Marine Corps University Communications Style Guide
CHAPTER ELEVEN: SENTENCE STYLE
Marine Corps University students typically receive two types of feedback on their academic writing assignments: global-level feedback and surface-level feedback. Global-level feedback refers mainly to larger issues affecting the content, organizational structure, and development of ideas. Surface-level feedback, on the other hand, refers mostly to elements at the sentence level, such as concision, word choice, grammar, punctuation, and general formatting. For more information on global-level and surface-level revision, see chapter 4.
Clarity at the sentence level is important not only in academic contexts but also in professional writing contexts. Clear, easy-to-follow sentences help you to convey your intended message in a position paper to your commanding officer, or to clearly articulate course goals in a course syllabus. In academic and professional military writing contexts, then, clarity at the sentence level is both useful and important.
This chapter aims to help you understand how different elements work to hinder or promote clear writing at the sentence level by focusing on parallel construction, active and passive voice, singular they, split infinitives, misplaced modifiers, articles, and a variety of frequently asked grammar questions.
CSG 11.1 Parallel Construction
Parallel lines are located in the same plane or two-dimensional area; they are similar to each other in that they are the same distance apart for as long as the lines continue. In a similar way, parallel items in a series or in a sentence are always balanced: single words should be balanced by single words, phrases should be balanced by phrases, and clauses should be balanced by clauses. Furthermore, each element in the series should belong to the same grammatical category and should “serve the same grammatical function in the sentence (e.g., noun, verb, adjective, adverb).” A sentence is more easily understood when it reflects the principle of parallel construction. Table 38 offers examples of parallel construction.
Table 38. Parallel construction
The general enjoys golfing, sailing, and reads in his spare time.
The general enjoys golfing, sailing, and reading in his spare time.
Today, I will edit my paper for grammar, sentence structure, and reorganize my thesis statement.
Today, I will edit my paper for grammatical issues, proper sentence structure, and thesis development.
Today, I will edit my paper for grammatical issues, revise it for proper sentence structure, and reorganize my thesis statement.
Parallel construction is used to great effect in the memorable words of writers and leaders. See the examples below.
First example: “I chose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their intellects.” ~ Oscar Wilde
Second example: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” ~ Winston Churchill
The first example displays parallel items in a series. The second sentence has two independent clauses that are parallel in construction. Additionally, parallel structure is called for with prepositional phrases. According to Grammarly, an English grammar and style blog, “When prepositional phrases are used in a parallel series, prepositions should be repeated with every element of the series unless all elements use the same preposition. A common error is to repeat prepositions unnecessarily.” See more examples of this below.
Third example: The professor has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Time Magazine.
Fourth example: To reach Marine Corps University, drive under the railroad bridge, around the circle, and into the parking garage.
The third example uses parallel construction effectively because each series item refers to the preposition “in.” In this case, the preposition “in” does not need to be repeated because it applies to each element in the series. In this way, the sentence flows nicely, and readers can see all three publications are those in which the work has been published. The fourth example uses a series of prepositional phrases that are parallel in structure, all beginning with a different preposition.
CSG 11.2 Active Voice and Passive Voice
Grammatical “voice” refers to meaning that is encoded in the grammatical structure of a verb phrase. When you create a sentence with some sort of action in it, the way in which you structure the verb tells the reader whether you are emphasizing the actor who performed the action (active voice) or what happened to the object or receiver of the action (passive voice). See the example below.
The Marine fired the rifle.
This sentence is in active voice because the agent or actor—the doer of the action—is in the subject position: it was the Marine who performed the action of firing the rifle. Active voice sentences often describe someone doing something, as indicated in the example below.
The commanders designed a strategy.
Sentences in passive voice reverse this pattern—that is, they begin with what happened to the object or receiver of the action, and they can end with who performed the action. See the example below.
The rifle was fired by the Marine.
