How To Avoid Common Writing Mistakes

May 25, 2011

Even in this day and age, good writing should never be put off. Learn how to place your participles and tame those dangling prepositions in part III of Study.com's series on common grammatical mistakes.

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By Megan Driscoll

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The Danglers

So far, Study.com's grammar-saving series has focused on homophones and other word usage errors because these mistakes are both very common and very easy to miss. But we figured it was only fitting to wrap things up by talking about endings. Specifically, the ends of clauses and the ends of sentences.

Although they often get confused, we're actually referring to two separate grammatical issues: Dangling prepositions and dangling participles.

Prepositions

One of the most common grammar myths is the idea that you can't end a sentence with a preposition. A preposition is a word that establishes a link between other words, such as 'to,' 'on,' 'about' or 'before,' and the most conservative grammarians will insist that you should never end a sentence with one.

For certain types of phrases, that's true. Specifically, if you can drop the preposition at the end of a sentence without changing the meaning of that sentence, then don't use the preposition: 'Where are you at?' should always be 'Where are you?' (This is also true if the preposition comes in the middle of a sentence - if you don't need it, don't use it.)

But leaving the preposition at the end of a sentence isn't always incorrect. English contains a number of commonly used phrasal verbs such as 'cheer up,' 'make up' or 'hold up.' When you're using a phrasal verb, the preposition (in these cases, 'up') is part of the verb and perfectly acceptable at the end of the sentence: 'Let's kiss and make up.'

It gets stickier when you're talking about phrases like 'I don't know where that car came from.' The most conservative writer would insist on rephrasing that to say 'I don't know from where that car came.' But such constructions are so uncommon in spoken language that they've started to seem awkward and formal in written language too.

A good rule of thumb for writers in this situation is to consider your audience. If you're writing a blog post, chances are you'll have happier readers if you use the less formal construction, even if it is a little grammatically controversial. But if you're working on something like a job application, you want to stick to the most conservative interpretation of the rules - you never know how your reader might feel about this issue and it's better to sound a little old fashioned than a lot incorrect.

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Participles

Whereas a dangling preposition can simply make you sound a little too informal, a dangling participle can completely confuse the meaning of your sentence. To understand how this works, consider how you read a sentence: 'After reading the newspaper, I cooked dinner.' You instinctively assume that the participial phrase ('after reading the newspaper') modifies what immediately comes after it ('I'), and you're probably correct - how many dinners read newspapers?

The trouble arises when people put participial phrases at the beginning of sentences that are intended to modify something that comes later: 'After marinating for hours, I grilled the steak.' I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that it was your steak marinating, not you, but this sentence reads like the cook spent his afternoon in a pickling jar.

Most readers understand the meaning of a sentence like the one above after pausing and re-reading it to pay special attention to the order of the clauses. But unless you're writing a technical manual, a reader should never have to re-read a sentence to understand it. And not all dangling participles are so easily distinguished - if people aren't reading carefully, a dangling participle could easily lead them to misunderstand your entire point.

This concludes Study.com's series on common grammar mistakes. If you haven't been following along, be sure to check out homophones and other frequent usage errors.

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