Common Grammatical and Rhetorical Problems
Content and Organization:
Failure to Explain the Significance of Points:
* When concluding a body paragraph, many student writers have the tendency to close without fully explaining the significance of their points. They will often close the paragraph without explanation, close on a quotation from the text, or repeat their topic sentence without adding to the basic information in the topic sentence. When closing a paragraph, make sure that you always clearly and fully explain the significance of the points you have made in the paragraph. In essence, you should always answer the question, "So what?" Or "What's the point?" Explain why the points you are making matter and what they add to your interpretation of the work in question. Never assume that the reader will figure out what you mean. Your job as a writer is to enable the reader to understand without having to make assumptions. This course does not adhere to the idea that "writerly" papers are preferred to "readerly" ones.
* A weak beginning to a paper starts you off on the wrong foot with the reader. Weak introductions often either fail to engage the reader's attention or fail to offer enough explanation of your argument, leaving the reader wondering what you will write about. Your introduction should be interesting, clear, and specific. The reader needs to know what works you will discuss, who wrote these works, and what elements of the works you will examine. A short summary of the works is also helpful. Ask these questions: What important information have I left out? What else can I add to clarify my position?
* By the time they reach their concluding paragraphs, many writers believe that they have adequately made their point. As a result, they briefly recapitulate the points they have already made without adding to them, leaving the reader with a sense of redundancy. The answer the question of "So what?" In other words, use your conclusion to connect your major points together and expand upon them. Leave the reader with something relatively new (do not, however, begin a new point that does not relate to your argument). Keep the reader's interest.
* Many writers have been taught the "hourglass" structure of essay writing, where you begin with a general statement in your introduction, then move throughout the paragraph to a specific thesis. Likewise, in your conclusion, you move from a specific statement relating to the works in the paper to a general statement. In theory, this structure works. In practice, however, many writers begin far too generally and end far too generally. Avoid statements like the following:
* Introduction: "Throughout history, myth has played a central role in people's lives."
* Introduction: "In today's modern society, people do not take time to examine their lifestyles."
* Introduction: "Writers often use symbolism in their stories to create great effects."
* Conclusion: "For these reasons, the reader can see why these writers are considered great and why they should still be read today."
* Conclusion: "But despite these problems depicted in these stories, if we all work together we can make the world a better place for everyone."
Failure to Explicate Quotations:
* When you quote from a text, you should always explain the significance of the passage you cite. Do not leave the significance implied and then move on to another point. Explicate the quotation, then move on to the next point. Remember, always explain and clarify.
Transitions Into and Out of Quotations:
* Abrupt insertions of quotations interrupts the flow of both your argument and your style. It can also cause confusion. Always integrate your quotations into the flow of your argument, making sure the reader knows the context of the passage you cite and your reasons for quoting this passage. For more information, see the "Using Quotations in Your Essay" sheet.
Fragments or Run-on Sentences:
Students often suffer confusion in their own writing because they have become unduly influenced by today's written word: novels and stories, and yes, even news articles are written in fragments, or in run-on sentences. Writing for the college classroom must adhere to more formal guidelines. Each sentence must have a subject and a predicate (or more simply a subject and a verb).
Subject-Verb Agreement and Case Sensitive correctness:
Subjects should always agree with their verbs. Do not be confused by common errors in today's speech: each must edit carefully his/her own papers is correct. She and I are compound pronouns in the nominative case; her and me are only used in the objective case, either as object of a preposition or object of a verb. Therefore please remember that "between you and I" is not correct; Her and I went to the store is not correct English.
Style and Diction:
* Verbs are the engines of writing. If you employ weak verbs, your writing will sputter and choke along with a sense of rhythm or power. To improve your writing style, always look first to your verbs. Eliminate weak verbs and replace them with strong, active verbs. Make your sentence do something. Using active verbs makes your writing more alive. Makes sense doesn't it?
* Verbs to Avoid:
"To be" verbs: is, are, was, were, being, etc.
