DID YOU KNOW?
General education course instructors might base points for some assignments on grammatical accuracy. For example, even if your political science class research paper on foreign worker policies in South Korea is perfectly researched and well thought-out, if you have grammar mistakes, some instructors might lower your grade. Even worse (and unfairly), the instructor might not make this policy clear on their syllabus. To avoid unfortunate situations like this, you should always do your best to write accurately and purposefully.
In college, you will talk about writing. You will read fiction and nonfiction for classes, and you will analyze these pieces of writing in classroom conversations. You will do peer review activities where you read other students’ papers and they read yours, after which you will discuss each other’s writing. You will meet with your professors to discuss written assignments you’re working on, or you will meet with them to discuss the grade you got on a written assignment you submitted. If you visit your campus’ writing center (you should), you will be paired with a writing center staff member who will talk with you about your writing. In order to do any of these things effectively, you have to know how to talk about writing. One of the most fundamental English language topics you can talk about is grammar.
The following statement on talking about writing comes from Dr. Kristina Reardon, who is the associate director for the Center of Writing at the College of the Holy Cross:
“I sometimes hear students on campus say they are afraid to visit the writing center. They worry the tutors will judge them or, worse, that their professors will think they are not good students because they need help with their writing. However, all writers—including famous, published writers—get feedback from readers and work through multiple drafts. In fact, going to a writing center is a sign of strength as a writer, not a sign of weakness. Visiting the writing center shows that you care about your writing. Writing is meant to be read, and it is almost impossible to be both a writer and an objective reader. Have you ever reread a paper several times and thought it looked pretty good, but you learn later that your eyes were deceiving you? An outsider, like a tutor, can offer you their perspective as a reader and help you see your own work more clearly. They can tell you where they were confused as they read but also where they thought your points made sense. They can help you figure out what to add, what you might want to delete, what could be rearranged, and what to rewrite. A good writing center will feature tutors that work with you on your writing. You’ll have a conversation. Tutors will ask you questions, such as, “what were you trying to say in certain sections of your writing?,” and you’ll get a chance to respond. Tutors will not try to push their ideas on you, and they will not edit your work for you. So visit your writing center prepared to have a lively conversation that could change the way you think about your writing and your writing process. The writing process feels isolating when you’re just sitting with your computer in a quiet room. Talking about your ideas with someone else, especially when that person is not grading you, can help your ideas mature and your arguments develop. A willingness to share your work with others and to learn and grow through collaboration is truly what makes good students.”
The resources and review below will help you think about how to write well for academic purposes.
•Azar Grammar: Betty Azar and her co-author Stacy Hagen are renowned for their grammar workbook series, including the books Basic English Grammar, Fundamentals of English Grammar, and Understanding & Using English Grammar. For college-level writers, I recommend buying Understanding & Using English Grammar if you want a rigorous textbook from which to learn and practice. Betty Azar’s website has additional activities that are free to download:
∘Vocabulary Worksheets—Beginning Level
∘Vocabulary Worksheets—Intermediate Level
∘Vocabulary Worksheets—Advanced Level
•Brehe’s Grammar Anatomy: Steven Brehe’s book is available as an open textbook that anyone can download. It is a great, easy-to-understand, and in-depth textbook for studying grammar. It comes with an answer key for all exercises at the end as well.
•Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL): You will hear many instructors, writing lab tutors, and fellow students mention this site. It’s amazing, and you should definitely get familiar with it. However, it is rather large, and it can be hard to navigate. Therefore, here are some pages that might be of interest. Feel free to search through more pages using the left-hand toolbar once you’re on the site.
The review information below is a remix from the open textbook College ESL Writers: Applied Grammar and Composing Strategies for Success (2018) by Barbara Hall and Elizabeth Wallace. Key words for further study are in bold the first time I mention them. I’ve only selected a few areas where I think review would benefit many kinds of writers. This is an incomplete remix of Hall and Wallace’s book. Please download it and work through it entirely if you need extra practice on subjects such as outlining, doing peer review, commonly confused words, spelling, word choice, punctuation, capitalization, or an overview of English grammar.
Clearly written, complete sentences require key information: a subject, a verb, and a full idea. A sentence needs to make sense on its own. Sometimes, complete sentences are also called independent clauses. A clause is a group of words that may make up a sentence. An independent clause is a group of words that may stand alone as a complete, grammatically correct thought. The following sentences show independent clauses underlined once.
We went to the store. We bought the ingredients on our list, and then we went home.
All complete sentences have at least one independent clause. You can identify an independent clause by reading it on its own and looking for the subject and the verb.
When you read a sentence, look for the subject or what the sentence is about. The subject usually appears at the beginning of a sentence as a noun or a pronoun. A noun is a word that identifies a person, place, thing, or idea. A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun. Common pronouns are “I,” “he,” “she,” “it,” “you,” “they,” and “we.” In the following sentences, the subject is underlined once.
Malik is the project manager for this project. He will give us our assignments.
In these sentences, the subject is a person: “Malik.” The pronoun “He” replaces and refers back to “Malik.”
The computer lab is where we will work. It will be open twenty-four hours a day.
