Category Archives: grammar

Pardon Me, But Your Modifier Is Dangling

We’ve all heard the term “dangling modifier,” but what is a dangling modifier?

A dangling modifier is a misplaced phrase that seems, inappropriately, to modify a sentence, usually because you have written the sentence in a passive tense or left out the object of the phrase. It’s called a “dangling” modifier because it’s left dangling in the sentence, its object nowhere to be seen.

For example, if I write,

Turning the corner, the hermit’s hut was before me,

then the phrase “turning the corner” appears to modify “the hermit’s hut.” The sentence reads as if the hermit’s hut did the corner-turning!

How would I fix this? Follow the dangling modifier up with a reference to the person, animal, object, or what have you that the modifier is about. For example, I would fix my above example in this way:

Turning the corner, I saw the hermit’s hut before me.

I rewrote the sentence in an active voice, and I also immediately followed the action of turning the corner with a reference to the character who turned the corner.

Let’s try another example:

Listing to one side, the wake of the great sea serpent rocked the longship.

Sea serpent.Is the wake of the sea serpent listing to the side? No, the longship is, but you wouldn’t know this from the example.

To fix it, once again I must follow the introductory phrase with its object.

Listing to one side, the longship rocked in the wake of the sea serpent.

As usual, don’t worry about dangling modifiers as you’re drafting, but when you’re rewriting and revising, keep a lookout for these suckers. Their comical effect can ruin an otherwise good piece of writing.

If He Had Only Wanted to Fight: The If-Then Clause

Here’s a common grammatical mistake I see: the use of the verb phrase “would have” after an “if” clause. For example, try this: “If Sigwald would have paid more attention to his martial arts training, then we wouldn’t have lost.”

The use of “would have” in a clause introduced by “if” is always, always wrong. Technically speaking, “would have” is a conditional perfect construction, and it just doesn’t belong after an if. Because “would have” expresses a conditional mood, it is used only for hypothetical situations – such as in clauses introduced by “then.”

For example, you would say, “If Sigwald had wanted to fight the invading army, then he would have joined the other men as they swarmed the town walls to pour hot tar on the enemy.”

In that sentence, I am expressing a hypothetical: Sigwald did not fight because he didn’t want to, but hypothetically, if he’d wanted to, then we’d have found him among the ranks.

Notice that in my example sentence, the “would have” applies not to what Sigwald actually did, but to what he might have done, had the situation been different. What he actually did was not want to fight. What he might have done was join the other townsfolk. That’s why I did not use “would have” in conjunction with the “if”: we know already that Sigwald didn’t want to fight. It isn’t conditional at all.

What was conditional in my sentence was the hypothetical outcome of a desire Sigwald clearly did not possess. And since it is hypothetical, I therefore did use the conditional “would have” with the “then” clause.

If this seems confusing, remember that when you are stating in an if clause what a character actually did or did not do – break the alien’s telepathic hold, create a monstrous chimera, or fail to make it to the wormhole in time to get back to the Alpha Quadrant – do not use “would have.” On the other hand, when you are stating the outcome that then did not happen, it is proper to use “would have.”


Expletive Deleted: On Grammatical Fluff

Eradicating expletives from your writing style is one of the simplest ways to improve and strengthen your writing. Doing so not only helps your readers, but also clarifies and focuses your thoughts.

Now, I don’t mean the four-letter words. While “expletive” usually refers to the coarser type of language, it also refers to the words here, there, and it. When used as expletives, these indefinite pronouns take the place of a word or phrase that is never actually stated and that are followed by a form of the verb “to be.”

How do writers commonly use these expletives? Let’s see.

It was likely that through Godfrey’s secret experiments, the lab rat Aylsworth had grown as intelligent as a human – and just as devious. There was no reason for Godfrey to think that Aylsworth meant him any harm, but whenever Dr. Sedgequick entered the lab, the rat’s eyes grew dark and cunning, and he’d rub his paws together as if plotting.

Here is the crux of it, Godfrey thought – Aylsworth resents Sedgequick for grafting those bat wings onto him.

In the above sentences, it, there, and here stand in for subjects. While of course all English speakers understand what you mean when you use these words in the above way, their use just weakens a sentence. In fact, the word expletive actually derives from the Latin for “to fill.” And they are just that – fillers! Why not state the subject? Your writing only becomes clearer and more muscular when you do so.

Furthermore, if a reader is not a native English speaker, their use can cause comprehension problems, and if you expect your work to be translated, these sentences will have to be rewritten anyway. So now is a good time to get out of the habit of using this grammatical fluff!