"To have": has, have, had, having, has to
"To do": do, does, did, doing
"To get": get, got, getting, gotten
"To use": use, uses, used, using
* When overused or employed in lieu of stronger verbs, these verbs weaken the power and effectiveness of your writing. Work especially hard to avoid "to be" verbs, since they reflect only a state of being. Hence, they fail to act. Employ active verbs whenever possible.
Weak Word Choice
* Weak noun, adjective, and adverb choices also impair your ability to engage and persuade your reader. The more rudimentary your diction, the more rudimentary your argument (at least from the reader's perspective). Always strive to employ a sophisticated and varied vocabulary that intelligently conveys your argument.
* Words to Avoid:
the real world
a lot (NEVER USE!!)
so (as a modifier: "He is so nice.")
such (as a modifier: "She is such a good dancer.")
* Also, avoid jargon, clichés, slang, overly pompous language, and colloquialisms.
* Always be aware of the connotations of words. Some words may be strong words, but they will not fit the context in which you employ them. If this situation occurs, you will create confusion.
* The two expletives: "There is" and "It is"
* Expletive constructions constitute two of the weakest and most overused sentence constructions. They create vague subjects and weak verbs, and they delay your point in a sentence. They also often result in passive voice constructions, which lack stylistic power and authority. In short, avoid expletives.
* Repetition can result from a number of stylistic redundancies. First, you can overuse particular words or phrases. Also, your sentence lengths could become repetitive. Or your sentence constructions could fall into particular patterns. You can usually remedy the first of these problems by consulting a thesaurus. The second problem takes more work, and the third more work still. Consider using stylistic repetition as a means to enhance your points by following the rhetorical form of anaphora.
* Note: If your sentence lengths and/or constructions become repetitive, look first to your verbs. If you overuse particular verbs, then change them. These shifts may force you to change the structure of your sentence, but since this is your goal, forge ahead.
Repetitive Sentence Lengths:
* This problem generally proves easy to recognize. You first may notice a redundancy in their rhythm of your writing. If so, do a visual scan. Sentence size often can prove a quick indicator. If the scan proves inconclusive, count your words in each sentence (or, better yet, each syllable). Record the patterns you find. Can you find areas of repetitiveness? If so, what is your average word count? Your most frequent word count? Once you can recognize your own patterns, you can work to break them. Consider the pattern of 2-3 longish sentences, followed by one short.
* [Note: You may count quotations if you wish, but they can sometimes deceive you. They may appear to add variety when, in fact, they actually follow an introductory phrase that repeats your habitual pattern. Or, as many do, you could have selected a quotation that matches your customary writing rhythms, thereby perpetuating repetition even further.]
* Note also that most writers with repetition problems employ sentences that average between 12 and 18 words (at least in my experience--not a scientific measure by any means).
* To break stylistic patterns, you may consider joining two short or medium-length sentences into one sentence. Adding a short, emphatic sentence to provide "punch" also can help. Play with your writing. Don't feel restricted to certain habitual patterns.
Repetitive Sentence Constructions:
* The most effective way to add variety to your sentence lengths is to add variety in your sentence constructions. First, however, you must identify your sentence constructions.
* Notice the functions of your sentences. In literary analyses and/or argumentative essays, most writers stick with declarative statements that make direct assertions. Don't forget that you can also employ interrogative sentences (questions), imperative sentences (commands), and exclamatory sentences (exclamations of emotions or what not). Interrogatives and imperatives can add interest and variety to your writing; avoid exclamations. They usually strike sentimental and/or unresponsive chords because they tend to react for the reader rather than prompt the reader to react.
* Note one distinct drawback of relying too heavily on declarative sentences: Repetition in Sentence Openings. Study how you usually begin your sentences. If you notice an over-reliance on direct subject-verb constructions (a very common problem), work to vary your sentence openings to include more introductory phrases and/or transitional statements. Also, look to see if you can move clauses around in your sentences. You can often change-up your rhythm by moving a clause from the end to the beginning of your sentence, so long as you don't obscure your meaning.
* Also be aware of sentence patters: Simple sentence (one independent clause with no dependent clauses); Compound sentence (two or independent clauses with no dependent clauses); Complex sentence (one independent clause with at least one dependent clause); Compound- Complex sentence (two or more independent clauses with at least one dependent clause).
