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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

Paragraph Construction & Development

12 Jun

Many written tasks require proper paragraph development. Whether you are writing a response paper, tackling a longer essay, or completing a scholarship application, developing strong paragraphs will help you more effectively communicate and support your overall point. There are three main types of paragraphs: introductory paragraphs (or introductions), body paragraphs, and concluding paragraphs (or conclusions). Today, we will discuss these three different types of paragraphs and some strategies for constructing and developing strong paragraphs.

Introductory Paragraphs/Introductions 

Your introductory paragraph, or introduction, is the first paragraph your reader encounters. While some assignments and reports may require an abstract, which would precede your introductory paragraph, it is in your introduction where you first get into the topic and illustrate your purpose. Your introductory paragraph will also contain your thesis statement. While there are many different ways to approach your introduction, there are a few strategies that you can use to guide you. Check out this video and then we’ll discuss some of the dos and don’ts of introductory paragraphs!

Although there is no one way to construct an introduction, as they mention in the video, it is best to begin generally. You can also begin with what is called a “hook”. This is a first sentence in your introduction where you can include a quote, a statement, a statistic, or some general piece of interest that “hooks” your reader or gets them interested in your general subject and the essay that will follow. Once you have generally introduced your topic and hooked your reader, you then want to gradually narrow your topic until you come to your thesis statement. Remember, your thesis statement should show your reader the scope and focus of your essay.

Dos and Don’ts of Introductory Paragraphs

  • Do make sure to grab your reader’s attention. Make sure to begin with a strong hook and try to maintain that reader interest throughout the paragraph. Do make sure that your hook is relevant to your overall discussion!
  • Do not announce your intentions. Unless specifically instructed to do so, avoid statements like “In this paper, I will…” and “The purpose of this essay is to…” While these may work for some written response scenarios, you can often strengthen your writing by jumping into the topic and showing your reader your main point.
  • Do construct a thesis statement that works for you! The video describes one method of constructing a thesis statement: detailing three topics and your main point. Remember, this is not the only type of thesis statement that you can use!
  • Do consider placing your thesis statement as the last sentence in your introduction. While this is not the only place where you can put your thesis statement, it can often act as a natural transition into your first body paragraph.

Body Paragraphs

Once you have carefully crafted your introductory paragraph and thesis statement, it is time to begin developing strong body paragraphs. While there are no general rules for the number of body paragraphs needed in an essay or their length, in general, try to include at least three body paragraphs per essay (as this will give you the overall structure of a five paragraph essay), and try to develop at least five sentences per body paragraph. Check out this video discussing body paragraph development, and then we will break down the parts of a body paragraph.

The first sentence in your body paragraph is your topic sentence. Remember, your topic sentence should introduce the main point of your body paragraph to your reader. It is also a place where you can transition from the previous paragraph and idea into this new paragraph and idea. Once you have developed a strong topic sentence, as they discussed in the video, you want to develop strong supporting sentences. In your supporting sentences, you want to include any details, supporting information, examples, or even quotes that develop the paragraph’s point. Finally, you want to develop a concluding sentence. This sentence should wrap up the paragraph and the idea that you are discussing while preparing your reader to transition into the next paragraph.

Dos and Don’ts of Body Paragraphs

  • Do develop one idea per paragraph. Remember, you want to break your overall point (as articulated in your thesis statement) down into manageable chunks that you can discuss in your body paragraph. Then, focus on one chunk of information or one aspect of your overall point per paragraph.
  • Do fully develop each paragraph. Make sure that each paragraph has a strong topic sentence, good supporting information, and a concluding sentence that transitions into the next paragraph. If a paragraph seems underdeveloped, try adding more supporting information and analysis!
  • Do not include irrelevant information. Make sure that every sentence in your body paragraph supports and details the main point that you articulated in that paragraph’s topic sentence. If you come across something that does not connect to the topic sentence, see if you can develop the idea in a different paragraph or remove it from your essay altogether.
  • Don’t forget your transitions! You can use transitional words to help you move from one body paragraph to the next.

Concluding Paragraphs/Conclusions

After you have fully detailed your main point and your topic by constructing a strong introduction with a strong thesis statement and body paragraphs that provide appropriate support and development, you will want to develop a concluding paragraph. If your introduction is the first thing that your reader experiences, your conclusion is the last thing that your reader will read. You want to make sure to appropriately conclude your essay while also leaving your reader with something to think about! Check out this video on some helpful concluding strategies that can connect back to your introduction, and then we will review tips for constructing a strong conclusion!

Concluding paragraphs are often the most difficult to write. Once you have fully introduced your topic in your introduction (and included a strong thesis statement) and you have developed multiple focused body paragraphs, it can seem like there is not much else to say. That said, it is important to look back on what you have said in your essay and effectively wrap it up without repeating yourself. One way to accomplish this, as the video said, is to look back at your thesis statement. You can use this thesis statement to develop a specific summary statement, and then broaden your paragraph. To do this, try to find some connection between your overall point, the outside world, and your reader. This gives them something to take away from your writing.

Dos and Don’ts of Concluding Paragraphs

  • Do not repeat your thesis statement. Do not copy and paste your thesis statement from your introduction into your conclusion. While it is important to revisit these ideas when wrapping up your essay, you want to reevaluate your thesis in light of all of the information that you have presented in your body paragraphs.
  • Do make sure to fully develop your conclusion. Although this is the end of your essay and the end of your paragraph development, do not let it fall short! Make sure to fully conclude your essay and try to leave your reader with something to think about!

Are you having difficulty developing strong paragraphs? Schedule an appointment in the Writing Center today!

© Alyssa Ryan 

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!

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.