Learn to Write
This page covers some of the most common mistakes in English prose. For more extensive help with writing and grammar, contact the Academic Success Center.
For style-specific rules, see this guide’s subsequent pages.
Subject, Verb, and Object
Subject + Verb
With exceedingly rare exceptions, every sentence requires a subject and a verb. A subject is a noun or pronoun that performs the action of the verb.
The defense rests.
Subject + Verb + Object
A direct object is a noun or pronoun that the verb modifies. Some verbs, called transitive verbs, require objects.
Steve drove the car.
The oft-confused verbs lie and lay are good examples of the difference between transitive and instransitive verbs:
I will lie on the sofa.
I lay on the sofa.
I will lay this on the floor.
I laid the dishes on the table.
An indirect object is an object the verb indirectly modifies. In this sentence, me is an example:
Sally gave me the ball.
Passive voice happens when you treat an object as if it is a subject.
The meeting will be held at seven o’clock.
In this example, the verb phrase will be held is acting on the object, the meeting. The subject of the verb is unstated.
We could rewrite this example as:
We will hold the meeting at seven.
The meeting is at seven.
These examples are in active voice because the subject (We or the meeting) clearly takes the verb. Active sentences sound more assertive than passive ones.
Passive voice is not incorrect. However, if you overuse it, your writing will sound wordy and weak. As you edit, rephrase passive sentences as active ones when possible.
Previously, passive voice was common in academic literature, especially in the hard sciences, because the subject (that is, the scientist) is unimportant to an experiment.
In the next step, 10 ml of hydrochloric acid were added to the solution.
However, it is good practice even in formal academic writing to avoid passive voice if possible.
Chicago & Turabian Style Guides
The Chicago Manual of Style, produced by the University of Chicago, is widely used in the publishing industry.
It is an influential reference work not only for proper citations but for all aspects of English grammar and style.
Kate L. Turabian has produced a modified version of Chicago Style for term papers and theses. Both of these manuals are available in the J. W. Martin Library.