In college, I took a technical writing class. Most normal people might expect this to be a boring subject, but alas, it turned out to be one of my favorite classes and exceedingly useful.
During one of the lectures, my professor made a point that really stuck with me. He said that someday, you might find yourself editing someone else’s written work. It might even be your own boss.
If you have ever had your own writing edited by someone, you know how bad it feels to be called out on mistakes. If you’ve ever edited someone else’s writing, you know how defensive people can get when their mistakes are pointed out. He said that if you find yourself editing your boss’ writing, it’s nice to be able to call a mistake by its name, rather than saying “it just doesn’t sound right.” They could easily say that they think it sounds better the way they wrote it than the way you think it should be.
So here are two common issues I see in writing that can be gently called out by name. Knowing the issue or error by name will also help you to avoid making it yourself.
You may have heard of these. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that describes a target, but the target isn’t obvious to the reader.
*edit: to be clear, these examples actually contain dangling participles or dangling-modifier clauses
After watching for the end of the cycle, the trash was removed from the autoclave.
When you read this quickly, it almost seems at first that the trash was watching for the end of the cycle. But we all know that the trash wasn’t watching anything, and it certainly wasn't removing itself! We might read it this way because the trash is the first noun after the modifier “watching for the end of the cycle,” and it’s the natural place for the noun being described by the phrase. But there is actually no target for the modifier.
Fixed (this also gets rid of the passive voice):
After watching for the end of the cycle, I removed the trash from the autoclave.
“I” is right after the comma and physically close to the modifier, meaning that the reader will understand that the modifier applies to “I.” So, I was doing both the watching and removing. Or, EVEN better:
As I watched for the end of the cycle, I removed the trash from the autoclave and left to hunt for the scrub who left their trash unattended.
In technical or science writing, there’s this big scare about using “I” and “we” so here’s a different example that you might actually use in a manuscript:
Using standard protocols, DNA was extracted from the samples.
I think the average scientist would understand the sentence, but it’s technically wrong. "DNA" is the subject of the sentence (because this is written in passive voice), and the phrase “using standard protocols” describes the subject. So here’s how you fix it:
By using standard protocols, DNA was extracted from the samples.
Or more simply:
DNA was extracted from the samples by using standard protocols.
This at least implies that someone extracted the DNA and used standard protocols to do it (they are not two unrelated activities). This one I learned after my first manuscript was accepted and proofed 😊 At first, I was annoyed that someone went through and stuck the word “by” in front of “using” all throughout the manuscript. I thought the way I wrote it sounded much better, but now I know the rule(s) that I violated.
Here are other examples if you don't like mine!
Lists are used so often in all types of writing. They can be easy to follow if they are simply lists of nouns (proteins, carbs, fats) or lists of adjectives (randomized, double-blind, crossover). Lists of ideas can get more complicated and harder to understand. The human brain recognizes patterns, and there is a way to structure a list of ideas that takes advantage of patterns. When listing multi-word ideas, it is best practice to use the same structure (e.g. word endings) throughout the list. This is called parallel structure. An example:
Recent literature has revealed the importance of dietary fiber in preventing chronic disease, regulation of gastrointestinal function, and as a food source for gut microbes.
Blech. This can be edited to incorporate parallel structure:
Recent literature has revealed the importance of dietary fiber in preventing chronic disease, regulating gastrointestinal function, and feeding gut microbes.
I will leave it up to you. Which one do you think is easier to read?
You can also think about parallel structure this way: in the above sentences, “dietary fiber” is being reused before each listed phrase, so your brain is matching “fiber” to each phrase in the list. It’s easier for your brain to do this if each phrase is in the same format.
Do you have questions about other types of grammar errors, need help defending your word choice to your boss, or disagree with anything I’ve said? Leave a comment below!