Is It Misplaced, Dangling or Just Right: The Modifier Dilemma

Modifier poster-2

Modifiers are another one of those grammar terms we need to pause over and be sure they are right in sentences. Do you recall the old example? “Throw the cow over the fence some hay.” It always made us laugh and was a great example of a literal translation from German to English. Misplaced modifiers are not always so obvious. We could rewrite this sentence as: Throw some hay over the fence for the cow.

Joyce K Ellis, in her booklet 8 Hidden Hazards of Grammar; Lessons for authors on the snags of the English language, refers to modifiers as magnets. Modifiers need to be close to the words or phrase they modify. A misplaced modifier can create confusion for the reader. It can be funny as the sentence above or imply a meaning not intended.

Here are some excellent examples of misplaced modifiers from the 8 Hidden Hazards of Grammar.

This crane is out of his natural habitat in the same way a misplaced modifier is when place incorrectly in a sentence. Photo from

This crane is out of his natural habitat in the same way a misplaced modifier is when place incorrectly in a sentence. Photo from

Misplaced: We asked volunteers to bring cookies for the bake sale at last week’s meeting.

Did you find the misplaced modifier?

Joyce explains. “The prepositional phrase at the last meeting has stuck its nose in the wrong place. It’s ludicrous to ask people to bring cookies for an event that took place the week before, so we move that time designation next to what it modifies. “

Properly placed: At last week’s meeting, we asked volunteers to bring cookies for the bake sale.

Misplaced modifiers will occasionally result in comical, physically impossible descriptions:

Misplaced: Stacy mounted the horse glancing over her shoulder.

Did you laugh at this one?

Properly placed: Glancing over her shoulder, Stacy mounted the horse.

It’s Stacy glancing over her shoulder.

Can you find the misplaced modifier in the next example?

Misplaced: No matter how small, most of us will never forget the first check we received for our writing.

It’s the size of the amount of the check not the size of the writer.

Still misplaced: Most of us will never forget the first check we received for our writing, no matter how small.

Oops! Now we could be talking about the tininess of our handwriting or font.

Properly placed (recasting the entire sentence):

Most of us will never forget our first writing-income check no matter how small the amount.


Dangling modifiers make me groan. My hubby is always finding them in my work. When it’s dangling, the word it modifies is missing. Below is a clear example from Joyce K. Ellis.

Dangling Modifier: Having laryngitis, my speaking engagement had to be postponed.

As written. The speaking engagement had laryngitis—obviously not what the writer intended. We leave the modifier dangling.

Safely attached: Having laryngitis, I had to postpone my speaking engagement.

Now we have a subject to connect to the modifier.

Again Joyce’s final word on the subject of misplaced modifiers.

Bottom line: Make sure modifiers stick like magnets to their reference point.

Do you have an example of a dangling or misplaced modifier you have written or found published somewhere? Share it in the comments.

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The Right Agreement Between Subject and Verb

photo by

photo by

Have you ever gotten confused writing subject verb agreement? I know the whole question makes you yawn. Don’t click away from my blog now. Subject verb agreement is easy to ignore in your initial first draft. Struggling to get the thoughts to flow the mechanics of writing get sloppy. During rewrites some subject verb agreement can slid by as well. Here’s a few reminders and tips to keep your subject and verb from fighting each other.

Let’s define terms for those of us who forget or can’t quote the grammar rules Once again I refer to 8 Hidden Hazards of Grammar: Lessons for Authors on the snags of the English language by Joyce K. Ellis. Her little booklet is a great go-to guide.

“Careful writers ensure that their subjects (the doer of the action) and verbs (the action) agree—matching a singular subject with a singular verb and a plural subject with a plural verb.”

Joyce explains it so simply. You’d be amazed how easy it is to misunderstand this rule. Try reading the sentence below out loud. Hearing it can help you see your mistake.

The sopranos sings high.

The sentence subject sopranos (a plural noun) so it sounds right to use sing (a plural verb):

The sopranos sing high.

If compelled to discuss the stratospheric vocal range of one soprano, we would say or write:

The soprano (singular subject) sings (singular verb) high.

has the following examples of subject/ verb agreement writers trip over.

The list of items is/are on the desk.
If you know that list is the subject, then you will choose is for the verb. Note: while a list suggests multiple things (items), it is just one list. Therefore is singular and requires a singular verb. (Just sayin…)

The word of is the culprit in many, perhaps most, subject-verb mistakes. Hasty writers, speakers, readers, and listeners might miss the all-too-common mistake in the following sentence:

A bouquet of yellow roses lend color and fragrance to the room.

Correct: A bouquet of yellow roses lends . . . (bouquet lends, not roses lend). That was a bit tricky. Bouquet is the subject, not roses. The one bouquet, therefore, needs the singular verb lends.

As a general rule, use a plural verb with two or more subjects when they are connected by and.

Example: A car and a bike are my means of transportation.

But note these exceptions:

Breaking and entering is against the law.
The bed and breakfast was charming.

My thoughts: Don’t you just love exceptions? They make my head spin.

