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Prose Parade
Grammar and writing basics

Syntax and Style

Syntax is how sentences are formed and follow one another in a coherent flow.


You remember in the Parts of Speech section there was a lot of information on verbs. Well, here we go into a little more depth.


More About Verbs




As if the burden of action (remember that’s the function of the verb?) weren’t enough on a verb, it’s also responsible for telling the time expressed in the sentence. This function of the verb is called tense. (You would be too if you had all this work to do.) There are six tenses that are built upon the principal parts of speech. The three easy ones are the present, the past and the future. The not so easy ones are the present perfect, the past perfect and the future perfect. Now it’s perfectly clear, isn’t it? (These are the jokes, folks.)


1. Present Tense


Present tense is any verb form that says what’s happening is happening now. It’s usually the most basic form of the verb.


a. I work on the railroad.

b. I’m working on the railroad. (This is called the present

            progressive, if you care.)

c. I do work on the railroad. (The verb with do or did is called

            the emphatic. You’ll never need to know this.)


2. Past Tense


Past tense describes an action started and completed in the past. The past tense is formed by adding -d or -ed, except, of course, the irregular verbs. (See the verb structure chapter later on for an explanation of irregular verbs.)


a. I worked on the railroad.

b. I was working on the railroad.

c. I did work on the railroad. (emphatic again, but we’re through with it. It exists only in present and past tenses.)


Alternative method of expressing the past:


a. I used to work on the railroad.


3. Future Tense


Future tense expresses action that will occur in the future. The tense is formed using will or shall.


a. I will (or shall) work on the railroad.

b. I will (or shall) be working on the railroad.


Alternative methods of expressing the future:


a. I am going to work on the railroad. (present tense of go used idiomatically with the infinitive, which is the verb plus the word to, for example: to go.)


b. I am about to work on the railroad. (present tense of be with the adverb about (meaning ready or prepared))


4. Present Perfect Tense


Present perfect can do either of two things.


a. It describes action that occurred at no definite time in the past. It is formed with has or have (present tense) and the past participle of the verb. (I know this is little-used stuff, but just know the present perfect uses has or have.)


1. I have worked on the railroad off and on.


b. It describes action that started in the past and continues into the present.


1. I have worked on the railroad for a month. (and I still am working there)

2. I have been working on the railroad for a month. (and I still am)


5. Past Perfect Tense


Past perfect describes action completed in the past before some other past action or event. That is, the past perfect describes the earlier incident. It is formed with had.


a. When I asked for my paycheck, I had worked on the railroad for a month.

b. When I asked for my paycheck, I had been working on the railroad for a month.


Don’t use would have in if clauses expressing the earlier of two past actions. Use the past perfect.


Wrong—If I would have tried harder, I’d have worked on the


Right—lf had tried harder, I’d have worked on the railroad.


6. Future Perfect Tense


Future perfect expresses action to be completed in the future before some other action or event. It is formed with will have or shall have.


a. By the time I leave for Phoenix, I will have worked on the railroad for a month.

b. By the time I leave for Phoenix, I will have been working on the railroad for a month.


7. Tense Usage


a. The present and the perfect infinitives


1. Use the present infinitive (to go, to see) to express action following another action.


a. Wrong—I was disappointed because I had hoped to have worked on the railroad.

b. Right—I was disappointed because I had hoped to work on the railroad.


2. Use the perfect infinitive (to have gone, to have seen) to express action before another action.


a. I am glad to have worked on the railroad.


b. Having with the past participle


In participial phrases (phrases are not independent and do not have a subject and a verb; participial phrases have a participle, a verb form used as an adjective), use having with the past participle to express action completed before another action.


Wrong—Being three days late for the interview, I lost the job on the railroad.

Right—Having been three days late for the interview, I lost the job on the railroad.


Note: You will notice this being construction often in sports writing; it is weak and should be completely rearranged perhaps in a compound (two independent clauses joined by an and or but) or a complex (an independent clause and a subordinate clause) sentence.


I was three days late for the interview, so I lost the job on the railroad.


c. The real and glamorous world of journalism


After all that brain-busting minutiae you can just about forget most of it. In journalism the perfect tenses should just about disappear from the written page. Use the present and past tenses unless the other tenses are needed for clarification. It’s preferable to make other words carry the force of time definition, words such as before, after, etc.


Example:         Before I left for Phoenix, I worked on the railroad for a month.


Notice the two past tense verbs (I left; I worked), and the word before indicates which action came first.




