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Grammar and Proofreading

  • Comma Splices / Fused Sentences

    A sentence consists of at least one independent clause — one subject and one verb. A fused sentence occurs when two sentences are joined without any punctuation. A comma splice occurs when two sentences are joined with just a comma.

    Fused Sentences

    • Tom read the novel Jerry saw the movie.
    • Success is their goal happiness comes a close second.

    Comma Splices

    • The train picked up speed, the scenery flashed by rapidly.
    • Salmon swim upstream, they even jump over huge dams to reach their destination.
    • Some parents support bilingual education, however, many oppose it enthusiastically.

    How to properly edit fused sentences and comma splices

    Method 1

    Separate the two independent clauses into two sentences with a period.

    • Success is their goal. Happiness comes a close second.
    • Beavers cut down trees with their teeth. They use the trees for food and shelter.

    Method 2

    Separate the two independent clauses with a semi-colon if the clauses are joined by a transitional expression or if the ideas are closely related. A semicolon is used to indicate a particularly close connection or a strong contrast between two ideas. The semicolon has more strength than the comma because it can separate two independent clauses by itself.
    A transitional word or phrase is used after a semicolon to indicate a specific relationship between two closely related ideas.

    • Some parents support bilingual education; however, many oppose it enthusiastically.
    • The hummingbird is amazing; its wings beat fifty to seventy-five times per second.

    Method 3

    A comma cannot separate two independent clauses unless it is followed by a coordinating conjunction. Separate the two independent clauses with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (FANBOYS).

    • My mother’s name is Marta, and my father’s name is George.
    • Woodpeckers look for insects in trees, but they do not intentionally destroy live trees.

    Method 4

    Make one clause dependent on the other by adding a subordinating conjunction. (When, until, before, because, although, even though, whereas, while)

    • Whenever the beavers dammed up the river, the rise in the water level destroyed the trees.
    • The scenery flashed by rapidly when the train picked up speed.

    Method 5

    Make one clause into a phrase containing an –ing form and attach it to the remaining independent clause.

    Salmon swim upstream, jumping over huge dams to reach their destination. 

  • Coordinating Conjunctions (FANBOYS)

    The FANBOYS Are: For And Nor But OYet So

    These words function as a coordinating conjunction in a sentence. FANBOYS link words, phrases, and clauses to make them equivalent.

    • Ex 1: The bowl of soup is hot and delicious.
    • Ex 2: The mashed potatoes are so fluffy that you can eat them with a fork or spoon.
    • Ex 3: My cat loves having his head scratched but hates getting his claws trimmed.
    • Ex 4: Tom hates poodles yet adores German shepherds.
    • Ex 5: I will not eat anchovies, nor will I eat mushrooms on my pizza.
    • Ex 6: I hate to waste a single piece of saffron, for it is expensive and really hard to find.
    • Ex 7: Tom didn’t eat his pie, so I got a spoon and ate it myself.

    You can use coordinating conjunctions in a list of three or more items:

    • Ex 1: Jane, Courtney, and Sam…
    • Ex 2: John got in the car, went to the store, and came home.
      *and used in these sentences makes all three subjects or actions equally as important as the others.

    A coordinating conjunction can also join two main clauses that a writer wants to emphasize equally. When you connect two main clauses with a coordinating conjunction, use a comma.

    • Ex: While I am at work, my dog sleeps on the bed, and my cat naps in the bathtub.

    You can also use a coordinating conjunction to connect any two items.

    • Ex 1: My dog has too many fleas and too much hair.
    • Ex 2: My friend has beautiful blue eyes but a big nose.
  • Fragments

    What is a Fragment?

    fragment is a part of a sentence which lacks one or more of the requirements to be a complete thought.  That is, it is either lacking a subject or a predicate.

    How can I fix a fragment?

    • Most fragments can be repaired by combining them with the sentence before or after them.
    • Revise the fragment by providing the missing subject or verb or making sure that the word group expresses a complete thought.


    Fragment: Because the neighbors who lived across the street wanted to move out of town. They gave me their beagle named Roxie.

    Correction: Because the neighbors who lived across the street wanted to move out of town, they gave me their beagle named Roxie.

