Single-page handout for students preparing to write historical essays

Common Mechanical Problems

Problems in Sentence Structure That May Reduce Clarity

modifier errors—Modifiers are words or phrases that describe (modify our view of) some other element in the sentence. They should be placed carefully to avoid confusion.

Being lazy, the quick brown fox jumped over the dog.—This misplaced modifier makes the sentence imply that the fox, not the dog, was lazy.
Having said that, the quick brown fox really did jump over the lazy dog.—This dangling modifier, which refers to an action performed by someone who is not mentioned in the sentence, makes it look as if the sentence is about a talking fox.

comma errors—Proper comma usage makes a sentence more readable, and therefore reduces the chance of misinterpretation, by showing how the elements in the sentence relate to each other.

The brown fox was very quick, it jumped over the lazy dog without being caught.—This comma splice creates a run-on sentence, one sentence that is really multiple complete sentences. To correct the error, use a comma plus a conjunction (quick, so it jumped), use a semicolon (quick; it jumped), or simply create two complete sentences with a period (quick. It jumped).
While the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog the lethargic cat sat on the mat.—An introductory dependent clause (a clause that has a subject and a verb but does not express a complete thought) should be set apart by a comma (over the lazy dog, the lethargic cat).

faulty parallelism—When writing about multiple things, keeping the form of the things in the list consistent (parallel) will improve your clarity and style.

The quick brown fox liked to eat, to run, and swimming.—This switch from an infinitive to a gerund is distracting. The sentence would be easier to read if it used one form or the other consistently: either to eat, run, and swim or eating, running, and swimming.

wordiness—Unnecessary words or inflated language slow the reader down and prevent the clear expression of thought. Here are some wordy sentences that should be trimmed:

The quick, rapid, fast brown fox jumped in the blink of an eye over the lazy and apathetic dog.
Seen in light of all the facts, it could be reasonably inferred that the brown fox, which was rather quick, may have jumped over the dog, which was often said to be fairly lazy.

passive voice—Sentences written in the passive voice tend to monotonous and less interesting than sentences written in the active voice. They may also hide the responsibility for an action. In general, therefore, you should favor the active voice, especially in historical writing.

The lazy dog was jumped over by the quick brown fox.—This is subtly misleading because it tricks the mind into giving the dog credit (or blame) for the fox’s action.
The lazy dog was killed.—In passive-voice sentences like this one, the reader cannot tell who performed the action at all. The active voice, in contrast, keeps writers honest: The fox killed the lazy dog.