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Spotlight on Grammar Archives


January 31, 2017 The Importance of Sentence Length
February 17, 2017 Adjective Order
February 28, 2017
More Thoughts on Adjectives
March 15, 2017 Adjective Position
March 25, 2017 Count Wordsworth
April 18, 2017 Dealing with Wordiness
April 28, 2017
Some Common Personal Statement Errors


January 31, 2017: The Importance of Sentence Length

When I discuss writing, I often make the point that simple, short sentences are optimal. But look what happens if you take that direction to heart.

"This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals-sounds that say listen to this, it is important." (Courtesy of Gary Provost)

The bottom line: aim for short sentences; comprehension begins to fall off after 10 words, decreasing to 90% at 14 words and 10% at 43 words. BUT, be certain to vary sentence structure and, occasionally, "go long" in the interests of a satisfying rhythm and pleasant reading.

February 17, 2017: Adjective Order
Did you know that there's a rule for the order of adjectives that modify a noun? Perhaps not, but I am going to guess you will not be surprised by how the rule works. For example, to quote NPR, "you'll never see a movie called My Greek Fat Big Wedding." We all know the film had to be called My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Here's the rule: the order of adjectives, from first to last is

  • Number (or other "determiner" like an article or possessive noun/pronoun)
  • Opinion
  • Size
  • Age
  • Shape
  • Color
  • Origin (often nationality)
  • Material
  • Purpose

For example: "the unremarkable medium-sized white panel truck" OR "three charming small ancient square tan French walnut coffee tables"

Try this for yourself. Can you find (or create) exceptions?

February 28, 2017: More Thoughts on Adjectives
Remember, last week we "discussed" adjective order. How would you handle two or three adjectives in the same group? For example, suppose you wanted to describe a house that was gray and tan. You would not say "the gray tan house", right? You would say "the gray and tan house". And if you wanted to talk about our flag, you would say "our red, white, and blue flag". Notice that there is no comma between the last adjective and the noun.

I expect that you know that commas also appear at other times when a noun is modified by more than one adjective. An example might be "We attended a long, tedious meeting." On the other hand, there were no commas in last week's example: "the unremarkable medium-sized white panel truck". What's going on here?

It turns out that there are two types of adjective pairs or groups: coordinate adjectives and cumulative adjectives. Coordinate adjectives modify a noun in the same way. Coordinate adjectives are separated by commas; cumulative adjectives are not. All you have to do is figure out how to identify them. You can try three tests.

  • Can you reverse the adjectives without making a strange sounding sentence?
  • Can you insert "and" between the two adjectives and still have a sensible sentence?
  • Can you put "and" between the adjectives, move them to a position after the noun, and still have a sentence that works?

If you can do all three, the adjectives are coordinate, and they get a comma.

Try determining whether these phrases need commas (the answers will be included in next week's Grammar Spotlight):

  1. The exquisite expensive custom houseboat
  2. Sam's tired old red hat
  3. "A well-organized insightful term paper"

IMPORTANT NOTE: the groups of adjectives we discussed last week, are ordered in a defined way before a noun. They cannot be reversed. Therefore, series of adjectives that include single representatives of those groups will not require commas.

March 15, 2017: Adjective Position

We've talked a lot about adjectives that come before a noun. Sometimes, adjectives follow their noun.

  • When the sentence includes a linking verb, adjectives will follow the verb. If the sentence contains more than one adjective, they will be separated by "and" (or another conjunction) or treated like a series. For example: "This dessert tastes light and fluffy." "The seminar speaker was convincing, well-prepared, and charismatic."
  • In some phrases, the adjective always follows the noun. Examples: "attorney general", "President elect", "time immemorial". EXTRA NOTE: the plural of any such phrase is formed by adding "s" to the noun. Thus, the plurals would be "attorneys general" and "Presidents elect". "Time immemorial" doesn't come in a plural version.

And now for the answers to last week's question on use of commas. Did you punctuate the samples as follows?

  1. The exquisite, expensive custom houseboat
  2. Sam's tired old red hat
  3. "A well-organized, insightful term paper"

March 25, 2017: Count Wordsworth External Link

Do you love data and metrics? It turns out that there's a website that will accept a piece of text and spit out language-related metrics. NOTE: the site calls itself "an (unnecessarily) elaborate inquiry into the statistics of prose".

