We are nothing if not diverse writers at Muse! Join me now in welcoming Maggie Lyons, best known for her work in the field of children’s books and magazines. Maggie is also an editor and is sharing some of her editing tips with us today. Thank you, Maggie!
See below for some grammatical advice from this charming lady from Wales. Not only are her examples helpful and insightful, some are downright hilarious:
Dangling Modifiers and Other Painful Grammatical Errors
My editing career grew out of writing and producing marketing, PR, and fundraising materials in a motley variety of professional environments in the UK, Europe, and the USA, from orchestral management and college development to litigation and the coffee trade. As an editor I spend a lot of time fixing dangling modifiers and other painful grammatical errors that are easy to avoid. Being aware of pitfalls of grammar and style and taking a wide berth around them should reduce any copyediting costs you may incur, help improve your chances of finding a publisher, and reduce the risk of damaging your literary image. I’ll share some of them with you here, and I hope they’ll prove useful.
I’ll start with a classic example of the importance of punctuation in these two versions of the same letter:
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy—will you let me be yours?
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
You can also completely change the meaning of a sentence depending on where you place the adjective or adverb:
Klutz chipped only the glasses on the top shelf.
Klutz chipped the glasses only on the top shelf.
Klutz only chipped the glasses on the top shelf.
Only Klutz chipped the glasses on the top shelf.
Dangling modifiers (highlighted, in the examples below) can cause havoc. You wouldn’t believe how often I come across a dangler that is too far away from the noun it modifies.
Incorrect: Sheila caught sight of a kangaroo looking through her binoculars.
Correct (assuming the kangaroo is not that clever): Looking through her binoculars, Sheila caught sight of a kangaroo.
Incorrect: Even after brushing her teeth, Edward could still smell Bella’s garlicky breath.
Correct (assuming Edward didn’t brush Bella’s teeth): Even after Bella had brushed her teeth, Edward could still smell her garlicky breath.
Noun–pronoun agreement is another common mine field:
Incorrect: Not every bank sold off their toxic assets.
Correct: Not every bank sold off its toxic assets.
Correct: Not all banks sold off their toxic assets.
Incorrect: The candidate is a former pumpkin tosser, turkey caller, and served three years in a federal prison.
“The candidate is a former . . . served three years in a federal prison” doesn’t make sense. The first two elements in the series are nouns, but the last element is a separate predicate.
Correct: The candidate is a former pumpkin tosser and turkey caller, and served three years in a federal prison.
Pronoun and antecedent:
Unclear: Although Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, were cousins, she signed her death warrant. (Who signed whose death warrant?)
Clear: Although Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, were cousins, Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant.
Be sure to make the verb agree with the subject when they are separated by other sentence components.
Example: Every plant in my garden, especially the Venus flytraps and triffids, is thriving.
“Every plant” is a singular subject and so needs a singular verb (“is”).
Appropriate use of dialogue tags:
Incorrect: “Yes,” Jane smiled.
Correct: “Yes,” Jane said and smiled.
You can’t “smile” a “yes.”
One of the commonest mistakes in word usage is the lay/lie confusion.
Example: Today my pet dinosaur lies in my hammock. She lay there yesterday too.
I won’t lay a hand on her because I think she laid some eggs.
“Lay” is the past tense of “lie,” but the verb “to lay” takes an object, for example, “lay an egg” and, in the past tense, “laid an egg.” You can’t say, “My pet dinosaurs lays in my hammock.” Lays what? You can say, “My pet dinosaur lays eggs in my hammock.”
Useless adverbs (highlighted):
Example: The five-ton bulldozer thundered loudly across my marijuana patch.
Example: She laughed cheerfully as she ran quickly up the steps of the tomb.
These adverbs don’t enhance the verbs; they diminish the verbs’ power.
Example: She slipped in a puddle of red blood.
I know some people are supposed to be blue bloods, but I suspect that’s just a myth—the red color of blood is obvious, wouldn’t you agree?
Bloopers I’ve blipped:
We love deferential equations.
He blew his nose in the produce isle.
She looked askance at her waste line.
His fangs brushed her juggler vane.
It was a catachismic flood.
The doorway’s decorated lentil is stunning.
You can find a few more tips in the Grammar Goodies section of my website at http://www.lyonseditorialservices.com.
You can find much more advice in the Chicago Manual of Style, which is now in its sixteenth edition and is “the essential guide for writers, editors, and publishers.”
Maggie Lyons is a writer and editor who was born in Wales and gravitated west to Virginia’s coast. A career of writing and editing educational nonfiction and fiction for adults has brought her a world of satisfaction but nothing like the magic kingdom she has recently discovered in writing fiction and nonfiction for children. Several of Maggie’s articles, poetry, and a chapter book have been published in the children’s magazines Stories for Children Magazine and knowonder! Her chapter book for middle-grade readers, Vin and the Dorky Duet, is to be released by MuseItUp Publishing next July. As a freelance editor her current clients include the publishers Simon & Schuster and Palgrave, energy companies, academics, and fiction/nonfiction writers.
Maggie Lyons adventure story Vin and the Dorky Duet is to be released by MuseItUp Publishing in July 2012.
Thanks to everyone for reading my blog post. So glad it was useful.
Hi, Maggie. Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing all of the incorrect/correct examples.
I really enjoyed your post.
Thanks Maggie! Great tips to keep in mind.
Thank you, Heather, for your very generous introduction. I'm happy that you and Pat found my two cents' worth useful.
Dale, I feel the same way! I find her comments on grammar helpful with POV, as well. I mean, when you start paying attention to pronouns, syntax, and tenses, it naturally follows you're more careful about everything!
Maggie, you are a prize! I love your examples of correct/incorrect grammar.
My mother was a teacher who started working with me at age three. Her diligence helped me rise to the top of my classes all the way through grammar school.
The principal problem I encounter is laziness. Not others', but mine. Your column has prompted me to look more closely at my work. Thank you for sharing your insight.