Author:
Emilie Ganter
Subject:
Composition and Rhetoric, Language, Grammar and Vocabulary
Material Type:
Lecture
Level:
Community College / Lower Division
Tags:
  • Coherence
  • English Composition
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Style
  • Tennessee Open Education
  • Transitions
  • Video Lecture
  • english-composition
  • video-lecture
    License:
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike
    Language:
    English
    Media Formats:
    Text/HTML, Video

    Video: Saying What You Mean

    Video: Saying What You Mean

    Overview

    This lecture will discuss common grammar errors and stylistic weaknesses in college students' writing--including problems like run-ons, misplaced and dangling modifiers, and illogical tense shifts--and will suggest ways to revise confusing sentences and paragraphs.  The lecture is offered here in three different formats: video without captions, video with captions, and a full transcript.

    Videos and transcript

    This lecture is intended for writing students whose technical control is already strong but need work on common errors that college students and high-school writers make: dangling modifiers, run-ons, unclear pronoun reference, and illogical tense shifts.  Students are encouraged to use coordination and subordination to reduce "choppiness" and make logical connections in sentences.  They are shown how to "harness" rambling sentences and to make vague sentences more precise.

    Saying What You Mean: Avoiding errors and writing with clarity and style

    This lecture will discuss common grammar errors and stylistic weaknesses in college students' writing--including problems like run-ons, misplaced and dangling modifiers, and illogical tense shifts--and will suggest ways to revise confusing sentences and paragraphs.  The lecture is offered here in three different formats: video without captions, video with captions, and a full transcript.

    Video without captions:

    Saying What You Mean

     

    Video with captions:

    Saying What You Mean--captioned

     

    Transcript: SAYING WHAT YOU MEAN

        0:00:00 - 0:00:34

    Narrator:

        Welcome!  In this video, we'll talk about sentences—about how to make them clear and precise so that they say what you want them to.  Even when you're well aware of your purpose for writing, and the audience for which your writing is intended, it's hard to tell sometimes whether you're making yourself clear for that audience.  And it's really frustrating to have a reader—especially a teacher—point out something in your essay and say that it's “confusing,” or “muddy,” or “vague.”  What does that mean exactly, and how can you improve that passage?

        0:00:34 – 0:05:00

        Your most important goal in writing anything is to communicate clearly, and the comment “vague” indicates that you've been unsuccessful.  Something that is vague is hard to see, or, in writing, to understand.

    (Reading sample:

    [The definition of vague appears:] adjective; indefinite or indistinct in nature or character, as ideas or feelings)

    Narrator:

    A very complicated concept, well explained, should not be accused of vagueness—even if some readers have to work to comprehend it.  But sometimes, a passage is vague because the writer just provides too little information.  Here’s an example from an earlier video.  Pause the video for a moment and read the passage.

        (Reading sample:

    I am an excellent student, and I have contributed a great deal to my community.  In addition, I have impressive extracurricular accomplishments.  For four years in high school—and for the three years of middle school before that—I have worked to establish a reputation for integrity, and everyone respects me for it.  I am a school leader, a varsity athlete, and a hard-working scholar.)

    Narrator:

        You can see how the unsupported generalizations make this paragraph vague: it would be hard to tell the difference between this candidate and any other, without the concrete details needed to support the abstract points.  Again, here it is with some of the details filled in to support and explain the generalizations.

        (Reading sample:

    I am an excellent student, having maintained a 4.0 average over four years at Central High School and in a wide range of difficult subjects.  You can see from my transcript that I earned scores of 5 and 6 at the end of my junior year on AP exams in Spanish and psychology, and I've even earned A's in calculus and physics.  Meanwhile, I have worked an average of fifteen hours a week doing volunteer work at places like the Center City Shelter and the Women's Refuge; I've helped build four houses in the summer for Habitat for Humanity...)

    Narrator:

        But sometimes, even vivid material can be undermined by confusing sentences.  For example, here’s a passage with lots of concrete detail, but it is hard to follow.  Pause the video and read the short passage.  See if you can spot the problem areas.