The voice of a verb tells whether the subject is acting or acted upon. The two voices are called active and passive.


1. Active Voice


The active voice expresses the action performed by the subject.


a. Norma Desmond descended the staircase.


The subject (Norma) performs the action (descending) (and quite dramatically, I might add.)


2. Passive Voice


The passive describes the action performed on the subject or when the subject is the result of the action.


a. The staircase was descended by Norma Desmond.


Notice the subject (staircase) is acted upon (it’s descended by Norma).


When the passive voice is used, the subject of the sentence is moved to the other side of the verb, and the object becomes the subject. A form of be is added to the verb, and the subject of the active sentence is either expressed in a prepositional phrase or is dropped. The past participle is always used in the passive voice and a form of be always expresses tense.


3. Voice Usage


a. The Retained Object

When active sentences have direct objects and indirect objects (to whom or for whom the action is directed), the indirect object can become the subject.


Active—Norma Desmond gave Erich von Stroheim her dinner order.

Passive—Erich von Stroheim was given the dinner order by Norma Desmond.


The indirect object (Erich von Stroheim) becomes the subject.


b. Sentence Strength

The passive voice creates a weak, sometimes awkward sentence. Avoid it at all costs, particularly if there’s a string of passive sentences. You’ll lose your reader to boredom or through too many convolutions.


c. Exceptions to the Rule (Of course)

1. Use the passive voice to express an action in which the actor is unknown.


Example:        William Holden’s body was found in the pool. (Who found it? We don’t know, but we can guess. Well, the camera finds it for us. If you’re not an old movie fan, this is Sunset Blvd.)


2. Use the passive voice to express an action in which it is desirable not to disclose the actor.


Example:        William Holden’s body was dumped in the pool. (If we knew who did it, it would ruin a perfectly good movie.)


3. Sometimes, only sometimes, the passive is more convenient and more effective than the active voice.


Example:        Norma Desmond was discovered by Erich von Stroheim and forgotten by the public.


This sentence could be rewritten using the active voice (see below), but it works better as is because Norma is the focus of the movie.


a. Erich von Stroheim discovered Norma Desmond, but the public forgot her.




Verbs appear in three moods: indicative, imperative and subjunctive.


1. Indicative


The mood most commonly used is the indicative. It’s part of a simple statement.


Example:        Norman Bates treated his mother very badly.


2. Imperative


The imperative is used to express a request or command.


Example:        Norman, call your mother.


3. Subjunctive


The subjunctive mood is the most misunderstood mood. (Maybe that’s why it’s moody.) It’s far more common in foreign languages, but in English it’s used to express a condition contrary to fact or to express a wish that a person or thing be in a specified state or condition.


a. The verb were is the most commonly used verb in the subjunctive mood.


b. A telltale sign that the subjunctive is required is the use of the words if or as though.


c. So, if you’re saying something contrary to fact or expressing a wish, and you feel the word if slipping from your lips, say were. If you’re wishing in any kind of way, use were.


1. Contrary to fact

Example:        If I were you, (but I’m not) I wouldn’t check into the Bates Motel.

                         If Norman were here, (but he isn’t, thank god) he’d tell you how much he loves his mother.

                         It isn’t as though I were afraid to take or shower or anything. (but I am)


2. Wish

Example:        I wish he were here.

                         I wish Norman weren’t so freaky-looking.


Notice, ordinarily we’d use was instead of were for agreement reasons, but not in the subjunctive.


Also notice every example is past tense, so it’s called past subjunctive. This is not always the case. There is a present subjunctive although not used nearly as often as the past subjunctive.


The present subjunctive also is used when expressing a condition contrary to fact or a wish. Believe it or not, be is the verb of choice.


1. Contrary to fact


Example:        Norman insisted that he be exonerated. (but they won’t exonerate him)


Now you know why we don’t use this form very often; it’s geeky.


If it’s any help, here’s how the verb to be conjugates:



I am            we are                     (if) I be         (if) we be

you are      you are                    (if) you be    (if) you be

he is           they are                   (if) he be     (if) they be



I was                           we were          (if) I were                    (if) we were

you were                     you were         (if) you were               (if) you were

he/she/it was they were        (if) he/she/it were       (if) they were


I do love the subjunctive, but it looks as if it’s going away. How often do you hear, “If I were you….” Instead, you’re most likely to hear, “If I was you…..” Sigh. The subjunctive is quite elegant.




