Dangling a Participle, A New Post Appears!

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Deciding to write a post, WordPress started acting up. The posting page has been showing me a “server disconnected” message and it just won’t get fixed. That is why I have been taking a break from blogging and watching my stats fall.

Anyway, I began this post with a major grammatical error: a dangling participle. But before anything else, here’s a quick refresher: A Participial Phrase is a group of words consisting of a participle and the modifier(s) and/or (pro)noun(s) or noun phrase(s) that function as the direct object(s), indirect object(s), or complement(s) of the action or state expressed in the participle, such as:

Removing his coat, Jack rushed to the river.

Oh ok, let’s make it simpler. A participle is a verb that acts like an adjective to modify a noun. For example, the word “whipping” is a participle when you say:
I use double cream but you could use a little whipping cream if you prefer.

Another example would be the word “speeding”. We add the -ing to the verb speed in order to make it act like an adjective. So you are using the word “speeding” as an adjective to describe the noun “car” when you say:
The speeding car knocked over the trash can.

Now that we know what a participle is, let’s simplify the meaning of a participial phrase. A participial phrase is one that contains a participle and modifies the subject of the sentence. For example,

Removing his coat, Jack rushed to the river.

Note the use of the participle “removing” and the fact that the participial phrase is modifying the noun subject, here, Jack, instead of a single adjective or noun.

Here’s another one:

Making a strong case for his client, the lawyer smiled to himself.

Here, “Making a strong case for his client” is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, the lawyer. “Making” is the participle in the phrase “Making a strong case for his client”.

Now, if you notice, in all the examples, the participial phrase immediately preceded the subject that is being modified. The correct way to express a participial phrase is to always make sure that the phrase and the modified subject are close so there is no confusion about what is being modified. When this does not happen, when your subject is not clear from the positioning of the participle, it becomes an annoying dangling participle.

Here’s an example:

After rotting in the fridge for weeks, I finally threw the cheese out.

In this sentence, rotting is the participle, but what does it modify? Does the sentence mean I was rotting in the fridge, or does it mean the cheese? However, the sentence would have been correct if I wrote:

After rotting in the fridge for weeks, the cheese needed to be thrown out.

Likewise, I would be using a dangling participle if I wrote,

Leaking ink everywhere, I threw away the pen.

The sentence is incorrect because I cannot be leaking ink. The pen is the real subject here because it is the one that can leak ink. The correct way to write this would be:

I threw out the pen that was leaking ink everywhere.

Yet another example would be the sentence I began this post with:

Deciding to write a post, WordPress started acting up.

WordPress couldn’t have decided to write a post. Here “deciding to write a post” is the participial phrase that is modifying the wrong subject, “WordPress”.

So you see, a dangling participle is essentially one that is modifying the wrong subject. You may assume that your readers or audience will understand what you are trying to say anyway, but that is not how you use correct English. The way to avoid a dangling participle is to simply put the correct subject as close to the participle or participial phrase as possible.

Having explained dangling participles to you, I shall wrap this up now 🙂

Hey There!

Just a little note to say thank you to all for supporting me and following this blog. I have entered this blog for a contest to see if I can win the Indian Blog Awards 2013 in my category. If you really like the blog, please vote for me at:
http://www.indiblogger.in/iba/entry.php?edition=1&entry=47809

All you have to do is hit the “recommend” button and then, if you want, write something nice in the comments box.

Thanks!

Queries Answered

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I know I have been missing in action for a while, but believe me, I have my reasons. Today’s post is to answer two queries that came my way.

The first one is the use of the preposition “of” after “beware”.

Now, beware means to be cautious of. So if you write beware of in a sentence, and you replace the word beware with “to be cautious of”, you are essentially writing: to be cautious of of. Note the use of the repeated preposition? And yet, if you only write beware in the same sentence, you are avoiding the double preposition.

However, this is a very technical difference, and one would notice it only if one were nitpicking. English being such a dynamic language, it is perfectly acceptable to use beware both by itself or with the “of”:

Beware of stray traffic on the highway at this time of the day.

Beware the words of a politician who promises more than he delivers.

Shakespeare himself did not use the preposition “of” when he used “beware” in a sentence:

Caesar:

Who is it in the press that calls on me?

I hear a tongue shriller than all the music

Cry “Caesar!” Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Soothsayer:

Beware the ides of March.

Caesar:

What man is that?

Brutus:

A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2, 15–19

The other query was whether I would use “dreamed” or “dreamt” in a sentence.

