Grammar Tips from a Sage Tutor

In editing my own work and in looking over many essays by other students as a Workshop tutor, I’ve noticed a few grammar errors that are especially pervasive. Based on my observations, I’ve recognized consistent mistakes in regards to plural agreement, ambiguous pronouns, misuse of passive voice, and semicolon misuse.

I seek to provide a simplified guide to staying away from these problems, all of which are easily avoidable. Certain websites and grammar guides, however, are comprehensive in regard to these rules and others, and I have listed several such sources at the end of the post.

Plural Agreement (subject/verb agreement)
When you are using a verb (such as “to be”), it must agree with the number or “count”i of the noun(s) whose action the verb specifies.

A common mistake:
The life cycle of butterflies, while seemingly mundane, are fascinating for entomologists. Microsoft Word won’t catch this error. The life cycle is what’s fascinating, not the butterflies or the entomologists.

So the sentence should read:
The life cycle of butterflies, while seemingly mundane, is fascinating for entomologists.

Ambiguous Pronouns
A pronoun takes the place of a noun. Used correctly, a pronoun always refers back to the most recently mentioned noun of the same type. Used incorrectly, a pronoun is ambiguous, which means that it doesn’t properly refer to its antecedent noun.

“The antecedent of a pronoun is the word the pronoun refers to,” writes Andrea A. Lunsford. “Pronouns and antecedents are generally said to agree when they match up in person, number, and gender.”ii

A common mistake:
Robert picked up Emily’s purse. Emily picked up her coat and put it on. He gave it to her.

Emily dealt with coat by herself; it’s the purse that Robert picked up.

The sentence should read:
Robert picked up Emily’s purse. He gave it to her. Emily picked up her coat and put it on.

Another common mistake:
Socrates mentored Plato, who taught Aristotle. He never suspected that he was building a powerful philosophical legacy.

Here, the “he” mistakenly refers back to Aristotle rather than Socrates.

The sentence should read:
Socrates—who mentored Plato, Aristotle’s teacher—never suspected that he was building a powerful philosophical legacy.

The em dashes, which cordon off the section of the sentence about Plato and Aristotle, are but one solution; any restructuring would be effective, as long as it made apparent the connection between “Socrates” and “he.”

Passive Voice
Passive voice is not a grammar problem, so perhaps it only belongs in discussions about style. But I’ve decided to include in here nonetheless.

In some types of writing, passive voice is acceptable, or even necessary (especially scientific writing, in which, at the sentence level, the subject is often irrelevant).

In writing about literature or about other topics in the humanities, however, passive voice often detracts from the quality of writing. Just as scientists both employ passivity to remove the actor (or in the case of some propagandists, to remove the linguistic basis for the idea of culpability), passive voice can remove the actors from sentences, but in a way that weakens them.

A common mistake:
The work of David Foster Wallace will continue to be discussed by scholars and readers for years and decades to come.

This sentence, while grammatically sound, is passive and weak. The sentence ought to read:
For years and decades to come, scholars and readers will continue to debate the work of David Foster Wallace.

Additional tip: “Do not shift between the active voice and the passive voice,”iii unless you have a very good reason to do so.

Semicolon Misuse
Semicolons have two purposes: taming lists (that contain lists within lists) and connecting related clauses. If a semicolon does not fit one of these roles, then it is an example of incorrect usage.

A common mistake:
Millet’s Grocers sells five flavors of lollipop; butterscotch, banana peel, vinaigrette, monkey brain, and strawberry.

Here, a colon, not a semicolon, would properly introduce this list:
Millet’s Grocers sells five flavors of lollipop: butterscotch, banana peel, vinaigrette, monkey brain, and strawberry.

For some lists, commas alone won’t do the trick. See how convoluted this ungrammatical list is:
From the first Pharaohs to Alexander the Great and the Ptolemaic dynasty, from the Romans to the Byzantines, from to the Persians to the Mamluks to the Ottomans to the British, through ethnic, demographic, cultural, religious, and technological shifts, Egypt has remained a politically, strategically, and economically important territory, and its residents, time and again, have been subject to all manner of direct and indirect rule by foreign, conquering or colonial powers.

Here, there are small lists within the broader list, which need to be subdivided by semicolons. This complex sentence is much clearer—and grammatically correct—when written like this:
From the first Pharaohs to Alexander the Great and the Ptolemaic dynasty; from the Romans to the Byzantines; from to the Persians to the Mamluks to the Ottomans to the British; through ethnic, demographic, cultural, religious, and technological shifts; Egypt has remained a politically, strategically, and economically important territory, and its residents, time and again, have been subject to all manner of direct and indirect rule by foreign, conquering or colonial powers.

A rule of thumb: unless semicolons are being used to demarcate lists within a list, one should always be able to correctly replace semicolons with periods.

“Use a comma, not a semicolon,” writes Lunsford, “to separate an independent clause from a dependent clause or phrase.

And with that, I conclude my quick tips!

While I hope these lessons were useful, I’m no grammar authority. You can—and should!—find all the facts on these three grammar sites:
www.uhv.edu/ac/grammar/subject1.aspx

owl.english.purdue.edu

grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar

For more grammar and style information, read The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White, in any of its various, widely-available editions/publications, or see Andrea A. Lunsford’s Easy Writer (New York/Boston: Bedford/Saint Martin’s, 2004). Both books, along with others on the subject, are available at Broad Street Books. The examples are my own (unless I have indicated otherwise).

-By Benjamin Soloway ’13

i Andrea A. Lunsford, Easy Writer: A Pocket Reference (New York/Boston: Bedford/Saint Martin’s, 2004), 162.
ii Lunsford, 82.
iii Lunsford, 103.
iv Lunsford, 78.

This entry was posted in Lessons and Guides and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Grammar Tips from a Sage Tutor

  1. Kelowna Thompson says:

    Inspirational blog. It is very helpful for human beings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *