Professor John Munro passed away on December 23, 2013. This site is maintained and kept online as an archive. For more infomation please visit the Centre for Medieval Studies
UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO http://www.economics.utoronto.ca/munro5/
In my handout entitled Grades on essays and the mid-year test: for Eco. 201Y1 and 3031Y, I provided a list of the most common faults on student essays & examinations, with the indication that those that were checked off in the following list apply either wholly or partially to the answer given in the student's paper or examination. This document may be found on-line on my Home Page: http://www.economics.utoronto.ca/munro5/GRADEXa.pdf
The final one, no. 8, states that: Your written English is deficient in one or more of the following:
Grammar and syntax (e.g. 'run-on' sentences, dangling modifiers), spelling, word usage, punctuation. While the grade is not primarily based on the quality of your English, bad writing nevertheless hinders my understanding of what you are trying to express; and bad writing will almost inevitably produce a lower grade.
Striving to write good English is not a matter of mere pedantry. For, in writing any essay, report, examination, etc., your objective must be to convince the reader of your arguments, with the greatest possible clarity. In achieving this objective you must also appeal to the reader's sympathies, i.e. you must elicit a favourable impression to maintain the reader's attention and interest in what you have to say. Even if you are reasonably clear and cogent in your writing, you are unlikely to maintain the readers' attention and sympathy if your writing is clumsy, ugly, or in other ways deficient.
So please take the following examples of bad English seriously; and strive to improve your written (and spoken) English.
1. DANGLING MODIFIERS:
A participle (a present or past-tense participle, serving an adjectival function) that is lacking the correct noun to be modified (described):
Example: Before discussing the Dutch advantages in early-modern northern commerce, it is important to understand the disadvantages to be found in the Dutch economy.
As written, the present participle 'discussing' modifies 'it'; and 'it' cannot do any discussing.
(1) Before discussing the Dutch advantages in early-modern northern commerce, we must first consider the disadvantages to be found in the Dutch economy. [Correct: 'discussing' properly modifies 'we', who do the discussing . But this is clumsy; and please keep personal pronouns out of your essay.]
OR: Before discussing the Dutch advantages in early-modern northern commerce, historians should first examine the disadvantages to be found in the Dutch economy. [Better, but still clumsy.]
(2) No analysis of the Dutch advantages in early-modern northern commerce can commence without a prior examination of the disadvantages. [Solution: get rid of the participle.]
Wrong: By prohibiting the manual exchange of foreign coins, so often debased and clipped, and by requiring that all commercial and financial transactions be effected through Wisselbank deposit accounts, perfect monetary stability was established in the Netherlands, with the scarce supply of silver reserved for the overseas trades. [Who or what did the prohibiting?]
Correct: The Wisselbank, by prohibiting the manual exchange of foreign coins, so often debased and clipped, and by requiring that all commercial and financial transactions be effected in bills through its deposit accounts, established perfect monetary stability within the Netherlands and thus more effectively ensured that the scarce supply of silver would be reserved for the overseas trades.
[Note as well the correct use of parallel structure in this complex sentence, in the manner explained below, in no. 3.]
2. RUN-ON SENTENCE:
Two principal clauses that are strung together without appropriate punctuation and/or conjunctions, thus forming two (or more) sentences that run confusingly together.
(1) The Dutch gained commercial and financial supremacy during the later sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries, however, they lost that supremacy to Great Britain during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Fault: confusing 'however' (adverb) with 'but' (conjunction); 'but' is the proper and only conjunction to be used in linking thee two principal clauses, which, however, should also be separated by a semi-colon, for better clarity.
Note: 'However' may be used as a conjunction, but only in one restricted set of circumstances, when 'however' means 'in whatever manner or way'. Thus: 'We can go however he likes' [in whatever manner he likes]. Normally, however, the word 'however' is an adverb and thus cannot and may not be used as a conjunction (i.e. meaning 'but').
Correct: The Dutch gained commercial and financial supremacy during the later sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries; but subsequently, during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they lost that supremacy to Great Britain.
(2) During the fifteenth century, the Dutch gained supremacy over the Hanseatic Germans in both the herring fisheries and the Baltic trades, many of the German Hanse towns then suffered slow but irredeemable decline. [Note how these two distinctly separate sentences run on together without the proper conjunction or proper punctuation.]
Four possible correct alternative forms:
(a) During the fifteenth century, the Dutch gained supremacy over the Hanseatic Germans in both the herring fisheries and the Baltic trades; and subsequently, many of the German Hanse towns suffered slow but irredeemable decline.
[The two principal clauses are properly separated by the conjunction 'and' and also by a semi-colon.]
(b) During the fifteenth century, the Dutch gained supremacy over the Hanseatic Germans in both the herring fisheries and the Baltic trades. Subsequently, many of the German Hanse towns suffered slow but irredeemable decline. [Two completely separate sentences.]