1. Parts of a Verb


Every verb has four basic forms called principal parts: the infinitive, the present participle, the past and the past participle. From these forms arise every configuration of every verb.


The infinitive is the most basic form of the verb, for example work. Usually the infinitive is paired with the word to, for example, to work.


Example:        I live to work. (Ha!)


The present participle is the -ing form—working. It’s often used as an adjective.


Example:         The poor working stiff never had a chance.


The past is the simple past, e.g. worked.


Example:        I worked all my life.


The past participle looks just like the past, but can act as an adjective.


Example:        The broken TV cast an eerie light.


Both present and past participles use helping verbs (see section 2 for an extensive review), which are usually some form of the verb to be or the verb to have, e.g. is working, have worked.


Example:        I am working on it.

                        The TV was broken.

                        I have worked all my life.

                        It has begun to rain.


Examples of the Principal Parts of Verbs


 Infinitive       Present            Past            Past

                        Indicative                              Participle

 Play               (is) playing        played         (have) played

 Reach            (is) reaching      reached       (have) reached

 Lie                 (is) lying             lay                (have) lain (to recline)

 Lay                 (is) laying           laid               (have) laid (to place)


Note: These last two verbs are irregular. See section 4 for a more extensive discussion of regular and irregular verbs. Also remember how these two verbs differ, most people don’t. How many times have I heard, “I was laying down.” No, you weren’t. You were lying down. You hear it so much it sounds right, doesn’t it. Well, it isn’t.


2. Verb Phrases and Helping Verbs


A verb phrase is composed of a main verb and one or more helping (or auxiliary) verbs. Helping verbs aid the main verb to express its action or make a statement. A verb phrase contains more than one verb but acts as a single verb. Helping verbs often establish time period. The parts of the verb phrase may be separated from one another by other words and stiII be part of the verb.


Example:        When I’m caIIing you, wiII you answer?

                         We have finally completed our work.


Common Helping Verbs

am           has                             can (may) have

are           had                             could (would, should) be

is             can                             could (would, should) have

was         may                            will (shall) have been

were        will (shall) be              might have

do            will (shall) have          might have been

did           has (had) been          must have

have        can (may) be             must have been


3. Transitive and Intransitive


Action verbs may or may not take an object—a noun or pronoun that completes the action by showing who or what is affected by the action. The verbs that take an object are called transitive, that is, the action is carried (transported, perhaps) to the object. The verbs that can express action without an object are called intransitive because the action is carried no farther.


Example:        The catcher dropped the ball.—Transitive (BaIl is the object of dropped.)

                        The pitcher throws.—Intransitive


Some verbs are always transitive (e.g., complete); some are always intransitive (e.g., arrive). However, English can never be easy or logical or standardized, so most verbs can be either.


Example:        The judges explained the contest rules.—Transitive

                         The judges explained.—Intransitive


4. Regular and Irregular


A regular verb is one that forms its past and past participle by adding -d or -ed to the infinitive form.


Infinitive                    Past                Past Participle

To live                         lived                (have) lived

To play                        played             (have) played


An irregular verb is one that forms its past and past participle in some way other than a regular verb, i.e., adding -d or -ed. Of course, it makes very little sense except to the native English speaker, and there are no guidelines on when it happens because most of it is based on Old or Middle English. The only way to know them is to memorize them.


Infinitive        Past                Past Participle

Swim              swam              swum

Write               wrote               (have) written

Hit                   hit                    (have) hit


Note: Believe it or not, sneak is a regular verb. The past and past participle are not snuck, even though that’s what nearly every English-speaking person (and some dictionaries) on this planet says.


Infinitive        Present                     Past                Past

                        Indicative                                          Participle

Sneak             (is sneaking)              sneaked         (have) sneaked


5. Linking Verbs


Some intransitive verbs help to make a statement not by expressing an action, but by describing a state or condition. These verbs link a noun, pronoun or adjective to the subject as description or identification of that subject. The word that is linked is called the subject complement, which always refers to the subject of the linking verb.


Example:        The butler is the main suspect. (subject: butler; subject complement: suspect)

                         This is she. (she refers to this; I know we say, “This is her.” It’s wrong.)

                        He looks guilty. (guilty refers to he)


The most common linking verb is be and its many forms. (For a more extensive discussion of be, see section 6.) However, there are others among them:


Appear           grow

Become         look

Feel                remain

Seem              stay

Smell              taste



 Of course, true to the language, these verbs can also be action verbs.


