Imagine me in math class. I heard terms like, "derivative" and "exponential." When those terms flew out of a prof's mouth, my brain shut down.
The same thing happened in my editing class, too. I heard terms like, "gerunds," "adverbial phrase," and "linking verbs," and it was all downhill from there. Somehow through osmosis they stuck in my head, and months after finishing that class I studied grammar out of curiousity and not a need for an A.
Why do I bring this up? Because today I'm going to use a term that may scare you away. Please don't let it, for the purpose of this lesson isn't to force rote memorization of terms or explain complex grammar rules. But I've gotta use the term simply because that's what we'll be learning. The term is (gasp! are you ready?!?) misplaced modifier.
The term can simply be described as a sentence that is confusing because a word is not placed by the word it is describing. Take this sentence for an example:
Blowing down the highway, she grabbed her wig.
So, who or what is doing the blowing? She or the wig? A better way to write that sentence would be, "She grabbed her wig, which was blowing down the highway." We know for sure then it's the wig that is blowing.
Here's another example of a misplaced modifier:
She expelled the geese with her gas, fearing her date would be mortified.
OK, whose gas expelled what? Confused yet? Yeah, you probably know what the sentence is really supposed to mean, but these are examples of weak writing. Let's try the goose sentence this way: "She feared her date would be mortified after she expelled the geese with her gas." Now we know exactly who scared the heck out of what with the mortifying gas, right?
AlleyWriter suggested this example of a misplaced modifier:
Frankly, these pants make you look fat.
Are the pants making you look fat in a frank manner? I didn't know pants could be frank! Maybe they can be Joe, too ;)
You and the semicolon Yet another commonly misused punctuation mark is the semicolon. It continues to mystify legends and scholars alike.
There are some differing arguments on when the semicolon can be used, but I'll detail what you--the average writer--need to know.
A semicolon separates would could otherwise be two separate sentences. Again, while it can be used in other instances, particularly when making lists, it's most likely that you will only need it to separate two complete sentences.
Let's look at this example:
The pillow barked at me. It seemed to be sending a message.
Note that the above contains two separate, complete sentences. It can be rewritten with a semicolon as follows:
The pillow barked at me; it seemed to be sending a message.
Notice the above sentence does not have the word "and" in between the words, "me" and "it." A semicolon shouldn't precede the words and, but, for, nor, if, so, yet. (Another day I'll explain what those words are and how they should be used).
The easiest way to figure out if you are using a semicolon correctly is to ask if you could replace it with a period and have two separate, complete sentences. If the answer is no, you shouldn't be using the semicolon.
Try the following exercise for semicolon practice:
Instructions: Three of these five sentences contain an incorrect semicolon. What ones are incorrect?
1. It's raining men; alleluia.
2. And I had the sense to recognize; that I don't know how to let you go.
3. I can't stand to fly; I'm not that naive.
4. I've never been so alone; and I've never been so alive.
5. Sometimes; when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul.
Answers 2, 4 and 5 are incorrect. Confused as to why? email me.
Exception to the "safe" entry (below) One of the quirks of the English language is all the "exceptions" to the rules. It makes our language difficult to learn as compared to other ones. I admire foreigners who master it; it can't be easy.
There's an exception to the below rule on adverbs, and it applies to the verb, "to be." (The forms of "to be" include, "I am, you are, they were, she is, etc. Send a comment if you want me to list all of them). So, you wouldn't write, "She is ("is" is the verb) quickly." You'd write, "She is quick." But you WOULD write, "Walk quickly."
Still confused? Check back for more tidbits on verbs. If there's something special you'd like to see on here for a lesson, comment or email :)
Please don't drive "safe" How many people have you heard admonish, "Drive safe!"? Perhaps you're even guilty of saying this. It's a common phrase, and it's incorrect.
I'll assume you know what verbs are (denote action). Well, the word "drive" is a verb. Verbs must be modified by something called adverbs. Most adverbs end in "ly." Don't worry--I won't get too technical on you!
Would you ever say, "Walk care"? No. You'd say, "Walk carefully." Carefully is the adverb that modifies the verb walk. OK, someone mentioned that actually, I should have used "walk careful" as an example (since careful, and not care, is the root), but it was necessarily to use "care" to demonstrate just how blatently wrong it is to not just adverbs ;)
It doesn't matter if it "sounds OK." While most people say these things incorrectly, it's much worse to write them incorrectly. Even so, you'll sound smarter if you can remember to start using adverbs. The next time you warn a friend who is going out in a storm, be the genuis you are, and say, "Drive safely!"
