Frequently Encountered Sentence Problems
Many of the common problems that plague English sentences are matters of style, rather than matters of grammar. However, stylistic problems can obscure a writer’s meaning just as much as grammatical problems can, so students of grammar should be aware of these pitfalls. Much of this discussion applies only to written English, but learning to express your thoughts clearly in writing can also be helpful in situations where formal speaking is required.
A run-on sentence contains at least two independent clauses that have been joined without proper punctuation or conjunctions.
- Run-on: I asked her to bring soft drinks she did not.
There are three possible cures:
1. Separate the run-on into two sentences with a period.
- I asked her to bring soft drinks. She did not.
2. Separate the clauses with a comma and coordinating conjunction.
- I asked her to bring soft drinks, but she did not.
3. Separate the clauses with a semicolon.
- I asked her to bring soft drinks; she did not.
A comma splice is a sentence containing at least two independent clauses joined by only a comma.
- Comma splice: Take your umbrella, it is raining.
- Comma splice: She did not know what to do, the situation was terrible.
The two cures are the same as for run-ons:
1. Separate the comma splice into two sentences with a period
- Take your umbrella. It is raining.
2. Separate the clauses with a semicolon.
- She did not know what to do; the situation was terrible.
A sentence fragment is either a phrase or a dependent clause masquerading as a sentence. Remember that a complete sentence must meet two criteria: It must have both a subject and verb, and it must express a complete thought. Here are some examples of sentence fragments.
- We went for a drive. After the game was over.
- Many activities are available at the camp. Such as swimming, fishing, and hiking.
- We went to the beach. Too cold to swim. Built a sandcastle.
To correct sentence fragments, make sure they contain both a subject and a verb. Often, a fragment
can be joined to a related sentence that already expresses a complete thought:
- We went for a drive after the game was over.
- Many activities are available at the camp, such as swimming, fishing, and hiking.
- We went to the beach, but it was too cold to swim, so we built a sandcastle.
Misplaced or “Dangling” Modifiers
Because word order affects the meaning of English so much, modifiers need to stay close to the words they modify. In sentences, phrases that act as modifiers also need to stay close to the things they modify.
The classic misplaced modifying phrase is the dangling participle, a participial phrase that usually appears at the beginning of a sentence, where it tries to modify the subject.
Dangling Participle: Filled with flowers, my mother has a beautiful garden.
This phrase looks as if it modifies my mother, the noun following it. But the effect is comical: Is
my mother filled with flowers? (She must have been hungry!) To correct the problem, make sure
the phrase stays close to the noun it really modifies:
- Correction: My mother has a beautiful garden filled with flowers.
- Correction: Filled with flowers, my mother’s garden is beautiful.
Do not confuse absolute phrases with dangling participles. Absolute phrases always include a noun; participial phrases do not. Absolute phrases do not modify a specific noun; participial phrases do.
Absolute phrase: The train speeding away from him, Enrique realized he had just missed his ride home.
Dangling participle, appears to modify Enrique: Speeding away from him, Enrique realized he had just missed the train.
Corrected participle, modifies train: Enrique realized he had just missed the train speeding away from him.
Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Elements
Depending on their purpose, phrases and clauses that act as modifiers might or might not require commas. A restrictive element introduces essential information into a sentence. Without it, the meaning of the sentence would be completely different. Restrictive elements are not set off from the rest of the sentence by commas:
- Police hope to find a jogger who might have been a witness to the crime. (This restrictive element identifies the specific jogger that police hope to find.)
- The information released to the press omitted several important facts. (This restrictive element tells which information omitted facts.)
A nonrestrictive element introduces extra information that does not affect the basic meaning of the sentence. Nonrestrictive elements are always set off by commas.
- The Palms Hotel, built in 1905, has a magnificent skylight in the lobby.
- Crocodiles and alligators, which are both reptiles, live in different parts of the world.
These nonrestrictive elements add interesting facts to each sentence without changing the meaning.
To help you decide whether an element is restrictive or nonrestrictive, try removing it from the
sentence. If the sentence no longer makes sense or its basic meaning changes, the element is restrictive.
Traditionally, the relative pronoun that introduced only restrictive relative clauses and the relative pronoun which introduced only nonrestrictive relative clauses. Although many writers and speakers use either which or that for restrictive clauses, some teachers and editors prefer to use which only for nonrestrictive clauses. Students, therefore, should be aware of the that/which distinction.
