To wrap up the grammar series, I’m going to focus on constructing beautiful sentences. To do this, you need three things: a good concept of sentence structure, a mental picture of the image you are trying to communicate, and a willingness to follow a few rules in the painting of that picture. As language becomes more beautiful, it also becomes more complex which can cause a few problems with things like modifiers, pronouns and punctuation.
Let’s start with an example of a problem sentence and work backwards from there.
- His father gave Bob a copy of his grandfather’s will when he was just eight years old.
I’m guessing you might find this sentence a bit confusing. Whose father? Whose grandfather? Who was eight years old? The problem is with the pronouns – ‘his,’ ‘his,’ and ‘he.’ It is not clear to whom they are referring. In the interest of brevity, whatever was meant to be communicated has gotten lost. So, assuming that the writer is talking about Bob’s father, let’s just say that. Here’s the change:
Bob’s father gave Bob a copy of his grandfather’s will when he was just eight years old.
Okay, better, but still some confusion. We still have a problem with the possessive pronoun ‘his.’ Does this mean Bob’s grandfather or Bob’s father’s grandfather? Think about ways to fix this. Lots of possibilities present themselves. One option might be the following:
Bob’s grandfather had a will, a copy of which Bob’s father passed on to his son when Bob was just eight years old.
Grammatically correct, but still kind of awkward. How about this:
When Bob was just eight years old, his father gave him a copy of his own father’s will.
Here is another example of a pronoun problem.
- The minute she walked out the door, it was necessary to go back in for your coat because you could tell the temperature had dropped twenty degrees.
You might have noticed right away the disagreement between the subject ‘she’ and the reference to ‘you’ and ‘your’ later in the sentence. This is another case of required agreement between pronouns. The antecedent is the subject of the sentence, whether it is a noun (my sister, the dogs) or a pronoun (I, we, he, she, you, they) and any subsequent pronouns have to AGREE with the antecedent. In this case, ‘she’ is the antecedent so both pronouns ‘your’ and ‘you’ have to agree with it in number (plural) and in gender – which they don’t. Here is a possible correction:
The minute she walked out the door, it was necessary to go back in for her coat because she could tell the temperature had dropped twenty degrees.
The sentence is okay now, but it still could be better. ‘It was necessary’ is a clumsy construction (called passive) and should be replaced, if possible. Here is an option:
The minute she walked out the door, she could tell the temperature had dropped twenty degrees. She hurried back in for her coat.
Complex sentence construction often requires the use of modifiers. Therefore, it is important to know how to use them well. Here is an example:
- Looking out the window, the scene almost seemed calm and quiet until the wind was noticed.
The first thing you might notice here is that, the way the sentence is constructed, it seems as if the scene is looking out the window. This is called a dangling modifier and indicates that the elements of the sentence are not located in the best place. The question becomes who is looking out the window at the scene? The sentence doesn’t tell us. Secondly, we have another passive construction as in the previous sentence with ‘the wind was noticed.’ Where is the subject and shouldn’t he or she or they be doing the noticing? So, let’s fix that. The sentence doesn’t give us an actor so you can make one up. Here’s my suggestion:
To Ray, looking out the window, the scene mostly seemed calm and quiet until he noticed the wind.
With the modifier located directly beside the subject, it is clear who is doing the looking and also provides active phrasing for Ray noticing the wind. But, one problem remains. Can you find it?
Did the scene ‘mostly seem’ or did it seem ‘mostly calm?’ The difference isn’t huge but it is important. The sentence is far better this way:
To Ray, looking out the window, the scene seemed mostly calm and quiet until he noticed the wind.
Do you have any questions about grammar? Send them to me and I’ll try to answer them or help you find resources that can.