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Grammar Tips: Unpack Your Adjectives

12 Jan

In writing, it is often important to be as clear and concise as possible, so that we can effectively communicate our point. Well, then how do we make sure that we are accurately describing, detailing, or relaying information to our readers? One way to do this is by mastering the use of adjectives. Adjectives are words that that describe or modify another person or thing in a sentence.

Adjectives describe nouns by answering one of three questions: What kind is it? How many are there? Which one is it? An adjective can consist of a single word, a phrase, or a clause. The articles – a, an, and the – are also adjectives. Clearly, there are many adjectives and ways to use them. It is important to understand how to use these adjectives in conjunction with our nouns and verbs to build clear, concise sentences. Let’s unpack some adjectives and see what they do:

Got home from camping last spring. Saw people places and things. We had barely arrived, friends asked us to describe the people, places, and every last thing. So we unpacked our adjectives. 

I unpacked “frustrating” first. Reached in and found the word “worst”. Then I picked “soggy”, and next I picked “foggy”, and then I was ready to tell them my tale because I unpacked my adjectives. 

From the beginning of the song, we can tell that our narrator went on a camping trip. If we understand that nouns and verbs establish who is doing what in this example, then we can easily use our three questions to identify our adjectives. It is also important to understand that adjectives nearly always appear immediately before the noun or noun phrase that they modify. Let’s take a look at describing the camping trip:

What kind is it?

What kind of camping trip was it? It was frustrating. What was frustrating? The camping trip. In this case, the narrator is using the word frustrating to describe how they felt about their camping experience. The camping trip was also soggy and foggy, and the narrator says it was the worst. All of these words are adjectives, and the narrator is using them to describe the camping trip. By using these words, the narrator can communicate their feelings and experience with their audience. The audience has the details necessary to effectively picture the narrator’s experience. Let’s keep going:

Adjectives are often used to help us compare things, to say how thin, how fat, how short, how tall. Girls who are tall can get taller, boys who are small can get smaller, ’til one is the tallest and the other’s the smallest of all.

We hiked along without care, then we ran into a bear. He was a hairy bear. He was a scary bear. We beat a hasty retreat from his lair and described him with adjectives. 

On their camping trip, the narrator ran into a bear. What kind of bear was it? It was a hairy bear and it was a scary bear. In this case, the narrator is using adjectives to clearly describe their subject, the hairyscary bear. They are also using adjectives to answer another question:

Which one is it? 

Which bear did the narrator run away from? The hairyscary bear with a lair. In this case, our adjectives are being used to identify the exact bear from the story (as opposed to hairless, happy bears without lairs). This use of adjectives can also help us describe subjects as a means of comparing them. As the song even says, adjectives can help us communicate “how thin, how fat, how short, [and] how tall”, and this allows us to compare and contrast subjects. For example:

Mary is tall. Sarah is taller than Mary. Angela is the tallest girl in the class. 

Who is taller, Mary or Sarah? We know from our adjectives that Sarah is taller than Mary. Which girl is the tallest? Again, we can see from our adjectives that Angela is the tallest girl in the class. In this case, we are using adjectives to express degrees of modification as a means of comparing the girls with one another. The degrees of comparison are categorized as comparative and superlativeComparative adjectives are used for comparing two things, while superlative adjectives are used for comparing three or more things. The initial adjective, in this case, is known as a positive adjective. Let’s break it down:

  • Positive: Tall
  • Comparative: Taller
  • Superlative: Tallest

Most adjectives can be transformed into comparative adjectives by adding -er to the end of the word. Similarly, most adjectives can be transformed into superlative adjectives by adding -est to the end of the word. It is important to avoid making comparatives or superlatives out of adjectives that already express an extreme of comparison (for example: unique). And like many things in the English language, there are also irregular comparatives and superlatives. For example:

  • Positive: Good
  • Comparative: Better
  • Superlative: Best

These adjectives function in the same way as our tall, taller, tallest example, as they are used as degrees of comparison. They are irregular because the form of the word is different from the standard format; we wouldn’t say “gooder” or “goodest”. It is also important to make sure that you do not use the word “more” with a comparative (-er) adjective, or the word “most” with a superlative (-est) adjective. It is improper to say that someone is “more taller” or the “most best”.

Now, we have one question left: How many are there? 

