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Friday, March 15, 2013

Part I: 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to

In this column, author Ben Yagoda follows up on a recent article in which he described the "7 bogus grammar 'errors' you don't need to worry about." I responded to those columns with two blog entries--Part I and Part II--that offered differing advice on some of his comments.

I'm more in sync with Yagoda about these "legitimate rules that you should be aware of." He writes:

Not following them doesn't make you a bad person or even (necessarily) a bad writer. I'm sure that all of them were broken at one point or another by Henry James, Henry Adams, or some other major author named Henry. ... If you make these errors, you're likely to be judged harshly by an editor you want to publish your work; an executive who, you hope, will be impressed enough by your cover letter to hire you; or a reader you want to be persuaded by your argument. ...
I recommend heeding Yagoda's advice but offer additional comments below (mostly from Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual):

1. The subjunctive

Yagoda makes a distinction between using subjunctive verbs (were instead of was, for example) when describing a "non-true situation" and not using them (was instead of were) when describing "hypothetical situations, questions." He provides clear examples to show the difference.

Here's a related item in my style and usage manual; my examples are consistent with Yagoda's advice, though I suggest using the subjunctive for hypothetical conditions:

was, were Use was to state a fact: He was planning a vacation trip to Kauai. I was hoping to go too. But use the subjunctive verb were to express a nonexistent, desirable, hypothetical or far-fetched condition--even with a singular subject like I or heIf I were a rich man, I'd move to Kauai. If he were to plan a vacation trip, he'd go to Kauai.
2. Bad parallelism 

Yagoda says this issue often comes up in lists, and he gives an example of a list in paragraph form. It also comes up, perhaps more noticeably, in bulleted (or vertical) lists. My style manual provides a lot of related advice in its list entry.

This problem often occurs when writers are drafting their document. And that's fine. But the error can be easy to spot during the essential review and edit of the text.


3. Verb problems

Yagoda gives examples (incorrect and corrected) of "a few persistent troublemakers: lay/lie, laid/lay, shrunk/shrank, sunk/sank, seen/saw.

Here's my style manual entry on lay/lie and laid/lay:

lay, lie Often confused. The action word is lay, which means "to place, put or deposit." It is followed by a direct object: I will lay the agenda on the desk. I laid the agenda on the desk. I have laid the agenda on the desk. I am laying the agenda on the desk.Use lay, laid or laying if place, placed or placing would substitute correctly.
Lie means "to be in a reclining position." It does not take a direct object. It is often followed by down or a prepositional phrase:The mechanic decided to lie down. The wrench lies on the workbench. The wrench lay on the workbench all day. The wrench has lain on the workbench all day. The wrench is lying on the workbench. ...
4. Pronoun problems

Yagoda focuses on me, myself and I. I hear them misused mostly when someone is talking. But the distinction between them is worth remembering when writing. 

He also notes the current popularity of using myself instead of I or me. Perhaps speakers use it to sound modest; but we shouldn't assert our humbleness by speaking or writing incorrectly. 

