Unique to humans, language is our most widespread way of communicating. The more clearly we express ourselves, the better our chances of success in any life endeavor. Not only do better communication skills help us interact with others, these skills also allow us to organize our internal thoughts better.
As a former English teacher, I’m often pained with the confusion of language pouring into our ears and eyes on a daily basis. But hey, we were all so young when we sat in our last English class. Much of what we heard went in one ear and out the other without lingering even one minute in our frontal lobes. Therefore, as a public service certain to garner scorn heaped upon my head, I will now embark on a few brief lessons in grammar.
#1 – The most conspicuous in this communication confusion is the wayward apostrophe. This little quirk of ink is meant, most of the time, to show possession. Its close twin in usage is its role in substituting for a missing letter, as in a contraction.
In possessive use, I’m talking about Marcie’s shawl. Or Tom’s briefcase. The apostrophe is NOT meant to show plural, as in “There were twelve Marcies in the room.” NOT “There were twelve Marcie’s in the room.,” the latter suggesting that there twelve of Marcie’s something in the room.
The use of an apostrophe in showing more than one (plural vs singular) is an invasive creeping blight that appears in all kinds of places. You’d think sign painters and retailers would have a glimmer of awareness about this problem. Maybe they just don’t care that their failure to communicate could cause puppies to die.
Or at least lead to Grammar Nazis convulsing on their front sidewalk.
Now this apostrophe problem would be easy to solve for most people if that’s was all there was to it. But apostrophes show up again in contractions such as “I’m” meaning “I am” and “it’s” meaning “it is.” Not too many people miss the “I’m” and “can’t” and “Tom’s” punctuation, but an endless stream of “it’s” show up when someone wants to describe the problem with “its,” in this usage referring to a sled. In “its long path downhill…,” “its” shows possession without an apostrophe.
Simple rule for “it’s”? If you can substitute with “it is,” you’re doing it right.
Otherwise, ask yourself if you’re using the troublesome little quirk in place of a missing letter. That’s a contraction. [Notice my clever usage of the apostrophe in place of the “i” in “That’s,” as in “That is.”
For yet another discussion in this endless harangue over apostrophes, there’s this article in The Atlantic magazine.
#2 in our list of confusing grammatical mistakes is the endless conundrum about contractions. I’ll simply insert this instructive meme here in hopes of making my point without belaboring it. If the language offends you, please accept my apologies. The creator of this learning aide merely meant to gain your devoted attention.
#3 in our list of confusing grammatical mistakes is the dangling modifier. This is not, as some might think, a reference to certain anatomy. Well, maybe. In some cases. But stop and think—what is a modifier? Or more fundamentally, what does “modify” mean?
Modify means to refine something. Add to it, clean it, change it in some way, large or small. A mechanic overhauling an old car is modifying it. A carpenter repairing a broken staircase is modifying it. Likewise, our communications aren’t “Dick ran.” or “Mary fell.” These words and ideas need modifiers to help us understand more about what we’re trying to say.
When words are added to modify the meaning of a word or phrase, the modifiers add a better understanding of what the modified word means. For example, in the sentence “The boy ran,” we get the basic idea. It’s the noun (boy) with the verb (ran), noun and verb being the skeletal structure of any sentence. But if we say “The seven-year-old boy ran fast.” we have modified “boy” with the adjective “The” and the adjective term “seven-year-old.” We’ve also further explained what we mean about “ran” with the adverb modifier “fast.”
[Clearly, the term “adverb” means adding to the verb. The term “adjective” is less obvious, since it doesn’t explicitly say “adding to a noun.” But that’s what it means.]
Modifiers can be single words or entire phrases. I’ll leave it at that, although in the foggy heights of grammar, entire sentences can also modify. And often do.
Actually, while I’m slightly off-track, I’ll go ahead and say that to some extent, most of what we might say or write serves to modify an initial idea or statement. In a novel, an entire plot concept is modified through hundreds of pages of development and explanation.
But back to the heinous task at hand. Let’s add a bit more information to this basic sentence: “Worried about missing his dinner, the seven-year-old boy ran fast.” Here the initial phrase “Worried about missing his dinner” is a further modifier of “boy.” The mistake that often occurs is that the speaker/writer will not directly connect the modifier to the word it modifies but dangles in some other part of the sentence. You might see this error as “The seven-year-old boy ran fast worried about missing his dinner.”
This type of error occurs frequently because our minds gather the words and work out the meaning even if the word placement is somewhat garbled. Even though the modifying phrase is most closely situated next to “run fast,” we could easily understand that the modifier refers to the boy, not that it tells us anything about his running or how fast. This kind of short cut occurs all the time, especially in the media where the objective is to skip through as much language as possible in order to dispense more information in a shorter period of time. Viewers have the advantage of watching body language or seeing images that help modify the limited spoken words.
Shortcuts like these don’t work as well in written media where only words are present to explain what is meant. For example, this sentence attempts to give information about an archaeological discovery:
“Archaeologists have unearthed a 2,400-year-old burial containing the remains of men, women, and children arranged in an interlocking spiral shape while investigating the ancient settlement of Tlalpan in southern Mexico City.”
But because the modifying phrase does not appear next to the word(s) it modifies, the sentence is awkward if not confusing. Better: “While investigating the ancient settlement of Tlalpan in southern Mexico City, archaeologists have unearthed a 2,400-year-old burial containing the remains of men, women, and children arranged in an interlocking spiral shape.”
Multiple websites hosted by Grammar Nazis offer a multitude of similar examples. The following are from one such site:
“Hoping to garner favor, my parents were sadly unimpressed with the gift.”
Problem: This is a dangling modifier because we do not know who or what was hoping to garner favor. It is unlikely that the parents were hoping to garner favor, since they wouldn’t have given an unimpressive gift to themselves.
Correction: This sentence could be corrected by adding a proper subject, or identifying the person who was hoping to win over the parents. For example,
Hoping to garner favor, my new boyfriend brought my parents a gift that sadly unimpressed them.
Now, the modifier is no longer dangling, since the subject- or the person- who is hoping to garner favor is identified.
“Hoping to excuse my lateness, the note was written and given to my teacher.”
Problem: Here, it seems as though we have a subject- my. However, my is part of the modifier and not the subject itself.
Correction: We need a subject that is modified by hoping to excuse my lateness, since obviously the note didn’t have those hopes.
Hoping to excuse my lateness, I wrote a note and gave it to my teacher.
Now, the problem is resolved. I am the person who is hoping to excuse my lateness, so I wrote a note and gave it to my teacher.
After reading the great new book, the movie based on it is sure to be exciting.
Problem: Again, we are left wondering exactly who read the great new book. The phrase can’t possibly be modifying the movie, since the movie can’t read.
Correction: A subject must be added so the modifier has something to describe, change or limit.
After reading the great new book, Anna thought the movie based on it was sure to be exciting.
In the remote possibility that you’re still reading at this point, I’ll just sign off my duty as a worthy citizen by offering this link to yet more common grammar mistakes. Hey, it’s a hellish job but somebody’s got to do it.