Numerical quantities can also function as adjectives. In this case, the numbers describe how many of a thing we are dealing with, and this can provide additional detail and insight for our audience. Let’s look at an example:

The mountainous pillow fort, which included seven pillows from the couch and two from Jamie’s bed, was the best fort Jamie ever built. 

Let’s start with our question: How many pillows are there? We can see from the sentence that there are seven pillows from the couch and two pillows from Jamie’s bed, which gives us a total of nine pillows. What other details can we find in this sentence? Well, what kind of a pillow fort was it? It was a mountainous pillow fort. And which pillow was it? It was the best pillow fort Jamie ever built.

Now that you have a basic understanding of adjectives, are you ready to test your knowledge? Try your hand at this quiz and see how many adjectives you can identify. As always, if you have any questions about adjectives, grammar, or any other writing element, please feel free to send us an email or schedule an appointment in the Writing Center! We’re always happy to help!

© Alyssa Ryan 


Grammar Tips: Conjunction Junction

5 Jan

A conjunction is a word used to connect clauses or sentences or to coordinate words in the same clause. Conjunctions are an important part of sentence construction because they help us connect ideas, but they can also help us avoid things like run-on sentences. Let’s learn a little bit more about conjunctions!

There are three different kinds of conjunctions: coordinating conjunctions, subordinate conjunctions, and correlative conjunctions. They all have different meanings and uses.

Coordinating conjunctions are the most common form of conjunctions and they are used to join things together. The conjunctions described in the Schoolhouse Rock video are coordinating conjunctions. Some examples include:

  • And: Adds one thing to another
    • Ex. Angela went to the movies and the mall.
  • Or: Presents an alternative or a choice
    • Ex. Do you want milk or water?
  • But: Shows contrast
    • Ex. I want to see the movie, but I don’t have time. 
  • So: Indicates effect, result, or consequence
    • Ex. Ben needs to study, so he’s going to the library. 
  • Yet: Introduces a contrasting idea that follows a preceding idea
    • Ex. Sarah always hurries, yet she is always late.

Subordinate conjunctions are often the most difficult to recognize because they always introduce a dependent clause. The clauses can go in any order, but in either order, the first word of the dependent (or subordinate) clause is the subordinating conjunction. Here are some examples from popular culture:

  • After: “You’ll only want me after you’ve gone.” 
  • Although: Although I’ve been here before, he’s just too hard to ignore.”
  • As long as: “I don’t care who you are as long as you love me.”
  • Because: “I’m everything I am because you loved me.”
  • If: If you leave me now, you’ll take away the biggest part of me.”
  • Once: Once you pop, you just can’t stop.”
  • Since: “I’ll never be the same since I fell for you.”
  • Unless: “We’re never going to survive unless we get a little crazy.”
  • When: When I see you smile, I can face the world.”

Correlative conjunctions function as “tag-team” conjunctions. Correlative conjunctions come in pairs and you have to use both of them in different places in a sentence in order to make them work. They are named because they work together (co-) and relate one sentence element to another. Some examples include:

  • As/As: Golf isn’t as interesting as football.
  • As many/As: There are as many chairs as there are students.
  • Both/And: Sam ordered both the couch and the matching pillows.
  • Either/Or: We’ll either go to the movies or the bookstore.
  • Neither/Nor: Tina wants neither the spaghetti nor the chicken.
  • No sooner/Than: I’d no sooner sing than dance. 
  • Rather/Than: Chris would rather lift weights than do yoga. 

Are you ready to test your skills with conjunctions? Click here for a basic quiz. If you have any questions or would like additional assistance with conjunctions, grammar, or any other writing task, please schedule an appointment in the Writing Center!

© Alyssa Ryan

Grammar Tips: The Apostrophe In Depth

8 Jun

Apostrophes seem to give people a lot of trouble. While we already know that the comma is the #1 most difficult punctuation mark to master, the apostrophe is a close second! Whether it is knowing when to use it or how to use it properly, it is important to understand the apostrophe in depth in order to master it and all of its uses.

In our last post on apostrophes, Grammar Tips: Avoiding the Apostrophe Catastrophe, we learned that an apostrophe (‘) has a few different uses: indicating the removal of a letter (such as when forming contractions), illustrating possession, and occasionally when forming a plural noun. First, check out this video on the apostrophe catastrophe, and then we will review the common uses of an apostrophe.

Removing a Letter 

One of the simplest uses of the apostrophe is to remove a letter from a word. A common example of this occurs when constructing a contraction. When constructing a contraction, the apostrophe is inserted in place of the removed letters.

