All posts by Marco

What is a Paragraph?

What is a Paragraph?

What is a paragraph? When is a paragraph too long? When is it too short? How should one paragraph link to the others in a piece of writing? These are all good questions because, when writing a research paper, an essay, a letter, or any other prose composition, utilizing correct paragraphing skills is important.

Briefly stated, a paragraph is a group of sentences that are all about one specific idea. This paragraph, for instance, deals with the definition of a paragraph. There is no set length for a paragraph, but, generally, three full sentences is considered the minimum, and half a page is considered the maximum.

A paragraph should begin with a topic sentence, that is, a sentence which addresses the subject of the paragraph. It may, as in the first paragraph in this essay, begin with a question. The other sentences in the paragraph should supply information that helps to explain the topic.

Sometimes it is easy to determine when to end a pargraph and when to start a new one—because you have moved from one topic to another. At other times, it may not be clear. You may have, for instance, written a large number of sentences (let’s say more than twelve, or more than 200 words) about a specific topic. At that point, you may need to ask the question Is this paragraph too long? As has been stated, there is no limit in terms of the number of sentences in a paragraph, but, when a paragraph takes up about half of a page or when it looks like it is too long, then it may be too long. Of course, if, upon reading the paragraph, you find that the topic has shifted slightly, that is a good place at which to divide it. For instance, if the topic sentence is about how popular cell phones have become in the last decade, and, after a number of sentences in which you explain that many people use them now and how they are seen and heard everywhere, you realize that the topic has shifted to how people can use them as cameras and for text messaging, that may the point at which to begin a new paragraph. The new paragraph will be about alternate uses of cell phones.

Besides knowing when to end a paragraph and when to start a new one, you should also develop smooth transitions between paragraphs. Sometimes this is easy. Phrases such as “In addition to…” or “Conversely….” or “Despite….” are obvious transitional phrases. However, it is not necessary to use a transitional phrase to link a new paragraph to the previous one. Simply repeating a key word that had been used in the previous paragraph works just as well. In this essay, using the word “paragraph” or the phrase “good writing skill” helps in terms of linking paragraphs. Besides that, simply writing a topic sentence which spells out that the new paragraph is about an issue that relates to the previous one is an efficient way of creating a transition. An example of that, in that same essay about cell phones, would be the following topic sentence: “One of the problems that is associated with this electronic phenomenon is the sound of phones ringing during a movie or concert or other entertainment event.”

Good paragraphing is not a science, but it is a skill that is important in terms of good writing. To sum up, a paragraph is a group of sentences that all refer to the topic sentence. A paragraph is generally at least three sentences long, and should not, if at all possible, exceed half of a page. Transitions between paragraphs lend a fluid smoothness to the finished essay.

Like many other writing skills, understanding the basics is the first step in terms of mastery. Writing with care and then proofreading what you have written is a fine way in which to improve all writing skills, including paragraphing. After a period of time, you will find that writing solid paragraphs which link to the others in a piece of writing has become routine.

Which Part Are You?

Which Part Are You?

One of the basics in terms of English skills involves recognizing parts of speech. There are four major parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, and three less important ones: prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. Understanding these parts of speech will help you to write better sentences and, consequently, better essays, academic papers, letters, and other types of formal writing.

Nouns: Nouns name persons, places, things, or ideas. Before I explain more about what nouns are, it is important to distinguish between proper nouns and common nouns. Proper nouns name specific persons, places, and things. Some people denote a fourth category of nouns, ideas, such as love, happiness, thoughts, and peace, but, for the sake of simplicity, in this essay, ideas are included in the thing category. Common nouns name non-specific persons, places, and things. The chart below illustrates that:

Proper Nouns Common Nouns
Person nouns Person nouns
President Bush president
Mrs. Abbot woman
Dr. Thomas doctor
Lucille girl
Place nouns Place nouns
Chicago city
Madison Avenue street
Central Park park
The Empire State Building building
Thing nouns Thing nouns
Pacific Ocean ocean
Chevrolet car
Communism political philosophy
January month

Notice that all proper nouns begin with capital letters; common nouns do not, unless, of course, they are at the beginnings of sentences or are parts of titles.

