The Mod Squad: How to Banish Misplaced Modifiers

Mod_Squad

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that offers a description or identifying details of another word in a sentence. A modifier should always be placed by the word it modifies. Let’s look at some examples below to see what happens when modifiers are misplaced.

The waitress received a large tip with a smile.

The previous sentence is an example of a misplaced modifier. A misplaced modifier often causes confusion for the reader. The modifying phrase in this example, “with a smile” modifies “The waitress,” not “a large tip,” so the modifying phrase should be placed next to the word or phrase it modifies to clarify the meaning:

With a smile, the waitress received a large tip.

Sometimes, a misplaced modifier is not only confusing, but can create a ridiculous sentence, as in the examples below:

The children ate the candy they had purchased slowly.

The word “slowly” is modifying “purchased” in the sentence. So it sounds like the children had purchased the candy slowly! What the writer really means is the children were eating the candy slowly.

The children slowly ate the candy they had purchased.

 

The sentence below also sounds a bit confusing, and quite awkward:

The school children saw a fence behind the school made of barbed wire.

Because the modifying phrase, “made of barbed wire” is directly after “the school,” it sounds like the school was made of barbed wire!

The school children saw a fence made of barbed wire behind the school.

 

In some cases, a modifier is sandwiched next to two words that could possibly be modified, creating an ambiguous meaning.

Jason told Alex immediately to call his mother.

Did Jason tell Alex immediately? OR was Alex to call immediately? We don’t know, so the sentence needs revising to clarify:

Jason told Alex to call his mother immediately.

Now it’s clear that Alex is to call immediately.

If the writer meant that Jason told Alex immediately, the sentence would look like this:

Jason immediately told Alex to call his mother.

 

Misplaced modifiers become more complicated when modifying phrases or clauses are placed between main sentence elements, as in the example below:

The cost of attending college, because of inflation and reduced federal support, has risen sharply in recent years.

This sentence is a bit awkward, as the modifying phrase is longer and more complicated. The sentence can be clarified by moving the modifying phrase to the end:

The cost of attending college has risen sharply in recent years because of inflation and reduced federal support.

The example below is also a bit awkward with the modifying phrase in between the subject and predicate:

Anthony could have, if he had not been arrested, played in the championship game.

In this example, moving the modifying phrase to the beginning helps to clarify the sentence:

If he had not been arrested, Anthony could have played in the championship game.

As you can see, misplaced modifiers can not only cause confusion for the reader, but can also sound quite ridiculous! Carefully read your sentences to make sure your sentences are clear and free of misplaced modifiers.


Now you try!

Can you identify the problems below? Reword the following sentences to correct misplaced modifiers.

  • Emma Sue was delighted when Mr. Nguyen returned her perfect calculus test with an ear-to-ear grin. 
  • Attached to the email, Charlotte sent her boyfriend Byron another photographic self-portrait with eerie red eyes. 
  • While Marina’s tail flopped against the wood, which was long, scaly, and metallic blue, she asked poor Tommy the reason for his pain. 

 

(exercises from http://www.chompchomp.com/modifiers01/modifiers01.01.htm)
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Identifying Phrases and Clauses

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Learning the basic rules of sentence construction will help you identify the parts of a sentence that make up the whole. This will help you to avoid punctuation errors like comma splices, as well as give you the knowledge to create more complicated sentence structures, which will improve the style of your writing.

Phrases

A phrase is a group of words that form a single unit in a sentence, but do not include a subject, or a verb, or both. Since a phrase does not have a subject and/or verb, it does not form a complete idea or thought. Since a phrase does not contain a subject or verb, it cannot stand alone as a sentence, and is considered a fragment.

Examples of phrases:

  • closing the door
  • under the tree
  • because of his illness
  • running past the gate

In the previous examples, you’ll see nouns (door, tree, illness, gate) and verbals – or forms of a verb (closing, running) – but the nouns are not functioning as the subject of a sentence, and the verbals have no subject performing the action.

Types of Phrases:

  • Noun: his brand new bike; the stinky old cat
  • Prepositional: over the wall; in the bedroom
  • Verb: will be done; can swim
  • Verbal: There are 3 types of verbal phrases: participial, gerund, and infinitive.
    Participial: The pond, frozen over since early December, is now safe for ice-skating.
    Gerund: Cramming for tests is not a good study strategy.
    Infinitive: My goal is to be a teacher.
    Absolute: I stood on the dock, the lake breeze chilling me to the bone.
    Appositive: The book, a 600-page biography, received great reviews.

