Monthly Archives: February 2012

How to improve your writing.

Last week, I covered how to develop a successful essay topic, from the beginning, by investigating your interests.

A great admission essay doesn’t come from thin air– not only do you have to cultivate great material to later write about, but you also have to develop the skills to do so.

As I said in my last post, good writing comes with persistence. Meaning, in order to write well, you have to do more than just memorize grammar and syntax rules. Improving your writing is not an end-product in itself but instead a developing process. To continuously improve, you have to continuously practice. 

So, here’s how to practice, and how to improve, your writing:

Read discerningly and critically.

Yes, to improve your writing, you need to read more. But, this goes farther than just reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo while curled up on the couch. You have to read actively. Active reading is a bit like studying–  you are reading more than just for what’s on the page, but to absorb the material. You are to analyze what is being said, and how it’s being said. Rather than letting the material wash over you passively, you have to engage with what you’re reading, and think about it critically. It doesn’t matter if it’s Thomas Pynchon, Tom Clancy, or the New York Times— think about what’s being presented to you. What is being said? Carefully consider the writer’s style– what is being done, exactly? How is this story being told to you?

Then, consider your own interaction with the material– is this story being told well? Is the writing effective in telling this story? What is attractive or unattractive about what is being said? What do you like or dislike about what the writer is doing?

Take careful note of what you like– and don’t like– about the material.  Analyzing critically will help you develop your own style through comparison. So,  consider your answers to the last line of questions I posed– what would you do differently? What do you agree with, in terms of phrasing, word choice, or content?

Interact with your own writing.

Now, pose the same sort of questions I’ve raised above to your own writing. Dig up old written assignments and essays– anything you’ve written in the last year or so. Then, critique it: did the story come through as you had intended? What could have been improved? Are you happy the way it turned out? What should be changed or remain the same? Was your story told successfully and effectively? In terms of phrasing and style, what was successful and needs some improvement? Take note of what worked and what didn’t and, most importantly, why that is the case. It is also helpful to look over any written work that had already been graded– you can definitely take cues from a professor or teacher in your self-analysis.

When you review work from a considerable time ago, you are reconsidering your writing with a more objective, critical eye. You are likely to find wording or phrasing issues or other mistakes that you may have missed the first time around. You are also likely to find phrasing or styling that worked then and continue to work now. Yes, you can be your own worse critic, so be sure not to beat yourself up too much; this is all part of the improvement process. By highlighting the best and worst aspects of your writing, you stand to improve on both of these points– to be mindful of the mistakes and to continue doing what works.

Practice revision.

Aside from reading outside work and your own work more critically, you must also hone your own writing and editing skills. To become a more discerning writer, you must be in-tune with what makes for effective writing and what doesn’t, so that you can be in a better position to do so yourself. But, while reading critically is important, knowing what to do about it is absolutely crucial. This is when revision comes in.

Revision can be a difficult exercise but, by reading critically, you’re already halfway there. Consider some of the questions I’ve said above– namely, the ones asking where you (or anyone else) could improve on effectiveness. Then, as a starting exercise, try acting on these suggestions to yourself– rewrite these points as you feel they should have been written in the first place. (This is where looking over your old, graded materials comes in handy; your teacher has ideally earmarked what needs to be changed already.)

When practicing revision, you’re developing your own keen senses of what works within writing and what doesn’t. Whether it’s within your own writing or someone else’s, practicing revising and rewriting skills is key to developing your own “nose” for good writing.  Likewise, it helps to develop the grounds for your own self-improvement.  Especially in your own work, through revision, you are in effect improving your own writing literally– you are learning from the very mistakes you made by learning how to directly fix them. Again, you can be your own worst critic but it can be a very satisfying experience, if you make it one.

Write more, and write often.

Of course, this is the part you’ve been waiting for. The best way to truly exercise these developing skills is, naturally, to do some more writing yourself.

