Category Archives: Clarity

Drawing conclusions about tense (Part I)

by Anna Tarnow

Tenses can get pretty confusing in writing, even when you think you know what you’re doing. It can also be challenging to explain tenses because time is a confusing concept to talk about. That’s why I love thinking about tenses in terms of visuals. It can sometimes help to map out your tenses to get a better grip on grammar. This great chart (from gives a really nice sense of tense through simple visuals.

Simple present
This tense is used in two kinds of ways.

First, simple present can be used to describe a series of repeated actions. For example, “She runs every day.” This action is happening repeatedly along a timeline, so it is described by simple present.

Second, simple present can be used to indicate generalizations, which describe something that is happening throughout all of time. For example, “Bob likes to drink coffee.” Bob’s enjoyment of coffee isn’t limited to any one moment, but to all, so this statement is a generalization.

Simple Present


Present continuous
This tense is used to describe an action that is going on in the present. It can be used either exactly or approximately. Examples: “He is eating” or “They are finding out that the food is gone.

Anna Tense Present Continuous

Simple past
This tense can also be used in two ways.

First, the simple past can describe a short completed action, such as “I called my lawyer.”

Second, it is used to describe an extended period of time that both began and ended in the past. For example: “I lived in Mexico for six years.”

Anna Tense Simple Past

Past continuous
This tense describes an action that happened and was interrupted in the past. For example, “I was cooking when the doorbell rang.”

Anna Tense Past Continuous

Present perfect
This tense can be used in two ways.

First, present perfect describes an event that happened at an unspecified time in the past. It always uses the present form of “to have” (has/have) and a verb in the simple past. Example: “I have seen Jeremy before.”

Second, present perfect may describe a change over a period of time. For example, “This flower has grown much taller.”

Anna Tense Present Perfect

Thinking of tenses in a different way can help make sense of confusing conjugations. Click here for Part II!

Anna Tarnow is a senior majoring in English and enjoys working on the Pilot newspaper, where she is editor-in-chief.

“Verb Tense Tutorial.” Table. English Page. N.p., n.d., Web. 4 Oct. 2015. <>.

Compound possession: Whose is what?

by Shamus Jarvis

When dealing with a compound subject (two or more nouns or pronouns serving as a single subject of a sentence), a writer must know how to clearly signal to the reader who possesses what. This is due to the fact that it can be confusing knowing how to express whether one or more parties within the subject share ownership of an object or experience.

For example, look at the following two sentences:

  • Bob and Jane’s children are in kindergarten.
  • Bob’s and Jane’s children are in kindergarten.

In the first sentence, the fact that only the second proper noun (Jane) is written as a possessive—indicated by the apostrophe—signifies that the children belong to both Bob and Jane. In sentence two, both proper nouns are written in the possessive form, indicating that Bob’s children are different from Jane’s children.

This shows that when all parties within the compound subject of a sentence share possession, only the final noun or pronoun should appear in the possessive form. If the parties within the compound subject do not share ownership, then each noun or pronoun should be written as a possessive.

If the compound subject contains a noun and a personal pronoun, both must be written in the possessive form in order to signify joint ownership.


  • Sarah’s and my boss went to Florida.
  • Sarah and my boss went to Florida.

When the proper noun and personal pronoun appear in the possessive form, the sentence states, the boss of Sarah and myself went to Florida. When only the pronoun is written as a possessive, the meaning of the sentence changes to read, both Sarah and my boss went to Florida.

As compound possession comes up in your writing, ask yourself, “Do the parties within the compound subject share ownership, or do they own the object(s) independently of each other?” If there is joint ownership, then only the final noun or pronoun should appear in the possessive form; otherwise all nouns should appear as possessives.


Exit SHAMUS, upstage center.

Is that the word I wanted? Part 2: effect vs. affect

by Katya Rivers

I don’t know about you, but I still mix up the words effect and affect. Which one is which? And when do I use one over the other? Here are a couple simple points to help you understand the usage of and the difference between these two words that sound so much alike but are, in fact, quite different.

Affect is usually used as a verb. It means to produce a change in or influence something. Use it when describing someone or something thing influencing another someone or something. For example:

  • The grade on this exam will affect my entire GPA.
  • How does the crime rate affect hiring levels by local police forces?
  • Your opinions do not affect my decision to move.

Effect is most often used as a noun. It means a change that has occurred or indicates a consequence. For example:

  • What effect did his speech have on the audience?
  • Creepy music in a movie gives the effect that something is about to happen.
  • The special effects in movies today are aided by computers.

Another way to think about it is this: It is appropriate to use the word “effect” if one of these words is used immediately before the words into, on, take, the, an, as well as, or. For example:

  • In analyzing a situation, it is important to take the concepts of cause and effect into consideration.
  • The dramatic play had an effect on the audience.