That depends, really. If I am writing for an American audience, I would use “dreamed” and for a British readership, I would use “dreamt”. Both words are correct and both work as the standard past participle or past tense of the verb dream.

It is, therefore, correct to say both the following sentences:

I dreamed of a pumpkin pie last night.

I dreamt of a diamond ring last night.

In literature, dreamt is probably the newer term. Historically, the word “dreamed” has been found in abundance in 16th and 17th century literature while “dreamt” appears rarely before the 19th century. In any case, both are correct, just like the following words would be:

Spelt…spelled

Learnt…learned

Post any more queries you have on the comment section and I shall try to answer them here.

 

Am I Good?

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So I got a mail from someone the other day. He wrote, “Hello! You have an entire website on grammar rules, and yet, you say something as fundamentally wrong as ‘I’m good’ when you are asked how you are. Are you aware you are making a major grammatical error when you say that?”

Am I now? Well the bad news (for the person who mailed me) is that I am not making any error at all. It is perfectly fine to say “I’m good” when you are asked how you are, because I am going to tell you how to defend your response when you are asked “How good are you?” in reply.

The more common thing to say in response to “How are you?” is “I am well, thank you.” When you are saying that, you are using well as an adverb. What is adverb? It is a word that defines an action verb. An action verb is simply a verb that denotes action: run, play, swim, read, speak etc. So when you are using the adverb well you are describing the action verb: I speak well, he plays well, she sings well, it reads well, they cook well and so on.

Like we have action verbs, we also have linking verbs. These, better known as copulative verbs, are verbs that join two words to make sense of a sentence. For example, when I say “He is lost” I am linking the words He and lost with the copulative verb is. Likewise, other linking verbs are appear, become, look, seem, feel, felt etc. When you say “He appears lost” you are linking the words he and lost with appears.

The reason I told you about Copulative Verbs is, when you use an adjective (something regular like good) after a copulative verb, it becomes what is called a predicate adjective. That means that the adjective that follows a copulative verb describes the noun that comes before the copulative verb.

So that explains why it is correct to say “I am good”. You are modifying the adjective to become a predicate adjective that follows the copulative verb am and good then describes you, the noun.

It is also correct to say “I am well” because you are using well as a predicate adjective for I, not an adverb. However, when you say “I sing well” you are using it as an adverb to define the verb sing. In the general sense, it more accepted if you haven’t kept well for a while and the “How are you?” question is aimed to ask how you are doing in terms of your health. On a general basis, if you have had a good beginning to your day and everything is going well for you, you just say “I am good.”

Are we good now?

We, the People!

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I don’t know why I understand English grammar at all. I mean, I learned what others did in school, and the curriculum never taught us anything beyond what was to be tested. I never spoke in English at home, or with friends (for the most part) and I certainly don’t enjoy English music much. Movies, yes, but I like the insanity of Hindi movies a lot more (unless of course you are talking Tarantino or American Pie). Where this interest in grammar came from is still a mystery to me.

Anyway so, English grammar. I think part of why I was so intrigued by it is because there are so many nuances, so many bends in the language where it changes so drastically. And come to think of it, how many of us really pay attention? But the language? Oh, it’s doing its tricks even when you don’t notice. In simple things. Like, in “people”, and that is what I am writing about today.

It is safe to assume that you know what a “person” is.  I am a person, you’re a person, he’s a person. The plural of “person” is persons. Simple? Not quite.

“Persons” implies a more countable number where the emphasis is on individuality. So it is correct to say:

The lift cannot accommodate more than eight persons; or

Three persons have arrived for the interview.

Now, you might feel odd when you are reading the examples. The reason for this is that in the constantly changing English language, somewhere along the way, we moved to using “people” as the plural for “person”. As a result, “persons” was kept largely for use in the legal or quasi-legal sense:

The lift manufacturer can be sued because they did not include a notice saying that the lift could only accommodate eight persons; or

The persons of interest in this case have asked for anonymity.

I am not too sure, but I think it happened sometime around when Chaucer was writing “a thousand people”. Notice that in spite of “a thousand” being countable he used “people”. In the general sense, people refers to a collective group where the number is uncountable or difficult to count. Typical examples would be:

Many people come to the stadium every Super Bowl night.

There were a lot of people at the market today.

However, the language mutated such that it is accepted if you use the word “people” to mean the plural of “person”. It is fine now to say:

The lift cannot accommodate more than eight people;  or

Three people have arrived for the interview.

