Let’s talk about grammar

If you’re like most people, you have concerns about grammatical issues in your papers. The truth is, if English is your first language, you’ve already got an instinctive grasp on (English) grammar. It’s difficult for native English speakers to compose a truly ungrammatical sentence, even when they try. However, some minor problems which fall under the umbrella of “grammar” do tend to crop up in students’ writing fairly often, so let’s take a look at some of them.

Subject/verb agreement: If the subject is singular, the verb is singular. (For example, “My sister runs.”) If the subject is plural, the verb needs to match: “My sisters run.” It’s pretty clear to a native English speaker that the verb in the first example should be “runs” and the verb in the second should be “run.” The trouble often occurs when the verb is separated from the subject by a descriptive phrase/clause, when the subject is long, or when the subject is not immediately distinguishable as singular or plural (the words “everyone” and “data” come to mind for this example).

Noun/pronoun disagreement: This can be an unintended consequence of gender-neutral language. A sentence such as “A writer should always be careful to avoid noun/pronoun disagreement when they compose a sentence” is an example of this type of error. The noun (“writer”) is singular, but the pronoun used to refer to it later in the sentence (“they”) is plural. This is extremely common, but also fairly easy to catch. This specific case can be fixed by replacing the pronoun “they” with the words “he or she” or by making the noun plural, and the same principle applies to other instances of this problem.

Incomplete sentences: Sentences need a subject and an action. If no action happens in the sentence (i.e., it’s missing a verb) or if there is nothing for the action to happen to (i.e., it’s missing a subject), it’s an incomplete sentence (which is generally just a dependent clause). An incomplete sentence/dependent clause can’t stand on its own. It needs the missing element to prop it up.

Run-on sentences: Sentences that continue when they should stop. Sometimes this occurs when writers heap dependent clauses one after another to such an extent that the sentence’s meaning becomes lost. In this case, the sentence should be divided into smaller chunks and rewritten so that each sentence is complete by itself. Other times, a run on sentence occurs when the writer links two independent clauses (i.e., sentences that would be complete on their own) together with a comma; this is an example of the infamous “comma splice.” To fix this, just change the comma to a period or a semicolon. Sometimes, people use a comma because they want to link the ideas in the two sentences/independent clauses. That’s when they should use the semicolon. It’s basically a period and a comma put together; it indicates that each half of the sentence could stand on its own, but still links the ideas.

Reading a paper aloud is a good way to catch some of these grammatical errors. If you can, read it out loud to someone else (such as a friend, or a tutor at your school’s writing center). Pay attention to any comments about grammar that your professor writes on your paper, and take note of any issues that seem to come up frequently so you can be on the lookout for them in the future.

Finally, when we think about grammar, it’s important to realize that all languages, even non-standard dialects of English, have grammatical rules which the speakers of the language follow instinctively. Tutors need to keep this in mind when working with students who didn’t grow up speaking Standard English. Their grammar may seem incorrect, but they are simply following the conventions of a different grammar. However, they may need extra help to learn the rules of grammar for the particular academic context in which they are currently writing.


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