Tag Archives: writing center

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

Reading Textbooks Effectively

15 Sep

As a practice, reading is much more complicated and involves a lot more than we may initially think. Over the course of the week, we likely read numerous Facebook posts, a few online articles or Buzzfeed links, and probably a chapter or two from a few of our textbooks. While each of these documents involves reading words as they are presented, do we approach all of them in the same way? Should we?

Yes and no.

Regardless of what we are reading, there are a number of strategies that we utilize in order to effectively make our way through the text in front of us. That said, approaching our nursing textbooks in the same way that we approach a Facebook post could yield disastrous results when it comes to comprehending and utilizing the necessary information. To ensure that you are reading your textbooks effectively, it is important to use a combination of global reading strategies, problem-solving strategies, and support reading strategies.

Global Reading Strategies 

Global Reading Strategies can be thought of as universal techniques that we use when we are reading. They often involve reflecting on what we are reading and why we are reading it, and many of these techniques require little more than text at hand. Global Reading Strategies can be used for any kind of reading; they tend to involve developing a relationship with the text and reflecting on the information at hand. Some Global Reading Strategies include:

  • Developing a purpose to keep in mind while reading
  • Thinking about what you know to help you understand the reading
  • Connecting the text with your reading purpose while reading
  • Using tables, figures, and pictures to increase understanding
  • Paying close attention to bolded or italicized items

Problem-Solving Strategies 

Problem-Solving Strategies are exactly as they sound: strategies that you can implore to solve problems while you are reading. What do you do when the information becomes markedly more difficult? Where do you turn when you come across  a word that you do not understand? What do you do if you have read two or three pages in a chapter, but you’re not sure what the reading was about? Well, in all of these cases, in order to read and comprehend the text effectively, you will need to solve the problem. Some Problem-Solving Strategies include:

  • Reading slowly and adjusting your reading speed to deal with difficult material
  • Getting yourself back on track by re-reading when you get off track
  • Paying close attention and re-reading when a text becomes difficult
  • Stopping occasionally to think about what you have read
  • Picturing or visualizing the information to increase retention

Support Reading Strategies 

Support Reading Strategies are also fairly easy to understand: strategies that are used to offer support while reading to increase comprehension and retention. How do you make sure that you remember what you have read after you have put your textbook down? How do you connect the ideas presented in the textbook with the bigger picture – like what you are learning in class or practicing in the skills lab or clinicals? Using Support Reading Strategies can help you make the connections and support a practical application of the knowledge you are encountering. Some Support Reading Strategies include:

  • Taking notes while reading to understand the text and make larger connections
  • Summarizing what you have read to reflect on important information and key points
  • Discussing what you have read with others to solidify connections and understanding
  • Using reference materials to identify terms or ideas that you do not initially understand
  • Asking yourself questions you would like to have answered through your reading

Chances are that you already use some of these strategies while you are reading. In order to effective read your textbooks and successfully comprehend the information they present, it is important to use a combination of these different strategies to guide your reading. By using a combination of these three different kinds of strategies, you can improve your understand and retention, and become more of an active reader. What is active reading? It means treating your reading conversation as a conversation in which you are an active participant!

General Active Reading Strategies 

  • Ask yourself pre-reading questions on the topic to prepare yourself.
  • Identify and define any unfamiliar terms – whether they are bold or not!
  • Bracket the main idea or thesis of the reading and put an asterisk next to it.
  • Instead of highlighting, make notes in the margins!
  • Write down any questions that you have and answer them once you have finished reading.
  • Make an outline, flowchart, or diagram to map and understand ideas visually.
  • Write a summary of the chapter in your own words.
  • Write your own practice exam questions based on the reading! Answer them!
  • Discuss the chapter with a classmate or teach someone else what you have learned.

The best way to improve your reading experience and become an active reader is to practice! Click here to assess your current reading practices and gain an understanding of the areas that you need to strengthen – then put what you have learned to use!

© 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!

