Writing Tips: Avoiding Sentence Fragments.

We all know the basic elements of writing a sentence  in English: starting with a capital letter and finishing with some kind of ending punctuation appropriate to the form of the sentence, be it a statement, a question or an exclamation.

Photo by Brigitte Tohm on Pexels.com

Most people have mastered the fact that each sentence should communicate one key idea, and that they can use punctuation and conjunctions to extend that idea.

However, the use of sentence fragments is a problem I notice frequently, both as a teacher and as an avid reader. They are not the sole domain of people still learning to write: a novel I read over the weekend was littered with them, which frustrated me so much I was sorely tempted not to finish it.

A sentence fragment is a little bit of a sentences that don’t make sense on its own, and really needs either additional information or to be attached to the previous or following sentence in order to make sense.

It’s one thing to speak or send a quick text message using sentence fragments. We do it all the time without thinking twice. When writing for someone else to read our work, though, it’s important to express complete thoughts and to make sense on the first reading.

Example: I have been busy today. Writing this essay. It’s hard going.

This example sentence  fragment can be corrected it in any one of the following ways:

  • I have been busy today, writing this essay. It’s hard going.
  • I have been busy today. Writing this essay is hard going.
  • I have been busy today: writing this essay is hard going.

While it’s true that some writers use sentence fragments for stylistic effect, and may do so very effectively, it’s also true that they need to be proficient in constructing sentences and paragraphs so that they are able to make that technique work for them.  They are useful in writing conversations, communicating a train of thought, tacking on afterthoughts, or reflecting a nervous, excited or angry character.

Most people who write sentence fragments are, alas, painfully unaware that they are even doing it. Their sentence fragments don’t work for them, because they don’t communicate ideas clearly and effectively: in fact, it tends to have the opposite effect.

As writers, we should avoid anything that frustrates or confuses their readers, particularly if they hope to develop a broad and loyal readership.

This highlights the importance of careful proofreading and editing in the writing process.

One of the most effective strategies for finding sentence fragments is to read your work aloud. Your voice and ears will alert you when things don’t sound right, much faster than your eyes will discern it. This is because your brain already knows what you intended to say, and tends to make written errors almost invisible to the eye when reading silently.  

Avoiding Sentence Fragments.
#writingtips #writingadvice

Is It Okay To End A Sentence With A Preposition?

The practice of leaving a preposition at the end of a sentence, often referred to as preposition stranding, has long been considered to be “against the rules”. Generations of teachers and grammarians have condemned it as a grammatical taboo. 

That isolated, lonely preposition, separated from its noun, is known as a terminal preposition, and may also be described as danging, hanging or stranded.

Albeit with the best of intentions, this was drummed into me as a child, so I simply accepted it and tried to avoid doing so in whatever I wrote. 

As I got older, though, I came to realise that it’s something we do very naturally in speaking. In fact, avoiding it in spoken English can make what one is saying seem very formal and stilted. 

When I was in high school, one of my History teachers told us a story about one of Winston Churchill’s famous comebacks. On receiving a correction about finishing a sentence with a preposition in the draft of a speech, he responded, “This is nonsense, up with which I shall not put.”  

As it turned out, it probably wasn’t Churchill who first made the joke. I don’t know if he ever did, despite numerous and varied attributions. It has also been attributed to various other people, and there are variations on the line that was said to have been delivered, so it’s hard to know who said what, and when. 

Either way, the story demonstrates that the rule is actually a bit ridiculous. 

So where did this rule come from? And is it something we still have to abide by?

Back in the 1600s, a grammarian named Joshua Poole developed some principles about how and where in a sentence prepositions should be used, based on Latin grammar. 

A few years later, the poet John Dryden, a contemporary of John Milton, took those rules one step further when he openly criticised Ben Johnson— another great poet— for ending a sentence with a preposition. Dryden decreed that this was something that should never be done. Nobody bothered to correct or oppose Dryden, and Ben Johnson certainly couldn’t because he had been dead for years, so Dryden’s strident and public protestations popularised the principle into a rule. Over time, strict grammarians and pedants began to actively oppose the practice, and the rule became widely accepted and firmly established.

Ironically, despite all the wise and clever plays, poetry and essays written by John Dryden, it was his consistent complaint about the terminal preposition that became his most enduring legacy.

Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926, calls it a “cherished superstition that prepositions must, in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting them late… be kept true to their name and placed before the word they govern.” Fowler goes on to assert that even Dryden had to go back and edit all of his work to eliminate the terminal prepositions in his own writing. 

In the last century or so, people have become progressively less fussy and worried about it, but some still seem determined to cling to the rule no matter what. 

I advise my students that in formal writing such as essays, speeches, official letters and submissions, it is best to avoid the terminal preposition just in case their reader is someone who might judge them for it. Any other time, in keeping with standard spoken English, they are free to use their prepositions wherever they feel most natural and make the most sense. 

Nobody in the 21st century is going to naturally ask someone “On which char did you sit?” rather than “Which chair did you sit on?”, nor will they say “I wonder for whom that parcel is intended” Instead of “I wonder who that parcel is for.” 

In the 21st century, that really is nonsense up with which we do not have to put.

Sources: 
Quote Investigator
Merriam-Webster
Fowler, H.W (1926) A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford Language Classics, OUP, Reprinted 2002.

Is It OK to End a Sentence with a Preposition?
#grammar #English #language

Pedant vs. Teacher

Most people use the term ‘pedant’ in a derogatory way, usually in reference to someone they perceive as being too fussy or too strict about rules. 

On the occasions when I have been called a “grammar pedant”, I have generally responded as though someone is paying me a huge compliment. I invariably say something like “Oh stop it, you flatterer!” or “One day you’ll say that like it’s a bad thing!”

As a lover of the English language and words in general, there are things to we should be paying careful attention. There is value in pointing out where a student needs an apostrophe or a comma in their writing, or where they can express an idea or key point of information more clearly. That is part of being a teacher. It’s my job.

However, I try to restrain myself from correcting people’s grammar on social media, though, for two reasons:

  1. I don’t have time. I have a life to live, and I need sleep to function.
  2. They tend not to like it much.

What many people don’t know is that the word pedant was actually derived from the world of teaching and education. It came to English from either the  Italian word ‘pedante’ or from its descendant, the later Middle French word pédant, both of which referred to a schoolmaster or teacher.  It may be one of those words that came into English from more than one source. The Italian word is derived from the Latin word paedagogantem, which is the origin of the words pedagogue and pedagogy, which are also related to teaching and education. 

By the late 16th century, though, the English were using the term in a negative rather than a neutral way.  ‘Pedant’ had already come to be used for one who placed undue emphasis on the minor details of learning, or someone who focused on details or technicalities  instead of looking at overall issues or taking a wider view of general learning and practice. 

In that sense, correcting someone’s grammar on social media when it is clearly not appreciated is being unnecessarily pedantic. Perhaps that is the distinction that really needs to be made.

Alternatively, it might be a somewhat uncomfortable yet valuable opportunity to improve both one’s learning and professional credibility in an age where prospective employers and customers look at social media profiles before deciding to give a job or order to a particular person. This is particularly true for anyone who should be reasonably expected to have a sound grasp on the language, such as teachers, writers, bloggers and professionals who rely on clear communication in their work. 

Let’s face it. I may not care if someone misspells an uncommon word, or one they’ve only heard and not read, but if they don’t bother to differentiate between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ on social media, I’m neither going to buy their book, nor hire them to write my copy or teach my kids. 

Fussy? Yes. 
Pedantic? Probably. 
Apologetic? Not one bit. 

Reference: Online Etymology Dictionary

Pedant vs. Teacher
#grammar #English #language #words

The Appeal of Poetic Justice

Why is it so satisfying to see horrible people get what’s coming to them?

Image by pixel2013 on Pixabay.

Poetic justice is the idea that someone will get, or has got, what they deserve as a consequence of their behaviour. It can be either a reward or a punishment, and these are sometimes thought of as two sides of the same coin: a perpetrator will suffer while their victim has the satisfaction of seeing that justice has been served. 

It is similar to the concept of karma, by which one’s intent and actions have a direct effect on their future and wellbeing. 

Another related idea is divine retribution: a divine being or the universe itself punishing someone for their actions. 

