Teachers at Work

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When Grammar Rules Get Confusing, Use Your Head

To get across the importance of grammatical rules to her students, writing teacher Margaret Hundley Parker finds that a common-sense approach works best. Here Margaret gives examples of how unclear writing style reflects unclear thinking.

If you want to clear the room at a party, stand beside the bowl of nuts and chat about dangling participial phrases. Most people will look at their watches and lean away. Sadly, it doesn't go over much better in the college classroom.

When I explain dangling modifiers, hyphenated adjectives, or comma rules, I see my best students' eyes struggle to stay open (the worst students openly snore). And yet, they get these things wrong all the time, which is why I sometimes have to keep them awake by resorting to a common-sense approach to usage.

My goal is to teach them to write better expository prose, but that often means helping them become better thinkers. Wish me luck! Grammar rules can help, but if I can get the students to really think about their sentences, they'll find that if something is unclear then there's probably a grammar rule being broken. It hardly matters what rule. Sometimes the cure for bad writing is good thinking.

  • Running for the train, a rat ran across my foot.

You don't need to memorize your stylebook to wonder if that sentence is about a commuter rat with a tiny briefcase or the invisible man. It's not clear who is running for the train because there's a dangling modifier. In a nutshell, dangling modifiers happen when the word a phrase refers to is missing or refers to the wrong thing. Running for the train is the modifying phrase that seems to refer to the rat here because there's no one else in the sentence. To fix it, add someone: While I was running for the train, a rat ran across my foot or Running for the train, I tripped when a rat ran across my foot.

When I learned about dangling modifiers, I fell in love. I could put a finger on why some sentences seemed to be floating. Bryan Garner, in his Modern American Usage, says, "Danglers reflect a type of bad thinking." Indeed.

Here are more of my favorite danglers: Reaching the top of the hill, the graveyard was beautiful seems to be about an upwardly mobile graveyard. While working as a ranger in Yellowstone National Park, a grizzly bear crossed the road in front of my truck — that's one hardworking bear! Even Melville wrote this one from Bartleby, the Scrivener: "So calling Nippers from the other room, the paper was speedily examined."  Sounds like the paper called Nips. To fix all of the above, add someone! When we reached the top of the hill... or While I was working as a ranger.... I'll refrain from editing Melville.

Dangling modifiers usually come at the beginning of sentences but they can pop up anywhere: The dance floor was empty after removing the boxes of sequins or The stripper was described as a six-foot-tall man with a nose ring weighing 160 pounds or even the variation Please place your donation in the envelope along with the deceased person you want remembered. Either the writer has a giant Mylar envelope or "the name of" is missing in that last one.

  • Man Helps Dog Bite Victim

Did the man help the dog or the victim? Hyphenated adjectives might seem tedious until you get confused reading the headline above. Hyphens belong between adjectives that modify a noun to prevent the reader from interpreting the words separately. There's a difference between a crazy cat lady who loves cats and a crazy-cat lady who loves only the crazy ones. And if you don't want to get slapped, eliminate the hyphen from dirty-movie theater if you mean one with popcorn all over the seats.

When I put these kinds of sentences on tests, students often correct them with completely different meanings, which proves that they were unclear. Ladies have cast off clothing of every kind and can be seen in the basement on Friday afternoon might be changed to Ladies have cast-off clothing, as I intended, or Ladies cast their clothes off by students with certain preoccupations.

  • When I eat my cat...

You don't have to know all the comma rules to be confused when reading When I eat my cat sits on the table or When she entered the oven was on fire. Both of those sentences are missing the comma after a dependent clause and before an independent one. When I eat and When she entered are dependent clauses because they can't stand alone as sentences, but my cat sits on the table and the oven was on fire are independent because they can.

My favorite way to think about commas is to put one where there's a pause. But rules help when the ear fails. Commas protect the cat from being eaten and the woman from walking into a hot oven.

One could probably figure out what the writer meant without the commas, but it's rude to make your reader work so hard. There are a gazillion more rules about commas, hyphens, and dangling modifiers. It's okay not to memorize them, but it is important for writers to be clear. Bad style is bad thinking. As long as my students write unclear sentences, I'll continue to torture them with the rules. If the rules don't stick, perhaps common sense will prevail.

