Interpreting Instructor Comments

— Awkward Sentence or Phrase

Of the more cryptic comments instructors provide students, perhaps none offers so little by way of specific guidance and so much in terms of possible ways to approach revision than the word "awkward," also known as "awk" for short. The word "awkward" can refer to your word choice and phrasing or the way you've put a sentence together. In short, the kitchen sink of comments we know as "awkward" covers most of what your instructor could potentially respond to and ask you to revise.

How then might you approach diagnosing the problem and finding a solution for revision when that "awkward" in the margins could be saying so much? We can't cover all possible approaches to revision here, but below you'll find some of the more common causes of "awkward" prose and some ways to improve your writing.

"can be smoother": another way of saying "awk"

In this example, the comment "can be smoother" targets the transition between the first and second sentences.

In the example above, the topic shifts from "the dance (between men and women)" to "gay male dancers" without any transitional clues and logical connections. In other words, there's a cohesion problem here, one that suggests part of the original source material or its meaning is missing from the example. The semicolon also does not prepare readers for a topic shift, thereby enhancing the incongruity. Moreover, the sentence would be easier to follow if the quotations were altered to create a cohesive flow. The following example takes a broad approach to revision: revisiting the original text for accuracy, altering the quotations, and clearly describing the relationship between the pieces of information presented:

Because a dance can present "an image of interaction that is rarely consummated between men and women," gay male dancers see ballet as paralleling their relationships with women. And gay men can still feel themselves superior to women: "Gay male dancers attain perfection and power through the rigorous, esoteric demands of ballet training" (Hanna 137).

"Awk" in the sense of "confusing repetition"

In this example, the problem comes from repeated use of the same preposition.

Here, the writer uses the same preposition—"through"—in three consecutive sentences ("through death," "even through the rape," and "through the character"). In this case, however, the use of the same structure doesn't result in parallelism, but in redundancy (see the link to our section on parallelism located at the end of this discussion). This is because when a repeated element (e.g.,"through") doesn't emphasize the main idea in a passage, repetition communicates redundancy rather than emphasis. To avoid repetition, the writer could omit "through" and revise the sentences to read:

Even when raped, her focus was not on her own needs but rather on her family's dignity. In this way, it is apparent to Lucretia that death was far more welcome than disgrace.

"Awk" sentence because of its dangling modifier

The "awkw syntax" in this example comes from dangling modifiers.

When you write a sentence that includes a modifier phrase (in this case, "showing the importance placed on the societal role of gender") and a main clause, ask yourself whether the subject of the main clause is the same as the subject of the modifier phrase. Theoretically, the subject of the modifier phrase should be "parents," but is it? Is it the "parents" that show the importance placed on the role of gender? Or is it "their making the children more rounded" that does so? It's more likely the latter. So, in this case, the subjects of the two clauses are not the same, creating a dangling modifier. To resolve potential confusion, clarify the subject being modified. For example:

Sometimes parents will try to make their children more rounded as individuals and not tie them with the confines of their gender roles. Their doing so shows the importance of the social role of gender.

In this revised version, "Their doing so" is clearly the subject. Click here for more information on dangling modifiers.

Some additional "awk"s that can be fixed with prepositions, word choice, parallelism, and cohesion

There are two "awk" sentences here, and we discuss each of them below.

In the first sentence, there could really be two reasons this sentence is "awkward." The instructor could be objecting to the use of "with" to refer to the sun's "contribution with skin color," a small problem that could easily be remedied by replacing "contribution with" with "contribute to." However, the sentence would benefit further from omitting uncessary words and selecting more precise ones. So we might tidy up these sentences even more by replacing "some contribution with the pigmentation of skin" with "affect the skin pigmentation."

Parallelism might be of use here, for example, "While the sun affects the skin, sexual selection affects other factors such as height, build, hair and eye color." In this case, parallelism helps make more explicit the contrast between "the sun" and "sexual selection."

Understanding and revising "awkward" prose is often a process of trial and error that involves experimenting with a few strategies rather than following an absolute grammatical rule. One way to edit your work for awkwardness is to read your writing aloud: The ear sometimes picks up things the eyes can't see, especially if you've looked at the same essay several times.

The following links lead to more information that will help you with advice for fixing awkward sentences.

Click here to learn more about parallelism.

Click here to learn more about cohesion.

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