Write whenever you can. It doesn’t really matter about what, so long as there is a discernible purpose to what you’re trying to get across– a story to tell or an argument to make. Writing for practice doesn’t have be submitted for a grade or even to the general public in any way, so you have pretty wide range of possibilities to use. If you find yourself stuck, you can use some journalism exercises as good jump-off points or “personal assignments” to get you started. One helpful exercise is to write reviews– of anything, even for things or events that aren’t real.  Or, as a journalism professor once told me, you can write mock-obituaries for celebrities, a fun (if not mildly morbid) writing exercise. In terms of how you do it, that is up to you as well. I myself like to carry a notebook around and just jot things down as they come, but do whatever feels comfortable for you. (If you’re strictly digital, Evernote is an amazing tool.)  You can keep a private journal or even start a blog.  Of course, putting these skills into practice can be difficult, yes. But, like running or an exercise routine, it gets much easier with time. And, just like exercise, it’s not so important when, or how you do it, as much is it is important you do it well, mindfully, and consistently.

 

 

 

 

 

Common Grammar Mistakes: Which versus That.

Which versus That. (From-Paul V8 on Flickr.)

Knowing the difference between which and that can be a bit confusing. Which one do you use? That one? Okay, I’ll stop.

What makes matters worse is that there has been a shift in usage and definition over the last century. While you may not be using grammar books from 100 years ago, you’re more likely to encounter this change in literature as so many classics are over a century old.

So, which one do you use, and how can you tell the difference?

Ultimately, it boils down to the difference between two types of clauses.– restrictive and non-restrictive. A restrictive clause is one that limits or restricts the scope of the noun it is referring to. A non-restrictive clause, as I’m sure you can imagine, doesn’t. Here is what I mean:

The cheese that is stinky is delicious.
The cheese, which is stinky, is delicious.

In the first example, the clause “that is stinky” is a restrictive clause, because it limits the scope of the word “cheese”, as it is only referring to the cheese that is stinky. It isn’t referring to any other cheese except that one. If you remove the clause, you are only left with: “The cheese is delicious.” Without the clause, the reader no longer knows which cheese is being referred to and the sentence loses crucial information– not just any cheese is delicious.

In the second example, the clause is non-restrictive: the cheese’s stinkiness is additional information about a cheese being described. Basically, the clause which is stinky is here parenthetical —as in, “by the way, the cheese happens to be stinky.” It is an additional piece of information but it’s not essential to the sentence’s meaning.

Here’s another example:

Another great type of cheese is one that is blue-veined and harder than most.

The clause “that is blue-veined and harder than most” modifies and constrains “one”. Another great type of cheese is not just any other cheese but one particular type. The clause is restrictive,especially considering how little sense the sentence would make without it.

In terms of punctuation, there are two hard-fast rules to follow:

  • Restrictive clauses are not separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.
  • Non-restrictive clauses must be separated by commas from the rest of the sentence to indicate parenthesis.

This all seems fairly simple, yes?

Of course, I can’t end this blog post without listing a few exceptions to complicate things a bit. I don’t know about you, but I can certainly think of a few examples that defy the rules I’ve listed above, yet still make perfect sense. In fact, few writers have ever followed these rules systematically, and it’s easy to find examples where either relative pronoun is used with restrictive clauses. Here’s an example:

A vase which has lost its bottom is useless.

The clause which has lost its bottom is certainly restrictive; without it, you’re left with “A vase is useless” which you can agree makes no sense. Now, according to the traditional rules, which should instead be that. However, did you have any trouble discerning the sentence’s meaning? I’m guessing the answer is no.

It also comes down to a question of style. Granted, style is a bit harder to pin down as “it just sounds better” is hard to define as preferences to consonant stress and rhythm. (For the linguist geeks in the house, that provides a softer, relatively unstressed sound while which is harder and easier to stress.) . But, in certain instances, it does “just sound better” to use that instead of which. Here are a few examples; again, they don’t necessarily abide by the rules, but they are definitely points to keep in mind.

