Tag Archives: Grammar

Commas and Relative Clauses

Our task for today is to understand how we punctuate relative clauses. In the simplest terms, a relative clause is a clause that begins with a relative pronoun (which,  that, who, whom, whose). Let’s begin by looking at this example of a sentence with a relative clause:

CNCP patients, whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed, start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

This sentence—taken directly from student writing—is not incorrect as written, but it doesn’t say what the author intended. Here is what the author meant to say:

CNCP patients whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

The difference? The second version of the sentence shows that it is about a subgroup of CNCP patients ‘whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed’. There are many CNCP patients in the world and only some of them suffer in this manner. The first version says that all CNCP patients have complaints of pain that are not adequately addressed. Because of the commas, we have to read the relative clause as supplementary information about all CNCP patients. Technically, our first sentence could be reworded as follows:

CNCP patients [all of them] have complaints of pain that are not adequately addressed. CNCP patients start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

Rewording the sentence in this way reflects the fact that the original sentence portrayed the relative clause as supplementary. But the author’s intention was not to provide extra information about this group of patients; instead, the author wanted to define a particular group of patients under discussion. The lack of commas in our revised version indicate that the information following the relative pronoun is integral to the antecedent noun:

CNCP patients whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

The bolding emphasizes the integration of the relative clause. This integration is conveyed to the reader by the absence of commas. When we do use commas, we are telling the reader that we are providing supplementary information.

I chose this example because it is easy to see—even without being familiar with the subject matter—that the punctuation in the original sentence was probably misleading. One of the great difficulties in explaining how to punctuate relative clauses is that context matters. I always tell students to take whatever I have said about punctuating relative clauses home with them: only in applying those principles to their own sentences—sentences that they themselves fully grasp—will they come to understand whether a relative clause is integral or supplementary.

If you are familiar with this topic, you will notice that I am not using the traditional terminology (restrictive and nonrestrictive) or the usual variants (defining and non-defining, essential and inessential, identifying and non-identifying). It is possible, of course, to explain what is meant by these terms, but I have never found the common terminology to be particularly intuitive. More recently, I have noticed people using the terms integral relative clause and supplementary relative clause. I find these terms to be more intuitive, which is why I have started to use them in my classroom teaching. I would be interested to know if anyone has thoughts about whether this different terminology is helpful or just confusing.

Now let’s look at some more examples to reinforce the distinction between integral and supplementary relative clauses.

There are many narratives that can be used to illuminate the psychological concept of extraversion.

The relative clause is integral to the meaning of ‘narratives’. The sentence isn’t just telling us that there are many narratives. It is telling us that there are many narratives that can be used in a particular fashion.

The philosophical approach that is articulated by Rorty will set the tone for the proceedings at the conference.

This sentence is telling us what will set the tone for this conference. And it isn’t just any philosophical approach: it is the philosophical approach that is articulated by Rorty. Again, the relative clause is integral to the meaning of ‘philosophical approach’. Now let’s look at some examples of supplementary relative clauses:

Given the educational conditions in Malawi, which is located in eastern Africa, creative teacher training programs are essential.

Using transactional memory, which requires special hardware or software support, will address the problems associated with using locks.

Theorists argue that gender equity, which is defined here in economic terms, is a crucial component in any attempt to address the global AIDS crisis.

In each of these cases, the antecedent of the relative clauses is completely sufficient without the relative clause. A country is a useful example since it is easy to see that you don’t need any additional information to know what is meant by Malawi. Its location within its continent is obviously supplementary information. Likewise, ‘transactional memory’ is a fully defined term: the fact that it requires special hardware or software support is extra information. Take that information away and the term itself is just as informative. In the third example, even though the supplementary relative clause claims to be defining ‘gender equity’, it is doing so in a supplementary way. The sentence is telling us that gender equity is crucial and it is also clarifying what gender equity means in this context.

Here is a final example, one that gives three different versions of the same sentence:

The articles, which stem from the 1970s and the early 1980s, show Lefort intent on persuading the reading public about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc.

The articles that stem from the 1970s and the early 1980s show Lefort intent on persuading the reading public about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc.

The articles which stem from the 1970s and the early 1980s show Lefort intent on persuading the reading public about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc.

