10 Sentence Slip-Ups

Top 10 Sentence Slip-Ups

Good writing comes down to two totally different factors: solid prose and “it.” The latter is that special something that brings stories to life, infuses vibrancy into characters and themes, and just basically makes stories work. But an author who has been blessed with all the “it” in the world still won’t make it if he isn’t also able to convey the essence of his genius in well-ordered, properly structured sentences and paragraphs.

Creating correct sentences is a technical process that offers set guidelines for getting the structure right. Within those guidelines, we have the opportunity to flex our creative muscles in all kinds of unique ways (and even to occasionally burst the bounds of those guidelines if we have good reason for doing so). But in discovering how and where to flex in order to tap our prose potential without inappropriately bursting those bounds, we should first learn to spot the most prevalent sentence slips-ups and know when to eliminate them from our stories. Following are ten.

1. Participle phrases.

What is it? The participle phrase is a verb phrase used as a modifier.

Example: Grabbing her pet flying monkey, Jana jumped onto its back.

What’s wrong with it? The participle phrase indicates two actions happening simultaneously. Unless both actions really are occurring at the same time, this indicates a false sequence of events, destroys the linearity of cause and effect, and robs the punch from both actions.

How to fix it: Usually, all you have to do is rework the sentence with the events properly ordered: “Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey and jumped onto its back.”

2. Run-ons.

What is it? The run-on is a sentence that joins two or more independent clauses without an appropriate use of punctuation or conjunctions.

Example: Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey, she jumped onto its back.

What’s wrong with it? The run-on can occasionally be used for poetic effect or to indicate a flurry of activity. But usually it just looks like sloppy writing. It creates a choppy, breathless tone that can contribute to reader confusion.

How to fix it: Either divide the clauses into proper sentences or add the appropriate punctuation: “Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey. She jumped onto its back.” —or— “Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey, then she jumped onto its back.”

3. Fragments.

What is it? The fragment is a phrase that lacks either a subject or a predicate, thus preventing it from being a complete sentence.

Example: Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey. Jumped onto its back.

What’s wrong with it? Fragments offer only half a thought. Although they are often used to good effect in creating tone or emphasis (since people often do speak and think in fragments), they will create confusion when the missing half, whether it’s the subject or the predicate, isn’t clear.

How to fix it: Either tack the fragment onto one of its surrounding sentences or create a new sentence by adding the missing half: “Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey and jumped onto its back.” —or— “Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey. She jumped onto its back.”

4. “As” phrases.

What is it? “As” is a conjunction that indicates two events happening concurrently.

Example: As Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey, she jumped onto its back.

What’s wrong with it? Like the participle phrase, the “as” phrase goes astray when it indicates a simultaneity that isn’t accurate.

How to fix it: Rewrite the sentence to reflect proper linearity and cause and effect: “Jana grabbed her flying monkey, then jumped onto its back.”

5. Unclear antecedents.

What is it? An antecedent is the noun to which a related pronoun is referring.

Example: When she grabbed Isabella, her pet flying monkey, she poked her in the eye.

What’s wrong with it? Whenever we use a pronoun, we must be certain readers will understand to whom the pronoun is referring. In our example sentence, we can’t be quite
certain who’s poking whose eyes.

How to fix it: Either re-order the sentence so the correct antecedent precedes its pronoun, or eschew the pronouns and just name names: “When Jana grabbed Isabella, her pet flying monkey, the monkey poked Jana in the eye.”

6. Lack of variation.

What is it? Sentence structures need to be varied within each paragraph in order to present a pleasing rhythm.

Example: Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey Isabella. She jumped onto Isabella’s back. Isabella poked her in the eye.

What’s wrong with it?
The lack of variation is particularly evident when multiple short sentences are strung together, since it presents a choppy style that quickly becomes monotonous.

How to fix it: Mix up the sentence structure to include a variety of simple, complex, and compound sentences: “Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey, Isabella. But when she jumped
on Isabella’s back, the monkey poked her in the eye.”

7. Lack of parallelism.

What is it? Parallelism balances similar words or phrases by uniformly structuring them.

Example: Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey, whooped, then onto its back she jumped.

What’s wrong with it? A lack of parallelism creates a clunky sentence that can cause confusion, since the verb forms often get mixed up.

How to fix it: Make sure all words or phrases in a list are presented http://clanofthecats.com/ in the same way: “Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey, whooped, and jumped onto its back.”

