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7 English Grammar Rules You Should Know

7 English Grammar Rules You Should Know

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This post outlines seven general areas of grammar and syntax that writers must be familiar with to enable them to write effectively.

1. Subject-Verb Agreement
Use singular verbs for singular subjects and plural verbs with plural subjects. A verb should agree with its subject, not with an intervening modifying phrase or clause: “The box of cards is on the shelf.”

Singular verbs are appropriate with the following parts of speech:

    • indefinite pronouns: “Everyone is here”
    • uncountable nouns: “The rain has stopped”
    • inverted subjects: “Where is the car?”
    • subjects plural in form but singular in meaning: “Statistics [the academic subject] is boring,” but “Statistics [sets of data] are sometimes misleading”
    • compound subjects: “Breaking and entering is different than burglary”
    • the constructions “the only one of those (blank) who . . . ,” “the number of (blank) . . . ,” “every (blank) . . . ,” and “many a (blank) . . .”
    • a measurement when considered as a unit: “Three months is a long time to wait”
    • collective nouns: “The team is ready for the game” (but if referring to all individual members of a collective, reword for clarity, as in “The members of the team stand behind the coach’s decision”)

2. Nominative and Objective Pronouns and Reflexive Pronouns
Pronouns are sometimes used erroneously when a phrase contains more than one object. For example, although “My sister and I are coming” is correct because “My sister and I” is the subject and therefore the nominative I is appropriate, “He invited my sister and I” is wrong because “my sister” and I are the objects, and the pronoun should be in objective form (me, not I).

Reflexive pronouns, compound of a pronoun and -self, are correct only if they are associated with an antecedent pronoun, as in “I did it myself”; “Contact John or myself” is an error because there is no previous reference to the self-identifying person.

3. Dangling Participles
When a sentence begins with an incomplete phrase or clause, the person, place, or thing it modifies must immediately follow it as the subject of the main clause, or the introductory phrase or clause must be rewritten. For example, in “Rolling down the slope, my eyes beheld a curious sight,” the writer intends to express that he or she was rolling down the slope, but the subject of the sentence is “my eyes,” leading to the impression that the rolling was performed by the eyes, not the individual. To resolve the problem, amend the sentence to “Rolling down the slope, I beheld a curious sight” or “As I rolled down the slope, my eyes beheld a curious sight.”

4. Misplaced Modifiers
A modifying phrase should immediately follow the word or phrase it modifies. For example, in the sentence “I overheard that they’re getting married in the rest room,” because “in the rest room” follows “getting married,” the reader is given the impression that the nuptials will take place in the rest room. However, “in the rest room” modifies the subject, “I overheard,” so those two phrases should be adjacent: “I overheard in the rest room that they’re getting married.”

5. Incomplete Sentences
Many justifications exist for sentence fragments, but they are best used judiciously and in such a way that it is clear to the reader that the writer is deliberately writing an incomplete sentence, and not obliviously making an error.

6. Phrase and Clause Lists
In-line lists, those presented within the syntax of a sentence, should be structured to be grammatically consistent. For example, the sentence “Insights are actionable, adaptive, and help achieve the desired objectives” is erroneously constructed because are serves the first adjective and help is associated with achieve, but adaptive cannot share are with actionable unless a conjunction rather than a comma separates them: “Insights are actionable and adaptive and help achieve the desired objectives.”

If a sentence, unlike in this revision, is to remain in list form, each list element must follow parallel construction, as in the revision of “Teapots may be embellished with landscapes, scenes from paintings, historical figures, or natural elements such as orchids or bamboo” to “Teapots may be embellished with landscapes, scenes from paintings, portraits of historical figures, or depictions of natural elements such as orchids or bamboo,” where each element must refer to representations of phenomena rather than the phenomena themselves.

7. Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Phrases and Clauses
Although the use of which in a sentence such as “She prefers a job which is more stable” is technically correct in American English (and ubiquitous in British English), careful writers will help their readers by maintaining this distinction between which and that: Use the former with a nonrestrictive phrase “She prefers a job, which is more stable than freelance work” (what follows the comma and which is not essential to the sentence) and use the latter with a restrictive phrase “She prefers a job that is more stable” (“that is more stable” is an essential part of the sentence).

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Subject-Verb Agreement: Rules and Examples

Subject-Verb Agreement: Rules and Examples

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One of the rules of language that you almost certainly know, even if you’ve never thought about it consciously, is that subjects and verbs must agree with each other in number.

If that sounds a bit complicated or mathematical, here are a couple of very simple examples to show this in action:

  • The child plays at the park. (Singular)
  • The children play at the park. (Plural)

A singular noun needs a singular verb; a plural noun needs a plural verb.

If you’re a native English speaker, you probably never think about this when you’re writing, but you know the rule, all the same.

For instance, if I showed you these sentences, you’d know instantly that they were wrong – and you’d know how to correct them:

  • The child play at the park.
  • The children plays at the park.

In these sentences, it’s very clear how to make the subject and verb “agree” – so that they match grammatically.

Sometimes, though, subject-verb agreement isn’t quite so straightforward, and it can trip up even native, fluent English writers.

Here are six key rules to be aware of:

Rule #1: A Clause Between the Subject and Verb Will Not Change the Verb

Let’s say we had a sentence like this:

  • The child with no friends plays at the park.

“The child” is still the subject of the sentence, and “plays” is still the verb. Although the clause “with no friends” has the plural noun “friends,” this does not change the verb – because the verb still applies to “child”.

Tip: If you’re struggling with this, read the sentence aloud without the clause between the subject and the verb, and see if it still makes sense.

Rule #2: Use a Plural Verb if Two Singular Subjects are Joined with “And”

Let’s say you have a sentence like this:

  • Max and Susan play at the park.

That sentence is correct. Although “Max” is singular and “Susan” is singular, they’re joined together with “and” – making them a compound subject, which is plural.

Rule #3: Inverted Subjects Must Still Agree With the Verb

In English, the normal sentence order is subject – verb – object. Sometimes this is inverted, though, with the verb coming before the subject … and it’s still important that the verb still agrees with the inverted subject.

Here’s an example:

  • There is a child on the swings. (Child is singular.)
  • There are five children at the park. (Children is plural.)

