Writing E-Tips
May 2005   
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"Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can.
That is the only secret."

-- Matthew Arnold


Avoiding Sentence Errors, Part III

Shifts in Construction

     A sentence shift is a change in structure midway through a sentence. It can lead to confusion, and it gives the impression that the writer is careless. The different kinds of shifts to avoid are explained below.

SHIFT IN NUMBER

A shift in number occurs when multiple pronouns referring to the same antecedent are not consistent. For example, a sentence containing both a singular pronoun and a plural pronoun that refer to the same antecedent results in a shift in number.

Shift: Once everyone has read his or her materials, they may begin filling out the response forms.

To correct a shift in number, change the number of the incorrect pronoun . . .

Correct: Once everyone has read his or her materials, he or she may begin filling out the response forms.

or change the number of the antecedent. If you do this, make sure that subsequent pronouns and verbs agree with it.

Correct: Once all participants have read their materials, they may begin filling out the response forms.

SHIFT IN PERSON

Avoid mixing first- or second-person pronouns with third-person antecedents.

Shift: Project members may apply for funding when you have a detailed proposal.

To correct a shift in person, change the person of the incorrect pronoun so that it is consistent with the antecedent . . .

Correct: Project members may apply for funding when they have a detailed proposal.

or change the person of the antecedent. Whatever you do, maintain consistency.

Correct: You may apply for funding when you have a detailed proposal.

SHIFT IN TENSE

Use only one tense in a sentence where only one is needed.

Shift: Clients complained about the units' operations but don't offer a solution.

Correct: Clients complained about the units' operations but didn't offer a solution.
(Both verbs are past tense.)

Correct: Clients complain about the units' operations but don't offer a solution.

(Both verbs are present tense.)

SHIFT IN VOICE

Don't mix active and passive voice in the same sentence.

Shift: We examined the papers for a way out, but no loophole was found.
(Examined is active voice, while was found is passive.)

Correct: We examined the papers for a way out but found no loophole.
(Active voice throughout is stronger than passive voice.)

Correct: The papers were examined for a way out, but no loophole was found.
(Consistent passive voice is used.)

UNPARALLEL CONSTRUCTION

Keep series of words, phrases, or clauses parallel; use the same kind of construction for each.

Shift: We tried mailing, phoning, and e-mail messages, but nothing got through.
(The last item in the series does not end in ing as the first two do.)

Correct: We tried mailing, phoning, and e-mailing, but nothing got through.

Correct: We tried sending messages by mail, phone, and e-mail, but nothing got through.

TEST YOURSELF

Spot the five shifts in the paragraph below. How would you rewrite each sentence to correct the shifts?

When you prepare a piece of business correspondence, you will have another person read through it before producing the final draft. Make sure you trust their judgment. A good proofreader can be our best friend in business writing, offering criticism, suggestions, and supporting your efforts. If you ask for help, it will be found.

Click here for an explanation of the shifts.

The preceding tips are from
Write for Business:
A Compact Guide to Writing
and Communicating

now available for purchase at www.upwritepress.com

Coming in the June Issue:
“Avoiding Ambiguous Wording and Nonstandard English”


Write for Business: A Compact Guide to Writing and Communicating
is available for purchase at 1-800-261-0637 ext. 10,
or on the Web at www.upwritepress.com.

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