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Writing Good Sentences
Please Note:
The last administration of the SAT II Writing was on 1/22/05. Beginning 3/12/05, parts of the SAT II Writing test will be included in the New SAT. You should be studying the New SAT book. Go there!
Writing Good Sentences
Now that we’ve talked about both a basic approach and a more individualized approach to the three Topics, we’re going to get to the nitty-gritty of sentence construction, such as how to use apostrophes and quotation marks correctly, and how to avoid writing run-on sentences and fragments. We’re also going to show you how to avoid common pitfalls like inappropriate tone, clichés, and wishy-washiness.
Learning how to get the tone right might take more work than learning how to use apostrophes correctly, but the issues we’re about to discuss are crucial to making a great quick impression. You’ll impress the heck out of the reader by being that rare writer who doesn’t litter his or her prose with clichés or write in an overblown, faux-academic tone.
Good Grammar
There’s no time or space in this book to teach you all the rules of grammar. But we can point out to you the most important rules of writing and grammar that people frequently break while writing. These rules are the backbone of good writing. They transform soggy sentences into models of clear, powerful prose.
The Passive Voice and Active Voice
People seem to think that the passive voice provides prose with a sophisticated remove, the type of prose an English butler might write. But the passive voice is actually dull and pale.
The passive voice avoids naming the performer of an action. Unless the performer of an action is unknown or unimportant, always use the active rather than the passive voice. Look at the following sentences for an example of this problem:
  • Wrong: The sequined bell-bottoms were chosen by Mike.
  • Right: Mike chose the sequined bell-bottoms.
In the first sentence, we don’t know until the last word who chose the bell-bottoms. In the sentence that uses the active voice, we know immediately that Mike did the choosing.
The passive voice always forces you to use bland forms of the verb to be: is, are, was, and were. Avoiding the passive voice will make your writing more interesting and vivid, clarifying who is doing what, and allowing you to use interesting, strong verbs.
Passive verb use sometimes occurs when writers begin writing sentences without a clear idea of where the sentences are going. Try to hear the entire sentence in your head before you begin writing.
Avoid Using the Verb To Be
As we just said, the verb to be is fairly weak and boring. In addition to avoiding the passive voice, eliminate that bland verb to be from your writing as much as possible. Certainly, the verb to be must be used when no other verb can take its place. But a great deal of the time people use to be when unnecessary, leading to boring sentences like:
Dina was laughing in the kitchen.
This sentence is grammatically correct, but a much more colorful version follows when you eradicate the verb to be and replace it with other, more action-oriented verbs:
Dina snorted and squealed with laughter in the kitchen.
Use Transitions
Transitions are the sentences or words that provide the context necessary to help readers understand the flow of your argument. Transitions should take the reader gently by the hand, shepherding him through your essay. A well-placed phrase can serve as an excellent transition from sentence to sentence.
  • Showing Contrast: Katie likes pink nail polish. In contrast, she thinks red nail polish looks trashy.
  • Elaborating: I love sneaking into movies. In addition, I try to steal candy while I’m there.
  • Providing an Example: If you save up your money, you can afford pricey items. For example, Patrick saved up his allowance and eventually purchased a new computer.
  • Showing Results: Manny ingested nothing but soda and burgers every day for a month. As a result, he gained ten pounds.
  • Showing Sequence: The police arrested Bob at the party. Soon after, Harvard rescinded Bob’s offer of acceptance, and eventually Bob drifted into a life of crime.
Avoid Run-On Sentences
Teachers hate run-on sentences, and for good reason: a student who writes run-on sentences shows a fundamental failure to grasp proper grammar.
A run-on sentence occurs when two independent clauses are connected without any punctuation mark or conjunction between them. Essentially, an independent clause is a fully expressed idea containing a verb and subject, which is not dependent on any other idea for its existence. Look at the following run-on:
I wanted to leave work early I couldn’t because my boss was hovering over me.
In the example sentence, I wanted to leave work early and I couldn’t because my boss was hovering over me are both independent clauses. Each contains a subject and each contains a verb. Therefore, they cannot be joined together without a conjunction or punctuation mark.
There are two ways to fix a run-on sentence: place a conjunction between the clauses, or separate the clauses with punctuation.
To fix the example sentence using a conjunction, add a comma and the conjunction but between the two clauses.
I wanted to leave work early, but I couldn’t because my boss was hovering over me.
To fix the run-on with punctuation, add a semicolon or period.
I wanted to leave work early; I couldn’t because my boss was hovering over me.
