Tag Archives: proofreading

Common Grammar Mistakes: Active versus Passive Voice

A student recently sent me the following question: “My professor wrote ‘Do not use passive voice’ on their syllabus under the final paper requirements. Why is passive voice such a bad idea?”

I must say, passive voice does get a bad rap. Many people (professors and other writing educators, included) are adamant in their disapproval of the passive voice. In fact, many consider this to one of the many common writing rules everyone has to abide by. I will give you my opinion in a bit but, first, let’s go over what we actually mean by active voice and passive voice.

Active Voice

In the active voice the subject is doing an action– specifically, the action outlined by the verb. Since the subject is active in whatever the verb calls for, it’s referred to as the active voice. This is found in most English sentences.

An example of the active voice would be: Stefanie loves dogs.

The subject of this sentence — in this case, Stefanie— is doing the action: the subject is, in essence, doing the loving. The word dogs in this instance, is the direct object, the receiver of this loving. Again, since the subject is active in doing, this sentence is in the active voice.

Passive Voice

In the passive voice, these roles are reversed. The direct object moves to the subject’s position and, in turn, the subject becomes the direct object. This role reversal is interesting because the focus of the sentence changes, allowing for the subject to receive the action, while the direct object does what the verb describes. So, instead of the active “Stefanie loves dogs”, the sentence then becomes:

The dogs are loved by Stefanie.

In this instance, the subject, the dogs, aren’t active in doing anything. They are just sitting there as the direct object, Stefanie, does all the action– in this case, all the loving. Lucky them.

The passive voice can also be phrased like this: “The dogs are being loved by Stefanie.” This is also valid as it’s still in the present tense and the subject is still passive.

“So, is using passive voice wrong?”

Not necessarily. However, it can obfuscate your writing so it’s best to use it sparingly. The active voice is direct and (ideally) to the point– this is clearly the best for academic writing and admission essays. It’s encouraged to use the active voice because of its clarity and is a great way to make your writing tighter and more concise.

That being said, passive voice does well when writing reports, scientific studies, or anything else that requires objectivity over subjectivity. This is one of the major reasons why scientific studies and police reports are written largely in the passive voice– the writer has to be objective and not insert themselves into the work as a subject or, if the subject is unknown, hypothesize who or what that might be.

Passive voice can also be used creatively, particularly when writing fiction. The passive voice can denote a sense of mystery– “he was killed suddenly in the night,” for instance– and can also create suspense. This is also more reason why it shouldn’t be used in admissions or academic writing.

So, a few words of advice:

  • The active voice means the subject is active in whatever the verb is doing. The subject is doing whatever the verb says it is.
  • The passive is the opposite– it’s not doing it but, instead, receiving it. The direct object is the one doing the work.
  • Not every sentence in the passive voice has to have the verb to be in it. The verb phrase I am is a form of the verb to be which, as I’m sure you can figure out, is very much in the active voice.
  • It’s not necessarily incorrect to use the passive voice, but avoid it unless writing fiction, an objective report of some kind, or a scientific study.


Common grammar mistakes: Dangling participles.

Common Grammar Mistakes: Dangling Participles. (From OptimumCareer on Flickr.)

As an editor, I have a number of literary and textual pet peeves. Surprisingly (or, perhaps not?), lolspeak is not one of them. But, in any case, some things just drive me and every other like-minded nerd insane. One of things includes dangling participles. To review, a participle is a verb pretending to be an adjective. Usually, this is a verb in its -ing form. For example, the word run is normally a verb, but add an -ing ending and it can become an adjective. So, when you say “I run every morning,” it’s a verb. But, it can also be an adjective: “I forgot my running shoes this morning.” The word run went from verb to adjective, which also forms your present participle.

So, now you understand participles. Good. Now, we move on to participial phrases.

Participial phrases are phrases that include, you guessed it, participles. These phrases are meant to modify the subject of the sentence. For example: “Drinking my coffee, I thought of an example of participial phrases.” Drinking my coffee” modifies the subject, “I,” with “drinking” as the participle.

