Better Business Writing and Grammar, Lesson 2: 'Danglers' and 3 Common Writing Errors
Welcome back to Entrepreneur’s easy, no-tears guide to better grammar and writing. Lesson 1 covered correct use of pronouns and strategies to cut wordiness.
This lesson will look at dangling modifiers and three errors you should never make in good writing:
A dangling expression is one that doesn’t fit logically into the rest of the sentence. It “dangles” -- often because it’s a verb phrase in search of a subject which never turns up. Consider these examples:
Walking down Fifth Avenue, the library lions looked particularly regal. (You’re thinking: “Lions walking down Fifth Avenue? Holy cow! I’d better run!”)
The Park Hotel is just one of the art deco buildings you can see strolling about South Beach (This scenario sounds like a 1950s "B" horror movie. That's alarming because it actually came from the respected Miami Herald.)
While working on the annual report, Janet’s computer crashed. (Who or what was working on the report: Janet or her computer?)
See the problem? Those phrases -- walking down Fifth Avenue and strolling about South Beach and while working on the annual report all lack a subject, a "doer." The phrases themselves are modifiers because they tell you about an action that someone or something in the sentence is doing. But, who is that, exactly? The library lions? South Beach’s hotels? Janet’s computer?
None of those make sense, right? So, fix these sentences. Substitute (the bolded words):
Walking down Fifth Avenue, I marvelled at how regal the library lions looked.
When you stroll about South Beach, you'll see art deco buildings, including the Park Hotel.
Janet’s computer crashed while she was working on the annual report.
So, that’s the scoop: no more danglers for you. Give them subjects, meaning humans or animals or machines that could conceivably perform the action described.
Also make sure to pay similar attention to what’s called misplaced modifiers, meaning a word or phrase that’s in the wrong place (which can be comical, not in a good way, especially in a serious business document. Check out the following bolded phrases from the popular (small-town newspaper) "Headlines" feature on the old Tonight Show with Jay Leno:
Veterans of the Civil War seeking new members
Local children are winners at dog show
Then there’s this tweet from Jeb Bush to the then-newly elected Donald Trump:
Congratulations on your victory @realDonaldTrump. As our President, Columba and I will pray for you in the days and months to come.
Another example, which is more applicable to the business world and is a bit more fixable, might look more like this:
Incorrect: The assistant forwarded the email to his boss covering the new proposal.
Correct: The assistant forwarded the email covering the new proposal to his boss.
See how just moving that modifying phrase to the correct place in the sentence (i.e., right next to the word it modifies -- “email” -- makes all the difference?
Check out these “danglers” examples from drafts of Entrepreneur contributor posts:
Problem: As the manager and leader, people will look to your behavior as the example.
Fix: As the manager and leader, you should set the example in terms of your behavior.
Problem: In fact, in a report by D--- K----, professor emeritus at Virginia Tech., people who regularly write down their goals earn nine times as much over their lifetimes as the people who don't.
Fix: According to a report by D--- K---- …
Finally, don't forget that a limiting adjective such as "only" or "just" should be parked right in front of the thing it's limiting. Hence:
Problem: It’s just not the major upsets, either is awkward.
Fix: It’s not just the major upsets, either.
Problem: Welcome employees before they even start
Fix: Welcome employees even before they start.
Three writing errors you should never, ever make
Error 1: Sentence fragments
Sentence fragments are just that: partial bits of sentences, not full sentences.
Fragments are also usually dependent clauses in disguise. Dependant clauses require an actual subject and verb and usually start with a clause trigger word such as "when," "where," "how," "because," "unless" or "though" but never get around to telling you who the actual subject is and what that person actually did. Hence, you'll have a fragment like:
Problem: When I was a boy (When you were a boy ... what happened?)
Fix: When I was a boy, our town was small and sleepy; nothing ever happened there.
Error 2: "Run-on sentences"
A run-on sentence is not a sentence that's overly long.
Instead, run-on sentences have two subject/verb phrases bumping up against each other:
Emily cleaned the kitchen, Andy swept the living room.
The above sentence has two independent clauses (meaning they have both a subject and verb). These must be separated by a conjunction (and, or, but); or a semicolon; or a period and capital letter (to start a new sentence).
In fact, the above problemmatic run-on (also called a comma splice) should read this way:
Emily cleaned the kitchen; Andy swept the living room. Or: Emily cleaned the kitchen, and Andy swept the living room.
Here's another run-on example:
Problem: Ms. Brown dictated a letter, her assistant transcibed it.
Fix: Ms. Brown dictated a letter, and her assistant transcribed it.
Error 3: Nonparallel construction
Nonparallel construction means that elements in a sentence differ from one another in an awkward way.
Parallelism in writing basically demands that if you start a pattern in a sentence -- all "ing" verbs acting as nouns, for instance -- you should stick to that pattern. That's why the following sentence is a problem:
Dancing, singing and to write poetry are her favorite activities. (See how the participles dancing and singing clash with the infinitive to write poetry? Instead, use all participles -- i.e., writing poetry.)
Here's an example from an Entrepreneur draft:
Problem: Plenty of research goes into launching a business and an understanding of the market and how our product meets their needs
Fix: Plenty of research goes into launching a business, understanding the market and determining how our product meets customers' needs.
Problem: Other innovations to the game have included the introduction of Wild Card teams, modifying overtime rules and creating a frenzy with free agency when the new season begins in March.
Fix: Other innovations have included the introduction of Wild Card teams, modifications to overtime rules and the frenzy that free agency creates every March when the new season begins.
Taken one by one, these errors may seem minor; but a document with numerous instances of nonparallel construction, run-ons, etc., will seem "off" to the reader. Don't let this happen to you. Clean up your writing!