Monday, May 19, 2008

Aligning Subjects and Verbs

By David Bowman (Guest blogger)

Overview of the problem

Perhaps you’ve seen this mistake: “Walking down the street, the stroller lost a wheel.” This sentence implies that the stroller is walking down the street, which would be a very interesting sight, indeed. The problem is that the implied subject of the introductory phrase does not match the grammatical subject of the main sentence, the stroller. The writer knows what he/she means, but the reader may be confused. (Isn’t grammar fun?). Editing this sentence will help the reader understand what you are trying to say, which is the purpose of editing.

The problem in this sample sentence is rather easy to spot and easy to edit. Sample revisions include: “[Mary] was pushing the stroller down the street when it lost a wheel.” “The stroller lost a wheel when [Mary] was walking down the street.” “The stroller lost a wheel when being pushed down the street.” “The stroller lost a wheel.” (This assumes that the writer has already established that Mary was pushing it down the street. On second thought, why would Mary be pushing a stroller in a street and not on the sidewalk? This seems a bit dangerous to us.)

Sample problem

This type of error can be hard to spot and edit, but doing so reduces potential readers’ confusion and makes your sentences more direct, more cohesive, and, ultimately, stronger. Consider this sentence: Mary spoke about nothing but her childhood experiences for more than an hour, but when finally winding down, Bob realized that he was bored to tears. The implied subject of finally winding down is Mary, but this sentence ties it to Bob, the grammatical subject of the independent clause that follows. These are not aligned properly and give the reader an incorrect interpretation. In this case, revising isn’t too hard.

The solution

We have two main strategies for editing this type of grammar error: 1) Break the sentence and attach the phrase to the correct subject. (“for more than an hour before winding down. Bob finally realized that he...”) 2) Modify the introductory phrase so that the implied subject refers to the grammatical subject of the sentence. (“and seeing that she was finally winding down, Bob realized...”)

In a nutshell, what you are doing is making sure that the verbs of the sentences fit their grammatical subjects and that phrases introducing clauses refer to the subjects of those clauses. When you are writing your own sentences, consider how your verbs and subjects are aligned.

One last sample By the way, the most humorous error of this type that we have seen is (paraphrased): “Swimming happily along the shore, the corpse floated by his head.” We leave it up to you to determine why this is so funny to us.

David Bowman is the Owner and Chief Editor of Precise Edit (, a comprehensive editing, proofreading, and document analysis service for authors, students, and businesses. Precise Edit also offers a variety of other services, such as translation, transcription, and website development.

No comments: