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The Force of Grammar

April 1, 2016

By Kris London

As winter gives way to spring in Boone, bringing with it, finally, a bright sun, we should appreciate its arrival, but also be aware that the semester is not yet over. While you’re sitting outside soaking up the sun, bone up on your grammar with the following post. Some of the most common grammatical mistakes we see in the writing center concern parallel structure and introductory phrases. In the spirit of the new installation in the Star Wars series, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we will utilize some wisdom put out by one of the greatest Jedi in the history of the galaxy, Yoda.

In a series of items listed, parallel structure is the use of the same verb form, phrase construction, etc. Its purpose is to create consistency within your writing so that the thought is clearly put and grammatically correct. As Lunsford’s The Everyday Writer (5 ed.) notes, “Parallel structures can help you pair two ideas effectively. The more nearly parallel the two structures are, the stronger the connection between the ideas will be” (300). In fact, if you read over a sentence that contains a list or a conjunction joining two thoughts and it sounds awkward, it may be because it does not have parallel structure. Some examples are as follows, with the parallel-structured words/phrases being in italics:

“A Jedi uses the force for knowledge and defense, never for attack” (Yoda).

 

“A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind” (Yoda).

 

Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they” (Yoda).

In the first sentence, Yoda uses the noun-form for each item. In the second, Yoda uses the noun form and also describes each noun in superlative terms (expressive of the highest degree). Since “seriousest” is not a word, Yoda modifies the adjective “serious” with “most” to keep parallel structure. In the last sentence, Yoda again uses all noun forms, but they are also all emotions to be felt.

An introductory phrase separates parts of a sentence in order to give the sentence the meaning it is meant to convey, and often introduces the main subject or idea of the sentence. Yoda is perhaps the king of introductory phrases, as he always speaks in a conventionally backward manner. Take a look at the following examples.

“When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not” (Yoda).

“Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will” (Yoda).

The phrase which comes before the comma in the first sentence is the introductory phrase setting up the second half, which functions as the main part of the sentence with its future tense of the verb infinitive “to be.” The use of the word “when” implies a condition, similar to an “if…then…” statement, which typically requires a comma before “then.” The second example functions similarly, with the first portion being the introductory phrase, while the second two parts function equally as the main part of the sentence. While Yoda’s way of speech is perhaps exemplary of introductory phrases, it is important to note that he often, as a consequence, uses the passive voice, which is not always the best voice to use in academic writing. For example, the first sentence could be rearranged in the active voice: “You will not look as good when you reach 900 years old.” Notice that we do not need a comma in the active voice. For a reserved Master Jedi, however, the passive voice evinces a sense of composure and self-control.

As you battle with your last assignments, keep these tips in mind. If you need help with other grammar-related issues, there are handouts on our website and, of course, you can come visit us in person. And lastly, remember: “Do. Or do not. There is no try” (Yoda, Return of the Jedi).

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