I’m curious what people think because I am on the fence. Unlike ending a sentence with a preposition, these are not nonsensical non-rules. And unlike using “who” when “whom” is technically called for, they’re not completely invisible—or are they? That’s my question: If you were advising a beginning indie author wanting to self-edit, would these go on your “must know” list?
In fact, very well-credentialed writers do ignore them. Is that enough to move them to “okay to ignore”?
I’ll start with one that seems to have been ripped up and stomped on:
The dangling modifier.
I recall the first time I heard a dangling construction on an episode of NPR’s Nova. What??!! Since then, I’ve seen so many of these that if I had a penny for every one, I could pave my driveway in copper.
The pattern’s ubiquitous.
“An accomplished author, her books have sold millions.”
“Long known for her steamy romances, her fans number in the millions.”
“His heart broken, the loss of his lover left him devastated.”
“Running across the street, a car almost hit me.”
Does only an ex-English teacher shrivel inside her arid little syntactical shell when the modifier doesn’t modify the noun or noun phrase that immediately follows? When it’s not her books that are an accomplished author? When it’s not her fans that are known for her books? When it’s not the car running across the street?
It’s not that readers can’t make out what goes with what. Is it only an ex-English teacher who shivers in delight when parts of sentences link together so precisely that they’re like the rocks in Inca walls—you couldn’t force a needle between them?
It’s amazing how obviously problematic these seem in isolation. Yet, zoomed over in texts, it can be hard to catch them. (Hah! See?)
But readers know what’s meant perfectly well, don’t they? So what’s the fuss?
I just saw “laying” when it should have been “lying” in a book I deeply respected. Which editor’s job is it to catch this? Am I silly to care?
I’m going to make the radical claim that the English language has decided. “Lie” and “lay” in the progressive tenses (she was lying/laying, he is lying/laying) are interchangeable, as they are in the simple past (he lay/laid down). Let go of it, you hyperventilators! The distinction has deserted you.
Or has it? Is it worth fighting for?
If you look this one up online, you’ll be told that you “complete” a comparison by making sure to state what is being compared with what. In other words, it’s “incomplete” if you say that “Painkiller X is better.” You must say better than what. Nor can you say, “Product X has the most nutritious ingredients.” You must designate the category in which nutritious ingredients are being measured. The first hits in an online search tie such “incomplete comparisons” to misleading advertising. These hits are correct: We do hear claims like these all the time. But they’re fairly easy to spot if we’re looking.
However, here’s what seems to be a more subtle form of incomplete comparison, given how often it pops up:
1) Education in Europe is a lot cheaper than the United States.
2) The restaurants in Louisville are better than Cincinnati.
3) My friend’s grammar skills are better than some English teachers.
Here’s a sentence I read this morning in an academic journal (I have changed some relevant nouns lest some enterprising soul try to figure out where it came from):
My years as a low-wage employee have been a lot better than some others at many locations.
Now, one could make the case, given the exceptional level of literacy this writer demonstrates throughout the article, that “some others” here refers to “years,” not other, comparable employees. If the referent is “employee,” however, the sentence would have to read (with the “understood” parts in brackets):
My years as a low-wage employee have been a lot better than [they have been] FOR some others at many locations.
Would you have read this sentence as I did? Would you have revised it, possibly to clarify the referent? What about the others above (1-3)? Would they have jumped out at you if you weren’t looking for them?
And then there are these:
Each of these, in some camps, is wrong. Yet I bet we read over them as often as we catch them. So. . . if you were editing your own work or your critique partner’s, would you flag these?
Neither of us are going to be there.
The data explains why the theory is wrong.
McDonald’s raised their prices again.
None of us like making mistakes.