Tag Archives: grammar

Breaking It Down: Sarah Palin’s English

4 Feb

As we move closer to identifying and electing the next president of the United States of America, the media is aflutter with speeches from the various candidates and their supporters. One of the most discussed speeches in the last month was Sarah Palin’s endorsement speech for presidential hopeful Donald Trump.

While Palin’s style of public speaking has been fervently discussed, with reporters and media personalities frequently commenting on her often puzzling phrasings, a close look at this recent speech reveals that Palin’s speaking style is a bit more complicated than it may seem. As New York Times opinion blogger Anna North notes in her recent piece, Sarah Palin’s English, Palin frequently uses two different grammatical elements – dependent clauses and participial phrases – albeit in unique ways.

Well, what does that mean? Let’s break it down.

A dependent clause is a clause that provides an independent clause with additional information, but which cannot stand alone as a sentence. It can either modify an independent clause with additional information or serve as a component of it. It cannot stand alone as a complete sentence because it does not express a complete thought.

  • For example: The students completed the worksheet, which was found in their textbook. 

In this example, the bolded phrase “which was found in the textbook” is our dependent clause. The first part of our sentence, “The students completed the worksheet“, could stand on its own as a complete sentence. It is our independent clause. The dependent clause, “which was found in our textbook“, provides additional information about the worksheet the students completed, but, because it is not a complete thought, it cannot stand on its own as a complete sentence.

Now, what about Palin? In her speech endorsing Donald Trump, she states: “He is one who would know how to negotiate, our own G.O.P. machine, the establishment, they who would assemble the political landscape.” In this case, Palin’s independent clause is “He is one who would know how to negotiate,” and it could stand alone as its own sentence. The rest of the sentence, “our own G.O.P machine, the establishment, they who would assemble the political landscape“, is a dependent clause, as it provides additional information about those Trump would know how to negotiate with, but it could not stand alone as a complete sentence because it is not a complete thought.

Palin also frequently uses participial phrases. A participial phrase is a word group consisting of a present participle (-ing form) or a past participle (-en form) plus any modifiers, objects, and complements. A participial phrase commonly functions as an adjective, and we know that adjectives are used to describe things.

  • For example: Quickly checking his answers, the student submitted his exam

In this example, we see a present participial phrase. “Quickly checking his answers” functions as an adjective within this sentence, as it describes the student’s actions as he submitted his exam. Similar to our dependent clauses, this present participial phrase cannot stand on its own and requires the rest of the sentence in order to be understood, whereas “the student submitted his exam” could function as a complete sentence.

And in Palin’s speech? She uses participial phrases frequently, but in different ways. In her speech endorsing Trump, Palin also uses a present participial phrase when she notes “And the blank check too, making no sense because it’s led us to things like… to pay the bills…In this case, “making no sense because it’s led us to things like…  to pay the bills” is our present participial phrase. It functions as an adjective describing the blank check that Palin is discussing, and while the sentence “And the blank check too” could stand on its own, this present participial phrase cannot.

Different grammatical constructions and their anomalies are all around us. As you watch TV, read articles on the internet, or explore various social media and news outlets, I encourage you to keep an ear (or an eye) out for these different grammatical constructions. While some speeches, like Sarah Palin’s, will be analyzed, discussed, and deconstructed, it is only with an understanding of the different elements of grammar that we can effectively understand these messages, their meaning, and their criticism.

Are you confident in your knowledge of dependent clauses and participial phrases? Try this dependent or subordinate clause quiz, or this participial phrase quiz and find out! Do you have a grammatical question or other writing concern? Do you need help with a writing task or assignment? Send us an email or schedule an appointment in the Writing Center! We are always happy to help!

© Alyssa Ryan 


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

Back to the Basics: How to Recognize Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives, and Adverbs

24 Jun

In order to understand something like Subject/Verb Agreement, the proper way to use Pronouns, or even Identifying and Correcting Sentence Fragments, it is important to fully master some of the basic elements of grammar. This can be difficult for all writers, and especially for ESL, or English as a Second Language, writers. That said, a great place to start is by learning how to recognize these basic elements – like nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. While there are many other parts of speech that can impact your writing success, it all begins with mastering the basics!

