I know you're REALLY excited to know that this week's Basics is a grammar lesson!
Know what? Grammar is important. You may hate it, but if you don't have it mastered, it's going to water down your writing. Absolutely.
Good grammar, when all is said and done, is about CLARITY. In other words, you want the reader to understand exactly what you are saying. Poor grammar mucks things up.
So, let's jump right in! See if you can determine what's wrong with the following sentence:
Running down the palace hallway, the orb leaped from my hands and exploded in a shower of sparks.
*Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock*
Time's up! Here's the answer:
RUNNING DOWN THE HALLWAY is an ADJECTIVE PHRASE that is supposed to be modifying the subject of the sentence. (The subject is always a noun or pronoun, which is why it will always be modified by an adjective.) In the above sentence, the subject is ORB.
As in, ORB LEAPED. (That's the simple subject and simple predicate of the sentence. Noun plus verb. Are you with me so far?)
Now, the orb was NOT running down the palace hallway. However, that's EXACTLY what you've got happening in the above sentence!
Here is the correct construction:
Running down the palace hallway, I dropped the orb, which exploded in a shower of sparks.
In the above sentence, the subject is I, which is now correctly modified by the adjective phrase.
Seems obvious, doesn't it? But this is a VERY COMMON ERROR that I see time and time again in the writing of teens AND adults.
Here's another example:
Having told everyone to leave her alone, the ringing phone caught Marlene by surprise.
PHONE is the subject in the above sentence, and I'm fairly certain it didn't tell everyone to leave her alone.
Having told everyone to leave her alone, Marlene was surprised by the ringing phone.
MARLENE is the subject in the above sentence, and it is correctly modified by the ADJECTIVE PHRASE.
There are all sorts of other ways to misplace modifiers, of course. But for some reason, this one seems most common.
It also annoys the gajonkies out of me. A total Writing Pet Peeve, if you will.
And after all is said and done, this particular sentence construction--one that begins with a gerund phrase modifying the subject--SHOULD BE USED SPARINGLY.
In fact, lots of starts-with-gerund sentences in a manuscript is one of the hallmarks of an inexperienced writer. No, really. So check your work and make sure it's not proliferated with this sentence construction.
And when you do use it? MAKE SURE IT'S MODIFYING THE CORRECT WORD.
Here is the actual GRAMMAR RULE to follow:
Place an adjective phrase or clause immediately before or after the word that it modifies.
Remember, it's all about clarity. Nail this rule, and you'll immediately strengthen your sentences.
Unless, of course, you're using TOO MANY modifiers. But that's a whole separate post...