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My brother-in-law used to teach comedy traffic school. Ever heard of it? Neither had I.
My sister explained that it was one of the options driving offenders could choose when they were ordered to go to classes to review the principles of driving. When they completed the class, their points would be erased. Great idea, no? After all, why listen to a dry lecture when you can laugh your way through traffic school?
Recently, I came across two hilarious lists of grammar mistakes, and I thought it would be fun to use them as a springboard for reviewing some of the grammar principles I’ve been writing about during the past year and a half. This post is part 1; my next post will be, incredibly, part 2.
In a participle phrase (think of a participle as an “-ing” word), the participle describes the action of the subject – so beware. Remember my famous line: “After pooping on the sidewalk, I cleaned up the mess and put Fido back on his leash.” Here the subject is “I,” which means “I” am doing the action described by the participle – in this case pooping. Likewise, in the second sentence, the evening is the subject, so it would be the one enjoying the cocktail and chatting.
2. A bar was walked into by the passive voice.
Using passive voice is no longer as verboten as it used to be. However, that’s not a license to use it when active case would be as good or better. Sometimes people (very mistakenly) think they’ll sound more intelligent, serious, or formal if they use the passive voice. Don’t. Do. This. Here’s an example: “After the library book was found by my assistant, it was read by my partner and myself.” (There’s another no-no in this sentence: using myself when you mean me. Don’t use any of the “-self” words unless you need the reflexive case, such as “I scratch myself.” See this post for more information on the correct and incorrect use of reflexive pronouns.)
3. An oxymoron walked into a bar, and the silence was deafening.
Good job, Bob. This is an adorable sentence, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Love those oxymorons, like “rap artist.”
4. A malapropism [actually, it’s an eggcorn] walks into a bar, looking for all intensive purposes like a wolf in cheap clothing, muttering epitaphs and casting dispersions on his magnificent other, who takes him for granite.
We discussed eggcorns a few months ago in this post, and sometimes they are downright hilarious. They generally come up when you are using a cliché, a worn-out expression, or a literary device such as simile, analogy, or metaphor. The best way to avoid an eggcorn/malapropism is to avoid the usual and invent some fresh descriptions. Use Show instead of Tell, and develop your own voice.
Love this one. Mixing metaphors can happen if you rely too much on overused phrases and don’t take enough time to really think about what you want to say. (I recently discussed this here.) As with the previous example, developing your own voice, too, will help.
6. An allusion walks into a bar, despite the fact that alcohol is its Achilles heel.
I don’t mind allusions, but please remember to use one only if you are convinced that most of your readers will understand it. Sentences such as “Choosing between John and Mark as a dance partner is like sailing between Charybdis and Scylla” or “I feel as if I’m living in a Kafka novel” are clever, but they’ll leave your audience confused if they have no idea what you are referring to. Fit the allusion to the reader.
This is a legitimate, albeit unrealistic, sentence. Indeed it means that the Oxford comma spent the evening not watching a program on the television, but actually watching the television itself drink way too many alcoholic beverages and light up numerous cigars. However, if we add a comma after “television” and “drunk,” the sentence will magically be about the Oxford comma doing three different activities: watching, drinking, and smoking. Take your pick, but please make sure your sentences say what they’re supposed to say.
We’ve discussed the Oxford comma before, but this was such a good example of what can happen if you don’t use commas correctly that I had to include it. Let this be a reminder that you must learn how to use punctuation! (Here’s a post on the use of semicolons and colons.)
Do you notice a pattern here?
Other than the fact that I’m shamelessly drawing attention to old posts of mine, it seems to me that many of the above issues can be solved in three ways:
- Subscribe to BulletproofWriting.com
- Learn grammar rules (see #1)
- Develop your own unique voice so you won’t have to rely on everyone else’s leftovers.
Unsurprisingly, I’d like to address #3.
You are a writer; why not be singular? In fact, singular is my new favorite word.
Check out what Merriam-Webster has to say about singular:
- of or relating to a separate person or thing
- distinguished by superiority
being out of the ordinary
- departing from general usage or expectation
Isn’t singular the type of writer you want to be? I know I do. How can we accomplish this?
- Learn the above definitions and make singular your new mantra.
- Keep singular front and center when you write. It’ll steer your prose away from tired one-liners and other writers’ castoffs.
- Close your eyes, figure out exactly what you’re trying to say, and use your imagination to say it in your own singular way.
- Keep your feet on the ground by integrating the grammar principles I’ve outlined above. For better or for worse, writers who know and use good grammar and usage are singularly few and far between. Be one of them.