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LEARNING OBJECTIVE: Recognize the common errors in sentence structure.

The sections on spelling, capitalization and punctuation have all contributed to the construction of good sentences. However, to be effective, sentences must be grammatically correct. In addition, they should be well-chosen and effectively combined with a goal of clarity, emphasis and interest. These goals are often thrown off target by any one of a variety of common errors in sentence structure.


In terms of grammar, writers are frequently at fault for writing incomplete sentences. For a sentence to express a complete thought, it must contain two necessary parts - a subject and a predicate, or verb. It is possible, of course, for the subject to be understood, rather than stated, but you should be sure in such cases that it is clearly implied.

Some examples of incomplete sentences include the following:

The sightseeing tour, which was arranged for the liberty party. (There is no main verb. The relative clause has a verb, "was arranged," but what appears to have been intended as a statement with "sightseeing tour" as subject has not been completed.)

A tall, thin man with owlish spectacles and a bald head. (The verb is omitted.)

Floated toward the beaches. (Here the subject is omitted. What floated?)

Just as the searchlight swept across the harbor. (This tells when something happened, but the main statement is still incomplete.)

Bailey, the new striker, looking as if he would burst-with pride. (There are modifiers here for the subject, "Bailey," but no main statement about that individual.)

Often an incomplete sentence results from the writer's failure to recognize that a modifying phrase or clause is really part of the preceding sentence. For instance, a comma should be used instead of the first period in the following example:

The cruiser was headed for the canal zone. Steaming eastward through the Caribbean.

The result in this case is one complete sentence instead of a sentence followed by a fragment.

You should not be misled by the fact that some writers deliberately construct incomplete sentences at times. As the late Emily Post once said about etiquette:

'Well-bred persons sometimes break some of the rules; but to break them and getaway with it, you first have to know them."

It is true that fractured sentences may occasionally produce the desired effect, but be sure you know why they are being used and that they are suitable to what is being written. Many regard a sentence that begins with "but," or another connective, as incorrect, largely because the connective standing first seems to indicate a fragment. In this instance, the rule may be ignored occasionally, if by doing so you achieve a more effective statement.


Another common error in sentence structure is the punctuation of two or more sentences as if they were one. This usually occurs with sentences that are closely related in thought. Note the following examples:

Poor: The ship held its first swim call, the water was 4 miles deep.

Improved: The ship held its first swim call. The water was 4 miles deep.

Often a run-on sentence is the result not only of faulty punctuation, but of the writer's failure to think the construction through and recognize the relationships of the various ideas. Consider the following examples:

Poor: Detailed decontamination is a lengthy process, it is usually carried on at a home base or rear area.

Improved: Detailed decontamination is a lengthy process, usually carried on at a home base or rear area.

Poor: An emergency tourniquet can be made from something like a neckerchief, it is wrapped once around the limb and tied in an overhand knot.

Improved: To apply an emergency tourniquet made from something like a neckerchief, wrap the material once around the limb and tie an overhand knot.


A writer's misplacement of a modifier can confuse the meaning of the sentence, often with ludicrous results. Modifiers should be positioned close to the words they modify; otherwise, they may seem to modify something else. Haste, carelessness or lack of understanding of grammar may cause a writer to use a construction without thinking exactly what a particular word is supposed to modify. This kind of error is fairly common in using participles with other adjectives or with adverbial modifiers, as in the following examples:

Dangling Participle: Returning to the ship, the package was found on his bunk.

Improved: Returning to the ship, he found the package on his bunk. (It was he who returned to the ship, not the package.)

Dangling Participle: Entering the halonflooded compartment, the gas overcame him.

Improved: Entering the halon-flooded compartment, he was overcome by the gas.

Dangling Participle: Running rapidly out from the windlass, he caught his foot in the anchor chain.

Improved: He caught his foot in the anchor chain, as it ran rapidly out from the windlass.

Misplaced Prepositional Phrase: At the age of two his father died.

Improved: He was two years old when his father died.

Misplaced Prepositional Phrase: Baker saw the driver of the car that had hit him in the theater.

Improved: In the theater, Baker saw the driver of the car that had hit him.

Misplaced Relative Clause: The chief mess management specialist discovered that old baking powder had been used in the biscuits, which caused all the trouble.

Improved: The chief mess management specialist discovered that the trouble with the biscuits was the use of old baking powder.

A frequently misplaced word is "only." By moving this one word around in a sentence, you can change the meaning entirely. Study the following example:

Only he could read the strange dialect. (Nobody else could.)

He could only read the strange dialect. (He could not write or speak it.)

He could read only the strange dialect.

(He could read nothing else.)

He could read the only strange dialect.

(Only one dialect was strange, and he could read it.)


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