Example:        The detective looked puzzled.—linking

                         The detective looked for clues.—action


A clue to seeking linking verbs is to substitute seem for the verb.


Example:        The detective looked (seemed) puzzled.

                         All the passengers remained (seemed) calm.


6. Verb to be

Not only is the verb be a linking verb and a helping verb, it can function all alone, thank you. However, it isn’t an action verb, and it’s always intransitive. In fact, if it’s followed by anything, it’s followed by an adverb or a prepositional phrase that acts as an adverb.


Example:        She was there.

                         The house is in the country.


Principal Parts of Be


Present         Present         Past                Past

                        Indicative                              Participle

Be                   (is) being        was                 (have) been


Cautionary Note: Although be is a perfectly fine verb ordinarily, avoid it if at all possible in writing because it isn’t a hard worker. It’s limp, lifeless, inactive, particularly as a helping verb. Remember the verb is the workhorse of the sentence. If you keep the verb present or past tense, the writing is more concise and interesting.


7. Split Infinitive

You think the waters are muddy now? Ha! Few people can agree on whether it’s OK to split infinitives or not. Before we plunge into the controversy, an explanation.



As you know from section 1, the infinitive is the most basic form of the verb paired with the word to. The infinitive splits when something comes between it and its mate. (Ain’t it always the way?)


Example:        to boldly go

                        to not believe


The Rule

In the past the rule concerning split infinitives was hard and fast. Never, never, never split infinitives.


The Reality

If it can be avoided, don’t split the infinitive. At the same time don’t have a cow, man. Sometimes it must be split for readability.


Note: I hate to boldly go, even though it sounds dorky anywhere other than in that whole original Star Trek intro.


Example:        not to believe

                        to go boldly


Other Split Verb Forms

Often helping verbs are split from the main verb. If it reads smoothly, it’s all right.


1. I’ve been busily working on the railroad.

2. He was thoughtfully engaged in his studies.




1. An Explanation


Words can be either singular or plural in number, which means there’s either one or more than one. Big deal, you say. Well, here’s the tricky part. If the subject of a sentence is singular, then the verb must be singular also. If the subject is plural, then the verb is plural. In other words, the subject and the verb must agree in number.


Example:        Norman Bates loves his mother.—singular; present tense

                         Janet Leigh worked in a real estate office.—singular; past tense


                         Mother is not so fond of Norman.—singular; present tense; verb to be


                         Mother was not demonstrative.—singular; past tense; verb to be


                        Norman and Janet eat sandwiches.—plural; present tense


                        Vera Miles and John Gavin looked for Janet everywhere—plural; past tense


                         All Normans are not taxidermists.—plural; present tense; verb to be


                         Norman and his mother were not the All-American family.—plural; past tense; verb to be


                        The neighbors misunderstood Norman.—plural; past tense; irregular verb; does not end in -ed


2. Intervening Phrases


A phrase that comes between a subject and a verb can easily mislead you concerning agreement, particularly if the subject is singular and the phrase contains a plural or vice versa. Always look for the noun that stands alone; no prepositions, no clauses, no nothin’.


Example:        The construction of several highways far from the Bates Motel results in a great lack of business.—singular


                        A combination of loneliness and neglect leads to bizarre behavior in Norman. —singular


            Motels like the Bates Motel in the desert leave a lot to be desired in the way of amenities.—plural


3. Compound Subjects


More than one person, place or thing can be the subject of the sentence, and if that’s the case, then the verb is plural. You can tell it’s compound because the word and comes between these two nouns.


Example:        Norman and Janet hit it off.


However, if the word in between is or or nor, watch out. It can be tricky. If these two words come between two singular nouns, then the verb is singular.


Example:        Either Norman or Janet is demented.


If one of the nouns is singular and one is plural, then the verb agrees with the closest subject.


Example:        Neither Norman nor the cops hurt the fly.


Note: This rule applies usually with the either…or and neither…nor constructions.


4. Pronouns as Subjects


There are some pronouns called indefinite pronouns that present usage problems. It’s their indefiniteness that creates the problem. Some are always singular; some are always plural, and some are will-o’-the-wisps. Often these pronouns are followed by one or more of those ubiquitous, pesky phrases. So, you must first establish the number of the pronoun (one or more than one) to determine what the verb should be.


The following common words are always singular: each, either, neither, one, no one, every one, anyone, someone, everyone, anybody, somebody, everybody.


