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English grammar: anaphora

decisionMany word lovers have seen an unpunctuated sentence with the challenge to punctuate it to achieve a particular understanding. And many older folks have heard of the song “Throw Mama from the Train a Kiss, a Kiss.”

Both of these are examples of improper grammatical usage of anaphora, or backward reference. The reader cannot properly associate the subject and object.

When using a pronoun reference, the basic rule of thumb is to refer back to the closest noun, such as in “When I wrote to my son, he responded very quickly.” The reference to “he” goes to the closest previous noun, “my son”. This is an obvious reference. But even one like this can become hard to follow if it is embedded with a lot of phrases and clauses:

“I wrote to my son yesterday when I realized that I had forgotten his birthday. But, in that charming way some people have, and with a flower tended to show no hard feelings, he simply said he loved me.”

In this example, “I” and “me” refer to the mother or father; “his” and “he” refer to the son. Even this is a simple example. Anaphora must have strictly local antecedents to which they bind. A reflexive pronoun must be bound within the smallest category containing it, its selecting head and a subject; this is referred to as the pronoun’s governing category. If the anaphor is gender-specific (male, female, neutral), the writer needs to be careful that there is only one possible noun to be bound to. This is referred to as the resolution of an anaphora.

Resolution is often lost when sentences are taken out of context. Consider the statement “The President addressed a Brownies troop from Pennsylvania. He suggested that the girls have more to offer than most people expect.” “The girls” refers to young women in Girls Scouts and how even at a young age, they have a lot to offer. But if the second sentence was removed and published without the first, this could start quite a controversy, as readers assume he is referring to women of all ages. The simple reference to girls rather than women would cause an uproar. The anaphor must be resolved.

It is imperative that a writer keep anaphora resolved, to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. A zero anaphor is one in which the reference is one of verb tense or subject/verb resolution. For instance, if one uses a defined number in the subject, there may be parts of the predicate which appear to conflict, when in actuality they do not. For instance, “My two favorite hobbies are stamp collection and hide and seek.” “Hide and seek” is actually a unit, rather than two separate items, so the subject and predicate actually do agree. Another more common problem with anaphora is the use of a multiple subjects and keeping the verb proper. In the sentence “Me, my sister and my mother has control of the property,” There are two serious and common errors. The first is that “Me” is actually a subject, and as such should be “I”. The other is that a writer tends to work with the latest entry rather than the whole; “…my mother has control…” sounds right. But in truth there are three subjects, and so the verb should be “have” instead. This problem with subject/verb agreement is constantly seen in student writing, professional writing, television and movies.


How to structure an Essay

An essay is like a house – it holds real people and is organized to guide the visitor from the front door to the back door. And the best way to think of an essay’s structure is the same.

For a house, the first thing you build is the foundation. This supports the rest of the building. In an essay, this foundation is the opening paragraph. Just as a house should have ‘curb appeal’, so should the opening paragraph, for this is your one and only opportunity to open the door for the reader and make the reader want to come in. This introduction should define the purpose of the essay – the topic to be discussed and why it should be discussed. It may be offering an hypothesis to be proven.

Once the foundation is built, the house gets framed out. This is akin to the outline an author should make to keep the essay content organized. Choose the rooms to be built and frame them out. Sometimes this is simply a listing of the topics to be covered, but if the essay is to lead to a proof, the order of the items should be determined at this time to build to the conclusion. This is the time to determine the wiring and plumbing in the house. And in the outline, this is the time to find the relationships between the items to be discussed and consider what information collected should be left out.

In newspaper writing, the structure is to headline the main purpose of the article, and open with the most important facts, then adding facts around the main event in order of importance, ending with the more prose-y information. This allows an editor to clip off sections in an effort to save space without killing the purpose of the article. Any somewhat-related information is run as a “side bar”, so it can be added or deleted as space demands.

The newspaper approach does not work for essays. An essay should stand by itself, supplying organized information which is relevant to the topic. It should not contain any information which is not salient to the point of the essay simply to fill out space. And it should wrap itself into a single entity.

After framing, a house’s rooms are built. Based on the outline, each paragraph is built as a unique entity in an essay, Just as a kitchen would need different carpentry from the den, each paragraph of the essay should inform the reader of a different aspect of the topic, opening with a sentence which guides the reader to the purpose of the paragraph. Proper décor in a home commands consistency, drawing the eye from one room to another and maintaining a theme. This is also true of an essay. Each paragraph should be able to perform its purpose while guiding the reader on to the next one.

While we speak here of paragraphs, there is no reason why an introduction or coverage of information should be held to one paragraph each. A paragraph should be a unified thought, and there may be more than one thought to be introduced or covered. In our house analogy, it may take one paragraph to show how the design makes for easy food preparation, but you would also want to demonstrate how this utilitarian room melds with the décor of adjoining rooms.

Once the house is built, a roof needs to go on. This is the essay’s conclusion. The conclusion is as important as the opening introduction to the paper, and the most common instance of weak writing. Students will often just reiterate the opening sentence, or leave the reader hanging, waiting for more information. The conclusion should provide closure. If the essay is a proof of some kind, the conclusion should show how the preceding paragraphs develop the proof. If not a proof, the conclusion should indicate why the paragraphs in the body of the essay achieve the purpose of the introduction.essay house

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