10 More Tips to Improve your Grammar, Diction and Punctuation (the third blog in this series). . . . .

Welcome to the third blog in my series of tips to improve grammar, diction and punctuation in your business or academic writing. In the 10 tips that follow, I draw on the writing of “Grammar Girl” Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, Henry Holt: 2008) and on my own experience as a copywriter and editor.

(1)   Dangling Modifiers: modifiers are words that qualify the sense of a noun or verb, in a sentence: e.g. “good” and friendly” are modifiers in the phrase “a good and friendly house.” But when modifying words are not connected to any subject of the action or being, they are said to be “dangling.”

(e.g.) wrong:  “Hiking up the mountain, the birds chirped loudly.” According to this sentence, the birds are hiking up the mountain, because no other grammatical subject is present in the sentence.

corrected: “Hiking up the mountain, Jan heard the birds chirp loudly.”

(2)   Squinting (or Squinty) Modifiers: in this error, the modifier is put between two terms, both of which it could modify, so that the reader doesn’t know which one to choose.

(e.g.) wrong: “Children who laugh rarely are shy” (so are the children outgoing or do they seldom laugh?)

corrected: “Children who rarely laugh are shy.”

(3)  Who vs. Whom:  both of these are pronouns, but their difference often gets confused in speakers’ or writers’ minds. “Who” is the subject of a clause and “whom” is an object of a clause.

(e.g. “Whom did you find at the fair? Who showed up there?”)

(4)   That and Who: these pronouns are not interchangeable. But there is a grey area, so the following tip will keep your usage safe. “That” refers to an object, and “who” refers to a person.

(e.g. “The book that was damp and moldy was a favourite of the librarian who saved it from the garbage.”)

(5)   That vs. Which: it can be confusing to differentiate these two elements. Mignon Fogarty argues that “that” is used before a “restrictive clause,” where it restricts the noun, and without which the meaning of the sentence would change.  (e.g. “Gems that sparkle sometimes cost a lot.”)

By contrast, “which” is used before all other grammatical constructions, and appears before non-restrictive elements, that can be left off without changing the meaning of the sentence. (e.g. “Diamonds which are expensive are often made into engagement rings.”)

(6)   Pled vs. Pleaded: both of these words often are used in spoken English for the past tense of the verb, “to plead.” In fact, “pled” is not a past participle at all and is incorrect. “Pleaded” is the correct form of the past tense of this verb. (e.g. “The senator pleaded guilty to the charges in court.”)

(7)   Into vs. In to : these two often get confused in written English. “Into” as a preposition always relates to direction. (e.g. “He walked into the room.”) But both of the elements of  “in” and “to” by themselves can be a preposition or an adverb and sometimes just end up next to each other. (e.g.”The thief broke in to the room.”)

(8)   Linking Verbs: what is a linking verb? In English, there are several verbs that link words together, instead of denoting action. Most common is the verb “to be” (is, was, are, were, have been, had been, am being, etc.)  But sensing verbs are also linking verbs (to feel, to smell, to taste), as well as the verbs “to seem,” “to appear,” “to look,” and “to become.” Fogarty writes that most linking verbs can be identified by replacing the word “is” for a verb in the original sentence, after which the sentence should still make sense (e.g. “He feels bad”-à“He is bad” still makes sense, so “to feel” is a linking verb). If the sentence does not make sense after substituting “is,” then the original verb was an action verb, not a linking verb (e.g. “He feels badly” à “He is badly,” which makes no sense. Therefore, “feels” is used here as an action verb, not as a linking verb.)

(9)   While vs. Although: are not technically interchangeable subordinating terms. “While” means “at the same time,” and “although” means “in spite of the fact that . . . .” But in common vernacular, the distinction gets lost. When writing a formal document, stick with “although.”

(10  It’s vs. its: this is not a difficult point, but it’s very surprising how often the contraction “it’s” (made from joining “it” and “is”) is confused with the possessive pronoun “its.” The latter is always possessive and never uses an apostrophe. So “its” is like “hers, ours, yours. “ (e.g. “It’s a pity that the bird hurt its wing.”) A similar distinction applies to “whose” and “who’s.”

And that’s a wrap on today’s 10 tips on grammar, style and punctuation. I hope you’ve found these tips helpful in your business or academic writing.  Stay tuned for more tips and thoughts on good English usage. To be continued!

4 Replies to “10 More Tips to Improve your Grammar, Diction and Punctuation (the third blog in this series). . . . .”

    1. Thanks for the positive feedback. I’m glad to know that the grammar and usage blogs have been useful to you. Please keep visiting my site, as there’s always more to say on that topic!

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