Example:        Every one of the car dealers wonders why Janet Leigh wants to sell her car.


                        Neither wants to buy the car from her.


When the indefinite pronoun is followed by a definite pronoun (he, she, it, etc.), the definite pronoun must agree in number with the antecedent (the pronoun it refers to). The impulse to use a plural pronoun after one of these words is used is sometimes overpowering, but don’t do it.


INCORRECT—Everybody has their reservation to the Bates     Motel.


CORRECT—Everybody has his reservation to the Bates Motel.


It sounds sexist maybe, but it’s right. You can change it to his and her if you choose, but their is always plural, and everybody is always singular, and never the twain (Mark or otherwise) shall meet.


The following words are always plural: several, many, few, both. The pluralness is inherent in the word.


Example:        Few really understand Norman.


                        Many were looking for Janet, including Martin Balsam.


                        Several of the townspeople check the pond for Janet’s remains.


The following words may be singular or plural, depending on the meaning of the sentence: some, any, none, all and most. If the noun the indefinite pronoun refers to is singular, then the verb is singular; if the noun is plural, the indefinite is plural.


Example:        AIl of the money was missing that Friday afternoon.­—singular because the money is a single unit.


                        AIl of the car dealers were suspicious of Janet.—plural because all refers to more than one dealer.


                        None of the townspeople know Janet stayed at the Bates Motel.—plural because all refers to townspeople.


                        None of the taxidermy that Norman showed Janet displays his best work; she’d see that later.—singular because none refers to taxidermy.




Verbs can either make or break a sentence and therefore the whole composition, whether it’s fact or fiction. Remember verbs carry the action of the sentence, the parts that propel the reader; so make them tote that barge, lift that bale. Yet, how do you know a good verb from an unacceptable one? Don’t despair; there are guidelines for good verb usage that when used leave a cogent, crisp and precise article.


1. Use Active Verbs

Steer clear of the verb to be (am, are, is, was, etc.). It’s flat, boring. Also avoid other lifeless verbs like have or exist. These verbs will put the reader to sleep in no time.


Example:        He is all through with the test.  (Yucky)

                        He finished the test. (Yay.)


                        No effort was spared by the firefighters to save the house. (Yucky)

                        The firefighters spared no effort to save the house. (Yay.)


If there’s a verb in the sentence that ends in -ing, try to change it to present or past tense or an infinitive.


Example:        Try remembering the kind of September when life was slow and, oh, so mellow. (Yucky)

                        Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and, oh, so mellow. (Yay.)


                         While dealing the cards, I sneezed. (Yucky)

                        I sneezed while I dealt the cards. (Yay.)


2. Use the Active Voice


Notice the passive voice uses helping verbs (particularly been, but also is, were, are, etc.), which lengthen and dilute the impact of the sentence. Helping verbs are nearly unnoticeable in our language; they’re mere blips in our brains.


Example:        He had been walking down the street. (Yucky)

                         He walked down the street. (Yay.)


                        After being ejected from the game by the officials, the player sulked on the bench. (Yucky)

                         After the officials ejected him from the game, the player sulked on the bench. (Yay.) or The player sulked on the bench after the officials ejected him from the game.


3. Eliminate Weak Sentence Openers


Starting a sentence with adverbs like there or empty expressions like it is essential that can be the kiss of death and should be avoided whenever possible.


Example:        It is well known that Alfred Hitchcock directed Psycho. (Yucky)

                        Everybody knows Alfred Hitchcock directed Psycho. (Yay.)


You will find as you eliminate weak verbs that superfluous adverbs, unnecessary prepositional phrases, nouns that should be verbs and all manner of written gobbledygook will pop up and beg to be deleted or changed.


Huge Note: When you’ve finished writing whatever you’re writing, do a global search for been. Wherever you find it, rewrite the sentence to eliminate it. There! You’ve tightened up your writing already.


Now, on to other stuff that affects style.




1. Definition


A phrase is a group of words that can begin with a preposition (see Parts of Speech) or the -ing or -ed form of the verb, but it has no verb that acts as a verb and no subject. Phrases act as adjectives or adverbs.


Example:        Virginia Woolf headed to the lighthouse. (modifies headed)


                        Heading to the lighthouse, Virginia paused a moment to think. (modifies Virginia)


There are four kinds of phrases.


a. Prepositional phrases


b. Participial phrases (It uses a verb form and acts as an adjective.)


c. Gerund phrases (It uses the -ing form of the verb and acts as a noun.)


d. Infinitive phrases (It uses the simplest verb form with the word to and can act as a noun, an adjective or an adverb.)