In the first sentence, the subject is a place: “computer lab.” In the second sentence, the pronoun “It” substitutes for “computer lab” as the subject.
Many sentences have more than one noun or pronoun in them. You may encounter a group of words that includes a preposition with a noun or a pronoun. Prepositions connect a noun, pronoun, or verb to another word that describes or modifies that noun, pronoun, or verb. Common prepositions include “in,” “on,” “at,” “under,” “near,” “by,” “for,” “with,” and “about.” A group of words that begin with a preposition is called a prepositional phrase. A prepositional phrase begins with a preposition, and the object of that preposition is a noun. It cannot act as the subject of a sentence. The following underlined phrases are examples of prepositional phrases.
We went on a business trip. That restaurant with the famous pizza was on the way.
We stopped for lunch.
Once you locate the subject of a sentence, you can move on to the next part of a complete sentence: the verb. A verb is often an action word that shows what the subject is doing. A verb can also link the subject to a describing word. There are three types of verbs that you can use in a sentence: action verbs, linking verbs, or helping verbs.
A verb that connects the subject to an action is called an action verb. An action verb answers the question: what is the subject doing? In the following sentences, the underlined words are action verbs.
The dog barked at the jogger.
He gave a short speech before we ate.
A verb can often connect the subject of the sentence to a describing word. This type of verb is called a linking verb because it links the subject to a describing word. In the following sentences, the underlined words are linking verbs.
The coat was old and dirty.
The clock seemed broken.
If you have trouble telling the difference between action verbs and linking verbs, remember that an action verb shows that the subject is doing something, whereas a linking verb simply connects the subject to another word that describes or modifies the subject. A few verbs can be used as either action verbs or linking verbs.
Action Verb: The boy looked for his gloves.
Linking Verb: The boy looked tired.
Although both sentences use the same verb, the two sentences have completely different meanings. In the first sentence, the verb describes the boy’s action. In the second sentence, the verb describes the boy’s appearance.
A third type of verb you may use as you write is a helping verb. Helping verbs are verbs that are used with the main verb to describe a mood or tense. Helping verbs are usually a form of “be,” “do,” or “have.” The word “can” is also used as a helping verb. In the following sentences, the verb is underlined once and the helping verb is underlined bold.
The restaurant is known for its variety of dishes.
She does speak up when prompted in class.
We have seen that movie three times.
She can tell when someone walks on her lawn.
Whenever you write or edit sentences, keep the subject and verb in mind. As you write, ask yourself these questions to keep yourself on track:
Subject: Who or what is the sentence about?
Verb: Which word shows an action or links the subject to a description?
Now that you know what makes a complete sentence (a subject and a verb) you can use other parts of speech to build on this basic structure. Good writers use a variety of sentence structures to make their work more interesting.
Six basic subject-verb patterns can enhance your writing. A sample sentence is provided for each pattern. As you read each sentence, take note of where each part of the sentence falls. Notice that some sentence patterns use action verbs and others use linking verbs.
1.“Subject–Verb”: Computers hum.
2.“Subject–Linking Verb–Noun”: Computers are tools.
3.“Subject–Linking Verb–Adjective”: Computers are expensive.
4.“Subject–Verb–Adverb”: Computers calculate quickly.
5.“Subject–Verb–Direct Object”: Sally rides a motorcycle.
6.“Subject–Verb–Indirect Object–Direct Object”: My coworker gave me the reports.
One issue with collective nouns is that writers sometimes want to use a plural verb with them. However, even though they suggest more than one person, they are usually considered singular. Common collective nouns include “audience,” “band,” “class,” “committee,” “company,” “faculty,” “family,” “government,” “group,” “jury,” “public,” “school,” “society,” and “team.”
The pronouns you use must agree with the nouns to which they refer.
Incorrect: Lara’s company will have their annual picnic next week.
Correct: Lara’s company will have its annual picnic next week.
You can join two independent clauses with related and equal ideas together with a conjunctive adverb and a semicolon. A conjunctive adverb is a linking word that shows a relationship between two clauses. Read the following sentences:
Original sentences: Bridget wants to take part in the next Olympics. She trains every day.
Since these sentences contain two equal and related ideas, they may be joined using a conjunctive adverb. Now, read the revised sentence:
Revised sentence: Bridget wants to take part in the next Olympics; therefore, she trains every day.
The revised sentence explains the relationship between Bridget’s desire to take part in the next Olympics and her daily training. Notice that the conjunctive adverb comes after a semicolon that separates the two clauses and is followed by a comma.
Here is a chart of some common conjunctive adverbs with examples of how to use them. Using these occasionally can help you diversify your sentence structure.
also, furthermore, moreover, besides
Alicia was late for class and stuck in traffic; furthermore, her shoe heel had broken, and she had forgotten her lunch.
Recycling aluminum cans is beneficial to the environment; similarly, reusing plastic bags and switching off lights reduces waste.
instead, however, conversely
Most people do not walk to work; instead, they drive or take the train.
namely, certainly, indeed
The Siberian tiger is a rare creature; indeed, there are fewer than five hundred left in the wild.
