Truthfully grammar can sometimes elude me, so I have a backup person who acts as my grammar expert. I also installed the free service, Grammarly, which points out grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors as I write. It can be annoying because it interrupts the flow of ideas, but I’ve relearned some things I had forgotten from my early school training.
Agreement is Easy to Reach
Writing coach Ken O’Quinn, writing in Public Relations Tactics in February 2017, says the mechanics of writing needn’t be overwhelming, if writers avoid common mistakes such as:
Subjects must agree in number with their verbs. O’Quinn notes that this can be tricky.
Our company’s powerful blend of industry knowledge, range of products and experienced service professionals combine to help your clients stay protected.
The subject is “blend” and the verb is “combine,” but it should be “combines.” People make this mistake, O’Quinn says, because:
- If you put more than five or six words between the subject and verb, then it creates too much distance and you lose sight of which word the verb needs to agree with. The noun “professionals” resonates in our brains because it is nearby, so we write the verb that agrees with it.
- Plural verbs don’t have an “s.” We add “s” to nouns to make them plural, but it’s the reverse with verbs. Add an “s” to make them singular and drop the “s” to make them plural.
O’Quinn says dangling modifiers usually surface at the start of a sentence with an opening clause or phrase containing a verb form, like:
Using the United Way as a case study, basic principles and strategies will be explored.
To encourage customers to accept the change, rules will be revised.
The verb form in the opening element of both sentences above refers to someone doing something, so the person or thing doing that action needs to appear quickly after the comma. Otherwise, O’Quinn explains, the modifier dangles, or hangs there, because it doesn’t logically connect to anything in the sentence.
In the first sentence, the principles were not using the United Way as a case study. Whoever is doing the exploring needs to appear after the comma. Similarly, in the second sentence, the rules did not do the encouraging. Insert whoever is doing the revising.
On a Parallel Course
One thing that stuck with me from early writing class was parallelism. If a sentence lacks parallel structure, the reader can stumble. The principle of parallelism says that when you have a series of elements (two or more), present in the same form, that is, the same part of speech, they must balance equally.
“Parallelism is not important to please your old English teacher,” O’Quinn admonishes. “As readers of English, we like consistency, so when elements are similar, we can see how they are related.
The recruiters want professionals who are creative, attentive to detail and demonstrate initiative.
Three words describe the professionals: “Creative” and “attentive” are adjectives; “demonstrate” is a verb. You could say “creative, attentive to detail and motivated.” You also could recast the wording to say, “who are creative and attentive to detail and who demonstrate initiative,” so the two “who” clauses are aligned.
It is acceptable to use “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun to avoid referring to men or women. In the 1900s, O’Quinn notes, language scholars condemned the practice, but Chaucer did it in 1395, and it has been common ever since, because writers often don’t know whether the people referred to are all male or female. This usage has new life today because writers value gender neutrality in their text.
But – and this is one of my pet peeves – don’t use “they” to refer to an institution, such as a company. Rather than say, “I would like to work at that company. They value their employees,” change it to “it values employees.”
Consider what function the pronoun has in the sentence. It can only be a subject and an object, and its role will determine the correct form.
In “please keep this between you and me,” the pronoun is the object of the preposition “between,” so it must appear in the objective form (me, him, her, them).
Wrapping it Up
I find that if I try to learn just a few rules at a time, grammar is a little easier to master. I like to give myself a little treat when I master several important ways to make my writing clearer. Perhaps I’ll go find “The Canterbury Tales” and curl up with a cup of tea.