1. Definition


A preposition is a word used to show the relation of a noun or pronoun to some other word in the sentence. A prepositional phrase is a group of words that begin with the preposition and contains a noun or pronoun, the object of the preposition. It acts as an adverb or an adjective.


Example:        for me and my gal     after the ballgame

                        in the doldrums          during the exam


The noun or pronoun that concludes the prepositional phrase is the object of the preposition that begins the prepositional phrase.


Example:        With a song                in my heart

                        on the  steps              behind the eight-ball


2. Function


Prepositional phrases are usually modifiers or limiters, i.e., as adjectives or adverbs. Occasionally, a prepositional phrase is used as a noun.


Example as a noun: After dinner will be too late. (The prepositional phrase is the subject of the sentence; it’s used as a noun.)


NOTE: Adjectives tell what kind, which one or how many


The Adjective Phrase

An adjective phrase is a prepositional phrase that modifies a noun or a pronoun.


Example:        Without a net he walked the tightrope. (modifies the pronoun he)


                        The location of Robert Parker’s novels is Boston. (modifies the noun location)


The Adverb Phrase

An adverb phrase is a prepositional phrase that modifies a verb, an adjective or another adverb.


NOTE: An adverb tells how, how much, how often, when or where.


He practices before a ballgame. (modifies the verb practices and tells when)


He threw the ball far to the left. (modifies the adverb far and tells where)


Bill Clinton was true to his word. (modifies the adjective true and tells how and let’s not go into the truth of that statement)


3. Punctuation


Usually, prepositional phrases are not set off by commas. However, as always in English there’s an exception.


If a series of prepositional phrases appears at the beginning of a sentence, the whole series is set off by a comma.


At the edge of the forest near the nuclear power plant in my home town, my dog Spot cornered a three-headed raccoon.




1. Definition

Phrases that contain verbals (certain forms of the verb) are still phrases because there’s no subject and no verb acting only as the verb. Verbals are verb forms that don’t and can’t act as a predicate (the main verb) in a sentence. They can, like verbs, express action, take modifiers and may be followed by complements (words that complete the subject or verb, including direct objects), but they can’t stand alone in the sentence as the verb. They act as other parts of speech in the sentence, for example, adjectives, nouns or adverbs.


The three kinds of verbal phrases are the participial phrase, the gerund phrase and the infinitive phrase.

The Participle and the Participial Phrase

1. Definition


A participle is a verb form that’s used as an adjective. There are present participles, and there are past participles. (Nothing is ever easy in English.) The present participle is the -ing form of the verb. The past participle may end in -ed, -d, -t, -en or -n (walked, pleased, felt, taken, seen).


Example:       I saw you crying in the chapel. (modifies you)


                        George Foreman, saved by the bell, ate six burgers, three bags of fries and a shake at ringside. (modifies George)


NOTE: These two forms can also be used as verbs if there’s also a helping verb. See the section on verbs.


A participial phrase contains a participle and any modifiers that directly relate to the participle.


2. Function


Like all adjectives participial phrases can appear anywhere in a sentence, preferably close to the word it modifies. Actually, if it isn’t next to the word it modifies, it’s considered misplaced or dangling because it’s just hanging around.


Example:       Katherine Hepburn, gazing skyward, said she felt fine. (gazing skyward is the phrase, and it acts as an adjective and modifies Kate)





1. If the phrase appears at the beginning of the sentence, there’s usually always a comma.


2. If the phrase appears anywhere else in the sentence, it may or may not be separated by commas although it usually is. If you choose to use commas, remember the entire phrase must be set off.


Example:        Taken for a foreigner, the man grew frustrated with the waiter.



1. Definition

A gerund is a verb form ending in -ing that’s used as a noun.


Walking          reading           planting


Seeing            feeling             being


NOTE: The -ing form of the verb has other uses also. See the section on verbs and participial phrases.


A gerund phrase is a group of words with a gerund and any modifiers that directly relate to the gerund.


Walking down the street

Reading a book, tea leaves and the writing on the wall

Planting one foot in front of another


2. Function


Since a gerund acts as a noun, it can appear anywhere in the sentence a noun does and in the same capacity.


Example:        I prefer reading a book. (The gerund reading plus a book constitute the gerund phrase. Reading acts as a noun and is the direct object of prefer.)


