Perfecting Sentence Structure in Your Thesis or Dissertation
The process of writing a thesis or dissertation in the English language tends to place new demands on the textual skills of most students, particularly those students whose first language is not English. The material is complex and must be communicated in prose that is clear and correct. In many cases, sentences more sophisticated and various than those the student tends to use in informal prose or even in course essays and assignments are required. To formulate such sentences effectively, however, a number of common errors must be avoided.
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My focus here is on two errors that are all too common in English prose: sentence fragments and fused (or run-on) sentences. Either can occur when an author does not entirely understand the ways in which independent and dependent clauses should be used and combined in sentences, so a basic comprehension of these different types of clauses is necessary.
• An independent clause contains a subject and a verb and also expresses a complete thought. ‘She wrote her thesis last year’ is an independent clause, and, like all independent clauses, it is also a correct sentence.
• A dependent clause, on the other hand, contains a subject and a verb, but it does not express a complete thought. ‘As she wrote her thesis last year’ is a dependent clause because it leaves the reader wondering ‘What? What happened as she was writing?” A dependent clause cannot be a complete sentence.
With that basic distinction in mind, sentence fragments are easy to spot. They occur whenever a writer uses a dependent clause or other incomplete thought such as a phrase or single word as though it were a complete sentence. For example, ‘Before I circulated the third questionnaire’ may be a perfectly acceptable part of a larger complex sentence, but it is a dependent clause and cannot stand on its own. ‘I circulated the third questionnaire’ can because it is an independent clause, but the temporal qualifier ‘before’ is gone. To retain that dependent marker and its meaning, an independent clause must follow or precede the dependent clause.
• ‘Before I circulated the third questionnaire, I transcribed the responses from the first two.’
Notice that a comma is required between the two clauses if the dependent clause precedes the independent clause, but do be aware that the comma is not always necessary when the independent clause comes first.
A fused sentence, which is also called a run-on sentence, is the result of using two independent clauses back to back without any punctuation between them. ‘I devised new criteria for the third questionnaire the sample size was reduced’ is an excellent example of a run-on sentence because it also demonstrates how unclear language can become when the rules of grammar and punctuation are neglected. Corrections would vary depending on exactly what the author intends to communicate about the nature of the relationship between the ‘new criteria’ and the reduction in sample size:
• I devised new criteria for the third questionnaire. The sample size was reduced.
• I devised new criteria for the third questionnaire, and my supervisor suggested that the sample size be reduced.
• I devised the new criteria for the third questionnaire, but my supervisor suggested that the sample size be reduced.
• I devised new criteria for the third questionnaire by reducing the sample size.
• I devised new criteria for the third questionnaire; as a result, the sample size was reduced.
• I devised new criteria for the third questionnaire after my supervisor recommended that the sample size be reduced.
As the examples show, the grammatical solution can come in a variety of ways, from separation into two complete sentences via a full stop to a closer connection of the two thoughts in a single successful sentence via punctuation (comma and semicolon), a coordinating conjunction (‘and’ and ‘but’), an adverbial phrase (‘as a result’), a dependent or independent marker word (‘after’ and ‘however’) and other alterations related to these changes.
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