There is a type of common noun called the pronoun. Pronouns are used instead of repeating a noun in a sentence or a paragraph. The following are pronouns: I, he, she, it, you, they, we, who, my, mine, your, yours, his, her, hers, its, our, ours, their, theirs, whose, me, him, her, us, them. Pronouns are separated into categories, and are used for different purposes in sentences, but that concept will be explained at another time. For the time being, let us concentrate on what pronouns are and when they are used. Pronouns are, as stated above, all common, meaning that, even though they might be used as substitutes for proper nouns, they are not capitalized. The following rule is essential: Use a pronoun only after the noun that it is to be used in place of has been used. Look at the examples below:

  • When we saw Donald Trump walking down the street, we ran to him.
  • Ralph, Larry, and Dean walked back to their office.

In each of those sentences, the meaning of the pronoun is clear because the noun that each of them replaced had been used first.

The next sentence is one in which a pronoun is used without the noun which it is replacing having been used first:

All of the students applauded when he announced that they had all passed the test.

The use of the pronoun he is confusing because it is used without a regular noun having been used first. In that sentence, he could mean the teacher, the principal, the football coach, Mr. Smith, or any other male person. On the other hand, the pronoun they clearly refers to the students.

Verbs: Verbs are words that indicate an action or a state of being. Some action verbs are run, jump, write, fly, think, and sleep. Even though you might not think of sleeping as an action, it is still an action verb. Some of the verbs that express a state of being are is, be, am, and become.

You may have noticed that many words can be expressed as nouns and as verbs. Here are some examples:

  • I don’t want to fight with you. (verb)
  • We saw a great fight last night. (noun)
  • I love to watch my dog jump. (verb)
  • Did you see that fantastic jump? (noun)

The following are examples of sentences which contain state of being verbs;

  • My boss is a real tyrant.
  • I am very happy.
  • She became my best friend.

Adjectives: Adjectives are words that describe nouns. The best way of understanding how to identify and use adjectives is to look at the examples below. The italicized words are adjectives:

  • That is a beautiful flower.
  • We saw a funny, exciting, movie last night.
  • A cute, small brown dog ran down the street.

Adverbs: Adverbs are words that are used to describe or modify the meanings of verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.

Look at these sentences in which adverbs are used:

  • Put the towels outside to dry. Outside is used to modify the verb put.
  • She is always hungry. Always is used to modify the adjective hungry.
  • The mayor is very suspicious of everyone else. Very is used to modify the adjective suspicious.
  • The boy ran quickly. Quickly is used to modify the verb ran.

Prepositions: They are words that link nouns, pronouns, or phrases to some other part of the sentence. Here are some examples of prepositions in sentences:

  • The boy walked into the room.
  • He is a friend of mine.
  • We all ran to her.
  • We grabbed the popcorn with our fingers.

Conjunctions: Conjunctions join words, phrases, or clauses. Look at the following examples:

  • My favorite meal is scrambled eggs and toast.
  • Would you like to go to the movies or would you like to stay home and watch television?
  • We would have been late, but we caught the bus on time.

Interjections: Interjections are words that express emotion. Look at the examples below:

  • Oh, I didn’t buy anything for your birthday!
  • Hey, let go of my leg!
  • Ouch, that stove is hot!

Those are the basics of parts of speech. Try to notice parts of speech as you read. After a while, you will easily be able to identify nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections.

Did I Make My Point?

Did I Make My Point?

Whether you are working on a writing assignment for a class or are faced with the chore of putting together an essay to be submitted along with a college application, the same basic questions arise: How do I start this thing? What is the best way of putting my ideas down on paper? How do I get my point across to the reader?

There is no great mystery here. There are four fundamental steps that must be followed in order to create a clear, readable essay that is on the mark and which displays your best effort.

The first step is to fully understand the assignment and to reflect on what you are being asked to do. What is the topic? What ancillary themes are supposed to be written about? Is there a particular style that is required, such as autobiographical writing? If, for example, the instructions indicate that the essay is to be about “…a major crisis in your life, how you faced it, and what it taught you about yourself, including heretofore unrecognized weaknesses,” then you would need to put a great deal of thought into your own life experiences.