It is going to rain tomorrow. 

With this example, we can make “it is” into a contraction by replacing the second i with an apostrophe. (Note, in this particular example, we only want to use an apostrophe when we are using the contraction “it’s” to replace “it is”. Its is the possessive form of it and does not require an apostrophe.

It’s going to rain tomorrow. 

It is important to note that many argue against using contractions in formal writing. In informal writing, you can also use an apostrophe to indicate a year with only the last two digits preceded by an apostrophe (example: ’80s).

Illustrating Possession

Indicating possession is one of the most common ways to use an apostrophe. That said, the placement of the apostrophe depends on who or what is doing the possessing. The easiest way to break it down is by single possessors and multiple possessors. With a single possessor, the possessive is formed by adding an apostrophe and s, whether the singular noun ends in s or not.

the dog’s bone 

the Jones’s house 

While this is by and large the rule for single possessors, there are a few exceptions. Use only an apostrophe (no s) for places or names that are singular but have a final word in plural form that ends with an s.

Beverly Hills’ skyline 

the United States’ capitol 

With plural possessors, the possessive is formed by adding only an apostrophe when the noun ends in s, and by adding both an apostrophe and s when it ends in a letter other than s.

children’s toys 

the girls’ volleyball team 

It is also important to consider joint and individual possession. Joint possession is indicated by a single apostrophe for both possessors, while individual possession requires apostrophes for each possessor.

Michael and Ashley’s boat (joint possession)

China’s and Japan’s economies (individual possession)

Forming Plural Nouns 

The apostrophe is occasionally used to form plural nouns. This is one of the most common misuses of an apostrophe. An apostrophe should not be used to make every noun or verb plural; in fact, it is very rare that you will use an apostrophe to make anything plural! Many places where we may want to put an apostrophe do not need an apostrophe at all. For example:

Ever since the 1970’s, the Thomas’s have driven their car’s to the beach on Saturday’s (incorrect)

Ever since the 1970s, the Thomases have driven their cars to the beach on Saturdays (correct)

In the above example, it may be tempting to add an apostrophe to any of the situations (1970s, Thomases, cars, Saturdays), however, none of those words require an apostrophe. That said, the apostrophe is used to form some plural nouns. This happens when certain abbreviations, letters, or words are used as nouns. For example:

Michael received three A’s and B’s last semester. 

It’s always important to cross your t’s and dot your i’s. 

General Do’s and Don’ts 

  • Do use an apostrophe to indicate possession.
    • For example: That is John’s book
  • Do use an apostrophe to form a contraction.
    • For example: We can’t find the gym.
  • Do use an apostrophe to form the contraction “it’s”, but only if you are intending to say “it is”.
    • For example: It’s going to rain soon.
  • Do use an apostrophe with a possessive name ending in s.
    • For example: Charles’ cat.
  • Do not use an apostrophe to show something is plural.
    •  For example: The kittens were cute.
  • Do use an apostrope to show a single letter word is plural.
    • For example: There are two t’s in kitten.

Using apostrophes correctly can be a challenge! By keeping these rules in mind and practicing, you can master your use of the apostrophe. Are you ready to test your skills? Try them out with this quiz! If you have any questions regarding apostrophes or any other writing matter, please feel free to Schedule an Appointment in the Writing Center!

© Alyssa Ryan 

Grammar Tips: Understanding Subject/Verb Agreement

20 May

When writing a sentence, it is important for the subject and the verb to be in agreement with one another. In a sentence, the subject of the sentence is the person, place, thing or idea that is doing or being something. Typically, you can find the subject of a sentence if you can find the verb. Verbs are ‘doing’ words. A verb can express a physical action, mental action, or a state of being. If you ask “Who or what ‘verbs’ or ‘verbed’?”, you should be able to locate the subject. The next step is making sure that the subject and the verb are in agreement with one another.

The basic principle for subject/verb agreement is as follows:

  • Singular subjects need singular verbs
  • Plural subjects need plural verbs

For example:

  • The cat is black.
  • The dogs are large.

In both examples, the subject is italicized and the verb is bolded. In the first example, the subject includes only one cat, so a singular verb is used. In the second example, the subject includes multiple dogs, so a plural verb is needed.

