If you don’t understand these rules after covering them in class or reading your textbook, here’s another chance to learn the 13 awkward constructions.
1. Saying the media is responsible
Fine, blame for the media for everything. But the Media are plural. (So are data.) Please make sure your subjects and verbs agree in number.
2. Rewriting to avoid the whole lie/lay thing
Lie and lay are two different verbs. Learn them today. Then you can feel disdain for those who haven’t bothered.
Whether fibbing or reclining, we lie. For the reclining version, we mostly lie down, not up.
At naptime, we lie down on our mats. Each lies on her or his mat. Yesterday, we lay down after lunch. (This one causes all the trouble.) Even the teacher lay down. (This one is a troublemaker, too.) My granny has been lying down since I was 16. She has lain there like an Egyptian queen.
Hence: lie, lies, lay, lying, lain
But chickens lay eggs, and “now I lay me down to sleep.” “To lay” is a transitive verb. So “to lay” always takes a direct object. Always. The direct object is the “eggs” or “me” part, or the thing that is laid (like roses at your feet).
Before breakfast, the chickens always lay eggs. My chicken lays brown speckled eggs. Yesterday, she laid two eggs. My chicken has been laying eggs for a fortnight. She has laid eggs daily like clockwork.
Hence: lay, lays, laying, laid
3. Demonstrating passive voice is not understood (by you)
Visualize these two active voice sentences as a movie: I threw the ball to Duke. He caught the ball.
The camera focuses on “I” who then winds up to “throw” the “ball.” The camera pans with the “ball” flying through the air. Suddenly, “Duke” bounds into the frame, jaws open, paws in the air, and “catches” the “ball.”
Notice how the action is sequential in our little movie scene. Nothing is out of order time-wise.
Not so with passive voice, which, by definition, is always moving backwards like a rewind.
Visualize these passive voice examples as a movie:
- The ball was thrown. (What’s wrong with this picture? Literally?)
- The ball was thrown by me. (Rewind: This is the reverse of the active sentence above.)
- The ball was caught. (Again, what’s wrong with this picture?)
- The ball was caught by Duke. (Rewind: backwards action)
Passive voice is freaky if you really think about it.
4. Making a pronoun disagree with their antecedent noun
Pronouns all have to refer back to some prior (i.e., antecedent) noun.
The pronoun and noun always have to match in number and gender, too. It’s like dating. Pronouns need to be compatible with their nouns.
So I.D. and fix the errors below:
- I will make no pronoun disagree with their antecedent noun.
- Each of my friends will make their pronouns and antecedents agree.
What is a tighter way to write the following? “Each of my friends will make his or her pronouns and antecedents agree.”
5. Using improper pronoun case, such as students whom know better
No one misses the difference between “they” and “them” or “he” and “him.” But we freeze when confronted with “who” versus “whom.”
When you can get away with it, the shortcut is simple: If you can replace it with the m-versions—“him” or “them”—then use “whom.” They all end in “m.” Use the same m-principle for “whomever.” Otherwise, use “who” or “whoever.”
The more complete rule, however, says “who” is for subjects and “whom” is for objects. Example: “Who reads whom?” The version for subjects is called the nominative case. The version for objects is called the objective case.
The next pronoun case quandary that trips us up is which pronoun case to use after a linking verb. (Drat, the uncanny linking verb)
It’s counter-intuitive, but after a linking verb use the nominative pronoun case. “Thus, it is correct to say that it is I who loves you, Sheila,” Monty said in his best upper-crust elocution, “not that dastard Harwood.” Long story short: “It is I” is correct, not “It is me.”
Same goes for “It’s they,” “It’s he” and “It’s she” (all correct).
6. Confusing restriction with non-restriction that requires commas, which are tricky
“That” is restrictive and needs no commas: I love birthday cards that contain cash (not all cards, just the ones with cash). So “that contain cash” restricts or limits the kind of “cards” I love. If we delete “that contain cash,” then the entire meaning of the sentence changes.