Of course, these concepts are highly subjective. What someone deserves or not depends on one’s perspective. If person A has suffered as the result of Person B’s actions, then A is able to interpret B’s bad fortune as poetic justice or karma, while B might well consider that they are a victim and have reason to hope for their own vindication. Realistically, those two people may never join the same dots. 

So why is the idea of poetic justice so appealing?

It can make someone going through a bad situation, or wearing the scars of previous suffering, feel that they are less alone. It can give them hope that and that someone or something somewhere might notice their situation and act in their favour. Ultimately, we would probably all want God or the universe or the supernatural or the powers that be to be on our side and rule in our favour. 

The thought of someone having to pay or suffer for what they’ve done to us or to others we care about is powerful. It’s also relatable: as much as we decry revenge and know that it doesn’t solve anything, it’s still an attractive prospect— particularly if we haven’t had to actually do anything to make it happen.

Hoping for poetic justice, or karma, or divine retribution, can also function as a passive way of taking back some control from those who have hurt us. How many of us can honestly say that we haven’t thought “Well, he had THAT coming!” when something bad that has happened to a horrible person?

They are natural thoughts and feelings, and they need to be acknowledged and worked through. 

Still, as understandable as those feelings may be, we cannot afford to unpack and live there, no matter how much some of us may want to. It’s not a healthy place to stay. We have to move on and find a way to prevent our feelings about someone else from controlling our behaviour and attitudes.  

Perhaps that’s why seeing poetic justice delivered to fictional characters— or, indeed, to public figures who behave badly—  is so satisfying. It may not be happening to our own nemesis, but at least it’s happening to someone else’s. 

The Appeal of Poetic Justice
#PoeticJustice #Karma #Retribution #satisfaction #observation #blogpost

Several of my books explore themes of poetic justice and seeing people who behave horribly punished for their actions in one way or another.
They are available via jvlpoet.com/books and in all digital stores. Paperbacks are also widely available via Amazon and Book Depository.

Practice or Practise – Which One Makes Perfect?

Knowing whether to use ‘practice’ or ‘practise’ can be tricky. Because these words are homophones, and the spelling is very similar, it is easy to make mistakes. 

Practice is the noun
I need more practice. 
Practice is key to being a good pianist. 

Practise is the verb
I must practise if I’m going to get this right. 
I used to practise on the piano for an hour every day. 

There is one easy way to remember which is which: these words follow the same spelling rule as ‘advice’ and ‘advise’. 

Advice is a thing you give or receive.  Advise is something you do. 
Because that pair of words don’t sound the same, it’s easy to remember which is which.

You can also think of the ending – ‘ice’ – which we know is a thing, and that reminds us which one of the pair is the noun.

Fun fact:  In British and Australian English, ‘licence’ and ‘license’ follow the same rule. 
I have my driver’s licence. I am licensed to drive. 

However, American English spells both the noun and the verb as license. 

Being Conscious of One’s Conscience

Said to me today: “I don’t want that on my conscious.”
Me: “You probably don’t want it on your conscience, either.” 
Them: “Huh?”
Me: “They are different words.” 
Them: “Really?”
Me: “I promise you.”

These commonly confused words sound similar but they are not homophones. 

Conscious is an adjective. It is a descriptive word that means awake or aware. 

Examples:
I’m conscious of the confusion between words that sound similar but which are very different in meaning.
He passed out, but he is conscious again now. 

Conscience is a noun. It’s the name given to that part of our being that tells us not to do something we know we shouldn’t, and accuses us when we have done something wrong so that we feel bad about it. 

Examples:
She was good at acting innocent, but her conscience was plagued by guilt.
His conscience reminded him daily of the things he had done. 

The difference in the way these words sound is minor, but the difference in meaning is significant

Don’t Pour Over Those Books!

I’ve read a couple of different posts and even in a couple of books recently about people “pouring over” documents or books. 

I wondered at first if this was one of those things Americans do with words that nobody else does, but I checked, and it’s not. It’s simply an error caused by confusion by words that sound the same even though they are spelt differently and mean completely different things. 

What the people in question should be doing is poring over their books. 
To pore over books or documents is to be completely absorbed in what one is reading or studying. It suggests thoughtful application and concentration. 
The gerund is poring. 

To pour over books is just going to make a mess, and probably ruin them completely.  It’s really not advisable.