Common Sentence Structure Errors and How to Fix Them

Composing a sentence does not seem to be a hard task. Well, that may be in spoken language. Errors in sentence construction are hardly noticeable in a spoken conversation since we do not see the punctuation, capitalization, pattern, spelling, etc. But in writing, it is a totally different story. In writing, we see more than just the though expressed, but how it is constructed as well.

Sentence Defined

A sentence can include words grouped meaningfully to express a statement, question, exclamation, request, command, or suggestion. In orthographic terms, a sentence can also be defined as any that is contained between a capital letter and a full stop (period). However, if we strictly follow the rules of grammatical construction, a group of words can be considered as a sentence when it (a) has a subject and a verb and (b) expresses a complete, standalone idea.

Common Sentence Construction Error and How to Fix Them

1. Sentence Fragment

When a group of words does not have the attribute of the sentence given above, it becomes a sentence fragment. A sentence fragment can either be a dependent clause or a phrase.

Phrase

Merriam-Webster defines a phrase as “a word or group of words forming a syntactic constituent with a single grammatical function.” It only functions as a single unit of syntax of a sentence—it could be as a noun equivalent (subject and/or object), an adjective, an adverb, a verb, etc.

at the end of the street

on the table

the red house on Main Avenue

Dependent Clause

In linguistics, a dependent clause (or as some refer to it, subordinate clause) is a clause that augments an independent clause with additional information, but which cannot stand alone as a sentence. Dependent clauses either modify the independent clause of a sentence or serve as a component of it.

When she left me

After Kirby picked up his laundry

But the game was over

Despite having a subject and a verb, these clauses cannot stand alone to express a complete thought; thus, they need to be connected to an independent clause.

 Fixing Sentence Fragments

Fixing sentence fragments is actually easy.

Whenever the boy threw the ball. The dog would bring it back.

His father said not to. But the boy threw the ball.

The dog barked. And the boy threw the ball.

On the big basket. Several apples were store.

There is a new store. At the end of the street.

To complete the sentence, either remove the connecting word or add another clause, often by changing punctuation.

Whenever the boy threw the ball, the dog would bring it back.

His father said not to, but the boy threw the ball.

The dog barked, and the boy threw the ball.

On the big basket, several apples were store.

There is a new store, at the end of the street.

NOTE: There are some instances where writer, especially of fiction, employs the stylistics us of fragments to add emphasis or dramatic description to a work.

For instance, the opening of Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House begins with the following three sentences:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.

Another writer whom I have noticed to use fragments in stylistic way in her works is K. A. Applegate, author of Animorphs and Everworld series.

2. Comma Splice and Run-On Sentences

These occur when two or more independent clauses are joined together incorrectly through misuse of punctuation or connecting words. In formal English prose, independent clauses should be joined by a [coordinating] conjunction preceded by a comma. If there is no conjunction joining the clauses, it should be connected by using the semicolon.

A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses are joined together by a comma. A run-on sentence, on the other hand, happens when two independent clauses are not joined by any conjunction nor punctuation.

This party is boring, I’m going home.

This party is boring I’m going home.

To correct these errors, there are three options:

• use a semicolon

• use a conjunction and/or comma

• split the clauses into separate sentences.

This party is boring; I’m going home.

This party is boring, and I’m going home.

This party is boring, so I’m going home.

This party is boring. I’m going home.

3. Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

Misplaced Modifiers

Adjectives or adverbs—single words or groups—always describe the closest element of the clause. If a modifier group is closer to the wrong element, it can be awkward, confusing, or even hilarious.

Swinging from tree to tree, the children enjoyed watching the monkeys.

Here, “the children” are the ones swinging from tree to tree, not the monkeys.

He cautioned them against yelling quietly, since it could cause an avalanche.

Here, quietly” seems to modify “yelling,” which is contradictory.

Fixing this error simply needs transposition of the modifier. All you have to do is move the modifiers so that they are closest to the element they should modify.

The children enjoyed watching the monkeys swinging from tree to tree

He quietly cautioned them against yelling since it could cause an avalanche.

Dangling Modifiers

A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence, or may not even be in the sentence.

Watching a boring movie, the time seems to move even more slowly.

Eating some carrots, the bowl was tipped over.

“Watching a boring movie” and “Eating some carrots” are participles expressing actions, but the doer are not mentioned: clearly, time cannot watch a movie and carrots cannot tip a bowl over. Since the doer of the actions expressed in the participles have not been clearly stated, the participial phrases are said to be a dangling modifier.

There are different ways to correct this error, and here are some of them.

A. Name the appropriate or logical doer of the action as the subject of the main clause:

Watching a boring movie, the time seems to move even more slowly.

Eating some carrots, the bowl was tipped over.

Who watched the movie? Who tipped the bowl? To revise, decide who actually did the actions. The possible revision might look like this:

Watching a boring movie, Kirby thought time seems to move even more slowly.

Eating some carrots, Kirby tipped bowl over.

The main clause now names the person (Kirby) who did the actions in the modifying phrase (“watching a boring movie” and “eating some carrots”).

B. Change the phrase that dangles into a complete introductory clause by naming the doer of the action in that clause:

Watching a boring movie, the time seems to move even more slowly.

Eating some carrots, the bowl was tipped over.

Who was eating some carrots and watching the boring movie? To revise, decide who was doing the actions. The revision might look something like this:

While Kirby was watching a boring movie, he though that time seems to move even more slowly.

While Kirby was eating some carrots, he tipped the bowl over.

The phrase is now a complete introductory clause; it does not modify any other part of the sentence, so is not considered “dangling.”

C. Combine the phrase/clause and main clause into one:

Watching a boring movie, the time seems to move even more slowly.

Eating some carrots, the bowl was tipped over.

To revise, transpose the phrase/clause as an adjunct at the end part of the main clause to form one sentence without any introductory phrase/clause. The revision might look something like this:

The time seems to move even more slowly whenever Kirby watches a boring movie.

Kirby tipped the bowl over while he was eating some carrots.

4. Ambiguous Pronoun Reference

Pronouns must clearly refer to another previous noun, especially if they are acting as a substitute for that noun.

There are two common ways that a pronoun can become unclear.

A. The noun it refers to is ambiguous.

The students were graded based on exams and essays, and they were very difficult.

Jared told Marc that he wasn’t invited.

B. The noun it refers to is far away.

I found an old suit in the attic yesterday that used to belong to my grandfather.

To avoid ambiguous pronoun reference, rearrange the sentence or use a full noun instead of a pronoun.

The students were graded based on exams and essays, and the exams were very difficult.

I found an old suit that used to belong to my grandfather in the attic yesterday.

Jared told Marc that Marc wasn’t invited.

References:

Fowler, Ramsey H., Jane E. Aaron and Murray McArthur. The Little, Brown Handbook. 4th Canadian edition. Toronto: Pearson, 2005.

Lester, Mark and Larry Beason. The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

Swan, Michael. Practical English Usage. 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Troyka, Lynn Q. and Douglas Hesse. Simon & Schuster Handbook for Writers. 4th Canadian edition. Toronto: Pearson, 2006.

2 thoughts on “Common Sentence Structure Errors and How to Fix Them

Add yours

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