Tag Archives: restrictive modifiers

Three Grammar Rules You Can Ignore

silhouettes of runners breaking free of barriers
Three rules to leave behind

A common complaint I see in social media and reviews of indie books is that the grammatical slips that often litter these works distract from good stories. So yes, there are plenty of “rules,” guidelines, and conventions that writers really must adhere to if they want to be taken seriously by agents and editors, as well as many readers. Since many of these grammatical issues matter to clear writing, it’s not surprising that they get in the way of what the writer wants to say.

But there are some instructions that are regularly handed down as rules that don’t interfere with clear writing and that, in some cases, were never really “rules” anyway, not in the sense of something a writer should work hard to observe. In fact, struggling to follow some of them at all costs can turn perfectly straightforward sentences into gobbledygook.

Here are three you can let go of with no harm done.

Ending sentences with prepositions. Yes, you can!

book with butterflies taking flight from its pagesMy father used to tell me it was Winston Churchill who said, “That is something up with which I will not put.” Since then, I’ve seen that line inserted into the mouths of many different luminaries; regardless of who said it, the point is the same. Shoehorning the prepositions “up” and “with” into the middle of a sentence can throw the whole construction out of kilter.

This probably apocryphal example is interesting because “Put up with” is actually one of the English verbs in which the prepositions are actually part of the whole deal, so that some of the absurdity of “up with which” is that it separates essential parts of the verb phrase “put up with” from each other.

But even ordinary prepositions banished from the natural end point wreak havoc on the sentences they are meant to clean up. “What is that book about?” has to become “About what is that book?” And heaven forbid you try to restructure “Who did you go with?” The result, “With whom did you go?” now forces you to confront the difference between “who” and “whom” (which is actually a real distinction but another one you can ignore).

Splitting infinitives. Yes, you can!

Computer with wonderful applications exploding from itWay back in the annals of time, language mavens revered mostly by the small class of literati experienced an inferiority complex, believing that for English to grow up, it needed to become more like classical Latin. Well, in Latin and in most languages that are largely based on its rules, “infinitives” consist of one word. In English, which is not a Latin-based “romance” language but rather has roots in what we can most simply think of as Germanic, “infinitives” are created with the word “to” and the root form of the verb. Thus, in French, a romance language, “manger” means “to eat.” You’d have a hard time splitting “manger,” but “to eat” is a completely different animal. So feel free to say “To boldly go,” with the added perk of thus being able to use the same “meter,” iambic pentameter, that Shakespeare used.

Misusing “which” when you should have used “that.”

No one who’s not specifically on the lookout for this mistake will care.

Yes, this is a “rule” based on the difference between “restrictive (essential)” versus “nonrestrictive (nonessential)” clauses, a distinction you can check out here and here. But in fact, the very mavens who most vociferously shriek about this rule have been caught making this mistake even as they rant against it.

Soooo many books! Beautiful shelves and ladder.I do notice this mistake because I’m sensitive to the restrictive/nonrestrictive issue, which many people struggle to punctuate properly, often leaving me struggling to figure out where a nonrestrictive phrase ends and the main sentence resumes. But my point is that if your story is sweeping your readers along, this is the kind of mistake most of them will be swept right past. If you use whichever option sounds right in your sentence, you probably won’t spend your valuable creative energy thinking about the choice at all.

Bottom Line: If you have doubts about your command of “grammar,” or the correct kinds of usage that will make your writing clear and accessible, concentrate on punctuation, which above all is about clarity, and on verb forms, like the choice between “he had came home” and “he had come home,” a variation from the standard that will make it look as if you haven’t mastered your tools. Ignore even Microsoft Word if it tells you it’s not okay to write “Grammar is a skill I wish I was better at.”

Green smiley with a quizzical smile

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No-Comma Zones!

Cartoon policeman

Grammar Police do exist.

They’re called agents.

I present as evidence a memory of my then-agent saying that when she saw a comma after “and” or “but” in a query or manuscript, she quit reading.

I consider her automatic rejection a bit extreme, but she highlights an important fact: agents are always in need of a reason to move on to the next query. If something as simple as a misplaced comma can earn instant rejection, why not work on getting such small triggers fixed?

I’ve created a list of what I consider five basic comma rules; I argue that if your questionable comma doesn’t fit one of these categories, you’re better off leaving it out. Many times a sentence’s meaning is perfectly clear without commas even if technically you should use them. Commas, correctly placed, control rhythm and emphasis in sentences, and where you use one can be a judgment call.

