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5 Common Problems in Academic Writing Contents: • Run-on sentences • Tense shifts • Faulty parallelism • Dangling modifiers • Wordiness • Overusing the passive voice, abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms • Using contractions and gendered language • Spelling conventions Key Terms: • Run-on sentences • Tense shifts • Faulty parallelism • Modifier • Dangling modifier • Passive voice • Abbreviation • Acronym • Initialism • Contraction • Gendered language The goal of this chapter is to examine some of the most common errors that even experienced military personnel often make during their early academic writing experiences. We make no claims to being comprehensive here—this is neither a grammar textbook nor a guide to academic formatting—rather, we have chosen to highlight those errors or problems that we have seen most often while grading graduate work at a war college. 91 05-Military:05-Military 19/10/09 08:39 Page 91 I. Run-on Sentences There is a tendency among most writers, military and civilian, to write as they speak among their friends. While this style can be effective in certain circumstances (for instance, in a book about the academic writing process aimed at military personnel), it is less suitable to traditional academic prose. The most significant reason is that it often results in what are called run-on, or fused, sentences. Run-on sentences are just that: they last longer than they should.An academic sentence generally consists of one main point. It is possible to include a second thought in what is known as a subordinate clause but, as we have advised throughout this book, your writing on the whole should be straightforward and easy to follow. Run-on sentences are not. They include multiple ideas and are usually strung together—rightly or wrongly—by a series of commas. The solution is to write simply. Use shorter sentences. And stay focused. The following passage by Lieutenant-Colonel (retired) Robert Leonhard provides a good example of writing simply: But the most obvious place to look for the birth of modern directive control is in the German army of World War I. The battlefields of the Great War gave birth to a series of tactical innovations that challenged the rigidly centralized control of small units in battle. The machine gun and rapid fire artillery forced units to disperse or die en masse.1 Each of the three sentences contains one basic idea, and each can be read aloud in a single breath. Two of the three sentences are structured in the familiar subject-verb-object style (battlefields gave birth to innovations; artillery forced units). The other provides a worthwhile shift in what some call the flow or balance of the paragraph without being overly complex or confusing. 92 Common Problems in Academic Writing 05-Military:05-Military 19/10/09 08:39 Page 92 II. Tense Shifts Essay writers often struggle to choose the appropriate tense for their work. We agree that it can be difficult to choose between the past and the present. Although it might seem too obvious to be worth repeating, we advise you to use the past tense to write about the past. Use the present when you are speaking to your reader in real time. Returning to the Leonhard quotation, the first sentence describes the situation as he sees it today: “the most obvious place to look for the birth of modern directive control is in the German army of World War I.”2 The next two sentences explain what happened in the past to lead to the current situation (tactical and technological innovations). The present is also more appropriate if you are commenting on a scholarly debate (likely in your introduction or in an introductory section of a particular point) that is ongoing in your field of study. In this case, it makes sense to use the present to demonstrate that the thinking is current. In the foreword to the book that includes the Leonhard chapter, the editor discusses a debate about maneuver warfare that is ongoing: It’s refreshing to see with what energy those writers have taken up the venerable controversies over maneuver vs. firepower, Auftragstaktik vs. Befehlstaktik, fluid vs. linear battle, war of movement vs. ‘industrial warfare,’and the style of fighting that seeks to pit strength against enemy weakness and break the enemy’s will vs. the commitment to attrition as the main decider of battle . They hold maneuver warfare up to the light and study it from all angles, judging it as a concept, comparing it to other options, measuring the way it affects and...


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