In 8 Hidden Hazards of Grammar Joyce adds another confusing example.

“None of us need chocolate.

None—standing for not one—is a singular pronoun in the third person (e.g., he or she). So if we substitute one of those, we have this:

She need chocolate.

That doesn’t work. Though tough to admit, we must say this:

None of us needs chocolate.”

The last point I will share in this blog but not all there is to say on subject/verb agreement is the greater the distance between the subject and verb in a sentence, the more likely we will trip up.

In this next case we’ve heard it spoken. The incorrect agreement spills over in our writing because it sounds right.

Joyce’s example:

Erroneous: The band of “musicians” scream their lyrics.

Correct: The band (singular subject) of “musicians” screams (singular verbs)…lyrics.

It may sound right to say “musicians” scream. However, band, not musicians, is the subject of the sentence. The words—of musicians—create a prepositional phrase modifying the subject. “

Joyce’s Bottom Line: Make sure to match singular subjects with singular verbs and plural subjects with plural verbs.

Now go back over that manuscript you examined for weak verbs and check for incorrect subject /verb agreement.

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Antecedent? Say What?

Ant and pencil-cropped

Antecedents??? Would you believe I got an A in English in high school. And unless I look it up, I can’t recall the definition of an antecedent. In my defense English class was over forty years ago. And as I said in a previous post, I tend to go with what sounds right. My husband on the other hand can still recall most English rules. Why? Because he’s weird that way. He can recall Spanish grammar rules, as well. Which only goes to show that unlike Algebra we do use grammar in everyday life. And like Algebra if you can’t remember the rules, you can make huge mistakes.

So, let’s review pronoun and antecedents use. And again because I admire Joyce K. Ellis’ grammar prowess, I’ll be referring to her booklet 8 Hidden Hazards of Grammar: Lessons for authors on the snags of the English language.

Let’s state the obvious first. Why? Because, as I said, a few of us out there are term illiterate.

Pronouns are used in place of nouns. (e.g., I, me, he, him, she, her, it, they, them)

The antecedent is the reference point for the pronoun. The word antecedent comes from antecede, synonym for precede. So look for the noun that precedes the pronoun. That noun must match the pronoun.

The pronoun and antecedent must agree in number (singular or plural), gender (male or female) and person (first/second/third.)

Here’s where I quote examples from Joyce’s booklet.

Agreeing in number. A plural antecedent needs a plural pronoun, and singles need singles.

Conflicting: Every conferee (singular) complained about their (plural) lack of time to write.

Better: Every conferee complained about his or her lack of time…

Less cumbersome (both plural): All the conferees complained about their lack of time…

Agreeing in gender: Make sure the gender of the pronoun matches the gender of the antecedent:

Not right: Nick maintained his yacht (antecedent) meticulously, polishing her (feminine pronoun) brass railings and waxing its (neutral pronoun) newly painted deck.

We need consistent pronouns. Since a yacht is referred to as a she, polishing her is correct but we also need to wax her.

Agreeing in “person.” Remain consistent, referring to first person (me, my) second person (you), or third person (he, him, they, them):

Incorrect: When writers (third person) work hard and keep getting rejection slips, we (first person) can get discouraged.

Correct: When writers work hard…they can get discouraged.

Also correct: When we work hard…we can get discouraged.

Again the greater the distance between pronoun and antecedent, the more likely we’ll make an “agreement” error.

Bottom line: Make sure your pronouns and their antecedents “get along.”

You know the drill. Go back to your manuscript to be sure your pronoun and antecedent are in agreement.

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Genocide Weak Verbs to Create a Stronger Manuscript

Photo from

Photo from

Ever get the dreaded editor’s comment on your manuscript “You need stronger verbs.” Editors describe your verbs as passive, weak, dead or flat? Yep! You know you have.

As promised, today’s post is about weak verbs. The second hazard mentioned in Joyce Ellis’ booklet 8 Hazards of Grammar: lessons for authors on the snags of the English language. If you missed my last post (link), let me mention here I consider Joyce the Queen of Grammar, and I am but her lowly jester. I’ve always found her explanations far more interesting than dull grammar books. I will be sprinkling my own commentary alongside her words.

Weak verbs are boring

Weak verbs are the ones we worked so hard to learn in school. Do you recall diagramming sentences to identify all the parts of speech? (Boring like a root canal.) Imagine those parts of speech as body parts and verbs are arms.

Weak verbs lack strength.

Weak verbs lack strength.

Weak verbs are thin muscled and at times arthritic.

While action verbs are muscular and strong. You can’t exercise to get stronger verb muscles. You have to kill the weak verbs and replace them with more active and specific verbs. Weak verbs weaken the whole manuscript.

Muscular verbs carry the story to more interesting heights.

Muscular verbs carry the story to more interesting heights.

The verbs that need genocide are:

To be verbs, also called state-of-being verbs may be scattered throughout a manuscript. You know them and their many tenses: is, am, was, were, will be, had been, were being and the list goes on. State-of-being verbs are important but are often overused.

Joyce Ellis refers to them as mostly dead. Her examples below help explain what she means. She refers to defibrillating dead verbs.

