Grammar Post: Common Issues

by Nynke Passi

FIRST-STEPS-Geoffrey-resized

Geoffrey Baker, “First Steps”

VERB TENSES:

Pick a verb tense and stay in it, unless you have a flash back, a flash forward, or dialogue where a different verb tense is appropriate:

Examples:

Case #1: It was a dead hot summer in 1969.  Me and the boys are with our Dad bouncing in our car seats of his 1968 Buick Regal four-door sedan.

Solution: Here the author is not fully sure yet what verb tense perspective the story will be told in, past or present. The first line is in past tense, the second in present. That will not work. Choose one and stick with it. Be consistent.

Case#2: It used an entrance at the other side of the farm, right next to the Kruger National Park. The KNP is/was one of the biggest game reserves in Africa.

Solution: The KNP still is one of the biggest game reserves in Africa, so you can get away with saying “is” here even though your story is told in past tense. However, in most instances you’d keep your entire story in past tense once you start in past tense, even if something still is the case.

Case #3: I sat at the kitchen table with my mother and we were having tea. Her hair was up in a gray bun. My father’s painting hangs above the table.

Solution: The painting does still hang above the table, but this is the story about then—and therefore you need to stay in past tense: My father’s painting hung above the table. In that scene then, it did, even if it is still so now.

Case #4: The music is so good. I am glad Papa paid for the band. They could play all sorts of music: Zairian music and Western music. They even sang in English.

Solution: Stay in the same verb tense throughout.

Case #5: Grown tired from reliving our past exploits, we lapsed into silence. This is a dangerous state for any two kindergartners to be in when they are together.

Solution: Stay in the same verb tense throughout, even though the second sentence may touch upon a general truth. This is still the story of then. You break the narrative spell if you switch out of the chosen verb tense, and you con fuse your reader.

(c) Royal Academy of Arts; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Geoffrey Baker

PRONOUN/ANTECEDENT AGREEMENT:

Link with more info: http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/grammar/pronante.html

Every pronoun you use should have a clear antecedent, or a word that it goes back on. The term “antecedent” comes from “ante,” meaning before, and “cedere” meaning “to go” in Latin. If there are multiple words that could be antecedents, your pronoun’s meaning will not be clear. If there are several females in a scene, “she” could refer to any one of them, so it won’t be clear whom you mean. If there is no specific word a pronoun can go back on, only an implied one, the meaning of your pronoun will not be clear and your grammar will be incorrect. Here some possible issues that can arise:

Examples:

Case #1: Fire ant hills in Alabama were an abundant nuisance. My father waged a war against them spraying them with poison. I was fascinated with them. I thought it was fun to poke a stick in them and stare at millions of them racing around the mound in alarm.

Solution: I thought it was fun to poke a stick in the anthills [them] and stare at millions of ants [them] racing around the mound in alarm. When you have two of the same pronoun in the same sentence, they should both refer to the same word, not two different words, or it gets very confusing. Here the first them referred to the hills, the second to the ants. There are not millions of anthills racing around, and she is not poking a stick at the ants. It is possible that the girl is poking a stick at the ants themselves, but if so, there was no antecedent. The ants were not mentioned anywhere, only the anthill was. Until the last part of this sentence, all pronouns can possibly go back on the word “ant hill” but that last part cannot possibly. So you have to rephrase and be specific.

Case #2: My mother and aunt Sophia were having a heated talk in the bedroom. I heard her say that she was tired of carrying all the weight around with her, because she was expecting a baby. And she replied that she could understand, but she did not seem to hear her.

Solution: Because you have two females, and many times the repeated pronouns “she” and “her,” you are going to have to be specific: Who is pregnant, who hears who say what to whom, and who replies, who understands, and who does not seem to hear whose words? This same issue can easily happen when there are several males in a scene, or several objects and the pronoun “it” is used, without clarification which of the objects it refers to. So be careful with all pronouns, and always examine if there is a clear antecedent that they go back on. Otherwise your meaning will not be clear.

Case #3: The boy’s mother–neither of whom have been named–heard a strange sound coming from his room.

Solution: The boy’s mother is a singular subject: the mother–which mother? The boy’s mother. This sentence assumes that there is a compound subject of both mother and boy. Possessives are not proper antecedents for any pronoun.

Case #4: When she confronted her, the woman allegedly told the mother she was getting her groceries out of the car for her, so she did not have to bother.

Solution: Again, you have two females, so you have to be specific whom you are referring to, or it gets confusing. Who gets groceries out of the car for whom?

Case #5: Andy Malory was engaged to Leland Simms when she was just sixteen years old, and the following year was engaged to mortician Aaron Walters–but neither resulted in marriage.

Solution: Neither refers to the engagements, but the engagements was never mentioned as an actual word; they were only implied with the verb “engaged to.” This does not work. You need an actual antecedent, an actual word in a sentence that a pronoun goes back on. It cannot be an implied word or a possessive. Neither here grammatically goes back on the two men: Leland and Aaron, yet obviously a man cannot result in marriage, though an engagement can. There you have a problem.

Case #6: And then, I was bitten by an ant.  It felt like fire and my ankle swelled to three times its size. My mom melted Epson salt in a plastic dish tub and I soaked it for hours to make the swelling subside.