Yes, there are times when you cannot think of any experience in your life which meshes with the assigned topic. Maybe you have never faced a crisis. Lucky you. If that is the case, then you may need to bring the topic down a little…from crisis to problem. It is generally acceptable to write about a slightly different theme from the one that is being called for, if you must. In the example stated above, you would simply indicate that the problem about which you are going to write is the closest to a crisis that you have ever experienced.

Some people, when they cannot think of an experience from their own lives that fits the assigned topic, borrow events from other people’s lives or they fabricate situations for use in their essays. This is generally not a good idea for two reasons: If you are being asked to write about your own life, then using someone else’s experiences or manufacturing an incident may result in an essay that does not ring true. There is also the possibility that the reader may discern your creative efforts, and lose interest in the essay.

In any case, once you have fully understood and spent time thinking about the assigned topic, it is time for the second step—planning your essay. The best method, in terms of planning a well-organized essay, is to write an outline. You may use any format that is comfortable for you, from scratch notes to a formal outline, such as the one below, in which what is written next to each Roman numeral is what will be in a paragraph in the actual essay:

My Greatest Crisis:

  1. Everyone faces problems at one time or another.
    1. Most problems are solvable.
    2. Some problems are serious enough to be called crises.
    3. Dealing with a crisis is difficult.
    4. Sometimes, there is no satisfactory solution to a crisis.
    5. The effects of some crises may be long-lasting.
  2. I faced a crisis when my mother developed Alzheimer’s Disease.
    1. The responsibility of caring for her fell to me.
    2. At first, my mother moved in with my wife and me, and I was able to take care of her, with help from my wife and a neighbor.
    3. As my mother’s condition deteriorated, I had to spend more time with her.
      1. My wife and I rarely went out after work or on weekends, and I sometimes had to take days off from my job.
      2. The neighbor felt that she could not cope with my mother’s worsening condition.
      3. My mother’s illness made it impossible for us to invite people to our house.
    4. The neurologist who was caring for my mother stated that she would soon need twenty-four hour a day care.
    5. I was adamant in my refusal to lodge my mother in a facility.
    6. She fell, fracturing her hip, and was hospitalized.
    7. After surgery, she was transferred to a skilled nursing facility.
  3. Dealing with my sense of guilt.
    1. At first my mother hated the nursing home, and I felt guilty about abandoning her.
    2. I decided to bring her home.
    3. The director of the facility advised me to give her a chance to acclimate herself.
    4. My wife assured me that she was not against my mother returning to our house, but she asked me to do as the director had advised.
    5. After two guilty, torturous weeks, I was relieved to discover that my mother seemed to feel comfortable where she was.
    6. I still felt guilty, but I did not bring her home.
  4. What I learned about dealing with a crisis.
    1. I learned that, sometimes, there are no simple, neat solutions to crises.
    2. I found out that relying on the advice of others, especially family members and experts, can be useful.
    3. I realized that, during this crisis, I was not thinking about my mother’s welfare as much as I was concerned with my own sense of guilt.
    4. Now, years after my mother died, I am still attempting to convince myself that I made the right choice.

Notice that the outline begins with a title. Sometimes, it is better to choose a title once the outline or even the actual essay has been completed. The first paragraph in the essay will be based on Roman numeral one in the outline. Each of the following paragraphs should be based on each of the subsequent Roman numeral sections. Your opening paragraph should clearly state your topic or thesis statement. You may need two or three sentences in order to clearly make your point.

Once you are sure that your outline is complete, you are ready for the third step, writing the essay. Follow the outline, adding additional sentences to clarify and fortify your points. Your second and third paragraphs (You may write more) should each contain information about a topic that relates to your thesis statement. Do not add extraneous ideas. Do not write more than you need to in order to explain your point.

Your concluding paragraph should reiterate the thesis statement. The last sentence or two should resolve the issue under discussion so that the reader develops a sense of completion. After reading your essay, he or she should be thinking, “Okay. I understand what this person has in mind” or “I see his (or her) point” or something of that nature.

