The Seven (Potentially) Deadly Sins

by Hugh Jenkins (English department)

 

Passives and nominalizations
Comma splices
Sentence fragments
Dangling participles or modifiers
Adders
Faulty parallelism
Mixed metaphors


1) Passives and nominalizations(Strunk and White, principle 14)

The passive voice transforms the object of the verb into the subject, thus making the subject passive (not acting). Example: "Hugh was loved by his students," rather than the active "Hugh’s students loved him." There is nothing inherently wrong with the passive, as the previous sentence shows, as long as you make the agent--the acting part of the sentence--clear. The passive becomes a problem when you use it to hide precisely who is doing what, as in this sentence: "Because of the budget deficit, belts must be tightened all across America." Sounds good, right? But look what the passive hides: who will do the tightening. Politicians and lawyers love this kind of phrasing.

A nominalization turns a verb into a noun. Example: "There was an investigation of my English teacher's political views," rather than the simple "We investigated my English teacher’s political views." Like the passive voice, nominalizations often hide the true subject (the doer) of the sentence. Nominalizations are occasionally useful, particularly in transitions, but in general, if you can use a simple active verb, do so.



2) Comma splices (Strunk and White, principle 5)

You cannot (grammatically) join two independent clauses (clauses that can stand by themselves as sentences) with just a comma, or a comma and a conjunctive adverb. The following (non)sentence is a comma splice: "She was a brilliant student, however she didn't get good grades." To fix the sentence, you could either replace the comma and "however" with a coordinating conjunction, in this case probably "but," or replace the comma with a semicolon (;). (In some cases you could use a colon [:] too.) Related to the comma splice is the fused sentence, in which two main clauses are joined without any punctuation or conjunctions. Example (incorrect): "I watched The Simpsons last night Bart was very funny."



3) Sentence fragments

If a sentence doesn't have a complete subject and verb, it is a sentence fragment. Some sentence fragments can be very effective (e.g., "'You shot him! Dead!), but unintentional ones can be deadly. Commonly, sentence fragments result from mistaking a subordinate clause for a complete sentence. For example: "When I got home" cannot stand alone as a sentence; you need a main clause to complete the thought ("When I got home, I watched Melrose Place.")



4) Dangling participles or modifiers (Strunk and White, principle 11)

Participial phrases (e.g. "running to the store"), particularly when used to introduce a sentence, tend to modify the first noun (usually the subject of the sentence) that follows. When this noun is not the same as the implied subject of the participial phrase, the introductory phrase dangles. Example: "Running to the store, rain started to fall. Here "Running" modifies "rain," an interesting image but not a very logical one. The sentence should read something like "Running to the store, I [the person running] got caught in the rain."



5) Adders

"Adders" are the worst kind of transitions, as they don't establish any clear relationship between the two things you are trying to connect--which is what a transition should really do. "Adders" simply add ideas to each other. Some examples of "adders" are "also," "another," "further," "second" and the like. Try to substitute more logical means of transition for adders. A particularly effective means of transition is using a subordinate clause to sum up your previous thought, leaving the main clause to state your new idea.



6) Faulty Parallelism (Strunk and White, principle 19)

Parallelism relates ideas of equal emphasis by putting them in grammatically parallel units. Faulty parallelism destroys this emphasis by changing the grammatical equality. "Friends, Romans, countrymen" famously balances three plural nouns, each more general (and with more syllables) than the last; "friends, Romans, and you, Cassius" destroys the parallelism by making the last noun singular. Similarly, "friends, Romans, and whoever else happens to be in the forum at the moment" destroys the parallelism by substituting a specific relative clause (whoever…") for the last general noun.



7) Mixed Metaphors

A metaphor makes a comparison vivid by expressing it in a clear image. "Workers of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your chains"; the writer here is not talking about literal chains, but rather metaphorical chains--those binding the workers to their factory, slum, or social and economic position. The metaphor creates a vivid picture, one you could easily see in your mind, or even draw. A mixed metaphor, however, creates a dim or nonsensical image, one impossible to envision. Mixed metaphors often result from thoughtlessly using clichés (metaphors that have "died" - i.e., no longer create a vivid mental picture). Examples: "The running back was cool as a cucumber as he burned his way through the opposing line," or "He has to step on the emotional brakes to rein in his feelings." Try drawing either of those images!


Hugh Jenkins