Category Archives: Editing

When corpses go swimming


“Swimming happily, the corpse floated by his head.”

Ok-what’s wrong with that statement? It seems to say that the corpse is swimming happily, which is a rather odd thing for corpses to do.

The problem is that the introductory phrase is a dangling modifier. This means that the subject (stated or implied) of the introductory adverbial phrase doesn’t match the subject of the sentence.

In the example above, the subject of the main sentence is “the corpse.” However, the implied subject of the introductory phrase “swimming happily” is he. Because they aren’t the same, we, the readers, are left with a rather strange image.

Without having any additional clues about the subject, the reader will assume that the subject of the introductory phrase is the same as the subject of the main sentence. This is why why the corpse seems to swimming happily.

Here’s another: “As a professor of economics, the plan is likely to succeed.”

This seems to imply that the plan is a professor. That’s odd, too. The subject of the main sentence is “plan,” so without any clues to tell us differently, we assume that the subject of the introductory phrase is also “plan,” making “plan” a professor of economics.

Even if we had the clues, however, the phrase would still dangle because the subjects would be different. That’s what a dangling modifier is: an introductory phrase or clause that doesn’t have the same subject (implied or stated) as the main sentence.

Thus, to fix these dangling modifiers, we need to make the subject (implied or stated) of the introductory phrase the same as the subject of the main sentence. Here are possible revisions for the above examples.

“While swimming happily, he saw a corpse float by his head.”
“As a professor of economics, I believe that the plan is likely to succeed.”

Do you know any dangling modifers that amuse you? Have you heard any dangling modifiers or seen any in print (hint, listen to CNN)? Please share below!

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Editing at -60 Degrees


How cold is it?

Last night, the temperature in Santa Fe, NM, dropped to -13, and I went outside to walk in the snow. No one else was out and about. What a difference, I thought, to 6 weeks ago.

One of my clients is a tribal organization in the village of Fort Yukon, deep in the heart of Alaska. The organization brings me to its offices a few times a year for on-site assistance. Six weeks ago, when I was there last, the temperature there was much, much colder. On several mornings, the temperature was below -60. That’s cold.

I was there for about a week to assist with grant development and implementation, document review, and other forms of communication assistance. Having survived that extreme condition, I couldn’t complain about the temperature last night.

Fort Yukon is 10 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Dawn was around 10:30 in the morning, dusk around 2:30 in the afternoon. I was there during the equinox, so one day the sun never rose above the horizon. (You would have to travel much farther north to experience the full days of darkness.) This means that I walked to the office, and back to where I was staying, in darkness.

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Confusing Words Simply Explained


Confusing Words

The English language has many confusing word pairs, those word pairs that make people stop and ask, “Is it this word or that word? Which word do I use?” 

Writing, of any type, is for communication. When you use the correct word, you can accurately communicate your ideas. On the other hand, if you use the wrong word, you risk communicating the wrong idea, and you risk losing credibility with your reader, whether your reader is a potential client, a professor, a publisher, or a visitor to your web site.  Continue reading

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Rhetorically Speaking


Day 9: Use the rhetorical action as the main verb.

A sentence may have several verbs. However, the verb in the “verb’s place” following the subject is generally the main verb upon which the rest of the sentence hangs. Consider this sentence:

“Julie thinks Tom is silly.”

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Doing the Right Thing for Your Clients


I’m in a business where I can do what I love: help clients communicate well through writing. If I do this well, and if I provide a service or product that people want at a price they are willing to pay, I make money. My profit, therefore, is a good indicator of the health and quality of my business. As a former accounting professor told me, “Money in, good. Money out, bad.”

Sometimes the money has to go out. Of course, every business has expenses: people to pay, services to contract, supplies to buy, etc. But sometimes, the money goes out because it’s the right thing to do. I’ll give you two examples of this concept. Continue reading

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Hyphens and Compound Adjectives


"Old, oak tree" OR "Old oak tree"?

Take a noun, any noun, and stick two adjectives in front of it. Do you need to connect them with a hyphen? Or can you simply leave them alone?  

The answer is “depends.” More accurately, it depends on what they’re doing to the noun, and what they’re doing to each other.   Continue reading

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Top 5 Strategies to Improve Your Writing


When I teach writing classes, give book talks, or generally discuss strategies for improving written communication, I often get this question: “What are the best strategies for writing well?” 

Writers (anyone who communicates through writing) can do many things to improve the clarity, correctness, and impact of their writing. Based on my years of helping clients improve their writing, here are my top 5 strategies. 

1. Use the Rhetorical Subject as the Grammatical Subject. 

The grammatical subject is the word in the “subject’s place.” Sometimes, the “doer” of the main action is not the grammatical subject (the word serving as the subject to the main verb). Consider this sentence: 

“Finding a solution is our greatest concern.”  Continue reading

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