  • In clauses that follow impersonal constructions, such as it is, that is preferred: “It was the plant that fell”.
  • Clauses that refer  to the words anything, nothing, something, or everything have a slight preference for that over which: “Can you think of anything that still has to be done?”
  • Clauses that follow a superlative also tend to prefer that: “Thank you for the best night that I’ve ever had”.

By throwing these wrenches in, I’m not suggesting to completely ignore what I just said. After all, if that were the case, I would just delete this blog post entirely. What I am suggesting, however, is that language is fluid– yes, there are rules, but sometimes you can bend them a little– and you CAN use which instead of that sometimes, so long as your meaning is well-understood.

That being said, it doesn’t apply the other way around; non-restrictive clauses should always to start with which. That’s just the way it is. Likewise, the punctuation rules will always apply– non-restrictive clauses always need commas, but restrictive ones (whether you use that or which) don’t. Without the proper punctuation, your whole sentence can go awry and your meaning could get totally lost. So, if you do decide to bend the rules, you have to do so carefully. If you’re not sure (and it’s understandable if you’re not), then just follow the restrictive/non-restrictive rules I’ve first outlined above and you’ll be fine.

 

 

How to become an interesting student.

How to become an interesting student. (By AMagill on Flickr.)

Last week, I was invited to lead a college essay writing workshop for Camp G.O.A.L.S. for Girls, an incredible program dedicated to high school girls pursuing math and science degrees.

The students in attendance were between the ages of 13 and 16. Most were in the very beginning stages of the admissions process for next cycle but others were definitely on the younger side of my usual student pool. While college admissions requires plenty of time management and diligent preparation, it was almost too early for some of these girls to work on their essays proper. But, these highly driven underclassmen weren’t going to let me get away scot-free. After a break, I was approached by a freshman with a great question: “What can we [underclassmen] do to prepare for a great college essay now?”

Of course, there are a number of immediate answers that come to mind. Successful writing skills– adept knowledge of writing mechanics, style, and grammar– come with practice and persistence, which students of any and all ages should be conscious of. (It also helps if you follow this blog!) Likewise, choosing an appropriate topic for your essay comes through careful consideration and a thoughtful process of elimination. But, the question posed was begging for an answer that is even deeper than all this; after all, several of the attendees had only just begun high school. How does one really develop great potential topics to begin with? How do you create them? In other words:

How do you become an interesting student?

While we all like the preternatural-prodigy story– where magnetism and intriguing qualities are seemingly innate and one is simply born interesting– these attributes are often discovered and, later, developed and cultivated. Sure, there are some who are born with the knowledge of what they like, the ability to be good at it, and the all-around support system to nurture it, from the beginning. But most have to investigate at least one if not all three of these qualities.These students are no exception. These particular girls are at beginning of their academic careers and are now forming these interests of their own– ones that will likely permeate through to their specialties and professions. But, through careful search, dedicated practice, and active involvement in these interests, they are on their way to not only becoming dedicated, driven students, but genuinely interesting ones at that.

How does this work? Well, here are three steps to do so.

1. Find out what you like (or don’t like).

Finding out what you like is critical to being an interesting student. How?

When you find something you like, you develop a potential genuine interest. These potential interests are kernels of promising growth that can possibly be expanded upon and developed fully into, well, a genuine one. Things you like tend to become things you care about– qualities that will enhance your experience and, in effect, your personality. Genuine interests, in turn, are what make you interesting.

To find what you like, you have to search, to really explore. Keep your ears and eyes open for whatever it is that grabs your attention. And, when they do hold your attention, investigate them! Find out what it is that you like about it and, when you do, keep doing it. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. If you realize after trying it a few times that you don’t like it, don’t fret– narrowing down these potentials is as much a part of this investigative process as it is finding that sweet spot to begin with.