Clauses

A clause is a group of words that contain a subject and a predicate. A predicate is a word or phrase that describes the action or state of the subject. Predicates always includes verbs.

Unlike a phrase, a clause can be a complete sentence – if it has a subject and a predicate. This type of clause is called an independent clause, as it can stand alone independently, with no other words or phrases needed to make it a complete sentence.

Examples of independent clauses:

  • Fried green tomatoes are popular in the South.
  • The door remained closed.
  • The car sounded noisy.
  • I stood on the shore.

Unlike an independent clause, a dependent clause cannot stand alone as a sentence, even though it has a subject and a verb. A dependent clause is dependent on an independent clause as part of either the subject or the predicate.

Examples of dependent clauses:

  • while the wind was blowing.
  • which I made by hand.
  • although the room was cold.
  • because the pool was deep.

These examples begin with subordinate conjunctions – while, which, although, because – so do not form a complete thought. When we see subordinate conjunctions at the beginning of sentences, we expect extra information to complete the thought. These dependent clauses require other words to make a complete sentence.

Troubleshooting

Recognizing phrases and clauses will help you to avoid comma splices, fragments and run-on sentences. Look at the sentences below and identify which are complete sentences, and which are incomplete sentences. Can you identify the phrases and clauses?

  1. Driving across town in rush hour traffic.
  2. My head pounding.
  3. I answered the door.
  4. Talking on a cell phone in a restaurant.
  5. Call the babysitter.
  6. Because he wanted to.
  7. I stood silently.
  8. In the darkest corner of the room.
  9. To go to bed after midnight.
  10. Loud singing from the back of the room.

All About Semi-Colons

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DON’T BE AFRAID TO USE A SEMI COLON!

Semi-colons are arguably the most misused punctuation in writing; they can be quite confusing.

Do you know why a semi-colon is used in the first sentence? It is separating two independent clauses, or complete sentences. A semi-colon creates a full stop in a sentence, unlike a comma, which is used as a pause.

When it comes to using semi colons in writing, most errors are made when the writer fails to understand the difference between an independent and dependent clause. The name of each clause offers clues to their uses. Once you understand clauses, semi colons are a snap.

Let’s review:

INDEPENDENT CLAUSES         

Independent clauses, or main clauses, can stand alone as a sentence. They will always include a subject and a verb:

The window is open.

 James plays the guitar.

 The dog barked. 

I went to the gym.

Even a short three-word sentence can be an independent clause if it contains a subject and verb, as the examples do above. Don’t be fooled by the length of a sentence, but consider, is it a complete thought?

DEPENDENT CLAUSES

Dependent clauses cannot stand alone as a sentence. They are dependent on other words to complete a sentence.

When James plays the guitar.

If the window is open.

Beginning with the files.  

These examples are dependent clauses. They are not complete thoughts and need more information in the sentence for them to make sense.

When James plays the guitar, it reminds me of Jimi Hendrix.

If the window is open, flies will get in.

It’s time to organize the office, beginning with the files.  

Now each of those dependent clauses makes sense, as we added independent clauses to complete the thought.

Below the dependent clause is italicized:

Because the window is open, the room feels cold.

I’d love to go to dinner, although I’m not dressed appropriately.

When you fix the tire, we’ll ride our bikes around the block.


USING SEMI-COLONS WITH INDEPENDENT CLAUSES

Semi-colons are used to separate two independent clauses when the ideas of the two clauses are closely related.

Don’t drink and drive; you could lose your license.

The dog escaped from his pen; I hope I find him soon.

Dinner was a great success; everything turned out perfect.

In the above examples, the second independent clause is closely related to the first part of the sentence, so keeping them “linked” with a semi colon makes sense.

You cannot separate two independent clauses with a comma, or you would create a comma splice, which is incorrect punctuation and will always be marked as an error. However, you could use a period, creating two sentences.

Wrong: Dinner was a great success, everything turned out perfect.

Correct: Dinner was a great success. Everything turned out perfect.

Correct: Don’t drink and drive. You could lose your license.

Correct:  Don’t drink and drive because you could lose your license.


How to Determine When to Use a Period or Semi Colon

If both a period and a semi colon would be correct punctuation, how do you know which to use in different situations?

