Academic writing

Common problems in language construction

In this section, common problems relating to language construction have been identified so that students can become aware of these and avoid them in their writing.

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Sentences can be short and concise, or longer and more complex. However, it is important to vary the length of your sentences so that your writing doesn't sound too abrupt (with the overuse of short sentences), or too densely packed with ideas (with the overuse of long sentences).

One of the most common problems in writing is students writing sentence fragments rather than complete sentences.

What is a sentence?

A complete sentence (which is also called an independent clause) must always contain a subject and a verb. For example:

The bushfires devastated many of the areas in the Adelaide Hills.

This first sentence contains a subject (The bushfires) and a verb (devastated) and then more information in given about what the bushfires devastated.

You may sometimes see sentences without a subject but these are usually instructions. For example:

Use the exit stairs in case of fire.

The subject (you or anybody reading this notice) is inferred from the situation but the verb is still there.

What is a sentence fragment?

A sentence fragment (which may also be a dependent clause) is an incomplete sentence because it is missing either the subject or the verb or both. For example:

Because of the northerly winds

Or a longer version:

Because of the northerly winds, years of drought and tinder-box bushland, along with an ill-prepared and under-equipped country fire service

The sentence fragment can be made into a complete sentence:

Because of the northerly winds, the fire spread quickly through the bushland.

The fire spread quickly through the bushland because of the northerly winds, years of drought and tinder-box bushland, along with an ill-prepared and under-equipped country fire service.

Here are some more examples of independent clauses:

  1. Many of our laws originated from customary law.
  2. The authority of customary law should be limited.
  3. The customary system of law varies in different areas.

Here are some more examples of dependent clauses/phrases:

  1. in resolving disputes and meting out justice
  2. outside of the major cities
  3. particularly in areas of criminal justice

By adding an independent clause (underlined) to each of the dependent clauses above, we can complete each sentence.

Village councils play the main role in resolving disputes and meting out justice.

Outside of the major cities, village councils play the main role in resolving disputes and meting out justice.

The customary system of law varies in different countries particularly in areas of criminal justice.

Joining two complete (independent) sentences

If you want to make a longer sentences from two complete sentences, you will need to use a linking word or phrase. For example:

The bushfires devastated many of the areas in the Adelaide Hills. Many people lost their homes.

The bushfires devastated many of the areas in the Adelaide Hills and many people lost their homes.

The national government has little control over what happens in rural areas in north-west Pakistan. The people rely on their village councils to enforce the law.

The national government has little control over what happens in rural areas in north-west Pakistan so the people rely on their village councils to enforce the law.

Another common problem in writing is ensuring that when we list a number of components in a sentence, we must keep the same grammatical structure. Generally the rule is to use all nouns (or noun phrases) or verb + noun (or noun phrase). For example:

The main student attributes include an ability to communicate well, think critically, and problem solving.

This is not a parallel structure because it uses a noun phrase, verb/noun and noun. The following sentence is correct as all nouns are used.

The main student attributes include effective communication, critical thinking, and problem solving.

Because of northerly winds blowing, out of control bush growth and the lack of rainfall for years, the fire quickly spread.

This is not a parallel structure because it uses a noun/verb phrase, noun phrase and noun phrases. The following sentence is correct as all nouns are used.

Because of the northerly winds, uncontrolled growth of the bush and the lack of rainfall for years, the fire quickly spread.

Definition of articles

English has two types of articles: definite (the) and indefinite (a, an.) The use of these articles depends on whether the noun following the article possesses one of these paired qualities:

  • General or specific

Coffee is a popular drink.

The most popular drink in Australia now is coffee.

  • Countable or uncountable

I drank a cup of tea.

I drank tea.

  • First mentioned or subsequently mentioned

A cyclist crossed Trower Road on a red light and was lucky not to be hit by a car. However, the police noticed and stopped the cyclist further up the road.

  • Is unique or forms part of shared knowledge

Do you know I saw Tony Blair in Geneva. Do you mean the Tony Blair?

Subject Verb Agreement

Most students are familiar with the basic rules of subject verb agreement. For example, I live in Darwin, she lives in Melbourne and the Scotts live in Bendigo. But it becomes more complicated with the following sentence constructions:

  • Using a noun phrase

The Commission for Renewable Energy is convening the conference in Melbourne.

The repeated scene of rioting shown on television news leads some teenagers to believe that civil disorder can be a legitimate form of protest.

  • Indefinite pronoun such as someone, anyone

Anyone is going to get lost in the labyrinth of the Turkish bazaars.

  • A phrase starting with a quantifier such as some, any,

Some breakfast cereals have nutritious ingredients.

Any part of the crowd is at risk from the military.

  • Phrases using either ... or and neither ... nor

The energy crisis will neither be solved by increasing the price of petrol nor by rationing fuel.

The energy crisis is not going to be solved by either increasing the price of petrol or by rationing fuel.

  • Complex sentences

The result of atmospheric pollution and soil degradation is the destruction of plant life and increased respiratory problems amongst the population.

Many people who have been unemployed for several years and have given up hope of ever obtaining paid employment are beginning to think about how they might start their own small business.

  • Sentences starting with words ending in 'ing'

Getting into town is going to be more difficult than we think after that heavy rain.

Going without water for more than three days is going to irreparably damage the vital organs of the body.

For further information contact ALLSP on (08) 89467459
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