8. Nominalizations.

What is it? A nominalization is an unnecessary distortion of a verb form into a noun or adjective.

Example: The attempt to learn how to ride monkeys of the flying variation should be approached only by those who have mastered the act of balancing.

What’s wrong with it? Nominalizations clutter up sentences by weakening otherwise strong verbs.

How to fix it: Trim unnecessary phrases and allow your verbs to do their job: “Only those who have masterful balance should attempt to learn to ride flying monkeys.”

9. Flabby sentences.

What is it? Flab in a sentence is caused by the inclusion of unnecessary words.

Example: With great nervousness, Jana took a step toward her flying monkey and sighed out a breath.

What’s wrong with it? Words must always have a reason for their presence in a sentence. If they aren’t contributing to either clarity or a deliberate linguistic effect, they don’t
belong. Never use two words where one will do.

How to fix it: Where possible, replace phrases with single words: “Nervously, Jana stepped toward her flying monkey and sighed.”

10. Subject/verb confusion.

What is it? Every sentence is founded upon two parts: the subject and the predicate (verb phrase). To work, both must agree in tense and plurality.

Example: Jana grabs her flying monkey, but the monkey weren’t happy.

What’s wrong with it? Confusion in tense or plurality between subject and verb murders sentence clarity and makes the author look incompetent, at best.

How to fix it: Always double-check that your verbs agree with their corresponding subjects and the overall tense of your story: “Jana grabbed her flying monkey, but the monkey wasn’t happy.”

If you can learn to recognize and correct these sentence slip-ups, you’ll be that much closer to perfect prose—which will allow you to focus that much more of your attention on the “it” factor that will send your stories from blah to beautiful.

Tell me your opinion: What sentence slip-up do you struggle with most?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I don’t struggle with sentences: they come out of my brain in perfectness.

    Bahaha yeah, okay, fine. I think I struggle with Participle Phrases without realizing it, because in my mind — unless we’re talking about the fastest reader in the world — since the second action is read after the first, and in about the amount of time I can imagine Jane hurriedly grabbing her pet flying monkey and subsequently jumping onto its back, the reader will see it not as simultaneous but as hurried. Maybe Jane didn’t have “control” of her monkey before leaping onto its back, and was technically still in the process of grabbing it.

    I’ll definitely have to keep an eye out for that one. Thanks!

  2. yep, same here, participle phrases and for the same reasons. The rest I’ve got down – mostly :)

  3. I realized that I tend to use the word “as” excessively. Not necessarily incorrectly, however when I went back and started substituting with “when” in certain places, it helped things flow more smoothly.

  4. I am so guilty of point number one.

  5. @Daniel: Participle phrases have been one of my Achilles’ heels in the past. I’ve learned to see and slaughter them in less time than it takes Jana to simultaneously do two impossible things.

    @mshatch: They all like to creep into our prose now and then. So long as we’re aware of the problems they cause, we’ll be able to catch most of them.

    @Karoline: The ol’ substitute-one-word-for-another is often a handy trick in determining whether our original word choices are really accomplishing what we want them to.

    @Jet: Well, so far you’re in good company!

  6. I probably have the most problem with participle phrases, although Word dings me a lot for subject/verb agreement (though most of those are unfounded.)

  7. Word’s grammar check is wrong so often, due to the subjective nature of sentence construction, that I finally got to the point when I just turned it off. Sometimes I’ll turn it back on during universal checks, but, you’re right, it’s wrong more often than it’s right.

  8. Definitely participle phrases for me too. But I find the fix – however grammatically correct – to sound clunky, especially during an action scene. Is it okay to use “then” instead of “and”? I do this sometimes, at which point Word inevitably prompts me to change it to “and then”. This is even more clunky, especially when read aloud, so I usually ignore it.

  9. I only leave Word’s grammar checker on so I can catch some obvious things that I screw up now and then, but also because I can laugh at the program!

  10. Perfect timing (you must be psychic…LOL!)! I was just talking about some of these problems with one of my critique groups. I’ll be sharing it with them. Thanks!

  11. Yikes! I’m guilty of all these. I tend to write like I speak, which isn’t always good grammar. No doubt I broke a rule or two in those sentences. :-) Thankfully I keep Grammar Girl books within reach. LOL!

  12. So, knowing next to nothing about the rules of grammar, how about this?

    Grabbing her flying monkey, Jana attempted to jump on it’s back; but was knocked instead to the ground by the monkey’s fist.

