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Grammar for Writers

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  1. Module 1

    Lesson 1.1: Introduction
    2 Steps
  2. Lesson 1.2: The Main Line
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    1 Quiz
  3. Lesson 1.3: Subjects and Verbs
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    1 Quiz
  4. Lesson 1.4: Objects and Complements
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    2 Quizzes
  5. Lesson 1.5: The Five Clause Patterns
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    2 Quizzes
  6. Lesson 1.6: Actors and Actions, Subjects and Verbs
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    1 Quiz
  7. Lesson 1.7: What Is the Passive Voice?
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    1 Quiz
  8. Lesson 1.8: When Is the Passive Useful?
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    2 Quizzes
  9. Lesson 1.9: Nominalization
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    1 Quiz
  10. Lesson 1.10: Strong Verbs, Precise Verbs
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    1 Quiz
  11. Lesson 1.11: Keeping Verbs Close to Subjects
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    1 Quiz
  12. Lesson 1.12: Compounds on the Main Line
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    1 Quiz
  13. Lesson 1.13: Verb Tenses
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    1 Quiz
  14. Module 2
    Lesson 2.1: Introduction
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  15. Lesson 2.2: Adjectives and Adverbs
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    1 Quiz
  16. Lesson 2.3: What’s So Bad About Adverbs?
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    1 Quiz
  17. Lesson 2.4: Prepositional Phrases I
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  18. Lesson 2.5: Prepositional Phrases II
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    1 Quiz
  19. Lesson 2.6: Participles
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  20. Lesson 2.7: Participial Phrases
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    1 Quiz
  21. Lesson 2.8: Infinitive Phrases
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    1 Quiz
  22. Lesson 2.9: Subordinate Clauses
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  23. Lesson 2.10: Adjective Clauses
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    1 Quiz
  24. Lesson 2.11: Adverb Clauses
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    1 Quiz
  25. Lesson 2.12: More on Subordinate Clauses
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    1 Quiz
  26. Lesson 2.13: Misplaced Modifiers
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    1 Quiz
  27. Lesson 2.14: Conclusion
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  28. Module 3
    Lesson 3.1: Introduction
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  29. Lesson 3.2: Noun Clauses
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    2 Quizzes
  30. Lesson 3.3: Gerunds and Infinitives
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    1 Quiz
  31. Lesson 3.4: Appositives
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    1 Quiz
  32. Lesson 3.5: Essential and Non-Essential Elements
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    1 Quiz
  33. Lesson 3.6: Review
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    1 Quiz
  34. Module 4
    Lesson 4.1: Introduction
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  35. Lesson 4.2: Subject-Verb Agreement
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    1 Quiz
  36. Lesson 4.3: Pronouns and Antecedents
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    1 Quiz
  37. Lesson 4.4: Connecting Clauses
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  38. Lesson 4.5: Connecting Clauses (Part 2)
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    1 Quiz
  39. Lesson 4.6: Parallelism
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  40. Lesson 4.7: Nominative Absolutes
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    1 Quiz
  41. Lesson 4.8: Course Wrap-Up
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Lesson Progress
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Lecture Notes
Module 1, Lesson 1: Introduction

For many writers, the key to better writing isn’t new skills so much as clearing away the clutter of bad habits to get back to fundamental skills that have been there all along.

Human language gives you countless ways to insert more and more information into a sentence—nominative absolute, noun clauses, adjective clauses, participial phrases. Subordinating conjunctions convey all kinds of logical relationships between ideas.

If you’re older than about seven years old, you can already use all of these grammatical constructions. You are probably quite good at cramming lots of information into a sentence.

However, at its heart, good, vivid language—whether written or spoken—isn’t just about conveying information. It isn’t about weeding out the grammar and style errors from your prose. It’s about rendering experience. That is something that you understood when you were a toddler, even if you have since forgotten it.

When you learn to talk, you start with concrete nouns—things you can see and hear and touch: Mama, Daddy, kitty, milk, car.

Pretty soon you add verbs: Kitty says meow. Milk spilled. Daddy is funny. Car goes fast.

As you grow, you learn to use increasingly complicated grammatical structures. Through most of your education, your parents and teachers encourage you to express more and more complex ideas with more and more complex grammatical structures. You get rewarded for showing that you can think in abstract terms.

You DO need to be able to think abstractly, and you need to master the grammatical complexities that allow you to communicate abstract ideas. Abstract thinking is an important part of the educational process.

In this course, however, I am going to work from the assumption that you are already fully capable of abstract thought—that you have nothing to prove in that regard. Good, vivid writing tends to move toward the concrete, pulling big ideas and concepts down from the realm of the abstract and into the world where we live and move and have our being.

So in this first module of Grammar for Writers, we’re going to go all the way back to the simplest, most straightforward ways of rendering experience: Subjects. Verbs. Objects. Complements.

WHO DID WHAT? Or, WHO DID WHAT TO WHOM? Writing that connects with a reader has to be solid at that level. That’s the way information comes to us in the real world. We see who did what to whom. Writing that is strong at the very simple level of subject, verb, object, and complement feels true to your reader.

So here in this first module, we’re stripping away all the modifiers, all the subordinate clauses, everything but the main action that a sentence depicts: who did what? We’re going to build back all those other constructions in the subsequent modules, but for now, we’re going all the way back to some of the first things you learned to do with language when you were a toddler.

There are thirteen lessons remaining in this first module. Here is what you can expect to get from those lessons:

  • Tools for identifying the verb and the subject of a clause.
  • Tools for finding direct objects and indirect objects.
  • Tools for identifying predicate complements and seeing the difference betweenaction verbs and linking verbs.
  • The five possible patterns for the structure of a clause.
  • Passive voice—how to identify it, why to avoid it, and when it’s good to use it.
  • Nominalization—the practice of turning verbs into abstract nouns (and why it is adangerous practice).
  • Strong verbs—and why that advice “USE STRONG VERBS” can be misleading.We will devote a lot of attention to aligning the action of a sentence with the grammar of the sentence by making sure that actions get expressed as verbs, and the actors are the subjects of those verbs. That, really, is the central idea of this whole module. Everything else in this module is just a specific and/or technical outworking of that idea of turning actors and actions into subjects and verbs. Once you grasp and apply that idea, your writing will be transformed immediately.

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