Dealing with Sentence-Level Issues

Dealing with Sentence-Level Issues

The most important part of writing is to make sure your reader can understand what you're trying to say. Noam Chomsky, a famous American Linguist from the 20th and 21st century, proved that clear content is more important than perfect grammar when he came up with the sentence:

"Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

Technically, this sentence is grammatical; it has a subject (ideas) and a predicate (sleep furiously). However, this sentence doesn't make sense. This is why content is more important than grammar--you can have impeccable grammar, and say nothing, but if you say something with less-than-perfect grammar, most people will still understand what you're trying to say.

Keeping that in mind, once you've dealt with content issues like organization, clarity, quality and depth of analysis, etc., then, and only then, can you turn to sentence-level issues...

  • First, try reading your work out loud  
    • No matter how silly you feel doing it, do it!
    • Ask yourself: do my words sound right when I read them out loud?  
      • "Right" here means "grammatical" according to a native speaker's intuition
      • Reading aloud forces you to pay closer attention to your phrasing, spelling, and punctuation
    • Also try reading your work aloud backwards; this forces you to look at every single word
  • Next, ask yourself, "which sentences actually make my paper more difficult to understand and aren't just 'ungrammatical?'"  
    • Things like spelling and punctuation don't need to be dealt with until your final revision or so
  • Now that you've read your work out loud and you've found a few things you consider "ungrammatical," here are 10 of the most common sentence-level problems and some clues to help you tackle them:

Type of ungrammatical sentence


Clues to keep in mind

Revised Example Sentence


She had an ambitious dream. To become a CEO.

A sentence needs at least a subject (the person or thing doing or receiving the action) and a predicate (a comment or assertion about the subject--a predicate must contain a complete verb)

Run-on sentence or comma splice

The city is lively the clubs are open late.

Run-ons unite two independent clauses (clauses that could stand alone as sentences) into one; comma splices only separate two independent clauses with a comma.

Sentence snarls

In the essay "Notes of a Native Son" by James Baldwin discusses his feelings about his father.

He wants a new girlfriend, to get a house, and find a good job.

Is your sentence structure clear and consistent? Are you being unnecessarily circular in your language? Do your sentences use parallel structures?

Wrong verb form or tense

They have never drank Coke.

At the end of yesterday's event, the candidate walks up to the crowd and kissesall of the babies.

The client should of signed the contract.

5 regular verb forms:

  • base or infinitive form (paint, help)
  • 3rd person singular form of the presenttense (paints, helps)
  • gerund form; needs an auxiliary or supporting verb to be complete (is painting, is helping)
  • past tense (painted, helped)
  • past participle; needs an auxiliary or supporting verb to be complete (has painted, was helped)

Tense Shift

Foote wrote about Shiloh and describes its aftermath.

You should use the same tense throughout your writing, with the exception of quotations

Lack of subject-verb agreement

The owner have been happy about the increase in her store's profits.

He jog in the park every morning before work.

Look for nonstandard conjugations. Check carefully for verbs with -s endings. -sis used to form the singular present tense form of regular verbs.

Pronoun case error

The coach rebuked my teammates and I.

Look at the sentence os if only "you" are the object in the sentence; would you use "I" or "me" here?

Unclear pronoun reference

My husband told my father that heshould choose the baby's name.

All pronouns need a clear antecedent (the noun they are replacing)

Adjective/adverb confusion

The Diamondbacks played good in spring training.

Adjectives are typically used to modify nouns, but they can also modify verbs, other adjectives, or adverbs. Adverbsare used to modify verbs and other adverbs.

Double negative

They don't have no luck.

Do not use double negatives!

The table above is a modified version of the one found on pg. 155 in the 5th edition of Keys for Writers by Ann Raimes. The clues column includes information from pages 351-434 of the same text.

  • If you need more information on how to deal with any of these sentence-level issues, use your available resources to learn more about grammar rules! Suggestions:

  • Ann Raimes's Keys for Writers

  • Teachers and/or writing tutors

  • Peers!

  • Internet, for example Guide to Grammar & Writing


Handout created by Lauren Slykhous, Student Learning Center, University of California, Berkeley

©2008 UC Regents

Handout revised by Carolyn Swalina, Student Learning Center, University of California, Berkeley

©2011 UC Regents

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.