    Fragment: The teacher who influenced me the most in high school.

    Correction: The teacher who influenced me the most in high school was Mr. Garvey, my algebra teacher.

  • Recognizing Passive and Active Voice

    Passive voice happens when you move the object of an action (whatever’s getting acted on) to the first part of the sentence. Take a look at this passive rephrasing of a familiar joke:

    Why was the road crossed by the chicken?

    Who is doing the action in this sentence? The chicken is the one doing the action in this sentence, but the chicken is not in the spot where you would expect the grammatical subject of the sentence to be. Instead, the road comes first in this sentence.

    The more familiar phrasing (why did the chicken cross the road?) puts the actor first, the position of doing something—the chicken (the actor/doer) crosses the road (the object).

    Identifying the passive voice

    Here’s a sure-fire formula for identifying the passive voice:

    form of “to be” + past participle = passive voice

    A form of “to be” (is, are, am, was, were, has been, have been, had been, will be, will have been, being) is followed by a past participle. (The past participle is a form of the verb that typically, but not always, ends in “-ed.” Some exceptions to the “-ed” rule are words like “paid” (not “payed”) and “driven.” (not “drived”).

    For example

    The metropolis has been scorched by the dragon’s fiery breath.
    When her house was invaded, Penelope had to think of ways to delay her remarriage.

    Not every sentence that contains a form of “have” or “be” is passive.

    Forms of the word “have” can do several different things in English. For example, in the sentence “John has to study all afternoon,” “has” is not part of a past-tense verb.

    Forms of “be” are not always passive, either—”be” can be the main verb of a sentence that describes a state of being, rather than an action.

    For example, the sentence “John is a good student” is not passive; “is” simply describes John’s state of being.

    The moral of the story: don’t assume that any time you see a form of “have” and a form of “to be” together, you are looking at a passive sentence.


    Look at this sentence: The fish was caught by the seagull.

    If we ask ourselves whether there’s an action, the answer is yes: a fish is being caught. If we ask what’s at the front of the sentence, the actor or the object of the action, it’s the object: the fish, unfortunately for it, got caught, and there it is at the front of the sentence. The thing that did the catching—the seagull—is at the end, after “by.” There’s a form of be (was) and a past participle (caught). This sentence is passive.

    To repeat, the key to identifying the passive voice is to look for both a form of “to be” and a past participle, which usually, but not always, ends in “-ed.”

    Adapted from the writing center website at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 

  • English Sentence Structures

    Beginning Vocabulary

    sentence is a group of words (specifically a subject noun and predicate verb) that expresses or illustrates ideas, commands, and questions in complete sense. A sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with some sort of terminal punctuation (i.e., a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point).

    Phrases are words that constitute a unit of a sentence, or simply any two or more word combination. There are multiple phrasal types with various functions (e.g., prepositional phrase, noun phrase, adverbial phrase, etc.)

    Clauses are word structures that may contain both a subject and predicate but also have additional elements that hinder them from being actual sentences. A dependent clause contains a subject and predicate as well as a subordinate conjunction, meaning the clause depends upon another to make complete sense. Ultimately, the dependent clause serves a specific function in the whole sentence. An independent clause is synonymous with sentence but completes the thought of the dependent clause.

    Sentence Types

    There are four basic sentence types in the English language:

    • Simple: This sentence type is usually short and to the point.  A simple sentence expresses one idea.

    Ex. I love this cake!
    John and Paige went to the store.
    Erin gave her friend a scarf and t-shirt for Christmas.

    • Compound: This sentence type contains three specific structures: two clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction and comma, meaning the two clauses and information within them are equal.

    Ex. Mary wanted to play hide-and-seek, but I wanted to play tag.
    Tomorrow the Johnstones are visiting town, and we will eat supper with them.

    • Complex: These sentences contain one dependent clause and one independent clause. Punctuation depends on the combination of the clauses and the place of the subordinate conjunction. The dependent clause makes no sense without the independent clause.

    Ex. When we went to the Florida Keys, my daughter participated in a snorkel excursion.
    I refuse to contribute to the presidential candidate because her party misrepresents common people.

