Grammar is a contentious subject. The fact that language is constantly evolving sparks more arguments than it resolves. While I tend to, within reason, be a grammar descriptivist, ready to change with the times, there are a few grammar rules that, when broken, can unfairly cast a pall on your otherwise inspired prose.
Don’t let that happen to you! Here are four grammatical thou-shalt-nots. Straight off my stone tablet. Ahem.
Like literary chicken pox, dangling modifiers infect the drafts of every writer at some point or another. Newbies, like children, tend to be much easier targets for dangling modifiers because they haven’t fully developed their sense of who their readers are, and what they need.
How it happens: Dangling modifiers most often occur when the writer assumes the reader knows that the speaker, who is making the observation, is implied in a sentence (example: Wearing only slippers, the trail was treacherous to hike.) Because you’re smart, you probably said, “That’s obvious! It seems like the trail is wearing slippers!” And you’d be right.
But sometimes, dangling modifiers can be much harder to spot. For example: Lacking proper footwear, the trail was more dangerous to hike. See how that sounds a bit like a warning—perhaps something you’d see on a trail sign? This sentence is almost a second-person construction, which can help it fly under a writer’s radar. But, if you really read it, there’s no logical way to place “you” in that sentence. Therefore, it’s still a grammar fail.
For a truly excellent and in-depth discussion on dangling modifiers, as well as misplaced and squinting (yes, squinting) modifiers, visit Grammar Girl’s Misplaced Modifiers page.
Less vs. Fewer
This one makes my left eye twitch, because once you hear it (really hear it), you’ll realize how gratingly wrong it sounds.
How it happens: Writers don’t realize that, although less and fewer both refer to comparatively smaller amounts of something, their nuances are different.
- Less: When you’re referring to objects that aren’t reasonably countable. This beach has less sand than the beach at home.
- Fewer: When you’re modifying something that’s countable. I see fewer people on the beach today.
Affect vs Effect
The difference between these almost-homonyms can stymie a new writer—unless it’s explained properly. Observe as I attempt to do so, and fail miserably.
How it happens: It’s easy to forget that affect is a verb, and effect is a noun. You can affect someone, or you can have an effect on someone.
Common exceptions: Affect can be used to describe a feigned behavior. She affected a British accent. Also, effect can be used as a verb, when you mean it as a synonym for “to bring about.” We want to effect a change in British society.
Bottom line: It’s confusing. For a rock-solid litmus test when you’re unsure, swap affect/effect for the word impact. It makes sense in either noun or verb context, and works in most linguistic grey areas.
As writers, we should always strive for more than just grammatical correctness when constructing sentences; we should aim the the kind of vivid parallelism that rewards our readers for paying attention. The first step toward great sentence technique is getting the subject/verb agreement thing down to a science.
How it happens: When we speak, inflection and tone make it easier to get away with subject/verb agreement errors, because all that unspoken communication helps listeners to follow your train of thought, whether the grammar’s right or not. As a result, our writing can become similarly lazy, and these things can slip past a writer attempting to self-edit.
Also, subject-verb agreement can be complicated. Saying, The team members loved Casual Friday is easy. Saying, The team doesn’t like Casual Friday is tougher. Is “team”—composed of individuals—a plural noun or a singular one? Answer: Neither. It’s a collective noun, which means you need to assign your verbs carefully and consistently to avoid sounding like a newbie.
In the case of The team doesn’t like Casual Friday, I’d pick a singular verb like doesn’t, since Casual Friday is singular (casual parallelism) and because saying “The team don’t like…” sounds terrible.
Rule: Use your artistic judgment based on the rest of the sentence, and when in doubt, add a descriptor to your collective noun (like in my original “Team members…” example), satisfyingly obliterating your conundrum.
What linguistic pitfalls do you think new writers should avoid like the plague (cliches, perhaps)? Share them in the comments.