Margaret Hundley Parker's work has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Time Out New York, Oxygen.com, Bust and performed at the North Carolina Literary Festival, CBGBs, and the 24-Hour Plays, to name a few. She has been an editor at FIT magazine and Road & Travel. Her book, the KISS Guide to Fitness, was published in 2002 by Dorling Kindersley. She has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Pratt Institute, and through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

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Tuesday January 19th 2010, 1:25 AM
Comment by: Katja L. (San Diego, CA)
This makes me laugh out loud! Why is this all so familiar? Because this is how my students write, and they are seniors in college!
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 4:13 AM
Comment by: Daniel R. (Newcastle upon Tyne United Kingdom)
It is a sign of our time, and it will get worse. Too much silly information in students' head so not much ability to concentrate on grammar rules or clear thinking nor to see the importance of such things for a good happy life.
I teach meditation and find that people struggle to think clearly because their mind is over crowded.
I often wonder if teachers were to make students be silent for a period of 3 minutes once or twice during a class would that help the students???
Any one willing to try???
Let me know.
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 4:24 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
I recall seeing, a long time ago, a film entirely based on the comic of language leading, most of the time, to a comic of situation. The way the two main characters used the language was very similar to the way described in this article, and the audience (those who expressed themselves correctly) could not stop laughing. Needless to say that those who talked in the same way the two characters talked, could not understand why some people in the audience were laughing. I’d love to see more films using the comic of language, as, indeed, I find them absolutely hilarious (when well done).
And speaking about seniors in college expressing themselves in this manner, I am not surprised to hear that’s the case, as I read (on some websites), recently, some council letters (an exchange between the council’s employees and the people wanting to have something resolved by the council) that were written by both sides in the same vein this article describes.
Below is an example (an extract from such a letter):

“Our kitchen floor is damp. We have two small children and would like a third so please send someone round to do something about it.”
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 5:03 AM
Comment by: paul B. (jackson, MS)
Wonderful article. I hereby commit myself to think more about every word.
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 7:17 AM
Comment by: Daniel R. (Newcastle upon Tyne United Kingdom)
Antonia D.
Very funny example.
Do you remember the name of the film you mentioned?
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 7:49 AM
Comment by: Kenneth K.
That is one well written article. The next question is how to get students to think like readers. As the students write, they know what they mean. They often have trouble reading their own work, as if they were new readers.
Again, that article is well written and a pleasure to think about.
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 10:02 AM
Comment by: The Hollander (Brooklyn, NY)
Man Helps Dog Bite Victim.

No matter how many times I say that, it remains hilarious.

Wittgenstein once made a remark about how "grammatical jokes seem deep." The examples that Parker puts on display here are so funny because they undermine deeply necessary syntactical "rules," which remain invisible in everyday life but are essential when we write.

A great article. Thanks to the author.
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Suzan S. (Summerville, GA)
I really enjoyed your article. It took me back to my 7th grade English teacher, Miss Sohns, who told the story of the blacksmith demonstrating to his apprentice how to make a horse shoe. The blacksmith took the red hot horse shoe from the fire and said, "When I nod my head, hit it hard with the hammer." The apprentice did.
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 1:01 PM
Comment by: Abigail W.
I remember still my mother reading out loud a letter about a family planning to adopt "a boy with one leg in Montreal" and me being completely puzzled (momentarily) as to how one of his legs could be in Montreal if the rest was not! That was many (many!) years ago now and it still sticks with me.
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 1:20 PM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Indeed, I enjoyed reading this article enormously, as it made me laugh and laugh and laugh.

The Hollander (Brooklyn, NY):
You are perfectly right about finding “Man Helps Dog Bite Victim” endlessly hilarious. So do I. In a different order of ideas, I do not recall the particular quotation from Wittgenstein you are mentioning ( I would be quite happy if you’d tell me what is the book the mentioned quote, "grammatical jokes seem deep", comes from), however he continues to be right about the extraordinary importance of the clarity of language. Nevertheless, in terms of language games (a concept intended "to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life." (Philosophical Investigations, 23)) and forms of life, what “Man Helps Dog Bite Victim” (as one example of many) tells us about both?

Daniel R. : The film had the name of the two characters (Tanta and Costel). It was a foreign film (Romanian), and I do not think that it has been translated in English, as I think that translating the comic of language from one language to another might be not only difficult but it might also lose some of its humor, though I might be wrong.
The film’s producers, I think, also had the hope of making those speaking incorrectly aware about the mistakes they were making (had an educational purpose as well- to let people see a copy of themselves in the film, a copy laughed at by those who spoke the language correctly, be ashamed about their ignorance and correct themselves). In other words the film’s producers hoped that when these people will see themselves ridiculed for their preposterous use of the language will do their best to correct themselves. Needless to say that the hopes of the film’s producers remained unfulfilled, at least in part, as not everyone felt vexed enough to embark on a serious study of their own language.