The final, very important step is to carefully—very carefully proofread what you have written. Do not rely only on your computer’s Spell Check function. A good idea is to print what you have written, and read it—word for word. You are more likely to catch errors when reading a printed page than when you read what is displayed on a computer monitor. Some people find it helpful to point to each word with a pencil or pen, as they read. Don’t be reluctant to mark up your paper, if you find errors or think of a better way to say what you have written.

Remember, your essay is a reflection of your best effort. If you can submit a carefully organized, clearly written essay that is free of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage errors, then you are accomplishing your goal of creating an essay that is worth reading. It will be a mark of your excellence.

What’s the Subject? (and the Predicate?)

What's the Subject? (and the Predicate?)

What’s wrong with the following sentences?

  1. During the days immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the American people.
  2. Were overcome with feelings of grief, sadness, anger, and fear.

The answer is that neither one of them is a complete sentence. The first one is a subject. It names who is being written about, “the American people.” The rest of the words in that noun phrase give more information about “the American people.” The entire phrase is the subject.

The second phrase is a predicate. It tells what the subject does or its state of being. It contains a verb phrase, “were overcome,” along with additional words to clarify the verb phrase. The verb phrase and the additional words form the predicate.

If the subject and the predicate are placed together, a full sentence is formed:

During the days immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the American people were overcome with feelings of grief, sadness, anger, and fear.

Every well-written sentence must contain a subject and a predicate.

A subject may be composed of one word or it may be a phrase, as in the one above. The following are further examples of subjects:

  1. The United States Navy
  2. A man named Mr. Jones
  3. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams
  4. All of the seventh graders in the school
  5. People who live in technologically advanced countries
  6. The latest generation of cell phones
  7. New York City
  8. Peace
  9. I
  10. Michelle

Each one of those subjects names a person, place, thing, or idea. Some of them are singular, meaning they name one person, place, thing, or idea. Others name plural subjects. Notice that each of the last three subjects is composed of a single noun.

The following are examples of predicates:

  1. is expanding at a rapid pace.
  2. fell.
  3. were instrumental in leading the Thirteen Colonies to independence from England.
  4. failed the test.
  5. do not always understand the problems of those who live in poverty abroad.
  6. is capable of truly amazing things.
  7. is sometimes referred to as the capital of the world.
  8. appears to be elusive throughout the world.
  9. ate too much for dinner.
  10. is unhappy.

Notice that a predicate may be a single word, a verb, as in number two.

If you link Subject Number One with Predicate Number One, Subject Number Two with Predicate Number Two, and so on, you will create full sentences. You might even link differently numbered subjects and predicates. Some of them will form correct sentences, and others will not make sense or they will not be correct in terms of number or tense.

The set of rules in reference to subjects and predicates can summarized as follows:

  1. Every sentence must have a subject and a predicate.
  2. A subject is a noun or a noun phrase. It identifies the person(s), place(s), thing(s), or idea(s) that the sentence is about.
  3. A predicate is a verb or a verb phrase. It explains what the subject is doing or its state of being.

That’s the subject and the predicate.

That’s a Capital Idea!

That’s a Capital Idea!

Capital letters at the beginnings of words are used in particular circumstances. Many writers are not sure when they should be used, so they either over or under use them. The truth is, this is one of the easiest aspects of writing to learn because the rules are relatively simple and consistent (No rule is totally consistent when it comes to writing or spelling in English).