Related entries from my style and usage manual:
pronouns Often confused and misused. The "nominative" pronouns I, he, she, we and they are always the subject of sentences and clauses (groups of words with a subject and a verb). In other words, I and the other nominative pronouns are more likely to be at the front of a sentence or clause (typically before the verb).
And the "objective" pronouns me, him, her, us and them are always the object of verbs and prepositions. In other words, me and the other objective pronouns are more likely to be at the back of a sentence or clause (typically after the verb). Also follow those rules when joining pronouns (and other nouns) with conjunctions like and and or.
Examples: I hugged her. He talked to me. She hugged him. We talked to them. They talked to us. We and Alex debated him and her. He and I considered them and Amanda. She or they would attend with me or us. 
I, me Often confused. The pronoun I (like he, she, we and they) is always the subject of sentences and clauses. And the pronoun me (like him, her, us and them) is always the object of verbs and prepositions. In other words, I is more likely to be at the front of a sentence or clause (typically before the verb). And me is more likely to be at the back of a sentence or clause (typically after the verb): I hugged her. He talked to me. She hugged him. We talked to them. They talked to us.
Also, please remember these correct uses when the sentence has a conjunction (such as and or or): He talked to Linda and me. Linda and I talked to him. The horse carried Debbie and me. Debbie and I rode the horse. Incorrect: He talked to Linda and I. Linda and me talked to him. The horse carried Debbie and I. Debbie and me rode the horse. To be polite, me or I usually follows the conjunction.
To test for correctness: Remove the other person's name and the conjunction from the sentence, leaving the pronoun; if it sounds incorrect, it probably is. For example, you wouldn't want to be heard saying, "He talked to I" or "Me talked to him" or "Me rode the horse." 
myself Often misused. Use this word to refer to yourself or for emphasis: I dressed myself. I'd rather do it myself. But don't use it self-consciously as a substitute for me. Incorrect: He asked Tina and myself for a ride home. Give it to him or myself. He talked to Tina and myself. The horse carried Tina and myself. Correct: He asked Tina and me for a ride home. Give it to him or me. He talked to Tina and me. The horse carried Tina and me.
To test for correctness: Remove the other person's name and the conjunction from the sentence, leaving myself; if it sounds incorrect, it probably is. For example, you wouldn't want to be heard saying, "He asked myself for a ride home. Give it to myself. He talked to myself. The horse carried myself."
Also see my style manual entries for I; between you and I, between you and meit's I, it's me; and than I, than me.

5. The 'dangling' conversation


Here's what my manual says on this topic:
dangling modifiers Avoid modifiers that do not refer clearly and logically to some word in the sentence. Dangling: Holding the paper to the light above the table, it cast an image on the wall. Holding does not refer to the subject of the sentence, it. As written, the sentence suggests that it (the paper) was holding itself (as well as casting its image)--an extraordinary feat!
To eliminate the dangling participle, the first words following that introductory phrase should be the name or description of the person (or thing) holding the paper: Holding the paper to the light above the table, Benjamin made it cast an image on the wall. The participle is no longer dangling; it's held in place by Benjamin--or, the subject of the sentence.
Another way to fix dangling participles is to put the original subject of the sentence in the introductory participle phrase, then refer to the object of the action as the replacement subject of the sentence. Thus: As Benjamin held the paper to the light above the table, it cast an image on the table.
The pronoun it could still be confusing to some readers, however: Is it the paper or the light? If that's a problem, replace it with the paper. Here's another way to rewrite the sentence: As Benjamin held it to the light above the table, the paper cast an image on the wall.
6. The semicolon

Yagoda says there are two proper uses for this punctuation mark. I describe three in my manual, breaking one of Yagoda's uses into two:
semicolon (;) The semicolon has three main uses, although the first use below is the most common. The semicolon shows a greater separation of thought and information than a comma but less separation than a period.
First, use semicolons to separate parts of a series when at least one item in the series also has a comma. A semicolon also goes before the final and in such a series: Attending were Tina Lopez, 223 Main St.; Ron Larson, 1414 Broadway; and Robert Zimmerman, 1976 E. Pine St.
The following two uses can add variety, eliminate a word or two, and closely link contrasting or related ideas. But breaking a long sentence with a semicolon into two or more shorter sentences can aid readability and clarity.
Second, use a semicolon to link two (or more) closely related statements that could stand alone as independent sentences (or clauses): The train arrived on time; the passengers were overjoyed. If a coordinating conjunction such as and, but or or separates the two independent clauses, a comma would replace the semicolon: The train arrived on time, and the passengers were overjoyed.
Third, use a semicolon between two independent clauses when the second clause begins with transition words such as therefore, however, thus and for example: The department had planned to drop the service; however, overwhelming customer demand persuaded officials to keep it. ...
7. Words

I provide additional advice on Yagoda's Words comments in my Part II blog entry.

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Yagoda's article is featured today, March 15, in Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

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