  13. @Abby: Yes, no problem using “then” as a conjunction when necessary.

    @Liberty: One of these days I suppose Word will be smarter than us. But today is not that day! :p

    @Teresa: Glad the post came in handy!

    @Elke: Writing like we speak isn’t necessarily a problem. But we do need to understand the rules we’re breaking, so we can figure out whether or not it’s really in our best interest to do so.

    @Steve: In the first half of the sentence, we have the same problem with participle phrases, since Jana is both grabbing and attempting at the same time. Depending on how you intend “grab” (as either the initial action or the prolonged one of continuing to grab), this isn’t necessarily a problem. But the very fact that it could be misconstrued makes a rewrite preferable. The second half isn’t an independent clause (no subject), so it shouldn’t be separated from the first half with a semi-colon.

  14. I’m worried about that monkey. Surely Jana is too heavy?

  15. No worries. It’s a very big monkey.

  16. I normally don’t have these slip-ups in my writing, probably because I read good books like yours (smile) and also like to read things aloud :)

  17. Nothing is a better writing instructor than osmosis!

  18. I’d say “participle phrases” for me.

    However, my understanding of grammar is that participle phrases can have more than one function. I wonder at the notion that they can ONLY ever be used for two events occurring at exactly the same time. I have only encountered this idea in fiction writing advise.

    For example, Richard Nordquist says – , “Participial phrases may be arranged to show a sequence of actions, as in the “pinball” sentence just seen. They may also be set up to show that two or more actions are occurring at the same time” http://grammar.about.com/od/basicsentencegrammar/a/creatpartphrase.htm

    Your example above gives two connected sequential events. Besides, using participial phrases can help with sentence variation.

    Obviously, there are other traps to avoid – such as a dangling participles.

    I do agree with “never use two words when one will do” and like your example “Nervously, Jana stepped towards her flying monkey and sighed.” However, I know a number of editors that would cry “adverb – never use an adverb.” So I would love to know your opinion on the use of adverbs – are they admissible or should they be forever and irrevocably banned (including of course “irrevocably”).

    Love your post, by the way, and am going to share it with a friend.

  19. I use many of these all of the time- thank you for helping me to define them! I think my worst is the “as” sentences for sure.

  20. Great post! I’m glad that many others have the same problem – Participle Phrases. :P

  21. Uh-oh.

  22. How ’bout we just off that dad-ratted monkey and be done with it?

  23. I see sentences like the following that irk me for reasons other than your reason #1, especially knowing from previous paragraphs that Isabella is Jana’s pet flying monkey and that Isabella does not have a pet flying monkey of her own:

    Grabbing her pet flying monkey, Isabella poked Jana in the eye.

  24. I manage to hit nine out of ten, but only when I’m not sure what I want to say.

  25. Ug. Flabby sentences. I just eliminated half my work count in my novel by trimming a LOT of fat. It was embarrassing…

  26. @Jenny: The advice I’ve given in this post is very basic and applies only in certain situations. Just about every one of these “slip-ups” can be used effectively. It’s just a matter of recognizing what they’re capable of doing well – and what they’re not. As for adverbs, like all modifiers, they should be used with caution. But that doesn’t mean they should never be used. They bear their own valuable burden within the sentence, and they get a bit of an unfair rap simply because so many inexperienced authors overuse them – and then have editors come down hard on them.

    @Alexandra: Knowing our weaknesses is always the first big step toward overcoming them!

    @Hariprasad: Yes, those darned participles get most of us sooner or later.

    @Gullible: That *would* solve a lot of problems!

    @Michael: Absolutely. As a modifying phrase, participles must always be in a clear relationship with their antecedents.

    @Oliver: Doesn’t matter how many we hit in the first draft. Once we’ve gotten our thoughts out enough to know what we’re trying to say, that’s the time to go back and edit out the slip-ups.

    @Amanda: But also kind of liberating, right? I’ve done that as well, and aside from the annoying word count discrepancies that result, it’s always exciting to see how lean and mean the prose looks when I’m finished.

  27. So then…

    Grabbing hold of her flying monkey, Jana then attempted to jump on it’s back, but was knocked instead to the ground by the monkey’s fist.

