The Quick and Easy Guide to
Common Grammar Problems

(Part 3 - Unclear Meaning)

Part 1 - Clause Confusion

Part 2 - Disagreeable Grammar

Part 3 - Unclear Meaning
Some grammar problems primarily affect flow and ease of reading in a document. But some grammar errors change or hide meaning itself. When this happens, the reader is getting a different message than the writer intended. Some common causes for unclear meaning are misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers and the misuse of passive voice.

 Misplaced Modifiers

Misplaced modifiers are words or phrases that cause confusion because they are located within a sentence too far away from the word(s) to which they refer. Perhaps the most famous example is a line from Groucho Marx: The other day I shot an elephant in my pajamas. (How he got in my pajamas, I'll never know.)

There are several one-word modifiers that commonly cause problems: almost, even, just, hardly, merely, nearly, only, simply, etc.

Incorrect: The shop owner under the blinds caught the customers peeking at the new merchandise.
Incorrect: The first customer rushed past the owner beating the other customers to the best deals.
Incorrect: The customer almost spent $200.

Solution: Move the modifier closer to the word/phrase it modifies

Correct: The shop owner caught the customers peeking under the blinds at the new merchandise .
Correct: Rushing past the owner, the first customer beat the other customers to the best deals.
Correct: The customer spent almost $200.

Dangling Modifiers

A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies another word or phrase that has not been clearly stated. These errors often occur at the beginnings and ends of sentences. They are often found in phrases with verbs ending in ing or beginning with to followed by the verb.

Incorrect: The attorney's objection was made hoping to block the evidence.
Incorrect: Banging his gavel, the objection was overruled.
Incorrect: Flying into the air, the judge knocked his notes off the bench.

Solution: Place the subject of the modification phrase as the subject of the independent clause or place the subject of the action within the dangling phrase.

Correct: The attorney made his objection, hoping to block the evidence.
Correct: Banging his gavel, the judge overruled the objection.
Correct: The judge's notes flew into the air as the judge knocked them off the bench.

Passive Voice

Passive voice emphasizes what is receiving the action rather than explaining who is doing the action. Two indicators of passive voice are the use of "to be" verbs (is, are, was, were), often as a helping verb, and use of the preposition by.

Example: The votes were counted by hand by election officials.

Passive voice is NOT grammatically wrong. However, it is only appropriate if the focus is on the receiver or results of the action rather than the role of the actor. If the focus should be on the actor, the actor should be the subject of the sentence.

Passive: The results of the election were not tallied correctly by the county.
Active: The county did not tally the results of the election correctly.

Solution: Decide whether the emphasis should be on the actor or the receiver. If the actor is more important, write in active voice. If the receiver is more important, write in passive voice.

Incorrect: Mistakes in the tally were made by the county.(Passive)
Correct: The county made mistakes in the tally. (Active)

Other Grammar Resources

Of course, this Quick and Easy Guide cannot cover all the questions that writers have regarding English grammar. But there are several good, on-line resources for writers to use for more grammar help. See our Suggest Writing Resources if you need additional help.

Written By: George Knox © 2017
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