Another example would be: “Stifling a yawn, I shuffled off to make more coffee.” “Stifling a yawn” is the participial phrase, modifying the subject, “I” (yet again). “Stifling,” of course, serves as the participle.

Okay, with all that said, dangling participles are participial phrases that are left with nothing to modify. Meaning, they are supposedly there to modify the subject, except the subject doesn’t agree with its modifier.

You might ask how this is possible. Well, here’s an example: “Drinking my coffee, the coffee-maker had shut off.” As you can imagine, this does not make sense. “Drinking my coffee” should modify… the coffee-maker? No. The coffee-maker is not drinking my coffee, I am. So, where am I? Hence, the reason these errors are called dangling participles– so sad and alone, without a subject to modify.

There are ways to fix this, of course. Instead of “Drinking my coffee, I noticed the coffee-maker had shut off.” Now, “drinking my coffee” is modifying the correct subject and–there I am!– the coffee is being drunk by me this time, not the coffee-maker.

One handy way to make sure you don’t make this mistake is to put a silent “while” before any participial phrases. So, “Drinking my coffee, I noticed the coffee-maker had shut off” becomes “While drinking my coffee, I noticed the coffee-maker had shut off.” Using the word “while” will emphasize what the modifying participle is doing, which will then remind you that the subject should agree with this action. If it’s more helpful for you to actually begin the phrase with “While…” rather than just with the participle, that’s fine, too. Just be mindful of who is doing what and what should be modifying whom.

So, to be clear:

“Drinking my coffee, I noticed the coffee-maker had shut off.” This is good.

“While drinking my coffee, I noticed the coffee-maker had shut off.” This is also good.

“Drinking my coffee, the coffee-maker had shut itself off.” This is bad.

“While drinking my coffee, the coffee-maker was gone.” Even worse.





Common grammar mistakes– Lay versus lie.

In many of my grammar posts, I often discuss common but misused words like it’s versus its or I.e versus E.g.. So, for this week’s installment, I’ll be covering the differences between lie and lay, probably the most misconstrued of all.

The most barebones difference between lie and ‘lay’ is that ‘lay’ requires a direct object. Going back to third grade, direct objects follow transitive verbs or action words. They are the “what?” and “who?” of the “subject+verb” equation. As in:

Jenny(subject) + played(verb)+WHAT?” Answer, soccer (direct object).

So, lay needs something or someone to do the laying– for instance, “Lay your book on the table.” Of course, as a command, the subject is the invisible ‘you’ and the sentence can be diagrammed as follows:

(You, subject) + Lay(action verb) + your book (direct object) +on the table (prepositional phrase, but more on this later)

Lie, on the other hand, does not require a direct object. So, if you want to lie down on the couch, you’re free to do so. Please note: “on the couch” is NOT a direct object (yet another prepositional phrase, more on that later) as the couch is not doing the lying down, you are the one doing it. Okay, get up now.

Sounds easy, right?

Here’s an easy way to remember:

Fans of older music will be shocked to know that both Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton are wrong: “Lay, lady, lay” should be “Lie, lady, lie“, and “Lay down, Sally” should be “Lie down, Sally”. Yet, Kelly Rowland, in all her pop-princess glory, is totally right with “Lay it on me“. Well, that’s music for you.

The present participles of these verbs aren’t so bad, either. As a reminder, participles are part of the perfect tenses– they are the latter half of verb phrases with am, has/has been, and have/have been in them.

The present tense of lie is lying— as in, “I’m lying down on the couch right now; it’s pretty awesome”. Or, “He’s been lying on the couch for a while, he must be lazy.”

The present tense of lay is laying, which is pretty straight forward. One example is: “She has been laying her coat on my chair every day since she’s moved in.” Or, for special occasions, you can say: “The Golden Goose has been laying golden eggs again!” This works because the golden eggs serve as the direct object in this sentence; it’s a different definition, but the same rule applies.

Okay, here comes the really tricky part.

The past tense of lay is laid. The past participle of lay is also laid. Too easy.