Below another example (another extract from a letter sent to the council):
“Will you please send someone to mend the garden path, my wife tripped and fell on it yesterday and now she is pregnant?”
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 1:47 PM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Suzan S.:
Very funny example; one of the best.
We may suppose that the blacksmith wanted to introduce his apprentice to Nietzsche’s way of philosophizing.
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 2:55 PM
Comment by: Frank C. (Issaquah, WA)
Reminds me of a sentence I once read that emphasized the importance of punctuation. It can mean just the opposite of what is intended.

Woman, without her, man is nothing.
Woman without her man, is nothing

Frank C.
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 9:08 PM
Comment by: The Hollander (Brooklyn, NY)
Hey Antonia D.

PI 111: The problems arising through a misinterpretation of the forms of our language have the character of depth. They are deep disquietudes; their roots are as deep in us as the forms of our language and their significance is as great as the importance of our language. -- Let us ask ourselves: why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep? (And that is what the depth of philosophy is.)

It's embedded in the section that deals, more explicitly than others, with the distinction between grammatical and empirical propositions. Philosophy thinks it's making big deep statements about the world, but often it's just restating the rules of a language game or language games.

This idea is examined in depth in On Certainty. Have you read that? Moore holds up his hand and says, "I KNOW that this is my hand." He thinks he's reifying his knowledge through a kind of certainty that is skeptic-proof. But all he's really doing is defining what a hand is, the way one would to a child. (At least this is the book's leaping-off point.) The statement isn't about MOORE'S hand, any more than it is about Moore's HAND. It's about the way we learn and use language.

But to bring it back to this article, "Man Helps Dog Bite Victim" is so funny because it is intended as a simple empirical proposition, but is flawed down in the "deep" place of grammar. I think that this discrepancy makes the whole phrase vibrate.

Thanks for listening.
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 11:33 PM
Comment by: Margaret P. (Brooklyn, NY)
I think this article is absolutely brilliant! (Margaret is my daughter.) But, seriously, I'm impressed by the way she simplifies what can be complicated grammar usage.
Wednesday January 20th 2010, 9:14 AM
Comment by: R Kent S.

Your article has been very helpful. I am fairly "green" as a writer, so just being able to put a name to those bewildering sentences I sometimes find, scratching my head in confusion, while editing an essay, has made all the difference. Thank you
Wednesday January 20th 2010, 12:38 PM
Comment by: Bruce S. (San Rafael, CA)
I wonder how much of a risk it is to consider 'common sense' as a viable tool to improve grammar, punctuation, or any other aspect of clear writing. With the proliferation of Twitter and text messaging, and the intentional and common misspelling, shortening of words, and grammar and punctuation abandonment in service of speed and brevity, who is to say that such use doesn't constitute common sense?

The constant peer and self-imposed speed and brevity pressures lead to the creation of confusing sentences cited by the article's author. If writers took the time to think, and to proofread, what they wrote, we might see fewer confusing sentences, poor punctuation and bad grammar. Unless students and others who write are willing to slow down and think about what they are saying with their words, there is little likelihood that clear writing will result.
Wednesday January 20th 2010, 3:41 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
I've spent happy hours learning how to string words together. Neither of my sisters writes anything more than a grocery list. They receive a letter from me, and they pick up the telephone. My children were taught to write essays by teachers that honestly said, "Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Just write your essay." Why would one write a sensible essay when no one else can read it without a translater?

It isn't proofreading when the author edits her own words. I find that I read words or even sentences the way I assume that I wrote it. Maybe students should read each other's work. If it doesn't make sense to them they may spot the error that caused the confusion. Or not.