The first two sentences follow the pattern I have been discussing. I chose this example because it shows how easily ambiguity can arise when we’re not clear about the punctuation we need. The first sentence is discussing a group of articles and using its relative clause to give us extra information about when they were written. The second sentence, on the other hand, is using its relative clause to identify a particular subset of articles. The implication of the first sentence is that all the articles were written in the 70s and early 80s. The implication of the second sentence is that there is a broader group of articles (presumably spanning a broader time frame); the author is drawing your attention to a subset of that broader group. Needless to say, it is important for the author to clarify which is meant. In my own experience, the decision about how to punctuate relative clauses often helps me to clarify my own meaning. Similarly, in discussing this issue with students, it often emerges that they aren’t quite sure what they were hoping to convey through their punctuation choices.

But what of the third sentence? Is it the same as the second sentence or is it different? In other words, is it okay to use ‘which’ to introduce an integral relative clause? Yes, it is. But while I would love to leave it at that, I feel I should say something about how I view this issue. The good news is that we have already covered the important part: you must signal your intention to your reader through your use of commas. If the information is integral, skip the commas; if, on the other hand, the information is supplementary, show that with your use of commas. Simple enough. But you do need to choose a relative pronoun and, for many, that decision raises a certain anxiety. When I ask students about their habits in this regard, I get a range of replies (often involving something a high school English teacher once said): guessing and then feeling bad; turn taking (first ‘which’, then ‘that’); using ‘which’ because it is more formal; never thinking about it. For a fairly typical prescriptive discussion, see this post from APA Style. For a more nuanced, historical view, try Stan Carey’s excellent post on this topic (as usual, Carey also provides a very helpful roundup of what others have said about this issue).

Given the general uncertainty this topic engenders, what should we do? My own preference—and that is all it is, a preference—is to use ‘that’ without commas and ‘which’ with commas. The first part of this practice is unexceptionable: nobody uses ‘that’ to introduce supplementary information. It is the second part that causes heartache. Look at this simple table:

integral supplementary
that YES NO
which ?? YES

My preference is to replace those two question marks with a ‘NO’. Not, to repeat, because I think this use of ‘which’ is wrong, but only because I like the clarity and simplicity of reserving ‘which’ and ‘that’ for different uses. I start with the important question—do I need commas or not?—and then use that as the basis for my decision about what relative pronoun to use. I explain this to students in just these terms: once they have sorted out the important issue of how to punctuate, they are free to choose their relative pronouns however they wish. But I do stress that this distinction is often treated in more absolute terms in advice on scientific writing. Whether or not this is true across the board, I do suggest that students preparing scientific papers consider reserving ‘which’ for instances in which they are using commas to convey supplementarity. For me it all comes down to this principle: if our audience might find a particular usage to be ambiguous—even if we know that it is perfectly acceptable—it can make sense to avoid that usage.

There is much more that could be said, but this post is already far longer than a blog post should be! If there is anything that you see as needing further explanation or elaboration, I would love to hear about it in the comments.

This post is the fourth in a series of posts on comma use. The first post dealt with commas and coordinating conjunctions. The second dealt with non-standard commas and punctuating for length. The third dealt with the importance of knowing when you need a pair of commas.

Advertisements

Impactful Pet Peeves

Everywhere I’ve been over the past week, people have been sharing this list of ‘grammar mistakes’. You don’t need to click on the link to know the sort of thing: a list of errors that are terribly egregious despite the fact that everyone makes them all the time. I am fascinated by the mindset that is unmoved by the prevalence of  such ‘errors’. The pleasure of being right when everyone else is wrong seems to be so great that it obscures any sense that we should view the prevalence of a particular practice as relevant.

I generally try to avoid linking to things that I find as unhelpful as this list; you surely don’t need my help finding shoddy advice on the Internet. But I went ahead and did so because I want to point to two key issues with this list. First, very little on this list is grammar (and the bits that are grammar are either wrong or dismally explained). This observation is more than just a quibble. The perception among students that their writing problems primarily involve grammar means that they often view their path to improvement as both narrow and fundamentally uninteresting. Not to say that grammar is actually uninteresting (obviously!) but rather that students might engage more readily with the task of improving their writing if they conceived of the task as having a broader intellectual basis. Improving your writing isn’t just fiddling with technicalities and arcane rules; it is a matter of thinking deeply about your ideas and your communicative intent. Calling it all grammar can be both dismissive and uninspiring.