Cause and Effect
accordingly, consequently, hence, thus
I missed my train this morning; consequently, I was late for my meeting.
finally, next, subsequently, then
Tim crossed the barrier, jumped over the wall, and pushed through the hole in the fence; finally, he made it to the station.
When writing an essay or a report, don’t use too many of these coordinators. The best kind of writing, whether it be academic or professional, is clear and concise. Therefore, only join two clauses that are logically connected and can work together to make one main point. If you repeat the same coordinating conjunction several times in a sentence, you are probably including more than one idea. This may make it difficult for readers to pick out the most important information in each sentence.
Subordination is used to join two sentences with related ideas by merging them into a main clause (a complete sentence) and a dependent clause (a construction that relies on the main clause to complete its meaning). This creates a complex sentence. Coordination allows a writer to give equal weight to the two ideas that are being combined, and subordination enables a writer to emphasize one idea over the other. Read the following sentences:
Original sentences: Farnaz stopped to help the injured man. She would be late for work.
To show that these two ideas are related, we can rewrite them as a single sentence using the subordinating conjunction “even though.”
Revised sentence: Even though Farnaz would be late for work, she stopped to help the injured man.
In the revised version, we now have an independent clause (“she stopped to help the injured man”) that stands as a complete sentence and a dependent clause (“even though Farnaz would be late for work”) that is subordinate (less important/powerful) to the main clause. The revised sentence emphasizes the fact that Farnaz stopped to help the injured man, rather than the fact she would be late for work. We could also write the sentence this way:
Revised sentence 2: Farnaz stopped to help the injured man even though she would be late for work.
The meaning remains the same in both sentences, with the subordinating conjunction “even though” introducing the dependent clause.
To punctuate sentences correctly, look at the position of the main clause and the subordinate clause. If a subordinate clause is before the main clause, use a comma. If the subordinate clause follows the main cause, no punctuation is required.
Here is a chart of some common subordinating conjunctions with examples of how to use them. Using these occasionally can help you diversify your sentence structure with complex sentences.
although, while, though, whereas, even though
Sarah completed her report even though she had to stay late to get it done.
if, unless, until
Until we know what is causing the problem, we will not be able to fix it.
as if, as, though
Everyone in the conference room stopped talking at once, as though they had been stunned into silence.
Rita is in San Jose where she has several important client meetings.
because, since, so that, in order that
Because the air conditioning was turned up so high, everyone in the office wore sweaters.
after, before, while, once, when
After the meeting had finished, we all went to lunch.
As with conjunctive adverbs, when writing an essay or a report, don’t use too many of these coordinators. The best kind of writing, whether it be academic or professional, is clear and concise. Therefore, only join two clauses that are logically connected and can work together to make one main point. If you repeat the same subordinating conjunction several times in a sentence, you are probably including more than one idea. This may make it difficult for readers to pick out the most important information in each sentence.
Sentences with two or more independent clauses that have been incorrectly combined are known as run-on sentences. One way to correct run-on sentences is to correct the punctuation. For example, adding a period will correct the run-on by creating two separate sentences.
Run-on: There were no seats left, we had to stand in the back.
Corrected: There were no seats left. We had to stand in the back.
Using a semicolon between the two complete sentences will also correct the error. A semicolon allows you to keep the two closely related ideas together in one sentence. When you punctuate with a semicolon, make sure that both parts of the sentence are independent clauses.
Run-on: The accident closed both lanes of traffic we waited an hour for the wreckage to be cleared.
Complete sentence: The accident closed both lanes of traffic; we waited an hour for the wreckage to be cleared.
When you use a semicolon to separate two independent clauses, you may wish to add a transition word to show the connection between the two thoughts. After the semicolon, add the transition word and follow it with a comma.
Run-on: The project was put on hold we didn’t have time to slow down, so we kept working.
Complete sentence: The project was put on hold; however, we didn’t have time to slow down, so we kept working.
You can also fix run-on sentences by adding a comma and a coordinating conjunction. A coordinating conjunction acts as a link between two independent clauses. The acronym “FAN-BOYS” will help you remember this group of coordinating conjunctions. These are the seven coordinating conjunctions that you can use: “for,” “and,” “nor,” “but,” “or,” “yet,” and “so.” Use these words appropriately when you want to link the two independent clauses.
Run-on: The new printer was installed, no one knew how to use it.
Complete sentence: The new printer was installed, but no one knew how to use it.
Adding dependent words, including subordinating conjunctions, is another way to link independent clauses. Like the coordinating conjunctions, dependent words show a relationship between two independent clauses.
Run-on: We took the elevator, the others still got there before us.
Complete sentence: Although we took the elevator, the others still got there before us.
Run-on: Cobwebs covered the furniture, the room hadn’t been used in years.
Complete sentence: Cobwebs covered the furniture because the room hadn’t been used in years.
Parallelism is the use of similar structure in related words, clauses, or phrases. It creates a sense of rhythm and balance within a sentence. Unbalanced sentences sound awkward and poorly constructed for readers. Read the following sentences aloud:
Faulty parallelism: Kelly had to iron, do the washing, and shopping before her parents arrived.
Faulty parallelism: Driving a car requires coordination, patience, and to have good eyesight.