Most important, the site can help you test for average sentence length and percentage of "difficult words". The latter generally refers to words with multiple syllables or not on standard "easy" word lists. The site also provides multiple estimates of the grade level for which your text is written. It might interest you to know that (1) the average adult reads at the 9th grade level; (2) the most popular novels are written at the 7th grade level; and (3) lowering the grade level of newspaper articles dramatically increases the number of people who read and finish them.

Think about the implications for how you should write when you want to convince or inform the public!

You can also compare the output of this website with what you get from the Hemingway App (  External Link The Hemingway app aims to help you make your writing more powerful and straightforward. It also tells you where you can make improvements.

April 18, 2017: Dealing with Wordiness

When I talk about writing personal statements, I encourage trainees to be concise rather than long-winded, to avoid wordiness, to eliminate extra words ruthlessly. But what does that mean operationally? How does one avoid wordiness? Here are some patterns to look for.

  • "There is", "there are", "here is", "it is", and similar expressions can generally be eliminated. Consider the following sentence: "There are three main reasons that applicants are rejected by medical schools." The italicized words slow the sentence down; they make no positive contribution. We could write instead, "Medical schools reject applicants for three main reasons." This reduces the word count from 12 to 8, but perhaps more important, the sentence is now more forceful. (Note: the sentence is now in the active voice; the subject takes the action.)
  • The active voice often uses fewer words than the passive voice. Our sample sentence, written in the passive voice, would read, "Applicants are rejected by medical schools for three main reasons (10 words)."
  • Limit the use of adjectives or adverbs that function as qualifiers or intensifiers. Compare the following pairs of short sentences:

I am extremely committed to completing graduate school.
I am committed to completing graduate school.

The data were very surprising.
The data were surprising.

I would argue that the second is, in both cases, stronger.

  • Look for and revise redundant phrases. One of my least favorites is "return back". The word "back" is completely unnecessary. You could argue that I committed the same error above, when I wrote "I encourage trainees to be concise rather than long-winded, to avoid wordiness, to eliminate extra words ruthlessly." The three underlined phrases say the same thing. (I am going to claim that I repeated them for emphasis.)

If you would like to test your skills, try the Eliminate Wordiness QuizExternal Link The author provides 10 sentences for you to simplify. After you write your improved, more concise sentence, you can read the author's proposed answer.

April 28, 2017: Some Common Personal Statement Errors

Today's post is a collection of simple errors that appear frequently in personal statements.

  • When you talk about your major in general terms, you should not capitalize the name of the discipline. For example, "I completed a double major in biochemistry and bioinformatics in 2017." However, if you refer to a particular program or a particular course, then the name is capitalized. The following would be correct: "the Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Program in Cell, Molecular, Developmental Biology, and Biophysics" or "Chemistry 137: Physical Chemistry of the Synapse".
  • Statements should be grammatically parallel. Parts of a sentence that perform the same function should have the same grammatical form. Consider, for example, the title of the JHU doctoral program cited above. It is (regrettably) not parallel. The title should read "Doctoral Program in Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology and Biophysics". The four program elements are cell biology, molecular biology, developmental biology, and biophysics. If the word "biology" will be used only once, then "cell", "molecular", and "developmental" must be part of a single series of parallel elements, and that series cannot include "biophysics", which does not modify "biology".

Let's consider another example. Sentence elements that are connected by "both/and" or "either/or" (or other paired of conjunctions) must have the same form. Consider this example: "I am interested in a program that will allow me to master both bioinformatics approaches to neurobiology and to record intracellularly from single neurons. "Both/and" link the two underlined grammatical elements. The first is a noun phrase and the second phrase begins with an infinitive (the "to" form of the verb "record").

We could correct this sentence in multiple ways. (1) We could move "both" so that the conjunctions connect two infinitive phrases: "I am interested in a program that will allow me both to master bioinformatics approaches to neurobiology and to record intracellularly from single neurons." (2) Alternatively, we could make the connected elements both noun phrases: "I am interested in a program that will allow me to master both bioinformatics approaches to neurobiology and intracellular recording techniques for use with single neurons."

  • If you want to discuss your past leadership experience, you should use the correct past tense of "lead". Is the following sentence correct: "I lead a team of math majors who tutored middle-school students in introductory algebra."? If not, how would you correct it?

Browse the Spotlight on Grammar Archives for 2012 through 2015.