I wish my grandchildren good luck.
Thursday January 21st 2010, 4:58 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
The Hollander (Brooklyn, NY):
Part 1
You were thinking about a form of life from the point of view of the person (P2) speaking correctly (and therefore a form of life extended), while I’m thinking also about a form of life from the point of view of the person (P1) speaking incorrectly (and therefore a form of life restricted). Both extended and restricted being understood, in this context, in relation to having or not having knowledge of grammar.
What interested me, and it still does, is the language game, or the form of life, of the person (P1) that speaks incorrectly (the person which is not aware of doing so, and therefore for him what he is saying does not sound funny). Such a person, though expressing himself incorrectly, nevertheless, up to a certain level of thinking complexity, specific to each person, (beyond which, we might guess, both thinking and its expression might be flawed) has the same thought (T) as a person (P2) expressing the thought correctly. And what I think it’s interesting is finding out to what extent different forms of life overlap (and what are the limits of such overlapping). That’s something I’d like to explore further (at what point two forms of life stop overlapping and become tangential – when T becomes T1 and T2 in two different minds).
Thursday January 21st 2010, 5:01 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
The Hollander (Brooklyn, NY):
Part 2
Concerning the book you are talking about, I read a book entitled “On Certainty” some time ago, but the name of its author escapes me (I shall have to have a look to see if the one I have has been written by the author you mention). Coming back to what you wrote, in saying "I KNOW that this is my hand" is not “defining what a hand is”, as you are explaining, but, in my view, is defining one’s knowledge about a hand belonging to oneself (therefore I think it defines hand’s belongingness, and “hand”, as anything else, can be defined in many ways – biological, etc. ). And this very belongingness allows for certain implied sentences (as Wittgenstein calls these sentences) and no others. For example, take two pianists: one still learning to play the piano, the other accomplished (that’s an extreme case to help explain what I’m saying). Certainly we can think of as many pianists as we’d like, not only two, as some people, having an extraordinary auditive sensitivity, might tell whether a Beethoven sonata was played, say, by Rubinstein or Brendel.
However, taking as an example the beginner and the accomplished pianist, the same piano piece will come differently to our ears, depending on who is playing the piano (the beginner or the accomplished pianist – belongingness, again, of the hands). Another example, perhaps even better: the unmistakable voice of Maria Callas (and many other great singers). Not only she knew that that voice was hers, but we know too. Is this a certainty that is skeptic-proof?
One should notice “my hand” in the first sentence, is different from “a hand” in the second, as the first is defined by a possessive pronoun, while the other by an indefinite article, which is to say that in writing, “hand” is defined by such different language forms (including adjectives, etc). However the “hand” as a written word is not a hand (unless I think about the written word as a result of my hand writing it, therefore defining the hand through its action of writing (a possible implied sentence), in this instance, which is not the same with uttering the word hand, the utterance being not the result of using my hand, but rather the result of using my vocal chords (in which case I am defining, partly, my vocal chords through my utterance of the word “hand”).
Somewhere Wittgenstein is mentioning “this” as becoming meaningful when one is pointing towards something – for example, Magritte’s drawn pipe with the text “this is not a pipe” becomes meaningful in the sense Magritte wanted to be understood (though, as usual we might only guess what would have been all the meanings he had in mind). Having something present or not within a form of life might be another way of defining that very form of life (in a way similar, perhaps, to Heidegger’s being-in-the-world), helping us to understand why one person sees a discrepancy (to use your word), while another had no idea that such a discrepancy occurred.
Thursday January 21st 2010, 9:30 AM
Comment by: Rita C. (Mason, OH)
I have two rules of thumb for my students:

1. READ YOUR WORDS OUT LOUD, using your "external voice" to hear your own words. This helps to develop your "internal voice", so that you can "grow" a better internal editor.

2. Tell yourself: THE READER IS STUPID! (Kids think this rule is funny and the idea is a jumping-off point for teaching the writer to "help" the reader understand common confusions, such as: What does the word "that" refer to? or Which "he" did what?)
Thursday January 21st 2010, 11:46 PM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
In Magritte’s drawn pipe with the text “this is not a pipe”, the very drawn pipe is a way of pointing (through a drawing) that defines “this” (restricting the sense of “this” to the drawn pipe, and therefore the number of meanings Magritte wants us to think about).
Would we take “this is not a pipe” on its own, then “this” can be anything that is not a pipe (e.g. universe, trees, a man, in a play, dressed as a pipe, etc., therefore having its sense infinitely extended). If, as a way of pointing, words are used, then “this is not a pipe”, inevitably needs to be transformed (e.g. this device, made out of such and such parts, is not a pipe”, and in this case “device, made out of such and such parts” is the way of pointing through words).

Rita C. (Mason, OH):
I was surprised to read the second point (teaching method), considering that a student’s first reader is his own teacher. As a student, I’d like my first reader (my teacher) to be brilliant rather than stupid (as from a stupid reader is not much feedback to be expected, especially in terms of its quality).
Friday January 22nd 2010, 6:34 AM
Comment by: The Hollander (Brooklyn, NY)
Bruce S. -- Well said! Speed has trumped precision in a thousand ways. It's depressing. But like this article's author, I intend to keep waving the flag, even as the enemy streams by in droves, their heads lowered to handheld devices and their fingers tapping, tapping.
Friday January 22nd 2010, 12:02 PM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
The Hollander (Brooklyn, NY):
I said that I would let you know if the author you mentioned was the same author of the book I read. It turned out that the author of the book I read, entitled On Certainty, was Wittgenstein. And the words I posted above tried to explain, though in an extraordinarily succinct way (though to some might have seemed quite long), the quote below:

“40. Upon "I know that there is my hand" there may follow the question "How do you know?" and the answer to that presupposes that this can be known in that way. So, instead of "I know that here is my hand", one might say "Here is my hand", and then add how one knows.”

