Saturday, 23 April 2011

Common sentence errors and how to eliminate them

With an understanding of what makes good sentences, it will be easier to weed out the common errors that can creep into sentence structures. Everything from non-parallel sentences, fragments, ambiguity and hanging participles, misplaced commas and so on.

Vigilance at the editing stage should eliminate all of these. Without changing these kinds of errors, your writing will remain terrible, clunky and stilted.

Parallel sentences - In fiction writing, a parallel sentence means there is a balance of sentence structure. That means that similar words, phrases, or clauses should be the same in a list within a sentence and the way to join parallel structures is with the use of coordinating conjunctions such as "and" or "or." It probably sounds more complicated than it actually is.  The balance is lost when a mixture of gerunds (words with ‘ing’) and verb forms are put together. Take these examples:

He liked to run, to keep fit, and swimming.
He liked swimming and to keep fit.

The sentence has the verb form (to run) combined with a gerund (swimming) and causes an unbalanced sentence structure. The second sentence has the gerund first in the list, followed by the gerund. To maintain the balance, both sentences could be written as follows:

He liked to run, to keep fit, and to swim.
He liked to swim and to keep fit.

John entered the house and couldn’t get the lights to work. He edged his way into the hallway, feeling his way along the wall for the light switch.

This sentence is unbalanced because it has a gerund (feeling) placed incorrectly. This is the most common sentence structure error among new writers. It should be like this:

John entered the house and couldn’t get the lights to work. He edged his way into the hallway and felt his way along the wall for the light switch.

Correct Use of Commas - Sentences often suffer from incorrect use of or misplaced commas. The most common form is a comma splice. This occurs when two independent clauses (sentences on their own) are spliced together with a comma (unless you use a coordinating conjunction such as ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘yet’, ‘but’ etc), otherwise you can use of full stop or semicolon.

The correct way to use a comma is for it to infer a pause, by not doing so could lead to confusion for the reader.

The above sentence uses a misplaced comma to splice both clauses. You can correct them in the following way:

The correct way to use a comma is for it to infer a pause. By not doing so could lead to confusion for the reader.  Or you can use a conjunction.

The correct way to use a comma is for it to infer a pause, but by not doing so could lead to confusion for the reader.

Incorrect use of commas, or omitting them, can cause ambiguity, for instance:

When it comes to painting people vary in their abilities. (This sounds as though somebody is painting on someone's skin)

When it comes to painting, people vary in their abilities. (The correct comma placement denotes a pause and the emphasis is clear that people differ in abilities when it comes to painting)

Too Many Conjunctions - Avoid using too many conjunctions within clauses, otherwise the whole sentence structure will end up tripping your reader or confusing. You are also in danger of losing the emphasis of your sentences. The sentence below uses too many conjunctions.

The idea with conjunctions is to keep a sentence clear and concise, and to ensure that the reader understands the meaning, but too many conjunctions might confuse the reader or make them trip up because they end up reading a really long sentence that seems to go on forever, when in fact there could be many stand alone sentences within the whole paragraph, and that would make the sentence much better.

Sentence fragments - Avoid the use of too many sentence fragments. That don’t quite follow on or make sense. Like this. Fragmented.

Sentence fragments can mean your writing is stilted and needs fixing. You should be looking for whole and complete sentences that keep the emphasis of what you want to say, sentences that are clear to your reader.

Passive sentences – avoid using passive sentences wherever possible. Sentences should be active. Passive sentences slow the narrative and cause it to become awkward. Very often writers shift from active to passive within the same sentence without even noticing.

The ball was kicked by John and bounced into the net.

The action of throwing the ball has become passive rather than active. You should write it like this:

John kicked the ball and it bounced into the net.

Hanging participles - avoid these. As mentioned in other posts, these just conjure ambiguity and are a sign of bad writing. You can’t have a character doing two things at once, like this:

Closing the door, she picked up the post from the floor.

It’s better written like this: She closed the door and picked up the post. Not only is the sentence stronger, it is more concise, clear and tells the reader what the character is doing in a chronological manner.

By eliminating these common flaws, you will produce stronger sentences that give your reader clarity and convey the action without being stilted, clunky or awkward.

So, in summary, you should avoid the following when constructing sentences:

• Faulty parallel sentences
• Misplaced or omitted commas
• Too many conjunctions
• Sentence Fragments
• Passive sentences
• Hanging participles

Next week: Said versus dialogue tags.

8 comments:

  1. I'm almost too scared to comment in case I stuff up a sentence. :) Oh, I have an idea! Could you jump into my brain while I'm writing and editing? It would make it so much easier than checking every sentence in an 80,000 word manuscript myself. But seriously, these examples are very helpful. Thank you. I look forward to reading your other posts and articles.

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  2. Excellent advice! Perhaps you can help me answer a question about this sentence: "The Smith method is a rock climbing technique and training method." Apparently "Smith method" has two different meanings; it can mean "rock climbing technique" or "rock climbing training method." I know how to rewrite this for clarity, but what is technically wrong with the sentence?

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  3. With this example:

    "He edged his way into the hallway, feeling his way along the wall for the light switch."

    Your analysis seems to be incorrect. 'Feeling' isn't a gerund here; it's a present participle, and there's nothing wrong with the sentence.

    This sentence is unbalanced because it has a gerund (feeling) placed incorrectly. This is the most common sentence structure error among new writers. It should be like this:

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    Replies
    1. The analysis is correct, Anonymous.

      Sometimes there is no clear difference between gerunds and present participles, however, 'feeling' is a noun, not a verb, and gerunds are formed from nouns, and on closer inspection you will see that the sentence is simple past, not present. On this occasion, ‘Feeling’is classed as a gerund; it is perfectly acceptable.

      It's not an entirely clear cut area and can still cause confusion between particples, verbs and nouns, when sometimes it can masquerade as adjectives.

      The sentence in question remains unbalanced because of the use of the gerund. It’s sloppy writing, hence why so many beginners overuse it without realising.

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  4. Sorry, I'm trying, but I still can't see how you're correct.

    Gerunds:
    He likes swimming.
    He likes feeling.
    He like apples.

    Participles:
    He sang, swimming.
    He sang, feeling.

    In your example, if 'feeling' is a gerund, then your sentence is of the same structure as:

    He sang, apples.

    The phrase 'feeling his way along the wall for the light switch' describes the subject, so it's an adjective, so it's not a gerund.

    The only style issue with the sentence is the common preference to place the participial phrase closer to the subject it modifies. e.g.

    "Feeling his way along the wall for the light switch, he edged his way into the hallway."

    Your sentence would have faulty parallelism if it was a series. e.g.

    "He edged his way into the hallway, feeling his way along the wall, and whistled."

    ...but there's no series.


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  5. Some gerunds are not as obvious by their nature, and some participles are often associated as gerunds and, grammatically, mostly accepted. Some will agree, some will disagree, some will always find fault with it, and hence it would be pointless arguing the toss ad infinitum.

    I’m not sure I understand your points, especially as ‘feeling’ is a noun, and not an adjective, however if you want it not to be a gerund, please be my guest, I don’t mind one bit!

    And making it a hanging participle, a pet hate of mine..."Feeling his way along the wall for the light switch, he edged his way into the hallway”...people who use them should be shot for mangling the English language. That’s even worse than my original example.

    As for parallelism, that’s a nice quirky subject for another article another time.

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  6. "The eagles swooped and hovered, leaning on the air, and swung close together, feinting and screaming with delight."

    - N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction House Made of Dawn

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    Replies
    1. Cripes, didn't know eagles could scream. That's a great misnomer!

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