But, the past tense of lie is lay. Not so easy. And, a little ridiculous, if you ask me. To make it a little more difficult, the past participle of lie is lain. Ugh.

(To refresh your memory: the past participle is used to form the perfect tenses–I.e, the verb phrases that have has, have, and had in them.)

Laws of language aside, it is what it is. Your job though is to remember it. I don’t have any funny or stupid-yet-oddly-helpful ways to remember it, so just memorize it. Sorry, guys.

Here’s how to conjugate both lie and lay in the past tense, with examples::


  • Present tense: Lie

I lie in bed at night, thinking about dinosaurs.

  • Past tense: Lay

Yesterday, I lay there thinking about them, too.

  • Past Participle: Lain

And, the night before last, I also had lain in bed thinking about them. I may have a problem.



  • Present Tense: Lay

I lay my coat on this chair, usually.

  • Past Tense: Laid

Earlier, I laid my coat on this chair  But, it’s not there.

  • Past Participle: Laid

Oh, I forgot I had laid my coat on the bed instead. Fail.

Easy? It can be when working with present tense, but it can get confusing when using the past tense. Unfortunately, the only way to learn how to do this properly is by memorizing these rules. But, it gets easier with practice, don’t worry. Soon enough, you’ll be laying and lying all over the place.

Common grammar mistakes– E.g versus I.e.

Common Grammar Mistakes: E.g. versus I.e.

In the world of Internet slang, abbreviations have become the norm. While it’s hard to argue what FWIW or IAWTC mean, E.g and I.e are confused for one another all the time. Of course, these two abbreviations are infinitely older than netspeak as they both have Latin origins. But, despite this and their importance in academic writing, their usage is often misconstrued.Too often are they used interchangeably when they really shouldn’t be.

“So, what do they mean?”

I.e is an abbreviation for the Latin phrase id est, which can be roughly translated to “it is” or “that is”. E.g. is an abbreviation for exempli gratia, or “for example”. You can see where I’m going now.

I.e.  is used to specify or to further clarify a particular. For instance, you would use I.e. to say “I like editors who from New York– I.e., Stefanie Arr” to mean you like only me out of all the editors from New York. (Right?) If that wasn’t so obvious, here’s a better example: “Stefanie Arr is from the big city– I.e., New York.” This is correct because I am from only one big city– New York– and I.e. introduces this clarification.

E.g. is used to give an example or an instance. So, if you say “I like bloggers who write useful advice– E.g., Steve from LSAT Blog“, then you’re saying that you like bloggers who write about useful things, such as Steve, but aren’t limiting your list to just Steve (because I should be included, too.)

A helpful way to remember what each of these abbreviations mean is to use thise easy, if not cheesy, tip: E.g. can be remembered by thinking of it as “egg zample”– like “example” but with a strange, foreign accent. Or, you can take the more mature route and remember that  “E” stands for example.

The way to remember I.e. isn’t so weird a memory trick, but it’s just as useful: just imagine I.e. stands for “in essence”. Or, take the “I” to stand for “in other words”.

“Okay, so what now? How do you use them?”

Well, you can these abbreviations in a number of ways. They are usually used in parenthetical statements, but you can also use them as separate clauses, preceded by a dash (–) or a semicolon (;). You can also use them to introduce either an entirely new sentence. Given what these abbreviations mean, you can use them however you would normally use “in essence”/”in other words” or “for example”.

Easy, right?

Now, here are two last things to note:

  1. Always follow these abbreviations with a comma. So, whether you use them in the middle of a sentence or to start off a new one, always use a comma afterwards, like this “E.g., …”
  2. Don’t italicize them. I italicized them above because I was defining them but, in normal usage, they don’t have to be. This is according to a number of grammatical authorities, including The Chicago Manual of Style.


Paragraphs and how to use them.

Paragraphs are incredibly important– whether you’re writing a short response paper or an epic long dissertation, you need them.


Without them, your writing will seem like a long, unedited diatribe– endless lines of unorganized information that will lose your readers and your professor.

