Three Grammar Rules to Know (Pt. 2)

  1. Dangling Modifiers

Modifiers describe, clarify, or give details about a concept. These are subject to erroneous usage and can be difficult to revise when written incorrectly. Dangling modifiers, as we call the mistaken placement of modifiers, occur when it is unclear what a given modifier applies to. Let’s take a look at the two sentences below. The first is an example of correct modifiers in a sentence, and the second is an example of what we call a dangling modifier. 

After reading the report, I am convinced the city needs more public transportation infrastructure.

Though not eligible for the clinical trial, the doctor prescribed the drug to Ethan out of compassion.

In the first sentence, everything is in the right place. It is clear the “I” is the subject that “after reading the report” modifies, thereby adding context and clarifying the order of events. In the second sentence, however, things are not so neat. The modifier is “though not eligible for the clinical trial,” but it is used incorrectly. It is “Ethan” who is not eligible, but what follows the modifier is “the doctor.” Therefore, the sentence needs to be revised. The correct version would be this sentence: 

Though not eligible for the clinical trial, Ethan got the prescription because the doctor was compassionate.

This is one way to fix dangling modifiers. Name the appropriate or logical doer of the action as the subject of the main clause. Another way is to change the phrase that dangles into a complete introductory clause by naming the doer of the action in that clause. For example:

Though Ethan was not eligible for the clinical trial, he received the prescription anyway.

Finally, a good way to fix a dangling modifier is to get rid of the comma and combine the phrase and main clause into one like this:

Ethan received the prescription regardless of whether or not he was eligible.

Be sure to learn this rule so that you do not fall victim to the dangling modifier. When reading, pay attention to when modifiers are used to learn how to avoid this grammar mistake. When writing, try to use it sparingly and simplify sentences whenever possible.

  1. Subject verb agreement

The subject of a sentence and the verb must agree in number. If the subject is singular, the verb must be singular too. If the subject is plural, the verb must also be plural. Let’s read the example below:

Statistics are a popular course for econ majors. 

This is an error. Statistics is a plural word and so perhaps you may think that “are” is the right conjugation, but it is not. Statistics in this context is a college-level course for econ majors. This means that even though the subject (i.e. statistics) is plural, it is being used as a category name. So it is in fact singular. The right sentence with correct subject verb agreement is really this one:

Statistics is a popular course for econ majors.

There are other ways in which subject verb agreement can be a troublesome grammar rule. Let’s read the following sentence, which is almost like the opposite problem of the first example. 

Mexico, Canada, and the United States is in North America.

Here the subject is the list of countries. More than one country is listed, so although each country is a singular noun, the subject of the sentence is actually plural. So therefore “is” should actually be “are.” The revised sentence with correct subject verb agreement is this:

Mexico, Canada, and the United States are in North America. 

  These examples illustrate the subject verb agreement rule. Always make sure to account for this rule when you write. And don’t be easily fooled by collective nouns (like “group” or “committee”). These are also considered singular despite implying more than one person and the verb must agree by being singular too. Finally, another kind of sentence that can be confusing for subject verb agreement goes something like this:

One of the best sandwiches in town are from Rock N’ Roll subs. 

The sentence does not have correct subject verb agreement. Yes, sandwiches means there are many kinds. However, this sentence starts by referring to one of those, which means that it is in singular and the correct verb would be “is” and not “are.” This is somewhat of a sneaky type of sentence. Be on the lookout for the right subject verb agreement when you cross paths with these kinds of sentences. 

  1. That and Who

The general rule of thumb about when to deploy these words goes like this: who is used for people and that for things. Grammar sticklers will beat you over the head about this one. Take a look at the sentence below: 

Will was the good Samaritan who saved the cat. 

Who is being used because Will is a person. However, it is true that technically “that” would be okay. Most of the time though “who” will be preferred and it has become an unspoken convention to use it. Let’s read the next sentence:

Jose is on the team that beat last year’s champions. 

While it is the case that Jose is a person and he is who we speak of, the actual subject is “the team” and that is considered a thing. Therefore, “that” would be the right choice. Unlike with “who” this is not a matter of preference. It would be wrong to use “who” for “the team.”

Let’s see a few more examples to drive the point home: 

Carol is in an organization that is dedicated to the preservation of South Florida’s wildlife. 

Again, while the subject—an organization—implies people, it is an entity for which we use that. This is not an exact science. Sometimes you will just need to use your judgement. However, to play it safe, use “who” for people and “that” for things.

In conclusion, here are three important grammatical concepts that you would do well to know. This grammar knowledge is tested in exams such as the SAT and ACT. You will also encounter them when you read the news or any monograph. Overall, the point is knowing them will extend beyond school and will give you lifelong acumen in communicating and expressing yourself clearly. 

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