        (Reading sample:

    Ben’s hands were sweating.  He opened the boss’s door.  He was alone in the office.  Mr. Benito always sat in there with his door closed.  He made his employees uncomfortable.  He bought a huge desk.  He replaced his “guest chair” with a broken, unstable one.  Ben felt very small sitting on the other side of that desk in that broken chair.  It was wide and high.  He rocked in the broken chair.  And almost fell over.  Mr. Benito looked down at Ben.  He silently raised his eyebrows.  Ben was so nervous.  He didn’t ask for a raise.)

    Narrator:

        There are some simple reasons for a reader’s confusion.  First is the problem of pronoun reference.  Pronouns are little words that stand for nouns that we’ve already been introduced to:  “he” for Ben, for example, “it” for the chair.   At least a couple of these are really confusing.  Which of the two men does “he” refer to?  This confusion is a result of an error in pronoun reference.  We all use pronouns in our writing, as we should, but a passage will become incoherent if it isn’t clear what “it” refers to or “this” or “she.”  So the first job we have here is to improve pronoun reference—in this case by replacing the problem pronoun with the noun it was meant to refer to.

    (Reading sample:

    He opened the boss's door.  Mr. Benito was alone in the office.)

    Narrator:

    Here's another one.  Does “it” refer to the chair or the desk?

    (Reading sample:

    Ben felt very small sitting on the other side of the desk in that broken chair.  The desk was wide and high.)

    Narrator:

    So pronoun reference needs to be clear in order to hold a passage together so that it communicates a point.

    Another problem is that the passage is made up of a series of short “choppy” sentences without connections spelled out clearly between them.  As you’ve learned elsewhere in the course, well organized details and plenty of transition phrases can help make a point coherent.  But so can sentence structure.  One way to improve sentences themselves is to combine related pairs and sets of sentences and to spell out the connection between them.  For example, take these three short sentences about Mr. Benito:

        (Reading sample:

    He made his employees uncomfortable.  He bought a huge desk.  He replaced his “guest chair” with a broken, unstable one.)

    Narrator:

    What is the relationship among them?  They add up to just one point.  That Mr. Benito bought the huge desk and replaced the comfortable chair with an unstable one in order to make people uncomfortable—probably to put them at a disadvantage in his office.  So we need to say that.  First we can replace the first short sentence with a phrase—an infinitive phrase--that tells us WHY he replaced the furniture.  

    (Reading sample:

    He made his employees uncomfortable.  He bought a huge desk.  He replaced his “guest chair” with a broken, unstable one.)

    Narrator:

    Combining the infinitive phrase with the sentence that follows shows us that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between Mr. Benitos’ intention and his action.   Now let's add the other effect of that cause.  “To make his employees uncomfortable, he bought a huge desk and replaced his “guest chair” with a broken, unstable one.”  Now, we readers can follow the writer's logic.  So you can turn a sentence into a phrase that’s part of a longer sentence in order to show logical connections between them. There are lot of different types of phrases—for example: infinitive phrases, participial phrases, gerund phrases, and prepositional phrases—all can be used for this purpose.

        0:05:00 -  0:09:57

         Another way to reduce “choppiness” is to combine sentences using conjunctions.  Here’s an example.  

        (Reading sample:

     Ben was frightened.  He didn’t ask for a raise.)

    Narrator:

        These two sentences are logically related.  One is the reason for the other.

       (Reading sample:

    Ben was frightened, so he didn’t ask for a raise.)

    Narrator:

        In this case, we’ve created a compound sentence, which is a sentence composed of two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction.  An independent clause is a string of words that COULD stand alone as a sentence but is, instead, part of a longer construction. Here’s one.  (IMAGE:  “Ben was frightened” becomes highlighted.)  And here’s the other.  (IMAGE:  “he didn’t ask for a raise” becomes highlighted.)  The little word between them is a coordinating conjunction.  There are just a handful of coordinating conjunctions to choose from.  And one of those isn't used much as a coordinating conjunction any more.  (IMAGE:  “but,” “or,” “yet,” “so,” “and” and “nor” appear, with “for” crossed out.)   Here’s another way to combine those two related sentences.

