Category: Sentence Problems

“Of” is a Preposition

A brace is broken in my favorite guitar (an acoustic-electric Guild that is, like me, becoming a bit vintage ( Properly functioning braces ensure clean tone, and they keep the whole contraption from collapsing under the general butchery of my musical performance. Prepositions are to sentences what braces are to guitars. They go mostly unnoticed, but without them you might as well be flopping on the ground like a fish. This might be what compels people to stick them where they don’t belong, like after the verb “could.”

Steve could of been a rock star if only he could play or sing.

Here is a hint: Prepositions are always followed by nouns or noun phrases. “Been” is always a form of the verb “to be” and is therefore never a noun. So absolutely under no circumstances put the very fine preposition “of” before the verb “been.” Use “have,” the equally fine helping verb. There is, of course, an exception. It may be that you intend to sound like a knuckle-dragging moron. If that is the case, then by all means, identify yourself.

Steve could have been a nice person, but it turned out otherwise.

Eloise may have finished her homework.

Annie B should have thrown away that mayonnaise. 


A Problem with Your Colon

The antecedent of the possessive pronoun in the title is a composite “student” to whom I am attributing a couple common colon misuses. Students, regarded for my present purposes as a subspecies of “people,” misuse their colons a lot.

Hemingway describes how Nick Adams: “looked down into the clear, brown water.” (bold italics means the sentence is incorrect)

You may have been instructed to place a colon before the start of a quotation. Or, at least as likely, you have seen many quotations that start after a colon and figured the rule was universal. It isn’t.

Take out the quotation marks. Does the colon before the quotation about the brown water still make sense? Nope. It would be like writing “Steve: has looked at way too many colons.”

A colon functions to separate and/or announce. Just because you have some quotation marks does not mean you can separate a subject from its verb. Take the colon out. There should be no punctuation except the quotation mark. You can, however, properly use the colon before the quotation if the quotation is grammatically separate from the clause you use to introduce it.

Hemingway describes Nick Adams looking into the Big Two-Hearted River: “It was a long time since Nick had seen trout.”

That colon separates the two complete clauses. Colons also help you make announcements.

Let me tell you what I like about your colon: nothing, not a goddamned thing.

You’ll notice that, unlike the rule governing the semi-colon (when not being used to separate elements of a list), the colon does not have to separate two independent clauses, though it can.

I’ll tell you what to do with your colon: shove it up your colon.

The important point to remember is that a colon must be preceded by an independent clause, but it can be followed by a phrase.

Commas in a Series

There seems to be a lot of confusion about punctuating words or phrases in a series. We can blame journalists.

Apparently, column space has value–actual pecuniary value. Dropping commas from a series saves newspapers money. Frankly, this is hard for me to believe, but I am by nature and training miserly with my beliefs.

The sentence below follows journalistic convention:

The audience expressed its approval with jeers, profane hand gestures, derisive laughter and an unmistakable flatulence.

I suppose over the course of centuries newspapers have saved a buck or two by omitting that comma before the “and,” but the cost has been confusion.

I went to the concert with Matt O’Grady, an exotic dancer and a tattoo artist.

Did I go to the concert with one person or three?

If you are not writing journalism (and if you are in college you are mostly not writing journalism), spend the extra comma:

Richard Face, a specialist in anger management, global security, and knob turning, is the newest member of the band.

The Most Common Run-On

This is the House Sparrow of run-ons. If this run-on were a dog it would be a Golden Retriever. If it was a college student’s dinner it would be pizza.

Tony’s trumpet drove off the hordes of orcs and the hearts of men grew stronger.

Observing the rules of grammar, I might point out, has only one function: clarity of communication. When you read the sentence about Tony and his trumpet, your brain, for a moment, registers the orcs and the hearts of men as a compound object (of the preposition, “of”) and is briefly under the impression that men’s hearts were driven off. A comma is all it takes to drive off potential confusion.

Tony’s trumpet drove off the hordes of orcs, and the hearts of men grew stronger.

That comma is like a magic tonic against confusion. It establishes the independence of the two clauses on either side of the “and” (a coordinating conjunction). Without the comma, you brain runs together stuff that should be separate.