That can never introduce a nonrestrictive clause. Who, whom, whoever, or whomever are appropriate choices when the clause refers to a person, regardless of whether the clause is restrictive or nonrestrictive.
The problem of unclear antecedents occurs when English pronouns become too far separated from the nouns to which they refer.
- The movie tells the story of the son of a crime lord and the rival gang leader who kills his father.
Whose father was killed? The son’s, the crime lord’s, or the gang leader’s? His has three possible
antecedents, the closest one being gang leader. Often the best way to correct such problems
is to rewrite the sentence.
- The movie tells the story of a young man whose crime-lord father is killed by a rival gang leader.
Other antecedent problems occur when a pronoun refers to an abstract idea, a set of circumstances, or an unidentified group of people:
- Unclear: They created the situation and then tried to fix it, which was intolerable. (What was intolerable? Creating the situation, fixing it, or both?)
- Correct: They created the situation, which was intolerable, and then tried to fix it.
- Unclear: Carrie quit her job at the law firm because they constantly criticized her. (Who criticized her? The law firm?)
- Correct: Carrie quit her job at the law firm because the senior partners constantly criticized her.
Lack of Agreement
Verbs must agree with their subjects in person and number. Pronouns must agree with their antecedents in person, number, and gender. Verbs agree with their subjects, not with modifiers. Do not be distracted by modifiers that come between the noun and the verb.
- Incorrect: A crowd of people are waiting. (People is not the subject; it is part of a modifier.)
- Correct: A crowd of people is waiting. (The singular noun crowd is the subject.)
Singular subjects joined by and take a plural verb form and a plural pronoun. Singular subjects joined by or take a singular verb form and a singular pronoun. If you must join mixed subjects (singular/plural, male/female) with or, the verb and pronoun agree with the nearest subject. However, this is extremely awkward and should be avoided.
- Bill and Ted are going on their trip soon.
- Denise or Amy is going to loan you her racket.
- Awkward: The Jones brothers or Samantha is going to contribute her best recipe.
Collective nouns, such as team, jury, group, bunch, and crowd, can be either singular or plural depending on the context.
- The team is going to the championship. (thinking of the team as one unit)
- They are giving their best effort. (thinking of all the team members)
Most indefinite pronouns are singular, but both, many, few, all, some, and others are usually
- Everybody is happy to hear the news.
- No one is absent today.
- Some are absent today.
Some people object to the use of plural pronouns to refer to singular indefinite antecedents, but most writers and editors now find it acceptable. In fact, a safe alternative to potentially sexist language is to use a plural antecedent.
- Avoid: Everyone brought his paper.
- Usually Acceptable: Everyone brought their paper.
- Acceptable: Everyone brought his or her paper.
- Acceptable: All students brought their papers.
Lack of Parallelism
Parallelism is a rule of style stating that parts of a sentence that have the same grammatical function or weight should have the same grammatical form. Lack of parallelism commonly affects grammatical units joined by conjunctions.
Lack of parallelism: Mondo Resort guests can enjoy walks through the resort’s beautiful grounds, a swim in the pool, and eating in our four-star restaurant.This sentence has three objects, but they are all stated differently. Compare these sentences:
- Parallel: Mondo Resort guests can enjoy walking through our grounds, swimming in our pool, and eating in our four-star restaurant.
- Parallel: Mondo Resort guests can enjoy a walk through the grounds, a swim in the pool, and a meal in the four-star restaurant.
In the parallel sentences, the three objects have the same grammatical form (gerunds or singular
nouns), and they are described similarly. These sentences flow more smoothly because they are
Inconsistent Use of Tenses or Pronouns
Like parallelism, consistent use of tenses and pronouns is just a way of keeping written passages smooth and clean. Inexperienced writers tend to shift back and forth between tenses and pronouns. This is acceptable in spoken English, but not in written English.
- Inconsistent: We went to practice, and the coach tells us that you need to learn a new drill. (This shifts from past to present and from we to you.)
- Consistent: We went to practice, and the coach told us that we needed to learn a new drill. (This example consistently uses past tense and we.)
- Inconsistent: Many people enjoy winter sports at Big Bear Mountain. You could go skiing, snowboarding, or skating. One did not have to be a good skier to have fun in the snow. (This shifts from present to conditional/past and from people to you to one.)
- Consistent: Many people enjoy winter sports at Big Bear Mountain. They can go skiing, snowboarding, or skating. They do not have to be good skiers to have fun in the snow.