Grammar: So much more than the wife of Gramper

Edited by Maggie 4/25

This blog post aims to explain some common grammar errors and illustrate how improving grammar improves the quality of writing.

Comma rules: “Let’s eat, Grandma!” or “Let’s eat Grandma!”?

When used properly, commas make sentences easier to read. When used improperly commas make sentences choppy, and, sometimes, confusing.

The first sentence is an example of a nicely-used comma which stands for a brief pause. The second sentence has a mistake in its first half: it’s missing a comma after “improperly”. Although the commas in the second half are technically acceptable, they do not have the same effect as the comma in the first sentence. The comma after “choppy” separates two elements in a list, and the commas surrounding “sometimes” serve to make that word parenthetical. Though all of these commas are grammatically correct, this does not mean it is always the right choice to use them. This is where commas become a matter of personal style. Both of the following sentences are improvements on the original:

When used improperly, commas make sentences choppy, and sometimes confusing.

When used improperly, commas make sentences choppy and sometimes confusing.

Surrounding the word “sometimes” with commas adds emphasis to the word. There’s nothing wrong with that mechanically, but it’s unnecessary to the sentence. Personally, I would go with the second version, which uses even fewer commas. Since there are only two adjectives in this list (“choppy” and “confusing”), the comma doesn’t clarify anything that isn’t obvious already.

Rhetorical effects of punctuation

Punctuation is often an afterthought, and changes to it made as last minute corrections. But punctuation is much more than stray marks; it’s essential to a sentence. Good punctuation creates emphasis and clarity. The following example is an excerpt from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”. We have removed all punctuation, aside from the ending period. As you read, note what seems to be the main point of the sentence? How could you tell? Which parts were easiest to read, and which hardest?

“The author has used an instinctive historical sense a part indeed of the ancient English temper and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy of which Beowulf is a supreme expression but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.”

While this quote is still readable, its focus is unclear. The main point is lost among the many clauses.  Here is the original version:

“The author has used an instinctive historical sensea part indeed of the ancient English temper (and not unconnected with its reputed melancholy), of which Beowulf is a supreme expression; but he has used it with a poetical and not an historical object.”

Now the sentence’s emphasis in clear: Tolkien contends that the author’s use of history was used for poetical effect rather than fact.  The em-dash and the parentheses make for clear breaks in the flow of the sentence, and the semi-colon prefaces additional information which makes the main point of the sentence.

Reading aloud is the best way to check the effectiveness of punctuation. This will help determine where pauses and stresses naturally occur.  An additional reader would also be helpful: s/he would is able describe what emphases s/he notices as a reader and what doesn’t seem as important.

Parallelism with verbs

While comma use is variable and depends somewhat on personal style, use of verb forms is much more cut and dry. Sloppy commas can make a sentence hard to understand, but incorrect verb forms can change its meaning entirely.
Parallelism is the use of the same verb tense throughout a sentence. It is essential in order to make a sequence of ideas understandable to the reader.Below is another quote from Tolkien’s “Monsters”. It has been modified to use several different verb tenses, instead of exhibiting paralleism.

“Beowulf is a half-baked native epic the development of which was killed by Latin learning; it is inspired by emulation of Virgil, and became a product of the education that came in with Christianity; feebly and incompetent as a narrative; the rules of narrative are cleverly observed in the manner of the learned epic; confusing product of a committee of muddle-headed and probably beer-bemused Anglo-Saxons. . .”

The differing tenses make this sentence hard to read. Though the absence of parallelism doesn’t necessary obscure Tolkien’s points, it make reading more of a struggle. Here is the original quotation:

“Beowulf is a half-baked native epic the development of which was killed by Latin learning; it was inspired by emulation of Virgil, and is a product of the education that came in with Christianity; it is feeble and incompetent as a narrative; the rules of narrative are cleverly observed in the manner of the learned epic; it is the confused product of a committee of muddle-headed and probably beer-bemused Anglo-Saxons. . .”

The original quote is easier to read, letting the reader find the examples in Tolkien’s argument easily. In the original essay, the list goes on for quite some time. Because the writing flows easily from one item to the next, the reader does not get bogged down in the information. The best way to make sure there is parallelism in a piece of writing is to reread, making sure the verb tenses are uniform. You might want to circle or underline all the verbs in a passage, then check to see if their tenses agree.

Misplaced modifiers

A modifier is a word (typically a verb or an adjective) that changes the meaning of another word (typically a noun.) It is easy to misplace modifiers, which can make it difficult to determine the meaning of a sentence. Here is a sample sentence with some misplaced modifiers:

After the Civil War, Indian peoples continued to be seen as a hindrance to the expansion of American civilization by white people across the continent, but their focus shifted towards problem-solving.

There are many problems in this sentence. For example, when I say that “Indian peoples continued to be seen,” I use the passive voice. This choice makes “being seen” an activity done by the Indian peoples. In fact, it is “white people” who are the subject of this sentence, and the ones doing the seeing. But the phrase “white people” is so distant from “continued to be seen” that the reader might have troubling making the connection.

The following rewrite fixes the problem:

After the Civil War, white Americans continued to view Indian people as a hindrance to the expansion of American civilization across the continent, but their focus shifted towards problem-solving.

Not only does rearranging the misplaced modifiers dramatically improve the clarity of this sentence, it also just sounds nicer. As a matter of fact, making your writing grammatical and easy to understand and making your writing sound better are usually the same thing.

Natalie Berg and Jessica Palacios

Ed. by MLE 4/25

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