Faulty parallelism: Ali prefers jeans to wearing a suit.
All these sentences contain faulty parallelism. Although they are factually correct, the construction is clunky and confusing. In the first example, three different verb forms are used. In the second and third examples, the writer begins each sentence by using a noun (“coordination” and “jeans”), but ends with a phrase (“to have good eyesight” and “wearing a suit”). Now read the same three sentences that have correct parallelism.
Correct parallelism: Kelly had to do the ironing, washing, and shopping before her parents arrived.
Correct parallelism: Driving a car requires coordination, patience, and good eyesight.
Correct parallelism: Ali prefers wearing jeans to wearing a suit.
When these sentences are written using a parallel structure, they sound more aesthetically pleasing because they are balanced. Repetition of grammatical construction also minimizes the amount of work the reader has to do to decode the sentence. This enables the reader to focus on the main idea in the sentence and not on how the sentence is put together.
A simple way to check for parallelism in your writing is to make sure you have paired nouns with nouns, verbs with verbs, prepositional phrases with prepositional phrases, and so on. Underline each element in a sentence and check that the corresponding element uses the same grammatical form.
When you connect two clauses using a coordinating conjunction (“for,” “and,” “nor,” “but,” “or,” “yet,” “so”), make sure that the same grammatical structure is used on each side of the conjunction. Read the following example:
Faulty parallelism: When I walk the dog, I like to listen to music and talking to friends on the phone.
Correct parallelism: When I walk the dog, I like listening to music and talking to friends on the phone.
The first sentence uses two different verb forms (“to listen” and “talking”). In the second sentence, the grammatical construction on each side of the coordinating conjunction (“and”) is the same, creating a parallel sentence.
The same technique should be used for joining items or lists in a series:
Faulty parallelism: This committee needs to decide whether the company should reduce its workforce, cut its benefits, or lowering workers’ wages.
Correct parallelism: This committee needs to decide whether the company should reduce its workforce, cut its benefits, or lower workers’ wages.
The first sentence contains two items that use the same verb construction (“reduce” and “cut)” and a third item that uses a different verb form (“lowering”). The second sentence uses the same verb construction in all three items, creating a parallel structure.
When you make a comparison, the two items being compared should have a parallel structure. Comparing two items without using parallel structure can lead to confusion about what is being compared. Comparisons frequently use the words “than” or “as,” and the items on each side of these comparison words should be parallel. Read the following example:
Faulty parallelism: Swimming in the ocean is much tougher than a pool.
Correct parallelism: Swimming in the ocean is much tougher than swimming in a pool.
In the first sentence, the elements before the comparison word (“than”) are not equal to the elements after the comparison word. It appears that the writer is comparing an action (“swimming”) with a noun (“a pool”). In the second sentence, the writer uses the same grammatical construction to create a parallel structure. This clarifies that an action is being compared with another action.
To correct some instances of faulty parallelism, it may be necessary to add or delete words in a sentence.
Faulty parallelism: A brisk walk is as beneficial to your health as going for a run.
Correct parallelism: Going for a brisk walk is as beneficial to your health as going for a run.
In this example, it is necessary to add the verb phrase “going for” to the sentence to clarify that the act of walking is being compared to the act of running.
You can also fix faulty parallelism using correlative conjunctions. A correlative conjunction is a paired conjunction that connects two equal parts of a sentence and shows the relationship between them. Common correlative conjunctions include the following:
•either . . . or
•not only . . . but also
•neither . . . nor
•whether . . . or
•rather. . . than
•both . . . and
Correlative conjunctions should follow the same grammatical structure to create a parallel sentence. Read the following example:
Faulty parallelism: We can neither wait for something to happen nor can we take evasive action.
Correct parallelism: We can neither wait for something to happen nor take evasive action.
When using a correlative conjunction, the words, phrases, or clauses following each part should be parallel. In the first sentence, the construction of the second part of the sentence does not match the construction of the first part. In the second sentence, omitting needless words and matching verb constructions create a parallel structure. Sometimes, rearranging a sentence corrects faulty parallelism.
Faulty parallelism: It was both a long movie and poorly written.
Correct parallelism: The movie was both long and poorly written.
Note that the spelling and grammar checker on most word processors will not draw attention to faulty parallelism. When proofreading a document, read it aloud and listen for sentences that sound awkward or poorly phrased.
Building a good paragraph is like building a good sandwich. Of course, you need good materials such as bread, meat, cheese, vegetables, and condiments. If you prefer a vegan example, it could be bread, peanut butter, and jelly. These are the individual ideas you write in your sentences. However, just having materials (ideas) isn’t enough; they also have to be in the right order: a slice of bread, the first filling, the second filling, a slice of bread. Nobody would eat a sandwich that had jelly on the bottom, then peanut butter, then two slices of bread back-to-back with nothing between them. That paragraph would be a sticky mess. Arranging them in the correct order is important. Writing works the same way.
A strong paragraph contains three distinct components:
1.Topic sentence: The topic sentence is the main idea/argument of the paragraph.
2.Body: The body is composed of the supporting sentences that develop the main point.