The second—and more important—issue is the reasoning that underlies this list. A list like this says ‘all educated people should know these things, so avoid these errors lest you seem uneducated’. This edict misses an opportunity to talk about better reasons for avoiding certain usage patterns. For example, should you say ‘impactful’? It is meaningless to say that it isn’t a word: it is so obviously a word (if you aren’t sure, contrast it with ‘xsxsjwcrt’ and you’ll see the difference). But that doesn’t mean the world needs more instances of ‘impactful’. Use it at your own risk: most people find it icky and its presence in your writing may make them think unkind thoughts about you. Moreover, if something is having an impact on something else, you can likely convey that more effectively with a clear subject and a strong verb. Your writing will improve much more decisively if you disregard unnecessary discussions of legitimacy and instead think more about why certain usage patterns are so widely disliked.

After I had written this, I found a great roundup on this topic from Stan Carey. He discusses a range of these sorts of lists and provides his usual insightful response. He concludes with an excellent warning about grammar pet peeve lists: “Read them, if you must, with extreme caution, a policy of fact-checking, an awareness of what grammar isn’t, and a healthy disrespect for the authority they assume.”

Lastly, I really enjoyed the inaugural episode of the new language podcast from Slate, Lexicon Valley. The highly entertaining and wide-ranging conversation about dangling prepositions ends with an amusing discussion of Paul McCartney’s famous double preposition. A preposition at the end of a sentence is generally permissible, but it is probably best not to split the difference in this fashion: “But if this ever-changing world in which we live in/Makes you give in and cry/Say live and let die”.

Pairs of Commas

This post is the third in a series of posts on comma use. The first post dealt with commas and coordinating conjunctions. The second dealt with non-standard commas and punctuating for length. Today’s entry will discuss the way that some commas work best in pairs. Compare these three sentences:

This innovative new technique, developed by Woljert, has altered the way this surgery is performed.

This innovative new technique, developed by Woljert has altered the way this surgery is performed.

This innovative new technique developed by Woljert, has altered the way this surgery is performed.

The first sentence clearly conveys its meaning to the reader: there is an innovative new technique that has altered the way some surgery is performed. The reader is also given supplementary information: this technique was developed by some researcher named Woljert. This element (‘developed by Woljert’) either takes two commas (as in the first sentence) or takes no commas (‘This innovative new technique developed by Woljert has altered the way this surgery is performed.’). A single comma here (as in both the second and third sentences) will throw off your readers because it doesn’t clarify the grammatical role of the adjacent information.

When clauses like this appear at the beginning or end of a sentence, the need for paired commas is obviated:

According to Chen, this new technique is very valuable.

This new technique is very valuable, according to Chen.

This new technique, according to Chen, is very valuable.

In each of the first two sentences, an additional comma becomes unnecessary because of the placement of the clause at the beginning or end of the sentence. In the third sentence, we see the need for two commas to clarify the role of this brief interruption. (Of course, you will have noticed that the first sentence sounds much better than the other two. You don’t generally want to give this sort of unimportant information such a prominent place at the end of the sentence. Similarly, you don’t generally want to interrupt a sentence in this fashion unless the interruption itself is significant.)

This use of one comma instead of two (or none) isn’t a particularly grammatically complex issue, but it is a frequent occurrence in the student writing I see. And while it isn’t fatal, it does make your reader’s life more difficult. In lots of cases, this mistake may just be random carelessness; it’s certainly easy to miss a comma here or there. But if you repeatedly use a single comma when two (or none) are needed, you  may be experiencing some confusion between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses: not knowing whether to use no commas (as you would for a restrictive clause) or two commas (as you would for a nonrestrictive clause), maybe you split the difference and use just one. Come back for the next comma post, in which I will try to sort out the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. As I will stress then, this distinction is most crucially an issue of punctuation, but I will also touch on the persistent dilemma experienced by writers trying to choose between ‘which’ and ‘that’.

Commas: Punctuating for Length

This post is the second in a series of posts on comma use. The first post dealt with commas and coordinating conjunctions.

Today’s topic is the practice of putting commas in sentences as a response to the length of the sentence. Consider this example:

The purpose of these focus groups was to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment, and focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

The comma after ‘treatment’ is, as your grammar book will tell you, unnecessary. Indeed, putting a comma there might cause some readers to think that ‘focus on exploring’ is the start of an independent clause. To illustrate the redundancy of this comma, consider the same punctuation pattern in a very simple sentence:

I went to the store for milk, and eggs.