* When revising your writing, work to recognize your most common sentence patterns, then incorporate other sentence constructions.
* Altering your sentence constructions takes more time than simply altering sentence lengths, but the extra effort will beget extra improvement.
Purposes of Introductory Paragraphs
Stylistic Devices to Utilize:
According to the F.B.I,, rape is the least reported of all crimes. The bureau estimates four or five times as many occur as are reported. In 1979,88,000 rapes were reported.
What chance do we have of escaping the illiterate element in our society?
Definition of a significant term.
Love is more than just sex, or caring for one's own family, or going to church. Love means caring about every person, creature, and thing on this earth.
A few weeks ago, two men were walking along the street of a large city and singing exuberantly. A woman, holding her ears and showing an anguished expression on her face, asked them to stop. One of them handed her a ten dollar bill. Somewhat surprised, she thanked them and asked them to go on singing. As a matter of fact, she followed them and no longer held her ears.
The Howard Hughes of this city is the major. Hardly anyone sees him . . .
Concession to common knowledge
No one argues that police protect honest citizens, deter crime, and generally prevent chaos. Still . . .
"I think on-stage nudity is disgusting, shameful, and damaging to all things American," says actress Shelley Winters. "But if I were twenty-two with a great body, it would be artistic, tasteful, patriotic, and a progressive religious experience."
Statement of a problem
Some people believe that poetry is written only by aging beatniks or solemn, mournful men and women with suicidal tendencies. The Poetry in the Schools Program is out to correct that erroneous point of view.
METHODS FOR WRITING A GOOD CONCLUDING PARAGRAPH
A good conclusion is your last chance to convince your reader
Restate both the thesis and the essay's major points
As much as we may dislike the notion, it's time to reinstate the military draft. With the armed services failure to meet its recruitment goals, the rising costs of defense, and the racism and sexism inherent in our volunteer system, we have no other choice if we wish a protected future.
An evaluation of the importance of the essay's subject
These amazing, controversial photographs of the comet will continue to be the subject of debate because, according to some scientists, they yield the most important clues yet revealed about the origins of our universe.
A statement of the essay's broader implications
Because these studies of feline leukemia may someday play a crucial role in the discovery of a cure for AIDS in human beings, the experiments, as expensive as they are, must continue.
A call to action
The fate of Raoul Wallenberg is still unknown. While Congress has awarded him honorary citizenship, such a tribute is not enough. We must write our Congressional representatives today to voice our demand that the Soviets either release him or cite proof of his death. No hero deserves less.
A prophecy or warning based on the essay's thesis
Understanding the politics that led up to Hiroshima is essential for all Americans--indeed, for all the world's peoples. Without such knowledge, the frightful possibility exists that somewhere, sometime, someone may drop the bomb again.
A witticism that emphasizes or sums up the point of the essay
No one said dieting was easy. But for some of us who have struggled long, the cliché "Half a loaf is better than none" has taken on new meaning!
A quotation, story, or joke that emphasizes or sums up
Bette Davis's role on and off the screen as the catty, wisecracking woman of steel helped make her an enduring star. After all, no audience, past or present, could ever resist a dame who drags on a cigarette and then mutters about a passing starlet, "There goes a good time that was had by all."
An image or description that lends finality to the essay
As the last of the Big Screen's giant ants are incinerated by the army scientist, one can almost hear the movie audiences of the 1950s breathing a collective sigh of relief, secure in the knowledge that once again the threat of nuclear radiation had been vanquished by the efforts of the U.S. military.
A rhetorical question that makes readers think about the essay's main point
No one wants to see hostages put in danger. But what nation can afford to let terrorists know they can get away with murder.
An emphatic summary of the essay's thesis, stated in fresh terms
Soap operas are popular not because they're mindless drivel formulated to distract us from our daily chores, but because they present life as many of us want it to be: fast-paced, glamorous, and full of exciting characters. AVOID TRITE EXPRESSIONS. Don't begin your conclusions by declaring, "in conclusion," "in summary," or "as you can see, this essay proves my thesis that. . . ."