As stated earlier, the rule for a semi colon is you can use it if the second clause is closely related to the first clause. In many cases, using a period may sound okay, and not really affect the flow of the sentence. However, if you had several short sentences and you used periods to separate each one, the sentences become choppy and tedious to read. Read the paragraph below and see how it sounds with all periods:

Dinner was a great success. Everything turned out perfect. The steaks were tender. Mine almost melted in my mouth. I wish Mom could have come. She wasn’t feeling well. I hope it’s nothing serious.

Notice that it reads a bit like a galloping horse, plodding. This becomes quite boring to read after a while. Partly this is due to the repetitive subject-verb-object construction, but some of it could be alleviated with the use of a semi colon or two. See if you can tell a difference:

Dinner was a great success; everything turned out perfect. The steaks were tender. Mine almost melted in my mouth. I wish Mom could have come; she wasn’t feeling well. I hope it’s nothing serious.

Did you notice you took less of a pause when you got to the semi colons in the second example?

USING SEMI-COLONS FOR ITEMS IN A SERIES

Most often, commas are used to separate items in a series. Sometimes though, the items themselves contain commas, so using a semi-colon to separate the items makes the sentence clearer and easier to read.

I bought shiny, ripe apples; small, sweet, juicy grapes; and firm, Anjou pears.

I have been to Montana, Wyoming, and Oregon in the North; Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi in the South; and New York, Connecticut, and Maine in the North East.

The newest additions to the cast are Josey Wales, who will play Will Davis; Deborah Farr, who will play his wife; and Tom Duffy, Farr’s young love interest.

Using semi-colons to separate the items above prevents confusion that might come from an abundance of commas.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Take care not to use a semi-colon too often. Any punctuation, if used too often, can become distracting. Sometimes it is simply a matter of judgement when and where to use semi colons. If you do incorporate them into your writing, use them sparingly and make sure you are using them correctly.

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 EXERCISE

A semicolon belongs in each of the following sentences. Determine where the semicolon belongs. Then select the word that comes just before the semicolon.

 

  1. It is raining outside I will bring my umbrella with me.

raining

outside

umbrella

 

——————————————————————————–

  1. There is a lot of financial aid around you just have to know where to look for it.

lot

aid

around
_______________________________________________

 

  1. It’s such a beautiful day I will walk in Memorial Park.

beautiful

day

walk

——————————————————————————–

  1. We will play tennis tomorrow then we will go out for dinner.

play

tennis

tomorrow

 

——————————————————————————–

  1. She had very high grades in high school she applied to Harvard University.

grades

school

applied

 

[Some examples and exercises from The St. Martins’ Handbook and OWL Online Writing Lab.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Write-Speak: Correcting Faulty Sentence Constructions

 

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When I was an undergrad writing major, I was told “Write like you talk.” If I were writing a work of fiction that needed realistic dialogue, writing like I talked worked great. But in all other forms of writing, if I were to write like I talked, it would look something like this:

“It’s like where you go. . . I mean. . . it’s when you turn left. . . like. . . up in the house when the corner turns . . .”

Or

“I can’t believe my Royals. . . Like. . .Oh my gosh! They were all going crazy. . . like, when they won. . . I was where I couldn’t talk, I was so excited!”

If you listened to just about any casual conversation, you would hear patterns of inconsistency (and really bad grammar!). Many, if not most, of our spoken sentences would be fragments or incomplete sentence structures. We talk it bits and pieces, and mix sentence constructions without even knowing it. Many of us intersperse our spoken sentences with numerous “filler” words, such as “like” in the examples above. So you can see how difficult it becomes to maintain consistency in our writing. Recognizing these patterns of inconsistencies is the first step to editing these incomplete structures.

Inconsistent Subjects & Predicates

Identifying the subject and predicate can be the first step toward identifying sentence inconsistencies. In the examples below, the subject and predicate don’t fit together grammatically or just don’t make sense:

EX.
From all his hard work helped Karl graduate.

When you read the sentence, you might “hear” something is wrong, but might not be able to identify the problem. The sentence begins with the prepositional phrase, From all his hard work, which acts as the subject of the verb. This is not a grammatically correct construction.

Revised:

All his hard work helped Karl graduate.

That sounds better.
______________________________________________

Look at the following problem example, where you’ll see an issue with inconsistent subject/predicate:

EX.

A characteristic that I admire is a person who is generous.

The subject of the sentence is “characteristic.” The verb is “admire.” But “a person” is not a characteristic, so this statement isn’t logical.

Revised:

A characteristic that I admire is generosity a person who is generous.

“Generosity” is a characteristic that can be admired in a person.

 

See if you can catch the faulty predication in the following example:

EX.

