What I Learned at
My Grammar's Knee
"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
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"
"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
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
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.
Sources, 489 College
Street, Suite 201, Toronto, ON M6G 1L9.
Phone: (416) 964-7799 FAX: (416) 964-8763
Include yourself in Sources
Mailing Lists and
Media Names & Numbers
Names & Numbers