Let’s see those three sentences I used above with the expletives deleted and the sentences rewritten.

Godfrey suspected that his secret experiments had resulted in the lab rat Aylsworth’s growing as intelligent as a human – and just as devious. Though he had no reason to think that the rat mean him any harm, whenever Dr. Sedgequick entered the lab, Aylsworth’s eyes grew dark and cunning, and he’d rub his paws together as if plotting.

Aylsworth resents Sedgequick for grafting those bat wings onto him, Godfrey thought.

Once you get into the habit of noticing expletives in your writing, you’ll see them everywhere – and your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to search, destroy, and blast them away.

From Laboratories to Bourbon: The Four Basic Sentence Types

An important aspect of the craft of writing is your ability to vary your sentence lengths. In this two-part article, I’ll first go over the four basic sentence types. Then in the second part of this article, I’ll go over how to vary them in your writing to make your writing more interesting.

Four basic sentence types exist. These are as follows:

Simple sentences. Simple sentences consist of one verb and one noun. A single noun and verb together form an independent clause.

Dr. Gimcrack exerted himself in his laboratory.

In that sentence, “Dr. Gimcrack” is the noun, and “exerted” is the verb. No other nouns or verbs exist in the sentence.

Compound sentences. Compound sentences consist of two independent clauses joined by or, and, or but. Again, an independent clause consists of one noun and one verb.

Dr. Gimcrack exerted himself in his laboratory, and every night he drank a half-liter of bourbon.

In the above sentence, one noun and one verb make up the first clause: Dr. Gimcrack and exerted. The second clause is recognizable by its own noun and verb pair: he and drank. The two halves of the sentences are joined by and.

Complex sentences. These consist of an independent clause as well as at least one dependent clause. You know what an independent clause is now, but what’s a dependent clause? A dependent clause is a part of a sentence that cannot stand on its own. It depends on the rest of the sentence. Think of it as an incomplete thought.

Every night, Dr. Gimcrack drank a half-liter of bourbon, which he bought from One-Eyed Jack down by the docks.

In this sentence, the dependent clause is introduced by the word which. You might think that this clause is a complete sentence because it has a noun and a verb, but that one word “which” disqualifies it. When a clause, even one with a noun and verb, starts with words such as which, that, because, since, and so on, then you can identify it as a dependent clause that cannot stand on its own as a sentence.

Compound-complex sentences. These consist of two independent clauses (each having a noun and a verb) as well as a dependent clause.

Don’t panic! You know what an independent clause is: a noun and verb pair that stands on its own. You know what a dependent clause is: a part of a sentence that cannot stand on its own. So, all a compound-complex sentence consists of is a couple of short sentences joined together, along with the incomplete thought that is a dependent clause. Here’s an example.

Dr. Gimcrack exerted himself in the laboratory, and every night he drank a half-liter of bourbon, which he bought from One-Eyed Jack down by the docks.

See? Not that scary of a proposition! By this point, I’d bet that you can easily identify all the clauses in the above sentence.

That’s really all there is to the four basic sentences. The key, though, is varying them in writing, which I’ll write about in the second part of this article.

To Go Boldly: On Splitting the Infinitive (Yes, Captain Picard, You Can Do It)

An infinitive, if you’ve forgotten, is the pure form of a verb: to swordfight, to fly, to escape. And Mrs. Grundy, your sixth-grade English teacher, probably lectured you time and again on not splitting those infinitives, that is, on not separating the “to” from the verb.

The result may have been more than one unnatural-sounding sentence, and Captain Picard may have said something like this: “To go boldly where no one has gone before!”

This not only sounds forced, but it’s unnecessary. It is actually perfectly fine to split an infinitive if the sentence sounds better by doing so.

So who came up with this idea? Apparently, a man named Henry Alford is to blame. In his 1866 book A Plea for the Queen’s English, he wrote,

A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives as an instance, “to scientifically illustrate.” But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me, that we ever regard the to of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb. And when we have already a choice between two forms of expression, “scientifically to illustrate,” and “to illustrate scientifically,” there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.

And that’s it – the entirety of his argument. He was wrong: splitting the infinitive is and has always been entirely common usage in English. Somehow, though, this got picked up and taught, and yet obeying it results in foolish turns of phrase, such as in the following example:

The wandering preacher taught the townsfolk to love unconditionally their neighbors.

Frankly, that’s just silly and pedantic. Your goal in writing is to sound natural, and attempting to split an infinitive this way only causes the reader to stumble and wonder what you actually meant.

My advice is the same as every other self-respecting grammarian’s: Save the meaning and sound of a sentence before hewing to a rule that no writer actually follows.