Grammar and Writing Clearly

Since this class is also a writing course, you will be graded on your ability to write well. That means you are responsible for your spelling and grammatical errors. Since everyone has access to a dictionary and a computer with a spell check function, any spelling errors are your own fault. Keep an eye out for its/it’s; your/you’re; their/there/they’re; etc. Also, make sure that you do not confuse possessives with plurals. For example, in the sentence,

She likes to play with her dog’s.

the word dog’s is not plural. It is the possessive form of the word dog. To correct this sentence you either need to drop the apostrophe or add an object to the possessive:

She likes to play with her dogs.


She likes to play with her dog’s toys.

In the first sentence, she has many dogs with whom she likes to play. In the second sentence, she has one dog, and she likes to play with its (“its” is an exception to the rules for possessives) toys.

There are innumerable rules for grammar, and I suggest you acquaint yourself with the most common. You can go to the library and pick up The Chicago Manual of Style or Kate Turabian’s Manual for Writing. Both are excellent guides. Most importantly, you need to write clearly. You need to avoid anything that is vague. Remember, the simplest sentence is often the best. Do not think that writing obscurely will help your grade. For example,

In the 18th century it was difficult to move from one social class to another.

In the 18th century social mobility took on a new definition and a new realm of implication.

The first sentence makes a clear and concise statement. The second sentence explains nothing and does not hide any ignorance of the facts.

One grammatical “no-no”” that can make your writing unclear is the use of the passive voice. The passive voice happens when the subject does not perform the action on the verb. For instance, in the sentence,

George takes the money.

the subject, George, performs the action of taking. This sentence is in the active voice because the subject does the action. If we were to inverse this sentence and write,

The money is taken by George.

the money does not perform the action of taking. This sentence is in the passive voice. The sentence in the active voice states the situation more succinctly and sounds better. Another problem with the passive voice occurs when the writer leaves the passive voice construction incomplete as in the sentence:

The money is taken.

In this sentence, the reader is confused and wonders, “The money was taken by whom?” In historical writing, you must be as precise as possible. Writing in the active voice will help you avoid making a simple mistake like the incomplete passive construction.

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