I wanted to leave work early. I couldn’t because my boss was hovering over me.
If you have a good understanding of what a run-on sentence is, you can train yourself to avoid writing them. You should also be able to “hear” run-on sentences: they make writing sound breathless and rushed, like a babbling child.
Avoid Sentence Fragments
Sentence fragments are the opposite of run-on sentences. Run-ons are two sentences that the writer has tried to mush into one. A sentence fragment is a non-sentence that the writer is trying to pass off as a sentence. A sentence fragment has a subject, but not a correctly conjugated verb.
Sentence fragments can be difficult to recognize. They are so prevalent in advertising that they can seem correct:
  • Wrong: The platinum watch only millionaires can afford.
The subject watch and the verb afford don’t go together correctly. Only millionaires can afford is actually an adjectival phrase modifying the subject watch. Within the phrase, afford is connected to the noun millionaires. To fix this problem, you can add a properly conjugated noun:
  • Right: The platinum watch only millionaires can afford appears on page 6 of the magazine.
Or you could reorganize the sentence so that millionaires becomes the subject and afford its correctly conjugated verb:
  • Right: Only millionaires can afford the platinum watch.
Be particularly wary of writing sentence fragments when you begin a sentence with words like between, before, although, while, etc. These words have a way of leading to incomplete sentences.
  • Wrong: Because I say so.
  • Right: Because I say so, you have to make your bed.
  • Wrong: Between the third and fourth quarters, the cheerleaders that pranced out onto the parquet and did their routine.
  • Right: Between the third and fourth quarters, the cheerleaders pranced out onto the parquet and did their routine.
Proper Use of Basic Punctuation Marks
The readers of your essay will lower your grade if you show a pattern of grammatical errors. Since punctuation is an omnipresent feature in writing, misunderstanding a simple rule of punctuation leads to numerous errors and suggests that you know less than you do. Be sure to understand the basic rules of punctuation usage.
Commas
Commas exist to help the reader. Often they mark pauses you would naturally make if speaking the sentence aloud. Commas are used for a variety of reasons: to tell the reader to pause, to set off words that interrupt, to set off words not crucial to the meaning of the sentence, and to join two sentences with a conjunction. They are also used in series, in dialogue, and to set off introductory remarks.
  • Telling the Reader to Pause: Because Mike spilled his popcorn, the other moviegoers laughed at him.
  • Setting Off Words that Interrupt: Jane, on the other hand, has never worked as a rodeo clown.
  • Setting off Words Not Crucial to the Sentence’s Meaning: The donut, which had been left on the counter for six days, began to smell funny.
  • Joining Two Sentences with and, but, for, or, yet, or not: I wanted to go skydiving, but my mom put her foot down.
  • After Introductory Words: Well, I think you’re wrong about Prince. No, I refuse to go to the prom with you. Before rollerblading, Sam ate a meatball sub.
Writing Lists
People often make coma errors when writing out lists. Commas belong only in the middle of lists, not before them (as in the wrong first sentence below) or after them (as in the second wrong sentence).
  • Wrong: We want, pineapples, ham, red peppers, and garlic on our pizza.
  • Wrong: We want pineapples, ham, red peppers, and garlic, on our pizza.
  • Right: We want pineapples, ham, red peppers, and garlic on our pizza.
Writing dialogue
It may strike you as a little peculiar, but if you have something like he said or she sighed or they yelled after a piece of dialogue, you have to punctuate the dialogue with a comma, not a period. You can see why this is the rule if you look at the following sentence.
“Get back here.” he said.
When you hit that period after “Get back here” you stop; then you have to lurch back into action with he said. The correct formulation is:
“Get back here,” he said.
Semicolons
Semicolons signal a big pause. You must have two sentences on either side of a semicolon. People get this wrong a lot, so be careful. Use a semicolon in place of a period or in place of a conjunction.
  • In Place of a Period, When Two Ideas Are Closely Connected: Alex spent his summer working at the diner; his friends came in all the time and demanded free fries.
  • In Place of Conjunctions like, and, or, but, and because: I don’t know if I want to go to Jones Beach; I’m not really in the mood for sweaty masses of people.
Colons
Colons are used to signal definitions, commands, and lists.
  • To signal a definition: Hookah: a curved pipe used by a character in Alice in Wonderland
  • To signal a command: You must do as follows: turn around, and walk away.
  • To signal a list: I’ll tell you what I did this morning: watched cartoons, ate a leftover piece of pizza, and got in a fight with Jason.
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