There basics of subject/verb agreement:

  1. Some indefinite pronouns are always singular. They will always receive singular verbs.
    1. Singular Indefinite Pronouns: Anyone, Someone/Somebody, Everyone/Everybody, No one, Nobody
    2. Example: Someone had baked a cake.
  2. Some indefinite pronouns are singular or plural depending on what they are referring to.
    1. Singular or Plural Indefinite Pronouns: All, Some
    2. Example: All of the bread is gone.
      1. In this example, ‘all’ refers to a singular loaf of bread, so it requires a singular verb.
    3. Example: Some of the kittens are sleeping.
      1. In this example, ‘some’ refers to numerous kittens, so it requires a plural verb.
  3. The pronouns Neither and Either are singular and will always receive singular verbs.
    1. Example: Neither of the sisters knew how to get to the park.
    2. Example: Either flavor is fine with me.
  4. Sometimes, the subject may follow the verb.
    1. Remember, There/Here are never subjects.
    2. Even if it follows the verb, a singular subject requires a singular verb and a plural subject requires a plural verb.
    3. Example: Here are three students waiting for lunch.
      1. Three students is the subject of the sentence; a plural subject requires a plural verb.
    4. Example: There is no other explanation.
      1. The subject of the sentence is singular, therefore it requires a singular verb.
  5. Some words/subject may end in ‘s’ but may be singular. They will take singular verbs.
    1. Example: The news from the other side was bad.
      1. Although the subject, the news, has an ‘s’ ending, the subject refers to one source of news and it is therefore singular. It requires a singular verb.

Are you confident in your Subject/Verb Agreement knowledge? Test your skills by taking this quiz!

Do you have grammar questions? Are you having difficulty with your writing? Schedule an appointment in the Writing Center today! We are here to help you with any writing question – no matter how small!

© Alyssa Ryan 

Transitional Words & How to Use Them

22 May

Transitional words are an easy and concise way to explain to a reader what the relationship is between thoughts, paragraphs, and sentences. Different situations require different transitions, and there are different transitional words to suit these different tasks. Below is a list of some transitional words:

  • To ADD:
    • Also, and, then, as well, besides, beyond that, first (second, third, last), for one thing, furthermore, in addition, moreover, next
    • For instance, in other words, that is
    • Also, as well, both, in the same way, likewise, similarly, like, as
    • Although, be that as it may, but even though, however, in contrast, nevertheless, on the contrary, on the other hand, whereas, yes
    • Certainly, granted that, no doubt, of course
    • Above all, especially, in fact, in particular, indeed, most important, most of all, surely
    • As a case in point, as an illustration, for example, for instance, in particular, one such, yet another
    • Above, next to, beside, below, beyond, further, here, inside, nearby, next to, on the far side, outside, to the east (north, south, west)
    • After a while, afterward, at last, at present, briefly, currently, during, eventually, finally, first (second, third, last), gradually, immediately, in the future, later, meanwhile, now, recently, soon, suddenly, today, yesterday
    • Perhaps
    • As, because, for, since
    • And so, as a consequence, as a result, because of this, consequently, for this reason, hence, so, therefore, thus
    • All in all, finally, in brief, in conclusion, in other words, lastly, on the whole, to sum up

Now, how do we use these transitional words? Let’s walk through a few different examples:

  • You have to write an argument essay. You need to include three or four supporting points in favor of your argument, and you want to make sure to transition carefully between each supporting point so that your reader seamlessly follows your argument. After introducing your argument in your introduction (complete with a concrete thesis statement), you could introduce your different body paragraphs with a transitional word, like “First”, “Second”, “Third” and so on.
  • You have to write a report detailing the steps that you performed to achieve a desired outcome. In order to make sure that your reader is able to follow along with your discussion of the steps that you performed, you can use transitional words to move from one body paragraph to another. You could use words like “First”, “Second”, “Third” and so on, but you could also use words like “Afterward”, “Briefly”, etc., to illustrate the process.
  • You have to write a final essay for class where you illustrate and summarize what you have learned this semster. You would want to begin with a strong introduction, of course, and then progress into your illustration in your body paragraphs. At this point, you would likely reflect on a concept that you learned, and include an example to illustrate it. To transition into that example, you could use “For example,” “For instance”, and so on. Then, when you reach your conclusion, you would likely want to summarize your overall experience. Here, you could use transitional words to help you, including “All in all,” “Finally,” “Lastly”, etc.  

