Of the 25 questions on the Accuplacer Next Generation Writing Test, 9 to 11 of them concern the things we generally expect to look for when reviewing a piece of writing: standard English conventions. These include using the correct word, sentence structure, proper grammar, and appropriate punctuation—the basic mechanics of writing. Here are the types of things you should know to be successful at answering the standard English convention questions.
Sentence structure refers to the way words are grammatically organized in a sentence. Regardless of length, to be complete, a sentence must include a subject (the sentence must be about someone or something), a verb (the subject must be doing something or exist in a state of being), and express a complete thought. If any of those three things is missing, the sentence is a fragment. A sentence with more than one complete thought is a run-on sentence.
There are four types of sentence structure: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. Each of these sentence types require the three mandatory components: subject, verb, and complete thought. However, how those components are linked together is where sentence boundaries come into play. In the testing scenario, you may be asked to identify grammatically incorrect sentences and you must know how to fix those sentences.
Subordination and Coordination
Subordination and coordination refer to the types of conjunctions (joining words) you can use to combine sentences to form different sentence structures. Coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet) join independent clauses (sets of words that can stand alone as complete sentences) to form compound sentences. For example:
“I didn’t know which shoes to buy. I decided to wait.”
Each of these is a simple sentence. A coordinating conjunction can be used to combine them so they don’t sound quite so elementary:
“I didn’t know which shoes to buy, so I decided to wait.”
Now we have a compound sentence. When you use a coordinating conjunction to join two independent clauses, make sure you include a comma right before the conjunction.
Subordinating conjunctions (after, although, as, as if, because, before, even if, even though, if, if only, rather than, since, that, though, unless, until, when, where, whereas, whenever, whether, which, while) join independent clauses to make complex sentences. For example:
“The concert scheduled for tonight has been cancelled. We will have to find something else to do.”
Using a subordinating conjunction to combine these sentences, you may say:
“Since the concert scheduled for tonight has been cancelled, we will have to find something else to do.”
Parallel structure means that all of the words in a sentence have the same pattern; they are grammatically behaving the same way and share the same importance. Parallel sentence structure does not mix forms. For example:
“Juan likes to skateboard, bike, or he walks to work.”
This sentence does not have parallel structure because not all of the verbs are structured in the same way. To give this sentence parallel structure, you would modify the verbs and say instead:
“Juan likes to skateboard, bike, or walk to work.”
One more example:
“The doctor told her patient to rest, drink plenty of fluids, and that he should avoid strenuous exercise until he was feeling better.”
This needs to change to:
“The doctor told her patient to rest, drink plenty of fluids, and avoid strenuous exercise until he was feeling better.”
Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that provide description or added information about other words in a sentence. Modifiers are clingy things—they want to be right next to the word they are modifying or supporting. When they are misplaced, or when they drift too far away from the word they intend to modify, you end up with an awkward or confusing sentence. For example:
“The car was reported stolen by the police yesterday afternoon.”
Hmmmm, did the police steal the car? The word order in this sentence suggests they might have. Instead, write:
“The police reported that the car was stolen yesterday afternoon.”
Now the police are cleared from suspicion. This was a misplaced modifier (the police are removed from the stealing connection when you move them to the beginning of the sentence). Sometimes, there are dangling modifiers, which means the word that is modified doesn’t even appear in the sentence. For example:
“Having arrived late to school, a tardy note was needed.”
Who needed the tardy note? There’s no one named in the sentence for the modifier to describe. We could fix it by saying:
“Having arrived late to school, Mark needed a tardy note.”
Modifiers need to be placed in direct contact with what they are describing.
Verbs are action words. They happen in the past, present, future, or are on-going. A shift in verb tense happens when a writer changes the tense, either within or between sentences. Writers should use consistent verb tense and avoid unnecessary or unintentional shifts in verb tense.
This sentence shifts tone: As Sam started the car, his cell phone rings.
You’ll notice that the two verbs are not in the same tense: started is past tense, while rings is present. To fix this, both verbs want to be in the same tense: As Sam started the car, his cell phone rang.
Verb Mood and Voice
Writers should also be sure not to shift verb voice or mood. Generally, the best verb voice is active, as opposed to passive. In active voice, the verb is being actively done by the subject, whether it is happening now, happened in the past, or will happen in the future. Here is an example of a sentence in the active voice:
“The hawk killed the fieldmouse.”
The subject of the sentence, the hawk, did the verb, killed. Note that this is an active voice even though the action happened in the past tense. A passive voice sentence for this same scenario would say:
“The fieldmouse was killed by the hawk.”
Now, there is a passive fieldmouse just waiting for the action of the killing to be done to it… no good. Use active voice in your writing; it makes for more engaging reading for your audience.
Pronoun Person and Number
Pronouns replace nouns so that your writing doesn’t sound so repetitive. If you are writing about Tom, you don’t have to keep using Tom’s name, but could refer to he or, in mentioning something that belongs to Tom, his.
Pronouns must always match the original noun (antecedent) in person, and number, however. If referring to a male, use he/him/his, and if female, she/her/hers. If there are multiple people or mixed genders, use they/their. If you are referring to a singular object, like “the ice cream cone,” the pronoun should be singular, it. When referring to plural objects, like “the cookies,” the pronoun should be the plural they.
Nouns and pronouns must agree in number (singular or plural) and gender (male, female, or inclusive).
“Each of the students earned an A on his or her test.”
Each is singular so the pronouns used later must also be singular, his or her.
On the other hand, if the sentence begins, “All of the students…”, you would use their tests.