3.Conclusion: The conclusion is the final sentence that summarizes the main point and perhaps transitions into the next paragraph.
The foundation of a good paragraph is the topic sentence, which expresses the main idea of the paragraph. The topic sentence relates to the thesis, or main point, of the essay and guides the reader by signposting what the paragraph is about. All the sentences in the rest of the paragraph should relate to the topic sentence. A paragraph should only have one main idea. That main idea is expressed in the topic sentence.
Pick up any newspaper or magazine and read the first sentence of an article. Do you have a good idea what the rest of the article is about? If so, you have likely read the topic sentence. An effective topic sentence combines a main idea with the writer’s personal attitude or opinion. It serves to orient the reader and provides an indication of what will follow in the rest of the paragraph. Read the following example:
Topic sentence: Creating a national set of standards for math and English education will improve student learning in many states.
This topic sentence declares a favorable position for standardizing math and English education. After reading this sentence, a reader might reasonably expect the writer to provide supporting details and facts as to why standardizing math and English education might improve student learning in many states. If the purpose of the essay is to evaluate education in only one particular state, or to discuss math or English education specifically, then the topic sentence is misleading.
When writing a draft of an essay, ask a friend or classmate to read the opening line of your first paragraph. Ask your reader to predict what your paper will be about. If they are unable to guess your topic accurately, you should consider revising your topic sentence so that it clearly defines your purpose in writing.
There are five characteristics that define a good topic sentence:
1.A good topic sentence provides an accurate indication of what will follow in the rest of the paragraph.
2.A good topic sentence contains both a topic and a controlling idea or opinion.
3.A good topic sentence is clear and easy to follow.
4.A good topic sentence does not include supporting details.
5.A good topic sentence engages the reader by using interesting vocabulary.
Learning how to develop a good topic sentence is the first step toward writing a solid paragraph. Once you have composed your topic sentence, you have a guideline for the rest of the paragraph. To complete the paragraph, a writer must support the topic sentence with additional information and summarize the main point with a concluding sentence.
Supporting sentences make up the body of the paragraph by explaining, proving, or enhancing the controlling idea in the topic sentence. Most paragraphs contain three to six supporting sentences depending on the audience and purpose for writing. A supporting sentence usually offers one of the following:
∘Example: The baby boomer generation’s refusal to retire is contributing to the current lack of available jobs.
∘Example: Many families now rely on older relatives to support them financially.
∘Example: Nearly 10% of adults are currently unemployed in the United States.
∘Example: “We will not allow this situation to continue,” stated Senator Johns.
∘Example: Last year, my uncle Bill was asked to retire at the age of fifty-five.
The type of supporting sentence you choose will depend on what you are writing and why you are writing. For example, if you are attempting to persuade your audience to take a position, you should rely on facts, statistics, and concrete examples rather than personal opinions. Read the following examples:
Topic sentence: There are numerous advantages to owning a hybrid car.
Supporting sentence (statistic): First, they get 20% to 35% more miles to the gallon than a fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicle.
Supporting sentence (fact): Second, they produce very few emissions during low speed city driving.
Supporting sentence (reason): Because they do not require gas, hybrid cars reduce dependency on fossil fuels, which helps lower prices at the pump.
Supporting sentence (personal example): Alexis bought a hybrid car two years ago and has been extremely impressed with its performance.
Supporting sentence (quotation): “It’s the cheapest car I’ve ever had,” she said. “The running costs are far lower than previous gas-powered vehicles I’ve owned.”
Concluding sentence: Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example soon.
The information you include in supporting sentences can come from a variety of sources, such as reference books, encyclopedias, websites, maps, dictionaries, newspapers, magazines, interviews, or your own previous experience or personal research.
An effective concluding sentence draws together all the ideas you have raised in your paragraph. It reminds readers of the main point, the topic sentence, without restating it in the same words. Compare the topic sentence and concluding sentence from the previous example:
Topic sentence: There are numerous advantages to owning a hybrid car.
Concluding sentence: Given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alex’s example soon.
Notice the use of the synonyms “advantages” and “benefits.” The concluding sentence reiterates the idea that owning a hybrid is advantageous without using the exact same words. It also summarizes two examples of the advantages covered in the supporting sentences: low running costs and environmental benefits.
You should avoid introducing any new ideas into your concluding sentence. A conclusion is intended to provide the reader with a sense of completion. Introducing a subject that is not covered in the paragraph will confuse the reader and weaken your writing.
A concluding sentence may do any of the following:
•Restate the main idea
∘Example: Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States.
•Summarize the key points in the paragraph
∘Example: A lack of healthy choices, poor parenting, and an addiction to video games are among the many factors contributing to childhood obesity.
•Draw a conclusion based on the information in the paragraph
∘Example: These statistics indicate that unless we act, childhood obesity rates will continue to rise.
•Make a prediction, recommendation, or suggestion about the information in the paragraph
∘Example: Based on this research, more than 60% of children in the United States will be morbidly obese by the year 2030 unless we take evasive action.
•Offer an additional observation about the controlling idea
∘Childhood obesity is an entirely preventable tragedy.