Grammar Tips: Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs

10 Apr

As of January 1, 2014, the Global Language Monitor estimated that there are 1,025,109 words in the English language, with nearly 15 words added every day. With such a large number of words, it is understandable that there would be many words that are similar in how they are spelled and how they sound. Today, we are going to talk about some of those words. First, we will break these similar words down into three categories: homonyms, homphones, and homographs.

  • Homonyms: words that are spelled and pronounced the same but that have multiple meanings.
  • Homophones: words that sound alike but that are spelled differently and have different meanings.
  • Homographs: words that have the same spelling, but different pronunciations, and different meanings.

 Now, let’s break it down.


Our definition above tells us that homonyms are words that are spelled and pronounced the same, but that have multiple meanings. Homonyms are also known as sound-alike words (because they sound the same when we speak them). Let’s take a look at an example:

  • The driver turned left and left the parking lot.

In this case, both uses of left are spelled and pronounced the same, but they are used differently in the sentence. The first instance of left (“the driver turned left”) indicates a direction, while the second instance of left (“and left the parking lot”) indicates a departure from the parking lot. Click here for a list of true homonyms.


As our definition above tells us, homophones are words that sound the same, but that are spelled differently and have different meanings. Homophones often sound the same, like homonyms, but remember, their spelling is different. Let’s take a look at a common example involving to, two, and too:

  • I wanted to take two chocolates home so my sister could have one too.

In this case, we have three different words with three different meanings and spellings, but they are pronounced the same way. In order to know which word to use in which place in the sentence, we have to know which meaning to pair with the proper spelling. For example:

  • To: A preposition before a noun, or an infinitive before a verb
  • Two: spelling out the number 2
  • Too: Also

So, in the above sentence, take is a verb, and we use to as an infinitive before it. We have 2 chocolates, and if we replace the word two with the number 2, our sentence would still make sense. Since our sentence is showing that we want a chocolate for ourself and we also want one for our sister, we need to use too at the end of our sentence to illustrate that. Click here for a list of homophones.


Lastly, as our definition above explains, homographs are words that are spelled the same, but that have different pronunciations and different meanings. These words are very confusing because although they are spelled the same, they are pronounced differently, and should be used differently. This is more of a problem with spoken English than with written English, as the spellings are the same when we write them down. Let’s take a look at an example:

  • After she used her bow to shoot the arrow through the apple, Cindy took a bow.

In the above example, the first use of the word bow is referring to the object that Cindy is using to shoot the arrow. The second use, though, does not indicate that Cindy took another physical bow to have two bows for shooting arrows. Instead, Cindy is bowing before the audience because she has completed her task. While the two words are spelled the same in the sentence, they would be pronounced differently, and in pronouncing them differently, we can easily illustrate and imply their different meanings. Click here for a list of homographs.

Grammar Tips: That vs. Which

27 Mar

When should you use ‘that’ in a sentence? When should you use ‘which’ in a sentence? Can you swap them in and out with no worry? These are just some of the questions that arise when structuring sentences and choosing the correct word. Many people struggle with deciding when to use ‘that’ and when to use ‘which’ and a lot of this has to do with our understanding of conversational English. That said, there are a few things that you can keep in mind to help guide you to the correct word choice.

First, there is a rule that you can follow for some general guidance:

  • Which is used to introduce a non-restrictive (or parenthetical) clause
  • That is used to introduce a restrictive clause

Well, what does that mean? Basically, a restrictive clause is something that is essential or that provides essential information within the sentence, and a non-restrictive clause is something that can be left out of the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence (hence why it is also considered a parenthetical clause; parenthetical asides can be removed from the sentence without altering the meaning of the sentence). For example:

  • Cars that do not have fuel will not run.
  • Cars, which may experience many issues, need fuel to run.

With the first example, the clause beginning with that (“that do not have fuel”) provides essential information that is necessary for our understanding of the sentence. If we remove this clause, we would have a complete sentence (“Cars will not run”), but we do not know which cars will not run (those without fuel).

With the second example, the clause beginning with which (“which may experience many issues”) can be removed from the sentence without greatly altering the meaning of the sentence (“Cars need fuel to run”). The non-restrive clause in this sentence only provides us with extra information about the cars; this information is not necessary for our understanding of the main idea.

Using that and which properly in our writing can bring clarity for our readers. Changing that to which (or which to that) can alter the meaning of our sentence and this can be confusing for our readers.