These girls, by participating in this event, have at the very least least started the search process and are actively honing in on what it is they do like, whether it is medicine, engineering, computer science, or robotics (!). These interests are informing their high school experience and, in turn, their own unique personalities, allowing them to differentiate themselves from the rest. Their pursuit of what interests them are what makes them interesting.

2. Stick with it.

Following what I said above, you’re more likely to follow through with something you like than you would with something you don’t. That being said, once you do find something you like, you have to solidify that commitment.

Immersion learning is the best method of learning a language and the same is true for learning a new skill or discipline. Athletes practice during the on- and off-season to keep their minds and bodies in prime shape for competition, year-round and at all times. Likewise, students of every discipline must keep themselves sharp by consistent practice and dedication.Through this kind of persistence, interests become specialties and areas of expertise.

How does this happen? Simply put, people pursue what they like. When you enjoy something, you’re that much likely to remain committed to it. Being immersed in something you like is definitely a lot more pleasurable than being mired in something you don’t.

From this kind of commitment, your personal expertise and knowledge grows– after all, there is a reason that people tend to be good at the things that they happen to like. And, with intimate knowledge comes the ability to communicate freely and confidently about these interests. The ability to relay this interest to others –friends, teachers, admissions counselors, and professors alike– is what makes you interesting to them in the first place.

These students, by their own admission, are completely dedicated to their academic pursuits. They eat, breathe, and sleep math and science. Their attendance clearly spoke of this dedication but I was continually told of their active participation in other areas relating to their individual interests, from building computers for charity organizations to volunteering in projects dedicated to environmental conservation and sustainability. They not only found what they liked, but they involved themselves in everything they could to further themselves within it, and did so tenaciously. And, having done so, they were able to speak confidently about what their passions and drew me in, even as a decidedly “non-math” outsider. Their dogged interest interested me.

3. Cultivate it.

Aside from finding that thing you like and dedicating yourself to it, you have to allow it to grow. This all is a continual process that needs to be fostered by not only you, but by others as well.

Involve your peers in your interests. More likely than not, there will be some sort of club or organization devoted to this recently discovered interest. If there isn’t, then this is an opportunity to make a space for yourself and those like you to join forces– chances remain high that you are not the only one interested in this particular thing, nor will you be the last one to be. Involving others in your interests also creates fertile, creative ground to explore and investigate them further. The best and most creative ideas often come from such collaboration, especially when new territories are concerned. This will also help foster greater dedication; as any fitness nut or otherwise athletic person will tell you, it is easier to retain — and keep!– commitment when others are joined in with you.

The G.O.A.L.S for Girls campers certainly inspired each other– the camp comprised of a competitive pool of girls with similar interests and background, working and learning together for six weeks. Surely, a camp full of high school girls can make for an interesting experience in and of itself (I can definitely attest to that from my own experience, oh-so-long ago) but the opportunities like this to inspire and challenge yourself and others in a fertile environment is critical to the success and longevity of these interests.

Similarly, these interests need to be nurtured by you and those like you, first and foremost, but they also need to be nurtured by others with greater and more expansive knowledge on the subject as well. Aside from securing letters of recommendation in the future, involving teachers, professors, and organizers will also allow you to delve deeper and become especially good at them. Self-teaching can certainly go far but having guidance will help you not only develop your skills even farther, but also cultivate your own interest level, in both the thing itself and in your own “interestingness.” Enhancing your own understanding will doubly enhance your own experience within and outside of this process– thereby make your experience, your personality, and, by extension, you that much more interesting as a whole.

Grammar Myths Debunked: Ending a sentence with a preposition.

Ending a sentence with a preposition. (From Remixer 96 on Flickr.)

In my last grammar post, I covered how starting sentences with because is actually grammatically acceptable. Now, I will show you how you can also end sentences with prepositions, contrary to what grammarians and English teachers may tell you.

Students are taught time and again that you cannot end a sentence with a preposition; I certainly remember learning this in grade school. This lesson is also attributed (wrongfully, I’m afraid) to Winston Churchill as well.

