Breaking the Grammar Code

What’s wrong with this sentence?  – Part 1

I know this is probably going to sound weird, but I love grammar. It’s a lot like a riddle in which codes are employed to determine the best way to proceed. Generally, I’m not a huge fan of rules but, because grammar rules allow us to communicate more effectively, the rules themselves are a kind of language that can be a lot of fun to translate.

So, here is a game. See if you can identify what is wrong with each of these sentences and then we’ll talk about the grammar codes that can fix ALL of these kinds of mistakes.

  1. Dogs want to please you, cats want you to please them.
  2. Terry went home, you can probably find him there.
  3. Instead of on the stand I think it should go in the bedroom.
  4. However you may have a different opinion.
  5. Take him home give him a hot cup of tea and send him to bed.

code 1

 

 

 

 

 

All of these sentences have comma errors. Commas are used to separate thoughts or ideas WITHIN a sentence and, as I’m sure you remember from grade school, indicate a pause.

Now, take a look at the first two sentences again. Both of these sentences have the same error, commonly called a comma splice, which simply means that the commas are there when they shouldn’t be.  The problem with each of these is that there are TWO subjects in each sentence (dogs and cats in the first, Terry and you in the second.) Only compound sentences can have more than one subject and they have to be connected in a particular way. (By the way, being able to identify the subject of a sentence will go a long way toward correcting both comma errors and many other grammatical issues that will discussed in future posts.)

So, the issue is that sentences one and two both have two subjects. That means you have several choices.

  • You can divide the sentence into two separate sentences.

Dogs want to please you. Cats want you to please them.

 

  • You can add a connecting word (also called a conjunction) like and, but, or yet.

Terry went home, but you can probably find him there.

 

  • You can add a qualifying word either at the beginning or between the two sentences.

Dogs want to please you. However, cats want you to please them.

Because Terry went home, you can probably find him there.

Now let’s take a look at sentence three.

Instead of on the stand I think it should go in the bedroom.

This is a situation in which you DO need a comma.  Again, it can be helpful to look for the subject of the sentence. In sentence three, the subject is ‘I’ because ‘I’  is the one doing the ‘thinking.’ You have probably already figured out that we need a comma between ‘stand’ and  ‘I.’ That’s because the first half of the sentence is a modifier which means the sentence would actually be okay without it. The speaker could just say:

I think it should go in the bedroom.

‘Instead of on the stand’ is considered a non-essential clause. Testing the sentence for non-essential clauses is a good way to determine the need for commas.

The other option would be to say:

I think it should go in the bedroom instead of on the stand.

The sentence sounds much smoother that way and you don’t need any commas because the modification has happened in the right order.

code 2

 

 

 

 

 

In sentence four, The subject is ‘you’ because ‘you’ is the noun tied to the action (having.)

However you may have a different opinion.

Once again, the sentence would be fine without the ‘however.’

The word ‘however’ is considered transitional which basically means that it is adding a qualification to the sentence. You could also use terms like ‘moreover, on the other hand, nevertheless, instead, also, therefore, consequently, otherwise, as a result,’ each of which has its own somewhat unique meaning. The point is that all of these require a comma. The reason is the need for a pause. Think about a sentence that starts, “However you…”  It has a completely different meaning and you is no longer the subject.  In our sentence you IS the subject and so needs to be separated from the transitional word with a comma.

However, you may have a different opinion.

code 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In sentence five, the subject is actually ‘you’ as well, though this is one of those cases where our language has decided it’s okay to drop the subject since it is understood – though you could say ‘You take him home,’ etc. which sounds kind of bossy. (Just for your information, this is called an imperative sentence and suggests a command. We soften the command by leaving out the subject: YOU.

(You) Take him home give him a hot cup of tea and send him to bed

This sentence is really just a list. Commas are always required in sentences where three or more items are listed. Yes, these items are a bit long (take him home, give him a hot cup of tea, send him to bed) but the sentence sounds a lot better when each one gets to stand kind of on its own with a little pause between.

Take him home, give him a hot cup of tea, and send him to bed.

Proper use of commas is a sign of a diligent and careful writer. Commas also clarify meaning. Use them to separate primary thoughts and non-essential clauses, to set off modifiers and focus attention on the subject of the sentence, and to clarify the items in a list.

In the next post, I’ll continue with the subject of subjects and explore all the ways that making your words agree with each other can improve your writing.

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