3 Grammar Gremlins That Sometimes Sneak into Our Writing

by • February 11, 2014

Guest post by C. S. Lakin

Editing our own work can be a tricky task. Some grammar mistakes writers make are pretty obvious and easy to catch—such as using their instead of there. But others are sneaky gremlins.

There are three common mistakes I often seen in the manuscripts I edit, but without being aware of the specific grammatical rules that apply, writers often fail to notice them.

1.     Starting sentences with participial phrases sometimes opens the door for those dreaded dangling participles.

What is a participle? It’s a verb or a noun that gets turned into an adjective. Participles can be in the present tense or the past tense, and the present participle always ends with “ing.” For example, “sing” is a verb, and “singing” is its present participle.

Here are some examples of sentence openings with participles:

  • Floating downstream . . .
  • Beating me at cards . . .
  • Turning the doorknob . . .
  • Galloping through the woods . . .

There is nothing wrong with beginning sentences with these phrases, but watch what happens when close attention isn’t being paid to the subject of the phrase:

  • Floating downstream, the day seemed so peaceful.
  • Beating me at cards, my fun evening with my friends cost me my week’s wages.
  • Turning the doorknob, the noises in the creepy room scared me.
  • Galloping through the woods, branches scraped the horse’s flank and spooked him.

You’d have a strange story with days that float down streams, evenings that can play cards, noises that can turn doorknobs, and branches that can gallop.

This structure is called “dangling” because a phrase ends up hanging all by its lonesome without a proper subject to support it

Solution: Do a search through your document for ing and examine all sentences that begin with a participial phrase. If any are dangling, grab the correct noun and put it in place to support the phrase.

2.     Sequential action is often mistakenly written as occurring simultaneously.

Here’s another problem that can crop up with those pesky participial phrases. Let’s take those examples shown above again, but this time, pay attention to the various actions described in the context.

  • Floating downstream, I climbed out on the bank and dried off.
  • Beating me at cards, my brother got up and grabbed another donut off the counter.
  • Turning the doorknob, I went straight to the fridge and took out a soda.
  • Galloping through the woods, I slid quickly off my horse and ran into the house.

You’d be one talented individual if you could simultaneously perform all the actions mentioned in each sentence.

Solution: Rewrite so the actions occur in sequence. This isn’t a problem with participial phrases only, so watch for sentences in which more than one action is being taken and determine if they are sequential or consecutive. For example, you could rewrite “tiptoeing to the closed door, I checked the handle” to “I tiptoed to the closed door, then checked the handle.” Simple, and to the point.

3.     In addition to watching out for dangling things, writers need to pay attention to misplaced items that sneak into the wrong spot.

Let’s look at misplaced modifiers. A modifier is . . . well, what it sounds like. It’s a word or phrase that modifies (affects, changes) another word. In the phrase “blue ball,” the adjective blue modifies the noun ball. Writers sometimes stick those modifiers in the wrong place in a sentence (as we’ve seen above with the dangling ones). Take a look at these lines and see if you can identify the problem:

  • This morning I chased a dog in my pajamas. (Did the dog dress himself?)
  • I sold a desk to a lady that had broken legs. (Poor woman; how will she carry that desk?)
  • We sat on the porch listening to the birds sing while playing cards. (Wow, talented birds.)
  • She saw several whales on vacation in Mexico. (Do whales take vacations?)
  • The hunter waited for the lion with a rifle in his hand. (Or should I say, “in his paw”?)

Modifiers can sneak into the wrong places if we’re not careful.Say What front cover

Solution: Check your long, complex sentences and make them shorter. Break them into two shorter sentences that have clear adjectives connected to (modifying) the noun. Or move the modifying phrase to the proper location in the sentence. For example: The hunter waited with a rifle in his hand for the lion. Easy.

By being aware of these sneaky grammar gremlins, writers can catch them before they wreak havoc in their writing. Or undo the damage done. Happy hunting!

C. S. Lakin is a multi-published novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage—is designed to help writers get a painless grasp on grammar. You can buy it in print here or as an e-book here.

Connect with C.S. Lakin on Twitter and Facebook.

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