Too often professors encounter student writing that is grammatically correct, but somehow unclear. They read a sentence or paragraph two or three times, trying to grasp its meaning. Even when they've finally understood what the student is trying to say, they are at a loss as to how to address the problem. What's gone wrong? Unless an instructor has been trained to take apart sentences and see how they are (and aren't) working, these sorts of problems can seem very difficult to diagnose and to address.
Still, there are some simple principles and strategies that professors can apply when diagnosing troubled student writing, often with very good results. Accordingly, "teaching style" as we understand it on this web page is very much about offering professors and students the kinds of strategies that will help them to understand how sentences are constructed, and how they might be better constructed. In this context, "style" also refers to how students fit sentences together to form paragraphs that are coherent, elegant, and clear.
The advice we give below is very much influenced by the advice that Joseph Williams gives in his book, Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. This book is commonly used in Dartmouth's first-year writing classes. We have copies in our library, located in DCAL, Dartmouth's Center for the Advancement of Learning, which is located on the first floor of Baker Library.
Diagnosing the Sentence: Improving Clarity and Concision
Most of us know good style when we see it. We also know when a sentence seems cumbersome to read. But it's less easy to say why a sentence isn't working. We look at the sentence; we see that the commas are in the right places; we find no error to speak of. Why doesn't a sentence (or a paragraph, or an essay) work?
Thinking a bit about sentences and what the reader expects of them can help us to diagnose problems with style. The basics of style are very simple and can be distilled into one principle: a sentence, at its most basic level, is about actors and actions. As such, the subject of a sentence often points clearly to an actor, and the verb of the sentence describes its important action.
This principle might seem so obvious that it doesn't seem to warrant further discussion. But putting the principle into practice is, in fact, complicated. Read the following sentence, and then try to determine, in a nutshell, what is wrong with it:
There was uncertainty in President Clinton's mind about Yeltsin's intention to disarm Russia's nuclear arsenal.
This sentence has no grammatical errors. But certainly it lumbers along, without any force. Now consider the following sentence:
President Clinton doubted that Yeltsin intended to disarm Russia's nuclear arsenal.
What changes does the revised sentence make? We can point to the more obvious changes: we've omitted the "there is" phrase; replaced the wimpy "uncertainty" with the more powerful "doubted;" replaced the noun "intention" with the stronger verb "intended." But what principle governs these many changes? Precisely the one mentioned earlier: the actor serves as the sentence's subject, and the action is illustrated forcefully in the sentence's verbs.
Below we list a few strategies for diagnosing stylistic problems in student writing. These simple principles can help you to unlock even the most mysterious sentences. They also offer very useful advice to students, who can apply these principles to sentences on their own. If you would like your students to have these principles in hand when they write or revise their papers, please refer them to our Style page for students.
Consider the simple subjects and predicates. Is the grammatical subject of the sentence also the real subject? Is the action of the sentence indicated in the main verb of the predicate? If not, the sentence may be difficult to follow. Note: the "actor" of a sentence need not be a person; it can sometimes be a concept. For example, if a student is writing a sentence whose topic is Obama's rhetorical skill, then the grammatical subject of the sentence should reflect this:
Obama's rhetorical skill, rather than his political experience, helped him to win the 2008 election.
Note what happens when the student buries the "real" subject in a subordinate clause:
Obama's winning the 2008 election, an event that came about because of his rhetorical skill, was not due to his political experience.
The sentence's meaning is obscured.
Consider the "play" between nouns and verbs. Does the student overuse nominalizations? In other words, does she transform perfectly good verbs into abstract nouns? Consider these sentences:
An evaluation of the employees by the administrative staff is necessary in assuring quality service to our clients.
The administrative staff evaluates the employees so that we can better serve our clients.
"Evaluation" is weaker than the verb "evaluates," "service" is weaker than the verb "serve," and so on. Overuse of nominalizations leads to other stylistic problems, such as the passive voice or strings of prepositional phrases to support all of the abstract nouns. Consider:
The more effective presentation of relevant information at other colleges resulted in our failure to recruit new international students.
Because other colleges presented themselves more effectively, we failed to recruit new international students.
When you encounter a run-on sentence, consider the relationship of dependent and independent clauses. Readers can easily spot a sentence that goes on for too long; it's remarkable that writers find it hard to do the same. Often, a professor's first impulse is to advise the student to take the long sentence and divide it into two (or three, or four...). But this remedy isn't always the most desirable one, as it leads students to produce short, choppy sentences. It also does nothing to help students to understand how a sentence might be long and complex without overstepping the limits of good prose. Instead, advise students to consider the relationship between the various clauses and phrases that comprise the sentence. Then instruct them to ask:
- Are the points being made of equal importance? If so, use a coordinating conjunction or a semicolon and craft parallel constructions when appropriate.
- Are the points of unequal importance? If so, use subordinating clauses or relative clauses to connect the ideas.
- Does one point make for an interesting aside? If so, insert that point between commas, dashes, or even parentheses at the appropriate juncture in the sentence.
- Do these ideas belong in the same sentence? If not, create two sentences.
- Is the important information in the independent clause, or is it buried in a dependent or modifying phrase? If key information is buried in a dependent clause, advise the student to think about what point she is trying to make in that sentence, and to be sure that this point is clearly stated in the independent clause.