The origin of this myth stems from a 17th century notion that English was inferior to Latin and that, in order to approve upon it, English should abide by Latin’s grammar rules. (If you’re nerdy like me, you can read more about that here.) But, as English is an ancestral German dialect, these Latin rules does not fit the natural structure of English comfortably.

So, what does this all mean?

Well, first off, there are certain sentences that almost can’t be formed without ending with a preposition without sounding ridiculous.

In the famous story woefully misattributed to Winston Churchill, he complained “…[t]hat is the sort of thing up with which I will not put!” when criticized by a newspaper editor for, well, ending a sentence with a preposition. Wrong story or not, this nonetheless highlights how sentences can sound nonsensical when following this “rule.”

Here are some more examples:

The ring had not even been picked out. This sentence sounds good and ends in a preposition. It is also grammatically correct. See?

Picked out the ring had not even been. This sentence, while grammatically correct, resembles a quote from Yoda. This clearly doesn’t work as well.

The marathon was rained out. While this isn’t such good news for the runners, it is a perfectly good sentence that –you guessed it– ends in a preposition.

Rained out was the marathon. This is yet another Yoda impression that doesn’t work.

So, why is this the case?

Often, what looks like a preposition in an English sentence is actually not a preposition at all. Instead, it is a part of the verb, to create a phrasal verb. These words are prepositions on their own but, when combined with certain verbs, become adverbial particles and part of these phrasal verbs.

Examples of these phrasal verbs are:

  • Branched out
  • Throw up
  • Put up
  • Shut up
  • Got off

As such, it is preferable to say “Where do you get off?” rather than “Off where do you get?” And, it is perfectly fine to say “Let’s kiss and make up.”

But, yes,  there are circumstances where you shouldn’t to end your sentence with a proposition. If the meaning of your sentence does not change with or without the preposition, then you should not include it. So, “where are you at?” is still incorrect, as it means exactly the same as “where are you?” (Sorry.)

Of course, this is a much contested rule so, if you’re still not sure, here’s further proof:

The spurious rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is a remnant of Latin grammar, in which a preposition was the one word that a writer could not end a sentence with. But Latin grammar should never straightjacket English grammar. If the superstition is a “rule” at all, it is a rule of rhetoric and not of grammar, the idea being to end sentences with strong words that drive a point home. That principle is sound, of course, but not to the extent of meriting lockstep adherence or flouting established idiom.

(Garner’s Modern American Usage, Oxford University Press, 2003)

How to write a successful cover letter.

How to write a successful cover letter. (From Drongowski on Flickr.)

Writing cover letters can seem astronomically hard. Yes, this struggle is similar to personal statements– you know yourself better than anyone else yet writing about “you” as a formal subject is a hard task.

But, there is a major difference. Personal statements ask you to show why you should be considered as part of a pool of accepted students by writing about an anecdote, specific event, or your life history thus far. Cover letters, on the other hand, ask you to showcase not only why you should be considered for the job but why you deserve this position over anyone else, period.

Now what?

Well, to begin, you have to do some introspection. Like personal statements or papers, you have to do a bit of brainstorming to formulate an appropriate topic or a particular bent. So, sit down and think for a bit: What is it about this position that is so attractive? Granted, ITE, you are most likely considering this position along with many others, sending a slew of resumes into cyberspace at large, and hoping for a response back. Or, this could be your dream job/internship/position that you’ve been fantasizing about since you were six. Either way, you have to consider: What do you like about this particular position? Make a list of your ideas: write down every reason, whether it’s the field, the particular company/brand you’re interested in, or even the increase in pay, better benefits, or better location. Then, consider what you offer: What makes you the ideal candidate? Is it your problem-solving skills, your punctuality? Maybe, it is your “go-get-it-ness” and genuine drive to be in this industry? Or even just your desperate need to get out of your current job or industry?