When to use capital letters at the beginnings of words:

  1. Always begin a sentence with a capital letter. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about this (By the way, those words, if, and, but, are conjunctions; I’ll explain about them another time).
  2. Always capitalize the first letter of a proper noun. Okay—that may sound confusing, but it is not. A proper noun is a noun that refers to a specific person, place, thing, or idea. For example, Robert is a proper noun, but man and boy are not. (Nouns that refer to non-specific people, places, things, or ideas are called common nouns.) New York City is a proper noun, but city, town, and municipality are common nouns. Don’t capitalize car or car company, but Cadillac must be capitalized. Capitalize Macy’s, but not department store. Each word of the title The Da Vinci Code should begin with a capital letter, but book and bestseller should not. By the way, here is a related point: notice that I italicized The Da Vinci Code. The titles of full-length books and of newspapers, magazines, and journals should be written in italics or underlined, not enclosed in quotation marks. If, however, I had been referring to the film, and not the book, then I would have written it as follows: “The Da Vinci Code.” Films, television shows, short written works, such as short stories, poems, essays, plays, newspaper, magazine, and journal articles, as well as musical pieces and works of art should be enclosed in quotation marks. Of course, since they are proper nouns, the first letter of each word should be capitalized. The only exception to the capitalization of each of the first letters in a title is that the smaller words in the title, such as in, of, and, the, do not have to be capitalized (unless the word in question is at the beginning of the title, as in The Da Vinci Code). Therefore, the title of the following famous novel may be written in two ways: All Quiet on the Western Front or All Quiet On The Western Front.
  3. Capitalize the first letter of each word in the title of an academic essay or research paper. You should not use quotation marks or italics or underlining. Here is an example: How The Civil War Started.
  4. When writing dialogue, the first word in quotation marks should be capitalized, as in the following example: She seemed to enjoy the party,” her father said. If, however, a section of dialogue is interrupted and then continued, the second part of the quoted section should not begin with a capital letter (unless it is a proper noun). These following two examples will, hopefully, clarify that point: Even though he tried every possible solution to the problem,” the teacher commented, he could not figure it out.” “Out of all my friends,” the girl complained, “Mary is the only one who never lets me down.”
  5. Abbreviations of proper nouns should be capitalized. For example, Mr. Roberts, U.S.A., and C.B.S. You should not capitalize abbreviations of common nouns, such as lb., m.p.h., and min. (for minutes).
  6. The following use of capital letters does not come up very often: You may capitalize the first letter of a word for emphasis, as in the following sentence:

    It is definitely Not true that all Americans were in favor of the Revolutionary War.

Try to remember the six rules stated above. They will help you to write sentences that are truly capital.

You Can Quote Me On This

Quinn Dombrowski

One tricky aspect of good writing is knowing when and how to use those pesky quotation marks. In general, quotation marks should be used in only the following situations:

  1. to frame the actual words spoken by someone (monologue or dialogue)…
  2. when inserting information that is being taken directly from a book or other source…
  3. to clarify that a word or phrase is unique in the sense that it has a special meaning which is different from how it is typically used or because someone
    has used it in a special way…
  4. to indicate the title of a short story, poem, essay, play or other stage presentation, a newspaper or magazine article, a film, a painting, a sculpture, a musical piece, or a television or radio program. In general, the titles of books are not enclosed by quotation marks.

The following end punctuation marks are always enclosed within quotation marks: periods, commas, question marks, and exclamation points. If, however, the question mark or exclamation mark was not part of the original quoted text, and is a part of your sentence, it should be placed after the quotation marks. This will be explained below.

Colons and semicolons always follow words in quotation marks unless they are part of the original text that is being quoted. That will also be explained below.

The best way for you to understand the proper use of quotation marks is to look at examples of their use:

Quotation marks in a monologue or dialogue:

“What did he tell you?” asked Jim.

“I thought I wasn’t going to like the movie,” the boy said to his mother.

Bob replied, “Yes, I am ready to go!”

Tina closed the book, and murmured, “That was quite a story.”

“How could you lie to me?” the mother asked. “I wouldn’t have punished you.”

Sometimes, quoted text is found within a quote:

“My sister always says, ‘Life isn’t fair.’”

“I just read ‘Leaves of Grass,’ Walt Whitman’s famous work,” stated Mr. Smith.

In the examples above, the interior quote in each sentence is surrounded by apostrophes.

Direct quoting from a book or other source:

The author stated, “The Roman Empire spread far and wide.”

Jones, in his article, asks, “Which American President has not made unfortunate decisions?”

“Three years of study was not enough time to cover the subject,” the researchers concluded.

