Sunday, August 31, 2014

How to markup an essay

Q: What do these editing colors and symbols mean?
A: I often use the following highlight colors to indicate certain writing issues

ORANGE = wdy = wordy, verbose

YELLOW = grammar issues, including misplaced modifiers, usage, spelling, articles, agreement, capitalization

GREEN = vague, illogical, imprecise or misleading
  • Vague: add prepositional phrases and details to fix the context and define the issues 
  • va = vague: A paragraph, sentence, clause, phrase, or word is vague, nonspecific, imprecise, or misleading. The most common error is failure to include short prepositional phrases that tie things down. Vague (depending on context): "The court refused to decide the issue." Precise: "The court refused to decide the issue of proximate cause." 
  • Solution: show, don't tell (
  • This... what? Professor John Cochrane at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business says, you should clothe the naked “this.” “This” should always have something following it. “This example shows that....” is fine. More generally, this rule helps you to avoid an unclear antecedent to the “this.” Often there are three or more things in recent memory that “this” could point to.

BLUE = logic or transition issues
  • not believable, not credible (esp. in recommendation letters)
  • The greatest mistake that I see applicants make when drafting bullet points for letters of recommendation: they cross the credibility line by referencing information the recommender is unlikely to know. Recommenders can only mention what you said and did, not what you thought and felt. How can a recommender know your inner motivations unless you told him? And even if you told him, why would he feel the need to mention such information in a letter of recommendation? Bottom line: He should discuss what you said (add real dialogue) and did (actions and results) instead of what you thought or felt. 
  • trans = transition problem: A transition between paragraphs, arguments, or sections of the writing is nonexistent, abrupt, weak, lame or misleading. Think about the logical relationship between the parts that need connecting and try to write a smooth and helpful transition. Good transitions are based upon ideas and their logical relationship, not just clever or stock phrases. 
  • Please read these tips to improve your transitions  

PINK = awkward or passive
  • awkward phrasing, although not grammatically incorrect. Most common: words with slightly inapposite meaning, too many words to express a particular concept, or awkward (but not technically incorrect) grammatical construction 
  • pv = passive voice: Passive constructions ("the case was decided" or "it was determined that...") are grammatically correct but weak and often confusing. They are useful only when the subject of the verb is unknown or indefinite or the writer wishes to conceal the subject.
  • Otherwise, passive voice—particularly if used repeatedly—is a sign of wooden and heavy writing. 
  • Solution: There are five reasons to use passive voice. Please learn them!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Never use two words if one is enough

Never use two words if one is enough


Never use two words if one is enough.
Instead of "past experience," simply write "experience."
The verb "resigned" is a concise alternative for the phrase "left the firm".
  • end result → result
  • future plans → plans

If a sentence has more than 20 words without punctuation, or more than 40 words altogether, it may be excessively wordy. Consider re-phrasing the sentence, or breaking it into smaller sentences. People have very short attention spans; if too much information is presented all at once, the brain cannot properly process it.
While there are no strict rules about length of a sentence, if your clauses are longer than about 20 words, or if your entire sentence is longer than about 40 words, it may be too much for your reader to clearly understand. If the reader has to go back and re-read too many sentences, they may just give up reading... and possibly fall asleep.


S-V-O is the way to go!

Subject - Verb - Object (S-V-O) Sentences
  1. I play football.
  2. Max reads books.
  3. We can speak English.
  4. Sue is singing a nice song.
  5. I like table tennis.
more tips here:



When two independent clauses are joined by a co-ordinating conjunction (e.g. "and", "but", "or", "so"), there must be a comma before the conjunction or it will be a run-on sentence. Clearly identify the conjunction in the sentence with two independent clauses, and insert a comma before the conjunction.

Incorrect: Matthew went to the library and I headed back to the science lab.
The two clauses, “Matthew went to the library” and “I headed back to the science lab”, are independent; a comma should be inserted before “and”.

Incorrect: The wind was brisk but the sun was strong.
The two clauses, “the wind was brisk” and “the sun was strong”, are independent; there should be a comma before “but”.

Correct: The man’s business was failing, so he was searching for alternative income.
The two clauses, “the man’s business was failing” and “he was searching for alternative income”, are independent. The co-ordinating conjunction, “so” requires a comma before it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

How can I keep my subjects and verbs in agreement?

Many ESL writers struggle to keep their subjects and verbs in agreement. 