And here’s another:

  • What was Jane telling you? (“Jane” is singular.)
  • What were Jane and Susan telling you? (“Jane and Susan” is plural.)

Again, when you’re speaking or writing, you probably don’t have to think about this too hard. If English is your second language, though, or if you’re writing particularly complex sentences, it’s helpful to keep subject-verb agreement in mind.

Rule #4: If Two Or More Subjects Are Joined With “Or”, Use the Closest to the Verb for Agreement

Let’s say you have a sentence like this:

  • Either Jack or the children are too loud.

Is “are” the correct verb to use here, even though Jack is singular? Yes, it is, because the closest subject to the verb is “the children”.

Let’s rewrite the sentence:

  • Either the children or Jack is too loud.

Here, “is” is correct, because “Jack” is the closest subject to the verb.

In both of these cases, you may feel the sentence reads slightly awkwardly. If so, you might want to rewrite or reconsider the sentence so that the verb can agree with both subjects:

  • Either Jack or one of the children is too loud.

Rule #5: Indefinite Pronouns Normally Take Singular Verbs

Most indefinite pronouns, like “everyone” and “nobody”, take singular verbs. For instance:

  • Everyone loves chocolate.
  • Nobody wants to die young.

Some indefinite pronouns, though, always take the plural form. These include few, many, several, both, all, and some, when used as pronouns.

For instance:

  • All were impressed by what they saw.

Rule #6: Collective Nouns Can be Singular OR Plural

Collective nouns, like “committee” and “audience”, can be singular or plural depending on the context. In writing your sentence, you’ll need to consider whether the group in question is acting as a unit or as a set of individuals.

Here are some examples:

  • The committee asks new members to sign Form A1. (Singular subject and verb.)
  • The committee were unable to reach a unanimous decision. (Plural subject and verb.)

Some writers prefer to make collective nouns plural by adding extra words, such as “Members of”:

  • Members of the committee were unable to reach a unanimous decision.

Look Out For Subject-Verb Agreement When Editing

Even though you may feel that subject-verb agreement comes naturally to you, a key time to watch out for it is during the editing phase of your writing. It’s all too easy to edit half a sentence, perhaps to change a singular subject to a plural one, only to leave the second half unaltered … and hence incorrect.

Here’s an example of where rewriting part of a sentence necessitates changing several different verbs later on in the sentence:

When a writer is stuck, he stares out of the window, rearranges the pencils on his desk, and in short, does anything to avoid writing.

If you wanted to make that sentence more gender inclusive, without using the singular they (which some writers prefer to avoid), you might recast it as:

When writers are stuck, they stare out of the window, rearrange the pencils on their desks, and in short, do anything to avoid writing.

It’s important to make sure you check all the verbs in a long or complex sentence to ensure they all still agree with the subject.

If at any point you find you’re unsure whether your sentence is correct, try reading it aloud: this will often highlight mistakes that are harder to spot on the page. If that doesn’t work for you, consider rewriting the sentence to simplify it – or pop a comment below to see if anyone else can help!

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Script Writing Tips and Format Example

Script Writing Tips and Format Example

Script-writing

If critics tell you that your stories have too much dialogue, maybe you should consider writing scripts. It’s different from writing ordinary prose. For one thing, a script is not the finished work of art. It’s the blueprint that the director and actors use to create the work of art. The good news about that: your words don’t have to carry all the weight. As a playwright, I like the way a stronger actor can make up for my weaker writing. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. But though a bad actor can completely misinterpret a perfectly clear line, a good actor can bring out the meaning that you were not quite able to express through words alone. Unlike a novel, there will be no great literature unless a character speaks it. An inarticulate man doesn’t change just because you have a big noble speech you want him to make.

Enter late, leave early.

Every writer needs to remove anything that doesn’t advance the story, but that’s particularly true for scriptwriters. And sometimes you don’t realize that a scene doesn’t advance the story until you try removing it and discover that it still works. William Goldman, who wrote The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid said, “You always attack a movie scene as late as you possibly can. You always come into the scene at the last possible moment.”

In the same way, once you’ve made your point, don’t belabor it. Always leaving them wanting more. Otherwise, they may start wanting less and leaving the theater early. A joke works best when it’s given no extra emphasis, when all the fat has been trimmed. Alfred Hitchcock told an interviewer in 1960, “How does one describe drama? Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” Writing is a balance between saying too much and saying too little.

It’s a show: show don’t tell

The visual nature of the screen or stage makes it easier to follow the writer’s rule of “show, don’t tell.”The rule is harder to follow on radio and podcasts, because they cannot show anything visually. So a scriptwriter must turn to narration, as he might in a book, or to less-than-subtle dialogue: “Look out, he has a gun!” Early TV hadn’t found its sea legs yet as a visual medium, and perhaps depended on narrators more than necessary. But a film or play is more than a book in visual form.

In an intriguing novel (nameless here, so I don’t ruin it if you haven’t read it), friendly inhabitants take a mistrustful visitor into their home for the night. As he lies down to sleep, he slowly realizes that maybe his hosts have put on a friendly appearance only to trap him. In the television miniseries adaptation, the exposition depends on the visitor thinking out loud in bed for several minutes as his host listens. It was awkward:

What if you plan to spring on me as soon as I realize the danger?

Thank you for reminding me. I’ll do that now.

Maid and butler talk on a do-it-yourself basis, since you don’t have to pay a maid or butler. No wonder the novelist found the miniseries “just boring.” This scene could easily have been adapted more cinematically, showing not telling, based on the novelist’s own words.

INT. HOST'S BEDROOM - NIGHT

The CAPTAIN is lying in bed. He glances at his HOST in the other bed. He lifts his head to look again more closely. His host’s bedsheet is pulled back, revealing his hand.

CLOSE UP – the HOST’S HAND
has four fingers, with claws.

The Captain carefully rolls back the covers. He slips from bed and walks softly across the room.

HOST:
(coldly)

Where are you going?”

CAPTAIN:

For a drink of water.

HOST:

But you’re not thirsty.

CAPTAIN:

Yes, yes, I am.

HOST:

No, you’re not.

FOOTSTEPS as the captain tries to run across the room.

CAPTAIN (O.S.)
He screams twice.

SILENCE. The TICKING of an old CLOCK.

