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Here's How . . .

. . . to Improve Your English Grammar

September 11, 1986|ROSELLE M. LEWIS | Lewis is a free-lance writer and frequent contributor to the You pages of The Times.

"While taking a shower, the maid saw Tom."

"Tom is the guy who I'm going to marry."

If you saw the errors in the above sentences, you might consider yourself on firm grammatical ground. If not, you're not alone.

Even the well educated have difficulty with grammar, says Jennifer Bradley, who teaches "Reasons for Rules: A Basic Grammar Workshop," one Saturday each quarter at UCLA Extension. Few schools teach grammar as a separate subject, and English, she observes, lacks a strong arbiter to set down and enforce rules as in French, which is linguistically policed by its powerful Academie Francaise. Then, too, there is a prevalent belief in this country: Whatever is currently spoken or written is acceptable.

Bradley, who also is a lecturer in UCLA's writing programs and a writing consultant for a major corporation, does concede the idea that "language is dynamic and changing," but, she says: "I teach a very correct view of standard English."

Bradley suggests that you first determine the editorial policy or style requirements of the company or publication for which you're writing. Her students work in academia, government, business, journalism and publishing. She urges them to observe the style policy to which they're held and save their energies for the more "important matters of substance and organization."

For journalism, she mentions a style sheet put out by the Associated Press or the "Los Angeles Times Stylebook" by Frederick S. Holley. For academic writing, Kate L. Turabian's "A Manual for Writers" is an old standby, and various manuals are available in bookstores and libraries for business and technical writing.

Sentence Boundaries

In the classroom, Bradley doesn't consider the issues of the effective lead, the length of an article or the audience, but she does focus on the "boundaries of the sentence," which generally must have a subject and verb and be properly punctuated.

She warns against writing the would-be sentence or sentence fragment. There are two kinds: the fused sentence in which the necessary period between sentences is absent ("Yesterday I went to Glendale I bought my costume there")--and the comma splice ("Yesterday I went to Glendale, I bought my costume there"). These are two separate sentences that can be correctly combined with a semicolon. "Yesterday I went to Glendale; I bought my costume there." Or, the ideas can be joined into one complex sentence: "Yesterday I went to Glendale where I bought my costume."

Subject and verb must agree. Obviously, "Birds fly" and "Fish swim," but what about "Everybody should bring his umbrella"? Though the indefinite pronoun everybody is grammatically singular, it's obviously plural in meaning. Bradley says by choosing the masculine "his," half the human race is left out. Some authorities prefer, "Everybody should take their umbrella." Others will squirm at this locution. The best way around this pronoun dilemma, Bradley says, is to write (or say), "Everybody should bring an umbrella."

Another problem, she points out, is modification. There's the misplaced modifier: "We sold the car to a man with a cracked block." The assumption is that the car, not the man, has a cracked block, although both may be true. And there's the dangling modifier, an error that occurs when the phrase doesn't refer correctly to the main part of the sentence: "When taking a shower, the maid saw Tom" should read, "While Tom was taking a shower, the maid saw him." Unless, of course, the maid was in the shower . . . .

The Place for Commas

In illustrating the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, Bradley says the inclusion or lack of commas can make all the difference in meaning. An example of the restrictive clause: "My brother who lives in Minnesota is an actor." This sentence describes a unique thing, this particular brother; the sentence implies that the speaker may have other brothers living someplace other than Minnesota. If the sentence reads, "My brother, who lives in Minnesota, is an actor," the phrase set off by commas merely adds additional information about the speaker's brother, without implying the existence of other brothers.

In her own dissertation on Edith Wharton and other women writers, Bradley wrote: "Older women, who contribute to our culture, are a national treasure." Her adviser threw out the commas, but Bradley insisted on them in the final draft, so that her intended meaning--"By definition, older women contribute to our culture, and all, therefore, can be considered treasures"--was retained.

Bradley also covers the placement of adverbs. In the sentence "I love you only," the speaker has but one love. Depending on its position in this sentence, "only" has three different meanings.

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