But, while “people” is a plural, it can also be a singular. Then we use the term peoples  as a plural for people. It is usually used to refer to the citizens of a country. Now, citizens of a country can have different religions, tribes, ethnicity, and so on. For India, we have the people of Gujarat who are largely vegetarian, the people of Goa who celebrate Christmas and the people of West Bengal who cook great food. In perspective of the country, these are all individual units, so “people” here is singular. However, when you talk of them as a whole, then you combine the people of Gujarat + the people of Goa + the people of West Bengal to form “peoples”, the plural. So we, the peoples of India, choose to have a liberal government. Get the point? Let’s have a few more examples:

All the peoples in the world desire peace.

The church-going peoples of Africa are praying for the Pope.

I have been among the savage peoples and learned to eat the meat of an armadillo.

However, in the present context, it is fine to use “people” for everything. Only few people will know the difference between “persons”, “people” and “peoples”. But if you had to speak impeccable grammar, you people will try to remember the differences, won’t you?

PS: The preamble to the Indian Constitution says:

We, the people of India…

You see why it’s technically incorrect?

Drinking Issues Solved!

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Last Saturday at one of our usual house parties, I stopped drinking early. The reason was that for the past month, all I had was a pint of beer and suddenly all that alcohol in me didn’t feel good. So when asked why I wasn’t refilling my glass any more, I said, “Because I haven’t drunk in a month.” My friend A jumped on it and said my usage of “drunk” is incorrect and that it should have been “drank”. My husband agreed, and I couldn’t believe that he, out of all people were trying to convince me that it had to be “drank”. Now drunk or not, I know my grammar. And here’s the reason I stuck to why “haven’t drunk” was correct.

So “have” is an auxiliary verb. What are auxiliary verbs? I have told you this before, but quick refresher: These are verbs that change the meaning of the main verb to give it one or more of the following functions: passive voice, progressive aspect, perfect aspect, modality, or emphasis. Put in simpler terms, an auxiliary verb helps express the perfect aspect of a main verb in a clause, as in I have eaten my dinner, where eaten is the main verb, and by adding the auxiliary verb have we are simply expressing the perfect aspect of the statement.

Now, in case of present and past tenses, the auxiliary verb always takes the past participle form of the main verb. What is past participle? A past participle indicates past or completed action or time. In the sentence His hair was not brushed, the word brushed  is the past participle of the word brush.

So now, in my sentence, I haven’t drunk in a month, you can see why I was right from both sides.

Side 1:

Have is an auxiliary verb giving meaning to the main verb drunk to make it a present perfect sentence (a grammatical combination of the present tense and the perfect aspect, used to express a past event that has present consequences). So when I say that have not drunk in a month, drunk is my main verb and by adding have I am making my sentence present perfect.

Side 2:

Have is an auxiliary verb that will always take the past participle form of the main verb. Here the main verb is “drink”. The simple past tense of the main verb is drank and the past participle of it is drunk. So the correct way to say my sentence would always follow this order:

Subject + Have + Past Participle + Rest of the sentence

I + Haven’t + Drunk + In a month

Point made? Do tell me if I made this post unnecessarily convoluted, which I think I might have.

And, now I have to get drunk! It’s the festival of colours today in my neck of the woods. Happy Holi!

Stuck-up, am I?

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I like few things as much as I like writing, and when you have been a writer in one organization for long enough, it is expected you will begin to edit the works of junior writers. Now that  is a job I genuinely dislike, because the glaring errors I see in my editor’s job make me want to bite off the writers’ heads. One of the most common errors is definitely the overuse of the article “The”. The other one? An incorrect use of hyphens.

That brings me today to simplify the rules of hyphenation in the English language. By definition, a hyphen is a punctuation mark used to join ordinarily separate words into single words. That said, there are rules for where you can hyphenate, and where it is incorrect.

1. The first place where you can use a hyphen is to join two words that describe a third word as a single adjective.

  • Honey-coated almonds
  • Thin-crust pizza
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Well-known landmark
  • Long-term relationship

In these examples, two words are coming together to describe a third word. So those two words are now a compound adjective, ie, different parts of speech combining to make an adjective. In the example, “a well-known landmark”, well is an adverb followed by another descriptive word, and together they mean famous, which is an adjective, because it describes what kind of landmark it is. So rule no. 1: use hyphens to create compound adjectives such as these.  But please note that a hyphen is used only when a compound adjective comes before the noun and the not after:

My pizza had a thin crust.

