As many times as you may have heard your grammar school teachers tell you to “revise, revise, revise,” sometimes looking over your own work is about as much fun as listening to bad karaoke. For whatever reason, what seemed eloquent, funny or sensible when it came hurdling from your fingertips sounds more like a first-grader’s attempt at explaining physics… but decidedly less adorable.
Though we always recommend a second pair of eyes, and ours are especially qualified (shameless plug, but this is our blog, after all), there are a few tips that we can dole out that might lead to something like the editing equivalent of being able to sew buttons or repair seams. All of these tidbits are common mistakes, the corrections of which can make a huge difference in the readability of a work.
Here we go.
1. Dangling Modifiers
Sometimes you want to use a phrase in place of an adjective. That’s wonderful! However, make sure that the phrase modifies the correct noun. The concept is a little difficult to fully understand this one without an example, so first we’ll show you WRONG, and then we’ll correct it.
Dressed in scrubs, the cigarette in his hand gave the man a touch of irony.
That sentence, as is, describes the cigarette as “dressed in scrubs.” Obviously, this is problematic, as, last I checked, cigarettes don’t wear scrubs (or clothing of any kind, for that matter). To correct the issue, we have a couple of options. Either we can move the adjectival phrase so that it modifies “the man”:
The cigarette in his hand gave the man dressed in scrubs a touch of irony.
or we can rework the second part of the sentence so that the subject directly follows the phrase:
Dressed in scrubs, the man was given a touch of irony by the cigarette in his hand.
Fact: Lists are a great way to make writing more concise.
Fact: Lists are nonsense if they’re constructed improperly.
Make sure that the structures are consistent throughout all items in the list. Here’s a list that’s WRONG:
My neighbor’s dogs like to play in the yard, fetching and burying bones.
The error in that sentence is probably more obvious than a similar one in your own work, but the correction is the same: one way or another, make the structures of all the items the same:
My neighbor’s dogs like playing in the yard, fetching and burying bones.
My neighbor’s dogs like to play in the yard, to fetch and to bury bones.
3. Subjunctive Tense
If you have taken a foreign language class, those two words probably send you into a series of convoluted pneumonic devices. The key phrase to remember is here is “contrary to fact.” The subjunctive tense subordinates clauses that are contrary to fact. WRONG:
The toddler dangled his fork above his peas as though it was an all-powerful scepter that would transform them into candy corn.
Unless I missed a valuable lesson about utensils, forks can’t transform peas into candy corn.
The toddler dangled his fork above his peas as though it were an all-powerful scepter that would transform them into candy corn.
Those are your grammar tips for the day; may your revisions be slightly less painful!