It’s spring! A season of growth, or as Robin Williams once said, “Spring is nature’s way of saying, Let’s Party!” In the spirit of this growing and building season, this month we look at some structural grammar issues – specifically, double constructions and squinting modifiers.
This is a reference to those times when a part of speech is duplicated unnecessarily in an effort to ensure clarity. Simply put, it’s a way of over-explaining. The University of Toronto calls this ‘grammar overkill’. Double constructions are unnecessary, read as clunky, and break the flow:
In the following example, ‘1’ is a double construction. Sentences ‘2’ and ‘3’ are correct:
- Since the deadline has passed, therefore we can close registration.
- Since the deadline has passed, we can close registration.
- The deadline had passed; therefore, we can close registration.
This reference to two different groups may be an even more common double construction error. Only ‘2’ and ‘3’ are correct:
- The added benefits will be applicable to both sales reps as well as
- The added benefits will be applicable to both sales reps and managers.
- The added benefits will be applicable to sales reps as well as
Here is a very common double construction involving the assignment of reason. Sentence ‘1’ is incorrect, while ‘2’ is correct:
- The reason for the delay in construction was due to a lack of available materials.
- The reason for the delay in construction was a lack of available materials.
Hey! Stop squinting! I know ‘squinting modifiers’ is an odd name. It simply refers to a modifier – a word (usually an adverb) or phrase which may cause confusion because it could logically modify the words before or after it. It’s a type of ‘misplaced modifier’. Avoid squinting modifiers to ensure clarity. A squinting modifier can usually be corrected by a simple change to its position in a sentence, or by rewording. Here are some examples:
We agreed at our first meeting to launch the new programs.
This could mean ‘we agreed at our first meeting we would be launching new programs,’ –
‘At our first meeting, we agreed to launch the new programs.’
or, it could mean: ‘we agreed we would launch new programs when we have our first meeting.’
The line above would work well.
The above example used a squinting modifier phrase. In these examples, one word is the culprit:
- Running down hills quickly strengthens your legs. The sentence could mean running down hills at a fast pace makes your legs stronger, or running down hills is a fast way to strengthen your legs. If the second meaning is the intention, try moving the modifier: Running down hills strengthens your legs quickly.
- Turning the valve completely changes the water flow. Readers may wonder if turning the valve a bit totally changes the water flow, or if turning the valve the full range, or completely, is needed to change the flow. If the second meaning is the intention, try rewording the sentence: You must turn the valve completely to change the water flow.
- Writing a report clearly gives you an edge. Does it mean writing a report obviously gives you an edge? Or writing it clearly gives you an edge? Depending on your intention, you could try moving the modifier: Clearly, writing a report gives you an edge. Or, try rewording the sentence: Submitting a clearly-written report gives you an edge.
These pairs of words, excerpts from The New American Dictionary of Difficult Words, are often mistaken for each other or used incorrectly:
Feasible/possible – Both suggest something that can occur, but there’s a subtle difference. ‘Feasible’ means likely, reasonable, or practical to carry out, as in “It is not feasible to walk from Vancouver to Montreal.” ‘Possible’ means it can be done, given the right circumstances, as in, “It is possible to walk from Vancouver to Montreal.”
Fortunate/fortuitous – These words share the idea of the unexpected. Of course, a ‘fortunate’ event or outcome signifies good results. Any event or outcome that is ‘fortuitous’ is also unexpected, but it could just as easily indicate a negative result as a positive one.