Try to jump the hurdle without breaking a leg. (The gerund breaking plus a leg are the phrase. Breaking becomes the object of the preposition without, and a leg is breaking’s direct object.)


Note: Remember English is treacherous.


3. Punctuation


Since the gerund acts as a noun, it’s punctuated exactly the same way nouns are. That means commas are virtually never used with gerund phrases because you’ll be separating it from its verb either as a subject or a direct object or from its preposition, and we never, ever separate closely related parts of speech and parts of the sentence, do we?


Look at the examples in this section. No commas. In fact, you wouldn’t probably even think about inserting a comma because you intuitively know that word is a noun even though intellectually you know it’s a verb.




1. Definition


An infinitive is the simplest form of the form usually preceded by the word to.


to be               to see             to read


to run               to plant            to do


Sometimes the to is omitted, but the verb remains an infinitive.


Help make beef Wellington. (That’s really to make.)


An infinitive is composed of the infinitive and any modifiers that directly relate to the infinitive.


to run ahead               to see with new eyes            to read a book


2. Function


Like infinitives alone infinitives phrases can act as nouns, adjectives or adverbs.


NOTE: Adjectives tell what kind, which one and how many. Adverbs tell how, when, where, to what extent.


Example:        To work alone is the ultimate responsibility. (Alone is an adverb modifying work. The infinitive is the subject of the sentence.)


2. I ran to answer the phone. (Phone is the direct object of answer. The infinitive is an adverb modifying ran.)


3. He said he was happy to meet them after hearing so much about

them. (The first them is the direct object of meet. The two prepositional phrases after hearing (ohmigod, a gerund) so much and about them are part of the infinitive phrase. The infinitive is an adjective modifying happy. There!)


3. Punctuation


Whatever rules apply to the part of speech and part of the sentence the phrase acts as apply also to the phrase. Notice, however, no commas are used in any of the examples.


NOTE: Infinitives can also be used as clauses, but they’ll be discussed in the section on clauses.


The major difference between clauses and phrases is the verb. Clauses have them; phrases don’t.




1. Definition


A clause is a complete sentence with a subject and a verb and is found in a complex or compound/complex sentence (see below). There are independent clauses, which are regular old sentences and dependent clauses, which are not regular old sentences. A dependent clause is, in fact, the part that’s not as important as the other clause or clauses in the whole sentence and so is subordinated. There are words that introduce these dependent clauses, which is your head’s up that it’s a dependent clause. Dependent clauses can’t stand alone; they act as nouns, adjectives or adverbs.


Example:        When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state. (adjective modifies I) (a little Shakespeare never hurt anyone.)


2. Adjective Clauses


An adjective clause acts just like an adjective. It describes a noun or a pronoun only it has a subject, a verb and possibly some other words, but it’s still an adjective. They tell what kind, which one or how many.


Example:        The person who finds the statue of the black bird will be very wealthy. (describes person; which person? The one who finds the black bird. Subject: who; verb: finds; introductory word: who)


The words that introduce these clauses most of the time begin with pronouns (who, whom, which, that [which isn’t always a pronoun, but is in adjective clauses])


Example:        The black bird statue that I saw wasn’t the right one. (describes the statue; which statue? The one  that I saw. Subject: I; verb: saw; introductory word: that.)

3. Adverb Clauses


An adverb clause acts just like, you guessed it, an adverb. It modifies or describes a verb, an adjective or another adverb only with an introductory word, a subject and a verb and sometimes some other words, but taken altogether they act as an adverb. They tell how, when, where, how often, how much


Example:        Sam Spade was faster on the draw than Wilmer was. (describes faster; how much faster? Than Wilmer was. Subject: Wilmer; verb: was; introductory word: than.)


Some of the words that introduce adverb clauses are:

After                because         before             whether

As if                if                      since               than

though although          when              


and some others, but these are the most common ones most used.


Example: After all the turmoil was over, the black bird was the wrong statue. (describes was; when was it? After all the turmoil was over. Subject; turmoil; verb: was; introductory word: after.)


4. Noun Clause


A noun clause is used as a noun, but the clause still has its own nouns and a verb and sometimes some other words. The whole clause means a person, place or thing. The introductory words for these clauses are pronouns:

That     who                 whoever                      which              whatever         whichever


Unlike a regular pronoun or the pronoun used in an adjective clause, these words don’t need to refer to something.