As you can see, “the rifle” now starts the sentence, and “the Marine” now ends it. In addition, the action has gone from being one word (fired) to two words (was fired). Finally, the second sentence now includes the preposition “by,” which is often an indicator of passive voice. Passive verb constructions always include a form of the verb “to be” and a past participle. “To be” verbs include “am,” “is,” “are,” “were,” “was,” “be,” “being,” and “been.” Additionally, passive voice sentences do not always include who performed the action, as shown in the example below.
The rifle was fired.
The example above indicates the first of three basic problems with use of passive voice:
1. It allows the writer to avoid naming the agent or the doer of the action, which can cause ambiguity and may be especially problematic in professional writing.
2. It reverses the basic English sentence structure, which can confuse the reader, especially in longer, more complex sentences.
3. It uses more words to convey the same content as that written in active voice.
However, passive voice is a valid, grammatically correct structure that does have specific purposes:
1. It allows the writer to deemphasize the agent or doer of the action when it is less important to the meaning of a sentence, or when the writer wants to avoid mentioning who has responsibility for a particular action.
2. It allows the writer additional options for sentence variety.
When used as a conscious choice for a specific reason, passive voice can be effective. However, when passive voice becomes a habit, it leads to wordy, confusing writing and allows the writer to avoid thinking specifically about the actor or agent. Passive voice is used frequently (some would say too frequently) in military, government, and academic writing. Writers in these contexts should be aware of this tendency, and they should try to make their writing as clear as possible. Note: although the examples above show passive verb construction in the main clause, remember that passive verbs can occur anywhere in a sentence, as in the example below.
Passive sentence: An apology was issued, which was considered unnecessary by the staff.
In the above example, “was issued” is passive, so the reader does not know who issued the apology. In the nonessential subordinate clause “which was considered unnecessary by the staff,” the verb construction “was considered” is passive.
Revised, active sentence: The manager issued an apology, which the staff considered unnecessary.
Table 39 contains more guidance on using active and passive voice.
Table 39. Active and passive voice
The general issued the command.
The command was issued by the general.
A MCWAR student at Marine Corps University wrote the winning contest entry.
The winning contest entry was written by a MCWAR student at Marine Corps University.
As a result of cooperative lessons learned at Joint Helicopter Forces (Iraq) (JHF-1), Multi-National Division (Southeast) (MND-SE) requested to shift the Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawks to an armed escort role for convoy protection.
As a result of cooperative lessons learned at Joint Helicopter Forces (Iraq) (JHF-1), the request was made by Multi-National Division (Southeast) (MND-SE) to shift the Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawks to an armed escort role for convoy protection.
Active voice template
The Marine—fired—the rifle.
Passive voice template
The rifle—was fired—by the Marine.
Object—was + action—by actor.
CSG 11.3 Point of View
Another component of effective writing style is point of view. Using the correct perspective in your writing is the key to your readers understanding who you are referring to and what your message is. The point of view you choose to write from will depend on your purpose for writing, your audience, and the level of formality needed to meet your purpose.
There are three common points of view: first person, second person, and third person. First person point of view is when the author writes from their point of view, and it is indicated by the first person pronouns I, me, my, we, our, or us. Generally, you should reserve the first person point of view for informal writing (emails and personal correspondence), though you may find it used in more formal contexts such as autobiographies, memoirs, and some social science research reports. You may use first person in the more informal and conversational preface of a long research report such as the MMS paper.
Second person point of view is when “you” is the subject of the sentence. Commands (in which the implied subject is “you”) are always written in the second person. Sometimes second person point of view is used when an author wants to address the reader directly. For instance, most of this guide is written from a second person point of view, which gives it a more conversational, informal tone. Though the second person point of view makes a dense text seem more approachable, you will typically want to avoid it in academic writing.
The third person point of view allows for distance between the author and the subject. You will generally use the third person point of view in formal writing. Table 40 presents examples of the three points of view.
Table 40. Point of view examples
I observed the participants in their natural habitat.
Observe the participants in their natural habitat (command).