A strong paragraph moves seamlessly from the topic sentence into the supporting sentences and on to the concluding sentence. To help organize a paragraph and ensure that ideas logically connect to one another, writers use transitional words and phrases. A transition is a connecting word that describes a relationship between ideas. Take another look at the earlier example all put together with transitions words underlined:
There are numerous advantages to owning a hybrid car. First, they get 20% to 35% more miles to the gallon than a fuel-efficient gas-powered vehicle. Second, they produce very few emissions during low speed city driving. Because they do not require gas, hybrid cars reduce dependency on fossil fuels, which helps lower prices at the pump. Alexis bought a hybrid car two years ago and has been extremely impressed with its performance. “It’s the cheapest car I’ve ever had,” she said. “The running costs are far lower than previous gas-powered vehicles I’ve owned.” All in all, given the low running costs and environmental benefits of owning a hybrid car, it is likely that many more people will follow Alexis’ example soon.
Words such as “first” and “second” are transition words that show sequence or clarify order. They help organize the writer’s ideas by showing that they have another point to make in support of the topic sentence. Other transition words that show order include “third,” “also,” and “furthermore.”
The word “because” is a transition word of consequence that continues a line of thought. It indicates that the writer will provide an explanation of a result. In this sentence, the writer explains why hybrid cars will reduce dependency on fossil fuels (“because they do not require gas”). Other transition words of consequence include “as a result,” “so that,” “since,” or “for this reason.”
The following charts provide some useful transitions to connect supporting sentences and concluding sentences:
on the contrary
on the one hand*
at the same time
on the other hand*
to begin with
For supporting sentences
*You can’t use “on the other hand” unless you use “on the one hand” first. You can’t have an “other” without a “first” hand. Use both to compare and contrast two things.
For Concluding Sentences
all things considered
on the whole
all in all
to sum up
When reviewing directions for assignments, look for the verbs “summarize,” “analyze,” “synthesize,” or “evaluate.” Instructors often use these words to clearly indicate the assignment’s purpose. These words will cue you on how to complete the assignment because you will know its exact purpose.
There are four common types of paragraphs you will write in academia:
•A summary shrinks a large amount of information into only the essentials. You probably summarize events, books, and movies daily. Think about the last movie you saw or the last novel you read. Chances are, at some point in a casual conversation with a friend, coworker, or classmate, you compressed all the action in a two-hour film or in a two-hundred-page book into a brief description of the major plot movements. While in conversation, you probably described the major highlights, or the main points, in just a few sentences using your own vocabulary and manner of speaking.
•Similarly, a summary paragraph condenses a long piece of writing into a smaller paragraph by taking out only the important information. A summary uses only the writer’s own words. Like the summary’s purpose in daily conversation, the purpose of an academic summary paragraph is to maintain all the essential information from a longer document. Although shorter than the original piece of writing, a summary should still communicate all the key points and key support. In other words, summary paragraphs should be clear and concise.
•An analysis separates complex materials in their different parts and studies how the parts relate to one another. The analysis of simple table salt, for example, would require a deconstruction of its parts—the elements sodium (Na) and chlorine (Cl2). Then, scientists would study how the two elements interact to create the compound NaCl, or sodium chloride, which is also called simple table salt.
•Analysis is not limited to the sciences, of course. An analysis paragraph in academic writing fulfills the same purpose. Instead of deconstructing compounds, academic analysis paragraphs typically deconstruct documents. An analysis takes apart a primary source (an essay, a book, an article, etc.) point by point. It communicates the main points of the document by examining individual points and identifying how the points relate to one another.
•A synthesis combines two or more items to create an entirely new item. Consider the electronic musical instrument, the synthesizer. It looks like a simple keyboard but displays a dashboard of switches, buttons, and levers. With the flip of a few switches, a musician may combine the distinct sounds of a piano, a flute, or a guitar—or any other combination of instruments—to create a new sound. The purpose of the synthesizer is to blend the notes from individual instruments to form new, unique notes.
•The purpose of an academic synthesis is to blend individual documents into a new document. An academic synthesis paragraph considers the main points from one or more pieces of writing and links the main points together to create a new point, one not replicated in either document.
•An evaluation judges the value of something and determines its worth. Evaluations are done using standards, opinions, and prior knowledge. For example, at work, a supervisor may complete an employee evaluation by judging the worker’s performance based on the company’s goals. If the company focuses on improving the standard of communication, the supervisor will rate the employee’s customer service according to a standard scale. However, the evaluation still depends on the supervisor’s opinion and prior experience with the employee. The purpose of the evaluation is to determine how well the employee performs at their job.
•An academic evaluation shares your opinion and its reasons about a document or a topic of discussion. Evaluations are influenced by your reading of the document, your prior knowledge, and your experience with the topic or issue. Because an evaluation incorporates your point of view and reasons for your point of view, it typically requires more critical thinking and a combination of summary, analysis, and synthesis skills. Thus, evaluation paragraphs often come after summary, analysis, and synthesis paragraphs.
A thesis statement is one sentence, and it appears toward the end of your introduction paragraph. It is specific and focuses on one to three points of a single idea—points that can be demonstrated in the body. It forecasts the content of the essay and suggests how you will organize your information. Remember that a thesis statement does not summarize an issue but rather dissects it.
