Troubleshooting Grammar Problems in Technical Writing

1. Sentence fragments

Make sure each word group you have punctuated as a sentence contains a grammatically complete and independent thought that can stand alone as an acceptable sentence.

Incorrect

Tests of the Shroud of Turin have produced some curious findings. For example, the pollen of forty-eight plants native to Europe and the Middle East.

[2nd sentence = fragment]

Correct

Tests of the Shroud of Turin have produced some curious findings. For example, the cloth contains the pollen of forty-eight plants native to Europe and the Middle East.

2. Faulty parallelism

Be sure you use grammatically equal sentence elements to express two or more matching ideas or items in a series.

Incorrect

The candidate’s goals include winning the election, a national health program, and the educational system.

Correct

The candidate’s goals include winning the election, enacting a national health program, and improving the educational system.

Incorrect

Some critics are not so much opposed to capital punishment as postponing it for so long.

Correct

Some critics are not so much opposed to capital punishment as they are to postponing it for so long.

3. Noun strings

The bulk of government and technical writing uses too many noun strings, or groups of nouns “sandwiched” together. Readability suffers when three words that are ordinarily separate nouns follow in succession.

Noun string: NASA continues to work on the International Space Station astronaut living-quarters module development project.

Correction: NASA is still developing the module that will provide living quarters for the astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

4. Subject-Verb agreement

The subject-verb pair guarantees that the sentence means something. Without this core, a sentence fragments and loses its power to speak. Indeed, a sentence only becomes complete when it contains at least a subject and a verb. Subjects and verbs must also agree with one another. That is, the form of the verb has to match the number of things in the subject. A singular subject takes a singular verb, while a plural subject takes a plural verb.

Incorrect: The two best things about the party was the food and the music.

Correct: The two best things about the party were the food and the music.

5. Misplaced Or Dangling Modifier
A misplaced modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that is improperly separated from the word it modifies or describes. Sentences with this error can sound awkward, ridiculous, or confusing. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence.

Incorrect: After finally setting off on the trail, the morning felt more exciting.

Correct: After finally setting off on the trail, he felt the morning was more exciting.

6. Run-On Sentence
A run-on sentence occurs when you connect two main clauses with no punctuation.

Incorrect: She tried to sneak out of the house her mother saw her leaving.

Correct: She tried to sneak out of the house, but her mother saw her leaving.

Incorrect: He ran through the field as fast as he could all the while rain was soaking him to the bone.

Correct: He ran through the field as fast as he could. All the while rain was soaking him to the bone.

7. Lack Of Parallel Structure
Faulty parallelism occurs when two or more parts of a sentence are similar in meaning but not parallel (or grammatically similar) in form. It often occurs with paired constructions and items in a series.

Incorrect: The key directives of his boss were clear:

  • Meet monthly sales quotas.
  • Aggressive marketing techniques.
  • Reporting in every day.

Correct: The key directives of his boss were clear:

  • Meet monthly sales goals.
  • Practice aggressive marketing techniques.
  • Report in every day.

8. Split Infinitives
An infinitive is the word “to” with a verb. A split infinitive separates the word “to” and the verb with another word (often an adverb). There are no grammar rules that prohibit split infinitives, but many experts disapprove of them. If the sentence sounds awkward by correcting the split, our rule of thumb is to go with what makes the most sense in the context of your writing and for the ease of reading.

Incorrect: He wanted to gradually improve his strength by increasing the weight.

Correct: He wanted to improve his strength gradually by increasing the weight.

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