2. Likewise, numbers can be compound. All numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine take hyphens. Do remember that this rule applies to only numbers between 21 and 99. So while you write:

My father is sixty-eight years old.

You will not write,

 My house is two-hundred years old.

3. Also, all spelled-out (see my first point here?) fractions are hyphenated:

A two-thirds majority elected the Mayor this year.

4. A hyphen is used to clarify meaning. For words that can change in meaning with the addition of a prefix, a hyphen makes the meaning clear. For eg

The Senator re-signed the document.

In this case, the hyphen separates the word re-sign. Ie, to sign again, from the word resign, ie, to relinquish his professional designation. If we hadn’t hyphenated the word, here is how it would read:

The Senator resigned the document,

and this would make no grammatical sense at all.

5. Use a hyphen with the prefixes ex- (meaning former), self-, all-; with the suffix -elect; between a prefix and a capitalized word; and with figures or letters:

  • Ex-wife
  • Self-congratulatory, but selfish or selfless
  • All-consuming
  • President-elect
  • Anti-French, but antiaircraft
  • T-shirt
  • T-bone
  • Pre-1900s

6. When you are breaking lines, use a hyphen at syllables, ie, break-age where break- comes at the end of the line and age follows in the next line. When you are using already hyphenated words, break line at the hyphen: mass-hysteria, where the line breaks at mass- at the end of the line and is followed by hysteria in the next line

Break-

age

Mass-

hysteria

7. However, when a word ends in ing, and a single final consonant in the root word is doubled before the suffix ing, it is accepted if you break the line between the consonants

Plan-

ning

8. Also, hyphenate prefixes ending in a or I only when the second word begins with the same letter:

  • Ultra-aggressive
  • Semi-invalid

So we will not hyphenate prefixes and words when the letters are different at the end and in the beginning:

  • Antiaircraft
  • Noncompliance
  • Semiconscious

The post is getting really long now, so I shall stop here with these basic rules in place. Another time, I will write about things like suspended hyphens and how a wrongly placed hyphen can alter the meaning of a sentence. Just remind me of this some time, ok?

The Best Is Yet To Come

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alex-gregory-it-has-yet-to-turn-a-profit-new-yorker-cartoonSo my husband presented me with a unique problem today. What is more correct grammatically: “is yet” or “has yet”? My first answer was that both are correct, at least in terms of sentence construction, but it took me a while to understand why one is correct in some places while the other can only be used elsewhere.

Initially the difference seemed to lie in the tense. Yes, I know, that is where most problems begin. Anyway, so “has yet” is in the present perfect tense and “is yet” seems to be in the future tense.

But that still does not adequately explain the difference. When is it correct to use “has yet” in place of “is yet”? I think, based on a good deal of sentences I read today, that it essentially depends on usage. Let me explain.

Sentence # 1: Charlie is yet to look for a baby-sitter for little Emma
Sentence # 2: Charlie has yet to receive the funding for his charity.

Now in Sentence #1, “is yet” is more forceful, and implies that  Charlie has to look for a babysitter, or is supposed to, or has plans to do so. This means that “is yet” is always used as a future form that deals with some kind of plan, order, mandate, appointment, procedure, etc. that may or may not be done. So Charlie may not look for a baby-sitter at all. He is supposed to, but may decide against it. The positive or absolute aspect here is low.

But in Sentence #2, “has yet” expresses expectation. Charlie is going to receive the funds, but they have not been released to him as of now. It means that the funds will be released, but have not been released yet. So there is an element of waiting, or expectation, like I mentioned. Eventually, the funds will possibly arrive, so the positive aspect of “has yet” is higher than that of “is yet”.

I think that adequately sums up the difference between the two. But a lot of people are of the opinion that the difference is flimsy and doesn’t hold very true. They would interchange the two like nobody’s business but if you think deeply enough, I think what I am saying does work as a solid point of difference. Here’s what one guy said:

In written English, both are recorded and, I believe, both are acceptable. Note that “He is to receive X” is an acceptable idiom which must be taken into account. Ngrams suggest that up until the middle of the 19th Century cnstructions with “is” predominated, particularly in passive contexts (“is yet to be given”). Constructions with “has” moved ahead between about 1840 and 1920, with the change coming somewhat later in AmE and passive constructions than in BrE and Active constructions. “Has” surged across the board about 1960.

