“Her English is too good. That clearly indicates that she is foreign. Whereas others are instructed in their native language, English people aren’t.”
– Zoltan Karpathy in My Fair Lady
The struggle is real. The lack of institutionalized English grammar training continues to evade Canadian schools. I recall learning very little about English grammar, whereas I learned a lot of French grammar. For the most part, we learn to speak and read through constant exposure to English, but that doesn’t mean we’ll naturally pick up the complexities that come with writing. Let’s go through a few common grammar mistakes that can drag down your prose.
Place Modifiers Beside the Words They Modify
A modifier is a word that describes, limits or qualifies a phrase or word. In the phrase “the prancing cat”, prancing is the modifier. When possible, place modifiers next to the words they modify.
Misplaced Modifier: The young writer only slept for three hours a night while writing her first book.
In this sentence, the misplaced modifier gives the impression that the writer slept and did nothing else for the three hours. If we want the modifier “only” to emphasize how few hours the writer slept, it should be placed beside the number of hours.
The young writer slept for only three hours a night while writing her first book.
Avoid Breaking Up the Main Clause
Avoid separating a subject from a verb with a clause. Instead, place the clause at the beginning of the sentence.
Separated Clause: Laura Crawford, in the Lonely Planet for Japan, writes about Tokyo’s best sushi restaurants.
In the above example, the clause “in the Lonely Planet for Japan” should be moved to the start of the sentence to improve flow.
In the Lonely Planet for Japan, Laura Crawford writes about Tokyo’s best sushi restaurants.
One exception to this rule is with appositives; these help identify the subject.
Example: Laura Crawford, co-writer of Lonely Planet for Japan, writes about Tokyo’s best sushi restaurants.
Whenever possible, use specific language over vague language. Using vague language creates more work for the reader and often produces unnecessary words.
Vague Sentence: She wrote with a sense of urgency because she had left the assignment to the last minute.
Although there’s no grammatical issue with the sentence, it’s wordy and indirect.
She wrote the assignment quickly because she had procrastinated.
Use the Active Voice
The active voice makes for bold and compelling writing. While some situations call for the passive voice, in general, opt for an active voice.
Passive: The book was closed with vigor by the writer.
In the above example, the object is the focus of the sentence.
Active: The writer vigorously closed the book.
Changing to the active voice will shift the focus of the sentence to the subject, making the language more direct and precise.
Eliminate Superfluous Words
Tighten writing by deleting words that add no value to a sentence.
Verbose Writing: The reason why the writer was able to sell so many copies of the book was because of the well-organized book tour.
This is a long-winded statement. Several words can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence.
The writer sold a lot of books because the book tour was well-organized.
For more inspiration, check out Weird Al’s video Word Crimes.
Great, succinct post. I needed reminding of the misplaced modifier one myself 🙂
“Whereas others are instructed in their native language, English people aren’t.” – ain’t that the truth. It’s been terrible in the UK since the 1960s when children were left to “discover language” for themselves… Resulting in generations of disempowered people. Not the rich, though – fee-paying schools never abandonned grammar teaching!
Thank you for your tips! I totally agree! Our school mostly focused on French grammar rather than English, so these tips really did help.