Common Errors in Sentence Structure
Errors in sentence construction can prevent your writing from being grammatically coherent, and render it difficult to understand. Here is an examination of some commonplace errors in sentence structure, and how to best avoid them.
Verbs and pronouns are said to agree with their subject if they have the same number; that is, singular verb and pronoun forms take singular subjects, and plurals take plurals. The following examples showcase agreement:
I left the clothes outside, and they became soaked by the rain. (Both the pronoun and its noun referent are plural).
Lily just left, but you can catch up to her. (Both singular).
The most common instance in which people stumble over agreement is with nouns that describe groups of people or objects.
The committee declined to hand over their decision until Friday.
This sentence is incorrect; even though it is a word describing multiple people, the word committee itself is still singular; therefore the plural pronoun, their, is inappropriate.
The following would be acceptable corrections:
The committee declined to hand over its decision until Friday.
The committee members declined to hand over their decision until Friday.
2. Parallel Structure
When you list multiple things in a sentence that are governed by the same clause, it is important to keep their grammatical structure the same.
I like to paint, dance, and cooking.
This sentence is incorrect; the word cooking does not fit with the structure of the other list items. The sentence could be corrected to:
I like to paint, dance, and cook.
I like painting, dancing, and cooking.
As a general rule, you should be able to read the sentence with each item in isolation, and still haveI like painting, dancing, and cooking. a coherent sentence be formed.
This medication may cause drowsiness, headaches, and induce nausea.
The main governing part of the sentence is This medication may cause. Can we write that sentence with each article of the list?
This medication may cause drowsiness. Correct.
This medication may cause headaches. Correct.
This medication may cause induce nausea. Uh-oh! This last phrase needs to be modified to be the same part of speech as the other two.
3. Dangling or Misplaced Modifiers
Sometimes, the order and placement of a modifier can leave the sentence unclear. For example:
Going to the store, I saw Harry the other day.
This phrasing leaves it unclear whether the speaker was going to the store, or Harry. A much clearer way of writing would be:
I saw Harry going to the store the other day.
While I was going to the store the other day, I saw Harry.
To avoid these kinds of ambiguous phrasings, try to keep the modifier closer to thething it modifies.
While sleeping, a tree fell on Andrew.
(Is it Andrew that was sleeping, or the tree?)
A much better phrasing would be:
While Andrew was sleeping, a tree fell on him.
Try to avoid using pronouns in a way that leaves their referents ambiguous:
I saw a man walking his dog, and he bit me! (Who bit you, the man or the dog?)
I saw a man walking his dog, and the dog bit me!
Watch out for modifiers that specify time and place, and make sure they are carefully placed:
I became the world record-holder for the long jump in 1988. (Did you become world record-holder in 1988, or did you become the record-holder for long jumps made in 1988?)
Instead, this should be written:
In 1988, I became the world record-holder for the long jump.
4. Sentence Fragments
Remember that every sentence must have a subject (a clear indication of what the sentence is about) and a predicate (what the subject is or does that the sentence communicates). Most sentence fragments result from an incomplete subject or predicate.
Some sentence fragments are common in everyday speech, but should be avoided in formal writing:
Good thing that we had the spare tire.
In order to form a complete sentence, this noun phrase requires a full predicate.
It is a good thing that we had the spare tire.
Often, dependent clauses form sentence fragments, because the clauses to which they refer are absent or implied.
Because I said so.
In order to form a full and formal sentence, it needs to include the main clause that the verb because refers to:
You’ll do it because I said so.
The present participle, often formed by adding the -ing suffix to a verb, still requires a main verb to form a complete sentence; a participial phrase, like:
The point being very important
Should never be left on its own. It still requires a main verb which it qualifies:
She kept arguing, the point being very important.