And here are a few examples to prove my point:

Dylan is yet to appear for the interview.
Dylan has yet to pay his taxes this year.

Marissa is yet to call the paediatrician
Marissa has yet to take her nurses’ exam.

Robert is yet to apologise to me.
Robert has yet to receive a pardon for his action.

The President is yet to comment on the incident.
The President has yet to make his closing statement in Parliament.

Makes sense, now? You get the difference? Or have I yet to explain it further?

Hanged or Hung?

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Read quite an interesting article today about how most young Indians see Kasab’s death row verdict. I would have enjoyed reading the otherwise long, rambling post if only it wasn’t for the writer’s frequent misuse of the word “hung” for “hanged”. A friend even commented asking about how posts like this get published on news pages without basic editing!

But then I wouldn’t blame the writer alone because since the verdict went public, a lot of people are making the mistake, journalists and readers alike, and I thought it was time I set it right.

So, hanged and hung are both past forms of the verb “hang”. The difference is, “hung” is used for something and “hanged” is used for someone. Let’s be more specific, ok?

“Hung” is when something has been put up and it stays in that position for a significantly noticeable time.

You hung the photo of the Queen on your wall last summer, didn’t you?

“Hanged” is used when a person is sentenced to death by a noose tightened around his neck when there is no support for his legs, and his corpse will be taken off the rope as soon as he is dead.

The guilty is to be hanged till death, the court decided.

If you were to look for a clearer way to explain the difference, you would say:

It would be fitting if Kasab is hanged to death and then his corpse is hung at the India Gate as a warning to future terrorists.

You get the difference? When we use “hanged” in the first part of the sentence, Kasab is still a living man, and later, it’s his corpse, a thing. He will be hanged only till he dies, but there is no limit on the time for which his body can be hung and used as a warning.

She may want to see me hanged for saying this, but this post should be framed and hung on the article writer’s wall!

Injured or Wounded?

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So the other day we were talking  about the difference between wound and injury. Now apparently they are the same thing, and in incorrect English, one is often used in place of the other. But if you know and understand the substantial semantic difference, you will not use one for the other.

An injury is when you are hurt in some part of your body as a result of an accidental event. Therefore, you may be injured in an accident, at a game, while trying to lift something heavy, during an experiment or even when a bomb goes off, for instance. This means that there was no direct aggressor and your injury happened as a matter of course.

If you have a bad cut on your arm because the knife fell on it, you have an injury. There was no one who acted maliciously, and the knife fell on your arm as an accident, not showing intent. So even if there was bleeding or laceration, it is still an injury.

On the other hand, a wound is when there is tissue damage on your body as a result of direct aggression against you. So when you have a wound, it is necessary that there was a person who inflicted it on you and you are the victim. It also necessitates the presence of a weapon in causing the wound. That weapon could be anything, a knife, a gun, or even teeth.

If you got a bad cut on your arm as a result of a fight, you have a wound. The person you were fighting with acted out of aggression and put a knife in your arm. He was the cause and you are the victim. Since there was tissue damage too, it is a wound.

Now, you may also be injured by another person. But that is usually metaphorical, ie, when your pride is injured. There may be intent and aggression and in that case, the injury is physical. So, say, you were knocked out in a bar fight, and you have a black eye. The big bloke who punched you injured you, but did not draw blood, so did not wound you.

Hence we can say that all wounds are injuries, but not all injuries are wounds. A wound is only possible when there has been physical damage to your tissues and bleeding occurred as a result of it, as well as there being an act of aggression. An injury may be hurt or damage but does not indicate that there was bleeding, or that there was malicious intent.

Essential differences then?

1. A wound is a result of intent and aggression. Self-inflicted wounds may also be a result of aggression against oneself.
2. A wound implies that there has been visible physical damage and bleeding. You sustain wounds from a fight involving knives and need medical attention.
3. A wound is a direct result of a weapon being used on your body. When you refused to hand over your wallet, the mugger wounded you with his knife.
4. An injury may be caused by accident or aggression but until blood is drawn, for all intents and purposes, it is not a wound. A dislocated jaw as a result of a backyard fight is an injury, not a wound.
5. When there is aggression and blood is drawn, if you are not the direct object of that aggression, it is an injury. So you are injured in a bomb blast, not wounded. The terrorist who planted the bomb whose splinters drew blood on your body, did not have a personal vendetta against you.

So now you know. The next time you hear someone make the mistake, correct them, but don’t injure his/her pride.