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What I Learned at
My Grammar's Knee

Dyanne Rivers


"Writing is a craft. It's not necessarily an art. It might become an art for some people later on. But if it's not first of all a craft, it can never be an art," said Pete Hamill, reporter, editor, and all-round talented guy, to Tom Callahan of Writer's Digest. Hamill's words apply equally well to editing.

For most of us, editing is, and will always remain, a craft. Few of us will ever reach that magical plane where craft becomes art. Still, we can all aspire to achieve this state, which means knowing our craft and becoming skilled at using its tools. For an editor, a solid knowledge of grammar is one of those tools.

Here debate arises. What, exactly, is a solid knowledge of grammar? In my book, it's more than simply being able to recite and apply the so-called rules. It's knowing that the rules are not really rules at all. Calling them rules may be simple and convenient, but I prefer to think of them as explanations of patterns of language use that have evolved over the centuries.

Myths of engagement

I suspect that every editor has what I call the hair-raising rule. My own goes like this: If a usage would raise the hairs on the back of the necks of the truly excellent editors who taught me the business, change it. This rule has a corollary: when you have to choose between two correct usages and some readers perceive one to be incorrect (even if it isn't), choose the one that is unquestioned.

Because of the corollary, I agonize over splitting infinitives and usually do so only when I have no alternative. Many people still view a split infinitive as an error. It isn't, but it's often less hassle to make a so-called correction than to explain why the proscription against splitting infinitives is a myth.

Sometimes the myths around usage flabbergast me. A few years ago, for example, I edited a children's novel and presented the page proofs to the managing editor for a final read-through. The editor returned the pages with every "till" highlighted for correction to "until."

This was the first time I had come up against the myth that "till" is an unacceptable abbreviation of "until." Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident; the myth that "till" is either "informal" or outright slang seems to be gathering strength. I've now encountered the belief several times. It even showed up in a grammar column of a national magazine.

Even a cursory check of dictionaries and usage manuals reveals that "till" and "until" are two different words, though they derive from the same root. In fact, "till" is the older of the two: it came into Old English from Old Norse, while "until" is a Middle English johnny-come-lately.

How, then, did "till" come to be frowned on? Perhaps because some usage manuals warn against using the abbreviation "'til." If "'til" is deemed unacceptable, it isn't hard to see how people might incorrectly leap to proscribing "till" as well.

"Till" and "until" are synonyms that can be used interchangeably. When deciding which to use, the only guide should be the natural rhythm of the language.

Mysteries of modifiers

Sometimes not even a myth accounts for what we hear or see. Last summer, the Dell Computer Corporation assaulted my grammatical sensibilities with a commercial ostensibly delivered by a teacher strolling around a classroom. She said, "Like all teachers, my kids need a ton of support."

Yargh! It boggles the mind that this glaring error slipped by everyone involved in creating this commercial. On second thought, maybe it isn't so surprising. Introductory phrases can be tricky; so tricky that at least one editor told me that he avoids them even when they're okay.

This is too bad. Introductory phrases are a stylistic device that often improves the flow of text by setting statements in context. Used wisely, these phrases prepare readers for what is to come and add variety and energy to writing.

The pitfall, of course, is that they can be left dangling. And a dangling modifier is a big grammatical error.

First, a quick tour of the basics. "Modifier" is a catch-all term that includes adjectives and adverbs, as well as other words, phrases, and clauses that function as adjectives or adverbs. In the sentence "On Sundays, we go hiking" an adverbial phrase works as an introductory modifier.

The trick is to remember that a modifier must modify something. If it doesn't, it dangles.

In the Dell example, "like all teachers" is a prepositional phrase functioning as an adjective. As an adjective, it must modify a noun or pronoun. And, because it introduces the sentence, the specific noun or pronoun it modifies must be the subject; in this case, "kids." But the offending phrase doesn't modify "kids" or any other word in the sentence. It's a modifier with nothing to modify-a true dangler.

Fortunately, the error is easily fixed. How? Give the modifier a job to do by adding a noun or pronoun subject. The teacher might say, "Like all teachers, I know that my kids need a lot of support." Because the introductory phrase now modifies the pronoun subject "I," her sentence is grammatically correct.

In other cases, the solution is simply to move the offending construction closer to the element it modifies. Here's an obvious example: "Barking, we heard our dog" can easily be corrected to: "We heard our dog barking."

Because the Dell example was truly egregious, the dangler was easy to catch. Dangling participles, which are one variety of dangling modifier, are often harder to spot.

Take this sentence: "Exhausted by her day at work, the noise was unbearable." "Exhausted" is a participle, and "exhausted by her day at work" is a participial phrase. In addition to their function as verbs, participles also act as adjectives-and, as adjectives, they must modify something. In this example, "exhausted by her day at work" doesn't modify the subject "noise" or any other element of the sentence.

Moving this phrase to a different location won't correct the problem. The sentence must be rewritten. Here's one possible fix: "Exhausted by her day at work, she found the noise unbearable." The sentence is now grammatically correct because the introductory participial phrase modifies the subject "she."

Is there an easy way to identify dangling modifiers? Yes. Simply ask: What does the phrase modify? If it isn't attached to another word in the sentence, it's a dangler.

Nothing mythical or mysterious about that.


Dyanne Rivers is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Willowdale, Ontario. This article is adapted from columns that appeared in Active Voice, the national newsletter of the Editors' Association of Canada/Association canadienne des rédacteurs-réviseurs.

Published in Sources, Number 45, Summer 2000.

 



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