People don’t need to say exactly what they mean.

In real life, people don’t say, “I asked you how you were doing because I wanted you to ask me how I was doing, since I wanted to talk with you so that you would feel comfortable enough with me to say Yes when I asked you out on a date.” Real life is more subtle. Behind the text, there is the subtext – the thoughts that motivate the character to speak. When a scene has too little subtext or subtlety, people say it is “too on the nose.” We don’t need everything spelled out, and it isn’t as much fun. You don’t want a mystery writer to spell everything out, do you, except perhaps at the end. We can tell if someone is romantically interested in someone else by the way they say, “How are you doing?”

A script leaves less to the audience’s imagination.

Many authors make a point not to describe their character’s appearance too precisely, to make it easier for diverse readers to relate to the story. But when you see The Hunger Games on the screen, now you know what Katniss Everdeen looks like, and can no longer easily imagine that she looks like you. Unless you happen to look like Jennifer Lawrence. However, the writer can only suggest visual details. He or she cannot mandate that the movie be filmed in New Zealand and co-star Kevin Bacon, much as the writer may visualize the story just that way.

Proper format shows professionalism.

If you submit your novel to a publisher, and it isn’t double-spaced with a one-inch margin (with only one space after a period), you will appear inexperienced and possibly inept, which you don’t want to be. But a script has even more complex formatting requirements, with lots of white space, specific indents, and particular capitalization conventions. A script is written in present tense, with no more than two or three lines per paragraph – dialogue too.

Twist your plot, then twist it again.

Sure, publishers would love to get their hands on “the Harry Potter of the 2020’s” but not if it’s exactly like Harry Potter. They don’t want potential readers to say, “I already have a book about an Indian boy who spends 227 days in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. I don’t need another one.” You might have come up with that brilliant plot device all on your own, without the inspiration of somebody else, but if it happens to have already been used by somebody else, your chance for a sale just went way down. Ironically, to create a truly original story, you have to become very familiar with other people’s stories, to make sure that yours is sufficiently different from them.

Good writing must include the unexpected. So when you come up with one good idea, keep coming up with more. If you don’t have enough good ideas, try browsing through the standard plot types. But you can build twists yourself. You could summarize The Silence of the Lambs in a brief logline, as follows:

An F.B.I. agent tracks down a serial killer.

Other stories have had that same premise. How about adding to it?

A young F.B.I. cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help in catching another serial killer.

Now that is getting more interesting. But don’t stop yet.

A young F.B.I. cadet tracks down an elusive serial killer as she develops his psychological profile, reluctantly confiding in a manipulative psychologist who has been locked up for years after committing a series of similar murders.

Instead of an ordinary F.B.I. agent, now there is a particularly vulnerable one, mismatched for the task. Because instead of one murderer, now there are two murderers, both clever, and one is stalking the other from behind bars. Satisfied? With that kind of carefully planning, your script could win an Academy Award, as The Silence of the Lambs‘s script did. The original novel sold 11 million copies.

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Brand Identity and Content Quality

Brand Identity and Content Quality

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Every company is in the business of communication, and now that our society is well into the digital age, and businesses deliver their messages across multiple forms of media, it behooves them to do so with high professional standards. Two significant factors are brand identity and content quality, which are discussed in this post.

The importance of brand identity is nothing new. Companies that market products have long been aware that having a consistent presentation strengthens consumer association with those products. Just as a company’s line of tangible products, whether automobile or cleaning products, is consistent in terms of specifications such as appearance and labeling, so, too, should the presentation of various forms of media from a business be. Websites, YouTube channels, online and real-world slide shows, and all other forms of familiarizing current and prospective customers and clients with products and services, should present a consistent look in terms of logos, typefaces, color schemes, and so on.

Many businesses, especially large, complex corporations, employ a style guide as a resource that enables employees to produce marketing materials and other information that supports brand identity. This guide is similar to (and generally incorporates) the traditional editorial style guide, which will be described below, but it includes more than that.

An effective style guide includes a brand-identity section. Here, employees (and contractors who provide support services such as graphic design and copywriting) will find practical and technical information about logos and trademarks, fonts and other design specifications, and brand and product names. This resource includes everything from the appropriate size for logos (whether in English or metric units or in pixels) to the exact wording of names of products and services.

This information detail specifications about various types of content: the company website, internal and external blogs, videos and slide shows, commercials (television, radio, and online), print advertising (not just in publications, but also on billboards and at mass-transit facilities and stops and on mass-transit vehicles), and so on. Also included should be specifications about conference and convention materials, including the look and feel of booths and their components (banners, panels, tabletop or countertop marketing collateral, and so on), and any other forms of presentation

The level of detail should extend to how one invites recipients of an email message to reply. Sample guide text might read, “Always include the following text in an email message: ‘For more information, contact John Smith at [email protected], or call him at 123.456.7890.’ Always include one’s name as well as one’s email address in the sentence, write the email address in all lowercase letters, and set the parts of the phone number off with periods, not parentheses and hyphens.”

The style guide will also include a discussion of voice and tone. Here, the company dictates how employees should express themselves—what degree of formality or informality is appropriate when communicating in any media. Does the company wish to convey a traditional gravitas, or a hip, conversational sensibility? Should written (or spoken) advertising content be straightforward, or is a lighter approach, perhaps one that allows for sarcasm or self-deprecation, appropriate? The style guide should make it clear how employees should communicate to customers or clients.

Terminology is also an important part of the company’s style guide. Besides trademarks, brand names, and taglines, what is the vocabulary of the business? What is the jargon? Words and phrases (and acronyms and initialisms) likely to be employed in marketing efforts should be listed and defined. Those in the company who offer or exchange information, whether on the phone or in email messages, or whether in print advertising or on the home page of the company’s website, should know how they are expected to do so to most effectively reach their audience.

Finally, the section should contain an editorial style guide that provides guidance on grammar, usage, and style. The branding and terminology sections will inform employees and contractors about capitalization of branding terms and industry-specific vocabulary, but the style guide will serve to remind people about whether text should include serial commas, inform them of the few exceptions when prefixes are hyphenated, admonish them to avoid scare quotes and clichés, and so on.