A compromise between the mountains and the beach would be an ideal place to vacation.

If you said that the subject of the sentence – “compromise” – cannot be an “ideal place,” you would be correct. It isn’t logical.

Revised:

A place combining features of the mountains and the beach would be an ideal place to vacation.

OR

The ideal place to vacation would be a location combining features of the mountains and the beach.

___________________________________________________

Keep Consistent Grammatical Patterns

Mixed Structures

One of the most common inconsistencies is what is referred to as a mixed construction. In mixed constructions, the grammatical pattern used in the first part of a sentence is not carried through in other parts of the sentence, creating an illogical sentence. The speaker of the sentence sets out to say one thing and switches to something else, resulting in confusion:

EX.

The fact that I get up at 5:00 a.m., a wake-up time that explains why I’m always tired in the evening.

The subject of the sentence, The fact, is followed by a dependent clause, that I get up at 5:00 a.m.; a predicate (verb or verb phrase) is needed to complete the independent clause. However, the sentence is mixed with another dependent clause, a wake-up time that explains why I’m always tired in the evening, which creates a fragment.

Revised:

The fact that I get up at 5:00 a.m., explains a wake-up time that why I’m always tired in the evening.

OR

The fact that I get up at 5:00 a.m., a wake-up time that explains why I’m always tired in the evening.

Another mixed sentence can occur with is when and is where, as in the following examples:

An examination is when you are tested.

An examination is where you are tested.

Think about what the subject actually is in this sentence. Examination is a test. Examination is not a time or place. When should only be used when referring to time. Use where only when referring to a place.

Revised:

An examination is a test of what you know.
___________________________________________________________

The ability to identify subjects and predicates is helpful in avoiding faulty sentence constructions, but sometimes we just know something doesn’t sound right when we read it. Carefully reading through your sentences to see if they are logical is the first step to editing out sentence-level inconsistencies.

Examples from http://wps.ablongman.com and The Everyday Writer: A Brief Reference.

A Match Made in Heaven: Subjects and Predicates

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We learned last week that failure to include a subject or verb in a sentence will cause a sentence fragment. Even when subjects and verbs are both present, you still may not have a grammatically correct sentence. Subjects and verbs must fit together grammatically. When they don’t, the sentence has a mixed structure, or faulty predication.  A mixed construction is a sentence with parts that do not logically fit together.

Faulty Predication

A predicate is the part of the sentence that makes a statement about the subject, and the main part of the predicate is the verb. Sentences must be logical, meaning the predicate must have the ability to act on the subject. Faulty predication is created when the subject can’t logically do or be whatever the verb says it’s doing or being. Consider the sentence below:

EX:

  • A quality that I admire is someone who is patient.

“Someone” is not really a “quality,” so this sentence isn’t logical. This is considered faulty predication because the subject (quality) isn’t consistent with the predicate (is someone who is patient).

  • A quality that I admire is patience.

Is patience a quality? Yes. But note that a person can be patient; a quality is patience. The only way to correct the sentence is to change the form of the word, patient.

EX:

  • The rules of the game expect all players to be in full uniform.

“Rules” can’t “expect” anything, right? Rules can require:

  • The rules of the game require that all players be in full uniform.

Trouble with Linking Verbs

Another illogical construction with faulty predication is using when, where, and because immediately after the linking verb “is.”

EX:

  • An idiom is when a word or phrase has an unpredictable meaning.

In the previous sentence, the subject, “idiom” is a noun. The sentence is illogical, because a noun must follow the linking verb “is.” When used as a linking verb, “is” must join two nouns:

  • An idiom is a word or phrase with an unpredictable meaning.

The same rule applies to “where” in the following sentence:

EX:

  • The summit is where a mountain is the highest.

Omit  “where” and follow “is” with a noun:

  • The summit is the highest point of a mountain.

EX:

  • A gulf is where a portion of ocean or sea is partially surrounded by land.
  •  A gulf is a portion of ocean or sea partially surrounded by land.


Reason. . . is Because

Using “is because” following “reason” creates a confusing structure. It’s redundant, as the meaning of “because” is “the reason that.” It’s not only illogical, but confusing:

EX:

  • The reason I like to play tennis is because it keeps me in shape.
  • I like to play tennis because it keeps me in shape.

EX:

  • The reason I went to work early was to catch up on emails.
  • I went to work early to catch up on emails.

Both of these examples are corrected by removing “the reason” and the linking verb preceding “because.”

