Last week, we started looking at the thinking behind the answers to The Writing Resource’s National Grammar Day Contest. We’re half way through, so let’s get down to opening up sentences 6 through 10.
6. If a student does his homework daily, your tests will be passed easily.
One way to read this sentence is as if you are the teacher giving the tests. Then I might say to you that if your students do their homework, they’ll pass your tests. But unless you were a teacher, you’d need context to read the sentence that way. Out of context, contest responders knew this wasn’t the intended meaning. The tests referred to belong to the student; they are the tests he will take. Let’s line up our pronouns:
If a student does his homework daily, he will pass the tests easily.
Of course, we can also be inclusive and rework the sentence to include boys and girls:
If students do their homework daily, they will pass the tests easily.
7. The flour and butter should be mixed into a paste, and add a small amount of milk.
Sentence 7 is a compound sentence, with the first half in passive voice and the second half in active voice. The meaning is readily understandable—or is it? A few people offered something like this:
Mix the flour and butter, with a small amount of milk, into a paste.
The whole sentence is now active, directly telling the reader what to do. The problem is that if you mix the milk at once with the flour and butter, you might not get paste (depending on how much of each you have). Those with more baking experience had a leg up on this sentence, knowing it’s more usual to get directions like these:
Mix the flour and butter into a paste, and add a small amount of milk.
Mix the flour and butter into a paste, and then add a small amount of milk.
Mix the flour and butter into a paste. Add a small amount of milk.
None of the cookbooks I’m familiar with give directions in the passive voice, but this was also a grammatically correct option:
The flour and butter should be mixed into a paste, and then a small amount of milk should be added.
8. Unless the mayor sets a new course, our city is likely to be buried beneath a mound of debt.
This was a tough sentence for many entrants. The problem with sentence 8 was mixed metaphors: one spoke of a course and the other one of a mound. Use a metaphor often enough, and it becomes cliché; the problem is we forget that the cliché is still a metaphor. Your writing is more effective when you give your reader one image rather than competing images:
Unless the mayor fixes the budget, our city is likely to be buried beneath a mound of debt.
Unless the mayor sets a new course, our city is not likely to have a balanced budget.
9. The selection of stories in both books were extremely good.
Sentence 9 has a simple subject-verb agreement problem. The subject of the sentence is not stories or books; it’s selection. Stories is the object of the preposition of, so it can’t be the subject of the sentence. Books is also an object of the preposition, so it can’t be the subject either. Remember: drop the prepositional phrase out of the sentence and the sentence should still make sense:
The selection were extremely good.
Now we can see the problem clearly and fix it:
The selection of stories in both books was extremely good.
10. Asking one absurd question after another, Bob’s teacher was soon made to dislike him.
Our final sentence has a misplaced modified: it isn’t Bob’s teacher asking the questions, it’s Bob. Look at him. Who does it refer to? Grammatically, it refers to teacher, but we know that logically it refers to Bob. Bob is asking absurd questions, and the teacher dislikes Bob as a result. To fix this, we can either put Bob in the modifier asking one absurd question after another or change the subject of the sentence to Bob so that the modifier modifies the right person:
With Bob asking absurd question after another, his teacher was soon made to dislike him.
Asking one absurd question after another, Bob soon made his teacher dislike him.
We can also make the sentence more active, emphasizing the teacher doing the disliking rather than Bob being the focus of the dislike:
With Bob asking absurd question after another, his teacher soon disliked him.
That wraps up our contest. Questions or comments? Leave them in the comment section below.