Sentence Structure for Praxis I: Pre-Professional Skills Test Study Guide (page 3)
When you speak, you may leave your sentences unfinished or run your sentences together. Written expression makes a more permanent impression than speech. In writing, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, misplaced modifiers, and dangling modifiers are structural problems that obscure the meaning of a sentence. The parts of sentences need to have a clear relationship to each other to make sense. This section reviews common errors in sentence structure that will appear on the PPST Writing test, including comparison mistakes, incorrect use of independent and subordinate clauses, double negatives, and unparallel sentence construction.
One common writing problem involves comparisons. When a sentence compares two things or activities, the form, or part of speech, of the two entities must match. A writer can compare two nouns or, alternatively, two verb phrases, but he should not compare a noun with a verb phrase.
- Incorrect: For me, watching a psychological thriller is harder than a horror film.
- Correct: For me, watching a psychological thriller is harder than sitting through a horror film.
In the correct version of the sentence, the verb phrase watching a psychological thriller matches the form of the verb phrase sitting through a horror film. Try the following practice question.
- Even though admired by some, the innovations of Lewis Carroll's later novels were not as well received as his Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
- the innovations of Lewis Carroll's later novels were
- Lewis Carroll's later novels were
- the innovations about Lewis Carroll's later novels were
- the innovations of Lewis Carroll were
- Lewis Carroll was
Choice b is the correct answer. The original sentence compared the innovations of Carroll's later novels with the book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The comparison becomes parallel when you simply compare Lewis Carroll's later novels with his early book. Another way to make the sentence parallel would be to compare the innovations of the later novels with the innovations of the early book.
All inventory at reduced prices! Spectacular savings for you! Although pithy and popular with advertisers, sentence fragments are incomplete sentences that do not accurately communicate an idea. To be complete, a sentence needs more than punctuation at its end—it needs a subject and an active verb. A common fragment error that you will see on the PPST Writing test is the use of the -ing form of a verb without a helping verb.
- Incorrect: Emily sitting on the sofa, wondering what to do next.
- Correct: Emily was sitting on the sofa, wondering what to do next.
Another common type of sentence fragment is a subordinate clause that stands alone. To review, clauses are groups of words that have a subject and a verb. An independent clause is one that stands alone and expresses a complete thought. Even though a subordinate clause has a subject and a verb, it does not express a complete thought. It needs an independent clause to support it.
To identify a sentence fragment or subordinate clause on the PPST exam, look for the following joining words, called subordinating conjunctions. When a clause has a subordinating conjunction, it needs an independent clause to complete an idea.
- The Canada goose that built a nest in the pond outside our building.
- As if the storm never happened, as if no damage was done.
In the first example, removing the connector that would make a complete sentence. In the second example, the subordinate clauses need an independent clause to make logical sense: As if the storm never happened, as if no damage was done, Esme remained blithely optimistic. Try to locate the sentence fragment in the following practice question.
The correct answer choice is d. In this question, the independent clause has a subject (one participant) and a verb (explained). However, the subordinate clause, beginning with the connector that needs a verb to make sense. Adding the verb were completes the thought and fixes the fragment: that in the heated atmosphere of the 1960s, sit-in protests were effective enough to draw the attention of the nation.
"Planning ahead and studying for a test builds confidence do you know what I mean?" In speech, you may run your sentences together, but if you do so in writing, you will confuse your reader. In a run-on sentence, two independent clauses run together as one sentence without being separated by proper punctuation.
There are four ways to correct a run-on sentence. Study how each fix listed below changes the following run-on sentence.
- We stopped for lunch we were starving.
- Add a period. This separates the run-on sentence and makes two simple sentences.
- Add a semicolon.
- Use a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, for, nor, yet, so) to connect the two clauses.
- Use a subordinating conjunction (see the preceding page for a list of subordinating conjunctions). By doing this, you turn one of the independent clauses into a subordinating clause.
We stopped for lunch. We were starving.
We stopped for lunch; we were starving.
We were starving, so we stopped for lunch.
Because we were starving, we stopped for lunch.
On the PPST Writing test, be sure to look out for another common form of run-on sentence, the comma splice. A comma splice incorrectly uses a comma to separate two independent clauses.
- Incorrect: Jacob bought the groceries, Lucy cooked dinner.
You can repair a comma splice in two ways: add a conjunction after the comma, or replace the comma with a semicolon.
Correct: Jacob bought the groceries, and Lucy cooked dinner. OR Jacob bought the groceries; Lucy cooked dinner.
Try this practice question.
- Citizen Kane, Orson Welles's first full-length film, is considered an American classic, however it did not manage to garner the 1941 Academy Award for best picture.
- is considered an American classic, however it did not manage
- is considered an American classic. However, it did not manage
- is considered an American classic however it did not manage
- is considered an American classic however. It did not manage
- is considered an American classic because it did not manage
Choice b is correct. This original sentence is a run-on because the word however is used as if it were a conjunction. The words however, therefore, and then are not conjunctions, but rather a special kind of adverb that expresses a relationship between two clauses. Called conjunctive adverbs, these words cannot join two independent clauses the way a conjunction does. To repair this kind of run-on or comma splice, you can make two sentences (the way that choice b does). Another other option for fixing the original sentence is to separate the two main clauses with a semicolon and set the adverb off from the rest of the clause with a comma. Note that you can move the adverb around in its clause without changing the meaning of the sentence.
