7 grammatical tenets for clear, cohesive writing

Communicators must deliver information unambiguously, and these basic rules are essential to fulfilling that responsibility. Here’s how to remedy common flaws in syntax and agreement.

7 grammar tenets

Every writer should know the foundations of grammar.

Even if you flout them—occasionally, and for particular effect—understanding the tenets of syntax, parts of speech and parallel construction are crucial for clear communication.

Here are seven key concepts:

1. Subject-verb agreement

Use singular verbs for singular subjects and plural verbs with plural subjects. A verb should agree with its subject, not with an intervening modifying phrase or clause: “The box of cards is on the shelf.”

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Singular verbs are appropriate with the following parts of speech:

  • indefinite pronouns: “Everyone is here”
    • uncountable nouns: “The rain has stopped”
    • inverted subjects: “Where is the car?”
    • subjects plural in form but singular in meaning: “Statistics [the academic subject] is boring,” but “Statistics [sets of data] are sometimes misleading”
    • compound subjects: “Breaking and entering is different from burglary”
    • the constructions “the only one of those (blank) who … ,” “the number of (blank) … ,” “every (blank) … ,” and “many a (blank) …”
    • a measurement when considered as a unit: “Three months is a long time to wait”
    • collective nouns: “The team is ready for the game” (but if referring to all individual members of a collective, reword for clarity, as in, “The members of the team stand behind the coach’s decision”)

2. Nominative and objective pronouns and reflexive pronouns

Pronouns are sometimes misused when a phrase contains more than one object. For example, although “My sister and I are coming” is correct because “My sister and I” is the subject and therefore the nominative I is appropriate, “He invited my sister and I,” is wrong because “my sister” and I are the objects, and the pronoun should be in objective form (me, not I).

Reflexive pronouns, compound of a pronoun and -self, are correct only if they are associated with an antecedent pronoun, as in “I did it myself.” The phrase “Contact John or myself” is an error, because there is no previous reference to the self-identifying person.

3. Dangling participles

When a sentence begins with an incomplete phrase or clause, the person, place, or thing it modifies must immediately follow it as the subject of the main clause, or the introductory phrase or clause must be rewritten. For example, in “Rolling down the slope, my eyes beheld a curious sight,” the writer intends to express that he or she was rolling down the slope, but the subject of the sentence is “my eyes,” leading to the impression that the rolling was performed by the eyes, not the individual.

To resolve the problem, amend the sentence to, “Rolling down the slope, I beheld a curious sight,” or, “As I rolled down the slope, my eyes beheld a curious sight.”

4. Misplaced modifiers

A modifying phrase should immediately follow the word or phrase it modifies. For example, in the sentence, “I overheard that they’re getting married in the restroom,” because “in the restroom” follows “getting married,” the reader is given the impression that the nuptials will take place in the restroom. However, “in the restroom” modifies the subject, “I overheard,” so those two phrases should be adjacent: “I overheard in the rest room that they’re getting married.”

5. Incomplete sentences

Many justifications exist for sentence fragments, but they are best used judiciously and in such a way that it is clear to the reader that the writer is deliberately writing an incomplete sentence, and not obliviously making an error.

6. Phrase and clause lists

In-line lists, those presented within the syntax of a sentence, should be structured to be grammatically consistent. For example, the sentence “Insights are actionable, adaptive, and help achieve the desired objectives” is erroneously constructed because are serves the first adjective and help is associated with achieve, but adaptive cannot share are with actionable unless a conjunction rather than a comma separates them: “Insights are actionable and adaptive and help achieve the desired objectives.”

If a sentence, unlike in this revision, is to remain in list form, each list element must follow parallel construction, as in the revision of, “Teapots may be embellished with landscapes, scenes from paintings, historical figures, or natural elements such as orchids or bamboo,” to “Teapots may be embellished with landscapes, scenes from paintings, portraits of historical figures, or depictions of natural elements such as orchids or bamboo,” where each element must refer to representations of phenomena rather than to the phenomena themselves.

7. Restrictive and nonrestrictive phrases and clauses

Although the use of which in a sentence such as, “She prefers a job which is more stable,” is technically correct in American English (and ubiquitous in British English), careful writers will help their readers by maintaining this distinction between which and that. Use the former with a nonrestrictive phrase, “She prefers a job, which is more stable than freelance work,” (what follows the comma and which is not essential to the sentence) and use the latter with a restrictive phrase “She prefers a job that is more stable” (“that is more stable” is an essential part of the sentence).

A version of this post first appeared on Daily Writing Tips.


2 Responses to “7 grammatical tenets for clear, cohesive writing”

    Diane Karsch says:

    In an article about subject-verb agreement, it’s ironic that this sentence is written incorrectly: Even if you flout them—occasionally, and for particular effect—understanding the tenets of syntax, parts of speech and parallel construction are crucial for clear communication. It should say …understanding the tenets… is, not are. I stopped reading once I saw this.

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