Please note: the examples of quoted material above do not conform to MLA, APA, or to most other academic formats for citing sources. That information can be found on the homepage of Papercheck by clicking Additional Resources, and then Writer’s Resources.

A long section of quoted text (more than two lines) does not have to be enclosed by quotation marks; it should be separated by two lines both below and above other text on the page, and it should be indented, as is shown below:

Charles Dickens gets right to point on page one of David Copperfield:

Whether I turn out to be the hero of my own
life, these pages must show. To begin my life
with the beginning of my life, I record that I
was born (as I have been informed and
believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock
at night. It was remarked that the clock
began to strike, and I began to cry,

Quotation marks for unique phrases:

The teacher explained that the new child needed special attention because he appeared to be “different.”

My father can’t be disturbed because he is taking what he calls a “siesta.”

Today, we’re going to one of Mr. Carson’s “special lectures.”

Quotation marks in titles:

We had to read a short story called “The Lottery.”

I did not like reading “Hamlet,” but the stage production was wonderful.

The headline read “Local Man Wins Huge Settlement.”

Titles of full-length books should not be in quotation marks:

The names of full length books or magazines or newspapers should be written in italics or should be underlined, not enclosed by quotation marks:

We had to read Oliver Twist.

My favorite book is All The King’s Men.

She reads The New York Times every morning.

Colons and semicolons are always placed after quoted text, unless they had originally been part of the quoted section:

I enjoyed reading “Romeo And Juliet”; it is magnificent.

There is only one reason to watch “Sixty Minutes”: to enjoy Andy Rooney’s commentary at the end.

Here is an example of a quoted sentence in which a colon and a semicolon are enclosed within the quotation marks because they were in the original quoted text:

“My favorite foods are as follows: pasta, fruit, and ice cream; I eat them all every day,” said the man.

Special rule involving the addition of question marks or exclamation marks to sentences which include quoted text:

If your sentence is an interrogatory or exclamatory sentence, and it contains a section of quoted text or a title, then the question mark or exclamation mark must be placed after the end quote:

Do you agree with Professor Henderson’s dictum that “One can never be too prepared for a test”?

In the example above, the original quote was not a question. The reason why the question mark was inserted after the quote is because the person writing the sentence (not Professor Henderson) is asking a question about the quote.

I’m going to explode the next time he sings, “Satisfaction”!

In the above sentence, the exclamation point belongs after the name of the song because it is not part of the title. It clarifies the speaker’s emotional state.

Please note: quotation marks should never be used just to make a phrase or sentence stand out, as in the following examples:

Come to our “Big Sale.”

We’re having a “Surprise Party” for my mother.

The school is planning a “Beach Party.”

The best way to learn to use quotation marks (and the best way to learn to write well) is to read, and, as you read, to observe.

And you can quote me on that!

Been Their (I mean There), Done That

Been Their (I mean There), Done That

Two words and a contraction that many writers confuse, even those who know that they should know better, are there, their, and they’re. The first two are homographs, meaning “same sound,” but their meanings and uses are very different from each other. The last one is a contraction. Even though it does not sound exactly the same as the other two words, it is often mistakenly used in place of them.

First, let’s deal with they’re. They’re is a contraction of they are, as in “I think they’re coming to the party.” That’s the easy one to remember.

Now to the homographs. There can be an adverb, a pronoun, or a noun. But, don’t worry about that. There is always used to refer to a place or to a state of being. These are some examples of the correct use of there:

  • I’ve always wanted to go there.
  • There is a surprise waiting for you.
  • There was a time when every man carried a handkerchief in his pocket.

And, of course, it’s not really a sentence, but: Been there, done that.

A way to remember how to use this word is to call to mind the fact that the word here is in the word there. If you can use here in a sentence, then you can use there.

Now for their. Their is a possessive pronoun. It is always used before a noun or a noun phrase to indicate that something belongs to two or more people.

Here are some examples:

  • We ate dinner at their house.
  • Did you see their new car?
  • That’s their problem.

Ok. That should clear up the situation. In reference to writers who have had problems with this issue in the past, hopefully, they’re now more confident in their use of the words, and there won’t be any more confusion.