(c) During the fifteenth century, the Dutch gained supremacy over the Hanseatic Germans in both the herring fisheries and the Baltic trades, so that many of the German Hanse towns subsequently suffered slow but irredeemable decline.
[Convert the second principal clause into a subordinate clause introduced by the conjunction so that --- i.e. with the result that...]
(d) During the fifteenth century, the Dutch gained supremacy over the Hanseatic Germans in both the herring fisheries and the Baltic trades, while many of the German Hanse towns thereafter suffered slow but irredeemable decline.
[Similarly convert the second principal clause into an adverbial subordinate clause].
3. LACK OF PARALLEL STRUCTURE IN SENTENCE CONSTRUCTION:
The use of subordinate (relative) clauses and/or adverbial/adjectival phrases that are dissimilar or unequal in form, in modifying the verb in the principal clause:
Wrong: The Dutch gained supremacy in the northern herring trades, because they developed superior, much larger-scale, more efficient fishing boats, because of the fifteenth-century shift of the herring spawning grounds from Scania in the Baltic to the North Sea fishing grounds between the Netherlands and England, and also with the benefits derived from on-board salt-curing.
Correct: The Dutch gained supremacy in the northern herring trades, because they developed superior, much larger-scale, more efficient fishing boats; because such craft, during the much longer sea voyages, permitted and indeed necessitated on-board salt-curing, whose very rapidity greatly improved quality; and finally because, during the early fifteenth century, the spawning grounds shifted from Scania in the Baltic to the North Sea fishing grounds between the northern Netherlands and England.
Use either because [as a conjunction introducing a subordinate clause] or because of [as a preposition introducing an adverbial phrase], but not both forms together.
4. IMPROPER USE OF THE OVERWORKED CONJUNCTION 'AS':
Do not use 'as' to introduce a subordinate clause that follows the principal clause, when 'as' in that subordinate clause explains why: in the sense of 'because, since, for'.
Example: I opened the front door as the salesman was insistently pressing on the buzzer.
This can be confusing: does the sentence mean that I opened the door just as and at the very moment that the salesman was pressing on the buzzer? -- the only permissible form of 'as' in this particular construction; or, more likely, does it mean that I opened the door because the salesman was so insistently pressing on the buzzer? If the latter, the sentence is both confusing and inelegant.
5. CONFUSING PRINCIPAL AND PRINCIPLE:
6. USING GERUNDS (VERBAL NOUNS) WITH THE POSSESSIVE CASE.
A gerund is a verbal noun: a verb form acting as a noun, e.g. as the subject or object of the principal clause in a sentence. As such, any other noun or pronoun modifying that gerund must be in the possessive case [and not in the objective case, in the latter example]
Wrong: The Exchequer officials queried them submitting tax receipts that were so often carelessly compiled.
Correct but clumsy: The Exchequer officials queried their submitting tax receipts that were so often carelessly compiled. [What was queried was not the persons but the actual submission of the carelessly compiled tax receipts: the pronoun thus must be in the possessive case in modifying the gerund 'submitting'.]
Better: The Exchequer officials queried the submission of the tax receipts that they had so often carelessly compiled. [Change the gerund into a regular noun.]
7. DISTINGUISH BETWEEN 'DUE TO' AND 'BECAUSE OF': note that due is an adjective, while 'because of' is a preposition introducing an adverbial phrase.
The growth in English population from the 1740s was principally due to a change in nuptiality and thus in the birth rates. [Was, from 'to be', is a copula verb that may be modified by an adjective]
English population grew rapidly from the 1740s, principally because of a change in nuptiality and thus in the birth rate. ['principally due to' would be incorrect in this construction.]
8. AVOID CONTRACTIONS. Do not use the following: don't, isn't, wasn't, can't, it's, etc. Please note as well that it's is the contraction of 'it is', and not the possessive case of it.
9. 'DIFFERENT FROM' HAS NO PERMISSIBLE ALTERNATIVES: the ever so common 'different than' and less common 'different to' are simply wrong and unacceptable. Your views or actions, etc. cannot 'differ than' something else; they must differ from the others. Those who commit this dreadful solecism condemn themselves to inferior status as writers -- and worse!
Thus The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (ed. H.W. and F.G Fowler, 3rd edn. 1934, with many reprints) defines plausible: 'Of arguments, statements, etc.: specious, seeming reasonable or probable; of persons: fair spoken (usually implying deceit). [From L plausbibilis]'.
The Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1975 edn.) similarly states, for plausible: 'adj (L plausibilis: worthy of applause] 1: superficially fair, reasonable, or valuable, but often specious; 2: superficially or pleasing or persuasive; 3: appearing worthy of belief.'
More nuanced, perhaps in accordance with the current temper of the times, is The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (1998 edn.), which more curtly states, for plausible: 'of an argument, statement, etc., seeming reasonable, believable, or probable.' [But note the use of the word seeming.]