In addition, the style guide should emphasize the importance of meticulous attention to quality of content. In my experience, websites and other media produced by large corporations often are often superior in this respect to books and journalistic content in general, which is as it should be: In commerce, as in publishing, high content standards are integral in maintaining an authoritative reputation.

You don’t have to be a corporate marketing director or communications manager to appreciate the importance of compiling and employing a style guide that details brand identity and champions content quality. People who operate a home business, and even bloggers and vloggers (video bloggers) can at a scaled-down level benefit from having such a resource at hand to encourage them to maintain consistency in the presentation of materials they offer to consumers and followers.

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10 Misplaced Modifier Examples

10 Misplaced Modifier Examples

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Misplaced modifier is the syntactical error of misplacing nonessential but supplemental information within a sentence. It is so common among professional writers as well as those who are not paid to write (or for whom writing is not a primary job responsibility) that it is easy to find multiple examples of such a mistake during one’s casual reading of news articles, as demonstrated by the collection of sentences from such sources in this post. Examples are followed by discussion of the error and one or more revisions.

10 Examples

1. Smith said his company won’t tolerate hate groups during his congressional testimony earlier this week.

The implication is that the company will limit its intolerance to the duration of the session during which he gives testimony. Here, the sentence is rephrased to clarify that the intolerance is ongoing: “Smith said during his congressional testimony earlier this week that his company won’t tolerate hate groups.”

2. That’s how many would be needed to reach a two-thirds majority of 288 votes, assuming all Democrats vote “yes,” the margin required for a veto override.

The syntax implies that the assumed Democratic-bloc vote is the margin, but the 288 votes (against the remaining votes) is the margin, so the phrase “assuming all Democrats vote ‘yes’” should be isolated as a parenthetical: “That’s how many would be needed to reach a two-thirds majority of 288 votes—assuming all Democrats vote ‘yes’—the margin required for a veto override.” However, because dashes imply an emphasis, this method seems obtrusive, so placing it in actual parentheses, which suggest subordination of the additional information, is better: “That’s how many would be needed to reach a two-thirds majority of 288 votes (assuming all Democrats vote ‘yes’), the margin required for a veto override.”

This approach, however, is still distracting. Best yet, the parenthetical phrase can be moved to an earlier position in the sentence: “That’s how many would be needed, assuming all Democrats vote ‘yes,’ to reach a two-thirds majority of 288 votes, the margin required for a veto override.”

3. Lessons learned from preparation of the previous year’s statements should be addressed the following year (e.g., any issues encountered in applying new policies).

The recommended action “should be addressed the following year” is the point of the sentence, so it should appear at the end, following the parenthesis: “Lessons learned from preparation of the previous year’s statements (e.g., any issues encountered in applying new policies) should be addressed the following year.”

4. That is where a technology committee can be useful—a smaller, focused board group working with management on long-term digital and innovation strategy.

The portion of the sentence following the dash details what is meant by “technology committee,” so it should immediately follow that term: “That is where a technology committee—a smaller, focused board group working with management on long-term digital and innovation strategy—can be useful.”

5. An attack at the synagogue left eleven people dead, many of them elderly.

“Many of them elderly,” as a phrase modifying people, should immediately follow that word, which also places the sentence’s key word, dead, at the end of the sentence, where it has the most impact: “An attack at the synagogue left eleven people, many of them elderly, dead.”

6. Information on each of these activities is available online, which will help will cultivate real-world experience building, hunting, and analyzing.

The activities themselves, rather than the fact that information on each of them is available online, will be helpful in the cultivation of real-world experience, so the dependent clause, which describes that benefit, should immediately follow activities, not online: “Information on each of these activities, which will help will cultivate real-world experience building, hunting, and analyzing, is available online.”

7. Such systems can only screen those messages that contain a payment instruction.

Misplacement of only in a sentence is rampant, especially in conversation, but in formal writing, the word should follow the verb it modifies. In this sentence, the syntax implies that the systems can screen but can do nothing else; the meaning is that they can screen a certain category of messages but no others, as reflected in this revision: “Such systems can screen only those messages that contain a payment instruction.”

8. Jones said he assumes Smith erased the messages on his phone, not a member of Smith’s staff, and he doesn’t know whether the texts can be recovered.

The placement of the parenthetical here implies that the messages were erased and a person was not erased, but the point of the sentence is that Smith, rather than a member of his staff, did the erasing, as clarified here: “Jones said he assumes Smith, not a member of Smith’s staff, erased the messages on his phone, and he doesn’t know whether the texts can be recovered.”

9. Congress controls federal spending, not the president.

This sentence implies that “federal spending” and “the president” are counterpoints (suggesting that Congress controls federal spending, but it doesn’t control the president); the following revision clarifies that it is Congress and “the president” that are parallel: “Congress, not the president, controls federal spending” (which means that Congress controls federal spending and the president does not).

10. We had known since 1866 that solid objects can reflect radio waves, thanks to German physicist Heinrich Hertz.

The implication here is that we have Hertz to thank for the fact that solid objects can reflect radio waves. However, he is responsible not for the phenomenon, but for our awareness of it. The parenthetical can be reinserted into the sentence in any one of several places, but whatever position it takes, the sentence should end with the key information that solid objects can reflect radio waves: “We had known since 1866, thanks to German physicist Heinrich Hertz, that solid objects can reflect radio waves.”

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Why Teachers Need Plot, Emotion and Story

Why Teachers Need Plot, Emotion and Story

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Students like stories. Teachers know that stories keep their interest. But plot, emotion, character, conflict and theme – the tools of a fiction writer – can be power tools for educators as well.

Having an attitude in class

Learning theorists have taught that students learn when they feel the need to; that in a sense, they create their own learning. Because emotion and character come from who we are, a lesson with a story motivates students to learn. When a problem is part of a story – when it involves people – finding a solution feels more urgent. When a California textbook talks about California earthquakes, California students pay attention. When two geological plates slip past each other and the earth quakes under the ocean, that’s interesting to some students. But when it causes a tsunami and destroys people’s homes, that introduces conflict, plot, and emotion.

Students remember information better in a story form. It helps me remember that Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia was unsuccessful when I imagine how he must have felt afterwards. For one thing, he must have felt cold – which helps me remember the invasion ended in winter.