In order to fully understand what paragraphs are and how to fully use them, it’s helpful if you think of them in the following ways:

– Paragraphs are units of composition.
Think of each paragraph as a separate unit, an individual nugget or dose of information. Each new bit of information should be showcased to your reader, separately. This helps you, the writer, separate your topics and develop your overall argument in a logical and organized fashion. For the reader, your argument is more digestible and easier to read.

So, with that said…

– Paragraphs should always introduce a new idea.
Whether you are subdividing a topic at hand or introducing an entirely different topic, paragraphs should contain new, unique, pieces of information that are parts of a cohesive whole.

Some examples where your paper should have a natural paragraph break are:
– when there is a change in setting or time (such as discussing periods in history or different geographical locations)
– when you are citing and explaining a specific case as an example, or
– when you are presenting an additional argument or counter-argument
– in introduction of a set of new arguments/topics or in conclusion or them, or of your paper.

– Paragraphs should begin with topic sentences.
In order to fully accomplish what I said above, each paragraph should state its new topic within the first two sentences. By doing so, your reader will understand that you are transitioning from the previous topic to the next, how you’re doing so and why. You would also be preparing your reader (and your professor) for what you will be outlining further in the paragraph and throughout your argument as a whole.

Using transitional words or phrases are a good start. Here are a few examples:

Adding information: Also, as well, besides
Comparing ideas: Likewise, similarly
Contrasting ideas: At the same time, conversely, even so, in contrast, nevertheless,
Using an example: For example, for instance, in other words, specifically,
Continuing a previous idea: Later, meanwhile, next, subsequently, then
Following from a previous idea: accordingly, as a result, consequently, as such, therefore, thus
Concluding ideas: Finally, in short, in summary, that is, that is to say, to sum up.

Stefanie Arr

Rules for writing an essay.

Writing. (From Jase Curtis on Flickr)

There is a lot involved when writing an essay. If there wasn’t, then writing would be easy; there wouldn’t be a need for writing classes, books, or tutors (yikes!). So, while I still have a job, writing is still hard. To make up for it, I’ve compiled a short list of basic rules to live by when writing an essay.

Avoid using contractions.
I know– I myself just used a contraction (if you forgot what a contraction is, here’s a refresher) in my header. However, when writing a paper, this is NOT the way to go. Why? Well, a paper is, basically, a serious presentation of an argument. Using contractions like “I’m” or “don’t” is too informal, which could make you sound less smart. Clearly, you can see why this would be a bad idea for a paper. This is, of course, not the case when using a direct quote, as you are using someone else’s words and phrasing and, if they themselves used contractions, that’s okay. But, for your own writing, it’s best not to use them so that you can sound as compelling, persuasive, and, yes, smart as possible.

Sentences shouldn’t be more than three lines long.
When writing a paper, you want to be as clear and clean as possible. Writing sentences that are too long can confuse your reader, and dilute what you’re trying to say. If you’re not sure whether a sentence is too long, try reading it out loud. If you find yourself losing your breath or your place, try shortening it. It’s better to have shorter sentences that are strong and to the point, than to have really long, confusing ones.

Avoid slang.
For the same reasons I’ve stated above, using slang in a paper is a terrible idea. The goal of your paper should be to address issues and arguments in the most intelligent way possible. Unfortunately, using slang like “gonna”, “ppl”, or “on the down low” isn’t going to do that. A good marker of whether a word or phrase is slang or not is to think, would this be printed in the New York Times? If yes, then you should be fine. If it’s on Urban Dictionary, then maybe not.

Stefanie Arr

Common grammar mistakes.

Below are a few of the most common mistakes I have found in students’ writing. They are also some of the more trickier rules in grammar– interesting correlation, no? So I’ve compiled a list with basic explanations in order to alleviate some of this confusion.

1- Your and You’re
These two always, always, always, trip up my students. Admittedly, I get a little confused, too, at times and autocorrect doesn’t help. However, the basic rule to remember is the difference between using the possessive pronoun and using a contraction.