“Which” is nonrestrictive and needs commas: I love birthday cards, which have become quite expensive. Here the “which” clause is parenthetical information. In this case I intend to say I love all birthday cards, and, by the way, they cost a lot of money for a piece of folded cardstock. Here “which” does not limit or restrict the kinds of birthday cards I love. “Which” merely adds additional information. Thus, “which” is non-restrictive.
Think of the commas that go with “which” as little mini baby teeny tiny parentheses:
- Frittatas, which I always burn, are Greg’s favorite.
- Frittatas (which I always burn) are Greg’s favorite.
- However, the frittatas that Greg makes are pretty tasty.
By the way, we refer to people as “who” or “whom,” not “that or “which.” So what’s wrong with this next sentence? “The students that know better passed.”
P.S. You add the comma or not with “who” and “whom,” etc., depending on whether you intend restriction. For example:
- I prefer students who care. (restricted)
- I prefer mature students, who seem more engaged with the material. (not restricted)
7. Failing to parallel park your lists
In a list, whether words, phrases or clauses, each item must be grammatically the same or parallel
- Words: I like to research, report and write my own stories.
- Phrases: I prefer getting up before dawn, writing until noon and reading after lunch.
- Clauses: She said the duck is fatty but the ribs are delicious.
There are some problem children when it comes to parallelism. See if you can spot the correct versions below:
- When it comes to making lists parallel, you either get it or you don’t.
- When it comes to making lists parallel, either you get it or you don’t.
- They not only set a record for speed but also for time.
- They set a record not only for speed but also for time.
- They are as fast if not faster than I.
- They are as fast if not faster as I.
Hint: In each pair, the second version is correct.
8. Splitting infinitives
Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “To be or not to be…”
He didn’t say, “To be or to not be…”
Duh. If Shakespeare didn’t split infinitives, you shouldn’t, either.
9. Splitting verb phrases
- Split verb phrases have not generally been a problem for students. (wrong)
- Generally, split verb phrases have not been a problem for students. (better)
- Split verb phrases generally have not been a problem for students. (better)
Sticking an adverb between the helping verb or verbs and the main verb is like when your creepy uncle tries to sit between you and your significant other. It’s just wrong. Let the helping verb and the main verb be together. Give them their own space.
10. Misplacing or dangling your modifiers, the joke may be on you
Often humorous, misplaced modifiers are merely in the wrong place.
Groucho Marx famously said: “One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.” Ba-Dum-Ching!
To correct a misplaced modifier, simply move the modifier to its correct position: In my pajamas, I shot an elephant.
Dangling modifiers, while also often given to comic effect, are always rewrites—not just edits. The modifier is dangling because it has nothing to modify in the sentence as written: Grading students’ feature stories, the errors were atrocious. OK, so maybe that’s not so funny after all. But, um, who or what was grading those papers anyway? Get me rewrite: Grading students’ feature stories, the professor found atrocious errors.
11. Writing comma splices is bad, if you write run-on sentences that is bad too especially in professional contexts where you should know better and besides you could embarrass yourself. Dealing with sentence fragments
A comma splice is when you join two sentences with a comma. You’re not allowed to do that. Periods are our friends.
A run-on sentence runs on and on. Don’t. Periods are our friends.
A complete sentence has a subject and a verb. Anything less is only a fragment of a sentence.
12. Improperly punctuating possessives’ apostrophes
This is such a simple rule: Deal with plurals first and possession second. Is it plural? Then is it possessive?
- The house of Duke is a dog’s house.
- The house of Princess may be a dog’s house, but it’s Princess’ castle.
- The shared abode of Duke and Princess is the dogs’ house.
- If they have pups, the dogs’ house becomes the little princesses’ and princes’ castle.
- I adore the black pup. It’s fun to scratch its pink belly.
- Who’s going to name the black pup whose pink belly I scratch?
13. Hyphenating (or not) age
If “years” is plural, don’t hyphenate: My car is 16 years old. (That rule fails if the car—or whatever—is only 1 year old.)
Otherwise, age as a compound adjective gets hyphens: The 22-year-old student passed.
Age as a compound noun also gets hyphens: The 22-year-old passed.
Here’s another tricky version you need to know: The study tested 18- to 25-year-olds.
The 2100 boss invites additional tips and examples added to this post. We dare you.