Monthly Archives: January 2014

GRAMMAR – The case of the missing actor

It’s very common in a manuscript to see a sentence that starts with a phrase that modifies the subject of the next clause. Like this:

Having danced her whole life, Laura found her date’s lack of rhythm hilarious.

You can see that the phrase that comes before the comma has no subject, but it clearly refers to the subject in the next clause. So the sentence makes sense, right? You know that it’s Laura who has danced her whole life.

But many times, writers mess up that structure. They don’t put the actor of the first phrase as the subject of the next clause. And that’s when it gets confusing. You end up with a sentence like this:

Having danced her whole life, her date’s lack of rhythm was hilarious to Laura.

Now, that makes no sense at all. It sounds like it’s her date’s lack of rhythm that has danced her whole life. And it sounds easy to recognize, right? You’re thinking you would never write a sentence like that. But sometimes it’s not so obvious. Let’s see a few examples.

Upon entering the room, her eyes went straight to the big piano in the corner.

Turning around, her breath caught in her throat at the sight of him.

To appease his mind, the light switch had to be flicked five times before he went to bed.

Though exhausted, Jane wouldn’t let John sleep.

Don’t all of those look like sentences you might’ve seen, or even written yourself? Sometimes you use them because they seem smarter; sometimes because you’re trying to avoid using “was”, since you were told that equals telling. Or you just use them to vary sentence structure and to make the story flow. But the truth is they’re all wrong. In the first sentence, it sounds like her eyes entered the room. In the second, it sounds like her breath turned around. In the third, it’s the light switch that will appease his mind, and in the last one, it’s Jane who’s exhausted.

But how do you fix this? Very simple. You either add the subject to the first clause or you change the subject in the second.

As Lisa entered the room, her eyes went straight to the big piano in the corner.

When she turned around, her breath caught in her throat at the sight of him.

To appease his mind, Jack had to flick the light switch five times before he went to bed.

Though he was exhausted, Jane wouldn’t let John sleep.

See? It’s easy. They might look less fancy this way, but more often than not, simple is the best way to go.

So, do you do this a lot in your own writing? Do you have questions about writing? Send them to me and I’ll answer them here!

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