- It does not subscribe to any one "style." I quote style not because it needs to be quoted but to signal to you that style here is a technical word referring to the spelling, grammar, and preferred conventions that are used by a group, generally identified by a reference to a style system (APA, MLA, AP, Chicago, and Turabian styles are the ones I'm most familiar with), or by a company (most publishing houses and magazines have their own style sheets that are more specific and unique to their publications).
- It prioritizes the offenses. The biggest problems, in ETS's system, are at the top of the list, meaning that if you're going to correct, start at the top with the problems that most affect the ability of your sentence to make its point.
THE VERY FIRST RULE IS MOST OFTEN IGNORED BY CONTEMPORARY CREATIVE WRITERS.
That said, however, it is very helpful to know what makes a sentence, even if you decide not to use one.
So here's the list:
Prioritized List of Major Issues in Correcting/Improving Sentences
- Is it a sentence?A sentence is one independent clause (a subject and a predicate) or two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction or a semicolon. For more information on sentences, look at Grammar Girl's articles on run-ons and fragments.
- Specifically, check that every clause (dependent and independent) has a subject and a predicate.
- Make certain that compound sentences are joined appropriately with coordinating conjunctions (think "FAN BOYS"--for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so--thanks to Chuck Thomas for the mnemonic) or semicolons, not commas or other punctuation.
- Do things agree?Agreement is when the number and gender of your items match throughout a sentence. For more information on agreement, check Purdue OWL's extensive sections. Parallelism is another form of agreement in which the part of speech/form of the word of every item in a list or parallel position match. You can check this out on Purdue OWL's section on Parallel Structure or on Grammar Girl's article on parallel construction.
- Specifically, if you have a plural subject, do you have a plural verb?
- Do the number and case of all of your pronouns match their antecedents as they (both the antecedents in terms of number and the pronouns in terms of case) appear in the sentence?
- What is the tense of the sentence? Do all of the tenses line up?
- Are things parallel?
- If you have a single modifier modifying two things (usually nouns, but sometimes something else), does it carry through correctly for both? Be especially careful of comparisons ("than," “like,” "as ____ as" constructions, etc.).
- How are your modifiers?
This section mainly takes agreement one step further--checking the gender and placement. NOTE: In contemporary popular writing, most commercial publishers (magazines, popular books, etc.) are not enforcing the rules about placement of gerunds and participles.
- Are your modifiers in the correct places? If they are modifying nouns, are they next to them?
- Do they fit--number, tense, person/thing (i.e., have you given a personal verb to an inanimate object--okay in the reading section but not here? If you have "who" is it modifying a person or if "that" is it modifying a thing?, etc.)?
- Are the words used correctly?
Check out these lists of commonly misused words. (1) (2) (3)
- Are all of the words used appropriately? See 3 b. This is similar, but on a more global scale. In this case, you are looking for things like "less" vs. "fewer," etc.
- On a finer note, is the tone correct for all of the words? Does one jump out as inappropriate? Consider tone for academic writing (or particular tones for other types of writing) as well as Poe's unified effect.
- Is the sentence, or any of its clauses, in the passive voice?
Essentially, passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is having something done to it instead of doing something. While Western sensibilities prefer the transitive voice (active sentences)--and it does cut out words--it also presents a qualitative difference in philosophy. Because active sentences lend themselves to subjects that can act upon other things, they sometimes point a finger of blame where there may not be one. It's important to recognize this tendency as you write.
- FYI - This change may often cause a change in the subject of the sentence.
- Make certain that the sentence is still a sentence after this change is made (this often appears as a trick!).
- Is the sentence's meaning clear?
We tend to know when we are confused. This section actually helps look at the grammar that causes confusion.
- Do all of the pronouns have clear antecedents (e.g., if there is a "she" can it only be one person, or are there two females in the sentence?, etc.)?
- Would a comma clarify something? Sometimes things are running together and could be clarified a couple of different ways. A comma is often used to separate, and you may see this in the answers.
- Would reordering help? Under the couple of ways to clarify, reordering ranks high. Keep an eye out for this in the answers.
- Is it excessively wordy or are the clauses split up? One of the biggest ways to cause confusion is to separate a verb from its object with anything other than its indirect object.
- A note of caution: Differing styles use commas very differently (comma use follows two extremes: the AP style, which avoids them, and the APA style, which embraces them. Most other styles fall somewhere in between.), and in looking over these sample tests, I see VERY few questions in which commas are the crux of the issue with these exceptions:
- Without the help of a coordinating conjunction following it, a comma cannot join two independent clauses; only a semicolon can do that.
- Introductory gerund phrases and dependent clauses require commas after them.
- Most styles now state that dependent clauses beginning with "which" require a comma (restrictive/unrestrictive set aside for the purposes of the test). ETS seems to be following this rule.
I hope this helps you!
Paragraph rules will come later.