Finding these types of sentence-level errors is tricky, and they are often overlooked in academic papers. Read sentences carefully, paying close attention to the subject and predicate of each sentence. You can also try using MS Word’s FIND tab to locate illogical constructions such as “is when,” “is where,” and “reason. . . is because.” When working to eliminate faulty predicate construction, nothing works better than a close reading.

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Pause and Read On: All About Semi-Colons

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Have your papers been returned with circles around the semi-colons? Have you ever used a semi-colon because you couldn’t decide what punctuation to use? Is your motto, “If in doubt, use a semi-colon”? 

If so, you’re not alone.  

Semi-colons are arguably the most misused punctuation in writing; they can be quite confusing.  

Notice that semi-colon I just used? It is separating two independent clauses, or complete sentences.  

Semi-colons are used primarily to connect independent clauses and to separate items in a list. To understand how to use with independent clauses, let’s review what an independent clause is.

WHAT IS A CLAUSE?

A clause is a group of words containing a subject and a predicate. A predicate is the verb or verb phrase:

Examples of Predicates:
 
She dances. – verb-only predicate

Ben reads the book. – verb + direct object predicate

Ben’s mother, Felicity, gave me a present. – verb + indirect object + direct object predicate

She listened to the radio. – verb + prepositional object predicate

They elected him president. – verb + object + predicate noun predicate

She met him in the park. – verb + object + adjunct predicate

She is in the park. – verb + predicate prepositional phrase predicate

(ex. from Wikipedia.org/predicate)

Now that you understand clauses, lets look at the two types of clauses: dependent and independent.

INDEPENDENT CLAUSES         

Independent clauses, or main clauses, can stand alone as a sentence. They will always include a subject and a verb:

The window is open.

The ball broke the window.

The dog barked.

I went to the gym.

DEPENDENT CLAUSES

Dependent clauses cannot stand alone as a sentence. They are dependent on other words to complete a sentence.  It would be incorrect to separate the two clauses with a semi-colon.

Below the dependent clause is italicized:

 

Because the window is open, the room feels cold.

I’d love to go to dinner, although I’m not dressed appropriately.

When you fix the tire, we’ll ride our bikes around the block.

USING SEMI-COLONS WITH INDEPENDENT CLAUSES

Semi-colons are used to separate two independent clauses when the ideas of the two clauses are closely related.

Education is an elusive word; it often means different things to different people.

Turn the lights out when you leave; we’re wasting too much energy.

This photograph is not at all realistic; it uses dreamlike images to convey its message.

In the above examples, the second independent clause offers more information, closely relating the two.

INCORRECT:

This photograph is not at all realistic, it uses dreamlike images to convey its message.

You cannot separate two independent clauses with a comma, or you would create a comma splice, which is incorrect punctuation. However, you could use a period and create two sentences. This would create a longer pause than a semi-colon.  

OKAY:

This photograph is not at all realistic. It uses dreamlike images to convey its message.

USING SEMI-COLONS FOR ITEMS IN A SERIES

Most often, commas are used to separate items in a series. Sometimes though, the items themselves contain commas, so using a semi-colon to separate the items makes the sentence clearer and easier to read.

I bought shiny, ripe apples; small, sweet, juicy grapes; and firm pears.

I have been to Montana, Wyoming, and Oregon in the North; Texas, Arkansas, and Mississippi in the South; and New York, Connecticut, and Maine in the North East.

The present officers are Hazel Duff, president; Jason Rich, secretary; and, Tom Sales, treasurer.

Using semi-colons to separate the items above prevents confusion that might come from an abundance of commas.

FINAL THOUGHTS: USE WITH CAUTION

Take care not to use a semi-colon too often. They can become distracting if overused, and an essay with too many semi-colons can become tedious and choppy to read.

Semi-colon practice

A semicolon belongs in each of the following sentences. Determine where the semicolon belongs. Then select the word that comes just before the semicolon.

1. It is raining outside I will bring my umbrella with me.

 raining

 outside

 umbrella

 2. There is a lot of financial aid around you just have to know where to look for it.

 lot

 aid

 around 

3. It’s such a beautiful day I will walk in Memorial Park.

 beautiful

 day

 walk

 4. We will play tennis tomorrow then we will go out for dinner.

 play

 tennis

 tomorrow

 5. She had very high grades in high school she applied to Harvard University.

 grades

 school

 applied

 

(Some examples and exercises from The St. Martins’ Handbook and OWL Online Writing Lab. )