There are certain grammatical and style issues that seem to come up over and over again. Students can lose a lot of marks this way. Additionally, a poor grasp of grammar can also lead to stylistic issues such as repetitive sentence structures and a limit on the types of ideas which can be expressed. This can lose yet more marks. In this post I've tackled a few of the most common problems. 

1. Not using a mixture of sentence types.

Sentences can be simple, compound, complex, or conditional.

Simple: The cat ran home.
Compound: The cat ran home and the dog followed him.
Complex: The cat, who was immensely overfed, snored quietly.
Conditional: If the cat were home, he would be chewing the carpet.

The key to a good story is to maintain a good mixture of all of them.  I will demonstrate why.

Jane arose from her bed.  She padded to the window. There was a terrible storm outside. She put on her raincoat. Jane opened the window. She climbed nimbly onto the roof.  The wind pierced her.

Here we have only simple sentences.  The prose seems stilted and awkward and it is difficult to show relationships between the events. For example, whether things are happening at the same time, or whether one thing caused another.

Jane arose from her bed and padded to the window.  She stood regarding the terrible storm as she put on her raincoat. Steeling herself, she opened the window and climbed nimbly onto the roof. The wind pierced her.

This paragraph has a mixture of simple, compound and complex sentences.  Notice that I can easily show relationships, while the lone simple sentence at the end stands out a lot more. The author Gary Provost has also written an excellent short piece demonstrating this effect.

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
— Gary Provost

How to get better: Rewrite this extract to give it a mix of sentence types:

I hate getting out of bed. I want to burrow into the sheets. I want to stay in my bed forever. The outside world seems cold as ice. I feel like the sun is laughing at me. Nothing could be worse.

How to get even better: Take a piece of writing you've already done and check that you have a mix of sentence types. If you don't, rewrite it so that you have a better mix.

2. The comma splice

A main clause is a section of a sentence that could stand on its own.  It contains both a subject and a verb.  For example,

The potato glared at me.

If you have two short main clauses, it is tempting to link them.  This is possible, but ONLY with a semi colon.

Correct: The potato glared at me; I reached determinedly for the peeler. ✔

Incorrect (comma splice): The potato glared at me, I reached determinedly for the peeler. ✘

The comma splice on its own is a mistake and will lose you marks.  However, the bigger issue with it is that you think you are using a wider range of sentence types than you are.  Since your sentence will be quite long and will contain a comma, you'll be under the impression that you've done a complex sentence.  However, if read it out loud, you'll notice you haven't done that at all.  It will read exactly as if you have just used two simple sentences, which is of course exactly what you have done.

A variant on this mistake is simply sticking two main clauses together without any punctuation at all. For example:

Incorrect: I am hungry I will eat this pizza. ✘

Correct: I am hungry; I will eat this pizza. ✔

Note that instead of adding a semi colon, you also have the option of adding a full stop or a connective.

I am hungry. I will eat this pizza. ✔

I am hungry, so I will eat this pizza. ✔

How to get better: Complete this exercise on using the comma splice.

How to get even better: Copy-paste extracts from books, and use the "replace" tool in Microsoft word to remove all the punctuation. Then, try to add it all in correctly. Here's an extract to get you started:

 
he sat down on the wall next to the cat he didnt look at it but after a moment he spoke to it fancy seeing you here professor mcgonagall he turned to smile at the tabby but it had gone instead he was smiling at a rather severe-looking woman who was wearing square glasses exactly the shape of the markings the cat had had around its eyes she too was wearing a cloak an emerald one her black hair was drawn into a tight bun she looked distinctly ruffled how did you know it was me she asked my dear professor i ve never seen a cat sit so stiffly youd be stiff if youd been sitting on a brick wall all day said professor mcgonagall
— Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
 

3. Punctuating Direct Speech

The rules for direct speech can be a little fiddly, but forgetting about them will both lose you marks and make your writing confusing to the reader.  Here is some correct direct speech:

“You see!” shouted Tom, “the plan is working!” Sarah rolled her eyes. “Whatever you say, Tom,” she replied disdainfully. ✔

In brief, the rules are as follows.

  1. Enclose all direct speech in speech marks.
  2. New speaker, new line. (Whenever there is a change of speakers, you must go to the next line. The first person to speak in a paragraph doesn't need a new line.)
  3. You must have punctuation at the end of each piece of direct speech, inside the speech marks.
  4. You must have punctuation to introduce each piece of direct speech.
  5. Capitalise the beginning of direct speech.

I've annotated the piece so you can see where each rule comes into effect. I've left out labelling the first rule because students are rarely confused about that one.

“You see!(3)” shouted Tom, (4)“the plan is working!(3)” Sarah rolled her eyes.(4) (2)“Whatever you say, Tom,(3)” she replied disdainfully.

How to get better: Add in all the necessary punctuation to this extract.

Are you okay asked the girl worriedly of course im fine replied Melanie I was just practicing my skills at falling down the stairs the girl still looked worried but you’re bleeding she pointed out

How to get even better: Add in all the necessary punctuation to this extract. This will test your entire grasp of punctuation, not just direct speech.

mrs dursley came into the living room carrying two cups of tea it was no good hed have to say something to her he cleared his throat nervously er — petunia dear — you havent heard from your sister lately have you as he had expected mrs dursley looked shocked and angry after all they normally pretended she didnt have a sister no she said sharply why funny stuff on the news mr dursley mumbled owls shooting stars and there were a lot of funny-looking people in town today so snapped mrs dursley well i just thought maybe it was something to do with you know her crowd mrs dursley sipped her tea through pursed lips mr dursley wondered whether he dared tell her hed heard the name potter he decided he didnt dare instead he said as casually as he could their son — hed be about dudleys age now wouldnt he i suppose so said mrs dursley stiffly whats his name again howard isnt it harry nasty common name if you ask me oh yes said mr dursley his heart sinking horribly yes i quite agree
— Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Conclusion:

Grammar is important, and frequently it is not formally taught at school. It's often the first thing I tackle with students, as understanding how sentences work is a crucial foundation for many of the other ideas that must be mastered for 11+. Luckily, it usually doesn't take long to brush up and reap the rewards.

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