Here are some useful tips from Jane Strauss, author of "The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation".

Basic Rule.
The basic rule states that a singular subject takes a singular verb, while a plural subject takes a plural verb.
NOTE: The trick is in knowing whether the subject is singular or plural. The next trick is recognizing a singular or plural verb.
Hint: Verbs do not form their plurals by adding an s as nouns do. In order to determine which verb is singular and which one is plural, think of which verb you would use with he or she and which verb you would use with they.

Example: talks, talk

Which one is the singular form? Which word would you use with he? We say, "He talks." Therefore, talks is singular. We say, "They talk." Therefore, talk is plural. 

Rule 1. Two singular subjects connected by or or nor require a singular verb.

Example: My aunt or my uncle is arriving by train today.

Rule 2. Two singular subjects connected by either/or or neither/nor require a singular verb as in Rule 1.

Examples: Neither Juan nor Carmen is available.
Either Kiana or Casey is helping today with stage decorations.

Rule 3. When I is one of the two subjects connected by either/or or neither/nor, put it second and follow it with the singular verb am.

Example: Neither she nor I am going to the festival.

Rule 4. When a singular subject is connected by or or nor to a plural subject, put the plural subject last and use a plural verb.

Example: The serving bowl or the plates go on that shelf.

Rule 5. When a singular and plural subject are connected by either/or or neither/nor, put the plural subject last and use a plural verb.

Example: Neither Jenny nor the others are available.

Rule 6. As a general rule, use a plural verb with two or more subjects when they are connected by and.

Example: A car and a bike are my means of transportation.

Rule 7. Sometimes the subject is separated from the verb by words such as along with, as well as, besides, or not. Ignore these expressions when determining whether to use a singular or plural verb.

Examples: The politician, along with the newsmen, is expected shortly.
Excitement, as well as nervousness, is the cause
of her shaking.

Rule 8. The pronouns each, everyone, every one, everybody, anyone, anybody, someone, and somebody are singular and require singular verbs. Do not be misled by what follows of.

Examples: Each of the girls sings well.
Every one of the cakes is gone.
NOTE: Everyone is one word when it means everybody. Every one is two words when the meaning is each one.

Rule 9.
With words that indicate portions—percent, fraction, part, majority, some, all, none, remainder, and so forth —look at the noun in your of phrase (object of the preposition) to determine whether to use a singular or plural verb. If the object of the preposition is singular, use a singular verb. If the object of the preposition is plural, use a plural verb.

Examples: Fifty percent of the pie has disappeared.
is the object of the preposition of.
Fifty percent of the pies have disappeared.
Pies is the object of the preposition.
One-third of the city is unemployed.
One-third of the people are unemployed.
NOTE: Hyphenate all spelled-out fractions.
All of the pie is gone.
All of the pies are gone.
Some of the pie is missing.
Some of the pies are missing.

None of the garbage was picked up.

None of the sentences were punctuated correctly.

Of all her books, none have sold as well as the first one.

Rule 10. The expression the number is followed by a singular verb while the expression a number is followed by a plural verb.

Examples: The number of people we need to hire is thirteen.
A number of people have written in about this subject.

Rule 11. When either and neither are subjects, they always take singular verbs.

Examples: Neither of them is available to speak right now.
Either of us is capable of doing the job.

Rule 12. The words here and there have generally been labeled as adverbs even though they indicate place. In sentences beginning with herethere, the subject follows the verb. or

Examples: There are four hurdles to jump.
There is a high hurdle to jump.

Rule 13. Use a singular verb with sums of money or periods of time.

Examples: Ten dollars is a high price to pay.
Five years is the maximum sentence for that offense.

Rule 14. Sometimes the pronoun who, that, or which is the subject of a verb in the middle of the sentence. The pronouns who, that, and which become singular or plural according to the noun directly in front of them. So, if that noun is singular, use a singular verb. If it is plural, use a plural verb.

Examples: Salma is the scientist who writes/write the reports.
The word in front of who is scientist, which is singular. Therefore, use the singular verb writes.
He is one of the men who does/do the work.
The word in front of who is men, which is plural. Therefore, use the plural verb do.

Rule 15. Collective nouns such as team and staff may be either singular or plural depending on their use in the sentence.

Examples: The staff is in a meeting.
is acting as a unit here.
The staff are in disagreement about the findings.
The staff
are acting as separate individuals in this example.
The sentence would read even better as:
The staff members are in disagreement about the findings.

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