PROBLEMS OF SENTENCE STRUCTURE
What I mind in modern society very much is the awful lack of grammar – Ruth Rendell
In this post my focus is on:
- Run-on sentences
- Sentence Fragments
- The Comma Splice.
- SAT: Subject-Verb Agreement
Good writing does not exist without good sentences, so the saying goes.
The structure of sentences can be a problem for students. You need to be able to identify and revise problem sentences so that your writing is technically correct.
When you are communicating in STANDARD English (as required for academic writing), sentences are used to convey a complete thought. As such, all sentences must have the correct grammatical elements and punctuation expected of English sentences.
This is not always the case as problems occur in:
A run-on sentence (also called a ‘fused sentence’) results when no punctuation or coordinating conjunction separates two or more independent clauses. A run-on sentence also occurs when only a comma is used to join two or more independent clauses.
In short, a run-on sentence is really two sentences that should be separated by some kind of punctuation mark but are not. Any run-on sentences are grammatically incorrect; as they read very badly and should be rooted out from your writing.
Ways to Avoid Run-on Sentences
- Form two sentences by using a period to separate independent clauses.
- Separate independent clauses with a semi-colon.
- Use a comma and coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, so, yet, for, so) to join two sentences.
- Make one clause subordinate by adding a subordinating conjunction.
Every complete sentence must have, at a minimum, a subject and an object. The sentence must also express a complete thought. If a sentence is lacking one of these three essential components, it is a sentence fragment.
Components of a Sentence
Every sentence must have at least three components to be considered a complete sentence:
- The sentence must express a complete thought – we need to know what it is about.
- The sentence must have a subject – a person or thing that the sentence is about. This is usually a noun or a pronoun.
- The sentence must have an action – a verb, something the subject of the sentence is doing.
Sentences can also have:
- Objects: Things that an action is performed on.
- Adjectives or adverbs: Descriptive words.
- Phrases or dependent clauses: Words that provide additional information to the reader.
Defining a Sentence Fragment
A fragment is a group of words that does not express a complete thought. In English grammar, a sentence fragment is a group of words that begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point but is grammatically incomplete.
A sentence fragment is a sentence that:
- Does not express a complete thought. Example: Joe is. This sentence is lacking a complete thought – Joe is “something” – but we don’t know what Joe is.
- Is lacking a subject. Example: Eating chicken. This sentence is lacking a subject – who or what is eating chicken?
- Is lacking an action. Example: A book without a cover. What about a book without a cover? Is the book doing something? Is someone doing something to the book? We don’t know, because there is no subject.
- Is a dependent clause, standing alone. Example: And I went to the store. The conjunction “and” makes this clause dependent. A dependent clause can’t stand alone, it needs to be attached to an independent clause
The appropriate correction for sentence fragments depends on what is lacking. The sentence can be corrected by adding in a subject, or verb, joining the dependent clause with an independent clause, or completing the thought.
In short, you need to add the necessary sentence parts to make a phrase fragment into a complete sentence with a subject and a verb.
For example, each of the sentence fragments listed above can be corrected:
- “Joe is” can be corrected by adding an adjective describing what Joe is being. For example, “Joe is smart.” The sentence now expresses a complete thought.
- “Eating chicken” can be corrected by adding a subject. “Anne is eating chicken.” “Eating chicken” could also become the subject. “Eating chicken is healthy.” In this second correction, the subject is eating chicken, and it is doing the action of being healthy.
- “A book without a cover” can be corrected by adding an action, and either a subject or object. “I am reading a book without a cover.” I is the subject, am reading is the action, a book becomes the object.
- “And I went to the store” can be corrected by joining the dependent clause with an independent clause. “I went to the movies and I went to the store.” I went to the movies is an independent clause, so the dependent clause is now joined to an independent clause.
Incorrect: John, being a friendly computer salesman and baseball fan.
Correct: John, being a friendly computer salesman and baseball fan, refused to argue.
(John–the subject–is doing something, namely, refusing.)
The Comma Splice
The comma splice is one of the most frequent mistakes made when using a comma. The comma splice occurs when a comma is used to connect two independent clauses.
In this example the two clauses make sense on their own. Connecting them with a comma is incorrect:
Jim usually gets on with everybody, he is an understanding person.
If you have two independent clauses that need to be separated, you have several choices:
You can make them into two sentences using a full stop. This is probably the easiest solution but may not be the best in terms of style or developing your argument.
Jim usually gets on with everybody. He is an understanding person.
You can use a semi-colon. Semicolons should not be overused but can be very powerful when used in the correct situations. In our example, using a semi-colon suggests a link between the two clauses without stating that link specifically. This can be a powerful tool in developing a convincing argument.