This sentence will look wrong to most of us since it separates ‘milk’ and ‘eggs’ when they are obviously meant to go together. There is no reason for a comma between ‘I went to the store for’ and ‘eggs’. We wouldn’t say ‘I went to the store for, eggs’. (We would, however, say, ‘I went to the store for milk, eggs, and avocados’ because we punctuate lists of three or more items differently than we do pairs. For more on lists, see here, here, and here.)

What, then, do we think about the comma usage in our first example? The grammar books suggest it is wrong. The analogy with a short sentence suggests that it is wrong. (Of course, I would certainly acknowledge that it is possible to refuse the logic that says ‘wrong in a short sentence, therefore wrong in a long sentence’. In fact, we do sometimes use punctuation differently in short and long sentences; Veni, vidi, vici invariably comes up in such discussions.) But whether it is wrong or not, this is a pattern of comma use that you will see in lots of respectable places.

My response to this uncertainty is to characterize this usage as non-standard rather than as wrong. This assessment alerts students to the fact that the usage may be ambiguous for some readers and may be out of place in some sentences. However, to me, the most salient thing about this type of comma use is that it is generally better to leave it in place than to remove it without further alteration of the sentence. Simply removing it may make your sentence more ‘correct’ but will likely also make it harder to read. Let’s look at our first example again, now with the non-standard comma removed:

The purpose of these focus groups was to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment and focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

You can immediately see that this isn’t a good solution. The new sentence is much harder to read and, in fact, some might even read ‘outpatient treatment and focus’ as a single phrase and thus become confused about the sentence structure. What are our options when a pattern of comma usage isn’t standard and yet removing the comma only makes things worse?

The simplest revision would look something like this:

The purpose of these focus groups was both to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment and to focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

Using ‘both’ serves to alert the reader that a pair is coming; since the reader is expecting the writer to offer a dual purpose, the reader will be anticipating a compound structure. The repetition of the ‘to’ (‘both to improve and to focus’) will be another hint to the reader as to how to read the sentence. Notice all the ‘ands’ in our example sentence; repeating an element like ‘to’ signals to the reader which ‘and’ is doing the heavy lifting.

Another option would be to restructure the sentence so that it explicitly anticipates the two purposes:

These focus groups had two main purposes: to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment and to focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

In this case, the reader encounters ‘to improve’ and then ‘to focus’ with a prior understanding that there are two purposes; by providing that explicit information, the writer makes very certain that the reader will know how to read the sentence. The only downside to this structure is the possibility that it could overemphasize something that might actually be trivial:

The trip to the store had two main purposes: milk and eggs.

But in our original example, the writer seems to be giving important information about the current research, suggesting that the extra emphasis provided by the colon is warranted.

In sum, I think it is valuable to be aware of this pattern of comma use as non-standard. With that knowledge, you may go on using the comma in this way or you may choose to rephrase. My point is that, in many cases, the optimal solution won’t be to remove this comma without also altering the sentence in other ways. In some cases, of course, simple removal will work, but in more cases, when we punctuate for length, we are responding to a valuable intuition that the sentence won’t work without some additional aid for the reader.

Our next comma post will look at the importance of understanding when a comma can stand alone and when it needs a partner.

Commas and Coordinating Conjunctions

I am going to start this discussion of commas by showing a simple pattern of comma use:

Some educators believe in using inductive methods in the classroom, and others maintain that a ‘top-down’ approach is more effective.

In this compound sentence, the comma separates the two independent clauses, indicating that we must read each one separately; the ‘and’ following a comma tells us that the next word (in this case, ‘others’) is the beginning of a new independent clause. The crucial issue here is the presence of a coordinating conjunction. A coordinating conjunction is strong enough to join two independent clauses with only a comma. There are seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, so, or, nor, for, yet. Only those seven words can give us the compound-sentence-with-comma pattern found in the above example. I have listed them in a way that approximately reflects the frequency of their appearance in this capacity. Obviously, these are words with many other roles to play in our writing, but I am speaking here of their use as coordinating conjunctions. We use ‘and’ and ‘but’ all the time; we use ‘so’ and ‘or’ often; and we rarely (outside of literary writing) use ‘nor’, ‘for’, and ‘yet’. We can also write them in a different order so as to get a mnemonic: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. The resulting FANBOYS, despite being a somewhat silly word—I confess to having spent a fair amount of time rearranging those seven letters in an attempt to find a more dignified term—is a handy way to check if a sentence can be punctuated as a compound sentence.

