Comma splices: the two main causes

Comma splices: the two main causes

Image by TypoArt BS, Shutterstock

 

I was looking back through my grammar posts the other day when I made a rather startling discovery: in all my years of writing this blog, I had somehow neglected to write a piece covering the two major causes of comma splices.

I suspect that because I’ve given this explanation in a total of five books now, I took it for granted that I had covered both issues  in a single post, back in… oh, I don’t know… 2012 maybe? But apparently not.

Since this is among the most frequently tested concepts on the SAT and the ACT, an occasional target of questions on the GMAT, and a HUGELY common error in IELTS essays, I would count this omission among the greatest oversights in Critical Reader history.

So here goes. (more…)

Parallel structure with verbs: keeping track of forms

Parallel structure with verbs: keeping track of forms

Image by Charlotte May from Pexels

 

In theory, parallel structure is a relatively easy concept to master: it simply refers to the fact that items in a list, as well as constructions on either side of a conjunction such as and or but, should be kept in the same format (all nouns or all verbs).

In very simple sentences, e.g., I went to bed late but woke up early, this rule is generally quite simple to apply.

When sentences are long and contain a lot of information, however, things get a bit trickier. Keeping forms parallel requires the writer to keep track of and understand how words and phrases in different parts of a sentence relate to one another.

One very common issue involves the use of main verbs after modal verbs such as canshould, or might. As anyone who speaks English at a reasonably high level knows, main verbs are never conjugated in this construction, e.g., one would say it might work, not it might works. But when the two verbs are separated, there’s a common tendency forget about the first one and to stick an -s on the second.

This is an issue that appears in the writing of both native and non-native English speakers, but it’s particularly rampant in IELTS essays. It may also be tested in GMAT Sentence Corrections. (more…)

New! SAT/ACT and GMAT idiom lists

As part of my attempt to make thecriticalreader.com the official repository of all things related to SAT, ACT, and GMAT grammar, I’ve posted lists of preposition-based idioms for those tests. (For now, they’re the same as the ones in my SAT, ACT, and GMAT grammar books, but I will update them if I come across additional tests with other examples.)

For SAT/ACT idioms, click here.

For GMAT idioms, click here. (more…)

Bad passive voice advice from Strunk and White

Bad passive voice advice from Strunk and White

Although I can be a stickler for grammar (a tendency that I do my best to keep in check in non-teaching/blogging/grammar book-writing) life), there are nevertheless a handful of “rules” that I really and truly could not care less about. Among them are split infinitives (a ridiculous attempt to treat English like a purely Latin-based language that fails to take its Germanic roots into account); the use of “they” to refer to a singular noun when gender is not specified (no, “he” is not actually neutral, and seeing it used that way increasingly feels like an anachronism); and the prohibition against the passive voice.

The passive voice, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, involves flipping the subject and object of a sentence around to emphasize that an action was performed by someone/something, e.g “The man drank the water,” becomes “The water was drunk by the man.” It is also possible to omit the “by” part and simply say “The water was drunk,” the implication clearly being that it was drunk by someone.

On the SAT and the ACT, answers that contain passive constructions are almost always wrong, if for no reason other than that they tend to be unnecessarily wordy and awkward. And in fact, passive constructions are by definition wordier than active ones. The awkward part… Well, that’s up for debate.

The use of the passive voice is an issue that blurs the line between grammar and style; there are instances in which the passive creates wordy, awkward horrors, but there are also cases in which it is useful to create a particular emphasis. For example, most people would never even be tempted to say “The car keys were lost by my mother.” On the other hand, it sounds perfectly normal to say “The bill was passed by Congress yesterday” — the emphasis is on the fact that the bill went through.

I always assumed that the “no passive” rule was simply something that had been cooked up a couple of centuries ago by linguistic purists (much like the “no split infinitives rule”) and handed down from masters to disciples through the ages. In this case, however, “through the ages” means more like “since the 1950s,” more specifically since the popularization of The Elements of Style.

Now, I confess to having a soft spot for Strunk and White’s chef d’oeuvre. It was the first grammar book I used in high school  English class (we were handed copies in September and instructed to memorize it — progressive education this was not), and it introduced me to all sorts of wonders like non-essential clauses and the requisite semicolon before “however” at the start of a clause.

As I recently discovered, though, Strunk and White got some things wrong. As is, major, big-time, crash and burn wrong. (In my own defense, I haven’t looked at the book in years). I knew that some people had “issues” with the “little book” — to put it diplomatically — but I always wrote that off as a matter of personal taste. Then, a couple of days ago, I stumbled across Geoffrey Pullum’s delightfully titled Chronicle Review article “Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” in which the author takes it upon himself to enumerate the ways in which Strunk and White managed to mangle their explanation of the passive voice. Indeed, they barely understood it themselves.

As Pullum points out:

What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don’t know what is a passive construction and what isn’t. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard” is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors:

  • “There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.
  • “It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had” also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction.
  • “The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired” is presumably fingered as passive because of “impaired,” but that’s a mistake. It’s an adjective here. “Become” doesn’t allow a following passive clause. (Notice, for example, that “A new edition became issued by the publishers” is not grammatical.)

I’ve heard horror stories about college students getting marked down on papers because their TAs/professors mistakenly thought they had used the passive voice when that was not the case at all. (And at any rate, no one should get marked down just for using the passive voice.) It’s always a problem when people have knee-jerk reactions to concepts they don’t fully understand.

To be clear, though, I understand the pushback against the passive, especially on standardized tests. Standardized tests are, by nature, crude tools; their goal is to touch on the most common and misuses of various structures. I’ve read enough wordy, repetitive, marginally coherent SAT/ACT essays to  last a lifetime, and given that experience, I don’t have a problem with the tests’ perhaps overzealous approach. In this case, however, know that the rule is a little more flexible in real life. But try not to go crazy, or a hard time will undoubtedly be had by your readers.

What parts of speech can be subjects?

Nouns

Nouns are the most common type of subjects. They include people, places, and things and can be concrete (book, chair, house) or abstract (belief, notion, theory).

Example:  Bats are able to hang upside down for long periods because they possess specialized tendons in their feet.

 

Pronouns

Pronouns are words that replace nouns. Common pronouns include she, he, it, one, you, this, that, and there.

Less common pronouns include what, how, whether, and that, all of which are singular. They are typically used as part of a much longer complete subject (underlined in the second example below).

Example: They are able to hang upside down for long periods because they possess specialized tendons in their feet.

Example: How bats hang upside down for long periods was a mystery until it was discovered that they possess specialized tendons in their feet.

 

Gerunds

Gerunds are formed by adding -ING to the ends of verbs (e.g. read – reading; talk – talking). Although gerunds look like verbs, they act like nouns. They are always singular and take singular verbs.

Example: Hanging upside down for long periods is a skill that both bats and sloths possess.

 

Infinitives 

The infinitive is the “to” form of a verb. Infinitives are always singular when they are used as subjects. They are most commonly used to create the parallel structure “To do x is to do y.”

Example: To hang upside down for a long period of time is to experience the world as a bat or sloth does.

 

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.