        (Reading sample:

    Since Ben was frightened, he didn’t ask for a raise.)  This time, we’ve created a complex sentence, combining two sentences by adding a subordinating conjunction to one of them.  A subordinating conjunction does what it says it does:  it makes one of the clauses subordinate to the other.  That is, the subordinate clause now WORKS for the other clause which is still independent—just as a subordinate in the military or in the workplace works for someone else.  Like the compound sentence, the complex sentence explains the logical connection between the two clauses: usually it answers one of the newspaper questions (who, what, where, when, why, how, under what circumstances).  In this case, the subordinate clause asks, “Why?”  Why didn't Ben ask for a raise?  He didn't, since he was frightened.  There are too many subordinating conjunctions to list them all here, but here are some examples, along with the relative pronouns that can also be used to subordinate.  (IMAGE:  Two columns.  Left column is labeled “subordinating conjunctions” and contains “because,” “since,” “when,” “if,” “although,” “before,” “after,” and “while.”  The right column is labeled “relative pronouns” and contains “who,” “whom,” “whose,” “which,” and “that.”)

    Narrator:

         Note that some of these have other functions in other contexts; for example, “after” and “before” can also function as prepositions in phrases like “after the storm” or “before the party.”   The difference is that when used as subordinating conjunctions, each is followed by a string of words that contains a subject and an active verb.  In fact, it is the subject and active verb that distinguish a clause from a phrase.  The goal of all of this sentence combining is that you produce sentences in which connections are spelled out for the reader.  Here's how we might modify the paragraph about Ben and Mr. Benito to make those connections.

     (Reading sample:

    Ben’s hands were sweating.  He opened the boss’s door.  Mr. Benito was alone in the office.  Mr. Benito always sat in there with his door closed.  He made his employees uncomfortable.  He bought a huge desk.  He replaced his “guest chair” with a broken, unstable one.  Ben felt very small sitting on the other side of that desk in that broken chair.  The desk was wide and high.  He rocked in the broken chair.  He almost fell over.  Mr. Benito looked down at Ben.  He silently raised his eyebrows.  Ben was frightened.  He didn’t ask for a raise.)

    Narrator:

         In this revision, we’ve combined sentences, turned sentences into phrases, and also created some compound verbs—that is, two verbs for one subject.   We also changed a verb from simple past tense to past perfect tense in order to establish the correct order of events.  Here, you can’t tell when things happened.  “He made his employees uncomfortable.  He bought a huge desk.  He replaced his “guest chair” with a broken, unstable one.  But we can fix this problem.

    (Reading sample:

    “He bought a huge desk,” changes to “To make his employees uncomfortable, he had bough a huge desk...)

    Narrator:

    Now you can tell that the “buying” took place before Ben even showed up for his meeting.  So you can see that improving clarity and reducing vagueness takes careful reading and editing.  It’s worth doing, though.  If you make your reader do too much of the work of deciphering your writing, that reader will probably give up—or at least doubt your authority.  Good ideas are worth some work!

        0:09:57 -  0:11:25

         Finally, be careful not to go too far as you combine sentences, and end up with long rambling, constructions that try the patience of the reader.  Here’s what a revision of the Ben and Benito paragraph might look like gone wrong.  Take a moment to pause the video and read it.

       (Reading sample:

    Ben’s hands were sweating as he opened the boss’s door and found Mr. Benito was alone in the office where he always sat alone and had made everyone uncomfortable by replacing the “guest chair” with a broken, unstable one that made Ben feel very small sitting on the other side of that desk in that broken chair.  The desk was wide and high and he rocked in the broken chair and he almost fell over.  Mr. Benito looked down at Ben and he silently raised his eyebrows and Ben so was frightened that he almost fell over in that rocky, unstable chair in front of Mr. Benito’s desk that he’d replaced, and he didn’t ask for a raise.)