Your is a possessive pronoun. It’s helpful to think of it as a form of the word “you”, as in “I edited your paper” or “I love your blog”. It is a possessive pronoun in that it means the paper and the blog in the above sentences belong to, well, you.

You’re, on the other hand, is a contraction; more specifically, it’s a contraction of you and are. For example, you can say “You’re right, this blog is awesome” or “That paper you’re working on is coming along great”.

See the difference? When trying to figure out when to use you’re or your, think of what you’re trying to say. What always helps me is to substitute them with “you are” and see if it makes sense. “You are doing so well” make sense, so you can use the contraction you’re. “Congrats on you are A” doesn’t, so you have to use your.

2- Its and It’s
Okay, here’s when it starts to get a little trickier. The difference between its and it’s is similar to your and you’re– one’s a possessive pronoun and and the other is a contraction. But, how they are formed is a little confusing.

It’s seems like the possessive of it, yes? Well, no.
It’s is, instead, the contraction of it and is. Weird, I know. Apostrophe and all, it’s is used like this: “It’s important to avoid grammar mistakes”.

Its, on the other hand, is the possessive of it. You use it like this: “My paper! I lost one of its pages”. The pages, of course, mean they belong to the paper itself. So, you can think of “its” being like her or his, possessive pronouns (more on parts of speech later) that show ownership of something.

3- Than and Then
This is the hardest rule to keep straight; I say this because this trips me up, too. What’s so difficult about than v. then is that it’s not a difference of pronouns or contractions, but of conjunctions and adverbs.

“Um… what?”

I know. Let me explain.

Than is a conjunction (specifically a subordinating conjunction, but we can get into that later). Conjunctions conjoin — they bring together two parts of a sentence, whether it’s nouns, clauses, or sentences. Than works to compare two items, as in: “It’s better to do well than to fail” or “I like this topic choice more than that one.”

Then is an adverb (again, more on that later) that relates to the passage of time.

You can use then in ways like the following example:
“I started working on my essay but then realized I needed some help.”

Unlike than, you can use then to begin a sentence:
“First, you begin by brainstorming. Then, you can work on an outline.”

It is a bit tricky, but it’s actually not very hard to keep straight once you get the hang of it. The easiest way to remember this is that the “e” in then is in “time“. It’s cheesy but it works.

Stefanie Arr

Best books on writing.

Old books (From Paper Cat on Flickr)

Many of my students ask me for recommendations of books that can improve grammar and writing skills. So, I’ve compiled a short list of books that one should have, whether it’s for school, business, or for every-day written communication.

1. Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style”:

It’s difficult to stress how helpful and necessary this little book is. It’s about as classic as classic gets, even more so than jeans or John Hughes movies could ever be. Everyone, especially students, should have a copy of this book. I personally have gone through several copies, as I am constantly using it in academia, when working with students, and even for my own writing. It’s a true must-have.

2. Modern Language Association’s “MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers” (MLA format)

-Kate Turabian’s “A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations” (Chicago/Turabian Style)

-American Psychology Association’s “Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association” (APA format)

These manuals are for the thesis and dissertation formats and styles most commonly used in high school, college, and graduate schools: MLA, Chicago, and APA. At some point in your academic career, you will be required to use at least one of these styles. Meaning, you will be required to format and structure your paper and, most importantly, cite your research in a particular style of writing. The style you use, however, will depend on your major or academic track. Social and behavioral sciences will almost always use APA so, if that is what you are studying or plan to study in the future, be sure to have a copy as it will be your life’s blood for a long while. If you are a humanities or liberal arts student, you have a choice. Some swear by MLA and others fight to the death for Chicago (also called Turabian) style. Personally, I prefer MLA but simply because my school had a preference for it and I became most used to that particular style. Other schools may prefer Chicago, and you may grow to use that one as well. There is merit to being familiar with both (especially for those in academia, like me), but see what works for you. Either way, you should choose one of these and use it consistently, unless your teacher or professor says otherwise.

