Nov 15, 2012 - Revision    Comments Off on Polishing Your Prose

Polishing Your Prose

There are many things to think about when writing a paper (organization, citing sources, avoiding informal language, transitions, and more), but have you ever thought about how well you craft your sentences?  Just like poets or fiction writers, academic writers can craft sentences that are active and engaging, keeping the reader interested in not only the information presented, but also the way in which the writer tells that information. A post by Janice Hardy, a fiction writer for teens, gives a neat checklist of words to rethink. Those words are often used when they aren’t needed or else can indicate that a sentence could be better worded. While some words on the list are likely only applicable to fiction (There might be some papers that use the word, smelled, but not many.) most are found in both fiction and academic writing and indicate parallel problems, like wordiness or lack of clarity.  Be verbs in particular (verbs like is, am, were, are) are some to watch out for. Is there a more interesting word you could use to rephrase the sentence? Are you using passive voice?


Sep 25, 2012 - Grammar    Comments Off on Grammar Debate: Sentences Beginning with “But” or “And”

Grammar Debate: Sentences Beginning with “But” or “And”

Warning: Do not begin sentences with “but” or “and” or use debatable grammatical structures on schoolwork unless your professor has explicitly told you that the structure in question is acceptable. This and other points of debatable grammar are highlighted here for thought and discussion only.

Many people think rules of grammar are set in stone and that if they just memorize the requirements, they’ll be set. But it’s a little more complicated than that. Rules of grammar not only change over time, but some rules change depending on whom you ask. One of those debatable points is the old admonition never to begin a sentence with “and” or “but.”

The root of this argument is the fact that “and” and “but” are conjunctions, joining words. If they appear at the beginning of a sentence, they are not joining anything. Thus, many people consider such sentences to be sentence fragments and recommend combining the sentence beginning with “and” or “but” with the sentence immediately before it.

On the other hand, writers have used these words to begin sentences for years, choosing this form to give added emphasis to the additional or contrasting information they want to convey. Recently this practice has gained more credibility. Writers who use these sentences argue that as long as the rest of the sentence is a complete sentence, the sentence should present a whole thought, and therefore the sentence is grammatical. A sentence does not have to stand completely alone. After all, this paragraph begins with the phrase “on the other hand,” which implies that there must be at least one sentence written before it.

What do you think? Should serious writers start sentences this way? Is it a more interesting beginning or just sloppy writing? Weigh in below in the comments.

Sep 6, 2012 - Grammar    Comments Off on Comma Craziness

Comma Craziness

What is the most common grammatical concern that people have when they come into the Writing Center?  I have found that  those pesky punctuation marks known as commas cause so much grief for the average college student.  Either people use the comma too often, or they ignore the comma altogether. It seems like everyone either has commaphobia or commaphelia!  There can be middle ground.  This tiny punctuation mark can make all the difference in your writing.  So, I’m going to give you the low down on the comma and some hard and fast rules that you can follow whenever you’re just not sure.

First up, let’s talk about bringing two independent clauses together.  This task can occasionally seem daunting.  How do you know if you have an independent clause?  How do you know if a comma is needed?  What are those FANBOYS people keep talking about?  Take a deep breath.  If both sentences can stand on their own, then they are independent clauses.  “I went to the store” is an independent clause.  “I bought milk” is an independent clause.  These two sentences can be put together in a complex sentence as long as you have a conjunction and a comma.  Conjunction, you ask?  Yes!  Here’s where FANBOYS comes into the picture. FANBOYS is actually just an acronym! The conjunctions included in this acronym are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.  With these simple ingredients you can cook up quite a sentence.  Let’s take our first example.  Take those two clauses, one conjunction, and a little comma, put them together, and you will get a sentence that looks something like this: I went to the store, and I bought milk.  However, if you do not have two independent clauses, meaning that one sentence cannot stand on its own, then you do not need a comma.  For example, you could say “I went to the store and bought milk.”  No comma is necessary.   See!  That wasn’t so hard!

So, that’s one way to use a comma, but there is another, more insidious comma that lurks around to confuse writers.  This comma is used for introductory phrases. More often than not, you use words like after, before, until, while, when, because, as, even though, although, and as if in your writing.  These words are called subordinate conjunctions, and, when used, they require a comma.  For instance, you would say “After the movie, we should get dinner.”  “After the movie” would be your introductory phrase that uses a subordinate conjunction.  Therefore, it requires a comma after it.  These types of introductory phrases are the most common, but you can also use prepositional phrases and conjunctive adverbs.  A prepositional phrase might look something like this: “In the garden, flowers started to bloom with all the colors of spring.”  “In the garden” would be the prepositional phrase.  A conjunctive adverb would look like this: “In fact, I sold more cookies than anyone else in my club.”  “In fact” would be the conjunctive adverb.

So, fear no more!  Commas are not random punctuation marks that pop up in the English language just to confuse us.  There are rules that, if you follow them, will make your writing more complex and interesting.  If you have any other concerns, you can visit the Fredericksburg Campus Writing Center’s website for more information on commas and other pesky punctuation marks.  You can also always come and visit us in Trinkle 107-A!

Sep 5, 2012 - Grammar    Comments Off on Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar

When you think of grammar, you probably think about whether your subjects and verbs agree or whether you are using correct pronouns, but did you know that the grammar you learn in school is not the only kind there is? Formal grammar, called prescriptive grammar, tells people what they should say and write. It prescribes. Grammar that people use daily is called descriptive grammar. This type of grammar describes how people do speak and write. For instance “I ain’t got it” is an ungrammatical sentence according to prescriptive grammar, but since it reflects actual use, it fits descriptive grammar.

Prescriptive grammar is important for students, because it is the grammar that society has agreed upon for academic work and professional situations, but descriptive grammar can add some flavor to informal settings. Here I’ve prescriptively corrected the grammar in the most famous line of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”: I can’t get any satisfaction. It just doesn’t sound the same; does it?

Aug 28, 2012 - Reminders    Comments Off on Back to School

Back to School

It’s the start of a new school year here at UMW, time to work out schedules, buy books, and get prepared for the demands of your courses. You’re probably not writing or researching any papers just yet, but there are a few things you can do in this first week to make your writing for this semester much easier.

As you get your syllabi, make notes of due dates and requirements for papers. Mark dates on a calendar and budget the time you will need for research, composition, and editing. Factor Writing Center visits into the editing time and try not to schedule them for the day before your paper is due. Make sure you’ll have adequate time to incorporate any changes or additions to your paper. (Bonus tip: Be sure to book writing center appointments well in advance of your due date, especially if a visit is required by your professor. During busy times, appointments do fill up.)

Feel free to stop by the Fredericksburg Campus Writing Center on Friday, August 31st at 12 for an introduction to the writing center or come to the Fredericksburg Campus Writing Center open house from 10AM until 5PM on September 4th. In addition, you can always drop by either writing center during their hours of operation to ask questions, learn about the centers, and have some candy or a cup of coffee.

Jul 23, 2012 - Uncategorized    Comments Off on Welcome


Welcome to the UMW Writing Centers’ blog! On this site you will find news about the two writing centers, writing related information and event details, and perspectives about writing and tutoring by folks on both the Fredericksburg and Stafford Campuses. We hope everybody is studying and working hard during these last days of the summer semester! Expect plenty of updates here in the fall. Edit