Active voice

Adjective—The part of speech used to limit or describe the noun or pronoun it modifies, as in “blue coat.”

Adverb—The part of speech used to limit or describe the verb, adjective, or adverb it modifies, as in “haltingly spoke,” “really big mistake,” and “answered very quickly.”

Agreement—The correspondence of one word’s form with another’s to indicate person, number, or gender. When you match a plural subject with a plural verb (“Dogs and cats fight less often than we think.”) or replace a singular, feminine, third-person noun with a singular, feminine, third-person pronoun (“Shoshana taught herself to drive when her parents were out of town.”), the related words agree.

Ambiguity—Uncertainty of meaning, usually caused by words or phrases that convey more than one meaning. For instance, “Joshua is cool” can refer both to Joshua’s body temperature and to his enviable social behavior.

Antecedent—The word to which a pronoun refers. In the sentence “Arun is unhappy because he lost his leather jacket,” “Arun” is the antecedent of the pronoun “he.”

Clause—A string of words containing a subject and a verb. Some clauses are independent; that is, they express a complete thought (“Samantha cried” or “Charlie stumbled through the door”). Some clauses are dependent, expressing part of a thought that the rest of the sentence completes (“Although Samantha cried, she had never felt happier” or “Charlie stumbled through the door, unaware that he had tripped the burglar alarm”).

Cliché—An expression so often used that its original power has been drained away, such as “dead as a doornail.”

Comma splice—The mistaken effort to link two complete sentences with a form of punctuation inadequate to the task. “He had no evidence to support his argument, therefore he lost the debate to his rival” is a comma splice. The comma should be replaced by a semicolon or a period.

Contraction—The shortened form of a word, in which the position of the missing letters is usually marked by an apostrophe. “Can’t,” for instance, is the contraction of “cannot.” Contractions often appear in informal writing, but seldom in formal composition.

Dangling modifier

Intensifier—A modifying word used for emphasis, as in “very funny,” “so happy,” or “really dumb.”

Metaphor—A figure of speech in which two things that seem to have little in common are compared, usually in an arresting or memorable way. For instance, the song “You Are My Sunshine” compares the singer’s beloved to the center of our solar system as a way of expressing her importance in his life.

Misplaced modifier

Modifier—A word or group of words that limits or describes another word or words. “Shira thought her party should be voted the event least likely to succeed.” A dangling modifier is a modifier left without something to modify. In the sentence, “Having listened to Jake, her problems were solved,” “having listened to Jake” does not modify “her problems” or even “were solved”; in that sense, it dangles. A misplaced modifier is a modifier in the wrong position in the sentence. In the sentence, “Telling a lie sometimes gets you into trouble,” it’s not clear whether “sometimes” modifies “telling a lie” or “gets you into trouble.”

Nonrestrictive—A phrase or clause that is inessential to a sentence’s meaning, as in “My car, which I bought for a song, badly needs a tune-up.”

Noun—The part of speech that names a person, place, or thing, as in “my dog” or “Jamie Priest” or “library books.”

Passive voice

Phrase—A group of related words without a verb, such as “in the woods,” “cool glass of water,” and “good night ‘s sleep.”

Pronoun—The part of speech that can take the place of a noun in a sentence and function as a noun. In the sentence “Mr. Rice spoke to Tom and offered him a job,” “him” is the pronoun; it takes the place of “Tom.”

Qualifier—Any modifier that describes or limits what it modifies, as in “red hat,” “hole in one,” or “people who consistently vote Democratic.”

Redundancy—The unnecessary and usually ineffective repetition of a word, phrase, clause, or idea. “He is an evil-minded person and thinks wicked thoughts about others” is a redundant expression; the words before and after the “and” mean the same thing.

Restrictive—A phrase or clause that is essential to the sentence’s meaning, as in “The book that I loaned to you is now due back at the library.”

Sentence fragment—An incomplete sentence, like this one.

Split infinitive—The infinitive is the part of the verb expressed by “to,” as in “to move” or “to think.” A split infinitive is such an expression with a word or phrase interposed between the “to” and the verb, as in “to reluctantly move” or “to quickly think.”

Subject-verb agreement

Tone—The attitude toward your subject implied by your choice of words. If I greet you by saying “How do you do, my dear young person,” I am using a formal tone, one meant to suggest the distance or lack of familiarity between us. If I greet you by saying “Oh, wow, it’s so great to see you,” my tone indicates my pleasure in seeing you and my intimacy with you.

Verb—The part of speech denoting action, existence, or state of being, as in “Friedrich laughed,” “Mary is a happy baby,” or “Brishon felt sick.”

Voice—The form of a verb that indicates whether the subject of the sentence is also the agent of the action described by the verb. In the sentence, “John gave Harith a copy of his lecture notes,” the subject of the sentence (“John”) is the agent of the action (“gave”), so the verb is in the active voice. In the sentence, “A copy of the lecture notes was given to Harith by John,” the subject of the sentence (“copy”) is not the agent of the action (“was given”), so the verb is in the passive voice.

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