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Basic Writing Skills Guide Sheet

A. Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling:

1.) SENTENCE BOUNDARIES


2.) VERBS


3.) ELIMINATE DANGLING AND MISPLACED MODIFIERS

4.) PRONOUNS


5.) PUNCTUATION:

6.) SPELLING ERRORS/MISUSED WORDS:


B. Style/Diction Guidelines:

7.) STYLE/DICTION:

Grammar and Punctuation:

1.) SENTENCEBOUNDARIES

(a.)Eliminatefragments. A sentence must have a subject and verb in order to be complete, and must be an independent clause. Note that the subject must be DOING the action of the verb, and the verb must be complete.
WRONG Talking to all the players. 
The nurse smiling at the patient. 
While the customs official was looking in the trunk. 
RIGHT Fred was talking to all the players. 
The nurse was smiling at the patient. 
While the customs official was looking in the trunk, the driver acted nervous. 
(b.) Eliminaterun-ons: A fused or run-on sentence joins two independent clauses without punctuation. If you place a comma between two independent clauses, the error is then called a comma splice (see also 5a)
WRONG Thomas wrote the paper in ten minutes Linda read it for half an hour. 
I have lived in Plymouth for as long as I can remember I cannot imagine what it would be like not to live near a beach. 
RIGHT Thomas wrote the paper in ten minutes. Linda read it for half an hour. 
I have lived in Plymouth for as long as I can remember; I cannot imagine what it would be like not to live near a beach. 

2.) VERBS

(a.) Ensuretense agreement and consistency. If you begin a sentence in the past tense, for example, you need to keep writing in that tense unless a logical reason in the meaning of the sentence demands a switch.
WRONG George honks the horn angrily, bringing William to the door. He came down the sidewalk at a stroll. Before we know it we will be driving down the highway, on our way to get a burger. 
RIGHT George honks the horn angrily, bringing William to the door. He comes down the sidewalk at a stroll. Minutes later we're driving down the highway on our way to get a burger. 
(b.) Ensure subject-verb agreement. The subject and verb must agree in number--either singular or plural. The subject and verb must also agree in person--first, second, or third person.

WRONG Neither he nor they wants to join the army. 
Neither they nor he want to join the army. 
RIGHT Neither he nor they want to join the army. 
Neither they nor he wants to join the army. 
WRONG Everybody in the group are coming to the party. 
RIGHT Everybody in the group is coming to the party. 
WRONG The problem caused by stray dogs or cats and aggravated by callous owners seem to bother the City Council. 
RIGHT The problem caused by stray dogs or cats and aggravated by callous owners seems to bother the City Council. 

(c.) Use the literary present. The convention in writing about literature or art is that the activities within a text, painting, or film are still happening in a continuous present. They are NOT events in history.
WRONG Hamlet was very confused by his mother's remarriage. 
RIGHT Hamlet is very confused by his mother's remarriage. 

(d.) Use the active voice whenever possible. In the active voice, the subject actively DOES something. The active voice is usually more direct, natural, and economical than the passive. With the passive voice, confusion can more easily occur; it isn't always clear exactly WHO is doing WHAT. (Obviously at times the passive voice is inevitable, or can help underscore passivity: "the man was mugged in the subway," for example, emphasizes something done TO him).

(e.) Use a singular verb with: someone, no one, everyone, everybody, each, either, neither, nobody. See 2/b/2 above.
WRONG Each of us want to go to the Renaissance Faire. 
RIGHT Each of us wants to go to the Renaissance Faire 

3.) ELIMINATEDANGLING AND MISPLACED MODIFIERS

If you begin a sentence with a participial phrase, the SUBJECT which that participle is describing (modifying) has to follow immediately in the sentence. In general, modifiers--words which explain and describe--must be placed clearly so that your reader can tell what they are describing or modifying.
WRONG By schools assigning acceptable financial aid packages to their applicants, a great number of positive outcomes may result. 
The customer returned the VCR to the store with the broken rewind. 
RIGHT In assigning acceptable financial aid packages to their applicants, schools can help students who need an education. 
The customer returned the VCR with the broken rewind to the store. 

4.) PRONOUNS

(a.) Ensureagreement of pronouns with antecedents. If you are using a pronoun to refer to a previous noun, make sure you use a plural pronoun to refer to a plural noun, and a single pronoun to refer to a singular noun.