Mostly dead: Judith was unable to find many writers who actually followed her guidelines.

Defibrillated: Judith found few writers who…

Lifeless: After a mere 72 rejections, the author’s hopes were gone.

Vibrant: …the author’s hopes disintegrated.

Joyce warns against the troublesome twins, there is and there are:

Feeble: There were no words to describe…

Stronger: No words could describe…

Comatose: There are three categories of doubters people fall into.

More alive: Doubters fall into three categories.

When I hear the term passive verb I think of a bystander at an auto accident. Observant but not helping.

Another excerpt from 8 Hidden Hazards of Grammar.

Passive verb: An active verb shows us that a doer did something. A passive verb tells us something was done to someone. Active verbs allow for a more vivid word picture.

Passive: Absalom’s rebellion was caused (passive) by King David’s inattentiveness.

Active: King David’s inattentiveness ignited Absalom’s rebellious spirit.

The word by often betrays a passive verb. If you know who did the action, tell us up front.

Joyce gives a great guideline for discerning when to use passive verbs. “Save them for when the doer is unknown or unimportant.” See how she makes grammar interesting.

I’ll add my image here. A waiter pouring water while my characters have dinner. The waiter is there to help my readers remember we are in a restaurant but no one cares about him unless he pulls a knife and stabs our hero. (I digress.) Back to Joyce’s examples.

Unknown: The murder was committed last night. (Cops don’t know yet who whacked the guy.)

Unimportant: The film was shown in its entirety. (Monsieur Projectionist doesn’t expect credit.)

Her bottom line regarding weak verbs: Keep verbs alive and active wherever possible.

Go forth and murder weak passive verbs sitting on the sidelines pointing to the action. Recruit some strong action verbs. After the culling, read through your manuscript. I’m sure you’ll find it stronger, more vibrant with the seal of professionalism.

What passive verb are your go to words? What tips do you have for editing them out?

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Attacking Apostrophes: How Not to Overuse Them

Attack incorrect uses of Apostrophes in your manuscripts. Graphic created by Charles Huff.

Attack incorrect uses of Apostrophes in your manuscripts. Graphic created by Charles Huff.

Grammar rules for me are as boring as listening to a high school literature class read Shakespeare out loud. But a professional reading is enthralling. Well, I’m enthralled by a little booklet by my friend Joyce Ellis, whom I consider the Queen of Grammar rules, as an excellent reference for obvious grammar faux pas. 8 Hidden Hazards of Grammar: lessons for authors on the snags of the English language. This little booklet contains eight simple things to train your eyes to notice when you self-edit. Things publishers find all too often in novice work.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting excerpts from her little booklet with my own commentary. (You knew I would.)

Apostrophe abuse

1)  This first one can be confusing. An apostrophe takes on three distinct functions. For those who have brain block an apostrophe looks like this: ’. This little mark wreaks havoc in lots of manuscripts.

Go through your manuscript and examine every use of the apostrophe. Did you place one with every word ending in s? Caught you, didn’t I? I am convinced my word program adds them. Really! But I’ll admit I’ve done it myself. My subconscious mind types away and ta-da lots of apostrophes.

As I mentioned, there are three times an apostrophe is used. I’m going to quote Joyce Ellis now.

Possessives: expressions indicating that something belongs to someone or something else require an ’s at the end of the word.

The book proposal failed to include the author’s credentials.

This seems simple enough. But Joyce points out the most common mistake, and I swear it’s my word program. The use of apostrophes with possessives of pronouns. Words like theirs, ours, hers, and the biggest error its.

The car lost its wheel (no apostrophe) on its way to the repair shop.

Great example, Joyce.

2) The second correct use of an apostrophe is in contractions. In shortened versions of words (cannot to can’t) or two words (I’m for I am), an apostrophe substituted for missing letters. Note the especially troublesome it’s.

Joyce writes. “It’s (it is) important to remember to use the apostrophe only if it’s a contraction of it is.”

Tip from me: If you are in doubt, read the sentence substituting the words it is or it has.

The dog buried its bone. Read out loud: The dog buried it is bone. Wrong! No apostrophe.

It’s time to go to bed. Read out loud: It is time to go to bed. Right. Apostrophe needed.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other.

It has been a long time since we have seen each other.

3) The final use of an apostrophe with more examples from Joyce.

Other omitted material: parts of a word or expression omitted. (e.g., dialog or dates) call for an apostrophe: ’cause for because or ’70s for 1970s. Great reminder Joyce.

I find numbers confusing. How often do you see a temperature written as a possessive? 80s is correct. While 80’s is not.

How about family names.

We are the Huffs not the Huff’s. (A group not something the group owns.)

The Huffs’ house is on Main Street. (The house belongs to the family.)

Huff’s fast pitch whizzed by the catch. (The pitch belongs to Huff.)

Joyce’s bottom line: Don’t use apostrophes for plurals.

Now go forth and check your latest writing project. How well did you avoid the hazard of apostrophe abuse?

Hope this helps. Next post I will share Joyce’s second hazard weak verbs.

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