Solution: “it” in the last line has no clear antecedent. Several singular nouns preceded it, and the closest was “tub,” which is obviously not the correct one in this case. An antecedent is always the closest noun of the same number (plural or singular) in the sentence, so be careful if you have several singular nouns in a row, then use the pronoun “it.” Here you have “ant,” “fire,” “ankle,” “salt,” and “tub.” Too many choices. So you have to make “it” specific: “my ankle” or “my foot” or something of the kind.

Case #7: My mother, sister, aunt and I were discussing the Thanksgiving dinner. She thought that she should make her sister’s recipe for yams.

Solution: My mother, sister, aunt and I were discussing Thanksgiving dinner. My sister thought that my mother should make my aunt’s recipe for yams.

BY-THE-SEA-Geoffrey-Resized

Geoffrey Baker, “By the Sea”

PRONOUN/SUBJECT (I/ME):

I/me  (and also we/us and he/him etc.) are often mixed up depending on whether these forms are subject or object in a sentence.

Examples:

Case #1: Me and the boys are with our Dad bouncing in our car seats of his 1968 Buick Regal four-door sedan.

Solution: The boys and I are with our Dad… Explanation: “I” is part of the subject of the sentence. You will only use “Me and the boys” if you want the slang colloquial voice. In all other cases, you should adhere to correct grammatical rules.

Case #2: One day, when I was in the eighth grade, my mother got a call from the parents of a child a few years younger than me.

Solution: One day, when I was in the eight grade, my mother got a clal from the parents of a child a few years younger than I [was]. Explanation: Finishing the full sentence in your mind can help you determine the right word.

Case #3: A few weeks later, Maman buys my sisters and I beautiful white dresses that are mini-skirts.

Solution: A few weeks later, Maman buys my sisters and me beautiful white dresses that are mini-skirts. Explanation: She buys me, not she buys I. I is not subject here.

Case #4: Since we had so much fun with the little lawn mower car, my dad thought to buy my sister and I a scooter.

Solution: Since we had so much fun with the little lawn mower car, my dad thought to buy my sister and me a scooter. Explanation: he buys me, not I. I is not subject here.

Case #5: Us children loved running wild on the Veld.

Solution: We children loved running wild on the Veld. Explanation: We is subject here. You’d only use “us” if you wanted the slang colloquial voice.

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Geoffrey Baker

DANGLING OR MISPLACED MODIFIERS:

Link with more info: http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/grammar/modifiers.html

A dangling modifier is a phrase or clause that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence, or that does not connect grammatically with the noun it is intended to modify. You have to identify the noun the dangling modifier is intended to modify and rephrase or rearrange the sentence so that these two parts are logically connected. Otherwise, you can get confusing meanings.

Examples:

Case#1: Iron skillets sit on black burners filled with grease that had been used over and over again.

Solution: What is filled with grease—the skillets, or the back burners? And what is used over and over again? Technically the nearest word is the word a clause connects with, but in this case “filled with grease” goes with skillets, not with burners. Then you have to rephrase your sentence so the right clause goes with the right word: On the back burners sit iron skillets filled with grease that had been used over and over again.

Case #2: Both Kristin and Candice Hermeler are believed to have spoken with one of the survivors of the 1999 tragedy in which thirteen students lost their lives by telephone.

Solution: Obviously, the students did not lose their lives by telephone, but Kristin and Candice have spoken with one of the survivors by telephone. “By telephone,” is therefore wrongly placed in the sentence. All modifying phrases should go with the words or phrases they modify, otherwise there is confusion: Both Kristina nd Candice Hermeler are believed to have spoken by telephone with one of the survivors of the 1999 tragedy in which thirteen students lost their lives.

Case #3: Walking to the college campus on a subzero morning, my left ear felt frozen.

Solution: If you have an introductory clause that has an implied subject, this subject should match the subject of the main clause. Here it doesn’t. You are walking to the college campus, but your left ear isn’t. So here you’d have to either insert a subject into the introductory clause, or you have to change the subject of the main clause: As I walked to the college campus…, my left ear felt frozen. You can also say: Walking to the college campus…, I noticed that my left ear was freezing.

Case #4: The government says the school was too slow to warn students about the gunman who killed three people on campus and should have done more.

Solution: Obviously, “should have done more” goes with school—the school should have done more to warn students. But because of where the clause is tacked on, it sounds as if the gunman should have done more (killing), which completely changes the meaning of the sentence—and in a horrible manner.

Case #5: Dressed still in her dance clothes, water started entering the boat and the lights went out.

Solution: The introductory clause “dressed…clothes” has an implied female human subject, which is not mentioned, whereas the main clause has “water” as its subject. To fix this you will either need to add a subject to the introductory clause, or change the subject of the main clause: She was still dressed… when water started… Or: Dressed still in her dance clothes, she saw water entering….

Case #6: Anya Foster has never revealed the identity of her son’s father who was conceived by IVF.

Solution: The son was conceived by IVF, not the father, yet “conceived by IVF” follows the word “father.” That does not work.

Case #7: Annie revealed how she dealt with her tragic son’s death through sculpture.

Solution: The death was not through sculpture (at least we hope not), but Annie dealt with trauma by becoming a sculptress or taking sculpture classes. By misplacing a modifying phrase, a whole sentence can become comically unclear.

Case #8: The next day with tears in my eyes, my Mother put me back in the car and we traveled to the school building.

Solution: The next day, even though I had tears in my eyes, my mother put me back in the car, and we traveled to the school building.

Geoffrey Baker

Geoffrey Baker

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