Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

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.

Click here to read more articles from Teachers at Work.

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