- Citizen Kane, Orson Welles's first full-length film, is considered an American classic; however, it did no manage to garner the 1941 Academy Award for best picture.
- Citizen Kane, Orson Welles's first full-length film, is considered an American classic; it did not manage, however, to garner the 1941 Academy Award for best picture.
More about Clauses
When a sentence contains two clauses that are linked in a logical way, they are coordinated. Subordinate clauses are joined by a conjunction (as, after, although, because) to the independent clause to complete a thought or idea. Problems occur when conjunctions are misused in a way that makes a sentence obscure and lacking in meaning. Notice below how in the first example, the conjunction because creates a confusing and illogical premise, whereas in the second example, the conjunction although sets up a contrast between the two clauses that makes sense.
- Unclear: Because he was late again, the teacher let him off with just a warning.
- Correct: Although he was late again, the teacher let him off with just a warning.
Another type of mistake is when a sentence has two or more subordinate clauses, but no independent clause. This is a problem with subordination. Here is an example:
Incorrect: Since the Industrial Revolution took place, because people have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 30 percent by burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests.
The previous sentence contains two subordinate clauses: the first introduced by the conjunction since, and the second introduced by the conjunction because. By removing because, you create an independent clause, and the sentence makes sense. Try the following practice question.
The correct answer choice is c. If you remove the subordinating conjunction where, the second subordinating clause becomes an independent clause.
Modifiers are phrases that describe nouns, pronouns, and verbs. In a sentence, they must be placed as closely as possible to the words they describe. If they are misplaced, you will end up with a sentence that means something other than what you intended. The results can be comical, but the joke may be on you!
Misplaced Modifier: My uncle told me about feeding cows in the kitchen. (Why are there cows in the kitchen?) Correct: In the kitchen, my uncle told me about feeding cows. Misplaced Modifier: A huge python followed the man that was slithering slowly through the grass. (Why was the man slithering through the grass?) Correct: Slithering through the grass, a huge python followed the man. OR A huge python that was slithering slowly through the grass followed the man.
Most of the misplaced modifier problems on the PPST exam are dangling modifiers. Dangling modifiers are phrases, located at the beginning of a sentence and set off by a comma, that mistakenly modify the wrong noun or pronoun. To be correct, modifying phrases at the beginning of a sentence should describe the noun or pronoun (the subject of the sentence) that directly follows the comma.
Dangling Modifier: Broken and beyond repair, Grandma threw the serving dish away. (Why was Grandma broken?) Correct: Broken and beyond repair, the serving dish was thrown away by Grandma. OR Grandma threw away the serving dish that was broken and beyond repair.
Try the following sentence-correction question.
- Subsidized by the federal government, students can get help financing their post-secondary education through the Federal Work-Study Program.
- students can get help financing their post-secondary education through the Federal Work-Study Program.
- since students finance their post-secondary education through the Federal Work-Study Program.
- to students who need help financing their post-secondary education.
- financing a post-secondary education is possible through the Federal Work-Study Program.
- the Federal Work-Study Program helps students finance their post-secondary education.
The correct answer is e. In the original sentence, the modifying phrase incorrectly describes the subject students. In choice d, the modifying phrasing incorrectly describes financing. Choices b and c are subordinate clauses, and, therefore, incorrect. Only choice e answers the question "What is subsidized by the federal government?" in a way that makes sense.
When you use two negatives such as not or no in a sentence, you may think that you are emphasizing your point. In fact, you are obscuring your meaning. As in math, two negatives result in a positive. When you write, "I don't have no money," you are actually saying that you do have money. Always avoid using double negatives—they are considered grammatically incorrect. No and not are obvious negatives, but on the PPST Writing test, be on the watch for any sentence that doubles up on any of the following words:
- Try this usage question:
The correct answer choice is b. The negative verb don't and the adverb hardly cancel each other out. The double negative obscures the meaning of the sentence. To rewrite the sentence in a way that makes sense, you could remove either word.
When a sentence has a parallel structure, it means that its words and phrases follow the same grammatical structure. Parallel structure makes sentences easier to read and helps express ideas clearly. Parallel construction is important in sentences that make lists or describe a series of events. Each part of the list or series must be in the same form, or part of speech, as the others.
Not Parallel: Every day, I went to school, worked part-time, and was exercising. (Two verbs are in the past tense; one is a past participle.) Parallel: Every day, I went to school, worked part-time, and exercised. Not Parallel: We are looking for a teaching assistant who is smart, reliable, and will come on time. (Two characteristics are adjectives, whereas the third consists of a verb phrase.) Parallel: We are looking for a teaching assistant who is smart, reliable, and punctual.
Parallel construction is also crucial when a sentence uses a not only/but also pattern. Review the following examples.
The author not only raised several important questions, but she also made a convincing argument. (Notice how the phrases following the not only/but also pattern are in the same form. Each has a verb in the past tense and a noun.)
The contract dispute was a result not only of a breakdown in communication but also of the town's budgetary crisis. (Here the words following the not only/but also pattern are in the form of prepositional phrases.)
Practice answering this sentence-correction question:
- Expressing yourself clearly and effectively in writing means knowing the basic mechanics of language, eliminating ambiguity, choosing the right words, and correct punctuation.
- and correct punctuation.
- or correct punctuation
- and use correct punctuation.
- and having used correct punctuation.
- and using correct punctuation.
Choice e is correct because it follows the grammatical pattern of the sentence: a list of phrases beginning with gerunds (a gerund is a noun created from the -ing form of a verb).
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