    Narrator:

        Of course, there are also sentence-construction errors in this revision, but the biggest problem is that the writer has let it flow without giving the reader the necessary logical signals to follow its direction—if there is one.   There are other sentence-construction errors and weaknesses that you should be aware of as you make your sentences more complex and more sophisticated.  It’s a good idea to make yourself familiar with these.

        Run-on sentences:  (IMAGE:  “Who knows whether there’s life on another planet it is entirely possible that we are not alone,” changes to “Who knows whether there’s life on another planet. It is entirely possible that we are not alone.)  Mixed or “tangled” construction.  (IMAGE:  “I decided that I wanted to go to college out of state and told my parents, who said no, is when I started to look at local schools,” changes to “I decided that I wanted to go to college out of state and told my parents, who said no.  At this point, I had to start looking at local schools.”)  Faulty parallelism.  (IMAGE:  “That strange man has bad teeth, his feet are swollen, and no hair,” changes to “That strange man has bad teeth, swollen feet, and no hair.”)  Faulty predication.  (IMAGE:  “To hear a child laughing is one of the sweetest sounds of a child can make,” changes to “Laughter is one of the sweetest sounds a child can make.”)

        0:11:25 -  0:13:53

        One more error that can result from good intentions—that is, from building connections into your writing—is the dangling or misplaced modifier.  Let’s look at these more closely.  A misplaced modifier is a modifying or descriptive word or phrase that been put in the wrong place in a sentence.  It seems to modify the wrong noun or verb.

    (Reading sample:

    We saw piles of garbage walking on the beach.)

    Narrator:

    Because it immediately follows garbage, the phrase “walking on the beach” seems to be describing it instead of the speaker.  You need to move the modifier so that it describes the right thing.  (IMAGE:  “We saw piles of garbage walking on the beach,” changes to “Walking on the beach, we saw piles of garbage.)  Here's another example.

      (Reading sample:

    Jennifer testified about the people that she’d robbed in court.)

    Narrator:

        Here you've got Jennifer robbing people under the judge's nose.  To fix this sentence, you need to move the misplaced modifier close to Jennifer, so that it describes her testifying.  (IMAGE:  “Jennifer testified about the people that she’d robbed in court” changes to “Jennifer testified in court about the people she'd robbed.)   A dangling modifier is a modifying word or phrase—usually at the beginning of a sentence—that’s missing the noun that it should be modifying.  It’s dangling out there, looking for a noun to latch on to.

      (Reading sample:

    Studying for her French exam, the clothes dryer in Charity’s apartment caught fire.)

    Narrator:

        Here, the clothes dryer seems to be studying for the French exam.  The modifier “studying for her French exam” needs someone to modify.  So you need to work the real student into the sentence.  (IMAGE:  “Studying for her French exam, the clothes dryer in Charity’s apartment caught fire,” changes to “While Charity was studying for her French exam, the clothes dryer in Charity's apartment caught fire.”)

       (Reading sample:

    Riding in a tour bus, cows grazed in Alpine meadows.)

    Narrator:

        Finally, you've got cows in that bus.  So what will you do to remedy the situation?  (IMAGE:  “Riding in a tour bus, cows grazed in Alpine meadows,” changes to “Riding in a tour bus, we could see cows grazing in Alpine meadows.)  Unfortunately, dangling and misplaced modifiers can result in some pretty funny sentences, so they are good things to watch out for.   Producing coherent essays requires careful reading and editing.  No one gets everything right the first time they draft a piece of writing.  So make sure you give yourself enough time to read over what you've written, and make adjustments, even if it's just the last few minutes of an exam period.  Remember that you want to say what you mean, so you have to become a careful, honest reader of your own work.

        0:13:53 – 0:14:07

         In this video, we’ve looked at some of the ways that you can work at the sentence-level to make your writing more coherent an effective.  You’ll be putting your expertise to work editing passages later in the course.  Thanks for watching!

        

        

        

        

        

        
     

    Attributions

     

    "Vague." "Dictionary.com. Accessed August 2015. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/vague