You need more than the ability to write concisely to keep your readers. One of the seven deadly writers’ sins is to confuse your reader. When they have to pause to figure out what you’re saying, they lose the drift of what you’re writing, and you may lose a reader. It is critical to be clear when you write.
Unfortunately, you can confuse your reader in many ways. Correctly use modifiers. For example, an adjective modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a noun or pronoun.
A simple example of incorrect modification is:
When I was cleaning up after the party, I found a turquoise woman’s scarf.
Unless this belonged to a turquoise woman, the sentence structure is incorrect. It should read:
When I was cleaning up after the party, I found a woman’s turquoise scarf.
“Turquoise” in this case is an adjective. It modifies “scarf,” not “woman’s.”
Of note, I used Canva.com to create the image on this post. When I asked the AI text to Image feature to create a turquoise skin woman in a scarf, it rebelled and would not create a person with turquoise skin. Even AI knows better.
I ate a cold bowl of cereal for breakfast.
To be clear, it should read:
The second phrase should read: Because I was running out of time, I ate a bowl of cold cereal.
“Cold” modifies “cereal.”
Lamps Don’t Struggle
I’m borrowing a phrase from my previous post about the dark and stormy night.
In that sentence this phrase occurs: “. . .the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness” which illustrates this error this error of incorrect modification I often see in writing.
Re-read that phrase. It wasn’t the lamps but the flames—and making “flame” singular could also confuse the reader.
That phrase could read: “the lamps’ scanty flames that struggled against the darkness.” That creates a direct and vivid image of flames trying to avoid getting snuffed out by the fierce wind.
While the two examples I showed above deal with the adjectives “turquoise” and “cold” and are easy to identify as errors, this example is more like what in crime fiction is called a “whodunit,” in this case, who (or what) struggled.
This is one of the reasons I recommend that people read their writing aloud. You can more readily catch this kind of error and find ways to be clear.
To be Clear, Don’t Dangle That Modifier
I see this grammatical rule broken all the time. Here’s an example:
When twelve years old, my mother went to nursing school.
Unless Mom was a prodigy, this sentence is incorrect. As written, it claims that a twelve-year-old was admitted to nursing school.
To correct this sentence, ask yourself some questions.
Who was twelve years old? The writer
Who went to nursing school? The mother
This is an easy fix. The corrected version would read:
“When I was twelve years old, my mother went to nursing school.”
“My mother went to nursing school when I was twelve years old.”
Here’s another example:
“Having been repaired yesterday, I could again benefit from the air conditioner.”
What was repaired? The air conditioner?
Who benefitted? The writer.
The sentence should read:
The air conditioner having been repaired, I could again feel comfortable.”
To make the sentence less awkward, I would suggest, “After the air conditioner was repaired, I could again feel comfortable.”
I made this mistake.
“As a legal nurse consultant working on criminal defense cases, what are some of the common requests that come to you from clients?”
In my defense, I was speaking, not writing, but the error showed up on the transcript.
“As a legal nurse consultant” doesn’t modify “what.” The LNC is not a “what.”
I would fix it this way: “What are some of the common requests that clients make to you, as a legal nurse consultant?”
No, the listener will not pick up on the error, but the reader may. If you have a podcast and offer a print version—as I do—proofread it.
Shifting Verb Tense
Many authors of fiction use the present tense because they feel it creates a sense of immediacy and connection between the character and the reader.
“I’m sixteen years old. I’m in the worst trouble of my life.”
Patient status reports are also usually written in the present tense. Clinical nurses who have developed this habit find it hard to break.
Sometimes you can effectively use the present and future tense.
“Today, Mary Lewis is confined to a wheelchair. Her doctors confirm that she will never be able to walk again. She will require attendants’ care for the rest of her life.”
In recounting a patient’s history, though, use of the past tense is preferable.
“Mary Lewis came to the emergency room complaining of dizziness, numbness in her jaw, and lack of sensation in her feet.”
So far, so good. The clinician, however, may sink back into habit and add, “Blood samples are drawn, and she has an MRI.”
When you edit and proofread your reports, make sure to look for this error.
Singular and Plural Forms
Sometimes this error is obvious. It most often shows up in the present tense.
“Maria go to the store.”
The correct form is “Maria goes to the store.”
This can get confusing when you use a noun that describes more than one entity.
“The jury renders a decision.”
In this case, jury is a collective noun. Think of it as being like a herd or a flock.
“A flock of geese flies above us.”
“Congress votes on the budget deficit bill.”
However, “Members of Congress vote.” “Members” modifies “vote.”
This rule doesn’t change when a collective noun is followed by a plural noun.
“A swarm of bees hovers around the blossoming apple tree.”
Take out the “swarm”, and the correct form would be “Bees hover around the blossoming apple tree.”
By the way, a group of sharks is called a “shiver.” That seems appropriate.
A very common way to not use subject-verb agreement is variations of the following:
“There’s many ways to fix your grammar.”
Contractions are tricky, and I have noticed an increasing incorrect usage of “there’s.”
See what happens when you eliminate the contraction form.
“There is many ways to fix your grammar.”
“Is” is singular; “ways” is plural.
Here’s another example.
“Where’s my papers?”
In the uncontracted form, this would read and be incorrect:
“Where is my papers?”
Be careful with contractions. When in doubt, spell it out.
The “Who” of It
You’ll run into this problem if you name more than one person in a sentence.
“Marsha finally found her daughter in Aisle 7, and she was relieved.”
Who was relieved, Marsha or her daughter? They probably both were, but then the writer needs to say that.
The correct rewrite for the above sentence would be, “Marsha was relieved when she finally found her daughter in Aisle 7.”
Pay attention to modifiers to be sure they are correctly modifying a noun or pronoun and appropriately use singular and plural.
Pat Iyer MSN RN LNCC is a consultant, speaker, author, editor and coach. She has written or edited over 60 of her own books and worked with a few dozen authors. Pat is an Amazon international #1 bestselling author. Coaches, consultants, and speakers hire Pat to help release the knowledge inside them so that they can attract their ideal clients.
She delights in assisting people to share their expertise by writing. Pat serves international and national experts as an editor, book coach, and a medical and business writer.
Pat Iyer grew up in a household ruled by parents who enforced the correct use of English so their children would be clear when they spoke and wrote.
Did you also grow up with language enforcers?