Do you know someone who isn’t good at telling stories? You probably have trouble following their story as they jump from point to point, either being too brief in places that need explanation or providing too many details on a meaningless element. Maybe they tell the end of the story first, then move to the beginning, and later add details to the middle. Their ideas are scattered, and their stories don’t flow well. When the story is over, you often have questions.
Just as a personal story can be a disorganized mess, an essay can be out of order and confusing. That is why writers need a thesis statement to provide a specific focus for their essay and to organize what they will discuss in the body.
Just like a topic sentence summarizes a single paragraph, the thesis statement summarizes an entire essay. It tells the reader the point you want to make in your essay, while the essay itself supports that point. It’s like a signpost that signals the essay’s destination. You should form your thesis before you begin to organize an essay, but it may need revision as the essay develops.
For every essay you write, you must focus on a central idea. This idea comes from a topic you have chosen or from a question your teacher has asked. It is not enough to just discuss a general topic or simply answer a question with a “yes” or “no.” You have to form a specific opinion and then develop that into a controlling idea—the main idea upon which you build your thesis.
Remember that a thesis is not the topic itself, but rather your interpretation of the question or subject. For whatever topic your professor gives you, you must ask yourself, “What do I want to say about it?” Asking and then answering this question is vital to forming a thesis that is precise, forceful, and confident.
Thesis statements can be weak for several reasons, including:
•Simply stating your subject or a description of what your essay will discuss
∘Example: “My paper will explain why imagination is more important than knowledge.”
•Making unreasonable or outrageous claims that insult the opposite side
∘Example: “Religious radicals across America are trying to legislate their puritanical beliefs by banning required high school books.”
•Simply containing obvious facts that no one can disagree with
∘Example: “Advertising companies use sex to sell their products.”
•Being too broad
∘Example: “The life of Abraham Lincoln was long and challenging.”
A strong thesis statement needs to be specific, precise, arguable, demonstrable, forceful, and confident. Even in a personal essay that allows the use of first person, your thesis should not contain phrases such as “in my opinion” or “I believe.” These statements reduce your credibility and weaken your argument. Your opinion is more convincing when you use a firm attitude.
Read the following examples of strong thesis statements:
•Closing all American borders for a period of five years is not a good solution to tackle illegal immigration.
•Compared to an absolute divorce, a no-fault divorce is less expensive, promotes fairer settlements, and reflects a more realistic view of the causes of marital breakdown.
•Exposing children from an early age to the dangers of drug abuse is a sure method of preventing future drug addictions.
•In today’s crumbling job market, a high school diploma is not enough education to secure a stable, lucrative job.
Even after writing a “strong” thesis statement, you can still improve it by replacing non-specific words in your thesis, such as “people,” “everything,” “society,” or “life,” with more precise words to reduce vagueness.
You can find thesis statements in many places, such as in the news; in the opinions of friends, coworkers, or teachers; and even in songs you hear on the radio. Become aware of thesis statements in everyday life by paying attention to people’s opinions and their reasons for those opinions. Pay attention to your own everyday thesis statements as well, as these can become material for future essays.
Focusing on your audience will improve your writing, even if the audience is clearly just your instructor. It can improve your writing because you will be thinking about what’s inside their head as they read your writing. Specifically, what prior knowledge does your reader have, what expectations do they have while reading your writing, and what tone should you use to address that audience?
If your readers have studied certain topics, they may already know some terms and concepts related to the topic. You may decide whether to define terms and explain concepts based on your audience’s prior knowledge. Although you cannot peer inside the brains of your readers to discover their knowledge, you can make reasonable assumptions. For instance, if your classmate who will read your paper is a nursing major, they will probably know more about health-related topics than a business major would.
As for their expectations, readers may expect consistencies in the assignment’s appearance, such as correct grammar and traditional formatting like double-spaced lines and legible font. Readers may also have content-based expectations given the assignment’s purpose and organization. In an essay titled “The Economics of Enlightenment: The Effects of Rising Tuition,” for example, audience members may expect to read about the economic repercussions of college tuition costs. If your essay doesn’t meet these language, formatting, and content expectations, they might become confused or upset or have some other negative reaction.
Finally, you should develop the right kind of tone for your specific audience. Tone identifies a speaker’s attitude toward a subject or another person. You may notice a person’s tone of voice easily in conversation. A friend who tells you about their weekend may speak excitedly about a fun skiing trip. An instructor may speak in a low, slow voice to emphasize their serious mood. Or, a coworker who is frustrated after a long meeting may make a sarcastic joke.
Just as speakers transmit emotion through voice, writers can transmit a range of attitudes through their writing, from excited and humorous to somber and critical. These emotions create connections among the audience, the author, and the subject, ultimately building a relationship between the audience and the text. To stimulate these connections, writers intimate their attitudes and feelings with useful devices, such as sentence structure, word choice, punctuation, and formal or informal language. Keep in mind that the writer’s attitude should always appropriately match the audience and the purpose.