However, there are a few places where commas tend to crop up when they really shouldn’t. In these instances, they can interrupt rhythm rather than improve it and in some cases, they actually muddle meaning.

Poor little car loaded with baggage on a tangled highway

Here are three “no comma zones” you should be aware of.

1. Around essential modifiers when the essential element is a name.

Understanding essential vs. non-essential modifiers can be daunting. Here, I’ll review the protocol, but check out this link for additional guidance and more good examples.

A non-essential modifier provides additional information that really is just that—additional. It isn’t needed for the sentence to make sense.

The old car, which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive, had been repainted bright blue.

Take out “which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive,” and the sentence works just fine.

Non-essential modifiers take TWO commas, one before and one after. Think of the commas as “cuts” you could use to lift out the non-essential stuff. But consider:

The car that gives you the most mileage is the one you should buy.

Without the modifier, we have:

The car is the one you should buy.

Since the point of the sentence is to say which car, the modifier is essential to the work the sentence is meant to do.

Essential modifiers DO NOT TAKE COMMAS. Using them around these elements violates the “no comma zone.” And that is even true—especially true—when the essential element is a name.

You may have been taught that “appositives” always take commas. They certainly can. Except when they are essential elements. To see how you can decide, look at this:

Author, Steven King, writes a lot of thrillers.

The commas mean you can lift the name out. Try it.

Author writes a lot of thrillers.

See?

If you have so many commas you really want to use them up, you can write instead,

The author, Steven King, writes a lot of thrillers.

Personally, I would use commas in this instance only if we were talking about some book of which Steven King is the author, not if we are talking about him in general as an author. Compare “The author Steven King writes a lot of thrillers.” In my view, that’s perfectly fine, even though “Steven King” is technically an appositive.

Typewriter with question marks on the page

2. Between a subject and its verb

The cat with the calico coat, is my sister’s.

You wouldn’t do this? I’ve been in enough writing groups to know that a surprising number of people do. Understandable confusion arises when the “subject” is followed by some kind of interrupting modifier, which would be set off with commas:

The cat with the calico cat, however, is my sister’s.

In addition, looong subjects that may have their own internal commas can make it hard to detect the subject’s verb.

For example, in the sentence I just wrote, the “subject” extends from “looong subjects” all the way to “commas”; “can make” is the relevant verb. So sticking a “pause” between “commas” and “can” would violate this rule. Think of it as a “pause” that unnecessarily breaks up the sentence’s natural flow.

Big question mark in clouds

3. After introductory “And” or “But.”

If you are a disciple of Word’s grammar checker, you may never commit the supposed sin of starting a sentence with “And” or “But.” But doing so is completely acceptable, as long as it’s done in moderation. What’s NOT acceptable would be

But, doing so is completely acceptable, as long as it’s done in moderation.

The only possible reason to use a comma in this construction is to emphasize the “But.” In fact, commas in general throw emphasis onto the word directly before them. Such a strategy, though, should be a conscious decision. You couldn’t credibly claim you want to emphasize every “but” or “and” you write.

The Bottom Line:

While many excellent blog posts have been published about comma usage, in my view, these three cases of “no comma zones” have gotten short shrift. But each can act as a trigger for that agent or editor with a full inbox. Why not keep them reading long enough to discover your great work?

Book with pages folded like a heart

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The Hardest Comma Rule!

Check the five basic comma rules
Comma Love

Mathina Calliope, at Jane Friedman’s site, does a terrific job of explaining essential/restrictive versus nonessential/nonrestrictive commas, with lot of examples. I know from many observations that writers struggle with this distinction. It’s one of what I argue are “the only comma rules you’ll ever need,” but it’s the hardest to explain in a short space. So head over and check out her discussion.

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More on Commas and Those Pesky Nonessential Modifiers!

Don Massenzio shares more on how to detect and punctuate essential and nonessential modifiers. This post from the Ediket blog provides some great practice examples! Check them out.

via How to Use an Appositive

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Which Grammar Rules Do You Ignore?

Typewriter publishAs I noted a few posts ago, in his article “The Phenomenology of Error,” Joseph Williams categorized errors by type. Among his more interesting categories, in my view, were those errors that the experts make even as telling us not to (and nobody notices). He also had a category of grammatically correct constructions that sound so odd when we use them that we generally prefer the error.