And if these examples aren’t enough, just remember that when in doubt, look it up!

Katya Rivers is a senior majoring in religion.


Is that the word I wanted?

by Samantha Bronkar

Many words in the English language seem to be nearly identical. How can you know which word you actually meant to say (or write)? Below are some commonly confused words, their definitions, and different usages.


Amount is used when the object cannot be counted or measured.

  • Example:           He had an unwarranted amount of trust in those criminals.
  • Explanation:    The concept of “trust” cannot be given a numerical value; it can’t be counted.

Number is used when the object can be counted or given a number.

  • Example:         The teacher helped a number of students today in class.
  • Explanation:  One can count the number of students that were helped.


Less is used when something cannot be counted or cannot be used in the plural form.

  • Example:         I have less time than I thought!
  • Explanation:  Time cannot be written as “times” in this case; one cannot “have less times.” The concept of “time” cannot be counted.

Fewer is used when something can be counted or given a number value.

  • Example:          She scored fewer goals this season than last.
  • Explanation:   One can count the number of goals she scored.


Then is related to time and helps describe the passage of time. It can also be used to show the relationship between actions and consequences.

  • Example:          You will see the railroad tracks, then you will cross the bridge.
  • Explanation:   One thing logically follows another.
  • Example:          If you had started your paper sooner, then you would have had more time to work on it.
  • Explanation:    Because the student waited to start his paper, he has less time to work on it.

 Than is used to make comparisons between two things.

  • Example:          The beach is much windier today than it was yesterday.
  • Explanation:   One day’s weather is compared to another.


A compliment is a phrase of praise about something or someone.

  • Example:         After the dance, he complimented her on her grace and rhythm.
  • Explanation:  He praises her ability to dance; he gives her a compliment.

Complement is used to describe when something goes well with something else; one thing enhances another.

  • Example:         That music was a perfect complement to her mood.
  • Explanation:  The music matched, enhanced, or sharpened her mood; they went together.

When in doubt, look it up! These aren’t the only words that cause confusion, but you can sort out the tricky ones with a quick web search or glance through a writing handbook for “homophones” or “commonly confused words.”

Samantha Bronkar is a sophomore majoring in English, and she plays for the women’s soccer and softball teams at Principia College.

An Awk-topodous Approach to Clunky Composition

by Genevieve Bergeson

Instead of imperiling my career in comedy (i.e., making a bad joke), I’ll cut to the chase: today we will explore how cephalopods and sentences are similar, that is, octopi and the syllable “awk.” “Awk”  is what professors and colleagues write in the margins of our writing next to confusing—awkward—sentences. Ah, but you probably want to hear the joke anyway.

Why didn’t the cephalopod share his writing?

Because it was too oct-word.

AwktopusSo, “awkward.” What constitutes an “awkward sentence”? Essentially, the individual parts of the sentence (phrases, clauses, etc.) don’t quite fit together; this in turn makes the meaning unclear or confusing. Instead of following the main idea (head) of the sentence (octopus), the reader gets tangled in the tentacles (phrases & clauses). On the other hand (or tentacle), the parts of an effective sentence work together smoothly to propel your denizen of deep thinking forward.

Awkward sentences (awk-topi) appear for several reasons, grammatical and otherwise. Perhaps you’re simply squirting ink and ideas everywhere because you haven’t figured out how to articulate them yet. Perhaps you’re unaware there are principles and strategies to help you eliminate awk-topi. Either way, my punny scientist friends Seth and Steph Allopod recommend this octet for eliminating awkwardness and making writing clearer.

Ready? Let’s get kraken!

  1. Make sushi. (I’d say “calamari,”  but that’s literally another animal.) Don’t cram too much into one sentence; separate the ideas into more manageable bites.
  2. Be direct. Say your idea in as few words as possible.
  3. Delete unnecessary words and information.
  4. Parse the sentence. Mark subjects, verbs, objects, phrases, clauses, etc., differently so you see the parts of the sentence and how they interact. (Sometimes words get caught between related parts and interfere with the relationships of those parts—subject/verb, pronoun/antecedent, independent/dependent clauses. Be clear about who’s doing what.)
  5. Start fresh. Turn your paper over (or scroll to a blank page) and rewrite the entire sentence.
  6. Switch things around. Putting key words and ideas in different positions may reveal a more fluid grammatical structure, which makes it easier for your reader to understand your point.
  7. Check verb forms. Eliminate unnecessary and confusing tense shifts. Use active verbs (unless passive voice is more appropriate for the situation).
  8. Word choice. Does the word mean what you think it means? Are there more accurate terms you could use? When in doubt, consult a good dictionary.

Happy thinking!

Genevieve Bergeson, in her second year as a Principia post-graduate teaching intern in writing, delights in all things creative—art, words, and music. She has authored and illustrated the children’s book Racing Pajamas (read more at and has several other stories in the works.