The comma is not your friend OK, it's time to unveil one of my biggest grammar pet peeves: incorrect comma usage. I see so many "comma happy" people, but I do understand for I, too, was once comma happy.
In later lessons I will detail what is proper comma usage, but for now you need to know two very important things:
1) You are most likely OVERUSING commas.
2) A comma is not designed to indicate a "pause" in a sentence.
Let's explore number two just a little further. Let's say you have an online blog, and your blog is like a "stream of consciousness" blog in that you write as you THINK. Chances are, your blog is full of way too many commas. You put the commas in there whenever you are pausing in thought, or because it "seems" good to put a comma in a particular spot. Admit it: you couldn't really give a real English rule as to why you used said commas.
Commas are incredibly helpful little marks, but even the most-talented writers and those with obnoxiously high IQs overuse or inproperly use commas. It's easy to do, and it's difficult to fix until you know the rules of comma usage.
Until I post my lessons on the rules of comma usage, I challenge you to stop using commas for the love of God. The exception to this challenge is if you can "justify" the comma usage with a grammar rule. For instance, many people know that you are to put a comma in a sentence right before you start a quotation of a person.
She said, "I don't know where to go."
Your English teacher may have taught you to use a comma in the above instance, and that's perfectly correct! But please keep in mind that there are many jaded English teachers out there who don't know how to use commas themselves.
Also, one other caveat: the example I used of a blog may be a bad one, for my own personal blog is full of editing no-nos. So my challenge applies to writing you may do for school or work. :)
Cousin "it" The word "it" defies many a person, including individuals with exceptional writing skills. For some, it seems to be one of those words that's difficult to erase from the mind.
Well, we don't actually want to erase the word but rather incorrect usage of it. I'm talking possessiveness: "its" versus "it's."
Let's get one thing straight. The word "it" is not like your mom or your cousin Larry. By that I mean the word cannot possess something. Your mom can possess a shirt: "mom's shirt." (Note the apostrophe between the m and the s). But "it" cannot possess a shirt, or anything for that matter. It's incorrect to write, "it's shirt."
It's a stupid rule, and our language is full of them. But it's a rule nonetheless. Oh, did my use of the word "it's" with an apostrophe in that last sentence just confuse you?
In that instance, with the sentence, "it's a rule...", the word "it's" has an apostrophe to indicate a contraction (a "shortening," if you will, of the words, "it is." Similar to "can't" (for "cannot") "won't" (for "will not") and so on...)
So, in short, when you want to write, "It is snowing outside," you can put "It's snowing outside" to replace "it is" with "it's." But you never want to say, "It's basketball bounced away." Instead, write, "Its basketball bounced away" without an apostrophe.
To practice, try this exercise:
Instructions: in the sentences below, try to figure out what "its" should have apostrophes, and what ones should remain "its" without apostrophes. Answers below the practice sentences.
Its a beautiful day outside.
She put the car in its garage.
Can you please tell me what its going to do?
He thinks that its amazing that its mother, the grey cat, is still alive.
It's a beautiful day outside.
She put the car in its garage.
Can you please tell me what it's going to do?
He thinks that it's amazing that its mother, the grey cat, is still alive.
Why the dictionary is your friend Many editors and grammar gurus have a plethora of books to guide them. But for the regular, everyday person, a dictionary is the best thing to have in your collection. It can do much more than provide you with definitions.
Consider the elusive hyphen. Have you ever wondered why some words are hyphenated, while others are not? For example, you're likely to find (in most dictionaries) the word "re-enactment" hyphenated. But the word "restated" would most likely not be hyphenated. There's a cool little reason why, which I will detail in another entry, but for now know that the dictionary can help you with things such as hyphenation.
It can also guide you on capitalizing words, determining what form of a word is more proper (did you know, for example, that modern dictionaries dictate that the word "okay" should be spelled "OK"?), and how to pluralize some words (take the word "dictionary." Its plural form is dictionaries, not dictionarys).
While grammar "experts" have differing opinions on what dictionary is best (Webster's versus Random House, for instance), what's important for you is to use the same dictionary consistently.
Mareesa Orth is GrammarGal. Her journalism degree from the University of Missouri is in editing and design. Mareesa works for an independent book publisher and has edited numerous books, covers, webpages, brochures, and other knicknacks. While graphic design is her first love (though you wouldn't know it from this simple blogger page. ;), her anal-retentive side seeks ways to educate the world on English language usage.
In addition to the tips offered here, Mareesa is a personal editing and writing consultant. If you need a business memo polished, a research paper edited (no, she will not write your paper for you), or simply
want some one-on-one lessons in grammar, email for a quote. Rates are extremely reasonable and competitive.