    • Compound-Complex. This type combines compound and complex sentences to form a long and detailed sentences.

    Ex. Because I was an excellent undergraduate student, the university provided a fellowship to help pay for school, and the government awarded a small grant.

  • Subject-Verb Agreement

    The subject and the verb of a sentence must always agree in number. Use a plural verb with a plural subject and a singular verb with a singular subject. However, there are exceptions to the rule. For instance, if a sentence has two or more singular subjects connected by and, use a plural verb. Also, if the sentence has two singular subjects connected by oreither … or, or neither … nor, use a singular verb. Examine the rules below for tricky situations.

    Subject-Verb Rules and Examples

    • When a sentence contains a SINGULAR noun, the verb must be SINGULAR.
      The girl is going home.
    • When a sentence contains a PLURAR noun, the verb must be PLURAL.
      The girls are going home.
    • When a sentence contains two or more SINGULAR nouns, the verb must be PLURAL.
      The boy and girl are going home.
    • When a sentence contains two or more SINGULAR nouns connected by “or” or “nor”, the verb must be SINGULAR.
      The girl or the boy runs to the store.
    • When a sentence contains a collective SINGULAR noun, such as news, politics, measles, dollars, logistics, civics, mathematics, etc, the verb must be SINGULAR.
      The news is interesting.
    • When a compound subject includes a SINGULAR noun and a PLURAL noun, the verb must coincide with the noun closest to the verb.
      The girl or the boys run home.

    Helpful Tips

    • The plural form of a noun is usually created by adding s or es. HOWEVER, a plural form of a verb does NOT include an s or es. Rather, a singular form of a verb is usually created by adding s.
    • Look for the TRUE subject of a sentence! Sentences may include intervening phrases to describe the noun, but look at the subject, not the noun of the intervening phrase
      • Incorrect Example: A box of fifty books are very heavy and bulky.
      • Correct Example: A box of fifty books is very heavy and bulky.
  • Using A or An

    You should use a before all words beginning with a consonant:

    • a mouse
    • a student
    • a desk
    • a black computer

    There is one exception to the above rule regarding a silent h. In cases with the silent h, you should use an:

    • an honor

    You should use an before all words beginning with a vowel:

    • an apple
    • an option
    • an orange tree
    • an energy efficient washer

    There are two exceptions to the above rule:

    1. When u makes the same sound as the y in youth: a used car
    2. Or when o makes the same sound as w in want: a one-sized fits all hat
  • Using Lay or Lie

    These two words are commonly confused, but are easily understood.

    The verb lay means to set something down. It is always followed by a direct object, or the thing that is being set down.

    • Ex: The chicken laid the egg.
      The egg is being laid by the chicken.
    • Ex: Please lay the table carefully.
      The table is the object being set down.

    The verb lie means to rest or lounge. It is not followed with a direct object.

    • Ex: I will lie down at home.
    • Ex: Alyssa is lying on the floor.

    In both of these examples, someone is lounging.

  • Using Who and Whom

    Who and whoever are subjective pronouns. Whom and whomever are objective pronouns.

    Use who or whoever when the word functions as the subject of a clause.

    • Who is going to the store? (Who is the subject of the entire sentence.)
    • He is the one who is going to the store. (Who is the subject of the clause “who is going to the store”)
    • I’ll help whoever is next. (Whoever is the subject of the clause “whoever is next”)

    Use whom or whomever when the word functions as the object of a phrase.

    • To whom should I address the letter? (Whom is the object of the prepositional phrase “To whom” and I is the subject of the sentence)
    • He is the one whom I love. (Whom is the object of the clause “whom I love” and I is the subject of the clause “whom I love”)
    • She can dance with whomever she chooses. (Whomever is the object of the clause “whomever she chooses” and she is the subject of the clause “whomever she chooses”)

    Here’s a rule that generally helps in deciding whether who or whom is correct:

    • Substitute another pronoun for the who or whom in question.
    • If the phrase makes sense using either he or she, use who.
    • If the phrase makes sense using either him or her, use whom.
  • Paragraph Development

    Students generally have one of two problems when writing paragraphs: either their paragraphs are not developed enough or their paragraphs include too much information and lose focus. Below you will find an outline to follow when writing most paragraphs within the body of an essay. This outline does not apply to introductions and conclusions. If you include all four of the elements listed below in every paragraph, you will be much more likely to write well-focused, well-developed paragraphs and a stronger paper overall.

