To the Grammar Garage for some tuneups

It's been a busy past few weeks in newspaperland. This is probably the result of holiday multitasking and staff shortages, compounded - and overshadowed - by a tragic global news event. As I've brokered agreements between subjects and verbs, nailed down dangling participles, and done the other work of an editor's day, I find I keep returning to metaphors of mechanics and construction.

As I try to scope out the wrecks driven, or towed, into the Grammar Garage for quick repair on deadline, I often wonder: If this sentence were a truck driving onto the Mass Pike, would it make it to the first tollbooth before its fenders - or wheels, for that matter - came off? If this paragraph were a house, would its roof leak?

A contractor called in to renovate a building - perhaps to knock out some walls - needs to understand which are the bearing walls. Knock out one of those, and things will really start to fall apart. Similarly, an editor needs to know which are the structural elements of a sentence and which are merely decorative.

Speaking of building: A Monitor story last week on rebuilding (or not) a year after the earthquake in the Iranian city of Bam included this sentence:

"Everything from 'school-in-a-box' kits to hand tools for clearing rubble was distributed."

The process inside the heads of at least two editors went like this: "That sounds like a lot of stuff to take only a singular verb; am I sure that's right?" But stripped down to its bones, the sentence read, "Everything was distributed." All the rest was prepositional phrases - useful additional information, but nothing that called for a plural verb. "Was" was correct.

Writers and editors who get entangled in dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, and various forms of bad syntax generally do so because they haven't figured out the "bones" of their sentences and paid proper attention to what connects with what.

Thus a Monitor piece mentioning an Englishwoman caught up in the tsunami in Thailand included a sentence that, in an early version, concluded, "...she recounts later at the Phuket airport waiting for a flight back home." Well, no, not quite. The airport is not waiting for a flight anywhere. The final version read, "...she recounts later at the Phuket airport as she awaits a flight back home."

"Waiting" needed to be linked to the woman, not to the airport. Sometimes writers get into trouble by being too concise, trying to get by with a phrase where a clause is needed.

Legos, the Danish building toys, provide another metaphor for sound prose. There's something satisfying about the way the little plastic bricks snap together, and good writing should provide a similar delight.

Unsuccessful writing is often that which fails to make the right connections. The antecedents of the pronouns are ambiguous; confusion in verb tenses may leave the reader uncertain whether something has happened or is happening or is expected to happen. Cause-and-effect relationships are muddled. A major point may go unstated, or remain only obliquely implied.

I sometimes wonder what an English grammar equivalent of NPR's "Car Talk" would be like. ("My boyfriend says I need to loosen up on split infinitives. What do you think?") In any case, mastering all the nuts-and-bolts rules doesn't guarantee that anyone will become a great writer. But it will assure you the verbal equivalent of a nice sturdy family car that will make it down the road all right, even in a snowstorm, without the engine falling out.

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