Now that we understand this simple pattern of comma use in compound sentences, we can look at some related comma errors.

One such error is the comma splice: the placement of two independent clauses together with a comma and NO conjunction whatsoever. Here is an example:

The simulation of physical systems is a crucial part of scientific discovery, experience shows that conducting this simulation precisely and efficiently is essential.

This type of error—which is relatively rare—can be easily fixed in a number of ways, including the simple addition of ‘and’ before ‘experience’:

The simulation of physical systems is a crucial part of scientific discovery, and experience shows that conducting this simulation precisely and efficiently is essential.

What if we had attempted to correct this sentence by replacing the comma with an ‘and’? Note the ambiguity of a compound sentence without the comma:

The simulation of physical systems is a crucial part of scientific discovery and experience shows that conducting this simulation precisely and efficiently is essential.

Here it would be easy to read ‘scientific discovery and experience’ as a single phrase and thus miss the true structure of the sentence. Remembering that we always need a comma before a coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence will save us from this potential ambiguity.

Lastly, I would like to look at a related comma error that is very common: the practice of using commas to separate independent sentences joined by conjunctive adverbs (e.g., however, therefore, accordingly, finally, instead, nevertheless, specifically, thus) or transitional expressions (e.g., equally important, for example, in fact, on the contrary, on the other hand). Compare these two sentences:

Low levels of ROS are used in redox signalling reactions that are essential for cellular homeostasis, but high levels of ROS initiate an intracellular response that leads to oxidative stress.

Low levels of ROS are used in redox signalling reactions that are essential for cellular homeostasis, however high levels of ROS initiate an intracellular response that leads to oxidative stress.

The first sentence is correct, but the second one is not. Here is a corrected version of the second sentence:

Low levels of ROS are used in redox signalling reactions that are essential for cellular homeostasis; however, high levels of ROS initiate an intracellular response that leads to oxidative stress.*

In order to understand this distinction, we have to see the difference between ‘but’ and ‘however’. This distinction can seem opaque since the two terms have a similar meaning. However, we now know that ‘but’ is a coordinating conjunction, which means that it is strong enough to connect two independent clauses. Other words or phrases—such as conjunctive adverbs or transitional expressions—will fail at this particular task. Knowing that only coordinating conjunctions work in this sentence pattern and being able to remember the seven coordinating conjunctions (hence the value of the mnemonic, however lame) will allow you to avoid this particular type of comma error.

Let’s look at a final example of this type of error:

The design process of a UAV starts with a pre-specified mission agenda, consequently, following conventional design methods will lead to an airplane that is only suited to achieving the primary mission.

If you find that sort of sentence in your own writing, you can do one of three things:

1. Use a semicolon.

The design process of a UAV starts with a pre-specified mission agenda; consequently, following conventional design methods will lead to an airplane that is only suited to achieving the primary mission.

This is by far the easiest and most effective solution. The semicolon probably best reflects the close relationship that the original sentence was trying to create.

2. Use a coordinating conjunction to preserve the original sentence pattern.

The design process of a UAV starts with a pre-specified mission agenda, and following conventional design methods will lead to an airplane that is only suited to achieving the primary mission.

This solution is grammatically correct but may not retain the original meaning. In this case, for instance, replacing ‘consequently’ with ‘and’ is a clear alteration of the original meaning.

3. Use a period.

The design process of a UAV starts with a pre-specified mission agenda. Consequently, following conventional design methods will lead to an airplane that is only suited to achieving the primary mission.

This is probably the least effective solution. Although it is grammatically correct, it does not express the close relationship between the two parts of the sentence. In general, replacing these sort of commas with periods can lead to unnecessarily short sentences and thus choppiness.

In sum, understanding the proper use of coordinating conjunctions will allow you to construct correct compound sentences and will allow you to avoid problems with comma use preceding conjunctive adverbs and transitional expressions.

