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Grammar Shorts: Make Your Writing Better Using These 3 Suggestions

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
~Dorothy Parker~

By Jayne Bodell


When you use unnecessary words in your prose, you’re committing verbosity. At this point, I’m required to inform you of your writer’s rights. You have the right to remain silent. Any words you use can be used against you in the forum of Google+, Facebook, Twitter, or other forms of social media. If you choose to use these words, then you may have to pay for an editor. If you cannot afford an editor, one may be appointed to you.

Please don’t let the grammar police seize control of your computer. Try these suggestions. You’ll clean up your writing and never be accused of wordiness, again. Learn the triggers and edit, edit, edit.

1. Weak Verbs

Whenever you use is, was, has, have, exist, or believe, you’re using a weak verb. Like anything in life, you should use these in moderation. Weak verbs usually describe a state of being rather than an action.

Be aware when you start a sentence with, There is, There was, This is.   Example: There was agreement among board members. Better: The board members agreed.

Using weak verbs may lead to a possible passive voice construction. Sentence constructs consist of two voices, active and passive. In active voice, the subject is usually the doer of the action. With passive voice, the subject is the recipient of the action. Active: Jayne wrote a wonderful blog. Passive: A wonderful blog was written by Jayne.

If you can change your wording to the active voice, you’ll make your writing succinct and strong.   Example: The sportscasters reported that the game was won by the Packers. Better: The sportscaster reported that the Packers won the game.

2. Prepositional phrases

Not all prepositional phrases are bad. When you start stacking two, three, four or more phrases on top of each other, you’re in trouble. The major trigger words are of, and by.   Example: One of the best ways of promoting your website is to use a form of blogging. Better: Blogging is the best way to promote your website. Or: Promote your website by blogging.

While you’re checking your prepositional phrases, make sure they are not misplaced. This may not cause wordiness, but it will cause confusion. Example:  The cheerleaders stood watching the team in a straight line. In this sentence, in a straight line is a prepositional phrase and it’s modifying team when it should be modifying the cheerleaders (Misplaced Modifier). Better: The cheerleaders stood in a straight line watching the team.

3. Ponderous nouns

When you use words ending in -tion, -ment, -ence and –ity, the editing bells should go off. I’ll share this great example from one of my favorite writing books, Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing by Claire Kehrwald Cook.   Example: The inference that because high school graduates are more likely to be employed than dropouts, the differences may be attributed to the possession of a diploma is suspect since dropouts and graduates may differ in a variety of ways relevant to both graduation prospects and employment status.

Where is the meaning in this sentence? Weighty nouns like, inference, difference, possession, three forms of is, and numerous prepositional phrases cause too much confusion.   Even though I start a sentence with “It is,” I can clean up this mess considerably.   Better: It is not necessarily the diploma that makes high school graduates more employable than dropouts. Other differences may affect both their education and their job prospects. (Remember the sentence is labeled better, not best.)

If I was getting paid to edit, I would spend more time on the sentence. But I think I made my point. Feel free to take a crack at that sentence.

My first draft always has plenty of these wordy phrases with an emphasis on the weak verb problem. Academia and the scientific community seem to like the ponderous nouns. In all my reading, I’ve never found a reason why we write like this. Maybe it’s because our first draft resembles how we speak.

Blogging teaches us to write “in a conversational tone,” so we bloggers need to be even more vigilant in our editing. Conversational doesn’t mean sloppy. Use these suggestions to eliminate unnecessary words and make your writing cleaner and easier to read.

Monthly Contributor Jayne Bodell

Jayne Bodell graduated from UW-Madison with an English degree many, many years ago. About two years ago, she renewed her interest in writing by starting a blog about grammar but soon realized that she wanted to expand her subject matter. She now blogs about keeping life simple, smart, and sassy at In between blog posts, she’s planning to branch into the scary world of writing fiction by writing a collection of flash fiction stories.
Jayne lives in Wisconsin and fills her spare time with gardening, photography, knitting, reading, and a side of coloring. Her favorite way to vacation is to pick a general destination and drive, no time constraints and no plans.


1) Tell Me Your Why

2) Hump Day Humor: ‘Most Hated Phrases’

3) Hump Day Humor: ‘The Dark Side of Writing’

4) Warning! Writing May Be Habit-Forming

5) Writing Advice: Facing Your Fears

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  1. Thanks, Jayne, I really need another reminder of my compositional inadequacies. Don’t judge, I grew up in a troubled home, I looked for love during grammar class. I found Cupid long ago, been chasing verbs, prepositional phrases, and nouns ever since. What’s a man without a hunt?

  2. The active versus passive voice question is certainly one requiring attention. I have mulled over this question for a long time. Part of the challenge here is describing places or inactive things. “Is, was, has”, etc. become part of the description. Inactive things are passive by nature. The gargoyle on Westminster Abbey gave the same stare in Shakespeare’s day as it does today. The only active action it had was workmen removing it for repairs.

    • And you probably mull over this until you quit writing. We’re always weighing our words and trying to choose the best one. Thanks for reading and commenting Peter.

  3. Hi, Jane. That first paragraph is delightfully hilarious! The three points discussed are exactly the types of grammar I need to study more thoroughly and apply more often.

    I hope the copy pasted to my “writing tips” document will withstand extreme scrutiny – no doubt, I’ll refer to it repeatedly.

    So useful…yes it is! Thank you for this post.

  4. Jayne,
    This is such a practical piece, especially for those of us who struggle with all of these kinds of issues. When my kids were in school I used to help edit their papers and I had such a hard time understanding how to fix passive voice! I learned about strong verbs at a writer’s conference. These are such great tips and I love the writer’s rights opening, so clever. Thanks for sharing.

    • Michelle, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. The more you work on these simple suggestions, the better you get, so keep at it. If you ever have questions, feel free to email me.

  5. Jane, I enjoyed reading your serious writing tips mixed in with that bit of humor that I have come to know and love. And I love the quote you picked for your piece — I think I may have uttered the words “Just shoot me now” a time or two when writing, or rewriting. In fact I’m sure I have. 🙃

    • Oh, I wish I could take credit for the quote, but that was a nice touch from Scott. And, it turns out that it is appropriate because I find myself saying the same thing. Thanks for your kind words about the piece. There’s more where that came from.

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