Now, consider how these intersect: How will you utilize your strengths if you’re given this position? How will this position satisfy your needs? And, in turn, how will you satisfy the requirements of this job?

Think carefully about your answers. These questions I’ve just posed are meant to get your juices flowing and to get you to start thinking about your selling points– and, how to market them to your prospective employer. You want to prove that you are not only a shoo-in for this job but also a natural fit.
Lastly, here are a few tips to get you on your way:

  • If you’re responding to a job posting or ad, follow the directions. Meaning, if they ask for specific information in your cover letter (the specific position you’re applying for, your salary requirements, etc) then you must provide it. Also, if it says “no phone calls”, don’t call. I’m serious.
  • Proofread. If you take away anything from this post (or even this blog), please proofread your work. Remember, mistakes reflect carelessness– the total opposite of “detail-oriented.”
  • Keep it simple… and short. Purple prose is always a no-no, but this is especially applicable here. Be concise; most cover letters are only a page long. If it must be over a page, make it only a page and half, tops. So, don’t send a missive, send a directive– keep it short and sweet.
  • Keep it professional. Use a professional-sounding email or, at the very least, your school email when including your contact information. As hot as “spankmebaby69@aol.com” sounds, it’s incredibly jarring to Human Resources. Don’t be the office joke, and sign up for a nice, normal-sounding Gmail account that includes your name and not any weird proclivities.

How to make your professor like you.

How to make your professor like you. (From @boetter on Flickr.)

Now that the semester is fully underway, I’ve been getting a number of questions from students about how to ensure good grades by this semester’s end, from general paper-writing help to more subject-specific questions. However, an interesting one came to me earlier this week that I thought would be best served by a post all to itself (here you go, Erika!):

“How do I get my professor to like me?”

This question is an understandable one– after all, why wouldn’t you want someone to like you? Of course, there are more practical reasons to win over or even befriend your professor; for instance, your grades. You may also have to ask for a letter of recommendation— an equally important reason to give your professor your best impression. Or, you can be in search of an advisor to mentor you during your course of study, also a very important reason to win at least one professor over.

Professors can certainly be intimidating. They are in an authoritarian position, and are generally well-respected in their field– a field that you are still learning and still new to. But, here’s the kicker: professors are people, too. Yes, I know, this may seem like a surprise. But, consider why they would they chose to become professors in the first place. Ideally, they did so with the best intentions in mind– to educate people like you on topics they hold close to heart, whether it be English or economics, gender theory or quantum physics. As such, professors do want to see you succeed, especially in a field they love and enjoy being immersed in. For these reasons, don’t think that you have to do something extraordinary or tricky to “get” him or her to like you. But, you do have to put some effort into it.

So, here are a few tips on how to impress your professor– and maybe even become friends with them.

Have a good attendance record.

One of the key ways to impress your professor is to be present in class. I know this is somewhat of a no-brainer; after all, it’s hard to leave a good impression on a professor if you’re not there. So, make it a point to attend class, at all times. Yes, professors usually do offer some sort allowance for absences, but don’t take this for granted; avoid using “sick days” to play hooky, as you never know when you’ll really need them later in the semester. But, should you find you’re unable to attend class for whatever reason, let your professor know as soon as possible. Whether it’s because of illness, a family emergency, or work issues, a heads-up is always appreciated– it is considered a sign of a responsible student and is even just a nice thing to do.

Do your assignments.

Okay, this is yet another no-brainer. But, really, you must do all your assignments, written or otherwise. When I say this takes effort, I mean it– you can’t just glide through class, shirking off coursework, and expect a professor to have only a positive impression of you. While, yes, you can possibly get away with minimal work and input, you risk leaving at the very least a neutral impression, which is dangerously close to no impression at all. So, read all the assignments given, follow the syllabus, and do what is being asked of you. Follow all directions given to the letter, including deadlines. You certainly don’t want to be remembered for what you don’t do correctly– that is definitely not the way you want to get attention. If you have a question, don’t hesitate to bring it up to the professor; this will actually help you with the steps that follow.

