of the sentence (green) is not a thing that the verb can perform its action upon: we row boats, not green! While all of this is easy to see when concrete language is being used (you would never write the sentence "cows row green"), sometimes when we are writing in abstract language, we forget to check the relationship between subject, verb, and object. For example:

He possessed love for her.

Love is not a thing that can be possessed. The sentence says nothing more (or less!!) than "he loved her." You may be reluctant to revise the above sentence because it feels as though that sentence says more than "he loved her." It doesn't say more, and it uses "possess" and "love" in ways that those words can't be used in our language.

15. Possessives: Add apostrophe 's' to the end of a singular noun to make it possessive, EVEN IF the noun itself ends in 's': "Charles's friends." You add only apostrophe for plural nouns ("the dogs' bowls"), so, if I were to write "Charles' friends," it would mean the friends of a whole lot of men, all of whom are named Charles.

16. Pronomial Possessives (that is, the possessives of pronouns): These possessives DO NOT take an apostrophe: hers, its, theirs, yours, ours. Remember that it's means "it is"; "The dog chased its tail because it's very playful."

17. Indefinite pronouns DO take an apostrophe: "one's rights," "somebody else's umbrella."

If you have seen recurring writing problems in students' writing that does not appear on this list, please email me at: mandellc@muohio.edu.