One of the “silver linings” people are mentioning regarding the Coronavirus quarantine is that they finally have time to write.
This can be your opportunity to flesh out the plot for that novel you’ve had in mind, to finally write your memoir, or to just keep a journal during this trying time, since the pandemic alone gives you something worth documenting for future generations.
Even with extra time on your hands, you may find it hard to get started if you lack confidence in your writing and, especially, if you are self-conscious about your grammar. After all, it’s been a few years since you were in junior high English.
I can provide some reassurance that you probably write better than you think. Through my editing and coaching, I read a lot of work by non-writers which still carries an appealing “writer’s voice” and conveys a compelling story.
But I also do see grammar errors. I’m one of the admins on the Facebook group Grammar Matters, where some topics come up over and over. Here are two areas of concern I’ve been noticing lately.
You know when you start to see an error appear everywhere that it may be too late to reverse the trend. That’s the case with dangling modifiers, but I’m still going to try to stop the spread!
The modifying phrase I hear and see used incorrectly the most is the one that starts a sentence with “as” and goes like this:
As an older woman, grocery delivery has been a great convenience for me.
When you begin a sentence that way, the word after the comma must be the person identified in the opening phrase. In our example, the sentence is structured to indicate that “grocery delivery” is an older woman. And it’s such an easy fix:
As an older woman, I find grocery delivery to be a great convenience.
As phrases are not the only culprits. Here are a few more examples of phrases disconnected from the subject they modify:
Incorrect: Being new in town, the friendliness of her neighbors came as a pleasant surprise.
Problem: This means that “the friendliness” is new in town.
Correct: Being new in town, she was pleasantly surprised at the friendliness of her neighbors.
Incorrect: Happy to be outside for a change, the sun bathed her face in warmth.
Problem: The sun may be happy to be outside, but that’s not what the writer is trying to say.
Correct: Happy to be outside for a change, she felt the sun bathe her face in warmth.
Incorrect: Knowing that her mother would be expecting her, the rain didn’t stop Marie from making the short trip across town.
Problem: The rain doesn’t know that Marie’s mother would be expecting her.
Correct: Knowing that her mother would be expecting her, Marie didn’t let the rain stop her from making the short trip across town.
If we could get rid of pronouns, we’d probably solve half of our grammar issues. In English, different types of pronouns serve different purposes, and it’s easy to mix them up.
Personal pronouns are just what you’d think they are – they take the place of the person’s name or description.
Looking at just the first person singular, you can see how easy it is to choose the wrong pronoun:
I – subject pronoun. I sent a birthday card to a friend.
Me – object pronoun. Friends told me that they would send me a birthday card.
My – possessive adjective or determiner. My friend sent the card.
Mine – possessive pronoun. The card was all mine.
Myself – reflexive pronoun. I had no help; I bought the card myself.
The most common error I see is mixing up the subject and object pronouns. This is true not only of the first person singular pronouns but also the third person singular pronouns – he/him and she/her.
What happened to the second person? That would be you, and there’s no other form of it. The word you applies not only to both subject and object, but also to both singular and plural. If only all pronouns were like you!
When we were kids, our error tended to be the use of the object pronoun when we should use the subject pronoun. This happens only when there are more than one object pronoun. In fact, the way to test whether you’re using the correct pronoun is to isolate it. Then the correct usage will sound right to your ear.
Test: Me is going to a movie tonight. Her is going to a movie tonight.
Correct: She and I are going to a movie tonight.
Test: She is going to a movie tonight. I am going to a movie tonight.
So we learned to use I, he, and she rather than me, him, and her when the pronoun was the subject, but somewhere along the way we began over-correcting, and we started using I for the object pronoun as well. The object pronoun can be a direct object, an indirect object or the object of the preposition.
Correct: The movie kept her and me in suspense until the very end.
Test: The movie kept her in suspense until the very end. The movie kept me in suspense until the very end.
Test: The doctor handed he the lab results. The doctor handed I the lab results.
Correct: The doctor handed him and me the lab results.
Test: The doctor handed him the lab results. The doctor handed me the lab results.
Correct: The judge was pointing at her and me.
Test: The judge was pointing at her. The judge was pointing at me.
The preposition between can’t be tested the same way, but the rule still applies.
Incorrect: Please keep this information just between you and I.
Correct: Please keep this information just between you and me.
Some people like to use the reflexive form in first person, myself, because it sounds polite. But it should not replace either the subject pronoun or the object pronoun. In the sentences above, here’s how it looks if we replace I or me with the reflexive myself.
Test: Myself will go for a drink before dinner. The movie kept myself in suspense until the very end. The doctor handed myself the test results. He was pointing at myself.
Do you see that when you isolate the pronoun, you can hear that it’s wrong? There is a correct way to use the reflexive pronoun. Here are a few examples.
It is another personal pronoun, but it has separate issues. The relative pronouns who/whom and that/which come with their own range of grammar challenges. So this is just a start!
Have you dedicated some of your self-isolation time to writing? Do you journal, write a memoir, or draft a novel? Are you experiencing grammar doubts or issues? Which of these two give you the most trouble? Please share with our community!
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