Sentence Structure: GED Test Prep (page 4)

Updated on Jul 5, 2011

Parts of Speech: A Brief Review

A word's function and form is determined by its part of speech. The word calm, for example, can be either a verb (calm down) or an adjective (a calm afternoon); it changes to calmly when it is an adverb (they discussed the matter calmly). Be sure you know the different parts of speech and the job each part of speech performs in a sentence. The table offers a quick reference guide for the main parts of speech.

Phrases and Modifiers

Sentences are often "filled out" by phrases and modifiers. Phrases are groups of words that do not have both a subject and predicate; they might have either a subject or a verb, but not both, and sometimes neither. Modifiers are words and phrases that qualify or describe people, places, things, and actions. The most common phrases are prepositional phrases,which consist of a preposition and a noun or pronoun (e.g., in the attic).Modifiers include adjectives (e.g., slow, blue, excellent) and adverbs (e.g., cheerfully, suspiciously). In the following examples, the prepositional phrases are underlined and the modifiers are in bold:

He was very late for an important meeting with a new client.
He brazenly took her wallet from her purse when she got up from the table to go to the ladies' room.

Placement of Modifiers

As a general rule, words, phrases, or clauses that describe nouns and pronouns should be as close as possible to the words they describe. The relaxing music, for example, is better (clearer, more concise and precise) than the music that is relaxing. In the first sentence, the modifier relaxing is right next to the word it modifies (music).

When modifiers are not next to the words they describe, you not only often use extra words, but you might also end up with a misplaced or dangling modifier and a sentence that means something other than what was intended. This is especially true of phrases and clauses that work as modifiers. Take a look at the following sentence, for example:

Racing to the car, I watched him trip and drop his bag.

Who was racing to the car? Because the modifier racing to the car is next to I, the sentence says that I was doing the racing. But the verb watched indicates that he was the one racing to the car. Here are two corrected versions:

I watched as he raced to the car and dropped his bag.
I watched as, racing to the car, he dropped his bag.

In the first sentence, the phrase racing to the car has been revised to raced to the car and given the appropriate subject, he. In the second sentence, racing to the car is right next to the modified element (he).

Here's another example:

Growling ferociously, I watched as the lions approached each other.

It's quite obvious that it was the lions, not the speaker, that were growling ferociously. But because the modifier (growling ferociously) isn't right next to what it modifies (the lions), the sentence actually says that I was growling ferociously. Here's the corrected version:

I watched as the lions, growling ferociously, approached each other.

Again, the sentence is clearer now because the modifier is right next to what it modifies.

Sometimes these errors can be corrected simply by moving the modifier to the right place (next to what it modifies). Other times, you may need to add a subject and verb to clarify who or what is modified by the phrase. Here are some more examples of misplaced and dangling modifiers and their corrections:

Incorrect: Worn and tattered, Uncle Joe took down the flag.

Correct: Uncle Joe took down the flag, which was worn and tattered. OR Uncle Joe took down the worn, tattered flag.

Incorrect: While making breakfast, the smoke alarm went off and woke the baby.

Correct: While I was making breakfast, the smoke alarm went off and woke the baby. OR

    The smoke alarm went off and woke the baby while I was making breakfast.

Parallel Structure

Parallel structure is an important part of effective writing. It means that words and phrases in the sentence follow the same grammatical pattern. This makes ideas easier to follow and expresses ideas more gracefully. Notice how parallelism works in the following examples:

Not parallel: We came, we saw, and it was conquered by us.

(The first two clauses use the active we + past tense verb construction; the third uses a passive structure with a prepositional phrase.)

Parallel: We came, we saw, we conquered.

(All three clauses start with we and use a past tense verb.)

Not parallel: Please be sure to throw out your trash, place your silverware in the bin, and your tray should go on the counter.

(Two verbs follow the to + verb + your + noun pattern; the third puts the noun first, then the verb.)

Parallel: Please be sure to throw out your trash, place your silverware in the bin, and put your tray on the counter.

(All three items follow the to + verb + your + noun [+ prepositional phrase] pattern.)

Parallelism is most often needed in lists, as in the previous examples, and in the not only/but also sentence pattern.

Hermione's nervousness was exacerbated not only by the large crowd, but also by the bright lights.
(Each phrase has a preposition, an adjective, and a noun.)
Their idea was not only the most original; it was also the most practical.
(Each phrase uses the superlative form of an adjective.)

Active and Passive Voice

In most cases, effective writing will use the active voice as much as possible. In an active sentence, the subject performs the action:

James filed the papers yesterday.
Jin Lee sang the song beautifully.

In a passive sentence, on the other hand, the subject is passive.Rather than performing the action, the subject is acted upon:

The papers were filed by James yesterday.
The song was sung beautifully by Jin Lee.

Active sentences are more direct, powerful, and clear. They often use fewer words and have less room for confusion. There are times when the passive voice is preferred, such as when the source of the action is not known or when the writer wants to emphasize the recipient of the action rather than the performer of the action:

Protective gear must be worn by everyone entering this building.

As a general rule, however, sentences should be active whenever possible.

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