The next comma post will look at how commas are used as a way to cope with long sentences.

* Comma use after introductory elements will be discussed in a future post.

Links: Rules for Writing, Strategies for Scientific Writing, Excuses for Plagiarism

Here is something from the Huffington Post on the difficulty of finding workable ‘rules’ for good writing. Robert Lane Greene provides a useful breakdown of types of rules for writing: rules that everyone knows; standard but tricky rules; obsolescent rules; disputed rules; non-rules; formality differences; regional differences; dialect differences; house style; and personal taste.  His use of these ten different categories shows how difficult it is to rely on simple notions of right and wrong in our writing.

Here is something from Inside Higher Ed on writing for science graduate students. In this piece, Stephen C. Stearns, a senior scientist at Yale, offers his own take on proposal writing, thesis writing, and publishing.

Finally, here is something amusing from The Monkey Cage blog: a top ten list of excuses for inexcusable plagiarism. If you missed the reference to Clippy, count your blessings.

Writing Effective Lists

At this time of year, I spend a lot of time meeting with students. In the next few blog posts, I plan to address some of the issues that come up over and over again in these sessions. I will start by talking about lists. I did discuss lists briefly in an earlier post on colons, but now I can treat the topic more fully. At the most basic level, lists are important because academic writing is full of them. But they aren’t just prevalent, they are also significant because they are used to convey both content and structural information. Here is an example to consider:

Today’s educational leaders face increasing demands for public accountability, working long hours to improve student achievement, providing instructional leadership, demonstrating moral leadership, exercising fiscal prudence, supporting their staff, and need to navigate a litigious environment while facing low teacher morale.

The first step is to identify the shared root of the list, the part that must work with each list item. In this case, the shared part of the sentence is ‘Today’s educational leaders face …’.

Today’s educational leaders face (1) increasing demands for public accountability, (2) working long hours to improve student achievement, (3) providing instructional leadership, (4) demonstrating moral leadership, (5) exercising fiscal prudence, (6) supporting their staff, and (7) need to navigate a litigious environment while facing low teacher morale.

The first thing we see is that educational leaders face increasing demands. So far, so good. But do they also face working, providing, demonstrating, exercising, and supporting? Probably not. There is nothing grammatically incorrect about those formulations, but they are awkward and presumably not exactly what the author intended. The final item is, in fact, grammatically incorrect. We cannot say ‘Today’s educational leaders face need to …’. And changing the final phrase from ‘need to navigate’ to ‘navigating’ would give us parallelism but would not solve the broader problem with the list.

The simplest solution will come from looking at the list items to see what they all have in common; we can readily see that each list item is something that educational leaders must do. By choosing a more general verb for the shared part of the list, we will then be able to accommodate a wider assortment of terms in our list. Here is a new version of our sentence:

Today’s educational leaders must  face increasing demands for public accountability, work long hours to improve student achievement, provide instructional leadership, demonstrate moral leadership, exercise fiscal prudence, support their staff, and navigate a litigious environment while facing low teacher morale.

This sentence is fine, but there may be more we can do. When analyzing list items, we need to consider that establishing parallelism may not be enough; we also need to consider that the ideas themselves may not actually be parallel. In this sentence, I would be inclined to separate out the things that educational leaders must do from the things that make those tasks even more challenging. We might say something like this:

Today’s educational leaders must provide instructional leadership, demonstrate moral leadership, exercise fiscal prudence, support their staff, and work long hours to improve student achievement. These responsibilities are further complicated by low teacher morale, a litigious environment, and increasing demands for public accountability.

By breaking up a list and grouping similar items together, we can often get more clarity about what we are trying to say. During the drafting process, it is easy to create lists out of what are actually dissimilar items; during the revision process, we can take another look and reorganize the list according to an enhanced understanding of our own communicative aims. (Note that in these two lists, I have placed the most complex list item last; lists are easier to read when the most grammatically complex items are put at the end of the list.)

A second issue with lists–one which we will have to look at in the next post–is the purpose of the list within a text. The example that we have been looking at today provides a bunch of information quickly. The sentence sounds as though the author simply needed to provide some necessary background without wanting to engage in any further discussion of these points. After reading this sentence, my expectation would be that these particular points would not be important in the rest of the text. Next week we will look at the way we use lists to accomplish a very different task: to anticipate and announce the structure of our texts.