As they explain in the video, nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs all do different things. We use a combination of these different elements to create sentences and express ourselves! As the video notes,

  • Noun (n): Person, Place, Thing (or whatever/whoever is doing the action)
  • Verb (v): An Action Word (or the action that is occurring)
  • Adverb (adv): Describes a Verb (or how the action was done)
  • Adjectives (adj): Describes a Noun (or the size/shape/color/etc. of the noun)

But what does that mean? And more importantly, how do we recognize these elements when we see them in a sentence? Remember, as they explain in the video, verbs and adverbs will go together. This is because the adverb is describing the verb. If we have an adverb and no verb, we would have the description and not the action. Similarly, nouns and adjectives will often go together. Again, this is because the adjective is describing the noun. If we have an adjective and no noun, we would have the description but not what it is describing.

For example:

  • Stella talks quickly and laughs loudly.
    • The first thing that we want to do is identify our noun. To do this, we can ask: Which item in this sentence is a person, place or thing? Clearly, “Stella” is the only person within our sentence, so Stella is our noun.
    • Next, to identify our verb, we want to look for the action. To do this, we can ask: What is happening in the sentence? Also, now that we know that Stella is our noun and that she is doing the action, we can ask: What is Stella doing? Well, we can see that Stella talks and laughs. In this case, “talks” and “laughs” are both verbs, as they are showing the action that is occurring.
    • Lastly, we need to determine if “quickly” and “loudly” are adverbs or adjectives. At this point, as we have identified that “Stella” is our noun, and “walks” and “talks” are both verbs. Remember what we learned in the video: adverbs go with verbs. The words “quickly” and “loudly” are being used to describe Stella’s talking and laughing, so we know they are adverbs!

Are you ready to practice your skills? Test your knowledge here! Have a grammar question or writing concern? Schedule an appointment and visit the Writing Center today!

© 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 

This Sentence Has Five Words: Understanding Sentence Variety

19 Nov

What is sentence variety? 

Sentence variety is exactly as it sounds; it involves varying sentence structure, word choice, and style in order to give life, interest, and even rhythm to prose. This strategy can also be used to add emphasis or reduce repetition. It is a great way to maintain reader interest, and to highlight key pieces of information, as long sentences often work well for including a lot of information where shorter sentences help to emphasize a point.

How does sentence variety work? 

There are a few strategies that writers can use to add variety to their sentences, including:

  • Alternating between long and short sentences
  • Utilizing different sentence beginnings
  • Alternating sentence structures (simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex)
  • Using different sentence types (declarative, interrogative, exclamatory, imperative)

Let’s see how it works:


In This Sentence Has Five Words, the first paragraph is comprised entirely of five word sentences. While this is not initially problematic and they are able to communicate their point somewhat effectively, the experience of reading this paragraph can become quite mundane. Try reading it out loud:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. 

In the above example, even though they have different sentence openings and different sentence construction, the lack of variety in sentence length is quite noticeable and greatly impacts the reading (or listening) experience. They are making their point sufficiently, but their writing lacks the liveliness and intrigue needed to interest their reader and really get their point across. Look now at the next two passages, and try reading them out loud:

I vary the sentence length and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. 

In the first section, the point is still clearly presented, but the writer has used a variety of sentence constructions and lengths. While the first section does not contain any sentences that are particularly long, the interplay between short sentences and medium length sentences helps to maintain reader interest while also creating a more pleasing listening experience. And finally, look closely at the last long sentence:

And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, it’s important. 

While the writer could continue to use a combination of short and medium length sentences to present this idea, the use of a longer sentence helps to build a stronger image, and the construction of this complex sentence keeps the reader moving through the idea and the imagery. As noted, by this point in the passage, the reader is appropriately rested; this means that, as the writer has used a combination of short and medium length sentences up to this point, the reader will not be overwhelmed by the inclusion of long sentences.

Remember, sentence variety can be used to:

  • Add liveliness to writing
  • Create a rhythm between sentences
  • Maintain reader interest
  • Emphasize points

To practice varying sentence beginnings, try your hand at this quiz! And remember, if you need assistance with sentence variety or any other writing concern, feel free to schedule an appointment with the Writing Center!