3. American Heritage College Dictionary

Yes, it’s a dictionary. But everyone needs a dictionary! Sure, there is Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and even Google– but A.H. takes the cake. It’s more progressive than most, reflecting more technological and social changes to the English language than the older, tonier ones.
There are also curse words, in case you’re wondering. All in all, it’s just a great general, mid-sized dictionary that would work for everyone.

4. Patricia O’Conner’s “Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English”

Let’s face it: grammar can be confusing and downright frightening sometimes. The English language can be pretty ridiculous; trying to figure out what goes where is hard, and trying to understand why is even harder still. But, have no fear. I often recommend this book as it’s very easy to use, it’s very comprehensive, and it’s not as boring as most other grammar books. She clearly explains each rule (and there are many) with humor and plenty of examples. She also doesn’t make you feel stupid, which is an added plus. It answers most if not all grammar issues and problems but is totally not intimidating in the least. I am a big fan of this one, as are a lot of my students, and have always gotten a great deal of use out of it.

5. Zinsser’s “On Writing Well”

If you’re a nerd like me (which, let’s be honest, I have to be one to do this for a living) and want to invest further in how to improve yourself as a writer, this is one of the best. It’s been around for ages now and is consistently cited as one of the best resources a writer can use to improve their craft. He talks primarily about writing non-fiction but extends past academic writing and can be used for fiction as well– memoir, travel, and humor writing are also covered. I will admit, it can be a little hokey (see the “Field of Dreams” reference in one of the reviews, for example) but it is definitely a great insight into how to improve the quality of your writing and the importance of writing clearly, simply, and honestly. It’s not a must-have necessarily but, if you’re looking to improve yourself as a writer and want to hone your craft, I wholeheartedly recommend this.

Stefanie Arr

Essay writing tips.

Essay writing tips (from SamJUK on Flickr)

I get asked a lot of questions from my students– mostly asking for tips and tricks to writing essays. While there’s no way to avoid doing the work, there are certainly tips and tricks to improve your writing and, in turn, to improve you yourself as a writer.

1. Write more than one draft.
It’s certainly more time-efficient to bang out a draft, staple it together, hand it in, and be done with the assignment. It saves time, but doesn’t save you from submitting an essay riddled with mistakes. Simple grammatical gaffes, like mixing up “your” and “you’re”, can go unnoticed and even more serious ones, like mixing up citations and copy-and-pasting wrong quotes, can fly under the radar if you hand in only your first draft. Thoroughly proofreading your work ensures that you’re not handing in an essay that is full of misspellings, bad grammar, or worse. Realizing your mistakes is the first step to a successful essay, and writing multiple drafts where you can make corrections and tweak your writing will ensure that you’ll be submitting your best work.

2. Have someone else look at it.
In the same way that writing two (or more!) drafts is crucial to writing a good essay, having someone else read your work can give you ideas and insight that you may not have thought of or seen otherwise. This can be your professor, a friend, your roommate, a neighbor, anyone. Giving your paper to an outside reader is essentially what you are doing when submitting your essay to a professor: you’re providing a written argument, explaining your point of view on the subject, and hoping your argument comes across clearly. An outside reader can spot critical errors that might not seen right away and tell you if your argument is explained fully and, most importantly, if what you’re saying makes sense. Through an outsider’s opinion, you can better gauge what your professor’s criticisms might be and (through drafting!) correct them preemptively.

3. Make sure you give yourself enough time.
I know, I know– this is easier said than done. And, sometimes, you’re not given the time to begin with. I have previously covered ways in which to make the most of your time allotted, but all of the above should explain why it’s important to do so. You want to give yourself enough time to complete these important steps in order to hand in an essay that truly shows off your ability. Aside from completing the assignment, you want to prove that you’re a capable student and a good writer. Skimping on these steps can lead to mistakes, which could instead showcase the opposite– that you are careless, rushed, and maybe even lazy.

All in all, these are not tips on “how to write a paper in 90 minutes or less”, or other get-rich-quick schemes. These are instead tools that will, ultimately, show your best work possible and that you are a good and careful writer.

Stefanie Arr