Example:        Sam Spade gave the black bird to whoever had the gun. (part of the sentence: object of the preposition to. Subject: whoever; verb: had; introductory word: whoever.)




1. Commas

If a clause or a phrase is essential to the meaning of the sentence, do not use a comma. Usually, when a clause or phrase is at the beginning of the sentence, the comma is necessary.


Example:        Trailing a boa, she made an entrance. (phrase; describes she)


                        Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses. (adjective clause; describes girls. Subject: who; verb: wear; introductory word: who.)


                        Because I never saw a purple cow, my life is diminished. (adverb clause; describes diminished. Subject: I; verb: saw; introductory word: because.)




Fragments are missing something, a subject or a verb. They’re usually a clause or a phrase that is separated from what is really the rest of the sentence. Sometimes fragments are allowed for dramatic effect or in dialog. Otherwise, they’re just plain wrong.


Example:        Following your lead.

                        Whenever I want something.




As if all this stuff weren’t enough (notice the use of the subjunctive), you have to be careful where you put clauses and phrases (and adverbs too). You might say something you don’t want to say, or you might confuse the reader. To avoid confusion, put the phrase or clause as close as possible to the words they modify. These used to be called dangling participles, but that was just a little too arcane even for grammarians and didn’t really describe all the different ways to put words in the wrong place.



Example:        The thief decided to make a run for it when he saw the policeman, abandoning the stolen car. (Wrong! What?! The cop abandoned the car?)


                        Abandoning the car, the thief decided to make a run for it when he saw the policeman. (Oh, I get it now. Bad thief. Bad thief.)




Varying sentences in length and complexity by using multiple subjects, verbs, clauses and phrases adds depth, breadth, rhythm and interest to your writing.


Sentence Patterns

In English there are four sentence patterns: simple, compound, complex and compound/complex.


1. Simple

It has a single subject and verb and no clauses.


Example:        The little boy laughed.


It has more than one subject but only one verb and no clauses.


Example:        The little boy and the little girl tossed the ball.


It has more than one verb but only one subject and no clauses.


Example:        The little boy laughed and cried at the same time.


2. Compound


The compound sentence combines two or more simple sentences and joins them with a comma plus a joining word, such as and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet. (See all the stuff on commas.) Both parts of the sentence have equal weight to two closely related ideas.


Example:        I wanted to see Pride and Prejudice (the sixth version), but he wanted to see Die Hard, Part 12.


                        Life stinks, and then you die.


Pay attention! Don’t forget the comma!!! You must use the comma, or you have a construction error called a run-on sentence or a comma splice.


3. Complex


Two complete sentences are joined, but one of them becomes less important. The less important sentence begins with a dependent word, making it a clause.


Here are some of those dependent words.

after                although                      before             because        

when               since                           until                             if


Example:        We took the test. (simple sentence)

                        We went out drinking. (simple sentence)

                        After we took the test, we went out drinking. (complex sentence)



                        I made sure I had checks. (simple sentence)

                        I went shopping. (simple sentence)

                        I made sure I had checks before I went shopping. (complex sentence)


4. Compound/Complex


The compound/complex sentence combines three or more sentences. Two of them are independent and are punctuated with a comma. The third is introduced by a dependent word and is less important than the other two, making it a clause. This is a sentence that can sing and dance, but watch out that you don’t trip over your feet.


Example:        The power went out. (simple sentence)

                        I was working in Word. (simple sentence)

                        Brenda was adding names to the database. (simple sentence)

                        When the power went out, I was working in Word, and Brenda was adding names to the database. (lollapalooza compound/complex sentence)




Transitions tie ideas, sentences and paragraphs together and keep the reader’s eyes moving across the page. Usually, they’re just one word or a couple of words, but they’re vital to interesting reading. These transitions indicate relationships.


1. Transitions that add

And     also     in addition      too       furthermore    moreover        likewise         


2. Transitions that contrast

Although         however          nevertheless


3. Transitions that prove

Because         obviously        in fact 


4. Transitions that exclude

Yet       still       despite           sometimes (Yes, I know the word but excludes, but I don’t like to see it starting a sentence, no matter who says it’s OK now. Phooey.)


5. Transitions that emphasize

Definitely        positively        absolutely       without a doubt


6. Transitions that show progression

first, second, third                  A, B, C            after    now     next


7. Transitions that set an example

for example    for instance   


8. Transitions that end it

in conclusion              thus (if you must, but to me this is very old-fashioned)