I’m not an expert on English grammar but that doesn’t stop me from being a grammar snob. I cluck and tsk and roll my eyes as I observe punctuation errors and other grammar errors, not just in the comments section where I tend to be less concerned, but in the published content online and in print. In the old, old days — like the 1980s– there used to be people called line editors who fixed these things, but that occupation seems to have vanished or at least dwindled. Some badly constructed sentences that get through show a lack of understanding of the fundamental structure of English.
One thing I see more and more of is subject-verb disagreement. I know there is a technical name for the specific problem I am seeing but I don’t know what it is. This isn’t just the confusion over whether the verb should be singular or plural, although we see that a lot too. It’s a specific problem when the writer has attempted an inverted construction of the sentence, flipping two clauses in order to create some variety and interest in the prose, and then can’t figure out which noun, in which clause, the verb supports. I don’t know what it’s called, but like art or pornography, I know it when I encounter it.
A couple of months ago, I was watching a restaurant review show and the narrator read a sentence that went something like this:
“Carved of a single block of redwood, customers can sit at the bar and sip classic cocktails.”
Quiz question: Who or what is carved out of redwood? Based on that sentence, the customers are, although I think if your customers are carved out of a single block of redwood, you run a very odd business.
I think the sentence wants to mean that the bar is carved out of a single piece of redwood. You know, like, “Carved out of a single block of redwood, the bar offers customers a place to sip classic cocktails.”
You can also go simpler and just say, “Customers can sit at the bar, which is carved from a single block of redwood, and sip classic cocktails.”
The other day I was reading a local print weekly. There was a column about music venues. I’m changing the name of the venue and I’m not giving the name of the periodical, but I wrote this one down because it was so convoluted.
“Nestled in the Sonoma County hamlet of Kenwood, music-lovers can dance to great bands at Freaky’s stellar line-up.”
This one just set my teeth on edge.
What is the subject of this sentence, anyway? Is it music-lovers? Is it Freaky’s? It is Freaky’s stellar line-up?
If it’s music lovers, this is pretty easy. “Music lovers can dance to great bands at Freaky’s, in Kenwood, which has a stellar line-up.”
If it’s Freaky’s: “Freaky’s, nestled in the Sonoma County hamlet of Kenwood, offers a stellar line-up of bands,” or even, “… offers a stellar line-up of bands sure to please music lovers.”
That second one really irritated me. I mean, I wrote it down, that’s how much it irritated me. I indulged in a mental rant while I ran errands that morning. Come on, people! How hard can it be to keep track of subject, verb, object? This is what comes of not diagramming sentences anymore. You people need to pay attention when you are writing! I would never mangle the mother tongue this way. Never, never, never.
In real life, unlike fiction, the world usually creates a lag of a day or two before delivering a reality slap. In this case, however, reality wanted to try some creative writing, so later that same day, the very day I ranted to myself in the car and indulged my grammarly superiority, I sat down to revise an older story. As I read along, I crashed face-first into this:
“From underneath the flapping green coat, Ragged hears Whitelick call.”
Ummm… okay, who is under the green coat? (Here’s a hint; it’s not supposed to be Ragged.)
“Ragged hears Whitelick call from under the flapping green coat,” doesn’t fix it, although it’s closer.
This is really a simple fix, and it goes like this: “From underneath the flapping green coat, Whitelick calls.” Ragged is watching. She knows there’s a green coat and she knows her brother Whitelick is under it. Problem solved.
But the tragic part is that I had already sent this story out a couple of times, with that sentence in there. It’s buried in a longer paragraph, and it is the only complete snarl-up of that kind — and believe me, there were plenty of other reasons to reject the story than just that sentence — but how did I let it get by me?
I wasn’t paying attention.
I workshopped this story and had another person read it after the workshop and no one picked out that sentence. This is not to spread around blame; the level of confusion is pretty mild, and what I guess happened is that people liked the story, were vaguely unsatisfied with it, and never identified that particular sentence as being one reason. I was trying to do a couple of things in this story, and one was to tell the tale from the POV of an innocent (and nonhuman) character. All that bad sentence did was create an impression that the writer just wasn’t as masterful with her prose, or as professional, as she thought she was. And that was an accurate impression.
Lessons learned, then? A couple, for me. One is to pay attention to the prose aspect a little more, probably in the work on later drafts, once the characters, the story, the motivations, the plot, the imagery and all those things are worked out.
And while I will still make fun of people who write bad sentences, I will be a little less haughty about it, at least for the next few days.