  28. That works, but even with the “then” in the second clause, the participle phrase’s inherent indication of simultaneity still makes it less than the best choice for indicating linearity in a sentence like this. We’re better off phrasing it as a 1, 2, 3 set of actions: “Jana grabbed hold of her flying monkey and attempted to jump on its back, but the monkey’s fist knocked her to the ground.” Or, really, since “grabbing” is implied in her attempt to jump on the monkey’s back, we could just simplify the whole thing: “Jana attempted to jump on the flying monkey’s back, but the monkey knocked her to the ground.”

  29. This was very helpful. It’s nice having all this in a single place. Thanks!

  30. Glad you enjoyed it!

  31. Thanks, Katie…I was trying to include all the actions. I forgot that sometimes they can be implied and that tightens things up quite a bit.

  32. Something else we can easily do to simplify sentences when they become too long and convoluted is to simply divide them into two or more sentences. Shorter and simpler will almost always be better than longer and more complicated.

  33. I do that a lot but, the object of this exercise seemed to be getting it all correctly tucked into one sentence. The condensation of assumed actions worked well for that.

  34. It’s important for us to know *how* various parts of a sentence fit together under one roof (or period, as the case may be). But there comes a point where splitting clauses up into two or more sentences will be the better choice, so it’s important to keep that in mind as well.

  35. As a general rule, I either avoid these problems or recognize them in time to correct them before publication. However, the one that constantly trips me up is nominalization. In fact, I never think about it in my own writing, even though it drives me up the wall to hear or read certain such words that come to be used frequently by the general public. Touche.

  36. Good points. As far as using ‘as,’ it is true that the word is often overused, but it is also true that people are capable of multitasking. Sometimes I walk back from the mailbox as I’m reading my mail.

  37. After reading these, I keep catching them as I start writing and go back and fix it (or cross it out because I’m giving longhanded writing a try before I type it into microsoft office because it’s making me pay less attention to word count). Very useful!

    It seems also, after reading all of your posts (or at least a lot of them. There are so many!), my inspiration is coming back and FAST. I’ve been stuck as far as original stuff goes (though my mind seems to be overrun with fanfiction) for awhile but now ideas are starting to flood at the gates again. It makes me ecstatic! =D I just hope I can continue concentrating on one at a time.

  38. @Sammy: It’s interesting that the things we’re worst at in our own writing are often those we’re hyperaware of in the writing of others.

    @Stan: Very true. If the character truly is doing two actions at once, both the “as” phrase and the participle phrase would be perfectly correct.

    @Megan: Yay! Always awesome when inspiration comes flooding in. I find writing longhand very helpful in freeing my creativity as well. I always write my outlines that way.

  39. I have learned to be watchful of unclear antecedents when the two main characters of my story are both male. Flabby sentences and nominalization I am quite guilty of but am learning to catch it. I tend to think I am creating ‘it’ when in fact it is flabby or nominalized!

  40. Joetta Witkowski says:

    What a cool site! I’m so glad I found you.

    However, I take issue with your corrections in #1. The example sentence, “Grabbing her pet flying monkey, Jana jumped on its back.”, is not a complex sentence. A complex sentence, by definition, is a sentence with one independent clause, and one or more dependent clauses. Your example is a simple sentence with an introductory participial phrase.

    Neither is the corrected sentence, “Jana grabbed her pet flying monkey and jumped on its back.”, a compound sentence. By definition, a compound sentence is composed of two or more independent clauses. Your corrected sentence is a simple sentence with a compound predicate.

    Just thought you’d want to know.

  41. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this – I enjoyed it! Question about parallelism: I so often hear sentences like the following and wonder if this is lack of parallelism or incorrect series (is that the same thing?) or even if this has become acceptable now (I hope not, because I cringe every time I hear it…). Example: Jana’s pet monkey is brown, black and has a broken tail.

  42. @Sarah: I love the power of pronouns. They offer so much opportunity to let readers get closer to characters (particularly narrators) without drawing any attention to themselves. However, they can get confusing fast when two people of the same gender are present in a scene. Clarity always trumps subtlety.

    @Joetta: Ah, you’re right of course! Sort of like compound/complex bone fractures. I always get those mixed up too. :p Thanks for noting that. I will correct it.

    @Anonymous: Exactly. It’s not (or shouldn’t be!) acceptable. Parallelism will always present the better sentence.

  43. Thanks for the useful tips! There are many ways to avoid these slips :D

  44. Yep, once you know what to look for, they’re pretty easy to avoid.