Remember that singular pronouns require pronoun references: another, anybody, anything, each, each other, either, everything, neither, nothing, somebody, someone, whoever are all singular, and so require singular references (his/her not their).
WRONG Everyone is responsible for their own actions. 
When the reader is finished with the article, they are aware of the problem. 
RIGHT Everyone is responsible for his or her own actions. 
When the reader finishes with the article, he or she is aware of the problem.
OR:When readers finish with the article, they are aware of the problem. 

(b.) Ensure consistency of pronouns within sentences/paragraphs. If you begin a sentence referring to "a woman," don't refer to that subject with a plural pronoun like "they." Keep consistent and remember that pronouns referring back to your subject must be singular if the subject is singular, plural if the subject is plural.
WRONG When a woman sees someone in the class willing to do all the talking, she either finds it unnecessary to join the discussion or they worry about appearing foolish. 
RIGHT When a woman sees someone in the class willing to do all the talking, she either finds it unnecessary to join the discussion or she worries about appearing foolish. 

(c.) Ensure clear pronoun reference. Pronouns should refer specifically to a preceding antecedent, a specific noun or pronoun. DO NOT use pronouns which have no clear reference. DO NOT use pronouns like "this" or "that" to refer to a cluster of complicated preceding ideas.
WRONG The tourist photographed the garden, but it was blurred 
The student was given a mild warning and was not punished. This says something about the inconsistency of the college judiciary system. 
RIGHT The tourist photographed the garden, but the snapshot was blurred. 
The student was given a mild warning and was not punished. This lack of punishment illustrates the inconsistency of the college judiciary system. 

(d.) Eliminategender-specific language by using either plural or "his/her." In the past, "he" was considered to refer to "human" (as in "each student should bring his test to the front of the room"). Today, such a sentence form seems to exclude women, and it is preferable to use the plural form, or to say "he/she."
WRONG Each student should revise his paper before handing it in. 
RIGHT Each student should revise his or her paper before handing it in.

OR:

All students should revise their papers before handing them in. 

5.)PUNCTUATION:

(a.) Eliminatecomma splices: A comma splice is another error in sentence boundaries. When you join two independent clauses with a comma, you have "spliced" what are really two separate sentences. You "fix" comma splices either by punctuating the clauses as two separate sentences or, in some cases, with a semi-colon.
WRONG Joey asked Maria to the dance, unfortunately, she had already agreed to go with Bill. 
In today's society college is an experience that most people must accomplish, however, few can afford to pay for it in full. 
No longer will students be dependent upon a single teacher's opinion, instead they will be open to all sorts of information. 
Students will no longer be fulfilled by current teaching practices, they will want access to more information and the ability to obtain it in more efficient manner. 
RIGHT Joey asked Maria to the dance; unfortunately, she had already agreed to go with Bill 
In today's society college is an experience that most people must accomplish. However, few can afford to pay for it in full. 
No longer will students be dependent upon a single teacher's opinion. Instead, they will be open to all sorts of information. 
Students will no longer be fulfilled by current teaching practices. They will want access to more information and the ability to obtain it in more efficient manner. 

(b.) Do not use commas withrestrictive "that," "which" or "who " clauses. It's generally best to remove all commas unless they are specifically called for (see 5 c and d). Note: a restrictive clause is a clause that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. A clause = a group of words containing both a subject and a verb.
WRONG The wine, that my grandfather makes, tastes delicious. 
The Mauna Loa which erupted last night is a volcano in Hawaii. 
Actors, who do not know their lines, cannot be expected to turn in a good performance. 
RIGHT The wine that my grandfather makes tastes delicious. 
The Mauna Loa, which erupted last night, is a volcano in Hawaii. 
Actors who do not know their lines cannot be expected to turn in a good performance. 

(c.) Use commas beforecoordinating conjunctions with independent clauses. If you are joining two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, for, nor, so, yet) you need a comma BEFORE the conjunction. DO NOT put the comma after the conjunction unless the conjunction is followed by a parenthetical phrase.
WRONG The early records of the city have disappeared and the story of its early years cannot be reconstructed. 
The situation is serious but if we work together we can find a solution. 
He tells students to put the comma BEFORE a conjunction but, sometimes they do it wrong. 
RIGHT The early records of the city have disappeared, and the story of its early years cannot be reconstructed. 
The situation is serious, but if we work together we can find a solution. 
He tells the students to put the comma BEFORE a conjunction, but sometimes they do it wrong. 