Consider whether the sentence might have been written more concisely. When writing, students will often use two words (or three or twelve) where one will do. If you stumble on a sentence that is unnecessarily long, check for some of the common culprits of wordiness: meaningless words, like actually, basically, generally; redundancies, like full and complete, first and foremost; doubled (or tripled) adjectives; and phrases inflated with nothing but hot air.
Consider a student's use (or misuse) of rhetorical devices, like parallelism. Are these devices effectively used, or does the student botch them? You'll want to model elegance for your students and to reward them when they have delivered a particularly elegant turn of phrase. Take the time to address a sentence's balance, symmetry, emphasis, parallel structure, rhythm, use of metaphor, and language.
Diagnosing the Paragraph: Improving Coherence
We move now from the sentence to the paragraph, considering the way that sentences fit together. Coherence is a complicated and difficult matter to address in student writing because it is often hard to diagnose where and how, precisely, a paragraph falls apart. We provide here some principles by which you can "test" a paragraph for coherence.
Consider the topic sentence and its development. The first place to look when investigating a problem with coherence is the topic sentence. Does the topic sentence state a clear and arguable point? Or does it make an obvious assertion that requires no further development? If the topic sentence is weak, chances are that the paragraph will lack direction and coherence.
Check for a consistent string of subjects. Sometimes a student has written a good topic sentence, but the paragraph still goes astray. When this happens, look at the sentence subjects to see whether or not they are consistent. To check for consistency, pick out a paragraph and underline the grammatical subjects of each sentence. Do you find seven or eight absolutely different subjects? Do the sentence subjects have any connection with the paragraph's main point? And do the subjects relate to one another in a clear way? If not, the student has probably buried important ideas in dependent clauses. The sentences should be reconsidered. Consider the subject string in the paragraph below.
According to Maxwell, the correlation between equality and gender characterized the first regime of the women's movement that began in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, the crafters of the constitution never intended women to be included in the governing of the United States, but at no point did they ever envision that women might be able to vote. The significance of the "all men are created equal" clause of the constitution becomes clear, as Maxwell states, when one acknowledges that women were not considered to be men, as they are now. At this point, Maxwell highlights a key component in the success of women's suffrage: women needed first to convince society that they were indeed people.
When you face a paragraph like this, ask the student to consider which of the five grammatical subjects, if any, is actually the subject of the paragraph. Then tell the student to revise the paragraph so that the sentence subjects reflect the development of the paragraph's controlling idea.
Consider how the sentences begin, and how they end. Typically, the beginnings of sentences should hold "old information," while the ends should present the reader with something "new." Examine the beginning of your students' sentences. Do they look back to the sentence before? Do they provide context for the idea to follow? Do they make adequate transitions between sentences? Then examine the ends of your students' sentences. Do these sentences offer something new? Do they end emphatically, or do they seem to trail off into a cluster of clauses that compete for attention? Advise your students to shift less important ideas to the front of the sentence, and to shift more important ideas to the end.
Consider the transitions between sentences. Sometimes students neglect to mark shifts in their argument with an appropriate transition marker. On the other hand, they may not have articulated for themselves the connections between their ideas and so rely on transition phrases alone to bring sense to muddled prose. Either way, a student's writing is weakened by an inadequate understanding of transitions.
To teach style, you might consider workshopping papers using the principles outlined in Williams' Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. You can create for your students a checklist of questions that they can ask of any sentence or paragraph. For instance:
- Is the grammatical subject of the sentence an actor, or an abstraction?
- Is the main verb a good, active one?
- Is the sentence's main idea in the main clause?
- Are the topic sentences working?
- Do paragraphs have consistent subject strings?
- Do the sentences follow the old-to-new principle?
Use your checklist to demonstrate for students how to analyze a paper's style. Once you've shown students how to perform a stylistic analysis, you can implement some of the following methods in order to reinforce the principles of style:
- Break students into editing groups at the beginning of the term. Ask them to respond to their groupmates' papers in meetings outside of class or on the Canvas discussion board.
- Invite students to your office for a 15-minute style conference. Focus on two or three style habits that you'd like the student to break, and discuss alternative strategies.
- Devote the first few minutes of several classes to five-minute style lessons. Choose topics based on trends that you're seeing in your students' papers; then create a PowerPoint presentation that defines the problem and illustrates alternatives. Regularly devoting class time to style signals to students that you consider style important.
- Ask students to develop the five-minute grammar lessons. Let them choose a style problem, find sentences to illustrate it, determine which principles might help, and then create a lesson to deliver to their classmates.
Encouraging Students to Care
Professors sometimes find that, no matter how attentive they are to matter of style, students continue to make the same mistakes. They wonder, How do I encourage students to care about style?
The best way to make students care is to show them that you care. If style matters to you, it may begin to matter to them. Moreover, if you explain that these principles of style are not arbitrary rules but rather represent what readers expect, students may be more apt to think about these principles, and to internalize them.
Finally, asking students to analyze the style of their classmates' papers can make them care more about their own style. Struggling through a muddled paragraph helps students sympathize with their professors, who may read a dozen muddled papers in an evening. It may also inspire them to write papers that will be a joy for their professors to read.