    The first rule in paragraph writing is that each paragraph should only focus on one main idea:

    1 Paragraph = 1 Point

    Paragraph Outline

    1. Transition and Topic Sentence
    2. Inclusion of Evidence
    3. Analysis of Evidence
    4. Link Back to Topic Sentence and/or Thesis


    Transition and Topic Sentence: The start of every paragraph in the body of an essay needs a transition phrase or sentence that explains how that paragraph relates to the previous paragraph. The job of the transition is to show your reader the logic behind your paper’s organization: Why does paragraph B follow paragraph A? Connected to the transition is the topic sentence. The topic sentence tells your reader what your focus will be for that paragraph: What is the 1 Point you will support in this 1 Paragraph?

    Inclusion of Evidence: After you establish in your topic sentence what your focus will be in the paragraph, you then need to bring in a piece of evidence to support that topic sentence. Evidence can be a quotation from a source, a personal example, a statistic, a description of an object, person, or scene, etc. 

    Analysis of Evidence: Once you have brought in your well-chosen evidence, you need to explain why you chose that particular piece of evidence for this particular paragraph. When you analyze something, you need to break it down into pieces and show how those pieces relate to the whole. In your paragraph, you should talk about what you find interesting, troubling, or insightful about that piece of evidence. Pull out specific words or images from the piece of evidence and explain what their larger implications or connotations are. Never let your evidence speak for you; you must always tell your readers how you want them to interpret or understand that evidence. As a general rule, the analysis portion of your paragraph should be longer than the evidence portion.

    Link Back to Topic Sentence and/or Thesis: To show your reader that you have maintained a consistent focus throughout the paragraph, you should end the paragraph by connecting your analysis back to your topic sentence. In a paper with a thesis, you should connect each paragraph back to both your topic sentence and your thesis statement: How does your analysis support the original claim you made in your topic sentence and/or thesis? 

    Sample Paragraph:

    Not only can parents put too much pressure on their children to receive good grades, but parents can also apply that pressure to the activities children do outside of school, such as sports. For instance, in the original version of the movie The Bad News Bears (1976), the coach for the Bears’ rival team the Yankees exemplifies how parents can push their children too far in sports. During the championship game, the Yankee’s coach does not think the pitcher for his team, who is also his son, is playing well enough against the Bears. The coach stomps out to the mound and slaps his son across the face so hard that the boy ends up face down on the pitcher’s mound. This scene shows that the coach has completely forgotten what it means to be a father. A father is supposed to protect and support his child; instead, the pitcher is the one who needs protection from his father’s violent actions. Slapping his own son in front of all of his peers and the rest of the spectators at the game is the ultimate form of public humiliation. A child should not feel this type of embarrassment during a game that is supposed to be fun. The image of the child’s face in the pitcher’s mound symbolizes how the child feels like the dirt that is on his face. A parent should build a child’s self-esteem and not make a child feel as low as dirt. This point of the movie also makes the viewers sympathize with this boy who had bullied the Bears’ players earlier because we see that his father treats him the same way. If the father in the movie had not put so much pressure on his son to play well, then the son would not have been humiliated and made to feel like dirt. 

  • Using Pronouns

    What is a pronoun? 

    A pronoun is a word that replaces a noun. A pronoun can be a subject, an object, reflexive, or possessive.

    I, we, you, he, she, it, they me, us, you, him,
    her, it, them
    myself, ourselves, himself, itself, etc. themselves mine, ours, yours,
    his, hers, its, their

    What is an indefinite pronoun? 

    Indefinite pronouns are pronouns which do not specify the word they replace.

    Ex: Enough, several, many, much, all, both, every, each, any, anyone, anybody, either, neither, no, nobody, some, someone

    What is an antecedent? 

    An antecedent is the noun that a pronoun replaces.

    Ex: Mary went to the store before she went home. “She” refers to Mary.

