Mark Tredinnick Talks Grammar

No one can avoid grammar.

Even if you can’t tell a pronoun from a participle at ten paces, you’re still an amateur grammarian; you employ it, at quite a sophisticated level, every time you speak or text or make a half-decent sentence, even a sentence fragment. You need grammar if you want to make sense, no matter how fast you want to make it. You can use some SMS code, some emoticons, and a few abbreviations, if you like, but you can’t do without grammar; grammar is the system by which we make meaning out of those blobs of sound and suggestion that we call words. You can’t make a whole lot of sense until you write a sentence, and grammar is how you make a sentence.

The more elegantly or rapidly or beautifully or memorably you want to make sense in a text message or a newspaper column or a speech or a love letter or a novel or a poem, the more syntax you’re going to need—that is, the better you might need to know your way around the fourteen pieces of punctuation, the more classic gaffes you might want to be sure to avoid, the more varieties of legitimate sentence you might want to compose. Knowing some grammar helps you send cooler, briefer, more potent and winning messages. Grammar, indeed, is the new black. Or perhaps the new green. It’s how writers take that bit of extra care; it’s how they learn to be better writers and stay that way. In the end, it helps you write that message not only better but faster, too.

These are a few of the most common grammar gaffes I come across, including in my own writing.

1. The dangling modifier.
“We make recommendations for avoiding injuries in this report”
“A so called friend of Heather Mills claimed that she worked as an escort with Mills in a documentary that aired on Tuesday night”
In these two examples, small phrases (“in this report”, “in a
documentary”) appear at the wrong place and suggest something other than what the writer meant.

2. Loose pronoun reference.
“I took the hat from the chair and put it on my head.” (Put the chair on my head?) And who’s doing what here?
“Sara found a jacket in the wardrobe that her grandmother had worn when she was a girl.”

3. Commas out of place or no commas at all.
“However it appears that as this report was generated from old data the problem is easily explained.”
“All 300 people employed at the plant, will lose their jobs ”
“I apologise for the delayed response, I got distracted by some emergencies in the office.” (Sentence splice.)

4. Singular verbs after compound (plural) subjects.
“Alcohol and liver damage had taken its toll.” (Should be “their”) “The obstinacy and corruption of the ruling junta is delaying the arrival of aid.” (Should be “are”) “There’s hundreds of them.” (Should be “There are”)

5. Use of “less” for “fewer”
“Twelve items or less”
“She reads less books than she should.”

6. Widespread confusion between “which”and “that” and the overuse of “which”, as in “You are entering an area which contains steep cliffs and loose edges.” (Better as “that contains”.)

Mark Tredinnick will teach Getting to Grips with Grammar on Saturday 15 June.

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