11. THE USE OF WHICH AND THAT, WITH APPROPRIATE PUNCTUATION, IN RELATIVE/SUBORDINATE CLAUSES: defining (restrictive) and non-defining (non-restrictive).
Since the vast majority of writers, including the vast majority of good writers, neglect to observe the following rule about 'defining' and 'non-defining' relative clauses, the failure to do so can hardly be considered a major sin, or indeed even an error. Since, however, at least two editors have rapped me on the knuckles for failing to observe this rule in the past, I have been forced to examine this rule more closely, and have thereby concluded that observing it does indeed add to clarity. Please do consider the following carefully, before condemning this advice as mere pedantry.
A defining relative (subordinate) clause is one that specifies that the noun so modified is unique (i.e. the only possible one); such a relative clause should be introduced by the conjunction 'that' (rather than 'which'), and it must not be separated by commas from the principal clause.
Example: The river that flows through London [England] is murky and turbid.
[The relative clause tells us specifically what river is meant, and indeed the only river meant in this context. Removal of the relative clause would make the sentence meaningless: The river is murky and turbid. We want to know specifically what river is meant by this criticism.]
A non-defining relative clause is one that merely adds additional but non-crucial information; it should commence with the conjunction 'which' (and not 'that') and it must be separated from the principal clause by the two commas.
Example 1: The English river Thames, which flows through London, is murky and turbid.
[By specifically naming this river, the author merely supplies additional but non-crucial or 'non-defining' information about the river; and removal of this relative clause in no way impairs the meaning of the sentence: The English river Thames is murky and turbid.]
Example 2: The Humber River that flows through metropolitan Toronto is quite polluted.
Explanation: This defining relative clause ensures that the European reader does not confuse this particular and little-known Humber River, in Canada, with the much better known Humber River in England.
Or: The Humber River, i.e. the one that flows through metropolitan Toronto, is quite polluted.
[Here the defining relative clause modifies the noun 'one'.]
Example 3: The same rules apply to the use of the relative conjunction 'who' and 'whose' in defining and non-defining relative clauses, viz:
The British military officer who defeated Napoleon became a duke: the famed 'Iron Duke' of Wellington.
Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), who received a peerage as the Duke of Wellington, for his victories over Napoleon, was Great Britain's greatest national hero in the nineteenth century.
The Duke of Wellington, whose peerage was the reward for his victories over Napoleon, was Great Britain's greatest national hero in the nineteenth century.
The British general whose peerage was earned in the Napoleonic Wars was Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who is perhaps better known as the Iron Duke.
See the following aids to improve your writing on my Home Page:
(1) The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn.: http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/oed/oed.html
(2) The Merriam-Webster OnLine Dictionary and Thesaurus: http://www.m-w.com/dictionary.htm
(3) Roget's Thesaurus: http://humanities.uchicago.edu/forms_unrest/ROGET.html
(4) The Human-Languages Page (iLoveLanguages): http://www.ilovelanguages.com/
(5) H.W. Fowler: The King's English: http://www.bartleby.com/116/index.html
(6) William Strunk: The Elements of Style: http://www.bartleby.com/141/
(7) Bartlett's Familiar Quotations: http://www.bartleby.com/100/
(8) Advice on Academic Writing at the University of Toronto:
Refer to the handout on writing terms essays, with the appendix on 'Major and common faults in English grammar and syntax,' for a further explanation of these terms.
RO Run-on sentence: a sentence containing two or more principal clauses (i.e. two sentences), without proper conjunctions (e.g. but) and punctuation (semi-colon or period). The most common version of this irritating fault is the improper use of 'however' as a conjunction, instead of the proper one, 'but'; and to do so with a comma, rather than the required semi-colon or period.
NAS Not a sentence. What you have written lacks a subject (noun) and/or a proper verb; and it is therefore just a phrase or a subordinate clause.
DM Dangling modifier: a participial phrase in which the participle (a verbal form with adjectival properties) does not properly modify or relate to the subject of the sentence. For example: "looking at his watch, the thought occurred to him that he was running late." Did the 'thought' look at his watch?
LPS Lack of parallel structure: see the aforementioned handout on English grammar. The most common example of this fault is to provide an explanation with a sequence of causes, using both 'because of' (adverbial phrase) and 'because' (conjunction introducing a subordinate clause).
FS Faulty syntax: other errors, as explained in the handout
GE Grammatical errors: e.g. subject (noun) and verb not in agreement; improper use of personal or relative pronouns
WU Improper use of words: wrong words; incorrect meaning
SP Spelling errors
PE Punctuation errors
PEWT Punctuation errors involving the use of which and that
AT Abrupt transitions: abrupt change in topics and/or ideas between paragraphs, without proper connectives and in particular without a proper topic sentence to link them.