Jim usually gets on with everybody; he is an understanding person.
You can introduce a conjunction to connect the sentences. By doing this, you make the connection between the two more explicit.
Jim usually gets on with everybody because he is an understanding person.
Jim usually gets on with everybody, as he is an understanding person.
Mixed constructions often happen when you start a sentence with one grammatical structure and then switch to another.
INCORRECT: For most people who have pets live longer, happier lives.
How can you correct this sentence?
The above sentence seems to be going in one grammatical direction, but suddenly switches to another without warning. It can be revised in a few different ways:
CORRECT: For most people who have pets, life is longer and happier.
CORRECT: Most people who have pets live longer, happier lives.
Another instance of mixed construction is when the subject and the predicate of the sentence don’t make logical sense together.
INCORRECT: The court decided that the woman’s welfare was not safe with her abusive partner.
The woman is the one who should be safe, not the welfare. Revise:
CORRECT: The court decided that the woman was not safe with her abusive partner.
A much more specific mixed construction happens when an appositive and its noun do not agree.
Appositives are words or word groups that rename nouns.
INCORRECT: Doctors, an honorable profession, requires a great attention to detail and a lot of memorization.
Doctors are not a profession, medicine is. Revise:
CORRECT: Medicine, an honorable profession, requires a great attention to detail and a lot of memorization.
SAT: Subject-Verb Agreement
The subject is the noun or pronoun that indicates what the sentence is about.
In the SAT exam the following techniques are encouraged in order to ace the Writing and Language section:
1. Preposition and Prepositional Phrases
A preposition is any word (for example, in, at, for, among, between, under, . . . ) that indicates a relationship between a noun and another part of the sentence.
A prepositional phrase is made up of a preposition and a noun phrase as in the car; at the mall, to the shop, or under the table.
Key Technique: Eliminate all prepositional phrases. The subject will never be in a prepositional phrases. Prepositional phrases contain extra details that often mislead the reader. Thus, CROSSING THEM OUT makes it easier to identify the subject.
Here are some examples:
- The cars
in the lotare clean becomes The cars are clean.
of the girlsis visiting becomes One is visiting.
2. Interrupter – this is any detail positioned between two commas.
Key Technique: Always eliminate all interrupters. The subject will never be an interrupter. Interrupters contain extra details that often mislead the reader. Thus CROSSING THEM OUT makes it easier to identify the subject.
in addition to Mark and Zein, is coming to the reception becomes Omar is coming.
3. Tricky Singular – This is a singular word that sounds plural or is commonly misused as a plural.
Be on the look out for tricky singulars (neither, either, everyone, everybody, someone, somebody, anybody, each, on one, everything, little and much)
of the girlsis sick becomes Neither is sick.
of the rooms at the hotelis available becomes Either is available.
4. Tricky Plural – This is a plural word that sounds singular or is commonly misused as a singular.
Look out for tricky plurals (Plural/Singular: crisis/crises, data/datum, media/medium, phenomena/phenomenon, criteria/criterion, strata/stratum, spectra/spectrum, these/thesis, radii/radius, hypotheses/hypothesis, etc)
- The data
from the computerare on my disc becomes The data are on my disk.
- The criteria
for the assigned essayare very complex becomes The criteria are very complex.
5. Neither/Nor and Either/Or – Be on the look out for Neither/Nor and Either/Or phrases. Although neither and either are singular, when grouped with nor/or, the word that ends the phrases determine the verb.
Follow this formula:
- Either A or B – B determines the verb: Either John or Mary is right.
- Neither A nor B – B determines the verb: Neither Zed nor the Parkers are wrong.
6. Inverted Sentence – Here the verb comes before the subject in a sentence.
Just look out for anything inverted (verb/subject). Sentences that start with the word “there” and compound sentences that have more than one subject/verb combination tend to be inverted.
Simply un-invert (flip) the subject and verb as in
There is a cat in the house becomes The cat is in the house.
During the day there is ten cats in the garage becomes During the day, ten cats are in the garage.
7. Subject linked with AND – When subject nouns are linked with an AND, the subject is plural and so is the verb.
The house and the car were ruined by the hurricane.
Salma and Mariam eat chocolate all day.
This is a lot take at one go, so practicing will make things a lot easier. Good luck.
Still to come on Thursday, is Part Two of SIX lessons on ESSENTIAL STRATEGIES FOR REVISING PROBLEMS IN GRAMMAR AND STANDARD USAGE.
As of old: Be EMPOWERED and EXCEL.