    What is the problem with pronouns? 

    Pronouns can be useful in order to avoid repetition. However, too many pronouns or pronouns without clear antecedents can be confusing for a reader.

    Incorrect Ex: Those are scary!
    Correct Ex: Those roller coasters are scary!

    Incorrect Ex: I drove my car into a pole and badly damaged it.
    Correct Ex: I drove my car into a pole and badly damaged the hood.

    Incorrect Ex: I like the rainforest, so it is my career choice.
    Correct Ex: I like the rainforest, so rainforest preservation is my career choice.

    Incorrect Ex: Many U.S. citizens are morally opposed to an organ market. This is why an organ market is wrong.
    Correct Ex: Many U.S. citizens are morally opposed to an organ market. This opposition is why an organ market is wrong.

  • Using Strong Verbs

    The Problem

    Some of our writing becomes weak when we use verbs like “to be” and “to have.” These verbs add little to our prose; instead, they needlessly inflate our writing, as if we are rambling. Add power to your writing by using strong verbs. The sentence: “The bridegroom walked proudly across the dance floor” sounds so much more compelling if you change it to, “The bridegroom strutted across the dance floor.” In this case we converted a weak verb + adverb “walked proudly” to a strong verb “strutted.” Although weak verbs serve a useful role as helpers, to improve your writing style, let the majority of your verbs express strength.

    Recasting Sentences with Weak Verbs into Sentences with Strong Verbs

    Although readers may not notice the problem because there is nothing grammatically wrong with the sentences, weak verbs still affect how they perceive your writing. Examine the following sentences:

    • Weaker: The cabinet minister is careful to visit only organizations that have a socially-conscious agenda.
    • Stronger: The cabinet minister visits only organizations with a socially-conscious agenda.

    Are the sentences identical? No, but the subtle difference in the care with which the minister selects organizations to visit may not warrant the extra four words and the weak “is careful” construction. Unless you mean to emphasize this care, the second sentence conveys the message more strongly than the first.

    • Weaker: Margaret is always early to class.
    • Stronger: Margaret always arrives early to class.

    Note how the verb in the second sentence, “arrives,” sounds more vigorous and describes the act of arriving early more strongly than the verb in the first, “is,” which merely describes a state of being.

    Beware of the verbs “to be” and “to have.” Any time you use one of these verbs (Be, Is, Are, Was, Been, Being, Were, Has, Have, Having, Had), ask yourself if the sentence should be rewritten.

    To rewrite sentences using strong verbs

    1. Underline any use of Be, Is, Are, Was, Been, Being, Were, Has, Have, Having, Had.
      Example: John is the manager of the produce department.
    2. Look for a noun or adjective that you can convert to a strong verb.
      Example: John is the manager of the produce department.
    3. Rewrite the sentence using that strong verb.
      Example: John manages the produce department.
  • Writing Tips for the College Student
    • Once you have a topic, write down your initial ideas SOON! Then, give your mind a chance to work, both consciously and unconsciously, on your ideas for a few days.
    • Write about what interests you. Your writing will be more interesting if you are interested.
    • Be willing to research the most current information available on your topic. Knowing your subject increases your credibility.
    • Create a structure. Build a plan. There is no one right structure, but structure is necessary for the reader’s understanding.
    • Make the effort to use correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Readers may not notice when your writing is done well, but they will notice the mistakes!
    • Make sure your writing is free of boundary errors. Know what they are, and know how to find and correct them.
    • Use strong, active verbs and avoid passive voice.
    • Be willing to cut when revising. Do not become emotionally attached to your writing simply because it took long hours to write.
    • Go for DETAIL, DETAIL, DETAIL! Give evidence when arguing a point. Supply sensory details when describing. Provide an anecdote when illustrating a point. SHOW, DON’T TELL! 
    • Include humor periodically and when appropriate. Keep it tasteful.
    • Save the best for last.
    • “Hook” your reader with an enticing title.
    • Print out a hardcopy to make revisions on. You will catch more mistakes that way.
    • Seek assistance from the appropriate places. For a class assignment, that would be either your instructor or the campus Writing Center.
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