Be active in class.

Imagine standing in front of a group of people, trying to explain a number of crucial concepts. Yet, some are dozing off, some are clearly distracted, and some seem to just not care. You ask a question… and you’re only met by silence. Consider what your reaction might be– would you be annoyed? Anxious? Maybe even aggravated? Regardless of which of these feelings you might have in this situation, I’m sure it’s not a feeling you’d want your professor to have during lecture or seminar.

While your physical presence is necessary to succeed in a class (see above), active participation is also key. You’ll need to pay attention, and participate in class discussion– yes, this includes volunteering information, not just waiting until your professor calls on you. Interact with the material; see what themes you can draw from the material (lecture, readings, etc.) and how this relates to the arc of the course. (I’ve written a few blog posts that elaborate on this.) If you’re not certain about the material, ask questions– openly asking about something you’re not sure about not only shows you’re paying attention, but that you care enough to ask for further explanation.

Talk to your professor outside of class.

Active discussion doesn’t have to be relegated to just class-time. Consider talking to your professor outside of class– either before or after class meets, or during his or her office hours. Is there something particularly exciting or interesting about the material? Does the class in any way relate directly to your field of study? If you answered yes to either of these questions, then you have plenty of fodder for conversation, especially if the part of your major or program of study. Talking to your professor about your academic interests is almost always a good idea. Not only will you gain upvotes in the eyes of your professor, but you could potentially open some doors for yourself– you never know if there’s an internship, assistantship, or other great opportunity around the corner. Likewise, this kind of discussion is what fuels great letters of recommendation— you’ll allow your professor to get to know you and also show them how much you care about your work, your education, and, yes, their class.


 

 

Grammar Myths Debunked: Starting a sentence with “because.”

Grammar Myths Debunked: Starting Sentences with "Because" (From dickdotcom on Flickr.)

A frequent issue that comes up while editing is whether or not sentences can start with the word, “because.” This answer to this question is actually hotly contested… and often misconstrued.

Can you start a sentence with “because”?

The answer is yes. Yes, you can! It’s perfectly okay to start a sentence with because. The word, because is a subordinating conjunction; meaning, it introduces subordinating clauses. In function, it is similar to the words after and although, and the phrases as if, and in order that— all words that can begin sentences without a problem. See?

However, you still have to be careful– when using because or any  other subordinating conjunction, you must have a main clause in your sentence. Meaning, you cannot use a subordinate clause on its own, as it would be a fragment.

Here is an example of what I mean.

Because I woke up late, I missed my flight.

This sentence is correct. Why? “I missed my flight” is the main clause of the sentence– meaning, this clause, by itself, is a perfectly fine sentence that can stand up on its own. A subordinate clause can augment a main clause but, as it is subordinating, it cannot stand by itself. “Because I woke up late” by itself would be a fragment.

A helpful way to remember this is to think of subordinating clauses separately, and consider whether it provides enough information in its own to satisfy what needs to be known. Such as:

Because the table was wobbly, I spilled some of my coffee.

“Because the table was wobbly” doesn’t offer enough information on its own: because the table was wobbly what? What happened? Why does the table’s wobbliness matter? “I spilled some of my coffee” is the answer to these burning questions.

In these examples, I’ve formed these sentences to be [subordinate clause] + [main clause]  so the difference is immediately clear– they are separated by a comma and are easier to spot. However, the same rules apply if you are to write these sentences as [main clause] + [subordinate clause]. Such as:

I missed my flight because I woke up late.

“I missed my flight” stands on its own and, while it’s a crappy situation, gives enough information by itself. “Because I woke up late” still doesn’t make sense, without being prefaced with what happened, first.

I spilled my coffee because the table was wobbly.

Likewise, “I spilled my coffee” is another unfortunate situation that can stand alone. “Because the table was wobbly” is not enough to stand up by itself.*

 

*I promise this pun was accidental!