They observed the participants in their natural habitat.
Regardless of the point of view you choose to use, it is best to be consistent—that is, do not switch between first, second, and third person points of view in your writing, particularly when you are writing about the same topic. See the examples below.
Incorrect example: The Marine Corps needs to institutionalize culture training. You need to provide this training at the unit level.
Correct example: The Marine Corps needs to institutionalize culture training. It needs to provide this training at the unit level.
In the incorrect example above, the first sentence is written in third person point of view, while the second sentence is written in second person point of view. Switching between points of view within a paper can be confusing to your readers, and it can make your paragraph structure seem disjointed.
CSG 11.4 Singular They
The use of they as a gender-neutral pronoun is spreading. While acknowledging the increasing usage of singular they, The Chicago Manual of Style advises writers against using singular they in formal writing. Consider these sentences:
Every UN member agreed to present his proposal.
Each commander argued for his strategic vision.
The problem with the sentences above is they pair the pronoun “his” with the singular nouns “every UN member” and “each commander,” implying that both sentences are about only men. In efforts to be gender-neutral—that is, to acknowledge some of these UN members and some of these commanders are, in fact, women—we might revise these sentences using singular they, as shown below.
Every UN member agreed to present their proposal.
Each commander argued for their strategic vision.
Pairing a singular noun with the pronoun “they” is both widespread and perfectly acceptable in our speech and in our casual writing. In our formal writing, however, use of singular they is not universally accepted. In fact, most professional style manuals advise against using it. This is because the pair creates a number agreement problem: it pairs a singular subject with a plural pronoun. To revise this usage, writers have two choices: use “he or she,” or make nouns in the sentences plural. These solutions are displayed below.
Every UN member agreed to present his or her proposal.
All UN members agreed to present their proposals.
Each commander argued for his or her strategic vision.
All of the commanders argued for their strategic visions.
The Leadership Communication Skills Center faculty recommend the second solution—pluralizing nouns in the sentences—as opposed to using the clunkier “his or her” phrase when possible.
CSG 11.5 Split Infinitives and Misplaced Modifiers
The LCSC faculty added this section to The Marine Corps University Communications Style Guide at the request of select members of the MCU faculty. While not all of the items in this section can be classified as writing errors (e.g., there are times when it might be permissible to split an infinitive), it is important for you to be able to understand how these stylistic conventions can affect meaning in your writing. Awareness is the key to effectively conveying your message.
CSG 11.5.1 Avoid Split Infinitives
The infinitive form of a verb comprises two elements: the word “to” followed by the stem or the base form of the verb. Examples of infinitives are as follows: to read, to write, and to reconstruct.
Much like splitting two connecting pieces of wood with an axe, you can split an infinitive by “wedging” a word in between “to” and the verb stem, as in the following: to quickly read, to hastily write, and to carefully reconstruct. Below are two split infinitives in a sentence.
A dominant narrative regarding the indefensibility of strategic bombing led Britain to quickly discover that, in order to unequivocally triumph in war, it would need to strike first and strike big.
To repair these split infinitives, the writer would remove the adverbs that split the infinitive verbs and connect the adverbs to the words and phrases they modify. The adverb “quickly” is more accurately attached to the verb “led.” The adverb “unequivocally” actually modifies the entire phrase “to triumph,” which it can more easily do if the adverb were to follow the infinitive phrase. With repaired split infinitives, the sentence would read as follows:
A dominant narrative regarding the indefensibility of strategic bombing developed, and it quickly led Britain to discover that, in order to triumph in war unequivocally, it would need to strike first and strike big.
As with passive voice usage, there are times when it makes more sense to split an infinitive. Below are some phrases that actually need to split the infinitives to communicate their meaning accurately.