Even math teachers need plot, emotion, and story. Children can understand a word problem better when there is a story line to it. I may not remember the exact answer to a mathematical word problem about John preparing dinner in the kitchen, but I might remember or estimate whether John ends up with too much or too little. Will John get his fill with two cups of food, or must he squeeze by on only half a cup? When the plot (and a hungry boy) depend on the answer, children are more likely to want to understand it. The story makes the problem more interesting to the student.

If the teacher or textbook takes no attitude toward the subject, students may not bother to take one either, or even pay any attention. The lecturer ends up sounding like a washing machine, and students can tell he or she is probably not trying very hard.

Using emotion to get into college

I remember new vocabulary words because I categorize them according to how they make me feel. I may not know the exact definition of equanimity but I know it’s a happy word. I’m not sure I can define opprobrium either, but I know it’s not a happy word. I didn’t learn either word from a dictionary but from my reading, where I have gathered their general meaning by repeatedly seeing them either in happy or unhappy contexts.

This technique of finding emotion is at the center of the strategy I teach for taking standardized college entrance exams such as the SAT. It works because many verbal test questions are little stories, with plot and emotion.

14. Though many Americans in late 1864 viewed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation with opprobrium, they greeted the capture of Atlanta with _______________.

a. indifference
b. elation
c. derision
d. trepidation

As long as I have the feeling that opprobrium is not a happy word, I can answer that question correctly even if I hardly understand anything else. I don’t have to know the history of the American Civil War, the role of President Abraham Lincoln, what the Emancipation Proclamation was, or even what, who, or where Atlanta is. I just need to imagine a crowd of Americans in 1864 hearing the latest news.

The key to understanding this class of question is the conjunctive adverb though, which always tells us that the second clause carries a different emotion than the first clause.

Now I know that the answer in the second clause must be a happy word, because the first clause has an unhappy word. So to answer the question correctly, I simply need to choose the happy word from the list. Again, I don’t need to be able to define any of the words in the list, only to recognize whether they are happy words or not. To make the process simple, I mentally translate the question into:

Though the first thingamabob was [not happy], the second thingamabob was __________.

a. not happy
b. happy
c. not happy
d. not happy

I could use the same simplification technique with the conjunction but, as in “The first thingamabob was [attractive, safe, whatever], but the second thingamabob was [the opposite].”

The construction not only… but tells us the opposite of though, that the second clause is giving us more of the same emotion as in the first clause: “Not only was the thingamabob [useful], but it was [very useful, essential].”

I use the slang word thingamabob to mean that it doesn’t even matter what the thing actually is. What matters is the emotion in the clauses. It may sound like a vague technique, but by using it, I have achieved almost perfect scores on similar test sections in the PSAT, SAT, and GRE.

Why tell stories?

History is one of my favorite subjects. Even in elementary school, I would read ahead in my history book – it had stories, after all. But at an earlier point in my life, I didn’t appreciate history. History can be boring when teachers don’t relate facts to human nature. I remember asking a teacher why we needed to study it. I wondered why we needed to learn about events that happened to other people long ago.

My teacher explained that the stories of others can help us when we’re in similar situations. I read about a doctor who never expected to use what he had learned in his History of Medicine class, until he found himself in a prison camp without modern tools and treatments. In times of prosperity, we can draw lessons from other prosperous societies. When hard times come, it’s useful to know how other generations weathered hard times before us.

A story is not just a way to make a lesson more interesting. A story can be the lesson itself. In December 1948, Israeli troops found the main road blocked to the central Egyptian garrison in the Negev desert. But Israeli general Yigael Yadin, an archaeologist by training, knew where a second road was. It had been abandoned thousands of years before, but with a little work, his troops made it through – because their general knew old stories.

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How to Get Started as a Freelance Writer in 6 Simple Steps

How to Get Started as a Freelance Writer in 6 Simple Steps

Freelance-writer

Would you love to be a freelance writer?

Maybe you’re hoping to make a bit of money on the side of your day job, or you want to find some work that fits around being at home with your kids much of the day. Perhaps you’re hoping to launch a whole new career.

You might well be feeling daunted before you’ve even begun, though. There’s just so much information out there: where do you even start?

These six steps are all you really need in order to get going:

Step #1: Find Out How Self-Employment and Tax Works in Your Country

Before you start freelancing, it’s important to figure out how self-employment (and particularly tax) works in your own country.

You don’t necessarily need to do anything about it right away, but you do need to know what to expect.

Here in the UK for instance, sole traders (the simplest set up for a freelancer) don’t have to register with HMRC (the tax authorities) from the first moment they start freelancing. They do need to be ready to submit a self-employed tax return on time, though – e.g. by the end of January 2020 for the tax year 6th April 2018 – 5th Mar 2019.

If your country isn’t on this list, just search for “register as self-employed” and your country name, and you should find plenty of advice.

Step #2: Create a Gmail Account (for Email and Google Docs)

Do you have an email address that looks something one of these?

[email protected]

[email protected]

I’m sure it goes without saying that those aren’t very professional looking! Even if your email address uses your name (or your pen name), free providers like hotmail and yahoo have a bit of an “unprofessional” reputation.

Gmail is much better regarded, perhaps because it started out being very popular with techy types, and is now so ubiquitous. So I’d recommend setting up a professional looking email address with Gmail, for now – something like [email protected] or [email protected].

One important reason for having a Gmail address is that it also gives you a Google account, which you can use for Google Docs – I find that many clients want to collaborate in this way.

If you prefer to have a really professional looking email address, then you’ll need to register a domain name of your own (e.g. mine is www.aliventures.com) and then set up an email address at that domain (mine is [email protected]).

Step #3: Figure Out What Topics You Want to Write About

Before you go any further with freelancing, it’s a good idea to figure out what you want to write about.

You might think that it’d be best to write about anything and everything, in the hopes you’ll get plenty of work – but the truth is that clients prefer writers who have prior experience in a particular area.

You’ll also probably enjoy freelancing more if you’re writing about topics you’re actually interested in.

When you’re figuring out which topics to focus on, you might want to consider:

  • Your personal life and experiences – e.g. if you’re a parent to school-age children, you could write about pregnancy, babies, toddlers, etc.
  • Your professional life – e.g. if you work in IT, you might want to specialise in technical writing or in writing for blogs that cover techy topics.
  • Your hobbies – e.g. if you love to craft, then you might want to look for blogs about craft or companies that sell craft supplies to write for.

