Dr Abel Scribe PhD

Writing Test: Answers

Answers to the test The Elements of Style. No book on writing and style has become more widely regarded than The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. The original version is now over 80 years old and in the public domain. Due to its continuing popularity the book has been continually revised, updated, and republished.

The answers are framed in reference to The Elements of Style. The book is widely available in various editions at used book stores, as well as updated and revised versions. It is inexpensive and a good addition to an order at amazon.com.

1. Write in the Active Voice.
Sentence (b) uses the active voice. "Before we go on, let's understand the terms. Active: 'I punched the editor.' Passive: 'The editor was punched by me' (Scott, 1989, 57). Put the one doing the acting first. (Elements of Style: "Use the active voice.")

2. The Power Position is at the end of a sentence.
Sentence (b) ends with "the project failed." Whatever comes at the end of a sentence gains emphasis. The rest of the sentence builds suspense. (Elements of Style: "Place the emphatic words . . .")

3. Subject and verb must agree.
The subject of the sentence is "array." This singular noun takes a singular verb--"An array . . . was required." The rest of the sentence modifies the subject. That the modifiers are plural terms does not affect the number of the verb. The correct answer is (a). (Elements of Style: "The number of the subject . . .")

4. Avoid mindless modifiers.
What is an extremely violent explosion? Are there extremely nonviolent explosions too? It might be significant if only part of the neighborhood was destroyed, but that the "entire" neighborhood was destroyed can go unsaid. Sentence (b) is the best answer. (Elements of Style: "Omit needless words.")

A second rule is also at work in this question. The word "devastated" replaced "destroyed" in the second sentence. This shifts the idea of "extremely violent" to the verb. When you find yourself swimming in modifiers it's time to find a better verb to convey your meaning. Get a thesaurus. Extra credit two points. (Elements of Style: "Write with nouns and verbs.")

5. Avoid dangling modifiers.
Who/what needs to be "given a moment," the reader or "dangling modifier?" Who becomes confused "with their concentration disrupted," the reader or "dangling modifier?" Sentence (b) is the correct answer. (Elements of Style: "A participial phrase at the beginning . . . must refer to the grammatical subject.")

6. Prefer concrete to abstract language.
The concepts of "the environment" and "global peace" are too abstract. Sentence (a) uses more specific issues to express the senator's challenges. (Elements of Style: "Use definite, specific, concrete language.")

7. Use parallel construction.
When listing items in a series, they need to be constructed using the same form. Sentence (b) is correct. The first sentence could be correctly restated "playing football, listening to country music, taking long walks, camping at Indian point." (Elements of Style: "Express coordinate ideas in similar form.")

8. Use precise words.
English is rich in words with very precise meanings and connotations. A more active and precise word choice can spice up your writing. Sentence (a) uses "swept" for "reached" in sentence (b), and "hooked" for "sent." Sentence (a) conveys a better sense of the action. (Elements of Style: "Use definite, specific, concrete language.")

9. Avoid wordy sentences.
The phrase "except in a small number of cases, most" is more wordy than the sentence requires. Use "usually" instead. Sentence (b) works best. (Elements of Style: "Omit needless words.")

A more precise word, "benefit," was substituted for "assisted" as well. Give yourself an extra two points if you articulated both rules.

10. Place modifiers close to the word they modify.
This is especially important with limiting modifiers like almost, even, just, nearly, not, often, and only. The second sentence begs the question of whether there were only two mistakes to be found, or whether only two were found two of a possibly larger number of mistakes. If your meaning is--"He was able to find only two mistakes"--then write that. Sentence (a) is the correct answer. (Elements of Style: "Keep related words together.")

11. Use positive language.
Sentence (a) substitutes "late" for "not very often on time." Readers are not pleased when told what is not. Readers are pleased when told what is.  (Elements of Style: "Put statements in positive form.")

12. Use definite, specific, concrete language.
Sentence (a) is far more vivid than sentence (b). In sentence (b) the reader is forced to fill in the meaning of "manners, customs and amusements" and "regulations of the penal code." Sentence (a) offers concrete examples. But note, language can become too vivid. "In proportion as men delight in tearing the fingernails from the hands of small children" overreaches the point.  But more often we chose words that are too abstract for the context. (Elements of Style: "Use definite, specific, concrete language.")


Score: 30-40 points. If you scored over 30 points you have a good grasp of the basic rules of writing. You may have missed some of the explanations. William Zinsser, author of the best selling book On Writing Well, advises even experienced writers to reread The Elements of Style once a year.

Score: 20-30 points. Your writer's intuition is likely working, but the rules may be difficult for you to express. It is important to have these rules clear in your mind. They make the task of polishing and rewriting your work much easier.

Score: Less than 20 points.  Henry David Thoreau avowed "I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor." You need to learn. Writing well is hard work, but it can be learned. Start with the latest edition of Strunk and White's Elements of Style.

Sexist writing? There are more "he's" than "she's" in this quiz, more "men" than "people." Sexist writing abounds and can be difficult to escape. The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association has a fine section on avoiding this bias.

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