A sentence is the highest grammatical unit ahead of a clause, a phrase, a word and a morpheme, although it can constitute one or more of these smaller units. It serves as the basic unit of thought and expression.
Fascinatingly, though, the alignment of thoughts and sentences is not always a walk in the park. Many a time, we utter or write an unintended expression, just like we sometimes write or say the wrong thing wittingly. Either situation is sometimes beyond the correctness and/or incorrectness of our sentences, but principally about their ‘appropriateness’. It is, thus, essential for one to acquaint oneself with some of the basic errors which are occasioned by sentence formation. As such, this article will cast light on the following errors: empty sentences, padded sentences, dangling modifiers, misplaced modifiers and run-on sentences.
With that in mind, it is possible to write a grammatically correct and seemingly meaningful sentence, yet you could actually say nothing. Such a sentence is designated as empty. Characteristic examples of empty sentences are:
1. I disagreed with his suggestion because it was not a good suggestion.
2. Installation can be defined as installing something.
Although the two sentences fulfil the criteria of grammaticality, it is patently obvious that they are empty at the level of communication. The former statement disagreed with a suggestion because it was not a good one; still, it did not state what made it bad. Also, the usage of the verb, ‘install’, to explain the noun, ‘installation’, renders the latter sentence somewhat communicatively meaningless. Such pedestrian ways of talking or writing must be avoided by anyone who desires to be accorded public respect.
With that being said, sentences that contain unnecessary words or expressions are said to be padded. One instance is to admit that:
3. The modern banker of today must completely master all of the principles of computerisation.
One wonders if the essence of the phrase, ‘of today’, is not captured in the adjective, ‘modern’, and if ‘all of’ is not subsumed within the adverb, ‘completely’. This is a roundabout way of talking, and it should be avoided like the plague by eloquent communicators.
Away from that, a modifier is adjudged to be dangling when it does not modify a noun or pronoun appropriately, as evidenced hereunder:
4. Listening to music, the light went off.
5. Expecting trouble, adequate precautions were taken.
This begs the salient questions: who was listening to music when the light went off? was/were expecting trouble? Evidently, we cannot find answers to these, and that indicates that the modifiers do not qualify an appropriate noun or pronoun in the sentences. Nevertheless, the expressions can be rephrased thus:
As Jones was listening to music, the light went off.
Expecting trouble, the security men took adequate precautions.
Other expressions that encapsulate dangling modifiers, as well as their apt versions, are:
6. Scaling the mountain, my backpack fell in the mud (can your backpack scale the mountain?)
My backpack fell in the mud, as I was scaling the mountain (standard).
7. Unbeaten, the English Premier League was won by Chelsea (can the Premier League be unbeaten?)
Unbeaten, Chelsea won the English Premier League (standard).
8. Sitting by the campfire, the bushmeat was roasting slowly (can the bushmeat sit by the campfire?)
While the campers were sitting by the campfire, the bushmeat was roasting slowly (standard).
Instructively, one must ensure that modifiers clearly talk about a noun or pronoun in a sentence.
Similar to dangling modifiers are misplaced modifiers. A misplaced modifier is a modifier placed in such a position that:
i. it appears to modify a word other than the intended one and, therefore, gives the sentence a different meaning from the intended one.
ii. it appears to modify either of two words and, therefore, makes the sentence ambiguous; or
iii. it appears in a position where it makes the sentence awkward, if not outright ungrammatical.
I shall illustrate this concept with the word, ‘only’, as portrayed in the accompanying sentences with different interpretations:
9. Only John borrowed $50 yesterday (John, and no one else, borrowed $50).
John only borrowed $50 yesterday (he did not seek the money as a gift).
John borrowed only $50 yesterday (he did not borrow more or less than $50).
John borrowed $50 only yesterday (how come he is broke again?).
John borrowed $50 yesterday only (he has not borrowed $50 on any other day).
These different interpretations underscore the need to use modifiers cautiously and sensitively to avoid loss of meanings. Other sentences with misplaced modifiers are:
10. Ade’s father advises him always to study (the advice comes always).
Ade’s father advises him to study always (the advice is that the child should study always).
As the name suggests, a run-on sentence is one in which two or more different sentences have been collapsed into one sentence without any punctuation mark separating them. For example:
11. Our family reunion will be next month unfortunately I will not be able to attend (non-standard).
Our family reunion will be next month. Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend (standard).
In a nutshell, this piece has demonstrated that the finesse required in language use transcends the correctness and/or incorrectness of sentences. Hence, language users must speak carefully to ascertain that their intent is well captured by their expressions.
© 2020 Ganiu Abisoye Bamgbose (Dr GAB)