You can switch or add topics as you go forward in your career, but you’ll find it helpful to have some idea of the areas you want to focus on when it comes to the next two steps.

Step #4: (Optional) Create a Website

You don’t have to have a website in order to freelance – so if this is just a step too far right now, then feel free to skip it.

At some point fairly early in your freelancing career, though, you’re going to want to have a web presence. You’ll want somewhere to direct potential customers, whether those are your current contacts, friends of friends, or people who read your guest posts (see Step #5).

If you don’t want to spend any money at this stage, I recommend setting up a free website with WordPress.com (just follow their process step by step). Your website will have “wordpress” in the address, so it’ll look something like yourname.wordpress.com.

While this isn’t the most professional option out there, plenty of freelancers do just fine with a free WordPress site – and I think it’s absolutely fine when you’re just starting out.

Alternatively, if you’re fairly confident about techy things and if you have a bit of money to invest, I’d recommend purchasing web hosting, registering your own domain name (e.g. yourname.com) and setting up self-hosted WordPress on that site. Most web hosts have a simple “one click” installation process for WordPress, as it’s so popular.

Step #5: Get Some Published Experience

Before you can start landing freelancing clients, you need some experience: published pieces that you can show them as examples of your work.

But how do you get that experience when you don’t have any clients?

One simple way is to write guest posts for large(ish) blogs: a big advantage of these is that your posts will be online, so it’s very easy to send clients a link to them. You can also create a “Portfolio” page on your website with screenshots of and links to your work.

Ideally, you’ll want to target blogs that fit in with the areas you want to write about, so that you’ve got relevant freelancing clips.

Most guest posts are written for free, and although some freelancers feel you should never work for free, I think it makes sense to do so when you’re just starting out. (Don’t spend ages at this stage, though; three to five published pieces should be plenty.)

You’ll almost always get the opportunity to write a “bio” to go along with your guest post (normally at the bottom of it). You can use this to promote your freelancing services, writing something like:

Ali Luke is a freelance writer, specialising in blog content for small businesses. You can find out more about her and her services at www.aliventures.com.

If you want to freelance for magazines or print publications, rather than blogs or websites, then you’ll want to look for ways to get some experience with print.

A good place to look is local free newspapers and magazines – they probably won’t be able to pay, but they’ll likely be very willing to publish your work.

Step #6: Start Finding Clients

If there’s one thing you take away from this post, make it this:

Don’t use content mills.

If you’re not sure what a content mill is, it’s a site where you sign up and get sent writing jobs. They often promise lots of work, or tell you how much writers can make – but the reality is that they pay peanuts.

They often call themselves “article writing services”. Textbroker is a well-known one; Copify and iWriter are other examples.

Content mills can’t afford to pay much, because their main selling point to their clients is that they’re a cheap way to get lots of content.

So where else can you find work?

  • Let family and friends know that you’re freelancing, and tell them what type of work you’re looking for. You never know when someone will know someone…!
  • Look at the ProBlogger jobs boards and Freelance Writing Gigs’ daily round-up of writing work. (There are plenty of other similar job boards online, but I’ve found that between these two, they cover all the good opportunities.)
  • Pitch directly to websites (or magazines, or whatever type of publication you want to write for).
  • Target local clients, perhaps with an ad in a local paper, shop window, or library, or by attending local small business networking events.
  • Browse the website of companies that offer services related to your niche and in case they don’t have a regularly updated blog contact them offering your writing services and explaining the benefits that fresh content would bring to their website.
  • Think beyond writing articles. You can offer services such as crafting email marketing campaigns, writing e-books and reports, website editing and proofreading and so.

Finding your first paying client can feel like a huge hurdle — but once you’ve found one client, more will follow.

In case you want more help, I have a 6-week program that covers all the aspects of getting started as a freelance writer, from improving your writing productivity to landing high-paying gigs, from promoting yourself online to running your freelance business efficiently. The course has been offered for 8 years and over 1300 students enrolled during that time. I offer a complete money back guarantee, and surprisingly no one ever asked for it! In order to celebrate its eighth anniversary we are offering the course for just $29, so check it out here before the promotion ends.

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Above all, if you decide to try freelance writing, make sure you persevere. Getting results takes time, as with virtually all endeavors in life, and the biggest mistake I see aspiring freelance writers making is giving up too soon. Hang in there for 6 to 12 months before you evaluate your results.

Good luck!

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26 Feel-Good Words

26 Feel-Good Words

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Some writers neglect the power of emotion when communicating their ideas, valuing logic more than others do, and assuming that everyone thinks like they do – that careful reasoning is enough to convince readers and make points. But even the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who was no enemy of reason, taught that stimulating emotion in your audience can be the key to persuading them. I’ve decided that communication, instead of simply inserting information into my reader’s head, is more like striking a tuning fork that resonates with the tuning fork in my reader’s head. Emotion resonates in a way that logic does not.

Here is a list of words that express powerful, positive emotions. They would fit well in a movie ad or a blurb on the back cover of a novel, two bastions of emotionally persuasive words.