So here is the rule: Two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (e.g., and, but, or, so, yet) must be separated by a comma before the conjunction.

Notice how you would need no comma if you intended the compound object:

Steve’s singing drove everyone out of the Crystal Lounge and the bar next door.

You also need no commas if you finish with a whole bunch of prepositional phrases joined by conjunctions:

Steve’s singing drove everyone out of the Crystal Lounge and into the street but not over the river or through the woods.

Choosing What to Correct and What to Leave Alone

This sentence presents some challenges to an editor. Though it is vaguely grammatical, it contains a host of problems.

Robert Frosts A Mending Wall and Carl Sandburg’s Fence are two poems that do their best to describe the meaning about fencing in your house and life.

Here are some of the problems:

  • missing apostrophe to show possessions (Frost’s)
  • poems should be put in quotation marks, not underlined or italicized
  • writer tells the reader that the poems are poems
  • writer awkwardly personifies the poems (they “do their best”)
  • expression “describe the meaning” difficult to understand–How do you describe a meaning?
  • writer seems to dramatically (and a bit comically) reduce these poems to matters of “fencing”
  • overall, the writer is trying to accomplish too much;  the sentence is both introduction and thesis

The paper is full of sentences like this, and tearing away at all the technical and content errors will overwhelm the student and probably drive me to the bottle. I want the work I do on a paper to be useful to the student, so what is my best strategy to combine efficiency with effective learning?

1. I can’t ignore the possessive error. That will be circled and noted “proofread.”

2. The italics I will let go.

3. I will bracket the whole sentence and suggest that the writer make three sentences out of this one sentence. One sentence each to introduce the author, title, and theme of each poem, and a thesis sentence that describes the similarities the writer will explore.

And then I hope for the best.

So What is an Appositive? (And Why Do I Need to Know?)

Students use appositives frequently, and every once in a while they punctuate them correctly. The rule is simple enough, but, as with a lot of grammatical matters, identifying the situation can present some challenges.

Appositives, really quite useful little buggers, are words or phrases that restate or provide more information about nouns. Here is the first sentence of a student paper my dog, Rockie, is chewing on:

In his book Zeitoun the author Dave Eggers writes about the problems faced by a family caught between Hurricane Katrina and The War on Terror.

There are two appositives: “Zeitoun” and “Dave Eggers.” They simply need to be set off with commas:

In his book, Zeitoun, the author, Dave Eggers, writes about the problems faced by a family caught between Hurricane Katrina and The War on Terror.

Of course, this sentence is still a painful thing to read, mostly because it is needlessly repetitive (here the appositives are not at all useful) and needlessly takes us out of the way in getting to the subject. How about this:

Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun explores the problems faced by a family caught between Hurricane Katrina and The War on Terror.

Quiz: How many appositives can you find in the second paragraph?

When Verbs Act as Subjects Bad Things Happen

Here is the sentence:

Revealed in the text is an image of a man with undeniable positive attributes.

Technically, this sentence is fine; stylistically, it could use improvement.

One of my principal goals is to provide students with a process to identify and improve ungrammatical or, as in the case above, awkward sentences. Usually, the first step of the process is to identify the subject, but this can sometimes go wrong.

The writer above has chosen a verb to function as a subject (this is a kind of “nominalization”). If you ask students to identify the subject, they will quite reasonably suggest “text,” “image,” or “man.” They register “revealed” as a verb and, since they know intuitively that verbs can’t be subjects (and still be verbs), they go searching around for other candidates.

The best subjects are those capable of performing actions. So, if the sentence starts out with a word that looks and smells like a verb, then the writer should ask who (or what) is performing the action the verb expresses. In the case above it is, of course, the author of the text under discussion. So, give him credit for his action!

The author reveals an image of a man with undeniable positive attributes.

A careful writer will even sense the “fluff” in this sentence and revise a bit more:

The author reveals a man with undeniable positive attributes.

And let’s just name “the author.”

Dave Eggers reveals a man with undeniable positive attributes.


When you have an awkward or ungrammatical sentence that begins with what you recognize as a verb, identify who or what is performing that action of the “verb,”  then put that actor in the subject position. Good things should happen.