These categories change with time, since language and usage do, of course. But his discussion of them made me think about the kinds of errors we can and maybe should ignore and, in fact, the kinds of rules we should ignore.

Here are three of my “rules I can ignore” (if I want to). Do you agree with me on these? What are yours?

Three question marks printed on a typewriter

The “that/which” distinction.

Okay, I don’t ignore it, but from what I’ve seen, a whole lot of people do. It’s the one Jacques Barzun didn’t catch himself ignoring, as Williams documents. It depends on knowing the difference between a restrictive and nonrestrictive (or an essential versus nonessential) adjective clause (which you can read about here), and yes, I’m using “which” correctly here:

The house, which had just been painted and re-roofed, sat on a cozy cul-de-sac. (Nice info but you could lift if out and not miss it.)

The house that had the new paint and new roof was the best deal of the three. (Allows you to distinguish the best deal from the others; take it out and see how much is lost.)

The point is, only a very few termagants (like me) would even notice if you replaced the “that” in the second sentence with “which.”Typewriter and flowers

The “whom” challenge.

I call this a challenge because the error is a lot less noticeable when people commit it than when they try to get it right and get it wrong. Simply speaking, only the above referenced termagant will rage if you just use ‘who” ninety-nine percent of the time.

After all, doesn’t it sound more natural to say, “Who did you give that to?” than “Whom did you give that to?” The “whom” in the second is correct because it’s the object of the preposition “to” and objects have to be in the objective case (like “him,” “her,” “us,” and “me”). But our minds these days just aren’t trained to worry about all such distinctions.

A sign of our downfall? Actually, putting that “m” on “who” is an “inflection,” and English has been discarding inflections when they don’t really add any information for centuries.

Actually, the only time most people will want the “whom” form is when it directly follows its preposition, and that usually happens in a question that’s been re-ordered: “To whom did you give it?” “With whom were you going?” “For whom did you buy that hat?” Do you have to write these particular sentences? In my view, not unless you feel compelled.Happy editing

The problem arises when people assume that because “whom” sounds so much more formal, it is compelled whenever one wants to sound formal. So I’ve actually encountered sentences like “Whom is going with us?” Ouch, that really grates.

The messier­—and understandably more confusing—situation occurs when the who/whom pair has to be sorted out at the beginning of a dependent clause acting as an object. The handbook rule is that you choose “who” or “whom” depending on what it’s doing in its own clause, not in the larger sentence.

“Did you say who is going with us?” (correct) and “Did you say whom the hat is for?” (again correct–note that little preposition “for” controlling the choice). But “hypercorrectness”—going gaga over sounding upmarket—leads to “Did you say whom is going with us?” As a sort of sub-termagant, I submit that more than a few of the erudite people writers hope to impress WILL notice that one (though I’m willing to be corrected).

In my view, you should go ahead and make the “mistake” of the perfectly natural-sounding “Did you say who the hat is for?” and just kick “whom” out of your vocabulary rather than sticking it where it doesn’t belong (here’s a wise soul who agrees!).pile of letters

Singular “they.”

This one is a lost cause. It’s been a lost cause, according to Dennis Baron of the Web of Language, just about forever. English simply has no singular, gender-neutral pronoun—except “it,” of course; just try choosing “it” in this sentence: “Everybody should bring his/her/its lunch to the meeting.”

The conundrum, of course, is that “everybody” wants so badly to be singular; we say “everybody is,” not “everybody are.” Certain people who shall not be named think there’s really no problem. Just pick “his,” and who’ll care? After all, everybody is a “he,” n’est-ce pas?

For quite a while, “he” and “his” were the preferred options among those who got to do the published writing. Because more kinds of people get to do published writing now, the masculine singular won’t do. As Baron points out, efforts to creatively solve this problem of a singular “antecedent” with no acceptable gender-neutral singular pronoun have gone nowhere.

And “his or her” (or “her or his”), the only option that is even remotely close to acceptable, gets old in a hurry (“Everybody should open his or her notebook and take out his or her homework. . . .”). Baron writes that Vanderbilt University has actually declared singular “they” perfectly acceptable in its formal documents. So ignore this baby at will.

letter scatter novel

Those are a few of the rules I think we should ignore a) because people notice them less and less and often never; and b) trying to follow them results in sentences that will offend even people with certified tin ears.

So what are your rules to ignore?Woman writing

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