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8.5: Common Grammar Traps

  • Page ID
    174921
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    Grammatical errors can confuse your readers and undermine the credibility of your communication. We’ve listed some of the most common mistakes below-look out for them when editing your work.

    Misplaced Modifiers

    A modifier is a group of words that describes another group of words within the sentence. Modifiers should be placed near the words they describe. Improperly placed modifiers can create ambiguity or imply an illogical relationship. There are two kinds of misplaced modifiers: dangling and ambiguous.

    1. Dangling modifiers literally hang illogically on sentences, usually at the beginning. They are placed so they seem to modify the wrong word and, thus, show an illogical relationship. To correct a dangling modifier, either place the modifier next to the word it modifies or change the subject of the sentence to clarify your intent.

      Confusing: Approaching the flight line from the east side, the operations building can be easily spotted by a pilot. [The operations building does not approach the flight line-the pilot does!
      Better: A pilot approaching the flight line from the east side can easily spot the operations building.

      Confusing: To make a climbing turn, the throttle is opened wider. [The throttle doesn’t make a climbing turn.]
      Better: To make a climbing turn, open the throttle wider. [The subject "you" is understood.]
    2. Ambiguous modifiers seem to modify two different parts of a sentence. Readers can’t tell whether they modify words that come before or after them. To correct an ambiguous modifier, place the word so its relationship can’t be misinterpreted.

      Confusing: People who drive to work occasionally can expect to find a parking space.
      Better: People who occasionally drive to work can expect to find a parking space.

      Confusing: Although working conditions improved slowly employees grew dissatisfied.
      Better: Although working conditions slowly improved, employees grew dissatisfied. [Case #1: the conditions improved slowly]
      Better: Although working conditions improved, employees slowly grew dissatisfied. [Case #2: employee morale dropped slowly]

    Errors in Subject-Verb Agreement

    Plural subjects take plural verbs and singular subjects take singular verbs. Another way to state this rule using grammatical terms is "Subjects and verbs must agree in number."

    The key to avoiding most problems in subject-verb agreement is to identify the subject of a sentence, determine whether it’s singular or plural, and then choose a verb in the same number and keep it near its subject.

    Generally subjects that end in \(s\) are plural, while verbs that end in \(s\) are singular. (There are exceptions to this rule-for example, the word ballistics is singular.)

    1. Phrases between the subject and verb do not change the requirement that the verb must agree in number with its subject.

          An inspection team consisting of 36 people is investigating that problem.
          A general, accompanied by 3 colonels and 15 majors, is attending the conference.
    2. A linking verb agrees with its subject, not with its complement.

          The commander’s main problem is untrained Airmen.
          Untrained airmen are the commander’s main problem.
    3. A compound subject consists of two or more nouns or pronouns joined by one of these conjunctions: and, but, or, for or nor. Some compound subjects are plural; others are not. Here are guidelines for subject-verb agreement when dealing with compound subjects:

          If two nouns are joined by and, they typically take a plural verb.
          The Air Force and the Army are two components of the nation’s defense forces.

          If two nouns are joined by or, nor, or but, the verb should agree in number with the subject nearest it.
          Either the President or his cabinet members are planning to attend.
          Either the cabinet members or the President is planning to attend.

          Use a singular verb for a compound subject that is preceded by each or every.
          Every fighter pilot and his aircraft is ready for the mission.
          Each boy and girl brings a snack to school.

          Use a singular verb for a compound subject whose parts are considered a single unit.
          The Stars and Stripes was flown at half-mast at the Headquarters building.
          Ham and eggs is a delicious breakfast.
    4. Use a singular verb with collective nouns (and noun phrases showing quantity) treated as a unit, but a plural verb when treated as individuals.

          The thousand wounded is expected to arrive soon. [A quantity or unit]
          A thousand wounded were evacuated by air. [Individuals]
    5. Use singular verbs with most indefinite pronouns: another, anybody, anything, each, everyone, everybody, everything, neither, nobody, nothing, one, no one, someone, somebody and something.

          Everyone eats at the cafeteria.
          The President said everybody was welcome to join.
          Everyone in the squadron takes a turn leading a service project.
    6. With all, any, none and some, use a singular or plural verb, depending on the content.

          All of the money is reserved for emergencies.
          [singular-equivalent to "The money is reserved for emergencies."]
          When the men arrive, all go straight to work.
          [plural-equivalent to "The men go straight to work"]
          All are expected to have a tour of duty overseas.