Grammar Tips: Punctuation: Commas, Oxford Commas, and Semi-colons

17 Jun

Commas and semi-colons can easily become two of the most confusing punctuation marks to use properly. In fact, the comma was recently ranked as the #1 most difficult punctuation mark to learn to use properly (followed closely by the apostrophe, which we discussed a few weeks ago!). What makes commas and semi-colons so confusing and so difficult to use? Well, they can be used in multiple ways and they have different rules. Today, we will discuss the comma, the oxford comma, and the semi-colon in order to better understand their proper uses!



The Standard Comma 

On the most basic level, a comma is a punctuation mark (,) indicating a pause between parts of a sentence. This is likely why many students learn to insert a comma wherever they would naturally pause in a sentence, although that is not always true. As the above chart illustrates, there are many uses for commas, including:

  • separating items in a list (I have an applea peach, and a pear.)
  • separating coordinate adjectives (Sarah bought three plain, white t-shirts.) 
  • separating coordinating conjunctions (Alan was a good student, but he failed the quiz.)
  • separating dependent clauses (Although they did not have directionsthe students went in search of the library.)
  • separating conditional clauses (If I go to the moviesI will have to get popcorn.)
  • separating appositives (Ms. Smith, the English teacher, hated run-on sentences.)
  • setting off an introductory phrase (After the stormThe Johnsons had to replace their barn.)
  • setting off an interjection (The vote was close, as was expected, but the motion failed.)
  • appearing after a direct address (Sean, could you please close the windows?)
  • appearing after a title (Dear Mr. Smith,)
  • separating the day and month from the year (June 17th, 2014)
  • separating numbers larger than 999 (1,000)
  • separating cities from states or countries (CincinnatiOHor ParisFrance)
  • appearing after abbreviations (She tried to improve her health as best she could (i.e., going to the gym).)
  • appearing before quotations (According to Newbold (2014), “…commas…have more rules…than any other punctuation mark”.)

The Oxford Comma 

We already know from our above list of the uses of the standard comma that a comma is used to separate items in a series. An Oxford comma, also known as a serial comma, is the comma that precedes the conjunction before the final item in a list of three or more items. For example:

In the summer, Catherine enjoyed swimming, bikingand exploring the woods with her friends. 

In this case, the comma after ‘biking’ but before ‘and’ is optional. In the above example, it is not necessarily needed because it does not change the context of the sentence. That said, many style guides actually recommend always using an Oxford comma because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will. For example:

This book is dedicated to my roommates, Nicole Kidman, and my mother. 

In the above example, where we have included the Oxford comma, each item in the list receives the same treatment. The book is dedicated to the writer’s roommates, to the actress Nicole Kidman, and to the writer’s mother. If we remove the Oxford comma, however, the sentence changes. Let’s take a look:

This book is dedicated to my roommates, Nicole Kidman and my mother. 

In removing the Oxford comma from our example sentence, we are causing some confusion in our sentence. Is the writer dedicating the book to their roommates, Nicole Kidman, and their mother, as our previous sentence indicated, or are they dedicating the book only to their roommates (who happen to be Nicole Kidman and their mother)? Without the Oxford comma, our sentence is ambiguous and needs further clarification. This is where our rule comes back into play: including the Oxford comma will never hurt the sentence, but eliminating it can cause confusion for our readers.

The Semi-Colon 

Semi-colons help to connect closely related ideas when a punctuation mark stronger than a comma is needed. As our chart above explains, there are two main uses for semi-colons, including:

  • joining two related and complete sentences (I went to the store; I was out of milk and eggs.
  • separating list items when the listed items include commas (My favorite cities are Savannah, GA; Denver, CO; and Boston, MA.)

Want to know more? 

Check out some of our past posts for more information on commas and other types of punctuation!

As always, if you have any questions or need help with your writing, visit the Writing Center today!


Grammar Tips: Avoiding the Apostrophe Catastrophe

13 May

An apostrophe (‘) is a piece of punctuation used in two different ways: to indicate the removal of a letter, or to illustrate possession. Some basic apostrophe rules:

  • Do use an apostrophe to indicate possesion.
    • 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.

Want to avoid the Apostrophe Catastrophe? Click above to watch a helpful video!