  1. amazing – from a Proto-Germanic word “to confound or confuse” so if you were a Proto-German you might not want to be amazed. But amazing now has a positive connotation of delight and wonder, though it is often used lightly, even when you’re not paralyzed under a weight of marvelous singularity.
  2. appealing – from the Latin for “call,” something that is appealing calls to you or attracts you. A convict would appeal to a judge to reconsider his innocence.
  3. arresting – If you were a fugitive from the criminal justice system, you would avoid anything arresting, that stops you in your tracks. But sometimes it’s nice to be so overwhelmed by a thought or experience that you don’t even move.
  4. astonishing – Related to the modern word stun (as in “stun gun”) and to ancient words for “stupefy, crash, daze, bang.” One synonym is flabbergasting. I had a boss who liked to retort, “I am astonied,” as used in the King James Bible.
  5. astounding – Closely related to stun, it includes the meanings of dazzling and bewildering. An astounding experience goes beyond mere surprise.
  6. attractive – As you might expect, one synonym is magnetic – something that allures or draws you by its own intrinsic power. Often used to describe members of the opposite sex.
  7. awe-inspiring – Literally “breathing awe into.” The word awe once meant “overwhelming dread,” and this compound word preserves some of the dictionary connotation of majesty that awesome has lost.
  8. captivating – Originally it simply meant “making captive,” something that pirates might do to others that you wouldn’t want done to you. But like many words in this list, it now has pleasant connotations: being confronted by something so wonderful that you can’t stop thinking about it.
  9. compelling – When someone compels you, they force you to do something. When something is compelling, it forces you to consider it, as in a compelling argument that makes a lot of sense, or a compelling novel that makes you think.
  10. engaging – From root words for “pledge, promise, secure,” an engaging person or thing makes you want to involve yourself with it and commit yourself to it, similar to the way two people become engaged when they decide to get married. Used in business buzzwords such as “audience engagement” and “product engagement” which involve much less commitment than marriage, though the marketing department might hope it was different.
  11. enticing – Meaning “tempting, alluring,” its roots meant “torch, firebrand.” I suppose that being enticed is like being ignited. You can use the synonym inveigling, but few will know what you mean. You can use the archaic synonym illecebrous, but nobody will know what you mean.
  12. exhilarating – This word exhilarating has the connotation of “invigorating, refreshing, thrilling, exciting.” Unlike awesome, this word has become stronger, not weaker, since the days of Rome. It comes from the Latin roots for “ex-hilarity-ate-ing” so its origin is something like “gladdening,” maybe as in “That thoroughly hilarized me!” That is, it’s related to hilarious, which today means “very funny” but formerly meant “cheerful.”
  13. fascinating – Another happy word with sinister roots, coming from the Latin for “bewitch, enthrall, cast a spell upon.” It refers to something you find so interesting that you’re spellbound or trapped (in a good way).
  14. impressive – Yes, one of its roots is “to press.” An impressive experience makes an unforgettable impression on your mind, as the press at a government mint makes a powerful impression on metal blanks that turns them into coins.
  15. marvelous – A marvelous sight provokes almost uncontrollable wonder in those who see it. From the Latin for “worthy to be looked at.”
  16. memorable – Its Latin root originally meant “worthy of mention,” but it soon changed to “worthy of remembering,” as it means now. A synonym is remarkable, which means “worth noting.”
  17. mind-blowing – Alfred Hitchcock wondered if it involved compressed air. Common in the 1960s and used to describe the effect of hallucinogenic drugs, it carries the sense of an experience so intense or unusual that the human mind is overwhelmed by it.
  18. mind-boggling – First used in the early 1960s, it results in being overwhelmed, dumbfounded, or confused, usually mentally but also emotionally.
  19. overwhelming – If whelm means “to capsize, flood, or engulf,” then overwhelm is even stronger. The power of an overwhelming experience is more than you can handle.
  20. rapturous – It means “blissful, filled with extreme delight.” It comes from a Latin word for “snatched, carried off,” as one might feel during an ecstatic experience. A rapt listener is transported by and absorbed in what he or she is hearing.
  21. refreshing – Literally, “making fresh again,” revitalizing because of its newness. It comes from ancient European words for “fresh,” as you might expect. But these words also have the sense of “sweet, pure.”
  22. riveting – A rivet is a small metal fastener, so a listener would have trouble separating himself from a riveting conversation because it holds their attention so strongly.
  23. staggering – Meaning “reeling, tottering, bewildering.” A drunk man staggers as he walks. Having a truly staggering realization might make it hard to walk straight – it’s so amazing and astonishing that it affects the body.
  24. stunning – Saying a person has stunning beauty means that he or she is so attractive that it causes the viewer to lose strength. That’s usually an exaggeration, but the word does imply amazement and high quality. Related to astonishing.
  25. thrilling – Causing a sudden, intense excitement, even causing shaking or vibrating. Sword clashing against sword is thrilling in that sense.
  26. wondrous – This word is not for ordinary experiences. A wondrous sight is truly amazing, causing deep awe and marvel.

Though these words are all based on emotions, notice that they are also based on verbs – actions that stimulate emotions in my heart that change my behavior or attitude. For example, an amazing event amazes me. An appealing object appeals to me. They are intended to inspire action. You could use most of them as exclamations, putting an exclamation mark after them, though people might look at you oddly if you blurted out, “Oh rapturous!”

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10 Tips to Improve Your Writing Skills

10 Tips to Improve Your Writing Skills

Writing-skills

1. Prepare
Absorb information about writing, but don’t overwhelm yourself. I’ve been known to read a writing handbook or editing manual cover to cover, but I recommend reading one chapter or section at a time and absorbing information from online resources in similarly small doses as well. Our website is a good starting point, as it features thousands of posts about specific grammar, syntax, and style topics as well as vocabulary-building posts and more comprehensive posts about writing, editing, and language.

2. Practice
Work on your writing every day. Commit to a daily writing exercise, even if you have only five minutes to spare. If you write for a living, or writing constitutes a significant proportion of your daily tasks at work, still set aside time to practice other forms of composition. Style or subject matter can vary day to day, or you can decide to, for example, respond in writing to something you experienced with any of your five senses (including anything you watched or read by way of a form of media). Alternatively, find a list of writing prompts online, and use the next one on the list each day, or choose one randomly. (Encourage family members or friends—or even coworkers—to join you in producing their own responses.)

3. Engage with Others
Participating in a group learning activity is a great motivator. When you have paid for a class and/or scheduled time for attend classes or workshop sessions, you’re more likely to persevere, and completing assignments and projects will help you establish and/or maintain your writing discipline. If you’re intimidated by a group setting, consider finding a writing partner with whom you can exchange drafts and/or discuss concepts and practice skills, then graduate, on your own or with your partner, to a course or workshop. Alternatively, seek out online courses or groups.

4. Read
Read for education, enjoyment, and enlightenment. For the most part, with recreational reading, just sit back and enjoy yourself. But consider devoting occasional sessions to analytical reading, in which you highlight particularly effective words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs and think about why they stand out, and apply the techniques to your own writing.

5. Organize
Use organizational techniques such as outlines and diagrams. Brainstorm keywords and essential ideas or plot points. If other forms of creative expression stimulate you, use them: Listen to (or play) music to inspire a certain mood, collect photographs or illustrations of people, places, and things that suggest elements you want to incorporate into an essay or a short story, or draw sketches of characters or settings to help you visualize them.