(d.) Use commas to set offintroductory elements. If you are opening a sentence with an adverb clause, a prepositional phrase, a modifier, or a participle, use a comma after the introductory element.
WRONG Whenever James visits Russia he dreams of Lenin. 
Even with a sprained ankle the girl was able to swim the lake. 
Playing middle linebacker Kirk made nine unassisted tackles. 
RIGHT Whenever James visits Russia, he dreams of Lenin. 
Even with a sprained ankle, the girl was able to swim the lake. 
Playing middle linebacker, Kirk made nine unassisted tackles. 

(e.) If you are listing three or more items in aseries, use a comma between them.
WRONG Sam ordered eggs, donuts and juice for breakfast. 
The carrots were old, brown warm and spotted. 
RIGHT Sam ordered eggs, donuts, and juice for breakfast. 
The carrots were old, brown, warm, and spotted. 
(f.) Punctuate quotations correctly In citing quotes, a comma or period goes INSIDE the quotation mark. If you are providing parenthetical citations, the quotation mark goes after the quote and BEFORE the parentheses; the comma or period goes AFTER the parentheses.
WRONG According to Shakespeare, "All the world's a stage". 
She analyzed "the increased stress in the workplace." (Smith, p. 23) 
RIGHT According to Shakespeare, "All the world's a stage." 
She analyzed "the increased stress in the workplace" (Smith 23). 
NOTE: For a more comprehensive list of comma rules, consult this other site.

(g.) Punctuatetitles properly: A book title is EITHER underlined or italicized--never both. A poem or short story title or magazine article is put in quotation marks.

Examples:
h.) Eliminate errors incapitalization. The first letter in the first word in each sentence is capitalized. Proper nouns and adjectives are capitalized. Names of languages (e.g. English, German) are capitalized. Course titles, department names, and names of schools are capitalized. If you have any questions, check a dictionary.

(i.) Eliminate errors in punctuating forpossession. Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's: Bill's employer, Oates's novel, week's worth of groceries. Do the same for indefinite pronouns: no one else's fault, one's debts.

6.) SPELLING ERRORS/MISUSED WORDS:

The following words are consistently misused and/or confused. If you have any question, check the dictionary. And remember that spell check will NOT identify these errors; the words may be properly spelled but improperly used in a sentence. Remember, by the way, that the apostrophe is used for possession, NOT for plurals.

accept/except (accept is the verb, except is the adverb)

affect/effect (affect is the verb)

a lot (not "alot")

its/it's (Remember: it's only means "it is"; its is the possessive form of "it")

lose/loose ("You will lose your keys" vs. "He has a screw loose somewhere.")

receive (Remember the spelling rule: "I before E except after C")

than/then (as in "She is better at softball than you" vs. "She then hit the ball off the wall.")

here/hear

they're/their/there (as in "They're going there with their buddies from high school.")

to/two/too (as in "This is too easy a job for the two of us to do.")

woman/women (woman is never the plural form)


B. Style/Diction Guidelines:

7.)STYLE/DICTION:

(a.) Eliminate wordiness. In the words of Strunk and White,

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."
This means to remove unnecessary phrases ("in appearance," "now in this day and age"), qualifiers ("I believe," "In my opinion"), and redundancies ("because of the fact that," "for the purpose of").
WRONG Young Fenton, I think it is perfectly clear, is too bright in terms of intelligence to leave college. 
RIGHT Young Fenton is too intelligent to leave college. 

(b.) Reduce use of passive verbs. See also 2d.
WRONG An education shouldn't be just sitting in a classroom and learning information, just so that an exam can be passed. 
RIGHT An education shouldn't be just sitting in a classroom and learning information, so that a student can simply pass an exam. 

(c.) Limit use of "to be" and weak verbs ("seems"). You can generally improve the effectiveness of a sentence by substituting active, forceful verbs for ineffective forms of the verb "to be."
WRONG Dr. Minturn is on a continual search for new ways to treat for cancer. 
The author is able to make us care about the main character. 
RIGHT Dr. Minturn constantly searches for new ways to treat cancer. 
The author makes us care about the main character.

(d.) To further improve clarity in your sentencing, preferpeople or agents as your main sentence subjects An "agent" is a person, an organization, anything that can perform an action. Stay away from using sentence subjects that name abstractions or processes.
WRONG Animals being used as surrogates for human beings in biomedical research creates strong objection. 
Medieval theological debates often addressed issues that to modern philosophical thought are considered trivial. 
RIGHT Animal rights activists strongly object to using animals in biomedical research as surrogates for human beings. 
Medieval theologians often debated issues that modern philosophers consider trivial.