If interested in continuing a discussion on certainty you can join the philosophy forum, of which I am a member, on the site to be found at the below address:

Saturday January 23rd 2010, 1:49 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
The Hollander (Brooklyn, NY):
One last thought before moving to something else:
(1). Taking as an example the beginner and the accomplished pianist, the same piano piece will come differently to our ears, depending on who is playing the piano (the beginner or the accomplished pianist, or we might call them the pianist who plays less well and the pianist who plays better than the first, if we consider them to be part of a piano competition).
“OC.21. Moore's view really comes down to this: the concept 'know' is analogous to the concepts 'believe', 'surmise', 'doubt', 'be convinced' in that the statement "I know..." can't be a mistake. And if that is so, then there can be an inference from such an utterance to the truth of an assertion. And here the form "I thought I knew" is being overlooked. - But if this latter is inadmissible, then a mistake in the assertion must be logically impossible too. And anyone who is acquainted with the language-game must realize this - an assurance from a reliable man that he knows cannot contribute anything.”

Reading what I’m saying (1), together with what Wittgenstein is saying (OC. 21), one can see that what is said in (OC. 21), “an assurance from a reliable man that he knows cannot contribute anything” is not always true, as, for example, a person who knows that one pianist plays less well than another, and is part of a jury in a piano competition, contributes by way of voting in allowing the better pianist to go to the next stage of the competition (therefore the “assurance from a reliable man that he knows” (which takes the form of voting) contributes to the process of selection in the piano competition).
Thursday February 4th 2010, 3:24 PM
Comment by: Belle
I transcribe dictation for professionals. They may be young, but they have advanced degrees. At my office we chat among ourselves about the ill-conceived grammar of these native English speakers. (Second language speakers get a pass, but are also amusing.)
"This is an individual whom was admitted to..."
"She will return to see myself in..."
"There are a paucity of..."
"This begs the question..."(used incorrectly, in ignorance of what it implies).
"He is having no pain as per him."

Those who adore commas set these off:
...,per se,...
...,or so, ...
...which he receives ,as, as you know, he is retired...
Admittedly, if, however, the database...

Although I don't use texting, I am hoping texting skills will prevent the next generation of these professionals from so much blathering!
Friday February 5th 2010, 11:59 AM
Comment by: John T.
If you haven't read, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” then you must! A marvelous book on Grammar.
Wednesday February 17th 2010, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Elo V. (Fuquay Varina, NC)
Another great book of quotes I use with the students I tutor is "Bushisms".
The President's infamous grammar mistakes are hilarious and my
4-7 grade students love editing his speeches. Talk about seeing how important learning grammar is....
Wednesday November 28th 2012, 9:52 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
I really enjoyed your article, Margaret. Common sense trumps absolute rules, always, or nearly always. The trouble sometimes comes when regional cultures have given different meanings to phrases or even words. You have to know your audience if common sense is going to be sufficient. A bunch of teenagers can babble on and have complete understanding of one another. And, this poor old man can only walk away, bewilldered.

I think back SO MANY YEARS AGO, when I was in the 7th or 8th grade, I had memorized all the grammatical and puntuation rules. I could pass the test without a flaw. But, after 4 years of High School those memorized rules had faded from my memory. Maybe because my endeavors were not so much scholastic as they were to be a pain to the teachers.

A few years later, I enrolled in a night class at the university, English 101. Wow! I almost dropped out, but was determined not to have wasted my enrollment fees. I maintained an above average grade all the way through. When the professor asked me what the grammatical or puntuation rules were, that I had corrected, I couldn't tell her. I could only say that I had rewritten the sentences so they made sense. Obviously, however, those rules, so vague in my memory, helped, immensely. Her comment was that most students, who attempted to correct on the basis of rules only, completely missed the common sense interpretation.

Oral communication lets word inflection, pauses, etc. convey the meaning of the message. Successful written communication has to rely on punctuation, precise word selection, and placement of those words to convey the meaning.

The exact same transcript of a lecture, presented by two different speakers, can either put the listeners to sleep or hold their rapt attention all the way through the lecture. The same subject presented in written form can have the same results. What is the difference? One writer puts inflection into the transcript with punctuation and the other one doesn't.

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