Grammar Lab: The Three Most Common Errors I See

January 19, 2015

I edit a lot of books, and I see a lot of errors, but the same few mistakes crop up over and over again. For this week’s blog post, I am going to review the three most common errors I encounter to help you eliminate them from your writing.

 

Dangling modifiers: A modifier is a word or phrase that acts as an adjective or adverb to give us more information about a noun or verb. A modifier “dangles” when it is improperly attached to the rest of the sentence and ends up modifying the wrong word. For example:

 

Hurrying across the street, Joan’s heel broke off of her shoe.

 

The modifier here, “hurrying across the street,” is meant to modify “Joan” but actually modifies “Joan’s heel,” so we are left with the image of Joan’s heel scampering across the street on its own. To correct this, you could rephrase the sentence to read, “As Joan hurried across the street, her heel broke off her shoe,” or “Joan’s heel broke off her shoe as she hurried across the street.”

 

Another example of a dangling modifier would be:

 

Watching the sunset, the beauty overwhelmed her.

 

The modifier “watching the sunset” is meant to modify “her,” but actually modifies “the beauty.” Beauty is a powerful thing, but it isn’t capable of watching sunsets, so this sentence must go! Let’s try, “Watching the sunset, she was overwhelmed by the beauty.” Our modifier now does its job correctly.

 

Dialogue attribution errors: This type of error seems to stem from one of two problems. In some cases, authors don’t know the rules for punctuating dialogue. In other cases, the author seems aware of dialogue punctuation conventions but has mistakenly used a “non-verbal” action beat after dialogue, requiring a change in punctuation. The best way to explain this is through examples. In standard dialogue, where the dialogue is followed by “said” or some variety of “said,” a comma is used at the end of the dialogue, such as:

 

“I don’t know what to do,” she said.

 

If the dialogue includes a question mark or exclamation point, put it in place of the comma, not in addition to it, such as:

 

“Does he know you are here?” I asked.

 

If the dialogue is followed by an action beat rather than an actual dialogue tag, then the comma is replaced by a period and the words that come after the dialogue start a new sentence. For example:

 

“I don’t know what to do.” She threw her hands up in frustration.

 

The mistake I often see is this:

 

“I don’t know what to do,” she threw her hands up in frustration.

 

It seems fairly obvious in this example, but it gets trickier when it comes to actions that seem verbal, but aren’t actually tied to speech. For example:

 

“I can’t believe you’re here,” she laughed.

 

This may seem okay at first glance, but it is actually an error. While laughter does make a sound, it is not speech, and you can’t actually laugh words. So this would need to be punctuated as an action beat, not a dialogue tag, such as:

 

“I can’t believe you’re here.” She laughed.

 

Faulty parallelism: When you join words of the same grammatical type (verb, noun, adjective) with a coordinating conjunction (and, or, but), they are said to be parallel with each other. Faulty parallelism happens when you try to connect words of different grammatical types with a coordinating conjunction. For example:

 

She was smart and a good student.

 

In this sentence, we have combined an adjective (smart) with a noun phrase (a good student). To make this parallel, we would have to change one of the two so that they are of the same grammatical type. So, we could say,

 

She was smart and studious.

 

Now we have two adjectives, so we have eliminated the parallelism error. Another choice would be:

 

She was a smart kid and a good student.

 

Now we have two nouns and all is right with the world. Or at least with this sentence.

 

Another example of a parallelism error is:

 

He loves to watch movies and eating popcorn.

 

What’s wrong with that, you may ask. Both “to watch movies” and “eating popcorn” are noun phrases being used as the object of the verb “loves.” While this is true, “to watch movies” is an infinitive phrase while “eating popcorn” is a gerund phrase. They aren’t the exact same grammatical type, so there is faulty parallelism here. To fix, we’d have two choices.

 

He loves to watch movies and to eat popcorn.

 

OR

 

He loves watching movies and eating popcorn.

 

Even if you don’t know the terms “infinitive phrase” and “gerund phrase,” you should be able to see that both of the units being joined by “and” are now of the same type.

 

If you can work to eliminate just these three errors, you will greatly improve your writing. And when you are ready to hire an editor, a cleaner document will mean a lower editing fee. Are there other grammar issues that you struggle with?

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