An introduction serves the following purposes:
1.Attracts your reader with something intriguing
2.Establishes your voice, tone, and attitude toward the subject
3.Introduces the general topic of your essay
4.States the thesis that will be supported in the body paragraphs
First impressions are important and can leave lasting effects in your reader’s mind. Therefore, the introduction is so important to your essay. If your introductory paragraph is boring or confusing, your reader probably will not have much interest in continuing with the essay.
Your introduction should begin with an engaging statement to provoke your readers’ interest. In the next few sentences, introduce them to your topic by stating general facts or ideas about the subject. As you move deeper into your introduction, you gradually narrow the focus, moving closer to your thesis. Some call this the “funnel technique.” You can visualize it in the following way:
The “funnel technique,” or moving from general to specific, is a very common introductory technique. Other good introductory “lead-in” techniques are the following:
•the use of a question (that is answered in the thesis)
•the use of a dictionary definition
•an anecdote (short personal story)
•background information (the “back story” that gives explanation as to why you are writing on this topic)
•a striking fact or statistic
The body paragraphs present the evidence you have gathered to confirm your thesis. Before you begin to support your thesis in the body, you must find information from a variety of sources that support and give credit to what you are trying to prove.
Without primary support, your argument is not likely to be convincing. Primary support is the points you choose to expand on your thesis. It is the most important information you select to argue for your point of view. Each point you choose will be incorporated into the topic sentence for each body paragraph you write. Your primary supporting points are further supported by supporting details within the paragraphs.
To be good primary support, the information you choose must be specific, relevant, and detailed. Remind yourself of your main argument and delete any ideas that do not directly relate to it. Omitting unrelated ideas ensures that you will use only the most convincing information in your body paragraphs.
When you support your thesis, you are showing and explaining evidence. Evidence includes anything that can help support your stance. The following are the kinds of evidence you will encounter as you conduct your research:
•Facts: Facts are the best kind of evidence because they often cannot be disputed. They can support your stance by providing background information for your point of view. However, some facts may still need explanation. For example, the sentence “The most populated state in the United States is California” is a pure fact, but it may require some explanation to make it relevant to your specific argument.
•Judgments: Judgments are conclusions drawn from the given facts. Judgments are more credible than opinions because they are made through careful reasoning and examination of a topic.
•Testimony: Testimony is direct quotations from either a witness or an expert. A witness is someone who has direct experience with a subject; they add authenticity to an argument based on facts. An expert witness is a person who has extensive experience with a topic. This person studies the facts and provides commentary based on either facts or judgments, or both. An expert witness adds authority and credibility to an argument.
•Personal observation: Personal observation is like testimony, but personal observation consists of your testimony. It reflects what you know to be true because you have experiences and have formed either opinions or judgments about them. For instance, if you are one of five children and your thesis states that being part of a large family is beneficial to a child’s social development, you could use your own experience to support your thesis. Be careful not to only use personal observation, however. Some readers may question your authority on a topic if you don’t discuss any other people’s testimony or provide any facts or judgments.
Each body paragraph contains a topic sentence that states one aspect of your thesis and then expands upon it. Like the thesis statement, each topic sentence should be specific and supported by concrete details, facts, or explanations. Topic sentences indicate the location and main points of the basic arguments of your essay. These sentences are important for writing your body paragraphs because they always refer to and support your thesis statement. Topic sentences are linked to the ideas you have introduced in your thesis, thus reminding readers what your essay is about. A paragraph without a clearly identified topic sentence may be unclear and messy, just like an essay without a thesis statement.
It’s important to spend time writing your conclusion just like the rest of your essay. Too quick of an ending can ruin an otherwise strong essay. Similarly, a conclusion that does not correspond to the rest of your essay, has disconnected information, or is unorganized can unsettle your readers and raise doubts about the entire essay. However, if you have worked hard to write the introduction and body, your conclusion can often be the easiest part to compose.
A strong conclusion reviews your main points and emphasizes the importance of the topic. Many writers like to end their essays with a final emphatic statement. This strong closing statement will cause your readers to continue thinking about the implications of your essay; it will make your conclusion, and thus your essay, more memorable. Another powerful technique is to challenge your readers to make a change in either their thoughts or their actions. Challenging your readers to see the subject through new eyes is a powerful way to ease yourself and your readers out of the essay. Thinking about how your topic fits into the larger world view and expressing the wider, global issues is also another technique for the ending of your essay. Sometimes, this is called the “so, what?” conclusion (as in, why does this issue really matter? Or why is this important?).
Avoid doing the following things in your conclusion paragraph:
•Introducing new material: When you raise new points, you make your reader want more information, which you could not possibly provide in the limited space of your final paragraph.
•Contradicting your thesis: When you change sides or open your point of view in the conclusion, your reader becomes less inclined to believe your original argument.
•Apologizing or using disclaimers: Don’t apologize for your opinion. Be strong and state what you think. Effective writers stand by their thesis statement.
When closing your essay, do not expressly state that you are drawing to a close. Your reader will know that a conclusion is forthcoming. In advanced academic writing, you would not necessarily rely on statements such as “in conclusion,” “it is clear that,” “as you can see,” or “in summation.” However, until you are more comfortable with essay writing skills, you should feel free to use a transition that indicates a closing.