1. The U.S. envoy did not feel pressure to actually respond to the email.
2. The firm expected its stock price to more than triple within the coming year.
3. Students engaged in a practical application to more clearly understand the issue.
For these sentences, repairing the split infinitives would not create a more effective way to express their meanings. In fact, attempts to revise these sentences would only lead to confusion. While grammarians tend to have mixed opinions about split infinitives, more formal writing—such as academic and professional writing—does not include many split infinitives. The guiding principle seems to be that when a split infinitive is awkward to read or when it interferes with conveying your meaning to your reader, you should edit it. If you have a supervisor who prefers that you not write with split infinitives at all, you should try to acknowledge that preference.
CSG 11.5.2 Avoid Dangling or Misplaced Modifiers
A modifier in a sentence gives the reader additional information about a person, place, thing, or event. Modifiers should typically be placed as closely as possible to the word they are modifying. In the examples below, the modifiers are bold.
Hugh M. Trenchard strongly argued that strategic bombing became the central mission of the Royal Air Force.
In this example, the adverb “strongly” gives the reader more information about how and in what manner Trenchard made the argument. The adjective “strategic” tells the reader what kind of bombing he was arguing about, and the adjective “central” tells the reader what kind of mission the writing is referring to.
In addition to these simple adjectival and adverbial modifiers, writers can use participial phrases to give readers extra information about the ideas in a sentence. In the sentence below, the bolded participial phrase tells the reader more about the manner and motivation of the subject’s actions.
Fighting to safeguard the Royal Air Force’s autonomy, High M. Trenchard strongly argued that strategic bombing become the central mission of the RAF.
It is these participial modifiers that can become misplaced; sometimes they are called “dangling participles.” The sentence below offers an example of a misplaced modifier. The problem in this sentence is that the bold participial phrase has nothing to attach to—the reader does not know who is doing the fighting—so the participle “dangles.” The structure of the sentence below leads the reader to infer that “the mission” did the fighting, but that was not the writer’s intent.
Dangling modifier example: Fighting to safeguard the Royal Air Force’s autonomy, the mission of the RAF changed to that of strategic bombing.
Misplaced modifier example: Hugh M. Trenchard strongly argued that the mission of the RAF become strategic bombing, fighting to safeguard the Royal Air Force’s autonomy.
Whenever you use a participial phrase as a modifier such as those in the sentences above, you will want to ensure the subject of the participle (e.g., the actor who performs the action of “fighting”) is placed as closely to the participial modifier as grammatically possible, as in the examples below.
First example: Fighting to safeguard the Royal Air Force’s autonomy, Hugh M. Trenchard strongly argued that strategic bombing become the central mission of the RAF.
Second example: Hugh M. Trenchard, fighting to safeguard the Royal Air Force’s autonomy, strongly argued that strategic bombing become the central mission of the RAF.
In these sentences, there is a clear structural tie between “fighting” and the individual doing the fighting, Hugh M. Trenchard. This tie is missing in the dangling modifier example below. Another common problematic structure for dangling modifiers is when they are placed at the end of a sentence, without a clearly connected noun phrase, as in the below example.
Dangling modifier example: Strategic bombing is its central mission, ultimately saving the organization from the aspirations of the British Army and Royal Navy.
In the sentence above, the reader does not understand who or what did the “saving.” If the writer revised the sentence to connect the modifier with an actor, the meaning becomes clear, as shown below.
Correct example: The RAF leadership made strategic bombing its central and independent mission, ultimately saving the organization from the aspirations of the Army and Royal Navy.
In the revision, we see that the RAF leadership acted, providing a subject for “saving.”
CSG 11.6 Articles
Articles modify nouns in much the same way that adjectives modify nouns. The rules governing article use often depend on whether the noun being modified is a count noun or not. You can tell when a noun is countable because it can almost always be made plural, while noncount nouns cannot be made plural.
Marine --> Marines
House --> Houses
There are two types of articles: definite and indefinite. Table 41 provides more information on article use or you can test your knowledge with worksheet 21.