    Grammar Review: Pronouns

    Pronouns are words that replace nouns and refer to a specific noun. The noun being referred to or replaced by the pronoun is called the antecedent. Some examples:

    • SSgt Smith is our nominee for the award and he has a good chance of winning. [SSgt Smith is the antecedent; he is a pronoun replacing the noun later in the sentence.]
    • Three lieutenants arrived late to the meeting. Their boss was not happy with them. [Three lieutenants is the antecedent; Their and them are pronouns replacing the antecedent in the next sentence.]

    Errors in Pronoun Reference ("Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement")

    A common error in pronoun use involves agreement in number. If the noun is singular, the pronoun is singular. If the noun is plural, the pronoun should be plural, too.

    Let’s look at an example of an incorrect pronoun reference:

    Incorrect: Everyone should bring their books to class.
    [Everyone is singular, while their is plural.]

    When correcting such a sentence, try for gender inclusive language. Often the best approach is to make the subject plural and keep the pronoun unchanged:

    Correct: All students should bring their books to class.

    Of course, using his or her is also acceptable, but it gets cumbersome when overused:

    Also correct: Everyone should bring his or her books to class.

    With a compound subject joined by and, use a plural pronoun:

    My advisor and I can’t coordinate our schedules. [our is a plural pronoun]

    When parts of an antecedent are joined by "or" or "nor," make the pronoun agree with the nearest part:

    John or Steve should have raised his hand.

    Neither the student nor his roommates will have their deposit returned.

    Avoid awkward phrasing by placing the plural part second if one part of the antecedent is singular and one part is plural.

    Awkward: Neither my parents nor my sister has stayed on her diet.

    Better: Neither my sister nor my parents have stayed on their diet.

    Remember that embedded descriptive phrases can be tricky:

    Incorrect: He is one of those ambitious people who values promotion over personal ethics. [Values should be value because the pronoun who refers to people, not one.
    Clarification: he is one, but not the only one, of many ambitious people.]

    Here are some other examples of incorrect pronoun reference:

    The Air Force maintains different types of numbered forces, but the organization of its headquarters is similar. [Its should be their to refer correctly to types.]

    The committee plans to submit their report by the end of the month. [Their should be its because committee functions as a single unit in this sentence.]

    Comma Placement around Parenthetical Expressions

    There are many rules about using commas to punctuate sentences, and we recommend you check out Appendix 1 for the complete list. One class of common mistakes is nearly universal and worth covering in this chapter-placement of commas around groups of words that interrupt the sentence’s flow. Here’s the basic rule:

    Enclose nonrestrictive or parenthetical expressions with commas.

    What does this mean? If an expression (a group of words) can be removed from the sentence without changing its meaning, then enclose the expression with commas.

    Though the rule is simple, applying the rule requires some judgment. Advocates of open punctuation would argue that if the group of words does not "significantly" interrupt the sentence, you don’t need commas. Another judgment area is deciding which expressions are restrictive and which are nonrestrictive. A restrictive expression limits or restricts the meaning of the words it applies to, so it can’t be removed from the sentence without changing the meaning. A nonrestrictive expression merely adds additional information. Here’s the bottom line: If you can remove the expression from the sentence without changing the meaning, it is a nonrestrictive expression that should be enclosed by commas.

    Which punctuation is correct?

    1. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
    2. People, who live in glass houses, shouldn’t throw stones.

    Answer #1 is correct. The expression who live in glass houses is restrictive. If you eliminate it, the sentence changes meaning: People shouldn’t throw stones.

    Which punctuation is correct?

    1. My friend the architect who lives in a glass house has a party every year.
    2. My friend the architect, who lives in a glass house, has a party every year.

    The correct answer depends on your situation. If you are in the Air Force and have one friend who is an architect, then answer #2 is correct. The expression who lives in a glass house is nonrestrictive-it provides information that is not essential to the sentence’s meaning, and it can be removed without impact. On the other hand, if you work in an architecture firm and all your friends are architects, then answer #1 is correct. In this case the expression identifies which one of your architect friends has a party every year-it’s the one who lives in a glass house.

    Though there’s some judgment involved in deciding if something is nonrestrictive, once you decide to enclose an expression, don’t forget one of the commas.

    Incorrect: The new faculty, including the civilians must show up at 0600 tomorrow for physical training.
    Correct: The new faculty, including the civilians, must show up at 0600 tomorrow for physical training.

    Incorrect: Grammar errors including misplaced commas, inhibit writing clarity.
    Correct: Grammar errors, including misplaced commas, inhibit writing clarity.

    Grammar can be challenging, but the fixes can be easy, as shown by the examples in the preceding section. Grammar and writing style can also be humorous (or embarrassing!).

    Consider the common writing errors in the next section on as you examine your own writing.


    This page titled 8.5: Common Grammar Traps is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by US Air Force (US Department of Defense) .

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