03 April 2012

Adverbs and commas splices

At first glance, it might seem that adverbs and comma splices don’t have all that much to do with one another. On both the SAT Writing section and the ACT English section, however, they’re actually quite connected, even if the relationship isn’t particular obvious.

For those of you who need a quick review, comma splices are created when a comma is placed between two full sentences, and they can be fixed by replacing the comma with a semicolon or by adding a FANBOYS conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) after the comma.

For example:

Comma Splice: Gandhi rejected violence as a means of political revolt, he advocated peaceful protest instead.

Correct: Gandhi rejected violence as a means of political revolt; he advocated peaceful protest instead.

An adverb is a word that modifies a verb. You may be familiar with them from the infamous “adjective vs. adverb” error that appears in the Error-Identification section (e.g. John and Bob pulled the sled slow up hill, pausing only occasionally to catch their breath). For that section of the test, it’s usually enough to know that most adverbs end in “-ly.”

Now, most adverbs do in fact end in “-ly,” but not all of them do. And it’s the ones that don’t that tend to cause a lot of trouble when it comes to Fixing Sentences.

In order to recognize when a comma is being incorrectly placed between two sentences, you have to first be able to recognize when something is a sentence and when it isn’t. For a lot of test-takers, though, this is much harder than it sounds.

Most people have no problem recognizing that this is a sentence:

Sentence: Gandhi advocated peaceful protest.

But stick in an adverb (underlined below), and all of the sudden some people aren’t quite so sure:

Still a sentence: Gandhi advocated peaceful protest instead.

At this point, a lot of people will look at the sentence and say, “instead of what?” Because the sentence suddenly doesn’t make complete sense on its own, they mistakenly believe it can’t be a sentence anymore. Actually, though, it can and it is.

It even gets worse: move the adverb to the beginning of the clause, and a lot of people will simply have no idea whatsoever whether or not they’re dealing with a sentence:

Instead, Gandhi advocated peaceful protest.

This is still a sentence. It doesn’t matter whether it makes any sense out of context, OR whether the adverb comes at the beginning or the end; it’s still a stand-alone, grammatically correct sentence. And that means that it can’t have a comma before it — only a semicolon or a period.

Both the SAT and the ACT play with this concept a lot. They know that lots of high school students get confused by syntax and lose their ability to distinguish between sentences and fragments when adverbs are placed at the beginning of a sentences. Furthermore, if my own observations are any indication of things, they also know that this one of the top errors that high school students make in their own writing.

(Actually, it’s something I see adults do in their writing sometimes too, and that looks really bad). In this case, learning that placing an adverb at the beginning of a sentence doesn’t make it any less of a sentence can go a very long way toward making writing sound clearer and more polished and, well, more like something produced by someone not in high school.

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