Table 41. Article use
Used to modify specific nouns (one particular person, place, or thing)
Used to modify general nouns (could be one of many people, places, or things)
I bought the cheapest car at the dealership.
The professor assigned a paper.
I bought a Honda Civic.
He is an honorable man.
I bought an Audi A6.
She is applying to a university nearby.
Source: adapted from “Using Articles,” Purdue Online Writing Lab, 2017.
Worksheet 21. Now You Try It! Article Use Quiz
1. President of United States met with group of CEOs to discuss American manufacturing issues.
Put articles where needed in the sentence above.
2. I got you room on second floor of hotel.
Put articles where needed in the sentence above.
3. We need time to think about solution to problem posed in seminar yesterday.
Put articles where needed in the sentence above.
As shown in table 41, the is used to modify a specific count noun (e.g., the Commandant of the Marine Corps), while a and an are used to modify nonspecific count nouns (a Marine, an airman). When deciding whether to use a or an, you would look at the noun and determine whether the noun begins with a vowel sound or a consonant sound. If the noun begins with a vowel sound, you would use an (e.g., an apple, an hour). If the noun begins with a consonant sound, you would use a (e.g., a sandwich, a house).
CSG 11.7 Frequently Asked Grammar Questions
When do I use that, and when do I use which?
To understand that and which, you need to understand restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. A restrictive clause does what its name suggests—it is a clause that acts to restrict another part of the sentence; without it, the meaning of the sentence would change. When you use a restrictive clause, you would use that, and you would not use a comma to set off the clause.
A nonrestrictive clause contains information that adds detail to a sentence but does not change the meaning of the sentence if left out. When using a nonrestrictive clause, you would use which, and in this case you would use a comma to separate. Below is an example.
Restrictive clause example: The findings that Major Broadway uncovered during her research caused her to change her thesis statement.
Nonrestrictive clause example: Marine Corps University, which has three degree-granting programs, will confer master’s degrees at the graduation ceremony in June.
When do I use who, and when do I use whom?
To decide whether to use who or whom, you first need to determine whether you are referring to or replacing the subject of the sentence or the object of the sentence. The subject is the actor in the sentence who performs the stated action. See the example below.
He conducted research on human rights abuses in sub-Saharan Africa.
The object of the sentence is having something done to him, her, or it, as shown below.
The author conducted research through an interview with him.
When forming a question and unsure whether to use who or whom, restructure the question as a statement. If you would use he in the statement as a subject, use who in the question. If you would use him in the statement as an object, use whom in the question.
Who conducted research on human rights abuses in sub-Saharan Africa?
With whom did the author conduct an interview?
Can I start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction?
Coordinating conjunctions connect words, phrases, and clauses—and, but, or, so, and yet are examples of coordinating conjunctions. According to The Chicago Manual of Style and several other writing guides, there is nothing wrong with using a coordinating conjunction to start a sentence. That said, some faculty members do not approve this usage because it creates an informal tone. Use your best judgment, and defer to your faculty member’s guidance if unsure.
When should I use i.e. and e.g.?
The abbreviations i.e. and e.g. are derived from Latin and typically precede an example, a phrase that is used to clarify another assertion in the text, or a list. The CMOS prefers that the abbreviations i.e. and e.g. be placed in parenthesis and notes; the abbreviations should also be followed by a comma (per the examples below).
i.e. The abbreviation i.e. is often used to mean “in other words.”
Example 1: My brother is a vegetarian (i.e., he does not eat meat).
Example 2: I enjoy hiking, mountain biking, and surfing (i.e., outdoor activities).
e.g. The abbreviation e.g. is often used to present a specific example of a concept or idea discussed in a sentence.
Example 1: Many people who live in major cities (e.g., New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia) do not own cars.
*Note that e.g. does not necessarily need to introduce a complete list. In this case, the author presents a few examples of major cities, but there are several major cities that are not acknowledged in this list.
Example 2: The sergeant major is allergic to shellfish (e.g., mussels, shrimp, and clams).