6. Research and Fact-Check
Whether you’re writing nonfiction or fiction, take care to write authoritatively. If you’re writing a short story or a novel, read about the historical background of the setting to make sure that you are not introducing counterfactual or anachronistic elements. When crafting a newspaper, magazine, or website article, or a blog post, educate yourself on your topic, and double-check quantitative information: proper names; affiliations and relationships; and dates, distances, dollar amounts, and so on.

7. Be Flexible
Write with an open mind. Be flexible about changing the focus of an article or essay or the protagonist or plot of a short story or a novel. Question your assumptions, and accept that your initial goal or message may not be the most effective or useful one, or the one that you are prepared to express just now.

8. Draft
Expect to be dissatisfied by your first draft, and don’t assume that your second draft is your last. Whether you’re writing a blog post or a book manuscript, the initial iteration may only slightly resemble the final draft—which, if you also submit it for editing, will differ from the edited version. Some writers have managed to produce an admirable piece of writing on the first try, but you will very likely spend as much time revising your first draft (and subsequent efforts) as you did producing it, if not more time. Embrace the opportunity to improve your baseline output by reorganizing, inserting, and omitting text; reshaping phrases and sentences; and replacing bland verbs and tired clichés and vague descriptions.

9. Hire an Editor
You’re free to post to your own blog or self-publish your novel without any further mediation, but you will be more successful as a writer if you accept that objective assistance enhances virtually everyone’s prose. Hiring an editor is a significant investment of time and money—editorial attention to a long novel, for example, can cost a couple thousand dollars and take several weeks—but if you find a good editor, the investment will be worth it. (And note that with any other service, you often get what you pay for, so when choosing an editor, focus on quality of results you will obtain rather than quantity of expense you will incur.)

If you can’t afford such an expense, at least ask a friend or acquaintance to go over your writing for you, and perhaps offer to edit something of theirs in exchange or to provide a service of similar monetary value (dog walking or pet sitting, clerical or organizational assistance, repair or construction, and so on) in return. Just understand that assistance from someone on the basis of acquaintance is less likely to be either objective or of professional caliber. Choose an editor who knows what they are doing and will not hesitate to provide revisions and critiques at the risk of damaging your ego.

10. Practice Humility
Perhaps you were praised at home and/or at school for your writing, or you have won one or more writing awards, or you have had articles or stories (or even books) published. Any or all of those achievements constitute a good start. But you are still developing as a writer, and you always will be. Continue to practice these habits and welcome other opportunities to grow functionally and creatively as a writer.

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Polysyndeton: What it Means, and Examples of How to Use It

Polysyndeton: What it Means, and Examples of How to Use It

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You might well never have heard of polysyndeton before, but you’ve almost certainly seen it in action. Here’s an example:

“At the weekend, we went to the park and the fair and the swimming pool and the movie theatre.”

Polysyndeton means repeating conjunctions when you don’t need them. Here’s how The Write Practice defines it:

“Polysyndeton is a literary technique in which conjunctions (e.g. and, but, or) are used repeatedly in quick succession, often with no commas, even when the conjunctions could be removed.”

Polysyndeton tends to slow the reader down, and it also has the effect of making each item listed in the sentence appear to have equal weight. (In regular writing – which uses syndeton – the final item can often seem more important or significant, due to it getting a conjunction rather than a comma.)

Here are some more examples, using different conjunctions:

“Want a sandwich? You could have ham or cheese or salad or salami.”

“I went to the shop but they were out of potatoes but I looked for pasta instead but there was none but I did find some rice.”

Effects of Polysydenton (and Examples)

Depending on the language with which it’s used, polysyndeton can:

#1: Give a breathless or excited feel to the writing:

Mrs. Hurst and her sister allowed it to be so—but still they admired her and liked her, and pronounced her to be a sweet girl, and one whom they would not object to know more of.

(From Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen)

#2: Help create the effect of a child’s voice:

He was caught in the whirl of a scrimmage and, fearful of the flashing eyes and muddy boots, bent down to look through their legs. The fellows were struggling and groaning and their legs were rubbing and kicking and stamping.

(From A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce)

#3: Pile things together so that the overall effective is numbing or distancing:

I said, “Who killed him?” and he said, “I don’t know who killed him but he’s dead all right,” and it was dark and there was water standing in the street and no lights and windows broke and boats all up in the town and trees blown down and everything all blown and I got a skiff and went out and found my boat where I had her inside Mango Key and she was all right only she was full of water.

(From “After the Storm”, a short story by Ernest Hemingway)

#4: Add Weight or Gravity to the Words

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

(Unofficial motto of the US postal office)

Asyndeton: The Opposite of Polysyndeton

The opposite of polysydeton is asyndeton, where conjunctions are omitted altogether – meaning there’s no final “and” or “or” in a sentence.

The third sentence here is a good example:

Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children.

(From the oath made by the Night’s Watch in Game of Thrones)

Examples of Polysyndeton in Speeches

As well as being used in writing, polysyndeton (and its opposite, asyndeton) can be used as a rhetorical device when giving a speech.

Both affect the rhythm and speed of a sentence, so they’re particularly suited to making listeners pay special attention to the words.

Here are a few examples of polysyndeton used in speeches:

In years gone by, there were in every community men and women who spoke the language of duty and morality and loyalty and obligation.

(William F. Buckley, founder of National Review)

We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.

(President Trump, inaugural address)

I ask you to look back on your moments of powerlessness. Look back to that moment where you had to get on your knees and scrub and sweep and mop and wax and buff and buff and buff and rebuff, and buff again, a floor that someone was going to walk on and probably scuff two minutes later. That feeling is what it is to be human.

Humble yourself and accept your humanity – and don’t deny it in others. When you lead your people, exude that understanding of a struggle and a fight – and fight for them, and be for them.

(DeCarol Davis, U.S. Coast Guard Academy Cadet Commencement Address)

 

You’ve probably come across plenty of examples of polysydenton in things you’ve read or heard – and you may well have used it in your own writing.

Now you know what it is, look out for opportunities to use it more consciously, to achieve specific effects in your work.

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