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Your 10 biggest grammar woes, solved

A guide to commas, clauses, commonly mixed-up words, and more, with can’t-fail tricks to keep your writing clean.

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4. Dangling modifiers

When editing magazines, I find many dangling modifiers require correction. Dangling modifiers occur when you start a sentence with a phrase whose subject should be the very next word after the comma. The meaning of the sentence changes when that subject is out of place.

Imagine if I’d written instead, “When editing magazines, many dangling modifiers require correction.” Now, “dangling modifiers” are editing the magazines instead of me, since I was the subject of the original sentence.

‰‰ Tip: You can avoid danglers easily by adding the subject into the introductory phrase. My example sentence would become, “When I edit magazines, I find many dangling modifiers require correction,” and voila. No more dangler.

 

5. Apostrophes

First, follow proper Christmas card etiquette and never use an apostrophe to make a plural. (That card is from the Nelsons, not the Nelson’s.) Second, resist the urge to write 1960’s, unless you are writing about “1960’s biggest hit song.” Use 1960s (or 1970s or ’80s or ’90s, etc.) when referencing an entire decade.

Generally, you use an apostrophe to form a conjunction (cannot becomes can’t) or show possession (a cat belonging to William becomes William’s cat). If a word ends in s, don’t change the original word when you create the possessive. Say you are writing about a cat the Williams family owns. The proper phrase would be “the Williams’ cat” and not “the William’s cat.” If you notice the spelling of the original word has changed in this instance, you know you did something wrong.

Many style guides disagree on whether to use ’s (the Williams’ cat) or s’s (the Williams’s cat) for plurals that end in s. The former is more common, but old school editors may use the latter. Ask editors about their preference, and remain consistent above all else. Consistency is the foundation of grammar.

‰‰ Tip: If you aren’t sure if a word that ends in s needs an apostrophe, substitute another word that doesn’t end in s into the sentence. For instance, for “the boys basketball team” or “the boys’ basketball team,” substitute “children.” Your choice becomes “the children basketball team” or “the children’s basketball team.” In this case, the possessive is necessary. Go with boys’ basketball.

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6. Further vs. farther

Confession: I didn’t use “further” and “farther” for years because I couldn’t keep them straight. While eliminating words from your vocabulary ensures you won’t misuse them, you also limit yourself. You’d be wiser to learn the definitions and deploy the words properly.

So now I know that “farther” denotes a physical, measurable distance: “She moved farther from Virginia when she departed Pennsylvania for Maine.” Further relates to figurative, not literal, space: “She moved further from the ideals of her adolescence as she grew older.”

‰‰ Tip: Remember “farther” by thinking of far, which implies distance. (But don’t think of further as fur – unless you can come up with an excellent PETA-related mnemonic.)

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